Actions

Work Header

One Good Reason

Work Text:

"What the hell are those?"

Tony raises an eyebrow. He’s holding a pair of ice skates out to Steve. That in and of itself is, yes, a little weird, but considering he’d told Steve about the whole ice competition beforehand, it shouldn’t merit that tone of voice, or the expression on Steve’s face right now. Specifically, Steve is staring at the ice skates Tony is holding out as though they had personally slapped Bucky, insulted Steve’s mother, and copped a feel from Peggy before running into the dark night.

"Look, I know change is hard," says Tony, "but you did okay with the whole smartphone thing, and history was never my strongest subject but I’m still pretty sure they had ice skates in the forties—"

Steve makes a noise. "Of course they did," he says irritably; his gaze flicks up from the skates to Tony’s face. Annoyed or not, for a moment Tony has to take a second and appreciate exactly how handsome Steve is right now, in the skin-tight athletic clothes he’s wearing that show off every muscle and dent in his physique. (Tony remains privately convinced that Steve, being Cap and all, has muscles in places that normal humans don’t, and that all of those muscles can bench-press a rhino if they so choose.)

Tony apparently spends a little too long contemplating this, however, because Steve’s voice goes sharp all of a sudden. "Tony, are you listening?"

"What? Yes of course I am! You should definitely say it again, though, just to be sure."

Steve lets out a loud sigh that speaks volumes. "I said, those are the wrong skates. And you said you’d have our uniforms, but I don’t see anything we could play a game in."

Game? It’s Tony’s turn to frown. "It's a competition, not a game," he says. "I told you, it's for charity."

"But those skates have a toe pick," Steve says patiently. "I may not have ice skated in seventy-odd years, but I looked them up on Google last night, and hockey skates don't have toe picks."

Toe pick! Tony's mind supplies uselessly. Then he catches the word hockey, and the light comes on. "Ah," Tony says. "So, the thing is—"

Steve gives him a Look; Tony puts up his hands, either in protest or defense."I haven’t even said anything yet!"

"What did you do?"

"I didn’t do anything! You just misunderstood me! It’s not that kind of ice skating, Steve." Steve squints at him and crosses his arms over his chest, which is both rude and unfairly distracting, and Steve has to know that. Also, Tony thinks Steve is now being deliberately obtuse.

"You did not just sign us up for a figure-skating competition," Steve says.

"I did," Tony says, "and for the record, I asked you first, and you agreed."

"Because I thought it was a hockey game!"

"Have you looked at me lately?" Tony demands. "Do you really think I would volunteer for a game where people can throw me against the wall when I’m not in the armor? I’m a sucker for punishment, Steve, but even I have limits!"

"Which is why I figured you asked me, because I can be thrown against the wall!" Steve says, finally grabbing the skates from Tony. He starts to pace back and forth, the skates dangling incongruously from his hand. "But you want me to—to dance? How is that a good idea?"

"Well, let's see," Tony says. "You're tall, strong, graceful . . ." His mind starts supplying other words like sexy and lots of stamina, but he wrenches it back on track. "You learn quickly, and it's not like they're expecting us to be good. I mean, we have to win, of course, but as long as we go out there and don't fall on our faces, I think we'll be good."

"Can you even figure-skate?" Steve says. "Who's going to coach us?"

"Oh, don't worry that. I’ve got the Tkachenkos coming in from Novi in exchange for improving the motor on their spinner." Tony waves a hand. "And of course I can skate."

"I didn't ask if you can skate," Steve says patiently. "I asked if you can figure skate."

"Don't worry about that," Tony says again.

"Also, what's a spinner?"

"Oh, it's a thing for practicing jumping," Tony says, and seizes on that topic to avoid his figure-skating credentials—namely, that he’d learned at one of his upstate New York boarding schools. "It’s a platform, with a motor, and you can control the speed. The last time I saw their students using them, one of the girls broke a bunch of blood vessels in her arms, she was going so fast. Anyway! Let’s get out there on the ice and get some practice in. The paps can take some pictures, everyone can see how wonderful and giving the Avengers are, so nobly sacrificing with their free time—"

"You’re just doing this to get Pepper off your back about charity work for another month," Steve grumbles half-heartedly.

"Aw, c’mon, Capsicle," says Tony, and nudges Steve in the ribs with his elbow. "Don’t be like that. You know this is all for you."

Steve glances at him, a soft sideways look that makes Tony’s heart stutter and skip a beat like he’s a 15 year old with a crush. What does that expression mean? But Steve quirks his lips, shakes his head, and says merely, "Let’s go practice some skating," before heading out onto the rink. Tony follows in his wake, trying to settle the ache in his chest and not stare at Steve’s ass in the tight pants he’s wearing. He finds only marginal success with the latter, and fails utterly at the former.

So, business as usual where Steve is concerned, then.

* * * *

An hour of skating later, Steve feels great but he can tell that Tony has overestimated his own stamina. Despite that, though, it turns out that Tony can actually skate, and jump, and other things Steve can't name. Right now, though, Tony's grabbing his hamstrings and pushing himself along the boards over to the benches.

"I think that's enough for one day, Cap," he says.

Steve knows better than to call him on the injury, and merely responds, "All right. When's the competition again?"

"A month from now," Tony says, unlacing his skates. "Now that I have some idea of what you can do, I'll talk to Nastya and Artem—I mean, the Tkachenkos—and they can choreograph a routine for us." He reaches for his water bottle, which he set down an arm’s-length away, and winces.

Steve nonchalantly shoves the water bottle a couple inches closer. This is really nothing like he expected, and he's going to have to go home and Google again, but to be honest, the idea of spending this much time with Tony isn't unappealing.

Actually, it's pretty much the opposite of unappealing. He doesn't know anything about couples figure skating, especially two men, but he guesses they'll get to hold hands or something, and Tony mentioned lifts.

Well. Not important right now. "I don't know who the Tkachenkos are," he says, "but if you say they're good . . ."

Tony barks a short, sharp laugh. "They're pretty much the best in the country," he says. "C'mon, take off your skates. Let's go."

Steve automatically sits down and starts unlacing the skates. They're not that different from what he wore once or twice as a kid, although they're black and in much better shape. "Best in the country?"

Tony rattles off a couple of names Steve doesn’t recognize; Steve gives him a blank look.

"Silver medal, Olympics, ice dancing, 2014."

"Ice dancing?"

"It's a thing. Just go with it. Let's get out of here."

Tony has some sort of wheeled case for his skates, but Steve doesn't, so he just carries them under his arm. As they leave the arena, Tony gets the case stuck on the lip of the door, and Steve reaches over to give it a tug.

That's when the flash goes off.

Steve reacts instinctively, stepping forward and in front of Tony as his arm comes up, so fast that he hears the gasp before he realizes there’s nothing to defend from. There’s just a startled-looking woman holding up a camera in front of her, staring at him wide-eyed like she expects him to throw the skates he’s holding at her. "Sorry, ma’am," he says automatically, and forces himself to relax.

"Ah, t-that’s okay," the photographer says, and gives him a hesitant smile. "I should be apologizing for startling you…" Steve can’t quite suppress the faint smile that comes in response to this; the paparazzi is referring to Steve’s well-known battle reflexes. He’s never actually hurt anyone—he’s always managed to catch himself in time—but in general, Steve reacts poorly to being startled by flashing lights and foreign objects shoved in his face.

"No harm done," says Tony, bumping Steve as he comes forward. "Come on, did you get a good shot, or did American Muscles here get in the way? You need another one?"

At this, Steve lets loose with another sigh; the paparazzi’s face lights up, her expression almost giddy. Steve doesn’t have time to wonder why, because Tony’s slinging an arm around Steve’s shoulders and throwing up the peace sign with his other hand, and his proximity is distracting enough to put everything else in second place.

She's already taken three or four shots by the time Steve has managed to scoop up his brain cells, and Tony's tugging him on the arm and directing him into the limo. "I'm feeling like ice cream. Are you? Why am I asking; you're always hungry. Happy? Let's get some ice cream."

"Dante’s or The Chocolate Shoppe, sir?" Happy asks.

Tony looks at Steve, who shrugs. "The Chocolate Shoppe," Steve says, and the car takes off.

* * * * *

"It's a good picture, though," Tony says, or tries to, but on the list of people on the planet who can shut him up or talk over him successfully, number one—Pepper Potts—is standing in front of him, not a single wobble as she balances on stiletto Louboutins that put her at a lot of inches taller than he is.

"This is NOT how I'm supposed to find out that you and Steve have entered a figure-skating contest," she says through gritted teeth. "You're supposed to tell me these things in advance. We agreed, to this, Tony."

"But—"

"And furthermore, a figure-skating contest for couples? Unless there's something else you're not telling me—which, again, I should know—you're ineligible."

"Yeah, figure skating in pairs," Tony says. "It's for a good cause? The Trevor Project—"

"I know it's a good cause. The Stark Foundation already donated a quarter of a million dollars to them, earlier this year. And no, Tony, it's not 'couple' as in 'pair.' Did you not read the paperwork before you entered?"

Tony tries to think of a good way to say 'no' without saying 'no' and fails. "It's—"

Pepper sighs. "Does Steve know?"

"Which part?"

"The part where you're supposed to be a romantically-involved couple."

Ah, that part. "Given that I didn't know until about a minute ago, I'd say no."

"Well, it's a good thing he'll be up here in—" Pepper ostentatiously looks at her watch, a delicate, expensive thing that he's pretty sure he 'bought' her for her birthday. "—two minutes."

"Two—?" But before he can worry about it, there's a knock at the door to her office and Pepper goes to open it.

It's Steve, of course, looking a little ruffled around the edges, as if he just ran up several flights of stairs. He probably did. "Sorry I'm late, Pepper, Tony. What did you need me for?"

"Tony has something he'd like to tell you," Pepper says, before Tony can get a word in edgewise.

"Oh?" Steve looks mildly inquisitive, which somehow makes Tony consider jumping out the window. He's got the wrist-things on; the suit can catch him before he reaches the ground, right? Well, assuming he can get through the glass, which he can't, without a repulsor. There goes that idea.

Which means he has to say something. "Uh," Tony says, displaying the intelligence that got him two Ph.Ds.

"What's going on?" Steve says, still mild.

He can play this nonchalant, Tony thinks. "So that figure-skating contest I roped you into," he says, trying to match Steve's mild tone.

Steve raises his eyebrows.

"Turns out I didn't read the directions so well and we're supposed to be a romantic couple," Tony says. He thinks he did a pretty good job at staying calm, although Pepper's alarmed look says otherwise.

"Ah," Steve says. "Well, we're not, so what are we going to do?"

"A couple options," Pepper says, and thank goodness she's decided to stop torturing Tony and get back to her job, which is running his life. Well, no, that's not her job, but still. "You can either hold a press conference now and announce that you've dropped out, or we can see if we can get someone else to substitute in for either of you. Are you in a romantic relationship, Steve?"

"What? Um—"

Tony doesn't know what it says about him that he enjoys seeing Steve sputtering like that. Nothing good, probably. Eventually Steve manages to say, "No, I'm not," and shouldn't that be easier if he just isn't?

"Well, Tony isn't either," Pepper says with a sigh. "So there goes that option. I'll schedule a press conference tomorrow morning. Which is too bad, really; I like the Trevor Project."

"I don't even know what they do," Steve says.

"Wait," Tony says, without his tongue getting approval from his brain first. And then, for whatever reason, it goes on. "Can't we just—pretend to be a couple?"

Pepper gives him a sad look. "Tony, there's only so much you can break the rules. I'll just have the Stark Foundation give them money later. How does eleven am work for you? Steve, not Tony. I know how it works for him."

"That should be fine, Pepper."

"Fine. Now get out of my office for awhile or I’m going to go stir-crazy. Tony, I'll see you at 2:30 for the shareholder’s meeting. Don’t be late." And with the sharp clock of her heels, she’s gone.

Tony and Steve leave after her, but she’s already vanished into one of the elevators before they catch up to her. They get into the next one; Tony stares at Steve for a moment as the elevator car starts its smooth, rapid descent. "The Trevor Project runs a suicide hotline for LGBT youth," Tony says, for no particular reason—they’re dropping out of the competition, aren’t they? "They're trying to expand to another call center, to better serve the NYC population."

"Oh," Steve says, his voice hushed.

Tony abruptly realizes that he probably should have mentioned this in the beginning. "Is that going to be a problem for you?" he asks, voice a little sharp.

Steve gives him the most epic eyeroll of the twenty-first century—at least, the most epic that Tony himself didn't give. "You think your generation invented LGBT issues? FRIDAY, please tell Tony about the Friends of Dorothy—"

"Oh, no, no, no, Cap, you're not using my own AI to troll me," Tony says, holding up a hand and laughing. Steve's response doesn’t quite answer Tony’s question, though, and he’s gearing up to ask again when Steve continues, more quietly.

"And my friend Arnie, well, he's—or, really, he was—he and his partner of forty years got married about two weeks before he died, in 2011. So. Not a problem."

"Ah," Tony says. His brain does a few backflips—well, one and a half, maybe; it’s not that hard to imagine someone as fundamentally decent as Steve Rogers being on board with gay rights, despite the time he was born in. Then some vestige of manners kicks in, and Tony adds, "I'm sorry for your loss."

Steve shrugs. "Thanks. I wish we could help the Trevor Project. Maybe I can see about getting involved otherwise."

"Yeah." The elevator door opens, and Clint and Bucky pile in, deep in a conversation about a stealth mission they recently got back from. Tony lets the subject drop, trying to ignore the pang he suffers at this opportunity to do something just with Steve lost before he could even really seize it.

* * * * *

Pepper schedules a press conference, as promised. Later, Tony will look back and wonder how things would have turned out if they had proceeded to said press conference directly after agreeing to own up to Tony’s mistake. But instead, Tony and Steve and a few other well-known participants of the skating competition have come to preside over a costume contest, to pick the best costume designs. Tony isn’t aware that it’s a children’s costume contest until they arrive, however. The Rainbow Skating Company is a children’s skating organization attached to the Trevor Project—something Tony should have known, really.

He can hear Pepper’s voice lecturing him in the back of his head as they sit in the viewing box, watching the parade of excited children in their costumes go by. Each pair stops in front of the judge’s stand, while the announcer reads off their names and a description of their planned routine. From the glances Tony keeps stealing at him, Steve seems to enjoying himself; not surprising for a man who is stoicism incarnate and actually secretly loves kids.

The costume parade is when it happens. A pair of girls in matching outfits stop in front of the judge’s box; the outfits look like if a gothy vampire queen got a rock band gig and started dating a princess with pink hair, and Tony can’t put his finger on it, but they look familiar. The girls look about five or six, holding hands bashfully as their names are read off—Sarah Waterman and Olivia Butzine. Both girls curtsey, and then the one in the pink dress (and matching pink pigtails, Jesus) looks from Tony to Steve and breaks into a hopeful smile. "Is it true?" she asks.

"Is what true?" Steve sits up a little straighter, and Tony glances over to see his best, most encouraging smile is on display.

"The two of you are boyfriends?" Pigtails looks so excited by this that she has started shifting her weight from foot to foot, almost like she has to pee. "Like my dads?"

Tony opens his mouth and gets prepared to say something about adults and friendship and blather that will hopefully confuse the little girls more than it'll clarify things. Honestly, he's always considered himself pretty quick on the draw for speaking, but somehow Steve gets there first.

"Yeah," he says, moving out of his seat and squatting down so he's only a couple feet taller than the little girls, rather than about six. "We're boyfriends. Just like your dads."

Tony opens his mouth and closes it once, and then just plasters a smile on his face. Steve got them into this, he can either get them out or deal with the Wrath of Pepper.

Tony doesn't remember much for the rest of the costume contest; he does remember Steve taking his hand at one point and the adorable giggle of a child (the girls who had asked them the question won, by which point Tony has finally recognized their costumes). Then all of a sudden they're back in the limo again, and Steve's apologizing.

"Tony, I’m so sorry, I know we talked about explaining the truth, I don’t know what came over me—"

"Hold on," says Tony. He’s already digging out his phone, and he leans against the side of the car, bracing so that he can get a good shot. "Okay, keep going."

Steve stares at him, bemused. "What…?"

"Go on, keep apologizing! I need to capture it in all its digital perfection. So the next time I fuck up royally, I can take it out and remind everyone of that time Captain America got bamboozled by a pair of six year olds dressed up like cartoon lesbians."

At this, Steve blinks. "Cartoon lesbians?"

Tony lets out a long-suffering sigh. "Marceline and Bubblegum, from Adventure Time—don’t worry about it, Steve," he says. "Any of it, I mean. I get it, okay? I’m not immune to the big bambi eyes, either—" especially when they’re yours says a voice in his head as Steve turns aforementioned baby blues on him again, "—but it’s already done, and we’ll look like even bigger jackasses if we take it back now."

"Yeah." Steve blows out a breath and slouches back against the seat. Slouching shouldn’t be attractive on anyone, but somehow Steve pulls it off. He glances at Tony again after a moment. "You really don’t mind?"

"Mind what? Pretending to be dating the hottest bachelor in America? Steve, I’m not the one with the impeccable reputation to ruin."

"Hottest... Well, if you're all right with it," Steve says, sounding a little dubious. "Then we'll go with it."

"Yeah, of course," Tony says, and then hesitates. "I mean, thanks to double standards, we won't be expected to do anything more than hold hands in public, maybe kiss on the cheek, but are you going to be able to stand that?"

Steve frowns at him. "Are you?" he counters.

Tony snorts. "I've pretended to date any number of people," he says. "And you?"

"It's not going to bother me," Steve says, and that's apparently final.

They sit in increasingly awkward silence for about ninety seconds, Tony wondering all the while if this is literally the worst idea he’s ever had (and considering the extant list, that’s saying something) until the ring of Tony’s cell phone mercifully puts an end to it. "You’ve reached an alternate state of reality," Tony says cheerfully; beside him, Steve snorts and looks out the window. "How can I destroy the timeline for you today?"

"Why am I fielding a dozen reports of Steve confirming that the two of you are dating?" demands Pepper over the phone. She sounds aggrieved. Tony is just resigning himself to getting chewed out for the second time in six hours when it occurs to him that he doesn’t actually have to.

"Hold on," he tells her, ignoring her protests, and holds the phone out to Steve, who stares at it like it’s a live viper. "You get to explain," Tony says, grinning maniacally.

Steve gives him a sour look and takes the phone. "Hi, Pepper—uh, what? No, I’m not—it’s not like that. Um, actually, it was—yes. It was my fault. Well…"

Tony laces his fingers behind his head and sits back, letting out an exaggerated sigh of contentment as he watches Steve wince and try to explain their situation to Pepper. This situation will probably wind up backfiring spectacularly for him, but at least there might be a few perks along the way to enjoy.

* * * * *

The next four weeks are strange for Steve. Not the strangest of his life, obviously, but still . . . odd. He and Tony go on dates effectively dictated by Pepper, although Natasha comes back from wherever she has been for the last three months and helps.

Well, helps Pepper. She mostly falls off her chair, laughing, when she hears what happened.

At least Pepper and Natasha take into consideration things that Steve will enjoy. It's not baseball season, but basketball isn't terrible, even if the Knicks currently are. The game is against the Lakers, who aren't doing as well as they could. "Did you know," Tony says as he casually slips an arm behind Steve's shoulders, "the Lakers used to be in Minnesota?"

"Before that, they were the Detroit Gems in the National Basketball League," Steve says, because he can read Wikipedia articles, too. He leans against Tony's arm and smiles at him.

Tony's eyes unfocus briefly, and then he starts talking about some basketball player who isn't even on either team. Steve just lets the words roll over him.

It's nice, sitting with Tony and talking with him. It's a little strange that now they're pretending to be dating because he couldn't stand to disappoint a little girl with pigtails. It's even stranger because he—

—well, he can't think about that right now. Not with Tony's arm around him and the subtle scent of Tony's expensive cologne in his nose and Tony's breath, warm against his ear, when he turns his head . . .

Steve loses the plot for a minute or two, coming back in time to hear Tony going on about some player Steve is vaguely familiar with—Stephanie Curry, though that can’t be right, can it?. Steve sits up a little straighter, feeling bad that he went off to la-la land; the readjustment brings his face in close alignment to Tony’s. Tony breaks off and turns to look at him, and for a moment they’re eye-to-eye.

"Comfortable?" Tony asks. The question is soft. Steve can’t help but stare at the way Tony’s eyes flick from Steve’s eyes to his lips and back up; it sends a jolt of something far too identifiable through Steve’s stomach.

"Yeah," said Steve, and summons another smile. Tony smiles back, but doesn’t look away, and Steve is finding it hard to want to look back at the game, even though they have to, because—

CLICK! A flash bulb goes off maybe ten feet in front of them. Steve flinches and looks away, the moment broken. "Was wondering when they were gonna get in on that," Tony comments, and squeezes Steve’s other shoulder very lightly.

"No kidding," Steve mutters under his breath.

The constant flash of photographers has gotten worse. Steve’s tolerance for the intrusiveness hasn’t gotten any better, although the way Tony will always, always lean into Steve and put an arm around his waist or shoulders makes the invasion of privacy almost worth it. Steve’s plastic just doing my job, ma’am smile always feels like it softens into something a little too honest when Tony does that, but it seems to make Pepper happy.

"For a couple of people pretending to be dating, the two of you sure are photogenic together," she comments at one point.

"Of course they are," says Natasha. "They’re naturals at it." Steve gives her a strange look at this comment, but she just smiles enigmatically and declines to explain.

In fact, almost no one seems to think it’s particularly weird or awkward that Steve and Tony are pretending to be dating. Or at least, aside from an initial bout of hysterical laughter, none of the other Avengers make any real comments about it. Clint invites them over for movie night same as always, surrendering the loveseat for Tony and Steve to sit on together.

"We don’t have to do the dog and pony show in private, you know," Steve points out. He doesn’t actually mind—far from it—but he feels bad for Tony, having to put up with it.

"Nah," says Tony, and plops down on the loveseat, patting the empty cushion beside him. "It’ll make it look more natural when we’re out in public together." Clint chooses this moment to choke on the beer he’s drinking, going red in the face as he coughs up Bud Light Lime, but he just waves his hand at them when Steve looks over in concern.

"So what are we watching?" Tony asks, even though he has to know that Clint can't answer at the moment.

Clint waves a hand and holds up his beer, his eyes watering and his face inching towards Iron Man Red.

"What? I'm sorry, you think that displaying your atrocious taste in beer is going to get you out of answering my question? It's not, Robin Hood. You know we've got better stuff in a fridge right there." Tony points behind the bar. "And over there." He points to a minifridge in one of the end tables. "And over there." Steve can't see where the third minifridge is, but he's sure it's there.

"What if I was actually choking?" Clint asks a moment later, when he finally can. "Dude, if I died while you were sitting right there, Natasha would kill you." He sounds gleeful.

"No, I wouldn't," Natasha says, dropping over the back of the couch to sit next to Clint, a glass of liquor barely disturbed in her hand. "Not if you insist on drinking that. What are we watching?"

"The Mighty Ducks!" Clint announces, even more gleeful than before.

Steve doesn't know what it's about, but next to him Tony lets out a giant sigh. "Nice try, Katniss, but that movie's about the wrong kind of skating. Why don't we just put on The Cutting Edge and get it over with?"

"Fine," Clint sighs, as though Tony had asked him to give up a weekend at Las Vegas instead of change movies.

"I haven't seen this one for years," Bruce says, wandering in with two bowls of popcorn. He hands one to Steve and holds on to the second. "Thor's coming," he adds.

"Indeed," Thor says, and comes in with a popcorn bowl bigger than Steve's shield.

By the time the movie’s opening scene has finished, Wanda and T’Challa and Sam have all wandered in, taking up various positions on the floor or remaining open couches. Steve is impressed; usually they only get about half of the squad for movie nights. "Where are Carol and Rhodey?" he asks.

"Making good use of their private time, I’m sure," Sam notes.

Steve is about to come back with a reply, but that’s the moment when Tony reaches over and shoves his hand right into Steve’s crotch. Steve honest-to-God yelps, and the bowl of popcorn goes flying, dumping all over Wanda, who is nestled on a pile of pillows and blankets by Steve and Tony’s feet.

"What the hell!—"

"—Wanda, you okay?"

"Tony what the fuck was that—" Steve has turned bright red, everyone is staring, and okay, most people are laughing, but—

"I was trying to get some popcorn!" Tony says defensively. He’s pretty red in the face, too, but thanks to his complexion he doesn’t show it as fully as Steve currently is. Steve tries valiantly to ignore the smirk on Sam’s face, focusing instead on cleaning up the mess the popcorn made.

"Oh, just leave it," Tony says in exasperation. "That’s what I have bots for. Just stay here, okay? I’ll go get some more popcorn, you guys enjoy the movie." Saying so, he hops up, leaving Steve to try to simultaneously cram himself back onto the loveseat and ignore the way Natasha and Clint are exchanging looks, not to mention the way Thor is watching him with far-too-interested eyes.

After that, the movie is pretty much anticlimactic. It's a romantic comedy, of course, about an untrusting figure skater and a former hockey player, and even though Steve hasn't seen every movie made in the sixty-eight years he was in the ice, he's seen enough to know the formula.

"That's so friggin' eighties," Clint says on a sigh, as the ending credits start. Tony'd returned, with more popcorn, but he'd set it carefully between them, and Steve had bemoaned the loss in his own head.

"Should I be glad I don't remember them?" Bucky says, from somewhere behind Steve. He hadn't noticed the other man entering, which is a little strange. Maybe it was when Tony had shoved his hand into Steve's crotch—

He feels his face start flaming red again and can't exactly hide it, but at least people are listening to Tony enumerate the good parts of the 1980s.

Natasha pokes Steve in the side, though. "Toe pick," she says, and for some reason, he finds himself smiling.

* * * * *

The actual figure-skating part of the arrangement is going fairly well, and somehow Steve is the least surprised by that. The coaches that Tony bribed into helping them are an older Russian couple, or at least he thinks they’re Russian until they start speaking to him and he realizes that his basic Russian doesn't let him understand them. He comments to Natasha that evening, and she spouts off something that sounds exactly like what they said. "Yes!" Steve says. "That's it. Can you say it again, slower, so I can catch the differences in the dialect?"

"It's Ukranian from the Northeast, so there's Polish and Czech mixed in," she says. "I could teach you, but it'll just be easier if I come and translate for you."

"Oh, I don't know if we need a translator," he says. "They speak English fairly well, and—"

"Don’t be stubborn," she says breezily. "What time tomorrow?"

Ultimately, Steve acquiesces, because Natasha rarely shows her own stubborn streak, but when she does, it’s impossible to resist her. Naturally, she brings both Clint and Bucky with her to Tony and Steve’s practice the next day. Steve skates to the edge of the ice, leveling a stern gaze at her which she proceeds to totally ignore.

"You just came here to laugh at us," Steve says accusingly.

"That’d be ridiculous," Natasha says. At that moment, her face lights up, her most charming smile appearing as she rises from her seat, looking at someone off to Steve’s right. Steve turns to see the coaches Tony hired approaching.

Natasha says something, a greeting by the tone. Her accent is apparently flawless, given the response.

Nastya Tkachenko’s expression warms minutely. She says something in response, and then there’s some kind of—explosion of language between Natasha and Nastya and Artem, conversation flowing fast and smooth. Steve watches in growing bemusement; he turns when he hears Tony skate up beside him to see the same expression on Tony’s face that Steve is feeling.

"They’re shit-talking us, aren’t they?" says Tony.

Steve doesn’t need to understand Russian or Ukranian to know that Bucky’s next words are a smart-ass remark. He looks over at his friend, who’s slouched in the bleachers. The other three break into laughter, and Steve sighs.

"C'mon, Tony, let's go practice the lift at the end of the second verse," he says.

"Lifts?" he hears Clint say. "Really?"

"Well, it isn't like Steve isn't strong enough," Bucky says.

Steve aggressively tunes them out and holds his hand out to Tony.

It occurs to him a few minutes later, as he's skating in a circle with Tony sitting on his shoulder, that he should worry that somehow Natasha, Bucky, and Clint—probably Clint—could give away their secret. What if they mention something in Russian, and the instructors hear it, and tell someone else? There's practically a whole division of the gossip rag industry devoted to Tony Stark himself, and . . . something might happen—

"Nyet!" yells Nastya, and Steve halts, grabbing the boards for support. She skates over and gets in his face, even if she is more than a foot shorter than he is. "You relax, you are skating properly, and then you tense up, and your lines are wrong. Stop thinking and skate."

"And, uh, maybe put me down first?" Tony says, and it then occurs to Steve that he's still holding the other man. "We need to practice the jump to get me up there again."

"Oh, sure," Steve says, and he does. It's an effort of will to relax, but he manages to fake it for the rest of the practice session.

By the end, Nat, Clint, and Bucky look like a trio of cats who caught canaries, and Steve can't think why. Instead, he shakes his head and goes into the locker room to change.

* * * * *

All in all, Tony thinks that the past three weeks of pretending to date Captain America have been some of the best days of his life, and not just because of Tony’s secret delight at getting to spend so much time with Steve.

Of course, that part is great. Steve is handsome, and charming, and just being in his presence publicly probably makes Tony seem less odious. Sort of how he’s seen Natasha throw on red lipstick and manage to make a ratty t-shirt look glamorous. But also, Tony finds that, in acting like he thinks the sort of person that Steve deserves to date should be, it feels like he’s somehow a better version of himself.

Pepper has already commented on the fact he’s been drinking less, which Tony waved off as sheer flattery. And while Tony doesn’t have to work, exactly, at eating healthy (he has a squadron of personal chefs for Avengers Tower, even if he still loves him some takeout), he’s been more conscious of not wanting to eat crap so that he doesn’t feel like crap when he’s with Steve. He’s been trying to get more sleep, too—although that might just be because ice-skating is shockingly exhausting. But Tony can’t entirely discount the fact that in wanting to get to enjoy and really cherish every single minute of this brief period where he gets to act like Steve’s boyfriend, he finds it much, much easier not to…well. Not act like such a fuck, basically.

He’s trying to keep a handle on things. Tony knows it won’t last; after the competition is over, someone (probably Pepper) will come up with some graceful way to publicly ‘end’ their relationship, and things will go back to normal. But it isn’t until the interview that Tony realizes exactly how much he does not have a grip on it.

Moira Robinson, anchor for a popular local culture and news show, was interviewing all six couples in the competition during the month before, and Tony and Steve's number comes up on a nice Tuesday afternoon, about two and a half weeks before the day itself. Pepper sat them down the day before and went over the list of questions that Moira's producer had sent over, and they came up with nice, safe answers.

At least, they would have had nice, safe answers if the interviewer would stick to the questions. "Well!" Moira says, clapping her hands together. "Unlike the rest of the couples in this competition, the two of you haven't been together very long, have you?"

That one is on Pepper's list, and they have an answer for that. Steve gives it, as they'd discussed. "A couple months now," he says, "but given that we're both such public figures, and everything that happened recently, we wanted to keep it to ourselves."

The interviewer nods sympathetically. "We won't talk about that," she says, as if she's being particularly magnanimous when in fact Pepper negotiated for that to be a no topic. "How did the two of you get together?"

That isn't on the list, and Steve leans forward, but Tony catches him on the knee. "I'll tell the story, if that's okay, hon?" he says. Tony has no idea what prompted him to take the question, but he's in too deep now.

"We were at Stark Mansion," Tony says. "A bunch of other people were there, some of the Avengers and some of their friends. It was Thor’s birthday." Tony can see Steve watching him out of the corner of his eye, but he’s warming to his story now, the words flowing out of him far too easily. Moira is watching Tony just as intently, her expression one of downright delight. "I went into the kitchen to get another beer, and Steve followed me."

"I was actually tipsy, for once," Steve comments. "That doesn’t happen very often for me, because of my metabolism, but Thor’s birthday was unique."

Tony could kiss him for playing along. Among many other reasons. "If you were drunk, I couldn’t tell, and believe me, I’m very practiced at detecting drunkards. Anyway! The short version is, Steve kissed me, and I called him a rude name because I thought he wasn’t serious. He managed to convince me otherwise, and we’ve been together ever since."

Moira all but claps her hands in delight, rocking back in her chair. Tony is studiously not looking at Steve, not wanting to give himself away as to just how well-rehearsed that particular scene is in Tony’s head. It’s not so much a fabrication as a personal fantasy, you could say.

But apparently their time in the hot seat isn’t done. "So then after that? Did you go on a date?" Moira asks, again with too much glee. She knows she's got an exclusive and probably hopes it'll get her from being a regional light-news show host to something national. It's in her best interest to pry and find something interesting.

Tony knows all this, and in the rational part of his brain, he knows he should thwart her. If he was going to do this for real, he'd have done it, like, on Ellen or something. Maybe Oprah. Moira Robinson isn't even that good at her job; good enough not to be completely embarrassing, but she doesn't know how to pursue a topic of questioning, and she talks about herself in a weird way.

That all aside, Tony's mouth decides to go on another tangent. "Oh, it was great. We headed out to a secret undisclosed location—" He winks broadly at the audience, who all laugh appropriately. "—and had dinner, just the two of us, in this tiny restaurant. I swear the booths weren't big enough for Steve's shoulders."

"Tony," Steve protests mildly. He's doing a great job of playing along. "It wasn't that small."

"It was," Tony counters, "but the food was to die for, so you can see why I took you there. Then we took a walk along—well, I can't tell you where, or that would give it away, but it was a lovely moonlit stroll, and we talked the whole time. Last, instead of walking back to the car, I flew him back and, ah, we took the scenic route."

"That sounds fantastic," says Moira. Tony is inclined to agree… but the fact that it’s a big fat lie, one based on some very personal fantasies of his, makes his stomach turn over with anxiety. He fixes a smile on his face, one he doesn’t really feel, and tells himself sternly to keep a lid on it for the rest of the interview.

But apparently he’s either a worse liar than he thought (unlikely!) or Steve is extremely perceptive (which—okay, he definitely already knew that). Because as soon as they get back to the dressing rooms, Steve’s cheerful good humor vanishes like a shirt taken off, and he turns to Tony, frowning. "Are you okay?" he asks.

Tony waves a hand, slipping past Steve to go digging in his briefcase. "I’m fine," he says. "Sorry, I know that got kind of weird there, I should have blown her off—"

"That part’s fine," Steve says. "If a little…. Detailed." Tony isn’t looking behind him, face still buried in his briefcase, looking for some object he can claim he needs, but he can just tell that Steve is staring at his back, arms crossed. He finally pauses when he hears Steve’s sigh. "Tony…"

Tony hates that sound. He straightens up, looking over his shoulder despite himself. The concern on Steve’s face somehow takes him by surprise. "Is this too hard on you?" Steve asks. His voice is very soft.

The anxiety bubble in Tony’s chest deflates slightly; the sense of impending doom recedes somewhat. "It’s not that," Tony says.

"Then what?"

It’s Tony’s turn to sigh. "It’s… I just felt like a shitheel saying all that crap about you. Making up all these details and going on about them for attention. It feels like… masturbating in public, or something." Tony regrets phrasing it that way the second it’s out of his mouth, but it’s already too late.

Steve's eyebrows climb for his hairline, but rather than the dozen other responses that Tony imagines in the pause before he speaks, Steve just says, "Well, if you're sure you're all right, let's just go see what Pepper has to say."

Oh. Right. Pepper will have a lot to say, if Tony's not mistaken. He groans and shoves his head into his hands.

* * * * *

Pepper doesn't actually have that much to say, but she does warn him that he will need to remember that story, in case he is asked again. "Get FRIDAY to make a transcript," she advises, "and memorize it."

"Sure," Tony says. He can't explain to her that he isn't going to need to memorize the story, because it's already memorized.

The eighteen days leading up to the competition are really more of the same: Tony and Steve continue to pretend to be boyfriends, and despite some predictable outrage from more extreme sections of the country, everything goes well. Tony feels a bit like he’s weathering the beautiful spring days before the first serious storm of the season, and no matter how sweet the breeze or how gorgeous the flowers, he can’t totally ignore the dark stormclouds lurking just over the horizon.

But lord, how he tries. Tony figures, he’s got less than three weeks left of this—he’ll regret it afterwards, but he’s going to fucking enjoy it while he can.

He and Steve go out to dinner—publicly, not privately. It’s Steve’s idea, but Tony picks the restaurant. He nearly keels over dead when Steve comes downstairs to meet him at 7 pm, right before they leave, because the sight of Steve is that heart-stoppingly gorgeous. Steve is in a stylish modern suit, skinny lapels and red tie and fitted pants. He flashes Tony an apologetic grin as he gets off the elevator, self-consciously smoothing his hair. "Sorry to make you wait," he says.

"Fashionably late," Tony says, summoning a smile of his own. It’s a fucking miracle he hasn’t lost the power of speech altogether, tongue cleaving to the roof of his mouth like some fool smited by holy wrath. (Tony is not very on top of his scripture.)

They go to an Italian restaurant, complete with marble frescoes on the wall, draping tapestries, and old-timey music. Tony has secured a private booth, so they aren’t interrupted during their meal, although they do get stopped for photos and a few hello’s on the way in and out.

When he sees the photos later—of course FRIDAY finds them for him—he's almost embarrassed at how goofy he looks. How smitten. But Steve comes in and leans over his shoulder to look and says, "I think we're doing a pretty good job of selling it, don't you?" and there's nothing Tony can say but, "Yes."

Pepper wants them to do something with more opportunities for random photos, so Tony lets Steve drag him to the farmer's market in Brooklyn. It takes them forever to get there, but the trip is more entertaining than Tony expects, with Steve's commentary on how things have changed. He’s surprised that Steve has such strong opinions on gentrification, though, and Tony finds himself forced to defend some of Stark Industries' real-estate purchases over the years. At the end he finds himself admitting that yeah, Steve's right, but he owns the buildings now and has to do the best he can by the residents.

Steve's commentary is less pointed and more old-timer-complaining-about-kids-these-days at the farmer's market, and Tony abruptly realizes it's a show. Driving over, it had just been them and the driver in the car, but now everyone can hear them, and now Steve starts complaining about Gros Michel versus Grand Nain bananas. "They tasted very different in 1944," he says.

Which is true, Tony knows about the Chiquita banana problem, but he's seen Steve gobble down two or three modern bananas at a time. He doesn't actually care, he's just putting on a show.

Tony doesn't know why he feels like he won a prize for realizing that, but he does. He rides a high on the feeling for entirely too long, letting Steve drag him around and enduring semi-constant harassment from their adoring public until almost 1 pm. "We should probably head back soon," Tony says reluctantly. They have a public event thing they have to attend—well, Steve is a Good Samaritan who’s attending with Tony as a show of moral support; Tony doesn’t have a choice—and as much as Tony would rather do just about anything else, he’s trying to not shirk his duties as much.

"Just one last thing," Steve says. "Stay right here, I’ll just be a minute." Saying thus, he lopes off into the crowd before Tony can stop him, leaving Tony standing around looking useless. (Or gassy. Clint tells him that Tony’s ‘cranky-face’ looks like he’s eaten too many beans. Then again, Clint’s sense of humor is not what Tony would call sophisticated, so who knows if that’s true.)

Steve returns in short order, though, and what he brings is so somehow unexpected that all irritation at being left to fend for himself flies right out of Tony’s mind. "I saw these earlier," Steve says, holding out an enormous bouquet of mixed lilies and roses, pink and yellow and orange and lilac. Tony accepts them, knowing for a fact that he looks like he’s had the wind knocked out of him. "Sorry to keep you waiting."

"How dare you find me a beautiful bouquet of flowers," Tony’s mouth says, independent of his currently non-functional brain. "It’s like you think we’re dating or something."

Steve graces him with a crooked smile, the one that the newspapers call his gee whiz, ma’am smile, and just loops Tony’s other arm through his own. "Come on," he says. "We should get back so we aren’t late to your event."

"It would be such a shame if we somehow got lost on the way back to Stark Tower," Tony says. "I mean, New York is just so big and confusing. It could happen to anyone."

"Don’t worry, Tony, I’ll protect you," says Steve. Tony elbows him hard in the ribs—but not too hard. He doesn’t want to crush the bouquet.

* * * * *

The fake-dating is nice and all, but honestly, Steve needs a break, which is why he agrees to go on an overnight milk-run with Natasha thirteen days before the competition. They're doing really well on their routine—they've actually added some more difficult jumps and lifts since they started—and Nastya Tkachenko actually smiled and said, "Good, good!" the day before.

He mentions that he'll be gone off-handedly to Tony over breakfast one morning—not that they're really having breakfast together, he reminds himself. They're just in the same room at the same time. He isn't prepared for Tony's reaction, though.

"What? You'll be gone on a mission without me?"

"Well, it's just a quick stealth mission—" Steve tries to explain, but Tony goes on.

"What if you're hurt? Will we still be able to do the competition?"

That doesn't match the "without me" part from earlier, and Steve frowns. "Super soldier healing, Tony. I'll be fine. But—"

"If Natasha lets you get hurt, I'll—I don't know what I'll do, but I'll figure it out before you get back." Tony sweeps up his coffee and a piece of bacon and stalks out of the room.

Steve's left staring at his ass as he leaves—okay, well, maybe Steve doesn't need to stare at Tony's ass, but he does anyway. Then reality catches up to him, and he’s even more floored than he already was. Tony is never at a loss for words; he always has a one-liner, or an acerbic observation, or a metaphor that runs promptly and hilariously off the rails. But Tony Stark is never speechless.

He isn't quite sure what’s just happened, but he's about ninety percent sure that Tony's reaction is playing right into Steve's theory that maybe—just maybe—there's something there other than the play-acting.

But how can he be sure? Tony's reaction when Steve gave him the flowers, at least the first, unstudied reaction, was warm and soft and surprised, not the usual TV-ready Tony Stark trademark face. That moment at the basketball game, Steve didn't think that could be faked, but what does he know? He isn't anywhere near as good at playing the game as Tony is.

Steve sighs and stabs a piece of sausage with a fork. He supposes he’ll just have to wait and see.

He sees Tony just once before he leaves on the mission with Natasha, and only briefly. It doesn’t stop Tony from doing his impression of the Incredible Sulk, but he does at least wish Steve luck before he and Natasha head out.

"Did you two have a lover’s quarrel?" Natasha inquires. She sounds totally blase, which means nothing. When Steve doesn’t answer, she smiles, a little too sly for Steve’s liking, but says nothing else.

At least, not then. She calls him out more than once during their stealth run for being distracted, and rightly so. Steve is honestly embarrassed by how badly his mind wanders. Here they are, infiltrating a warehouse base and neutralizing the handful of guards there in order to get crucial plans for a SHIELD mission in a month, and instead he’s here thinking about how to make things up to Tony when he gets back.

Make what up? he wonders, disgusted with himself. It’s not like he even did anything wrong—it’s not like he and Tony are actually dating, but…

But he still goes straight to Tony’s workshop as soon as they get back, without having debriefed or even gotten out of the uniform yet. And he brings a pizza, mushrooms and sausage and onion—Tony’s favorite—from Tony’s favorite place, the one in the Bronx that only delivers this far over because they know it’s Cap ordering it. The warmth in Tony’s face when he looks up and sees Steve standing in the doorway holding the pizza box is worth the effort ten times over. Steve can’t even bring himself to feel stupid about it, no matter how smirky Natasha is when he finally makes it down to the Avengers locker rooms.

The next day, in a shocking twist—literally—Doom Bots overtake Manhattan, and the Fantastic Four call for reinforcements as the current incarnation of bot has something like a Taser attached to it. Tony starts loudly questioning Dr. Doom's sensibility, since he's sure the bots are as likely to tase each other as not, even though they haven't so far. He also questions Mr. Fantastic's scientific prowess, because it wouldn't be a day if he didn't, but Steve doesn't care. He's just happy that if the Avengers had to get called out, it wasn't while he was gone.

And what a fight it is. Unfortunately the bots are a little sturdier than they look, which is why the Fantastic Four called them in in the first place, and it takes a few hits even from Thor to kill each of them. Hawkeye lights arrows on fire and aims for them, and the Hulk, seemingly impervious to tasing, just smashes them.

Steve and Tony set up a system where Steve deflects the bots off the shield towards Tony, who's powered up his repulsors enough that he can dispatch a bot with three blasts. After a few minutes it's effortless, and Steve finds himself laughing. Before long they're just down to a few bots, and Thor takes them all out with a mighty thunderbolt.

It unfortunately comes with a mighty thunderstorm, rain and hail and the works, which is probably why he saved it for the end. It's barely warm enough to rain, only a few degrees above freezing, but Steve doesn't really care as Tony's picked him up in a side-hug carry and flies him back to the Avengers Tower.

In fact, the only thing he really cares about is finding out whether or not his hunch is right. And he needs to figure it out, stat.

* * * * *

"Hey, Bucky, do you have a minute?"

Bucky glances up at Steve as Steve comes into the reading room, where Bucky is perched on the back of the sofa like a particularly large and aggressive bird. "What’s up, Steve?"

"I need, uh. I need an opinion on something." Steve finds he suddenly has no idea what to do with his arms. He crosses and uncrosses them, finally settling for awkwardly putting his hands on his hips. When he glances up again, Bucky’s face hasn’t actually changed, but Steve gets the distinct sense that he’s being smirked at. Something about the eyes. People have been doing it to him a lot lately. "That’s creepy, y’know."

"Spit it out, Rogers," says Bucky. A grin tugs at the corner of his mouth, breaking the Implacable Russian Spy thing he has going. Steve fights the urge to scowl.

He takes a deep breath, instead. "I—have feelings for Tony, and I think he feels the same way about me, but I’m not sure."

"Wait," Bucky says. "Go over that again. You have feelings for . . . ?" He looks at Steve, head cocked to one side.

"Tony," Steve grits out, after Bucky doesn't go on.

"And you think he feels . . ."

"The same. But I'm not sure." Steve's quick to add the last part.

Bucky slides down the back of the couch until he's sitting normally—sprawling, actually, in the corner. "You're not sure, really?"

"That sounds like you are," Steve says.

"I'm sure you're a punk," Bucky says. "Buddy, I'm not the one you should be talking to, here."

"Yeah, I definitely should have gone to Natasha instead," Steve grumbles.

"No, that's not what I meant and you know it," Bucky says. "Talk to Stark."

"But . . ."

"No buts. Well, I mean, if you're into Stark, that's probably your thing, butts, so there you go. No protesting."

"Some help you are."

"I am very helpful," Bucky says. "Talk. To. Stark."

"Yeah, yeah, I will," Steve says, and as he walks out of the room, adds in his head, Later. When I'm sure.

* * * * *

When Pepper comes to talk to him, Tony is seriously considering the virtues of just—faking his own death. No, that wouldn’t work, and also it’d be too hard on people not close enough to know the truth, Tony thinks. Maybe mind-control? Yeah, that would work. There’s lots of aliens and ancient devices and supervillains running amok, any of which would be a perfect foil to act like Tony’s had his mind wiped clean.

Tony thinks about all the theatrics that would entail, and groans, laying his head against the top of the desk. "Headache?" says a voice from behind him, a little more kindly than he might have expected.

"Not yet, but I’m working on it," Tony mumbles in response. He hears the clacking of Pepper’s high heels as she makes her way around the side of his work-bench to sit lightly on the only semi-clean stool in the workshop. (It stays that way specifically for Pepper to sit on, in her five-thousand-dollar outfits, and Tony has a bot assigned specifically to keep it free of dust, debris, and various alien gel substances.)

"Are you okay, Tony?"

Tony feels Pepper drag her nails lightly along the back of his scalp, a particularly gentle gesture left over from their brief attempt at dating. He whines softly into his bicep, before summoning the dregs of his fortitude and sitting up. "I’m fine," he says. "I’m just—thinking up creative ways for Steve and I to break up, after this. Right now I’m thinking alien abduction with a brainwashing incident. Clint’ll be super into it; the rescue involves him clocking me good to get my mind right."

Pepper cocks one immaculately-manicured eyebrow at him. "I guess that answers my question," she says.

Tony pauses. "I said I was okay," he says, a touch defensive.

"Not that question," says Pepper. "I hadn’t asked it yet."

"Oh," Tony says.

"I was going to ask you if you really thought you could keep doing this to yourself."

"Doing what?" he asks, but he knows it's futile even before the words are out of his mouth.

"Pretending you don't have feelings for Steve," she says.

Tony winces. He opens his mouth to say that he doesn't have feelings for Steve, but Pepper's got that look on her face, the one that says that she's the CEO for a reason, and, well, she is. So he just shakes his head; it's not a negation of what she said about Steve, but he has to respond somehow.

"You know," she says, still gentle, "you could talk to him."

"And say what? 'Hey, I know you're happy to play house with me for this because something something tiny princesses but I caught a case of the feelings and what do you say, let's get sushi without the paps?' Something like that?"

Pepper chuckles, as she was intended to, but sobers quickly. "Maybe not quite like that, but yes."

But Tony just shakes his head. "I can’t," he says. "Steve doesn’t feel that way about me, I don’t think he even likes men, he’s just doing this because he’s the physical embodiment of goodness and light—"

"Don’t put him on a pedestal," Pepper interjects, rather more severely. "And how do you know that? He agreed to do this with you, after all—"

"That’s just because he’s secure in his masculinity and doesn’t have weird interpersonal issues—!"

"Would you just talk to him? Please?"

Tony goes silent for a moment. He can’t say he hasn’t thought about it. (Well, ‘fantasized about it’ would be more accurate.) "I’m too scared of losing him, Pepper," he says, finally. It’s too honest, so much so that he has to stare at the wall in order to get it out. "Guys like me don’t get happy endings with people like Steve Rogers."

Pepper lets out a long sigh. She stands up, tugging Tony to his feet as well, and hugs him tightly. "I wish you would give yourself more credit," she says softly, into his ear.

I wish I could too, Tony thinks, and doesn’t say. He just hugs Pepper back, and mentally tries to put his daydreams of actually being Steve Rogers’s boyfriend back on the shelf he got them down from. But for some reason, they’ve grown so much that they just won’t seem to fit up there anymore.

* * * * *

Steve means to talk to Tony, really, he does, but in the week leading up to the actual competition itself, they're both busy. There's all sorts of interviews and rallies—they've met all of the organization's regular goals and are going for some stretch goals now, including support for a community center. There are also fittings for their costumes, which are . . . Well, Steve wouldn't have picked these costumes, but there they are, skin-tight spandex with patterns approximating their superhero symbols on them.

(Not that he's opposed to the way that Tony's ass looks in the spandex, but sheesh, the fabric leaves nothing to the imagination. He's grateful for the dance belt for a multitude of reasons.)

On top of that, the Avengers are called out twice in three days—nothing that causes injury to anyone, but it takes time and energy. In the end, it means that the only time that Steve's even close to alone with Tony, while they're both awake, is when they're on the ice, and that's not the best time to broach the, "So I think I might like you" topic.

Bucky, fortunately, doesn't actually say anything, or Steve might consider snapping his best friend's head off. Natasha does say something, but Steve's incoherent response that boils down to, "But I'm not sure!" only elicits a cryptic answer from her.

"Who is ever sure in these matters?" she says.

"That doesn't exactly help," he says, and she just shrugs and kicks him in the face. Given that they are supposed to be sparring, he supposes it's an appropriate reaction.

Finally, the day of the actual competition arrives. Steve finds himself inexplicably nervous.

It’s not the performing aspect; they’ve practiced, and this isn’t his first time parading around in skintight outfits to a catchy song for an audience. It’s not even just Steve’s building attraction to Tony and the increasing need to act on it. Steve can’t shake the growing unease that’s been gnawing at him, the sense that something is going to go terribly wrong. It’s so pervasive that Steve actually tells this to Natasha and Clint en route to the ice rink.

(Tony will be meeting Steve there; he has a Stark Industries phone meeting first thing in the AM that apparently can’t wait, so he’ll be arriving slightly later than is kosher, but Steve doubts anyone will care more than Steve himself does.)

Natasha just rolls her eyes at him and tells him he’s being paranoid, which is both expected and useless. Clint, though, claps Steve on the shoulder and says, "You’re just so used to expecting the worst that you don’t know what to do when things actually go right for once."

Steve stares at him. He opens his mouth to say that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard, but then shuts his mouth again, feeling slightly dumbfounded.

He can't dwell on that now, though, and it feels like only minutes pass before Clint's slapping stage makeup on his face, and he and Tony, who grumbled about letting Natasha do his eyeliner, are sitting on the bench in their coordinating outfits, smiling and waving to the crowd.

They're second to last in the competition, behind Neil Patrick Harris and his husband David Burtka. Steve had to suffer through several hours of some show about a child surgeon when Clint found out that NPH was going to be involved as well, so Steve definitely recognizes him. He knows a few of the other couples from their appearances together, and under other circumstances he'd be enjoying the routines, but he's just waiting for something to happen.

It doesn't.

Oh, sure, Tony almost forgets to take the blade protectors off his skates, and sure, they start half a beat late, but overall, the routine goes off without a hitch. Steve doesn't trip during the more ice-dancing parts of the routine; he manages the double toe loop jump that he learned all of two weeks ago without falling on his face; and there are no wardrobe malfunctions. By the time that "Singin' in the Rain" fades out and they end, face to face, Tony bent back over Steve's arm, Steve has almost relaxed.

Well. Almost. Except here he is, with the crowd going wild, his nose an inch away from Tony's, and literally the only thing he can think about is kissing the other man.

So he does.

Steve’s senses shrink to just the feel of Tony in his arms, the warmth of Tony’s body and mouth, the way he’s balanced to make sure he doesn’t let Tony fall. Distantly, he’s aware that the noise of the crowd has increased from ‘concert’ to ‘hurricane,’ that the announcer is saying something (probably embarrassing), but all of that is in a bubble outside of him and Tony. For a few sweet, shining moments, Tony even kisses him back, and nothing else exists.

Then Steve tips them both upright again, his arm sliding down to rest possessively along Tony’s back, and Pepper’s instructions to smile and wave! take over as he and Tony do their lap around the rink en route to the exit. Steve is all too aware of the fact that Tony has gone just noticeably stiff beside him—nothing you would notice unless your arm was resting against Tony’s back, like Steve’s is. Tony is all smiles and warm glances, right up until they pass through the door to the locker room.

And then, with a suddenness that Steve swears he can feel, like someone ripping open his heart, Tony twists away from him and stalks across the room. "Tony—!"

* * * * *

"You ASSHOLE!"

Tony’s shaking. He can feel it, so wobbly he thinks he’s gonna face-plant, and he can’t get out of his fucking skates fast enough to get away from Steve. He’s gotta book it, or he’s gonna do something terrifically embarrassing like start crying in front of the Star Spangled Man With a Plan, and he can’t cope with that.

"Tony, wait," Steve says again, apparently unfazed.

"No! Fuck this, and fuck you, I can’t do this anymore, Captain, you don’t get to do that unless you mean it and we both know you don’t so let’s just stop pretendi—"

"I did mean it," Steve says. His voice is very firm. Tony looks up to find Steve somehow magically already out of his skates, staring directly at Tony with those true blue eyes of his. Tony swallows hard past the sudden lump in his throat.

"Could you say that again?" he starts to ask, but Steve is already repeating himself—and continuing. Tony doesn’t bother to even look around to see if their locker room is as empty as he thinks it is; everyone is probably outside watching NPH and his husband do their routine, but Tony doesn’t give a fuck at this moment.

"I did mean it, and I'm kicking myself for not having the guts to do that weeks ago. It wasn't pretending for me, Tony. Or, well, it was, but only because I wasn't sure you felt the same. Not until I kissed you, and you kissed me back."

Some ridiculous, cowardly part of Tony wants to say, Maybe I'm just a good kisser, but it isn't true—actually, no, it is true, he's awesome at kissing, but it's irrelevant. The rest of him wants to fling himself at Steve and try that kissing thing again, to see what else Steve can read from apparently just one kiss.

But as usual, his mouth gets in the way. "All that just from one kiss?"

Steve doesn't flinch, not exactly, but he does cringe the tiniest bit. "Tell me I'm wrong," he says, and even though he's still wearing the ridiculous blue costume, his shoulders are square and he looks as if he's ready to take on an army.

Over Tony's feelings.

No, for Tony.

Oh.

So Tony goes with his original idea and flings himself back into Steve's arms. There’s about five minutes of breathless, urgent making out, which quickly gets so heated that Tony’s brain is going to fry like an egg inside his skull. It’s actually Tony who breaks away (trying not to giggle like a fucking teenager) and takes a deep breath. "Can we, ah, go somewhere—"

"Get out of these uniforms," Steve suggests.

"Yes, agreed, I need to be wearing less spandex and you need to be wearing less, period." Steve smirks at him, actually goddamn smirks, like he’s the cat that ate that canary, which—that would make Tony the canary. Scratch that, he’s fine with that mental image. "Idea," says Tony.

"Hold on," says Steve. Tony actually whines at him in response to this, and Steve laughs, looking flustered. That’s goddamn gratifying, Tony thinks. "I just—I need you to know that—this is serious for me, Tony, it’s not a fling."

That brings Tony up short, and he takes a second to cobble together the few remaining brain cells not burnt to a crisp by the hotness that is making out with Steve Rogers. "It’s serious for me too, Steve," he says. Tony finds his voice is a little dry, and it’s hard to talk; his grip on Steve’s arm tightens, but he forces himself to keep eye contact. "I didn’t think I had a chance with you, or I would’ve said something, but—it’s serious. I promise."

At this, Steve seems to relax. He gives Tony that lop-sided smile that does things to Tony’s heart, and Tony is just about to tell him that when Steve kisses him again. "Good," Steve murmurs. "Now tell me your idea."

"Well," says Tony.

The "idea" is how they wind up in Tony’s personal limo, which is where Pepper and Natasha have to come find them when it’s announced that Steve and Tony actually placed first. Tony wishes he was less embarrassing of a person, maybe the kind of guy who would feel a little remorse that his CEO and better half has to witness him straddling a certain super soldier’s lap in nigh-on flagrante delicto, but, well, she should have knocked. Natasha doesn’t look particularly bothered, but then, Tony thinks her default setting is ‘smug,’ so whatever.

"Two minutes," Tony tells her breathlessly. Only one of those minutes is spent getting dressed again. By the time they emerge, Bucky and Clint have materialized. If any of their companions are at all shocked, no one says anything.

"You’re gonna be late to accept your award," says Bucky, voice mild. Steve shoots him a glance (which Tony is definitely going to ask about later) and Bucky just shrugs and smiles.

"Right," said Steve. "Let’s go, Tony."

"Lead the way, Cap," Tony says, and takes Steve’s hand. Steve squeezes it, and Tony squeezes back, and they head inside, together, to accept first place.

It’s a huge trophy, and a worthy cause, and there will be video and photographs following them for the rest of their natural lives, but both of them know they're not going to remember this day because of ice skating.