Steve was going to die. He was going to choke on his bagel, and he was going to die, he thought wildly, as he looked around the mansion's kitchen. What a start for the new Avengers. Captain America, dead at breakfast. Tony, who had been pleasantly smiling at him even while he'd been asking him the fatal question, was now staring in alarm and reaching out for him.
His heart was pounding. If the meal itself didn't get him, surely the shock of Tony's question would.
"Whoa, hey!" Tony said, finally resting a hand on Steve's back, as Steve wheezed. "Not the reaction I was expecting. Are you all right?"
Steve coughed, took a breath, coughed again, and finally managed a sentence. "You can't be serious."
Tony furrowed his brow. There was another smile on his face again, but this one was vague and uncomprehending. "Of course I'm serious. I want you to come to the gala with me. Why wouldn't I be serious?"
He opened his mouth and realized that there was really no good way to answer that. We're not like that, Tony. You don't like me like that. You're straight. You've got to be. It's been ten years. You've never been interested. But he couldn't say any of that. He gestured helplessly between the two of them. "I've seen who you take to these shindigs, Tony. I'm a little less... feminine... than your usual date."
"If it bothers you--"
"It doesn't," Steve said, and wasn't that the truth? "I just-- if I show up on your arm, aren't there going to be even more rumors about you in the papers?"
"They've got to be better than the ones that are already there." Tony grimaced. "I don't get it. I'm back from the dead and everything's in shambles and I have to put a whole new company together. You're back from the dead and somehow the world loves you. I mean, I know I'm not you, but it's not usually this bad."
Steve frowned. "You want me to be your date for the good publicity?"
It hurt, to think that that was the only reason Tony could want him, but even so he could see the sense in it; his own reputation was unusually good these days, and Tony's... didn't really seem to be. And of course he'd do what he could to make people think better of Tony. If only they could all see the Tony he knew.
"No!" Tony said, instantly, looking sick. "I mean, sort of, but." He paused, and there was an odd look in his eyes, a kind of sad earnestness. "It's like this. I'm not looking forward to this one. People think they know me, and it's all games and gossip and little backstabbing remarks, and I just-- I'm sick of it. And you're my friend, and if I have to do this, I'd rather not go it alone. I'd rather have someone I actually like at my side. That's all. But I understand if you don't want to."
Not a real date. A fake date. Steve swallowed; his throat was too tight. Okay. He could... get over this. He could be here for Tony.
He made himself smile. "No, I'd love to." That wasn't the only thing he'd love, he thought.
And Tony just brightened right up, like a circuit switched on somewhere, like it was as simple as one of his machines. Like Steve just made him happy. (But not, of course, exactly the way Steve wished he did.)
He shouldn't think about that part. This was good. He was doing good. He was helping Tony. This was for Tony.
Even if it wasn't real, he was going to do this right.
He was only going to get one chance, after all.
He shuffled his feet against the carpet and knocked on the door to Tony's room.
Tony was barefoot, with one cufflink undone, tie still draped around his neck, and his eyes went wide when Steve held out the flowers. His mouth worked. He didn't say anything.
"I, uh." Steve tried to think of something to say, when the silence had gone on for too long. "I got these for you."
This had been a bad idea, he thought. This had all been a bad idea.
And then Tony's hand closed around his, and Tony was--
He was taking the flowers.
Well, at least that was something.
"A real gentleman, huh?" Tony murmured, and the look in his eyes was fond.
Steve couldn't help but smile back. "I try."
This was going to kill him.
A few people in the ballroom turned around to look at them, and then they just... stopped. Steve didn't blame them. It wasn't like he'd ever been Tony's date before. And he was here in full uniform, after all. Everyone knew who he was.
He waited to see how Tony was going to handle the first question.
"Tony Stark!" a woman Steve didn't know said, in a tone of complete surprise, as she laid one elegant, gloved hand on his forearm, and she glanced between him and Steve. "I had no idea you were--"
"We're not," Tony said, smoothly, smiling that dazzling smile. Steve's heart sank even as he tried to tell himself it was a good thing, that Tony hadn't said I'm not, that maybe there was still hope. "We're not together. We're just good friends."
She blinked. "But--"
Tony was still smiling, with that perfect, practiced, poised charm. He laughed. "I've brought so many people to these things. No one assumes I'm in a relationship with all of them. Cap here has kindly agreed to squire me. We'll see how it goes from here." He winked. Like he thought it could go somewhere.
Or like he thought it was one big joke.
It was an answer that neatly -- and frustratingly -- avoided the answer to the obvious question. Steve wished he knew what was going on inside Tony's head, he thought, as the woman turned to him.
Steve tried to emulate Tony's smile. "Hi. I'm Captain America. You probably guessed that."
He held out his hand, and the woman shook it, lightly, with her fingertips.
This wasn't a date.
"You are terrible at this." Tony's head was bent forward and he was muffling his laughter against Steve's shoulder; some distantly aching, pining part of Steve's mind was aware that to the press photographers across the room this would just look romantic. Tony Stark and Captain America, slow-dancing even closer. "Oh my God, how are you so terrible at this?"
Steve took a reflexive step back, dragging Tony with him across the dance floor. At least if he pulled Tony backwards he wasn't going to step on Tony's feet. Again.
"It's not a super-dancer serum," he pointed out. His face was burning.
The hell of it was that he actually wasn't that bad of a dancer. Usually. It was just that he was awfully nervous about this, because it was Tony and. Well. He'd wanted to get this right, even if it wasn't real. And so he was anxious and... messing it all up.
Tony had asked him to dance. Tony had asked him to lead; Steve wasn't really sure if that was how it was supposed to work, but then, he'd also never danced with a man before. Maybe Steve was supposed to lead because he was taller. He'd never given much thought to how people picked this.
"But it doesn't make any sense. You're so graceful," Tony said, earnestly, in an undertone, and his voice shook with suppressed laughter. Even as Steve glowed with the praise, he knew Tony was about to follow it up with something less welcome. "I've seen you work out. I've seen you fight. You're breathtaking. And... you can't dance?"
Steve bit his lip. He knew Tony didn't mean it, but still-- it felt like he was a scrawny kid again, and no one would want him, most especially not the fella he wanted to want him--
And then Tony looked up and saw his face. "Oh," he said, quietly. "Oh. Shit. I'm sorry."
"No," Steve said, awkwardly. "No, it's fine--"
But Tony was wriggling out of his grasp. "I really am sorry," he said, and his eyes were wide and pained. "Look, we can sit down, or-- or I can lead, if you want?"
"That sounds nice," Steve said, before he could think about what he was saying. It would be easier on him later if they stopped touching now. He knew this.
Tony smiled. He took Steve's hand, and then put his other hand on Steve's lower back, drawing them close together. Steve barely suppressed the frisson of desire that went through him.
"Okay," Tony murmured. "Shh. Relax. It's just dancing. The party hasn't even been crashed by supervillains. Yet. Just follow me."
He let Tony lead him through a few basic steps, and it was deeply strange to do it all backwards, but easy enough to pick up. Tony's movements were fluid and confident; he had all the grace Steve currently lacked, and when the second song started Steve realized he was actually enjoying himself.
"There we go," Tony breathed. "That's better."
"You're good at that," Steve told him, and Tony smiled, though the smile was tinged with sadness.
"That's what you get when your father sends you away to boarding school at age eight." He huffed out a little laugh. "Well, you also get bullying, a lot of emotional trauma, a lasting inability to form stable relationships, and so many other unpleasant fringe benefits, but you do learn to dance."
Steve's hand tightened on Tony's. Tony... didn't usually talk about his family. "I'm so sorry that happened to you."
"Eh." Tony shrugged. "It's in the past."
"Doesn't mean it's not important."
They fell silent, and the band struck up another tune.
"Sorry again," Tony said. "I have this awful habit of oversharing on dates."
This wasn't a date. It wasn't.
Steve smiled anyway. "I don't mind," he said. "I like it."
"Yeah, well," Tony said. "You'd be the first."
The rest of the evening was... nice. Apparently no one wanted to denigrate Tony with him around -- and with his hearing, he could be sure of that. (Oh, there had been a few people commenting on Tony bringing him as a date. Oddly, none of them had sounded really surprised.)
Maybe that was why Tony had seemed to be genuinely having fun for most of it. Steve had caught Tony just looking over at him and smiling a few times, and then looking away.
Tony was straight. He had to be. Why were they even doing this?
The night was over. Happy had dropped them off just outside the mansion. Tony sighed heavily and scuffed the pavement with his shoes that probably cost more than Steve used to make in a year. And then he looked up. The corners of his mouth curved up in a tiny smile.
"Thanks," Tony said, and he laid a hand on Steve's arm, just below where the mail shirt started. "I know this can't have been much fun for you, but I appreciate it. It was nice to have you around."
Steve smiled back. "It wasn't any kind of hardship." He thought, maybe, a joke would make this easier. "Best fake date I've ever been on."
Tony was standing so close that Steve could feel him exhale when he laughed, a little puff of warm air. "How many fake dates have you been on, then?"
"Only this one," Steve said, "but I can't imagine anything better."
As soon as the words left his mouth, he knew he shouldn't have said it -- it was too much, too revealing, and now Tony would know. He waited for Tony to step back, to recoil in horror, to turn away.
Tony breathed in sharply and didn't move. Steve was abruptly very aware of how close their bodies were to each other, how Tony's hand was still on his arm, how Tony's eyes were as dark as the night sky above them.
Steve couldn't take this. Why wasn't Tony leaving?
"Oh," Tony breathed. He blinked a few times. "Oh, God, Steve, I didn't know--"
"I'm sorry," Steve said, miserably, and he tried to pull away, but Tony wouldn't let him go--
"I'm sorry too," Tony said, his face twisted in a rueful smile.
And then Tony dragged their mouths together.
It might have been a fake date, but the kiss was anything but fake, Steve thought, as Tony pushed him backwards and pinned him against the door, his mouth hot and somehow sweet at the same time.
Tony lifted his head. "I'm sorry I didn't do this ten years ago. I'm a goddamn idiot. And I-- I thought that we had to pretend, I thought that this was all I could have--"
It was real. It was really real. They could do this.
"I thought it was all I could have," Steve said, and Tony started laughing.
That was when Jarvis opened the door behind them and Steve tripped backwards and dragged them both back over the threshold. Jarvis regarded them both, and his stare, usually unflappable, held a sparkle of amusement.
"A good evening?" he asked.
"An excellent evening," Tony said, happily, and then he turned to Steve. "But now I owe you a real date."
Steve grinned back. "Tomorrow?"
Tony took his hand and led him inside. "I'd love to."
A picture of them dancing at the gala made the society pages the next morning.
Steve cut it out of the paper and framed it.