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We Accidentally A Relationship

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Relationships and Tony Stark didn’t mesh well. Actually, that was an understatement. Relationships and Tony Stark had a hate/hate relationship (see what he did there?) that usually ended in blood, sweat, or tears. Sometimes even a combination of all three.

Point number one was Tony’s relationship with Howard Stark, his dear old dad. No matter what Howard had told him from beyond the grave in a video, Tony still didn’t have any fond memories of the guy. “Greatest creation” or not, it would take a hell of a lot more than that to make up for Howard’s shitty parenting, and Tony dearly wished he could tell him that and give him a good kick in the pants.

Point number two was Tony’s relationship with Obadiah Stane. Did he need to go into any detail about that particular relationship? No? Good. All he would say was that the news lied, and Obadiah had not died in a plane crash while on vacation.

Point number three was Tony’s very short and bittersweet relationship with Yinsen. The two had connected on a level that Tony was afraid even now to identify. And Yinsen’s last words still continued to haunt him years after his ill-advised venture to Afghanistan. It was safe to say that Tony didn’t exactly miss Yinsen, but he did regret what had happened. It was also a prime example of why people should be careful about associating themselves with him.

Point number four was Rhodey. He must be some sort of angel in disguise for being able to deal with Tony for so long. It wasn’t just the money, because Tony had run off plenty of other liaisons between the military and Stark Industries before Rhodey came. Since he hadn’t left yet despite all the shit Tony had pulled, it was safe to say he wouldn’t (though the possibility still existed). Regardless, Rhodey might be Tony’s best friend, but even he couldn’t tolerate Tony’s bullshit in large doses. The way he’d made off with Tony’s suit still smarted (he might have planned for it, but the reason behind Rhodey’s snitching of his suit stung him even if they were still friends), and it might be a symptom of a larger illness that it even happened that way.

Point number five was the lovely Pepper Potts. Now she was an angel. She’d put up with far more shit than Rhodey ever had, and she was still with him. Maybe not as a girlfriend anymore because she couldn’t deal with him almost dying time after time, but as a very close friend who also happened to run his company. But maybe the fact that they’d tried a relationship and had it crash and burn because of his own destructive tendencies was a sign? He didn’t want to be alone, but if Pepper couldn’t handle being in a relationship with him, Tony didn’t know who could.

Point number six was the Avengers. …Or maybe that shouldn’t be a point yet because they were still around. And living with him.

Point number seven was Steve Rogers. But like point number six, he hadn’t actually left yet. And Tony was doing an absolutely marvelous job of keeping his absolutely gigantic crush (stop laughing, Pepper!) under wraps. It might have helped that he’d hated him almost on sight when they’d met. But a year later and a lot of time with Steve had shown Tony that the star spangled man was good all the way down to his red boots. He also had a lovely smile, a heartwarming laugh, gorgeous blond hair, and a beautiful body—


He was so screwed.

Steve Rogers liked to think he was on good terms with his team. It had been a year since the fight with Loki and his army, and he had spent a lot more time with his team. They were living together in a mansion that Tony had renovated after being told by Fury that putting a team of volatile superheroes in the middle of a still recovering New York was probably not a good idea.

After the fight, Steve had gone out on his own for a few months to relearn his country, only to come back to have Stark throw his stuff at him and herd him into a car before stealing him away to the mansion. Steve had been a bit concerned about Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. until he saw that Natasha and Clint were also there and both had assured him that Fury had given permission for this to happen.

Steve was kind of miffed at first that no one had thought to ask him if he was okay with it. But then he realized that if anyone had asked, he probably wouldn’t have agreed. He couldn’t have pictured himself getting along with Stark at all, and now he was living under the same roof with the man.

Any apologies he wanted to make about his insensitive and untrue remarks were ignored and deflected until he got the hint. Or rather, until Bruce told him that Stark was apparently allergic to apologies and emotional conversations. But if it was really necessary, Natasha had offered her services to tie Stark down so he would have to listen. Steve had declined the offer, as that really wouldn’t be conducive to his plan of trying to become friends with the man.

He was on good enough terms with Clint and Natasha. They sparred together and sometimes ended up watching movies together. That eventually turned into a team thing that had all of them picking movies every week. Even Stark – now Tony – got into it, albeit because Steve would drag him out of the workshop to watch.

Thor was on friendly terms with everyone. He split his time between the Avengers and his girlfriend in New Mexico, but he was a jolly personality who sometimes overwhelmed Steve with the pure force of his exuberance. No one had expected him to show up again after returning Loki to Asgard, but he had, explaining that he felt he still had much to learn before taking the throne.

No one was as close to Bruce as Tony was. Steve had made friends with him, but it was evident who Bruce was closest to because Hulk just loved Tony. Not love love, but Hulk’s unique version of affection.

As for Tony, Steve really hoped he’d gotten past their disagreements on the Helicarrier. He’d been chewed out by Tony’s girlfriend for it after she’d somehow gotten wind of the argument, but hadn’t needed the tongue lashing because he had come to his own conclusions after he’d seen Tony fly a nuke through the Chitauri portal. Given that Tony allowed him in the workshop and also let Steve manhandle him into eating regularly, he thought it was a safe bet that they were friends.

And it was great, because while Steve had been all alone at first, he wasn’t anymore. He still missed his friends and his own time, but the grief of losing everything wasn’t as strong anymore. He had new friends now who also needed to be taken care of.

Even if they didn’t think they needed it.

Besides, it was always fun going out to see New York with Tony. The man knew the funniest – if sometimes crude – anecdotes and was surprisingly sensitive to what Steve needed.

So, yeah, Steve thought it was safe to say that he was friends with all his teammates.

“Rotate it about thirty-two degrees… Okay, good… Explode the wing and – yeah, that looks good. Enlarge the – no, Dummy, not now – nose and give me the specs on the engine. …All right. Calibrate that and give me the energy outputs when you’re done.”

“Of course, sir.”

Hanging back unobtrusively in the doorway of the workshop, Pepper sighed lightly as she watched Tony work. It was pure genius on display, and it never failed to amaze her just what Tony could do when inspired.

Heaven forbid her from actually telling him anything like that. The man’s ego was inflated enough already when it came to his unparalleled intellect. The problem was his crippling low self-esteem and inability to see a good thing even when it danced in front of his nose in a skintight blue, red, and white patriotic uniform and big red boots. The proof lay in the papers she was holding right now.

Glancing down once again at the trashy tabloid covers she had memorized by now, Pepper reshuffled them so that the blaring headline of “Avenging Lovers” was at the top. There was another headline of “Captain Iron Man – Forbidden Love” and one that said “Avenging Love – Captain America and Iron Man.” And those were the tamer ones. The more risqué headlines made several insinuations that made Pepper want to set fire to the publishing companies, her supposed aloofness be damned.

“Tony?” she called, stepping into the workshop.

The sound of her voice and the click of her heels on the floor had him looking up, eyes brightening slightly as he saw her. “Pepper! Light of my life—”

“Tony,” she interrupted, the warning clear in her tone.

“—how are you?” Tony finished smoothly, beaming.

“Fine, Tony.” Pepper smiled to show that there were no hard feelings. She walked over to deposit the tabloids on the table where Dummy had set a smoothie that looked rather greasy. It was in eyesight of Tony, and she could see his eyes flicker over to skim the images before he refocused on her.

“News, Pepper?” he asked blandly.

“Yes. Do I need to remind you what you’re supposed to do when you start a new relationship?”

“Not harass them?”

Pepper barely stopped a sigh from making it past her lips. As it was, she couldn’t stop from sounding vaguely exasperated. “No. You’re supposed to tell me so that I know what to do if something hits the news.”

Tony shrugged, leaning back in his chair. “I’m not in a relationship.”

“What is this then?” Pepper held up a magazine, emblazoned with a glossy photo of Steve Rogers and Tony Stark eating hot dogs while walking in Central Park. The headline screamed “Lovers in the Park!”

“They’re tabloids, Pepper. Please don’t tell me you actually consider them trustworthy now. If you do, I can tell you that Bruce is not addicted to cocaine; he just looks stoned when he drinks a lot of tea.”

Pepper blinked, taken aback. “I wasn’t wondering.” She shook her head slightly, forcing herself to get back on the topic. “No, I’m not saying that. But when all the tabloids and The New York Times report how much time you’ve spent together and wonder if you’re in a closeted gay relationship, I suspect there may be some truth to it. Besides, Tony, you hatenmuseums, and then you’re seen in the MOMA with Steve. Is there something you want to tell me?”

Tony cocked his head slightly to the side, something flickering in his eyes. Not for the first time, Pepper wished she knew what he was thinking. For such a brilliant man, Tony could be incredibly dense. It was difficult to counteract such stupidity if she had no clue what was going on in his brain.

“We’re friends, Pepper,” Tony said finally.

“Just friends, Tony?” Pepper gave him a long-suffering look that was specifically designed to guilt-trip him, but unfortunately only occasionally worked on him. “Because these tell me something different.”

“They thought you were pregnant and hiding it for months,” Tony pointed out. “You cannot honestly be telling me that you’re interrogating me because of what the tabloids are spinning about my relationship with Captain America.”

“It’s Steve, Tony.” Pepper took a slow breath, telling herself not to lose track of the conversation. Tony tended to do that. “Whenever I ask JARVIS where you are, most of the time he tells me you’re with Steve. Not with the team, but with Steve. And whenever I try to talk with you, Steve is usually there. You can’t tell me that I’m seeing nothing here. You’re hanging out in the park with him!”

There was a short but fruitful silence. Pepper could see several ideas whirring through Tony’s mind, and she hoped he wouldn’t just lie to her.

“We’re friends, Pepper,” Tony said finally, pointing at her with a pointy thing that she didn’t recognize.

The pointy stick looked like it could possibly be lethal under the right circumstances, but the effect was promptly ruined when he accidentally poked himself in the hand. Grimacing slightly, he discarded the pointy thing while speaking at a rapid fire pace in a familiar tone that was almost a whine. “I’m just helping him get adjusted to the twenty-first century. I’m being a good team player. I can be that, can’t I? I know Natasha said I was crap at being a team player, but I can be one. So I’m doing my duty as a good teammate by spending time with him.”

Oh Lord, she’d unleashed the deflecting monster. There was almost no hope of salvaging the conversation now. Tony had hijacked it and set it on fire over the jungles of Brazil.

“Fine.” Pepper cut into the middle of his diatribe, thinking she could at least salvage something out of this. “If you’re so invested in being a good team player, then you won’t mind going to the Christmas gala the company’s holding on the twenty-third. It’s plus one, and Rhodey doesn’t count.”

Then before Tony could spin some bullshit that would get him out of the gala, Pepper turned on her heel and left.

Men could be such idiots. Maybe Steve would be better.

Curled over his papers with a pencil in hand, Bruce paid no attention to Steve bustling around in the kitchen. He was thoroughly engrossed in the process of designing a new poison to give to Natasha for a Christmas gift. It was more difficult than he’d thought it would be to make one that wouldn’t instantly corrode the material of her electric bracelets.

Maybe he should consider asking Tony for help? He was relatively certain that the man had forgotten Christmas was right around the corner, and he could team up with Tony to give Natasha a present. It would eliminate the chance of the man committing a social gaffe that would have both Clint and Natasha wanting to murder him in his sleep.

Idly tapping his pencil against the paper in thought, he didn’t look up as Clint sat down at the table, a large bowl of cereal in front of him.

“I’m making breakfast,” Steve said.

“There’s never enough for us regular mortals after you and Thor go at it,” Clint said, gesturing at Steve with his spoon. “And you always stash something away for Tony. Speaking of which, where is he? Oh, don’t tell me… You guys have some sort of domestic squabble and now you’re not talking?”

When Bruce glanced up to see Steve’s reaction, all he saw was a perplexed blink. “We didn’t have a fight. I don’t know where he is.”

“But you guys always make breakfast together.”

There was a small snort of laughter that had everyone turning to see who it was. Upon seeing Pepper Potts standing there, holding what looked like one of those tabloid magazines Tony always got a kick out of reading, Bruce looked back down at his work, keeping his ears perked for information.

If Pepper was here, then she must have already seen Tony. And if she had seen Tony, Bruce had better go down sometime soon just to make sure he wasn’t doing something even dumber than usual on account of being frustrated with Stark Industries’ general level of incompetence – Pepper notwithstanding.

“Tony burns whatever he tries to cook,” Pepper said, moving over to the table to deposit the tabloid on it.

Bruce snuck a glimpse at it, only to be hit with an eyeful of Steve and Tony eating hot dogs while taking a blissful walk in Central Park. The headlines screamed “Lovers in the Park!”

“He doesn’t really cook,” Clint explained. “He just sneaks bites of whatever Steve is making. Then Steve reads the newspaper, and Tony plays on the table with JARVIS’s holograms. It’s very sweet.”

“At least he’s eating,” Steve said defensively in response to the raised eyebrow Pepper was sporting. “He tried cooking one time, but he burned the eggs and mushrooms.”

Pepper sighed, the sound of it longsuffering. “Never mind that, Steve. Do you have anything to say about this?” She picked up the tabloid from the table, holding it up so everyone could see.

Clint gave a small choking sound that was promptly muffled by stuffing another spoonful of cereal in his mouth. Steve just seemed rather nonplussed.

“That was Wednesday afternoon,” he said slowly. “Is it bad? Tony said it was fine.”

Leaning back in his chair, pencil twirling between his fingers, Bruce couldn’t help but feel this was eerily similar to watching a train wreck in progress. You couldn’t stop looking even though you knew the end result would be rather grisly.

Pepper narrowed her eyes slightly at Steve. “You have nothing to say about what they’re saying about you?”

Steve offered a shrug. “It’s not like it’s true. Tony says they’re trash rags that’ll make up anything to get attention.” He sounded entirely earnest and completely oblivious to Pepper’s growing disbelief. “Is there a problem, Pepper?”

“So you’re just friends?” Pepper’s words seemed rehearsed, like she’d already been given this spiel by someone else. If Bruce was a betting man, he’d say it was Tony.

“Yes.” Steve nodded earnestly, which was difficult not to take seriously considering his honest face (Tony called it the sweet baby effect, as no one ever believed babies were capable of evil. Bruce thought otherwise).

Pepper stared at him for a long moment before giving a great big scoff of disgust. “Men! You’re all the same!”

Exhaling sharply in disbelief and shaking her head, Pepper turned on her heel and left, the tip-tapping of her heels echoing against the walls.

Steve blinked owlishly after her. “Was it something I said?”

Bruce ducked his head, refocusing on his work and scribbling his pencil across the paper (he was scribbling nonsense, but it wasn’t like Clint would be able to tell). He refused to take the fall for this. Besides, Clint owed him for covering for him after the archer accidentally threw away all of Natasha’s feminine products.

He could feel the glare Clint shot at his head, but didn’t waver in his dedication to covering the sheet in quadratic equations that Tony could have solved at age three.

“Steve,” Clint said finally, taking the plunge, “we can’t help but notice that you and Tony are spending a lot of time together.”

“We’re friends,” Steve protested. “Of course we spend time together.”

“ ‘Just friends,’ huh?” Clint sounded skeptical. “Friends that are banging each other?”


“Shagging like dogs? Humping like bunnies? Friends with benefits?”

“We’re not dogs or bunnies,” Steve said, “but we are the last.”

“Ah-ha!” Clint pointed at him with the spoon. “How can you say that there’s nothing going on when there clearly is?”

“The benefits are pretty swell,” Steve continued.

“We don’t need details—”

“I just make sure Tony eats and sleeps—”

“Seriously?!” Clint’s mouth was hanging open when Bruce glanced up to see his reaction. “How do you not know what friends with benefits means?”

“Every friendship has some benefit,” Steve said completely earnestly.

Clint had the air of a man turning to his last resort. “So you and Tony are not fucking each other?”

Now there was a light pink blush covering Steve’s cheeks. “Clint! We’re just friends!”

“He makes you personalized cell phones and sets himself on fire to make sure your uniform is fireproof. That is not what just friends do!”

Bruce tactfully decided not to mention that Tony had also made the entire team fireproof uniforms. However, the inspiration for the material had come after a mission where Steve had very nearly burned alive in an old apartment complex while rescuing civilians and “goddamned puppies and kittens that can’t take care of themselves.”

“We’re not in a relationship,” Steve said slowly.

Bruce kept his head bent over his paper, not even scribbling the digits of pi anymore. He wasn’t sure what his face was saying at the moment, given the extremely high levels of obliviousness that were pervading the kitchen now. Tony’s crush on Steve was the worst kept secret in the Avengers, since everyone but Steve knew about it.

To Clint’s credit, he wasn’t giving up. “But do you want to be in one?”

“I don’t see Tony like that,” Steve insisted.

There was a short meaningful pause. Bruce risked glancing up to see if Steve was just being an idiot who was denying his feelings, only to see Clint with a rather strange expression on his face.

“Oh.” Even Clint’s voice sounded odd. “I see.”

“You do?” Steve seemed slightly disbelieving.

Clint cleared his throat. “Er…excuse me. I’m just gonna go and hit my head repeatedly against a wall. I apologize in advance, Bruce.”

Then, before either of them could say anything more, Clint slipped out of the kitchen, leaving the table vacant of his presence and the bowl of cereal he had been consuming.

Steve stared at the empty spot for a long moment and turned to Bruce. “Did I miss something?”

Bruce lightly chewed the end of his pencil, considering what he should say. He’d missed Steve’s expression, so he wasn’t entirely sure what Clint had seen that he hadn’t. That said, he should probably consult with the others before telling Steve anything.

Lifting a shoulder in a nonchalant shrug, he shook his head once before leaning over his paper again to refocus on Natasha’s Christmas present.

When he heard Steve give a sigh and turn back to making breakfast, Bruce quietly gathered his materials and scrammed.

He had a genius to see about some feelings.

He wasn’t in a relationship with Steve. He wasn’t, no matter how much he actually wanted to be. Friendship would have to be enough, and Tony was fine with that. He was. He’d take whatever Steve was willing to give.

Huffing in exasperation, he picked up the fine wire picker he’d poked himself with when talking to Pepper. If she hadn’t come down here with those rags, then he wouldn’t even be thinking about this. He was perfectly fine with the current status quo.

“Steve Rogers and I are not in a relationship,” he muttered, returning to his work on the clean energy aircraft he’d been designing before Pepper had interrupted.

“Of course, sir,” JARVIS said in a pacifying tone.

“I wasn’t talking to you, you ingrate.”

“My apologies, sir. I assumed you were looking for an answer.”

Tony rolled his eyes, but chose not to comment. JARVIS knew full well the difference between Tony talking and when he was actively conversing with JARVIS or someone imaginary (yes, he made up imaginary people; so sue him). He must be looking pretty sorry for himself if JARVIS had chosen to respond rather than remain silent.

“Never mind that,” Tony said, poking at the nose of the airplane with his tool. “Let’s get back to what we were doing before. About those calculations…”

The results popped up in front of him, allowing him to scan the readings for anything that would blow the airplane up midair or have the engine give out in the middle of a transatlantic flight. Both of those things would be very bad indeed.

Sticking the wire picking tool between his lips, Tony began tweaking the engine. The calculations showed that all energy outputs looked good, but the airplane was expending a bit too much energy during takeoff. There was no reason to settle for adequate when he could make it the best.

When he finished the latest round of tweaking, he sat back and plucked the tool out of his mouth. “Run that again and show me what it’ll look like in flight.”

JARVIS said nothing, but the blue holograms flickered out to show that he was performing the necessary calculations. Once they disappeared, Tony heard the doors open behind him.

“Are you throwing those rags in the trash, Pepper?” he asked, twirling the tool through his fingers. “I refuse to touch them on principle.”

Bruce’s warmly amused voice came from behind him. “And what principle would that be?”

Tony spun around, grinning. “Bruce!” Then he paused to wonder why Bruce was even down here (Pepper?). “Why are you here?” he asked suspiciously.

“You said I was always welcome to join you,” Bruce pointed out. “Besides, you weren’t making breakfast with Steve upstairs, so I came down to see if you were all right. Have you slept at all?”

It was morning? Tony had been sure it was around nine at night. A glance at the watch on his wrist did show that it was eight in the morning. So he’d accidentally pulled an all-nighter while working on the airplane engine. No biggie. He’d gone longer without sleep before.

“I slept the other night,” Tony said, shrugging. It was true enough.

Luckily, Bruce let that one go. He was enough of an eccentric genius himself that he understood Tony’s quirks. Unfortunately, he didn’t let the other thing go.

“What were you working on that you lost track of time?” Bruce asked. “You’re always with Steve when he’s making breakfast.”

“Contrary to popular opinion, I do actually spend time by myself,” Tony said, folding his arms across his chest.

“Yes, but you’ve never missed a morning with him since you guys started hanging out together.”

Oh crap. Tony had thought he’d been subtler than that, but apparently there was nothing subtle about spending every morning with your crush while he was making breakfast.

“I was busy,” he said, darting a glance over his shoulder to see if JARVIS was done yet. Apparently he wasn’t, even though those calculations shouldn’t take so long.

Bruce sighed lightly, leaning back to prop himself against the table behind him, seeming to fortify himself as he did. “Is…is there anything you want to tell me?”

Tony furrowed his brow for a second before realization seeped through him. His eyes widened in horror. “Oh my God… Are we talking about feelings? Why are we talking about feelings?”

“You’re the one that jumped to feelings,” Bruce pointed out immediately. “I could’ve been asking about something else.”

“Like what?”

“Trouble with SI, trouble with your suit, trouble with the team…”

“That all leads back to feelings.”

“Fine. Feelings.” Bruce leaned forward slightly. “Is there anything you want to tell me about you and Steve?”

Staring at his friend for a moment, Tony let out a sharp huff of air. “Pepper put you up to this, didn’t she?”

“No.” Bruce pointed behind him at the rags Pepper had left behind. “I’m here partly because of that and because a little bird had a very interesting conversation with someone in the kitchen.”

Tony’s heart skipped a beat in his chest, arc reactor notwithstanding. Clint had talked to Steve about his feelings? Shit, shit, shit… That was not good at all…

“Clint didn’t say anything to Steve,” Bruce added hastily, apparently reading Tony’s panic from his expression.

“Why,” Tony said, taking a slow breath, “would I be worried about that?”

Bruce looked at him incredulously. “Everyone knows, Tony.”

Oh… Oh shit.

Everyone?” No, that was not a squeak. It was a gasp.

“Everyone but Steve,” Bruce amended, setting Tony’s frantically beating heart to rest. “I don’t know how that man is so oblivious, but he doesn’t know.”

Tony’s hands were shaking. He’d thought he’d done a good job of hiding his crush on Steve, but apparently he’d been so bad at it that everyone but Steve knew (and thank God for that). It probably didn’t help that he hung out with Steve at every available opportunity. It probably also didn’t help that he went to museums when, like Pepper said, he absolutely despised museums. It was only because of Steve that he’d gone in the first place.

And if it wasn’t a secret anymore (and apparently hadn’t been in the first place), then he really didn’t have to hide it from Bruce. Besides, he needed to talk to someone other than JARVIS, or he’d go mad.

“We’re…” Tony took another breath, pressing his fingers together in an effort to steady his hands. “We’re not together, Bruce. There’s nothing going on.”

Bruce looked down at him. “But do you want there to be?”

“What I want doesn’t matter.” Tony shrugged, interlinking his fingers to clasp his hands together. “There’s nothing on his end, Bruce.”

“Are you sure?” Bruce asked. “He might not realize—”

“I’m sure,” Tony interrupted, giving a twisted smile. “Do you know that even the old ladies in the park have started giving me pitying looks? Steve sees me as a friend and nothing more.” He exhaled sharply. “I can’t risk that friendship.”

Bruce studied him for a long moment. Then, gently, he said, “You do know that there’s nothing wrong with you, right? You deserve Steve just as much as he deserves you.”

“Oh my God, the sap.” Tony made a face at Bruce, who shot him an exasperated one in return.

“Seriously, Tony,” Bruce insisted.

“Seriously?” A quick look from Bruce told him that the man was dead serious. Tony spent a few more seconds considering just what he should say. Considering the topic, he should just go all out. “I’m a former arms manufacturer and a borderline alcoholic. I’m sarcastic, arrogant, narcissistic, and don’t play well with others. None of those qualities make me a good match with anyone, let alone Captain America. I know what’s what, Bruce. Steve Rogers getting into a relationship with Tony Stark is not something that will ever happen because a – he doesn’t feel that way for me and b – even if he did, it would be a complete disaster because I’d just ruin it. He wouldn’t be able to handle it for very long. Being friends is entirely different from being in a romantic relationship. Just look at Pepper.”

“You’re still friends.”

“My point is that it didn’t work. We were friends for years, moved into a relationship, and couldn’t make it work. I’m just lucky that Pepper decided she could still be friends with me.”

“You’re something,” Bruce said, “but it’s not lucky.”

Tony raised an eyebrow and opened his mouth to reply, only to be cut off by Bruce quickly adding, “No, you are lucky, but so are the rest of us. Pepper didn’t stay because you were lucky, she stayed because she still cares about you regardless.” He gave a low snort of laughter. “And you’ve got to be the least narcissistic person I’ve ever met.”

“Really? Tell that to Agent Romanov.”

“Not to sound mean, but she isn’t a psychologist,” Bruce said, shrugging lightly. “She isn’t qualified to make a diagnosis like that. But that’s not the point.” He shook his head once. “The point is that you really shouldn’t put yourself down like that. Aren’t you always the one telling me to let go and live a little?”

“I would give Pepper a heart attack if I did that, and then where would we be?”

“Stop deflecting,” Bruce said sharply. “What are you scared of, Tony?”

Working his jaw, Tony met Bruce’s gaze head on. Finally, he looked away, exhaling in a long, slow breath. “I don’t have many friends,” he said eventually, eyes flicking back to Bruce. “You’re one of them. Steve is another. And I will not fuck that up because I couldn’t keep myself from doing something stupid that would freak him out.” He sounded unusually vulnerable even to his own ears, but he couldn’t do anything about it. “I can’t risk it, Bruce. I really can’t.”

This time it was Bruce who looked away first, his throat rippling as he swallowed. His head tilted slightly forward as he acquiesced. Tony couldn’t stop the relieved rush of air that escaped his lungs.

“I understand.” Bruce smiled weakly. “I don’t think it’s right, but I get it.” He pushed himself off the table and reached forward to clasp Tony on the shoulder briefly. “I’ll leave you to whatever you were doing. Get some sleep and make sure to eat.”

Tony offered a brief smile in response to Bruce’s clear concern. “Sure.”

“I will sic Steve on you,” Bruce said over his shoulder, already halfway to the exit, “if I don’t see you by lunch.”

“You’re a cruel man, Bruce,” Tony called back, turning to the empty air where JARVIS should be pulling up the calculations any second now. “JARVIS?”

“Calculations are complete, sir,” JARVIS said, showing Tony the work.

Humming absently under his breath, Tony scanned it. He’d barely gotten through the first several variables when another blue screen popped up next to the one he was working on.

He would’ve ignored it, but the picture of him and Steve admiring a butt ugly piece of art in MOMA (he’d actually been admiring Steve’s face at that time, not the piece of crap art) caught his attention. Then the headlines emblazoned on the top cinched it: STARK INDUSTRIES CONFIRMS RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN IRON MAN AND CAPTAIN AMERICA

He was going to kill Pepper when he saw her next time…

Natasha was reading a book in her room when she felt a presence above her head. There was only one person in the world who could just sneak up on her like that without setting off all her internal alarms.

Not even bothering to look up from the pages, she sighed. “What is it, Clint?”

“We’re calling a meeting,” Clint’s voice said ominously from the vent in the ceiling. “Assemble in the living room on the other side of the mansion in five. Tell no one.”

Five seconds later and Clint was gone. Natasha spent several more deliberating on whether or not she should convince Tony to redo the vents so Clint couldn’t crawl around in them anymore and reconsidered because she also sometimes used them. But never for calling clandestine meetings.

Placing a bookmark in her book, she stood up and left her room, wondering just why Clint would tell her to convene in the little-used living room in the far corner of the mansion. It was largely unused except for planning pranks (Clint) or sulking (Tony). Maybe it had to do with Tony and Steve? The unresolved sexual tension there was driving her nuts. She’d never met two men who were so completely oblivious about the other’s feelings.

When she slunk into the room, only Thor, Bruce, and Clint were there. Clint was hanging upside down from the ceiling, legs hooked over a metal bar that was for some reason positioned there. Bruce looked vaguely disapproving, and Thor looked like he wanted to try it out for himself.

“Steve and Tony aren’t coming?” Natasha asked just to be sure.

“Close the door!” Clint said furtively. “This is top secret!” He gestured his arms empathically, looking ridiculous.

Natasha rolled her eyes, but complied, the door clicking shut behind her. “Mind filling us in?”

“I was enjoying the respite of the pool when you called this meeting,” Thor said. “Is there a reason Steven and Anthony are not with us?”

Clint cocked his head to the side. “It’s like twenty degrees outside. Why were you at the pool?”

“I enjoy the brisk air.”

“Okay…” Clint apparently brushed it off as an Asgardian quirk and continued, “We’re talking about Steve and Tony, which is why they’re not here.”

Natasha straightened. “Oh thank God. What’s the plan?”

“There is no plan,” Bruce said.

“There is totally a plan,” Clint disagreed. “There is half a plan. I’m just working out the kinks, because Steve not having the hots for Tony is putting a cramp in my style.”

“I do not understand. Are they not already copulating?” Thor asked curiously.

Clint scrunched his nose. “No. But that’d be totally awesome. Because if I have to see Tony moon over Steve’s perfect abs and clear azure eyes for one more day I will shoot something, and it will not be a Doombot.”

“Clear azure eyes?” Bruce asked.

Clint shrugged. “In my defense he was in the living room and overdosing on coffee. He was also saying something about a ‘perfect physique,’ but you didn’t hear it from me.”

“Tony’s eccentricities aside,” Natasha said, “what’s the plan, Clint? I’m all for locking them in a broom closet.”

“I considered that, but the only thing that would achieve is driving Tony crazy because the good captain honestly doesn’t have feelings for him. Yet.”

Natasha frowned. “What?”

Yet. I said he doesn’t have feelings for him yet. That will change, because no one can spend that much time with Tony Stark and not have the potential for falling in love with the guy because you’d go crazy otherwise.”

“Oh my God.” Bruce sounded slightly stunned. “Tony was right?”

Clint straightened down at that, swinging slightly from his perch. “What? Tony was right about what?”

“I thought he was just being an oblivious idiot,” Bruce said disbelievingly. “But he knows how Steve feels.”

“He has trouble with his own feelings,” Natasha said not unkindly. “I don’t think he can identify someone else’s.”

“He’s not that dense, Natasha,” Bruce said chidingly. “He knows, but he’s not doing anything about it because he’s afraid of alienating Steve.”

“I did not know that Steven had prejudice toward relations between two men,” Thor said, frowning slightly.

“He doesn’t,” Clint said. “Or if he does, we don’t know about it.”

“He reacted favorably to reports on LGBT rights,” Natasha said slowly. “There’s nothing to say that he’d react badly.”

“We shouldn’t do anything about it,” Bruce said firmly.

“The time for inaction has passed, Dr. Banner,” JARVIS spoke, startling all of them. A holographic blue screen appeared in the middle of the room, hovering over the coffee table. “I would advise against Captain Rogers seeing this, at the very least until some preliminary groundwork has been laid.”

Natasha stepped in front of it, eyes scanning over the breaking news that proclaimed that Stark Industries had confirmed a relationship between Iron Man and Captain America. It looked like Pepper had gotten fed up with the situation as well.

“Shit,” Bruce said oh-so-eloquently. “Tony is not going to be happy.”

“Damn,” Clint groaned. “I have a headache.”

Bruce’s shoulders shifted as he took several calming breaths. “That’s because you’re upside down. Get down before I have Thor pull you down.”

Clint flipped off the bar, stumbling slightly as his blood flow adjusted for the change. He almost fell onto the couch, but Thor’s steadying hand on his shoulder helped him stay upright.

“What’s up?” he asked, still looking rather unsteady on his feet.

“Pepper just confirmed a relationship between them,” Natasha said, feeling her phone vibrate in her pocket a few seconds later.

“That was inadvisable, was it not?” Thor asked, reading over Natasha’s shoulder.

“This is going to be bad,” Bruce said, rubbing his forehead with the back of his hand.

“No, it’s not,” Natasha said, smiling. “I have a plan.”

Everyone looked at her.

“What?” Clint looked intrigued.

“The Stark Industries’ Christmas gala on the twenty-third,” Natasha said, holding up her phone screen so everyone could see the invitation. “Tony has to go, and he needs a date.”

She raised her eyebrows suggestively.

It took a minute before Bruce spoke again. “This is going to be so bad.”

Steve was completely confused. He didn’t like being confused. It reminded him too much of his first few days in the twenty-first century with S.H.I.E.L.D. agents poking and prodding him and numerous therapists trying to determine his mental stability.

Every time he sat down to read the news, he kept getting LOLcats on his tablet, and JARVIS was absolutely no help. He usually preferred actual physical newspapers, but for some reason Clint kept stealing them before he could read them.

The one time he’d gotten Tony to sit down and look at his tablet, Thor had come in and slung a completely befuddled and speechless Tony over his shoulder, marching him out while proclaiming something about having Tony looking at his “fair lady Jane’s marvelous work” and several other things Steve didn’t want think about because it gave him a headache.

He would’ve brushed it off as an isolated incident, but the next time he and Tony were alone again and going to watch TV, Natasha and Clint sauntered in, stealing the remote and insisting on watching some of the most awful rom-coms Steve had ever seen. Then they tried going to the park, and Bruce came with them, looking extremely calm and peaceful. For some reason, everyone stayed far away from them; there weren’t even any camera flashes.

Steve would have thought he was going crazy if Tony didn’t have a resigned look on his face whenever these things happened. The resigned look turned into a full on eye roll when Thor went with them to a museum, thoroughly hogging all of Tony’s attention even though Tony thought a da Vinci was something drawn by Paul Revere, who had been a silversmith and a hero during the American Revolution, not an Italian artist who had lived several centuries earlier and across an ocean.

So there was definitely something going on, although Steve couldn’t figure out what. He couldn’t even ask Tony about it because the two of them were never alone anymore. It was as if once the other Avengers realized they weren’t actually in a relationship – his cheeks still burned at the memory – it was a free for all.

Even breakfast wasn’t quite the same with Bruce hogging all of Tony’s attention with some geeky project or another and without his morning news.

So Steve was definitely not moping by the time the twenty-second of December rolled around. He really wasn’t.

But Natasha did look completely exasperated with him when she barged into his room and dragged him to some sort of shop for a tuxedo. This confused him even more because he already had several tuxedoes and his military uniform hanging in his closet.

“Natasha?” he asked, trying not to seem like he was staring at the obviously very expensive decor of the place.

“Shush.” She didn’t even look up from her phone. “You need a new one for tomorrow.”

Steve was relatively certain Christmas Eve wasn’t until the twenty-fourth. “What’s tomorrow?”

“The Christmas gala.” Natasha did look up now, but only to smile curtly at the man coming up to them. “Steve Rogers. I already sent you his measurements. Take your time with getting the fitting right.”

The man bowed slightly, not even flinching at the gaze of the infamous Black Widow. “Of course, ma’am. This way, sir,” he said to Steve.

Resigned to his fate, Steve sincerely hoped that this wouldn’t involve many needles.

“This is definitely going to work. He’s been moping for two weeks now.”

“I’ve been feeling like a third wheel on their outings, so it had better work.”

“What is this third wheel you speak of? I must confess that I noticed no such thing. Anthony was most enlightening on our outing. I had not known that your world possessed such a marvelous artist such as this Revere.”

“…Revere was a silversmith. Please tell me Tony didn’t tell you he did all the art in the museum.”

“Never mind Tony’s idiocy. Natasha, did you get the tux?”

“Yes, and you owe me for it. I don’t want to be subject to those eyes again. You would think he’s never been fitted for a tuxedo before.”

“Oh good. Anyone know what we’re going to tell him about this?”

“I told him it’s a Christmas gala and let him make his own assumptions. Tony doesn’t have a date, does he?”

“He thinks he’s going with me.”

“Oh, brilliant. I can’t wait to see his face. This is going to be epic.”

“This is a very bad idea, and I still don’t know why I’m doing this.”

“Because you’re sick of seeing Tony pine over Steve Rogers’s very fine ass.”

“I have seen you ogle this ‘fine ass,’ Clinton.”

“…Shut up, Thor.”

For the record, Tony would have cheerfully murdered Pepper by now if it weren’t for the fact that she had remained carefully out of sight, well aware that she had probably pissed him off with the stunt she’d pulled. As it was, he resigned himself to muttering death threats under his breath and doing his best to make sure Steve didn’t find out before he could figure out what to say.

It was one thing to have tabloids speculating on whether you were in a relationship with a national icon. It was quite another thing to have that confirmed by the CEO of your own very well reputed company and then plastered over all the TV shows, and newscasts, mainstream or not.

At least the rest of the Avengers seemed to be on his side with that, as they kept stealing Steve’s newspapers and warding off the paparazzi. He’d never seen Bruce look so threatening while not actually being threatening…if that made any sense at all. Even JARVIS seemed to be on his side for once when it came to this, as he’d apparently hacked into Steve’s tablet and was showing nothing but LOLcats whenever Steve tried to see the news.

On the other hand, it was slightly annoying because he and Steve hadn’t been alone once since Pepper’s little announcement. Tony didn’t know whether to be upset or relieved, since he really didn’t want to talk to Steve about their relationship when anyone else was around. To be honest, he didn’t really want to talk about it at all, but he kind of had to considering what everyone thought now.

At least the gala would be somewhat less painful than usual. Tony had somehow managed to shanghai Bruce into going with him, which wasn’t quite as much fun as Rhodey, but since Pepper had already cut off that avenue it was down to Bruce. At least the two of them would be able to snicker at the idiocy of the so-called “elite” and poke fun at recent fashion trends.

Seriously, who wore polka dot ties unless you were asking for trouble?

Stifling a snicker in a sigh, Tony shifted in his spot on the cushy bench of the limo he was in. He tugged at his collar, refraining from reaching into his jacket to pull out his phone and do some tweaking on his latest armor update. Bruce was supposed to be here any minute and then they could go.

On cue, he heard the door to the limo open and someone slide in. When the door closed a few seconds later, the limo smoothly took off, leaving Tony alone with…Steve?

Steve looked slightly bemused to only see Tony there. “Tony?”

Tony didn’t immediately reply because he was struck speechless at the sight of Steve’s form fitting tuxedo. It wasn’t like he hadn’t seen Steve in a tux before, but this one was really snug and showed off his absolutely incredible physique. It sort of made Tony want to rip it off him, and he had to look down at his phone to recover his lost composure, which was now vacationing in Cuba.

Pepper wouldn’t appreciate it if he ripped Steve’s tuxedo off in the limo right before they had up show up at the gala. But screw Pepper; she was the reason Tony was even in this dilemma in the first place.

When he looked up again, Tony saw Steve gazing at him with a concerned expression. He realized that he’d probably been quiet too long.

Clearing his throat to ensure that it wouldn’t come out hoarse, Tony managed to nonchalantly say, “You look good.”

While he wanted to hit himself in the head for such a ridiculously banal statement worthy of a besotted fifteen-year-old, he refrained because there really was nothing else he could say that wouldn’t send Steve running for the hills. In any case, that little compliment would help him ease into the rest of what he had to say if this was going to work.

“Thanks.” Steve flushed slightly, a sight that made Tony want to see if it went all the way down the rest of his body. “You look pretty good yourself.”

Taking several deep breaths, Tony did his best to stop himself from opening the limo door and bolting. Just because this had all the highlights of one of those hideous rom-coms Clint and Natasha had forced them to watch a few days ago did not mean anything. (Anything being the fact that the two leads always got together in the end; Tony knew he could never be that outrageously lucky.)

Steve fidgeted slightly, pulling at his tie in a way that made Tony want to either undo it all the way or fix it up. “Are the others coming, too?” he asked, squinting out the back window in a way that should not be as adorable as it was.

Forcing himself to snort so he wouldn’t seem too much like a love struck idiot, Tony floundered for a moment when the full force of Steve’s gaze was turned back to him again. Recovering quickly, he said, “I think it’s just you and me. It’s a Christmas gala for Stark Industries, not the team.”

Steve frowned slightly. “Natasha told me it was for the team…”

Oh that sly little spider…

“She lied,” Tony said bluntly. “You’re my date for this thing, though I thought it would be Bruce, but I guess he lied, too. Does he even have a tux for something like this?”

“You’re dating Bruce?”

Tony frowned. “No! I couldn’t ask Rhodey because Pepper refused to let me, and he’s usually my go-to guy for these things because we like playing with the paparazzi. Bruce was a close second, so that’s why I asked him. Now it’s you.” Not that he was complaining…

“Pepper doesn’t mind?”

“No.” And this was where it would get tricky. Fidgeting, Tony glanced outside, saw they still had a little ways to go considering traffic conditions, and turned back to Steve, unusually serious. “Okay, there’s not going to be a good way to say this. I wanted to tell you this earlier, but the others were always around.”

Just tell him, Stark.

He blurted out the rest, just barely managing to stop himself from running the words together. “They all think we’re together.”

There. That wasn’t so bad, was it?

Blinking slowly, Steve had an indiscernible expression on his face. “Didn’t they think that before?”

Tony felt like laughing and crying at Steve’s utter naïveté. Surprisingly, his voice came out even. “Yes, but Pepper confirmed it to the papers, so now it’s no longer just gossip, but the gospel truth.”

“Wait… Pepper confirmed it? I told her that we were just friends! Why would she do that?”

“I don’t know, Steve.” But he did know, and it was killing him to keep quiet about it. “I haven’t had the chance to ask her why. So…” He took a breath, smiling rather stiffly. “The thing is, this will be seen by the media as our first official public outing as a confirmed couple. Apparently our friends think it’s an absolute riot to force the issue so we’re stuck with this.” He waved a hand between them to demonstrate. “It means we’ll be expected to hold hands and do other couple-y type things. We don’t have to kiss”—though that would be simultaneously awesome and really awful—“but we would need to look fond of each other. Or in love if you can manage that.” He instantly regretted saying that, but it was a bit too late to take it back.

Steve was looking more and more uncertain as Tony rambled on. Shit. Was he being too obvious?

“You don’t have to do this, Steve,” Tony said, smiling weakly. “I can make something up to explain why I’m dateless. Hell, I can even find a way of explaining why Pepper said that.”

“You don’t have to do that,” Steve said, fingers nervously flicking the tip of his tie. “I’m…I’m fine with it.” Then he seemed to reconsider. “Well, actually…it is a bit weird.” His smile was weak. “But you’re my best friend, Tony. If you back out on this, it isn’t going to look good, is it? For you or for your company. We’ll do it.”

Tony’s heart dropped to his stomach at the same time as a small kernel of warmth ignited in his chest. It hurt that he’d never have more with Steve, but even friendship was better than nothing. But this… Playing in front of the cameras was going to hurt like hell, especially since he wouldn’t even be acting. Yet Steve would be, and Tony didn’t know how long he’d be able to handle that.

Of course, he had no clue how good an actor Steve really was, so there might not even be enough emotion there for him to continually break Tony’s heart over and over again every time they stood in front of the paparazzi.

Tony managed a smile. “Thanks, Steve.”

Steve’s response was a breathtakingly angelic smile that had Tony looking down at his hands while he fought a furious blush. Luckily, his body’s traitorous attempt to give him away had subsided by the time they arrived at their destination.

As the limo pulled to a stop, Tony glanced over to check if Steve was still ready to go. Seeing nothing to the contrary, he gave the other man a brief smile before gracefully getting out of the car as the door was opened.

Eyes assaulted by blinding white camera flashes, he turned around to give Steve a hand, receiving a raised eyebrow in return. Sighing lightly, he bent down to whisper in Steve’s ear, “Just follow my lead.”

Smiling broadly as he pulled back, Tony kept his hand firmly clasped around Steve’s as they made their way up the steps to Stark Tower.

They were accosted by shouted questions and dozens of camera flashes. Tony didn’t bat an eye, maneuvering through the crowd with all the ease of years of practice. He did slip an arm around Steve’s waist, keeping in step with the slightly taller man. His heart palpitated slightly at the heat Steve was giving off, but he kept his face carefully impassive even as he hoped he would survive the night without some sort of heart attack induced from pining.

Because Tony Stark did not pine.

When they made it to the elevator and the doors slid closed behind them, Tony stepped away from Steve with a sigh of mingled disappointment and relief. He pretended not to notice the way the other man shifted slightly in discomfort.

“I’d say it’s just for tonight,” Tony said tiredly, “but it really isn’t.”

“I know.” Steve offered him a smile he really didn’t deserve. “It’s okay, Tony. Really, it is. Just a bit weird, you know?”

No, Tony absolutely did not know. It wasn’t weird at all for him because it was what he wanted to do. And he was going to kill Pepper and his team for making him suffer like this because this was just cruel. They couldn’t even say it was in good fun since it was literally painful to have to pretend to be all lovey-dovey with Steve when that was everything he’d wanted for months.

But no problem. He was used to denying himself what he wanted (needed). This would just be another thing that he’d get to sample but never actually have.

Luckily for Tony, the elevator doors opened before he could think of a good reply. He rested a hand on the small of Steve’s back, feeling a slight flinch from the unexpected contact. Ignoring it, he pushed Steve out and in the direction of the bar. Before he did anything else, he was going to have something to drink.

“Tony,” Steve whispered disapprovingly.

“I’m going to need something to get me through this,” Tony whispered back, eyes scanning over the room. Their presence didn’t seem to have been noticed yet, which was just fine. “Trust me: they’re a horde of sharks out for blood. You’ll need something, too.”

“I can’t get drunk.”

Tony smiled blandly at him. “Then you won’t have to worry about getting drunk.” He signaled to the bartender to give them two martinis and turned to Steve while he waited on the drinks. “So, I’m curious… Did Natasha tell you anything before getting you fitted for that?” He nodded towards the should-be-illegal tux Steve was sporting.

“Not really.” Steve shrugged lightly, glancing askance at the crowded room. He looked rather uncomfortable, but Tony still found him incredibly—

“Hot,” Tony muttered, shaking his head once.

“What?” Steve looked at him, confused.

“Nothing.” Tony shot him a smile, giving the bartender a quick nod in thanks as the two martinis were pushed their way. He immediately picked his up to take a sip.

Steve didn’t touch his, although it remained by his elbow. Instead, he said slowly, “I don’t really get it.”

Tony reluctantly refrained from drinking the rest of his martini in one shot. It was not a shot glass and his aim wasn’t to get drunk tonight. That would lead to something very regrettable (like him groping Steve). “Get what?”

“I didn’t know you were interested in guys like that.”

“I’m not gay.” Tony raised an eyebrow and smirked in response to Steve’s slightly confused look. “But I’m not straight either.”


“Sure, if you want to call it that.” Tony tapped a finger against his glass. “It’s not something I advertise, society being what it is.” He shot Steve a sidelong look. “That bother you?”

Steve shook his head a bit too sharply. “No, it doesn’t.”

Tony inclined his head, waited for Steve to elaborate, and when he didn’t decided to just let it lie. The follow-up question would have been to ask which way Steve inclined, but he didn’t think he could handle the answer. If Steve was gay, then he’d have to suffer with the knowledge that Steve didn’t want him; if he wasn’t, then Tony would be pining after someone who never could love him back; if he was bisexual, it was the same problem as Steve being gay, but he also had the added bonus that Steve could probably find a pretty woman and have the proverbial two-point-five kids, a dog, and a nice house with a white picket fence.

From across the room, Tony caught sight of Pepper in a stunning blue gown, standing by a very well-dressed Happy Hogan. Just as his eyes came up to her face, he found her looking at him, an elegant eyebrow arched.

Tilting his head to the side in a silent question, Tony took another sip of his martini. Pepper gave him an encouraging nod, mouthing something that looked a lot like “Dance with him.”

Looking away so as not to see Pepper stare at him anymore, Tony found himself staring right at Steve, who was gazing down at his martini with a very focused expression. It took all of five seconds for him to make an impulsive decision – which could either turn out very good or very bad.

“You want to dance?” he asked, affecting a nonchalant tone.

The reaction that his simple question garnered startled Tony.

Steve’s head snapped up, eyes wide. “What?”

“Do you want to dance?” Tony repeated.

“Oh…” Steve bit his lip, leading to Tony inhaling deeply to stop himself from leaning inward to do something he would probably regret. He looked down briefly before meeting Tony’s eyes. “I…I’m sorry, but I’d rather not.”

Tony blinked, perplexed. “What? Why not?”

“I’d rather not,” Steve repeated, shaking his head once. His eyes flickered to the crowded dance floor, an unreadable expression in their blue depths.

Was he nervous? Tony couldn’t tell. His face didn’t look nervous, but his body language screamed “uncomfortable.” Either way, it didn’t look like Tony was getting to dance with him. He didn’t know whether to be disappointed or relieved about that.

“All right.” Tony gave a brief smile. “That’s fine. In that case, I’ll just go and steal Pepper. Enjoy your drink.”

As Tony made his way through the dance floor, winding around couples, nodding hello and offering his official public smile, there was a small commotion off to the side. Ignoring it as it just seemed like a squawk of dismay rather than anything serious, he approached Pepper and Happy, giving the latter a small nod.

Smiling in response, Happy gave Pepper one last twirl before stepping away and allowing Tony to effortlessly fall into step, leading Pepper across the floor.

“Tony!” Pepper sounded shocked and rather dismayed, shooting Happy a betrayed look over Tony’s shoulder.

“Pepper.” Tony smiled fondly at her. “How are you this lovely night?”

Pepper’s answering smile was strained. “Fine. Why aren’t you with Steve?” She kept her voice low.

“He doesn’t want to dance,” Tony said dismissively, shrugging lightly as he made a slow turn with her. “So I thought I’d dance with my favorite CEO.”

“I’m your only CEO.”

“My point still stands.” Tony drew close enough to her that he could whisper into her ear, “What were you thinking?”

Pepper turned her head, her hair tickling his ear. “I was just giving you a push!”

“What made you think we needed that push?”

“You weren’t doing anything! Say what you will, but I don’t like seeing one of my best friends pine over someone he can have if he’d just get his act together!”

“I don’t pine.”

Pepper gave him a dry look. “You pine.”

“I don’t pine.” Pepper’s face was seriously making him ramble. “I never pine.”

“Then what do you call what you do? Ogling?”

“I observe.”

“You observe.”

“I observe,” Tony confirmed, meeting Pepper’s skeptical face head on. “I am an observer of fine specimens.”

Pepper’s look was so dry it could rival the heat of the Sahara Desert (or Afghanistan, but that something he’d rather not think about). “Fine. You observe. Well, we were all getting tired of your observing, so I did something about it.”

Tony pursed his lips. “I don’t think I like your tone when you say ‘observe.’ ”

Pepper rolled her eyes, choosing to ignore that. “You couldn’t keep the status quo forever, Tony. Something had to give sooner or later, and it’s better we have some control over it.”

“Is it?” Tony was dead serious. “Pepper, there was a reason I never said anything. Steve honestly doesn’t feel that way.”

“Tony…” Pepper sighed, smiling sadly. “The man spends hours with you. There is definitely something there.” Her eyes flickered up, a brief flash of panic passed over her face, and then she was talking again, grabbing Tony’s attention as he tried to see what had alarmed her. “Now go dance with him. This isn’t selling the image that you two are a couple.”

“Because we’re not.”

“Officially you are.”

It was Tony’s turn to give her a dry look. “When have I cared about that?”

“This is for your own good, Tony.”

Drawing to a stop on the edge of the dance floor closest to the bar, Tony frowned and opened his mouth, only to give a sharp hiss of pain as Pepper stepped on his foot with her very pointy heel. “Pepper!”

“There’s more where that comes from,” Pepper said, smiling charmingly and not as if she’d just stepped on Tony’s foot with a deadly heel. She turned and left him standing there desperately trying not to hobble around in pain.

After several fortifying breaths, Tony was able to walk to the bar without limping. If Pepper had been serious, she could have broken his foot. He knew the math and with that small a heel and so much force applied to it, he’d definitely have been looking at a visit to the hospital if she’d been serious. As it was, he was going to have a lovely bruise and an aching foot by the next day.

“We should dance,” Tony promptly said as he came up behind Steve, pressing against him.

To his credit, Steve didn’t flinch at Tony’s sudden arrival. “I said I’d rather not.”

He moved over to the side, still keeping himself somewhat pressed to Steve’s side. “Yes, but Pepper says we should, so we should probably do that.” Tony saw Steve hadn’t even touched his martini. “If you’re not drinking that…”

Steve pushed it away before Tony could reach for it. “Is there something else we can do?”

“We could go into a dark corner and start making out like horny teenagers”—Steve’s face was priceless—“but Pepper would kill me if I did that and so would Fury for defiling a national icon. So, dance? We don’t even have to touch.”

Steve’s brow furrowed. “How do you dance without touching?”

“Well, it’s not really dancing per se, but we could get away with it if we just stand in a corner and look shifty.”

There was an awkward silence for a moment where Tony slid back a few inches to give Steve some personal space. He looked down at his fingers, rubbing a thumb over an acid burn he’d gotten a few days ago while helping Bruce with Natasha’s Christmas present.

“It’s not you,” Steve finally said, eyes determinedly fixed on the floor. “I…I’m sorry. Dancing isn’t something I feel comfortable with.”

In other words, Steve didn’t know how to dance. And teaching him now wouldn’t be the right move at all. So Tony couldn’t press him anymore about it without seeming like an utter ass. And while he might be an ass about a lot of things, there were some things even he wouldn’t touch.

“Got it,” Tony said, smiling lightly as Steve looked up at him, surprised. “We’ll just stand here and look cool, but I’ll need a drink to do that.”

He was just about to call for a glass of wine when he heard a giggle from behind him. Turning around with an amiable smile, Tony found himself face to face with a woman in a glossy red dress. She was beaming at the two of them for some reason, eyes flickering between them and the space above their heads.

Steve didn’t seem to have noticed, attention fixated on what seemed to be Tony’s jacket. A quick throat clearing made sure that Tony got his attention. When he did, he made sure to look up with his eyes, seeing Steve imitate the motion.

Although it had been a mere guess, Tony was dismayed to find a sprig of mistletoe floating above their heads. He was going to kill whoever had released his specs for that particular design…

Ordinarily, Tony would just kiss whoever it was and then saunter off. Ordinarily it wasn’t the man he was in love with. If he could, Tony would just leave, but because of Pepper he couldn’t even do that since they were “together.” If he didn’t kiss Steve now, it would seem incredibly suspicious.

And no matter how much Tony wanted to deny it, Steve was right. His reputation (as sleazy as it was) would be dragged through the mud if his relationship with Steve turned out to be a lie (which it was, but still!). A kiss had to look genuine; it couldn’t be a chaste peck, since playboy Tony Stark wouldn’t shy away from making out in public.

Bringing a hand up to cup the side of Steve’s neck, Tony leaned in, heart rate ratcheting up as he considered what he was about to do. It would’ve been so hot if Steve didn’t look like a deer caught in the headlights.

Hoping Steve could read the apology in his eyes, Tony leaned in the final few inches, closing his eyes before bringing their lips together.

“It’s not just me when I say that this is oddly large for an air vent, right?”

“It’s Stark.”

“…Point taken.” Clint peered out of the vent grills at the party going on below them. In his hands he held a small flat remote control that he continued to play with.

Next to him, Natasha sighed, propping her chin up in her hand. “Remind me again why I’m here?”

“Bruce thought I’d mess it up,” Clint muttered, eyes narrowing as he maneuvered the floating mistletoe among the green garlands decorating the ceiling. Without Tony’s knowledge, JARVIS had given them the designs for it. Sometimes, leaving aside the fact that he was an AI who was literally everywhere, JARVIS could be seriously cool.

Natasha reached down to pull out her phone and check for any messages from their teammates. “All right. The two of them should be here soon.” She shifted again to put the phone back. “This is ridiculous. We should be doing this down there and not stuffed in a vent that Tony Stark designed for us.”

“And now it’s again my turn to remind you that Bruce said if Tony sees us down there, he’ll be even more suspicious.”

Natasha arched an eyebrow in response, giving Clint a thoroughly unimpressed look.

“And you know that,” Clint said with a soft sigh. He returned his attention to fooling around with the flying mistletoe, further familiarizing himself with the controls.

They spent the next several minutes in a comfortable silence borne of years of familiarity. It was broken when Clint leaned forward eagerly upon seeing the elevator doors open to reveal Tony and Steve. To the amateur eye, they looked completely at ease as Tony shepherded Steve out of the elevator and through the crowded floor. To Clint’s expert eye, Steve seemed uncomfortable and Tony disquieted.

“Of course,” Natasha sighed as soon as they saw Tony head for the bar.

“I don’t blame him,” Clint said thoughtfully. He glanced down at the remote control, deciding to wait a bit before using it. There was no harm in allowing the two to relax a little bit first.

Bruce had sort of sprung this on Steve and Tony.

Seeing that their targets were just chatting at the moment, Tony looking rather impassive despite being faced with the beauty of Steve Rogers in a form fitting tux. Clint had to admit that Natasha had done an excellent job there. If he didn’t know that Steve was so clearly off-limits, he would totally consider trying to tap that.

Of course, if Tony didn’t make a move soon, he might try anyway.

As his eyes scanned over the party crowd, he caught sight of two agents from S.H.I.E.L.D. milling in the shadows: Agents Blake and Sitwell. Although both were dressed in tuxedos, they utterly failed at seeming comfortable in the high-class environment that was Stark Industries’ Christmas gala. It would have been hilarious if it hadn’t been so pathetic.

Natasha saw them at the same time as Clint’s lips were curling into an utterly mischievous grin that all the Avengers had learned to fear by now. “No, Clint.”

“Come on, Nat.” Clint shot her a cheeky grin, slowly sliding his finger sideways on the remote’s screen. “It’ll liven up the party a bit.”

“It’ll attract attention.”

“They’re already party poopers. Look at them.”

Natasha didn’t say anything beyond a short huff that Clint knew was a sound of agreement.

“I’m just…gonna…” Clint maneuvered the mistletoe to hover over the two agents’ heads. “…have a little…fun.”

He caught a glimpse of Tony about to leave Steve just as he dropped the mistletoe to hover directly over the agents’ heads. Then he waited for the magic to happen.

Blake was the first to notice the mistletoe, and his mouth twisted as if he’d bitten into something particularly unpleasant, not that that was much of a difference from his usual expression. He made as if to ignore the green sprig, but Clint dropped it down even more, bringing it to the attention of Sitwell.

Now both agents were staring at the mistletoe that was hovering directly above their heads, practically daring them to ignore it.

Clint jiggled it a little, enjoying the stupefied looks plastered on their faces. Natasha exhaled, the sound filled with nothing but exasperation.

“Kiss,” Clint whispered.

“It’s not magic, Clint. They don’t have to.”

Giving Natasha a dry look, Clint tapped a finger on the screen, causing the mistletoe to start vibrating furiously. The sight was enough to get one of the other party goers – a young woman in an aquamarine backless dress – to push Blake into Sitwell so that their heads slammed into each other.

That started a small quarrel between the two agents and the woman, from which Clint’s mistletoe promptly evacuated itself because Blake was giving it the stink eye while trying to scold the young woman for her actions. Sitwell was rubbing his forehead and looking fed up.

Once the mistletoe had been put in a safe spot near the ceiling, Clint returned his attention to Tony, who was now dancing with Pepper.

“We’re going to be old and gray before anything happens between those two,” Natasha said, nodding toward Steve, who was still hovering by the bar and looking awkward because he wasn’t drinking.

“Tony will self-combust before that happens,” Clint disagreed.

“If he hasn’t self-destructed by now, it’s not going to happen.”

“Sexual frustration is an entirely different thing from actively trying to blow oneself up.”

Natasha inclined her head, conceding the point. “Still, I never would’ve expected Tony to be the mature one here.”

“I think it’s more a problem of Steve still not having adjusted to the times.” Clint bowed his head, getting a better view of the heated whispered debate between Tony and Pepper. “I don’t think he understands that it’s okay to be gay now. He probably thinks he’s completely straight, but no one who acts like that around Tony could possibly be one hundred percent straight. Tony oozes enough charm to make even the straightest man slightly gay.”

“Everyone is slightly bi,” Natasha pointed out.

“Religious fanatics would argue otherwise.”

“Religious fanatics are a bunch of assholes.”

“I’m not arguing with you about that.” Clint received a devilish smirk for that. “My point is that while two guys can definitely be friends, there’s nothing remotely platonic about what’s going on between those two. Steve might think he’s being completely honest with himself, but there’s no way there’s not something going on there.”

“Which is the point of this operation,” Natasha said, ducking down to glance up to where the mistletoe was hovering.

“Exactly.” Clint pointed the remote at her as best as he could in the confined space.

Natasha started. “Clint!”

“What?” Clint turned to look, only to see the mistletoe drop in the air as if its string had been cut. “Oh shit—”

“Give me that!” Natasha grabbed for the remote, only for Clint to pull it away to try and fix his mistake.

He hit his elbow on the side of the vent, wincing as it jarred his funny bone and his thumb jerked over the screen.

Natasha muttered a low “Thank you” under her breath in Russian. The mistletoe had jerked to a stop in midair, but was now in plain view for anyone who cared to look – like Pepper.

Clint quickly sent it back up to the ceiling before Tony could see and not a second too late, as the man glanced up to see whatever had sent Pepper into a slight panic.

“Too close, Barton,” Natasha chided, nudging his foot with her own.

“I know, Romanov.” Clint didn’t look at her, instead focusing on Tony and Pepper. Damn Stark tech…

It was two more minutes before Pepper casually stepped on Tony’s foot, which looked extremely painful given the very skinny heel that woman was wearing. Then she sauntered off back towards Hogan, leaving a visibly pained Tony behind.

“Ouch,” Clint muttered, wincing in sympathy.

“He’s had worse,” Natasha said dismissively.

Clint abandoned his retort in favor of focusing on the action that was now happening between Tony and Steve. He could hear Natasha’s breathing become quieter as well, her focus also zeroing in on their target.

Instinctively feeling that this was the best opportunity he would get, Clint began moving the mistletoe over to the two men. Tony seemed rather desperate, while Steve was either completely oblivious or callous to the other man’s state. Clint hoped it was the former; it wouldn’t say much for his spy instincts if he was completely off the mark with this.

The mistletoe slowly inched down toward them, gleaming faintly in the lights.

“I half expect Fury to show up now,” Clint breathed, eyes not moving from his target.

There was a short but pregnant pause, during which the mistletoe simply hovered in the air, but when nothing happened they both gave stifled laughs and refocused on the mission.

Now was not the time to think about Fury showing up at other, equally inopportune times whenever they were trying to play a prank on one of the agents on the Helicarrier or on another S.H.I.E.L.D. base. Say what you would about the man, but he had an eerie sort of sixth sense when it came to his agents.

It seemed like no time at all had passed before the mistletoe was finally directly above Tony’s and Steve’s heads. Neither of them noticed, both too engrossed in their conversation.

Then a young woman apparently alerted them, as Tony got Steve’s attention. Their expressions were simultaneously funny and sad to see. Tony had a deer-in-the-headlights look plastered on his face; Steve didn’t quite seem to understand what was going on.

Jeez, the man was dense.

There was interminable moment during which Clint wasn’t certain that they’d even kiss, but then Tony moved, cupping a hand on Steve’s neck and pulling the slightly taller man in. There was a short pause before they were kissing and…oh wow.

To anyone who wasn’t as experienced in spotting deception as Clint, the kiss would look like a passionate embrace between two long-time lovers. But he could see the tension in Steve’s frame and how Tony was trying just a bit too hard to make the kiss seem natural. Still, it was a credit to Tony’s acting abilities – or his history as a playboy – that it was difficult for even Clint to tell that it was a show and not genuine.

“We should probably go,” Natasha said quietly, reading the same things Clint was seeing in the scene. “Turn that off and let’s leave. Tony will know something’s up since that’s his design.”

“Right.” Clint’s fingers danced across the screen as he returned the mistletoe to the vent they were hiding in.

Natasha reached forward and slid the vent slightly open, allowing the mistletoe to float inside where she could catch it.

Turning the remote control off and slipping it inside the bag with the mistletoe, Clint waited until Natasha had scooted far enough back that he could turn around to retreat. They then began the crawl back to the original vent on the ground floor where they’d entered. Thankfully their uniforms were skintight and slippery enough that it was easy enough to slide through the confined space.

They’d just dropped down a small chute and were rounding a corner when Clint felt something bump into his butt. Startled, he almost hit his head on the top of the vent, grazing it instead when he jerked forward, bumping against Natasha’s very fine ass. Then something nailed him in the chest – Natasha’s boot.

Gasping in pain, he noted gratefully that his ribs weren’t broken. It was a warning shot; Natasha was more than capable of breaking his ribs without breaking a sweat. “Something hit me!” The “other than you” went unspoken.

Natasha didn’t question him, flipping around to see what he was talking about. There was a small electrical sizzle as her bracelets fired, and something clattered to the floor of the chute.

Still wheezing slightly, Clint craned his neck to find what looked like a small metal robot. “Does Tony keep robots in the ventilation system?”

Natasha’s reply was crisp. “No.”


It was wet. That was the first thing Steve noticed. The second was that it was warm. The third was that Tony’s beard was scratching his skin.

Then came the thought – which probably should have come first – that oh, wow, he was kissing Tony Stark, his best friend. He was kissing Tony and not doing anything about it because he was paralyzed by shock and confusion.

That was all Steve managed to register before Tony pulled apart from him with a soft gasp, cheeks slightly flushed. There was a brief flash of emotion in his brown eyes that might have been panic before it vanished, and the public persona Tony Stark was standing before him, smiling suavely.

Between one breath and the next, Tony turned to move through the crowd that had watched their kiss. Unthinkingly, Steve followed. It would seem strange if he just stood there gaping while his supposed partner left him.

They ended up standing in the cold air on the balcony, Steve hovering uncertainly by the doors.

Tony spent a long moment just staring out over New York before he gave a large sigh and turned around, smiling. “Sorry about that back there, but mistletoe…” He waved a hand. “You know how it is.”

Steve walked forward to stand by Tony, blinking as the cold wind brought tears to his eyes. “It’s fine. I was just surprised.”

“Surprised” was putting it mildly considering he’d been absolutely stunned throughout the whole kiss. It could not have been pleasant for Tony. Then again, Steve really hadn’t done much since waking up in the twenty-first century. Romantically, that is. Tony’s kiss was the deepest and the wettest he’d ever had; Peggy’s had been chaste in comparison.

“—the specs to them,” Tony was saying, catching Steve’s attention.

“Er, what?” He realized he’d just missed most of what Tony had been saying.

Tony sighed. “You didn’t hear a word I said, did you?”

Steve shrugged sheepishly. “Sorry.”

“No, don’t be.” Tony clapped his hands together before swinging them to his sides and turning back to the view. He looked uncomfortable and nervous, two things Steve was not familiar with seeing on Tony.

After several breaths, Steve was about to say something else when Tony was speaking again. “We don’t have to do this, you know. It’s awfully awkward, isn’t it? I don’t like awkwardness, and I don’t think you do either. So we should call it off before it gets too ridiculous. I’ll just tell Pepper there’s no way this’ll work, and she can start doing damage control—”

Tony!” Steve’s voice was like whiplash, shutting Tony up immediately. “You’re rambling; you don’t have to.”

Tony took a breath, fingers locked together and thumbs twiddling. “I’m not.”

Steve smiled gently. “Not anymore. Don’t worry about it so much.”

“You’re not worried this is going to ruin…this?” Tony gestured between the two of them.

Steve very kindly ignored Tony’s choice of words. “No, I’m not. We can deal with this.”

Tony stared at him for a long moment, eyes filled with an unreadable emotion. His mouth twisted slightly as he looked away to the side. “You’re unbelievable,” he finally said, glancing askance at Steve.

Steve frowned, taken aback. “What?”

“It’s just really unbelievable.” Tony gave a low laugh, a helpless little sound. “I guess that’s what cinched it for me.” He smiled, teeth glinting in the light.

The odd choice of words made Steve pause, slightly confused. “Cinched what for you?”

Tony didn’t hesitate, but somehow Steve could tell there was a split-second’s indecision. “Our friendship. It cinched our friendship, which I didn’t really expect to be honest.”

If Steve had been any other person, he would have let it go. But he wasn’t. He knew Tony well enough to know that it hadn’t been friendship he was talking about. And if it wasn’t friendship, it was something else that made him nervous enough that he felt he had to cover it up.

“You’re not being honest,” he stated, moving to fold his arms and reconsidering when he felt the tight seams of his suit jacket. They’d probably rip if he tried.

Tony glanced at him and froze, eyes widening. “You should move.”

“Don’t deflect!” Steve looked at him disapprovingly.

“No, really, you should move.” Tony slid slightly to the side, freezing again just as he moved.

Steve sighed, moving to place his fists on his hips. Sometimes with Tony, a firm posture was better than a serious one. “Is there a reporter behind me? If there is, just warn me—” He broke off as he heard a small screech that he recognized from various encounters. A breath later, he said, “There’s a Doombot behind me.”

Tony nodded slowly and carefully, eyes fixed on a spot over Steve’s shoulder.

“Is it doing anything?” Steve slowly moved his hands from his hips. He didn’t have his shield, but he wasn’t helpless. Tony was a different question. Steve shot him a questioning look.

“Don’t have my suits here anymore,” Tony said quietly, interpreting the look correctly. “But I already sent the signal. It should be here soon.” He lifted his wrist, flashing the homing bracelet.


“A minute maybe? Depends on wind speed.” Tony visibly relaxed, moving a hand up to his pocket to extract a pen.

“A minute?” Someone could die in a minute! Steve was horribly aware of how high they were at that moment.

“Relax. I’m not defenseless.” Tony unscrewed something on the pen, eyes still on the Doombot behind Steve.

“Because a pen is so useful.”

“I made this pen!” Tony waved it once, showing it was red and gold in color. He slipped his hand into his pant pockets, pulling out a pair of black sunglasses.”You should duck.”

Was he mad? Considering the sunglasses he was now sporting even though it was nighttime, Steve thought so. Besides, Steve was the only thing standing between him and almost certain death! “I’m not ducking.”

“No, really,” Tony said calmly, pointing the pen, which seemed to be glowing blue, in his direction. “I’ve got it handled.”

“You have a pen.”

Despite Steve’s misgivings about Tony’s possible sanity, he did throw himself to the ground when Tony barked out the order, hearing a high-pitched whirring sound that signaled repulsor fire. That was all the warning he had before a ball of energy shot over his head, hitting the Doombot with a small concussive explosion that hurt Steve’s ears.

When the light had disappeared, he looked back to see the Doombot reduced to a heap of scrap metal. That was the last time he’d make fun of anything Tony made.

Looking back to where Tony had been, panic seized his chest when he realized no one was there. It took a second for him to register that the kickback from the pen had probably knocked Tony over the railing. Without his suit.

Tony!” Steve scrambled to his feet, rushing to the railing to look over, hoping Tony would somehow be there. His heart plummeted when he was met with nothing other than the lights of New York. “Shit!” He whirled around, running both hands through his hair.


With a jolt, Steve looked up to see Clint and Natasha, both fully ready for fighting – except that Clint had no bow and arrows. He forced himself to calm down, not that it helped much considering how frantically his heart was still beating and the nasty taste of despair in his mouth.

“What happened?” Clint asked when Steve didn’t say anything. “There was an explosion out here.”

“Tony…” Steve swallowed, pushing past the memories of snow, the wind whistling in his ears, and the chugging of a train. “He fell over. There was a Doombot”—both S.H.I.E.L.D. assassins looked at the pile of scrap metal—“and he destroyed it with a pen.”

If it had been any other situation, Steve would have found their dumbstruck expressions absolutely hilarious. As it was, he could feel only a rising sort of hysteria that could not bode well for his state of mind.

“A pen,” Clint repeated blankly.

Natasha recovered more quickly, having had more exposure to Tony’s brand of craziness. “Did he make it?”

“Yes.” Steve shot a glance over his shoulder, fighting to keep his breathing even. He should get to his shield, see if there were more Doombots. He took several more panicked gasps. “Oh God…”

“It’s Tony,” Clint said soothingly, his face giving nothing away as to how he was feeling. “He’ll be fine; he’s had worse.”

“Worse than being knocked over the edge of a skyscraper?” Steve sounded slightly hysterical.

“He’ll be fine,” Natasha repeated crisply. “If the Ten Rings couldn’t kill him, I doubt a Doombot will.”

“His own stupidity on the other hand,” Clint muttered.

Natasha poked Clint in the side when Steve blanched at the statement. As Clint rubbed his side in pain, she studied Steve closely. “Are you all right?”

No, he wasn’t all right. His best friend had just fallen to his death, and Steve hadn’t been able to do a thing about it. Natasha and Clint were trying to be reassuring, but Steve knew the likelihood of someone surviving a fall like that.

Just as he was about to say he was fine, a familiar high-pitched sound came from behind, and something blasted past him, ruffling his hair and clothes. Spinning around, Steve couldn’t stop a small “Thank God” from escaping his lips as he saw the familiar figure of Iron Man come to a stop in the air and drift down to hover on their level just beyond the edge of the balcony.

“So, I’m alive,” Iron Man said. “It was great timing in the end, though I thought for sure I’d go splat.”

Steve flinched at the reminder that Tony had almost died. Again. “You’re all right?” Surprisingly, his voice came out even.

“Fine. The pen had a bit more of a kick than I expected and blew up after it fired. I was a bit more concerned about the free falling, though.”

The pen blew up? “Put up your faceplate.”

There was a mechanical sigh. “We don’t have time for this; there are Doombots—”

Tony deflecting only meant injuries. “Put it up!”

There was a second of silence before the plate slid back, revealing a bloody face.

“Jesus Christ!” Clint swore.

“You’re so sweet,” Tony said, landing with a clank on the floor of the balcony. He didn’t seem to find it at all odd that his entire face had been burned by the unexpectedly exploding pen, while Steve was too horrified to even comment. “Natasha, do you have a napkin or something? I’m having trouble seeing.”

Natasha sighed in exasperation, but somehow managed to procure a cloth handkerchief and handed it to Tony, who wiped his face.

“Tony!” Steve cried, unable to believe Tony’s disregard of his skin.

“What?” The now red cloth dropped to reveal Tony’s intact face, marred only by several deep cuts on his cheeks and an ugly gash above his right eyebrow. “It looks worse than it is. Head wounds always bleed badly.” On cue, the one above his eyebrow began bleeding into his eye, which Tony rubbed away with the soaked handkerchief.

“That’s going to need stitches,” Clint observed.

“I’ll have Bruce look it over,” Tony said in a tone that signified he wasn’t going to do that at all. Steve made a mental note to force him to do so when Tony added, “But seriously, Doombots down in the streets of New York. We have to deal with that.”

“And then we’re talking,” Natasha demanded.

“Yes, fine.” The faceplate slid down. “I’m giving Richards a call, since Doom is technically his field. Aaaannnd…I’ve got the Human Torch saying they’re in Latveria taking on Doom and that sparkly vampire bunnies might be involved. We’re on our own.”

Tony dropped the bloody handkerchief to the ground, turning to them. “Now I see Clint doesn’t have his arsenal, Steve is shield-less, and Bruce and Thor are on their way. Natasha, you’re with me.”

It took Steve several seconds before he realized Tony was giving orders. Then he just let it be considering he really was unarmed, Tony was his second-in-command, and he had the most knowledge about what was happening.

“Steve, you and Clint can take care of the party; make sure everyone’s safe,” Tony continued, wrapping an arm around Natasha as she adopted the hold he and Steve had invented and the media had so fondly named the “hug-and-hold.” “Toodles!”

Then with a whine of repulsors, he was gone, Natasha in tow. There was a rumble of thunder that signaled Thor’s arrival, meaning Bruce – and Hulk – weren’t far behind.

“Geez,” Clint breathed, shaking his head. “What a guy.”

Taking several breaths to calm down and shift into the tactical mentality of Captain America, Steve turned to Clint. “You heard him, Hawkeye. Let’s take care of this.”

Clint’s demeanor instantly changed. “Right, Cap.” He gave a brisk nod and disappeared into the light of the ballroom.

Steve followed shortly after him. Tony was fine, if slightly cut up. He needed to do his job; then he could worry about what had just happened.

When Thor arrived at the mansion after destroying the last of the Doombots, he had Natasha with him. They headed directly to Anthony’s workshop, as Natasha continued to mutter about “self-destructive geniuses who don’t know their own worth” under her breath. Thor was slightly confused at this, as Anthony had done nothing out of the ordinary during the fight. This included grand sacrificial gestures that always made Steven pale and the lady Pepper give Anthony a verbal lashing.

They entered the workshop to see Bruce attending to clean several bloody wounds on Anthony’s face, particularly a grievous wound above his eyebrow that was still bleeding rather sluggishly.

“This is why you should be more careful,” Bruce was informing Anthony. “Especially when it comes to your face; you’re lucky you didn’t injure your eyes.”

“Will it stop bleeding?” Steven asked anxiously, hovering near them but seeming rather uncertain of his reception for some peculiar reason. His penguin suit was ruffled, the jacket lying over a table and the shirt sleeves rolled up halfway.

“He doesn’t have hemophilia if that’s what you’re worried about,” Bruce said, glancing up at Steven while dabbing a white fluff ball at Anthony’s cut, making the other man flinch. “It’s just slow to clot because this is a deep cut. And not taking adequate measures to prevent these things from happening doesn’t help.”

“I take precautions,” Anthony protested, ineffectively batting Bruce’s hand away. He stopped when Steven sent him a disapproving look that reminded Thor of Odin.

“Of course you do,” Bruce said wryly, reaching into his white medical box to pull out what looked like a needle and thread. “Stay still; that’s going to need stitches.”

Anthony sighed, a longsuffering sound that eerily reminded Thor of Loki, but remained motionless to let Bruce do his work.

“Okay, so Pepper has everything under control,” Clinton announced as he entered the room, setting his weapons down by his feet. “She also said that she doesn’t want to know what happened, but to please keep all explosions at a minimum because there’s only so much she can do to explain why there’s a smoldering heap of scrap metal on the balcony.”

“There’s a very simple explanation for that,” Anthony said, not moving at all as he spoke. “I’m Iron Man.”

“Does being Iron Man excuse you from testing your products beforehand to make sure they don’t explode in your face and send you flying over a balcony?” Natasha asked acidly.

Steven winced slightly at that, but said nothing. He was then poked in the side by Dummy, who was holding a very greasy rag. Steven took it after a moment, nodding politely, and Dummy went away, giving Thor a wide berth.

“I tested it!”

“If I may, sir,” the all-knowing JARVIS said, “the pen did not finish going through all safety protocols before you decided it was fit to use.”

“Run before walking, JARVIS,” Anthony said, making a face as Bruce put the last stitch in. “Besides,” he addressed Natasha, “I’ve had worse.”

“Worse than almost falling to your death?” Steven asked in a pinched voice.

“That was an unexpected hiccup,” Anthony admitted, ignoring Clinton’s scandalized “Hiccup?” with long practiced ease. “I didn’t expect such a strong recoil.”

“But you expected the explosion,” Steven accused. “That’s why you had the sunglasses.”

“There was a high probability that it’d explode when I used it,” Anthony conceded. “When I made it, I decided to go for more power. There was a ninety percent chance it would blow up after I used it. I just miscalculated the kick it had.”

“You don’t miscalculate,” Bruce said patiently.

“Everyone makes mistakes,” Anthony said, raising his eyebrows at Bruce. “Need I remind you about Pepper?”

“You told me that you did that on purpose, for fun. Your point is invalid because you don’t make mathematical mistakes.”

“Just like you don’t make biological mistakes?” Anthony’s eyes met Bruce’s without wavering.

“Math and biology are two completely different subjects,” Bruce said rather tersely with the sort of passive calm that Thor recognized on the mighty Hulk’s face typically before he decided to take Thor on in a fight…or punch him across the room with no warning. “There’s still a lot we don’t know about biology and a lot that can go wrong. Math is stable in comparison; you always get the same results.”

“So Tony just blew himself up with a pen for laughs?” Clinton asked, leaning back against the wall.

“Note – free falling through the air isn’t fun,” Anthony said acerbically.

“But you expected it might happen,” Steven said, sounding unhappy.

There was a short pause. Then Anthony slowly admitted, “It was a possibility. Still, I had to take the chance. It was gearing up to chop off your head, and that wouldn’t have been pretty for anyone.”

Paling, Steven opened his mouth, only to say nothing when Dummy distracted him again with what appeared to be a glass of green goop that Thor did not find delicious-looking at all. After a moment of hesitation, Steven took the glass, unsure of what to do with it.

While this was happening, Natasha said tensely, “There had to have been something else you could do other than take a header off your own tower to your certain death.”

Almost certain death,” Anthony corrected quickly, pushing Bruce’s hand away as he moved to clean the cuts on his cheeks. “The suit was coming, and I calculated there would probably be enough time before I hit the ground.”

“Did you really?” Bruce murmured, giving Anthony a warning look that made him hold still so the cuts could be tended to.

“Genius here,” Anthony said, wincing slightly as Bruce dabbed a little more viciously than normal at a cut.

In the meantime, Steven was again accosted by Dummy, who gave him what looked like a wrench. Looking utterly perplexed, Steven took this as well, now holding a dirty rag, a glass of green goop, and a wrench. That done, Dummy began pushing Steven toward Anthony, arm bobbing up and down as he did so.

“Wha – Dummy, stop!” Voice hushed so as not to distract the others, Steven did not seem to want to push back for fear of hurting the small bot, something Thor could empathize with considering his own considerable strength.

Dummy refused to listen, still pushing Steven forward. He seemed to want to get Steven to do something, though Thor did not know what. It was not until he remembered seeing Anthony walk around with a similar glass of green goop that he realized that perhaps Dummy was joining in on their matchmaking endeavor.

Thor did not know how the venture with the mistletoe had gone, but as Steven and Anthony were still no closer than they had been before, perhaps it had not occurred at all. Yet no…Anthony was refusing to meet Steven’s eyes, and Steven was beginning to blush as he found himself herded towards the man of his affections.

Not for the last time, Thor wondered just why mortals had to make emotions so difficult. Surely it was no great trial to inform someone that you greatly admired them and wished to take the relationship to a deeper level?

Then again, the multitude of movies devoted to mortals and their emotions would suggest otherwise. The fact that Thor was now embroiled in a plot to bring Steven and Anthony together further supported the notion that while mortals and their emotions were deeply complicated, perhaps there was a reason for it.

In any case, this was most likely a question he should pose to Jane. He would see her in a few days for the Christmas holiday, something he greatly looked forward to.

In the meantime, Dummy had given up on prodding Steven towards Anthony and was now pulling him along by the shirttail. This was much more effective as Steven abhorred tearing anything as expensive as the penguin outfit he was currently wearing.

“Ah…” Steven said nothing as the others in the room watched him being tugged across the floor to Anthony.

When Dummy had finally pulled Steven to a stop before Anthony, the bot poked at the hand holding the goopy glass and then at the wrench before clicking in satisfaction and whirring back to his post, where Butterfingers and You huddled together in what seemed to be eager anticipation.

Bruce had stopped prodding at Anthony’s facial wounds to sit back and observe. Anthony had the “deer-in-the-headlights” look that Clinton always found amusing.

“I suppose this is for you?” Steven asked finally, holding the goop and wrench out to Anthony.

Anthony shot Dummy a glare over his shoulder, hesitantly reaching out to take the glass. “Probably.”

Then before Steven could do anything else, Dummy whooshed back, snagged the rag, dropped it on Anthony’s head, and retreated once again to his brothers before anyone could react.

There was a stunned silence for a long moment until Anthony slowly reached up, taking the greasy, oily rag off his head and holding it, eyes unreadable. “Great, thanks, Dummy.”

“You going to drink that?” Clinton asked, nodding at the glass.

“God, no.” Anthony shot Dummy another look. “I think I saw him put some dishwasher fluid in this.”

“The rag’s too dirty to actually clean anything with,” Bruce pointed out dryly, plucking the rag from Anthony’s fingers and dropping it on the floor to deal with the burns Anthony had most likely received on his hands from holding the exploding pen.

“Careful,” Anthony warned, his hand giving a spasm before stilling to let Bruce apply some sort of salve.

“This wouldn’t even be a problem if you’d tested your product before using it.”

“If I’d waited to test it, we’d be short a Capsicle.”

“And we were almost down a genius billionaire,” Clinton replied, eliciting another flinch from Steven. “You got reeeaaally lucky there, Tony.”

“It wasn’t luck, it was math.”

“It’s not acceptable,” Steven finally spoke up. “There had to have been another way, Tony. I could’ve gotten out of the way—”

“It had a claw around you,” Anthony said sharply. “Where would you have gone? Forward? There was a gun ready to fire. Down? It would have stomped on you. I ran through all possible permutations and came up with the best possible solution. There was an eighty percent chance—”


“—that it’d work out fine considering wind speed and the path the suit was taking. Compared to the twenty-three percent chance of you managing to get out of that alive without me doing anything, I’d say the trade off was worth it,” Anthony finished firmly, not looking away from Steven.

Natasha glanced askance at Steven. “As much as I hate saying this, I have to side with Tony on this, Steve. But,” she added, glaring at Anthony, “you’re not going to go blowing yourself up with pens anymore.”

“I’ve had worse,” Anthony said dismissively, taking his hand back from Bruce once he was done, experimentally clenching it. “I know what I’m doing.”

There was a small mechanical cough from JARVIS and then silence. Thor thought it particularly eloquent.

Anthony glared upward. “What was that for?”

“Nothing, sir. I simply wished to point out your testing of the Mark II and subsequent results.”

“We don’t want to know, do we?” Natasha asked rhetorically.

“There were some slight miscalculations,” Anthony conceded, not looking abashed in the least, “but it all worked out.”

“The icing problem was an especially enjoyable experience, sir.”

“You were out for most of that, so don’t give me that.”

“I really don’t want to know,” Bruce declared, sighing. He stood up, gathering up his medical supplies.

“I kind of do,” Clinton said, ignoring the warning look Natasha shot his way. “What kind of icing problem? Does it involve cakes?”

Thor thought it a strange idea to combine sugary icing with Anthony’s Iron Man armor. What would be the purpose? It was far more likely that Anthony had accidentally frozen the armor while out flying or experimenting. If that was the case, then it was no wonder that he had done worse to himself.

“You froze yourself,” Thor stated simply, getting everyone’s attention. “I see no purpose in icing yourself decoratively, therefore you must have frozen yourself. What would be the purpose of such an experiment?”

“I wanted to see how high the suit could go,” Anthony said, shrugging lightly. “It was the first time I took it out for a spin, so I was kind of eager. In retrospect, I should have listened to JARVIS.”

“I have that on record, sir, for future reference,” JARVIS promptly said.


As Clinton would say, Steven seemed slightly pasty and would probably prefer the aid of a toilet. Perhaps he needed some alone time?

Natasha and Bruce also seemed to notice the state of the Captain and backed away from Anthony and Steven.

“Don’t stay up,” Bruce told Anthony, clicking his small medical box shut. “I’ll know.”

“Talk,” Natasha ordered the two of them, grabbing Clinton by the shirt and pulling him out before he could retrieve his weapons.

“I wish you two the best of luck,” Thor informed a shifty looking Anthony and a still sick looking Steven. “And much fertility.”

There was a small choking sound from behind him as he left the workshop, picking up Clinton’s weapon as he did.

Mortals were so peculiar about their feelings. Perhaps his suggestion would help.

Oh wow, Steve had an adorable blush. Tony could happily spend the rest of his life thinking up ways to make him blush. But as his mind went down that path, Tony very determinedly derailed the thought because that way lay madness. He was already gone for Steve, but that didn’t mean he had to make it harder for himself.

…Oh, who was he kidding here? Because it wasn’t working.

“Tony,” Steve started, still blushing from Thor’s last comment, “we need to talk.”

Nononononooo… Those words never bode well, inside or outside a romantic relationship. And Tonyknew this would be nasty.

“Is this about the mistletoe?” he asked hastily. “Because that wasn’t my idea. I didn’t even know about it, but I will get on the job because that was not cool—”

“It’s not about the mistletoe,” Steve interrupted. “That…that’s not what I wanted to talk about. Though we should. Soon. About that.” He cleared his throat.

“Oh.” Tony paused, fidgeting. He wished he had the wrench Steve was still holding onto. “Then what?” he prompted, needing this to be over with. His quota for torturing himself by being in Steve’s presence was already maxed out for the next couple days, though he’d soon be back for more, masochist that he was.

“About what you said earlier, before the Doombot showed up.” Steve’s ears were slightly red, but he wasn’t looking away. “What was cinched for you? Because it wasn’t friendship you were talking about, so don’t give me that garbage.”

Oh shhhiiiit… Tony totally hadn’t meant to make that remark. It had just slipped out courtesy of his still rather addled state thanks to kissing Steve. It hadn’t even been a particularly nice kiss as it had been completely one-sided, but it was a sign of how far gone Tony was that even a bad kiss seemed like the best thing ever. (Seriously, he’d had better in high school, and everyone was an amateur then.) So what should he do? He could tell Steve and potentially risk losing his friendship forever, or at least until his heart got the message that it wasn’t okay to love him. (That was a lost cause already, so Tony wasn’t holding his breath on his heart suddenly changing its mind.) Or he could lie.

“You don’t get it, do you, Steve?” Smiling helplessly, Tony gestured with the hand still holding the toxic goop Dummy had made. “It’s just… I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be friends with someone who’d known Howard.” Steve flinched at that so Tony hurried to add, “But that was before. This is now, and I can tell you that after spending a lot of time with you, you’re worth it. This friendship means a lot to me, and I don’t want to do anything that could mess it up.” Like blurt his feelings out.

Steve made a sound that sounded like a muffled laugh. “Tony, if you haven’t scared me off by now, it’s not going to happen. I live with you twenty-four/seven; I know how you are.”

Point… But it still stood that Steve had only known him for months compared to Pepper’s and Rhodey’s years. There was no way he knew all the quirks and faults Tony had that would scare him off.

“You’ve only been getting small doses of me,” Tony said instead.

This time Steve blatantly rolled his eyes. “Right.” The word dripped with sarcasm. “Look, I’m not going to try and persuade you when you’re so clearly under a delusion—”


“—but my point still stands that you weren’t talking about friendship. And don’t lie.”

“It was—” Tony began.

“Lie,” Steve said bluntly.

“I didn’t even finish!”

“Doesn’t matter. You were going to lie.” Steve raised an eyebrow. “The truth now?”

Tony stared at him disbelievingly for a long moment. Either Steve had just guessed that Tony was going to lie or he actually knew it from reading some other tell. He would have to have JARVIS show him the video since he couldn’t have himself broadcasting tells all over the place.

“And now you’re over thinking it,” Steve said, straightening with a vaguely disapproving look on his face. “Look, Tony, you’re my best friend; you can’t hide much from me.”

First point, best friend. Tony didn’t want to be just best friends with him. He wanted more, so much more. And there was no way of getting it without destroying their friendship because Steve didn’t feel the same way.

Second point, Rhodey was also his best friend, and Tony was fully capable of getting away with pulling bullshit on him. Either that, or Rhodey let him, but Tony thought it was because he did actually fool him. Pepper was slightly harder to fool, but she still thought that it was an accident that he’d made that miscalculation that got her the PA job. There was no way he’d tell her otherwise because she’d just think he was trying to save face or seem like even more of an asshole years after the fact.

“Are you sure about that?” Tony asked finally, wearily. “Because I’m good at keeping secrets. From you, the world, and sometimes even myself. But…not in this case.” He shrugged helplessly. “Everyone knows, except for you. You haven’t even noticed.”

Steve was frowning slightly in confusion. “Noticed what?”

Tony…Tony was just done. He couldn’t lie to Steve anymore, and he couldn’t rely on his friends to get him out of this because they’d put him in this position to begin with.

“Let me start by saying that I didn’t know about the mistletoe,” Tony said tiredly, resisting the urge to slump forward (weakness wasn’t something he could afford here). “That was my design, but I didn’t know about it being used. And the thing with Pepper and the press…I didn’t ask her to do that either.”

“I know you didn’t,” Steve said.

“Let me finish,” Tony pleaded. When Steve subsided, he took a breath, continuing, “But the tabloids in this case were being truthful – big shock, I know. There was something going on, from my end anyway. I didn’t want to tell you earlier because that it would mean losing this.” He gestured between the two of them. “And I didn’t – don’t want to lose this.”

Steve’s expression was unreadable. “What are you saying?”

Tony let out a short breathless laugh. “I want more, Steve. I… Friendship isn’t enough; it’s more than I expected, but it’s not enough. I like you, Steve.”

“So do I.”

Tony barely stopped himself from breaking out into hysterical laughter. “You still don’t get it. I like you as more than a friend.” Just say it, Stark. “What I want to say is…” Oh God, he felt like throwing up. “…I love you.”

There was what sounded like a small triumphant cheer from behind him, even though his bots didn’t have the vocal capability to do so. (And if even his bots thought he was being ridiculously obvious, there was really no hope for him.)

Steve didn’t seem to notice. His eyes were riveted on Tony, not that that made him feel any better. Neither did the completely unreadable expression on his face, which might have been shock, disgust, dismay, confusion, or any combination. The fact that Tony couldn’t tell scared the shit out of him, because he needed to know.

When several more seconds passed with no visible reaction from Steve, Tony slowly stood up, heart heavy with disappointment and stomach churning with fear.

“Well, that’s that,” he said quietly, offering a weak smile to a still speechless Steve. “So…Merry Christmas, Steve.”

He left the workshop (he wasn’t fleeing, even if he ducked out of sight before Steve could say anything) and headed straight to his room. Through sheer luck, he managed to avoid running into anyone on the way there.

Throwing himself face first on the bed, Tony spent several moments just lying there. Then he turned his face, looking at the glowing clock on his nightstand, showing clearly that it was three in the morning on December 24th.

“Merry Christmas to me,” Tony hummed lowly, his throat slightly clogged.

“Sir?” JARVIS asked tentatively.

Sighing, Tony turned onto his side. “It’s all right, JARVIS. Merry Christmas.”

“…Merry Christmas, sir.”

All day on Christmas Eve, Tony did his level best to avoid Steve as much as possible. That meant holing himself up in his workshop and telling JARVIS not to let anyone in unless it was an emergency. Thankfully, for once JARVIS did as he was told (or no one came down to bug him, and Tony didn’t want to think about what that meant).

He remained there until Clint came down, banging on the door and informing him that unless he came up for Christmas Eve and the traditional opening of one present, he would not be held responsible for his actions. And Bruce would unleash Hulk, although Tony thought that was a bluff because Bruce wouldn’t do that and Hulk wouldn’t break into the workshop because he loved Tony.

In any case, Tony didn’t leave immediately, taking his time to shut down his projects before he slunk upstairs in jeans and a stained shirt. Even when he joined the others, he remained in the back, not wanting to see Steve even though he really, really wanted to at the same time. (What? No one said feelings had to be logical!)

It was a few minutes before everyone began picking out presents. Tony really hoped that Steve wouldn’t end up picking his present, because that would mean interacting with him. Luckily, Thor was the first to pick a present.

His gift was from Clint, which turned out to be a box of the Pop-Tarts the god loved. Natasha went next, and her gift was the one Tony had collaborated on with Bruce. No expression showed on her face, but her lips quirked in that way that showed she was pleased. Clint ended up picking a gift from Steve, which was a small portrait of Hawkeye about to release an arrow into the head of a Doombot. Bruce’s gift was from Tony, turning out to be an old style chemical experiment kit that made his eyes light up.

When it was his turn, Tony examined all the packages and picked the one least likely to be from Steve. Opening it, he saw a Physics for Dummies book with a note on the inside that Clint expected this back on his own birthday with corrections included. Although he informed Clint that this wasn’t much of a present, he was at least thankful that it hadn’t been from Steve. That would have meant interacting with him beyond avoiding his eyes and hovering out of sight, which would have been more than Tony could stand.

Thankfully for Tony, Steve’s chosen gift was from Natasha. It was a pair of tickets to some sort of opera that Natasha and Steve apparently wanted to see. It absolutely did not send a surge of jealousy through Tony. He’d blown that chance by confessing to Steve.

After opening their one present each, they spent an hour or two milling around and drinking eggnog and hot chocolate, although Tony spent most of that time in a corner with a tablet, ignoring the looks sent his way by the others. Bruce did stop by his corner to check on his cuts and burns, but said nothing, simply offering a comforting and understanding silence.

So, engrossed as he was in his work, Tony didn’t notice that the living room had cleared out until some soft music began playing, pulling him out of engine schematics for the Helicarrier and back into the world. Blinking, he looked up, only to see Steve standing uncertainly in the middle of the room, beautifully illuminated by the lights of the Christmas tree.

“Steve?” he asked uncertainly.

“Tony.” Steve shifted in what seemed to be nervousness. “I thought…maybe we could dance?”

The suggestion had Tony on guard for several reasons. One, Steve had been rather adamant against dancing at the gala, even when it would have been a good idea. Two, they had kissed under duress that same night. Three, he’d just confessed to Steve and had been turned down via silence.

“Why?” The question was wary.

“Just…please.” Steve’s voice was pleading and soft, and Tony found that he couldn’t deny him this. (He really was a goner for this man.)

Sighing quietly, Tony shut his tablet off, slowly moving to where Steve stood.

There was a short moment of indecision where Tony wasn’t sure as to whether he should lead or Steve.

“I’ve never danced before,” Steve murmured, blushing slightly.

Well, that settled it. Tony positioned their hands and took the lead, starting off slow like the song, which he didn’t recognize.

When Steve began getting the hang of it without stepping once on Tony’s toes (which was an accomplishment, though Tony kept his senses honed for any mishaps; he did value his feet after all), Tony found he didn’t have to pay as much attention to the dance. That left him free to pay attention to important things like how warm Steve was. And how he had a small furrow between his eyebrows that signaled he was concentrating.

“Eight o’clock at the Stork Club,” Steve said suddenly, breaking the mood.

Tony blinked at him, disconcerted. “What?”

“Before I went down,” Steve said slowly, quietly, “I had a date. She promised to teach me how to dance. And…I’ve held onto that. It’s why I didn’t want to before.”

That made quite a bit of sense. What had changed his mind?

“And now?” Tony prompted just as quietly.

Steve sighed, the sound hushed. “You didn’t ask who I liked when I asked if you were gay.”

Nonplussed and with a sense of impending doom, Tony slowly said, “Are you gay?”

Steve chuckled lowly. “It wasn’t something I ever really thought about before, since when I grew up, it was assumed you were straight. And a few months ago, I would’ve said I am.”

Tony couldn’t stop the small blossom of hope that sprouted in his chest. “And now?”

“I think it’s not that clear cut,” Steve said. “I’m not straight, and I’m not gay. I don’t think it matters. What does matter is the person. And, well…I always wanted my first dance to be with someone special.” His sincere blue eyes met Tony’s. “You ran out before I could say anything,” he added disapprovingly.

Instead of ducking his head the way he wanted to, Tony stuck his chin out. “I didn’t think you were going to. I thought I’d better cut my losses while I could.”

“I…” Steve slowed to a stop, forcing Tony to stop as well. “I don’t know what I would have said,” he finally admitted. “You kind of sprung it on me, and I didn’t expect it. I honestly thought we were just friends.”

“I know,” Tony said unhappily.

“But JARVIS showed me some stuff, and I realized what Clint was trying to say. Then…the kiss.” Steve’s tongue wet his lips; Tony found himself staring at them longer than he should have.

“What I’m trying to say is…” Steve took a breath, a steely determination covering his face. “I’m half in love with you already.”

Tony’s heart beat painfully in his chest with mingled hope and disappointment. He swallowed and joked, weakly, “Only half?”

Steve smiled, the movement transforming his face into something incredibly beautiful. “For now,” he teased softly.

“So what? It’ll get less?”

“No.” Steve tipped his head down to press his lips against Tony’s, lingering for a long moment.

He was about to pull away when Tony slid a hand up to his neck and pulled him back, pushing their mouths together and deepening the kiss. There was a messy tangle of tongues and heat, and it was so much better than the one-sided kiss at the gala that Tony felt dizzy.

When they finally pulled apart, flushed and breathing heavily, Steve’s eyes were alight with something akin to joy (and love maybe? Tony didn’t dare to hope).

“I love you,” Steve breathed softly, nudging Tony’s nose with his own.

“I…” Tony sounded dazed even to his own ears.

Steve silenced him with another kiss. “Merry Christmas, Tony.”

And, yes, Tony thought it was indeed a very merry Christmas.