Up to his eyeballs – literally – in the latest rendition of the suit's guidance system, Tony barely acknowledged the interruption. He just grunted a little, and kept twisting two little wires together.
"Sir, you requested that I remind you when February 14th was one week away," JARVIS said.
Tony's hands stilled. "I did?"
"It is now midnight, which means there are exactly seven days until February 14th," JARVIS said.
For a little bit he just sat there, head buried in the suit, trying to fathom why he would have made such a request. There had to be a reason. Some importance attached to that date.
"Valentine's Day," JARVIS said, a touch too smugly, "is one week away."
Tony sat bolt upright, smacking his forehead on the edge of the suit. "Crap!"
"Pepper. Pepper. Pepper, would you just listen to me?! I am not freaking out. Honest, I'm not. I'm just… I've never done this before."
"I'm aware," Pepper said. Even three thousand miles away and over a phone line, there was no disguising the slightly acidic edge to her tone, reminding Tony that not only had he forgotten Valentine's Day when he was with her, but slightly more important days like her birthday.
"I just…" He stared morosely at the New York skyline. "I've never felt like this before."
"Tony, I'm not the one you should be telling this to." She hesitated. "Does Steve even know how you feel?"
"Sure," he said. "Of course he does. Maybe? Kind of?"
"Tony." Now she sounded reproving.
"Well, what am I supposed to say?" he shot back. "'I love you' sounds so…weird, coming from me. Even you have to admit that. And what if I just freak him out and scare him away? You know, I have no idea if he feels the same way. Could be that I'm reading way too much into this, in which case saying something would be the worst thing I could do. Did you ever stop to think of that?"
"Clearly you have," Pepper sighed.
"And let's be honest," Tony said, on a roll now and unable to stop. "I'm hardly the poster child for loving relationships. How do I even know this is love? Maybe I'm just having a crush. And lust. Lots of lust. And even if it is love, how do I know it's gonna last? There is no fairy tale here, Pepper. Life isn't like the movies. Any day one of us could get smushed like a bug by that very stupid but very persistent wrecking ball. So what I'm saying is—"
"That's all the more reason to tell him," Pepper said, smoothly cutting in. She took a deep breath. "Look, as much as I would love to listen to your panicked babbling all day, I can't. I have a meeting that I'm already late for."
Tony bowed his head and pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. "Okay. Yeah. Have a fun meeting and all that."
"We can pick this up again later if you really want. I'll be there in a couple days anyway," Pepper said. He could hear the wince in her voice, though, and he knew that was actually the last thing she wanted.
"No, it's all good," he said. "It's all…good."
He put the phone down and sighed. "Yeah. We're real good."
"I just don't know what I should do."
Clint shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "Look, Cap, as much as I appreciate that I'm the one you chose to confide in, I'm really not sure I'm the best person to be having this conversation with."
Steve ignored him. He was pacing, unable to sit still. "I don't even know if he feels the same way. Isn't that strange? Shouldn't I know?"
"Um," Clint said.
"But then, I'm no better," he admitted. He stopped pacing and stared blankly out the window. He had a great view of the city from here in his studio. He could stare all day at the way things had changed. Tonight, though, that was the last thing on his mind. "I haven't said anything, either."
This got Clint's attention. "Why not?"
"I'm afraid to," Steve confessed. "What if I scare him off? I get the impression he's never been in a serious, committed relationship before. Or what if this is all just a game to him and I'm just another notch on his belt?"
"I don't think—" Clint started.
"No, you're right," he said. He began pacing again, heading for the enormous windows that lined the studio, then pivoting smartly and coming back, following the same invisible line on the floor. "I'm not just another conquest. I know that. But I don't know what I am to him."
"Don't you think you ought to find out?" Clint said. "Before Valentine's Day?"
Steve winced. "That doesn't give me much time."
"Well," Clint said, perfectly deadpan, "it's a good thing you're such a fine tactician then, isn't it?"
Steve just sighed.
The next day Tony was scheduled to give some kind of demonstration at the Baxter Building with Reed Richards. Frankly Steve didn't understand what it was about. All he knew was that it was something to do with quantum physics – he tended to stop paying attention any time the word "quantum" began to appear regularly in conversation.
Somewhat surprisingly, though, Tony was not enthusiastic about the demonstration. It was all the more surprising given that Steve was pretty sure he was responsible for more than half of the brains and hard work behind the project.
"It's not that I don't want to show off," Tony explained. "This is me we're talking about, after all. It's just that public demonstrations give me hives. You weren't around for this, but a few years back, this brilliant guy named Otto Octavius gave a demonstration of his latest fusion technology. It turned into a bloodbath, and made him into the truly freaky supervillain he is today."
Steve looked at him. "That won't happen here."
"Of course it won't," Tony said with a wave of his hand. "But I was supposed to be there that day. Otto Octavius? New energy source? How could I stay away? I was really excited about it, too. But at the last minute something came up at SI that needed my attention and I ended up staying in California. Damn good thing too, or I probably would have been killed."
Steve thought about this for a long moment. "Tell you what," he said. "I promise I won't let anybody die at your demonstration."
Tony sort of rolled his eyes, but he did smile. "It's a deal."
Steve kept his promise. Not that he had expected to need to. He stood off to one side as Reed and Tony went through their paces and showed off their amazing new science. And when they were finished, the people that had come to bear witness to scientific history in the making applauded loudly – then began to reach for their wallets.
The demonstration over, Reed and Tony began working the room, moving from one person to the next, accepting congratulatory handshakes and back slaps. Tony was far better at this kind of thing than Reed, who seemed rather uncomfortable. But for Tony this was his natural state, schmoozing the crowd, charming complete strangers into giving him their trust and their money.
Watching him, Steve was filled with pride and love. It was easy to forget sometimes just how incredibly intelligent Tony was. On a daily basis it seemed, he unveiled some new great invention or an upgrade for existing technology. It was easy to get used to that and take it for granted, instead of remembering just how rare someone like Tony Stark really was.
And so he simply couldn't help himself. When Tony finally made his way back to where he was standing, Steve threw his arms around him. "You did it!" he cried in triumph.
For the briefest instant Tony accepted the embrace, and even returned it. Then he stiffened and pushed Steve away with one of those fake laughs that he used in public.
But it was already too late. The moment had been captured on film forever. In the blink of an eye, everything had changed.
"No," Tony said quietly. "Now we've both done it."
If the pictures had been taken just a second later, everything would have been all right. And indeed some of them did show Tony pushing Steve away, looking slightly alarmed. But the bulk of them, the pictures that showed up on the Internet within minutes of being taken, showed Steve and Tony clasped in a very reciprocal embrace, smiling and perfectly happy.
The headlines that day were in screamingly large fonts:
Captain America and Iron Man Come Out!
Tony Stark's Secret Romance Revealed!
Captain America? Not of My America!
Iron Man Goes Soft! Unless You're A Man!
"We're going to have to make a statement," Tony said. He was sprawled on the couch, head tilted back, feet flat on the floor. "Or at least, I am."
"Why you?" Steve said. He had been very subdued since the incident, apologizing over and over for his thoughtlessness.
"Because there's a reason I've been consistently labeled America's Most Eligible Bachelor," Tony said. He stared up at the ceiling and wondered if he could rig the new technology he and Reed had invented to make it swallow him whole. "Now they're all going to be saying they knew there was a reason I never got married."
"Of course there is," Steve said, sounding a little angry. "You hadn't met the right person yet."
Tony gave him a weak smile. "Something like that."
He sighed. The other Avengers were staying tactfully away, giving them a chance to discuss things in private. JARVIS was holding all calls, even the ones from Pepper and Rhodey. And Natasha had promised that no one from SHIELD would bother them.
Tony wanted to be angry, truly he did. He had lived all his life in the public eye. He was used to having the world know everything he did, from his triumphs in engineering to the one-night stands. But he had always managed to keep some kind of distance between his public persona and his private life. None of those one-night stands had ever meant anything beyond a single night of pleasure. And every last one of them had been with a woman.
His father had seen it in him first – and hated it. Howard had sneered and called him soft, a sissy boy. Howard had given him his first drink and tried to make him into a man. In the end, though, all the angry words and clenched fists couldn't change who he was. And Tony had spent his life telling himself that he was fine with it, that he accepted his dual nature, that he owed no explanations.
But now, having the greatest relationship he had never known splattered all over the media and called ugly names, he was forced to acknowledge that maybe he wasn't the ultra-suave modern man he had always thought he was.
"There were rumors, you know," he said, still speaking to the ceiling. "Mostly when I was with this guy named Tiberius Stone. We were really careful, but you know how people talk. Since then it's always kind of been there, the great Tony Stark, how much of a player is he really? That kind of thing."
"I don't think it matters if you want to love a man or a woman or both," Steve said, stubbornly firm in his refusal to bend before the inevitable storm.
Tony loved him for that, even while he envied that ability to take such a firm moral stance and never budge from it. He knew he would never be able to do that.
He worried, though, what this would do to Steve. He had spent his entire life dealing with the press and the media, and the constant public pressure that came with being a celebrity. Steve had already been frozen in the ice when Captain America truly became a legend, and he hadn't been unfrozen long enough to really know what it was like. He wasn't a solo act anymore, but a part of the Avengers, and so the burden of fame was shared equally.
This, though, this was intensely personal. It wouldn't just be Captain America under the microscope now. It would be Steve Rogers.
And he had to accept right here and now, even before it began, that the most likely outcome would be Steve ending their relationship. Hell, he should even do it himself. Do it now, before anyone got hurt. Before things turned ugly and nasty.
"And I want you to know," Steve said as he crossed the room. He sat on the couch beside Tony and leaned sideways enough so he could rest his head on Tony's chest. "I'm not letting this change anything between us. Okay? So neither should you."
Tony's breath caught.
Damnit, Steve. Not fair. That is not fair.
"Okay?" Steve prompted.
He let his left hand drift upward so he could run his fingers through Steve's hair. "Yeah," he said, somewhat hoarsely. "Okay."
Steve burrowed in, nestling his chin into that spot just above the arc reactor where he fit so perfectly. "Good."
Tony closed his eyes and prayed he had just made the right decision.
For something like this, there would be no press conference. Instead Pepper arranged for Tony to give a single live interview. As he couldn't be bothered to choose who did the deed, she ended up selecting one of those primetime news shows, the kind hosted by a reporter known by name to most Americans.
Pepper had insisted on seeing the list of questions beforehand, and she tried her best to drill Tony in the answers he had to give. For Steve's sake, he attempted to rehearse with her, but after about twenty minutes, he gave it up in a fit of temper and nothing she said could persuade him to go back to it.
"What does it matter?" he snapped. "They're going to believe whatever they want to believe. All I'm doing now is damage control."
Pepper looked shocked. "You don't want to set the record straight?"
"What record?" Tony demanded. "There is no record. There is only me and Steve, and it's nobody's goddamn business, except that now it's everyone's business. You've got idiots out there calling for Steve to resign, saying he doesn't represent their America. And there are people outside this Tower right now standing there with signs saying they'd rather burn up than let Iron Man rescue them."
Pepper let out a slow breath. "I know."
"Then what am I supposed to do?" he asked, and he heard the whiny note to his voice, and he hated it, but there it was. Just when he had finally thought his life was settling down, that he could be happy about things, the shit had hit the fan.
He took a deep breath. More calmly, he said, "I'm asking you, Pepper. Tell me what to do. I mean it. I'll do whatever you say." Because if anyone could fix this, she could.
She just shook her head. "Tony, I can't tell you what to do in this situation. I don't think anyone can."
"No, no, no." And hell, he was probably whining again, but this was serious, this was pretty damn serious, this called for the puppy dog eyes, because he needed to know how to make it right. "Pepper, Pepper, you have to tell me. I'm listening. Honest to God, I'm listening this time. Just tell me what to do."
"Tony…" She looked uncomfortable. "Just… just tell them whatever you want." A sudden thought struck her. "But keep it rated G, okay?"
That didn't sound like fun. Nor was it very helpful. Still, he knew she meant well. She always did. That was why he would always love her, even if they were no longer together. "PG?" he tried, aiming for cute and probably landing far from it. "PG-13?"
Pepper just held out the list of interview questions again.
Steve had not been invited to the TV studio to witness the interview. Which was fine, because he had no desire to go. Instead he watched from the Tower with the other Avengers, while Tony did his best to defuse the situation.
It was something of a revelation. He had seen Tony take over before during press conferences with the Avengers, and he knew how masterful Tony was at appearing to answer a question while actually saying nothing at all. But this was the first time he had seen it applied to something that involved himself.
"Is this love?" the reporter asked.
Tony looked thoughtful. "You know, who's to say what love really is. Certainly I don't know, and I doubt you do, either. Or any of us. And I know it may seem hard to believe, given that I always appear so quick to share everything I do, but in fact I do value privacy. In my private life, that is. What little bit of private life I have."
The reporter blinked a little, obviously not having expected to be scolded like that. She quickly recovered, however, and the interview resumed.
When it was over and the TV was turned off, Clint preened with satisfaction. "Score one for Stark."
Privately Steve agreed that Tony had come across well, but he was not ready to celebrate just yet. "So what happens next?"
"Nothing," Clint said with a shrug. "You guys just wait it out. Don't worry, by this time next week, something new and exciting will come along that the press will be all over."
"I can help with that, if so required," Thor said somberly. He had recently arrived from Asgard, and he had been delighted to learn that he was in time to celebrate another one of Midgard's holidays. His excitement had been dampened though, when Natasha had told him that all the heart imagery did not mean he had to kill a large wild animal and present Jane with its still-beating heart.
Given that this was Thor, it wouldn't take much for him to provide that diversion. But Steve couldn't let him do it, although he deeply appreciated the offer.
"No," he said. "Clint's right. I guess we just wait and see what happens."
Whatever that was.
The rest of that week was a blur for Steve. Everywhere he turned, there were news stories and tabloid articles about himself and Tony. Pictures popped up all over the place, most of which he had never even seen. They came from private collections, pictures that people had snapped during the Avengers' battles in the city, or from charity appearances and press conferences. Any photograph that showed him and Tony standing together or smiling together or even looking at each other with anything less than complete professional seriousness was held up as an example of their secret love. It didn't matter that some people used these pictures to champion their cause and offer them support and congratulations. Steve still winced every time he saw them, and he began to avoid the TV and Internet altogether.
Harder to avoid, though, were the requests for interviews, the demands from reporters, the phone call and e-mails. JARVIS filtered through these, sending him only the messages he needed to see – but he knew the others were out there, waiting patiently in some mysterious, unseen inbox that he was never going to check. Even SHIELD had made their wishes known through Nick Fury, telling him that it was in his best interest to keep his mouth shut and let Tony handle it.
Tony himself was uncharacteristically dour, walking around in a temper, snapping at his bots and even at JARVIS. To Steve, he was a little more polite, but not much. "Is it too late to ask Thor if we can relocate to Asgard?"
They were in the kitchen, Tony grumpily nursing a mug of coffee, Steve looking through the cupboards for something quick and easy to make for dinner. JARVIS had just informed them that Anderson Cooper had made yet another request for an interview with Captain America.
"I hate this," Tony groused. "This is the kind of thing I'm supposed to be handling. Not you."
Steve stopped his search and went over to stand beside Tony. He waited until Tony looked up at him before saying, "Stop."
Tony made a face. "How can you be so calm? I hate that you're being dragged into all this."
Steve had to take him by the chin to make him stop talking. "Hey," he said, quietly but firmly. "I haven't been dragged anywhere. I'm right where I want to be."
Tony jerked his head back. "In the center of a media frenzy? Yeah, 'cause who wouldn't want to be there?"
"It wouldn't be the first time," Steve said with a shrug.
"Well, I— Stop looming over me. You know I don't like that," Tony snapped.
Unrepentant, Steve sat in the chair next to him. "Tony, listen. I told you that first night we were together, I accepted who I was long ago. I had to. No one would have me, sickly and scrawny as I was. So I had a lot of time to figure myself out, who I was and what I wanted. None of that's going to change now that the rest of the world knows who I am." He reached out and took hold of Tony's hand. "Got that?"
"Easy for you to say," Tony sighed. He stared at the far wall, his eyes out of focus, seeing something not here in this room. "You have any idea what it was like growing up as the only son of Howard Stark, knowing you were attracted to both boys and girls? I think he knew it even before I did."
For the thousandth time since the demonstration, Steve cursed himself for his carelessness, his reckless actions that had changed everything. "You don't…regret what we've done, do you?"
Tony's gaze snapped into focus. He turned toward Steve. "Hell no," he said. His hand bore down on Steve's. "I just wish it could have gone down differently."
"I don't think it would have been easy no matter how we did it," Steve said with a wry smile.
"I guess," Tony said. He glanced around the kitchen, then looked down at their clasped hands. "Look, tomorrow…"
"Don't worry," Steve said. "I'm not expecting a heart-shaped box of chocolate."
Tony blinked. "Oh. Um. Yeah."
His utter cluelessness made Steve chuckle. "Did you forget what day it was?"
"I never know what day it is," Tony said, a bit defensively. Then he relaxed and smiled a little. "Anyway, I was going to say, JARVIS is going to need you in the workshop. I need another set of measurements for that new armor I'm working on for you."
"Again?" Steve said. "Is this just an excuse to get me naked?"
"No, no," Tony said with a grin. "I don't need an excuse for that anymore."
Steve couldn't help smiling back. He forgot all about dinner then. "You sure don't," he said.
He drew Tony to his feet and began to lead him out of the kitchen.
The next day was Thursday, Valentine's Day. Steve woke up alone, although the other side of the bed still held some lingering warmth, so he knew Tony hadn't been gone long. There was a note on the pillow, written in Tony's precise handwriting.
Lots to do today. See you for your fitting, if not sooner.
He had signed his name in his usual style, the capital T written in a flourish, the three remaining letters of his name sized larger than the rest of the note combined.
Steve put the note down and heaved a sigh.
It wasn't until the sun started going down that JARVIS requested his presence in the workshop. He went right away, fully expecting to find Tony down there – only to discover that there was nobody here but himself and the bots.
"Where's Tony?" he asked.
"Mr. Stark had some other business to attend to," JARVIS replied, his voice as bland and unassuming as ever. "Now if you could please disrobe, Captain Rogers. I will begin taking the measurements as soon as you are ready."
"Oh," Steve said. "Sorry."
Half an hour later, after he had turned in place about a dozen times and made the kinds of battlefield poses that made him feel frankly silly when he did them naked, JARVIS released him. "Mr. Stark will meet you now in your studio."
"My studio?" Although he came down here quite often and watched Tony work, it was unusual for Tony to come into his space.
"That is what I am told," JARVIS said. And although Steve did not know the AI very well, he was almost certain that now there was a hint of something in that electronic voice. Something he was tempted to label as anticipation.
That suggestion of humanity was enough to give Steve pause. "JARVIS, can I ask you a question?"
"Certainly, Captain," said JARVIS.
"What do you think of me and Tony? Being together, I mean?"
Even for a computer, the response was surprisingly swift. "My primary function is to assist Mr. Stark and ensure that he does not come to any harm. Had I any concerns over your place at Mr. Stark's side, I can assure you that I would have already taken steps to remove you as a threat." JARVIS paused for an instant, just long enough for Steve to become aware of how fast his heart was beating. "However, I have satisfied myself that you are not a threat. Indeed, I have never seen Mr. Stark's well-being so steady as it is when he is with you."
At this unexpected compliment, Steve felt a lump form in his throat. "Thank you," he managed. "That means a lot."
"No, Captain Rogers," JARVIS replied. "Thank you."
Tony had been waiting with growing impatience and worry for nearly ten minutes when Steve finally showed up at his studio. The instant he saw the elevator doors open, he stood up straighter, checked his tie, and cleared his throat.
It was show time.
Steve came toward him with a slightly confused smile. "You're all dressed up. Are we going somewhere?"
"As a matter of fact, we are," Tony said. He opened the door to Steve's studio, and ushered him inside.
He had been busy while JARVIS was stalling Steve in the workshop. All the furniture had been pushed off to one side, including the half-finished projects that he had only stolen quick peeks at, honest, so that the center of the room was cleared out and empty. The lights were all off, leaving the large room lit only by New York's skyline.
"Um," he said. "So, I figured I could do the standard billionaire thing, fly us off to Paris or some exotic tropical island. Or do the fancy dinner for two on the roof with the discreet violin player in the background. But you know, all that, it's just a cliché. It doesn't mean anything."
Steve didn't say anything. He just stood there in wonder and stared.
Tony tried to see it as Steve must. Not the expected cliché, no. No fancy linen tablecloths. No bot in the corner holding a magnum of champagne. No music, no flowers, no candles. Just the lights of the city, a picnic blanket, and a chocolate cake.
"I don't," Tony said. He prayed his voice didn't give away how nervous he was. "Do this very well. It's kind of not my thing. But, um, I thought. This was important. That I get it right. And um. Shit. I knew I should have stuck with the cards."
This little digression seemed to rouse Steve from his enthralled trance. "You wrote note cards for this little speech?"
"No," Tony said quickly. He could feel himself start to break out into a sweat. "Maybe. Yes."
Steve smiled at him. "You don't need cards," he said. "Just say what you're thinking."
"What I'm thinking?" Tony looked at him. If Steve knew what he was asking…
And then it struck him that Steve did know. He knew perfectly well.
He took a deep breath and just went for it. "What I'm thinking is that I've never been so nervous in all my life. I'm thinking that I love you, and right now I'm thinking that I can't believe I just said that out loud. I'm thinking that I'm terrified of losing you, and that if I just ruined this then I'm—"
Steve shook his head. "No," he said, so steadfast that Tony stopped talking and even stopped thinking. "You haven't ruined it. You haven't ruined anything." He smiled. "Because I love you, too."
He couldn't believe he had heard right. "You do? I mean…" In amazement he looked up at Steve, searching those deep blue eyes for the truth – and finding it.
It was unbelievable. Steve loved him back. All this time he had been so worried about scaring Steve away, and it had never even been an issue. Time and again this week Steve had proven that he was here to stay, that he would be here even when the rest of the world went crazy all around them. It was kind of pathetic, really, that it had taken him this long to see what had been staring him right in the face all this time. "You really do, don't you?
"Yeah," Steve nodded. "I really do."
"Oh my God," Tony said. "I am such a dumbass."
Steve burst out laughing. "Maybe so, but you're a dumbass who baked me a chocolate cake for Valentine's Day. So I'm not really complaining here."
"Then shut up and kiss me," Tony said.
"Okay," Steve said, and kissed him soundly, until they were both breathing heavily and it seemed like the temperature in the room had gone up by ten degrees. "You're right," Steve said in between short, sweet kisses. "Sex first, cake later."
"Oh, I don't know," Tony said, having just had the most wonderful thought. "What about cake during sex? You can lick the frosting off me."
Steve's eyes lit up. "You know what? I think that might just be the greatest idea you've ever had."
Tony grinned. "You think so?"
"Mmm," Steve said, nuzzling at his neck. "I know so."
"Well then," Tony said, "how about we put it to the test?"
Steve laughed. "You're on," he said.