He’s been keeping the words to himself for a while. Not because he’s afraid of them, not really. But because they seem too important to blurt out recklessly. They have weight, and heft, and heaviness, and it feels like uttering them out loud, really saying them, is something he should be at least as careful in as throwing his shield.
Especially to Tony, because this, this thing they have, whatever it is … Steve has loved Tony Stark most of his adult life, but for most of that time, he saw him as a friend, as a brother. Or he told himself that was what he was feeling and refused to look any deeper, and Steve can be stubborn, he knows it—he loves Bucky deeply, intensely, with a well of feeling that settles heavy and warm in his chest and wrenches tight and thick in his throat, and he knows what he feels for him is something not familial but very close, as close as he has had since Sarah Rogers’ eyes fluttered closed the last time and her breath left her on a gasping sigh. He has never wanted to kiss Bucky, and he’d told himself it was the same with Tony even when he found his eyes lingering on the striking softness of his lips, his own thumb rubbing circles into the skin of Tony’s nape when he let a friendly clasp to the back of his neck linger too long.
He has kissed Tony, now, and he knows that his lips are as surprisingly soft as they look, the feeling of them framed by dark hair that scratches lightly against his skin oddly thrilling in a way that catches on something inside of him like a match catching and blazing into light, and the way Tony opens his mouth for him and kisses him back with total abandon, never holding anything back, all lips and tongue and teeth and eager, fervent openness is dizzying. It feels in those moments like Tony is giving him something without restraint, as if he is giving him access to everything he has in him, despite the way that his eyes are still guarded at times when he looks at Steve. (He’s done more than kiss Tony now, and the feeling of Tony’s body and mouth around him, inside him, against him, is a remembered fire whenever he thinks of it, hot and pounding in his pulse and his groin, searing him, and yet it makes him feel oddly like he has come home to the mansion after a hard night of patrolling, that feeling of safety, of security, of groundedness, somehow tied up in Tony’s body, the warmth and weight of him against Steve’s hands.)
That’s part of it, but not the only part. If they had never had that, if he had never learned the slick slow side of Tony’s tongue or the way Steve’s hands fit over Tony’s hipbones, he would still have felt the same way; he knows that now. It has more to do with Tony’s shoulder beside his own and the flash of his smile when he looks at Steve, his jokes inappropriate in the face of danger and the way he rambles when he’s caught up in something, the quicksilver brilliance of his mind and the steady steel of having him at his back. There’s something to be said, though, for quick, hot kisses and the heady feel of his body along Steve’s, and a slow deep passion rolls up Steve’s spine when he thinks of Tony now, along with an affection that seems all-encompassing, bone-deep, as if it has always been there, even when Steve forgot it, forgot that he wants to brush Tony’s unruly hair out of his eyes when it starts to grow out and rest his fingers in the curve of his spine and watch him snort back laughter or wave his hands in the air while he rambles math, wipe smears of grease off his nose and grin at him inhaling his coffee.
It’s strange that even when Steve wanted to punch Tony right in his arrogant, cold, self-satisfied face and see him broken and bleeding, a part of him still wanted to see him smile at Steve, and wave his hands around while he explained his tech, and all the rest of it, but it’s true, and maybe there’s no point to trying to take that apart any further or look for how it makes sense. It’s just true.
Love, Steve thinks, and takes his time with the word, with the concept, letting it form and take shape inside him like a drawing, a sketch of the shape of it first before he fills it in with detail (the skinny arch of Tony’s ankle, the way he sprawls against Steve in bed, the lean lines of his muscle and the inky thickness of his eyelashes and the spicy, masculine way he tastes under Steve’s mouth), adds color and depth a little at a time. Yeah, he loves Tony. It still feels strange to think it like that, like this, because Tony is Iron Man, his fellow Avenger, his comrade and companion and friend, is ol’ Shellhead, and there’s years worth of friendship and camaraderie there that it would be so easy to just settle into, but maybe the way he feels for him now doesn’t have to be separate from that, maybe it’s the same, but with more underneath and on top of it, or maybe he’s just looking at what’s underneath now and it was always there.
He thinks Tony might have always known what Steve had refused to admit to himself until too recently, but it’s hard to tell, hard to tell what he’s thinking sometimes when he looks at Steve and his eyes seem wary, or his posture freezes for a moment before loosening again. Steve has always had some trouble reading Tony, and sometimes the blue of his eyes seems fathomless, impenetrable, his face blank even when it’s smiling and fond. That thought, though, that Tony might have always felt this between them and simply waited, or said nothing, burns Steve, makes him feel guilty for the time he has spent holding the word inside himself, carefully in his hands, keeping it cradled close like it’s his alone and not for Tony, about Tony.
But still he finds himself holding it close and waiting, watching Tony more closely than ever, and somehow he still can’t quite tell how Tony feels about him in return. There are times when he seems so distant, or casual, and there is an old fear that rears its head then, one that had plagued him during his first years in this time—what if he’s too, well, boring, plain, old-fashioned for Tony, for Iron Man, the sophisticated inventor, the futurist, what if Tony isn’t as serious about, as invested in whatever lies between them as Steve is, what if Steve is being stupid, foolish, reading too much into signs that aren’t even really there.
He isn’t often this insecure, but Tony is hard to read, Tony has always been hard for him to read, no matter how many times he captures every one of his expressions in sketches, draws the quirk of his smile, the curl of his hair against the back of his neck, the square set of his shoulders from memory.
But then Tony will do something, will close his eyes tight and lean up into a kiss, hand wrapped so tightly in Steve’s shirt it’s nearly shaking, yanking him close, or he’ll sigh and lean into Steve’s shoulder when he least expects it. Sometimes he’ll say something and smile at Steve, and the smile will be so startlingly open that Steve is left breathless, with none of Tony’s usual masks or dodges or bladed smirks, or he’ll put his work down and look up, turning away from it without a protest, when Steve says his name. There’s the way he laughs at Steve’s jokes, an almost painful tenderness in his voice sometimes, and his eyes are warm and bright when he looks at him or even when he glances away, eyelashes coming down heavy to hide them. Steve thinks they look fond, and he doesn’t think it is entirely wishful thinking. So then … he wonders.
Either way, no matter what Tony feels, Steve’s feelings are the same. That’s not the matter in question—the question is whether hearing them will make Tony hurt, or feel obligated, in a way that Steve never meant to impose. There are times, he is beginning to think, where he has underestimated the pull Tony’s respect for Steve has on him and hurt him through it—because Tony refuses to compromise who he is, but he will hurt if he thinks who he is is not what Steve wants. He doesn’t want that to happen again—what they have now is so very good, and it feels like something Steve has always wanted but never realized he did before. And maybe it’s nearly there, nearly exactly what Steve has always wanted but never realized before, but why would he want to spoil something this good by pushing?
Tony, though, deserves to hear the truth.
It still takes Steve longer than he’s proud of to say it, and he finds himself unaccountably anxious. He tries to think of the perfect time, the perfect moment—maybe on a date, when they’re alone together, but no, what if that ruins the moment, ruins the evening, they don’t get enough chances to go out together as it is—and not during sex, that seems tawdry and cheap—and missions are clearly not the time or place. Not in front of the others.
He realizes soon enough that there will be no perfect time, and instead he seizes a moment when they are alone together in a hallway, none of the others around, takes his chance and pulls Tony close. Tony puts both hands on Steve’s waist and looks at him, expectantly, smiling, with a quip on his lips, and Steve curls both hands around his jaw and smiles back at him. The smile is little over-emotional, he knows, and maybe too tremulous, but there is something unsteady and leaping in his stomach and his pulse feels fast and hot. He smoothes his thumbs over Tony’s jaw as he leans their foreheads together. “Tony,” he says, and stops for a moment, trying to find the words.
“Steve?” Tony asks, his brow creasing. He moves a little closer, aligning their bodies, until his warmth is pressed close all along the front of Steve’s legs, his chest and torso, shoulders just under Steve’s shoulders, against his chest, as if he thinks Steve might need the support. He’s worrying him, Steve realizes, and makes his smile brighter, steadier, more reassuring, with an effort of will, even as Tony’s thumb rubs at his side and his fingers curl a bit into the fabric of Steve’s shirt, braced against his back as if to steady him.
Steve takes a deep breath and blows it out, looks into Tony’s face, framed between his own hands, and thinks about all the years he’s known this man, all the things they’ve gone through together—he’s seen him pale and bleeding, his jaw set in determination, sallow and heartbroken with tears in his eyes as he told Steve with slurring, drunken anger in his voice that Steve didn’t understand, seen him angry and hurt and hard-edged with pain and bitter stubbornness, seen his eyes blown and his face intent with desire, seen him laughing and amused and even happy, though not nearly as often as Steve would’ve liked. In the end the words come easily; he looks into Tony’s questioning blue eyes and says, as easily as breathing, “I love you, Tony.” He smiles a little, relieved that he got the words out, and knows it shades into foolish, broad and beaming. “That’s all. I love you. I just wanted to say it out loud.”
Tony stares at him a moment. “I assume you don’t mean as a friend,” he says, and his voice sounds oddly blank. His hands still rest at Steve’s sides, but they feel heavy, suddenly nerveless. Steve feels trepidation rising within him, and fear twists in his stomach. That wasn’t exactly the reaction he was hoping for.
“That too,” he says, “of course, but no, I mean … as a … as a lover.” He firms his hands a little, makes his voice clearer, stronger, again. “I mean, I’m in love with you.”
It shocks him, the way Tony’s face just … crumbles, crumples in on itself, his mouth twisting and his shoulders seizing up. He looks at Steve and he looks utterly terrified, his face white, drained of color, his eyes wide and frantic, a little glassy with terror, his mouth set. Steve knows what fear looks like on Tony's face, and he's seeing it there now. “You can’t,” he says, and his voice is desperate. “You shouldn’t. Not me.”
And that isn’t what Steve expected, either. He has to struggle to swallow. His throat suddenly aches, and his hands are sweating. “Why not?” he asks, and surely he can be forgiven for the tightness in his voice. This … this wasn’t a reaction he’d expected.
Tony winces and looks away. Steve lets him, lets his hand slide down to rest at the back of his neck. “Because I …” he says, and takes a deep breath, swallows. Steve can see him firming his shoulders, squaring them, his back straightening, and that—that worries him, somehow. Tony looks like he’s preparing for a fatal blow, and he’s shaking, all through his body, Steve can see it as well as feel it.
“Why not, Tony?” he asks again, more gently, interrupting before he can finish whatever he was going to say. “I don’t expect anything from you, that’s not why I said it. What we have already is fine. I just wanted …” he knows his smile is rueful, and his throat still feels thick and sticky, the smile sickly on his face, “to let you know, that’s all. You deserve to know.”
“No,” Tony says, and shakes his head. He turns his head back to face Steve and his eyes are flashing, furious; he looks the way he looks in the middle of a fight. “No, we’re not doing this. You’re not doing this. You can’t. Stop," he says, his voice tight. "Stop it right now. You can't."
“I think I can,” Steve says stubbornly. He feels his shoulders straighten, his chin come up, and he knows he’s settling into an approximation of parade rest, what Tony calls his ‘recruiting poster’ look—Tony—but he can’t help it. “And I have. I do.”
“Well, you shouldn’t,” Tony shoots back, nearly snarls. “I’m not love material, Steve. I’m no good for … this. I’m okay as a friend, sure, maybe, and I’m good for a fuck, but this?” He takes a deep breath, a few steps back, fists one hand in his hair, carding it back off his face, looking frantic and beleaguered, and it’s the sort of look that seeing on his face always makes Steve want to go to him, put his arm around him, support him somehow. But he can’t, because this is because of him. Somehow he’s done this. “I really screwed up, didn’t I?” Tony says with a brief, sharp laugh that is harsh and bitter and edged, hardly a laugh at all. “Christ. I should have known. I should have known that you wouldn’t be content just to fuck me, that you wouldn’t settle. You’re Captain America, of course you’d fall in love with me, damn it. How could I have been so stupid? Stupid, and, and selfish—”
God. “I had something to do with that, too,” Steve says, and his voice comes out soft, too soft, too subdued. He swallows past the rawness of his throat and takes a step forward, trying not to take it personally when Tony’s shoulders flinch, though he doesn’t back away. “This isn’t all on you.” He lays one hand on Tony’s shoulder, carefully, pulls him back in. “You don’t have to feel the same way that I do,” he says, and Tony looks at him like he’s speaking nonsense. “I don’t care what you’re,” Steve has to swallow, hard, when he thinks about the things Tony said about himself, “good for. I care about you. That’s it. That’s all.” And it really is that simple, isn’t it?
“I should have seen this coming,” Tony protests, and his voice is wretched, horribly distressed in a way that has always knotted Steve’s stomach, that he’s never ever wanted to hear, but especially not because of him.
Steve feels hot and cold at the same time, and a little dizzy, a little sick, but he makes himself take a deep breath and rests his hand gently against Tony’s neck, runs it up to brush his fingers over Tony’s chin, tilt his face gently back toward him. “Maybe you should have,” he allows. He doesn’t think he was being that subtle, after all. He tries a little bit of a smile.
Tony stares at him, and Steve feels the smile fade. But no, he’s not going to give up that easily. “I mean,” he says, and runs his fingers gently along Tony’s cheek, moves his other hand over Tony’s shoulder while he does, “Tony. I wouldn’t do all this with just anyone. I wouldn’t make eyes at you the way I know I do over dinner just because I think you’ve got a cute behind. I wouldn’t spend all the time I do with you for some other reason than liking your company. What did you think was going on here?” He brushes his knuckles over Tony’s lips, skimming them lightly against the soft, warm skin, and he feels Tony’s breath catch even as he moves to set both hands against the back of Tony’s neck. “What did you think I was doing with you?” he asks, low and even, and feels like he’s trying to will him to understand.
Tony swallows, and it looks like a spasm. His eyes close. He looks like he’s in pain, his chest heaving deliriously. “I just thought …” he says, and his voice catches, stops in his throat. “I thought I’d … you’d. That it wouldn’t … last.” He swallows, looks away, muscles twitching. He looks like he wants to run but won’t let himself. “I do have a cute behind, though, right?” he says, finally.
And Steve has to smile, because at least that’s Tony. “Tony,” he says, but he runs one hand down his back, loops his fingers in his belt loops and tugs him closer. “You thought I’d get tired of you? Is that it?”
Tony opens his eyes again, looks down, and sighs, heavily. His hands come up and trace lightly down Steve’s chest. “It’s just,” he says. “I … why me?”
The question flabbergasts Steve, leaves him reeling. “Why you?” he repeats.
“Well, yeah,” Tony says, as if it’s obvious. He swallows. “I mean, I don’t know if you remember this, but I got the last person I dated regularly killed.”
“That wasn’t your fault,” Steve says, aghast.
“Yes, it was,” Tony mutters. “She loved me, too, and look where that got her. It’s just not a good idea, Steve.” His hands fist, flex, work open again, his fingers twitching. “Not a good lifestyle choice.”
“I make my own choices,” Steve says. Insists. “God, Tony, I—why you?” Of all the questions. Isn’t it obvious?
And Tony looks at him, and his eyes are— there is something in them, despite the stubborn set of his jaw, something dark and uncertain and lost, questioning. “I’m not love material,” he says again, softly. It sounds very final. “I hurt people, I fuck things up. I’m a mess, and you could have anyone.”
“That doesn’t matter,” Steve says. Why does Tony think that matters? Does Tony really think Steve is so faint-hearted, to choose who he loves based on convenience, or personal gain? He takes Tony’s face in his hands again and looks at him, intently, takes a deep breath and tries to will his own certainty into Tony through his eyes, his hands. “I love you, Tony Stark,” he says. “I could … I could list a hundred different reasons right now, and you deserve to hear them all. It’s just …” He gives Tony a rueful smile. “I guess I don’t know where to start.”
Tony blinks at him, his eyes wide, disbelieving, and Steve just plunges into it, no longer worrying about how it comes out, just wanting to soothe that disbelief away, replace it with understanding, though he’s starting to wonder if that’s possible.
“I love the way you take your coffee with you into the shower. The way you breathe into the back of my neck in bed and call me sometimes when you’re falling asleep in some foreign country. You won’t admit that it’s because you miss me, but I know. I love the way you spar with me and won’t give up even though we both know you’re outclassed and talk about your projects with me even when I haven’t got a prayer of following you.”
Tony blinks again, and a small smile wavers, wobbles, at the corner of his mouth. Is this getting through to him? Steve takes a deep breath and continues, finishing up.
“You’re stubborn and contrary and infuriating and full of yourself and you have one hell of a smart-ass mouth, and you’re generous and courageous and heroic and . . . and good, and you talk to me like I’m a person, like I’m me. Steve Rogers, not Captain America. And you laugh at my jokes.” He shakes his head, stroking his fingers along Tony’s cheeks. “Tony,” he says. “You gave me a home.”
“And look what happened to that,” Tony says quietly, but his mouth is quirked oddly, his shoulders hunched in on himself, his eyes trained on Steve’s like he can’t quite believe what he’s hearing, and he’s hardly breathing.
“You’re an idiot,” Steve tells him, “you know that? You’re the stupidest genius I’ve ever known. My home is right here.” He closes his hand around the back of Tony’s neck and pulls him into a kiss.
Tony makes a noise, startled and low in the back of his throat, but his hands settle on Steve’s waist again and then tighten, pulling Steve into him, and they’re kissing. Tony’s mouth is hot and wet and desperate and slides unsteadily over Steve’s, and it is the clumsiest kiss he’s ever had from him. Steve leans into it, treasures every moment of it, sucks on Tony’s tongue, his bottom lip, opens his mouth and drinks it in eagerly.
When they pull away, Steve is breathless and Tony is gasping unsteadily, his eyes closed and his mouth swollen and wet. Steve keeps his hand at the back of his neck, doesn’t let him go too far, holding him close, close in against his chest. “I can put my back against you,” Steve murmurs, finally, and it feels like everything he’s been trying to say and failing.
Tony gasps, and Steve can feel the pounding, too-quick beat of his heart, the tumbling rush of his pulse. “What happens when I’m not there?” he asks, finally, opening his eyes. “When you can’t? Or if I’m not strong enough? Because, I mean, seriously, Steve, we both know … .” He sighs, takes a deep breath and blows it out, looking down. “We both know,” he says more quietly.
“Then I’ll wait until you come back,” Steve tells him, and cups his jaw more firmly in his hand. “I know you, remember. You'll be strong enough.” He squeezes a little, making his point. “And if you need to lean on me, I’ll be here, too.”
“Steve,” Tony says, looking at him, and he sounds like he is in agony. “Steve, I—”
Steve waits. His breath catches in his throat, and he doesn’t interrupt him, not this time, because there is something in Tony’s eyes, his face—
“I love you, too,” Tony says, and his face is set in fierce, furious lines, as if he has to grit the words out. His hands shake again, at Steve’s waist. “I love you. I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I didn’t want to—to make you feel like you had to do this, I was going to just keep it to myself. You’ll be disappointed, I know it, that’s the best thing that can come out of this, that you’ll be disappointed, but I … I love you.” He lets his breath out, shuddering, and closes his eyes again. “I have for a long time.”
“So it’s mutual, then,” Steve says, and grins, because he’d just said Tony was brave, hadn’t he, and here he was proving his point. He holds Tony tighter, pulls him in even closer, and he can’t help kissing him again.
Tony makes a surprised noise, and then kisses him back, and his hands stroke at his sides, clutching and almost clumsy, patting up and down his ribs and then holding close, and he melts into him like he doesn’t want to remember how to breathe, or like Steve’s mouth is the only thing he needs. Finally it’s Steve who has to pull him away again so Tony can get a breath, and he strokes his fingers through the hair at the back of Tony’s neck and leans their foreheads together again. Tony’s eyes are closed, and he’s panting, but finally he says, rough and rasping and utterly breathless, “Yeah, it’s mutual.”
“Love you,” Steve says, before he can apologize again, because this isn’t something to apologize for, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, and presses a kiss to his temple, the high arching line of his cheekbone, the rough skin of his cheek. “Love you, Tony.”
And Tony makes a sound that is almost a sob, even though his eyes are dry, his lashes pressed tight against his cheeks. His hands clutch Steve closer, and he doesn’t pull away.