He was going to kill Tony.
Steve stared at the newsstand, more specifically at the stack of tabloid magazines proclaiming: “New York’s most shocking Relationship!”, “Hottest New Couple since Brangelina: Captain Ironman!” and “Ultimate Gay romance”. On all of those marvels of journalism was a picture taken at the latest dancing monkey event the Ultimates had been arm twisted into attending, or the latest everyone beside Jan and Tony, who didn’t need any coercion, had been arm twisted into attending.
Steve gritted his teeth. He always forgot that the press nowadays felt entitled to every little details of its public figures lives and compelled to publish every little scrap of information it got its hands on, be it true or fabricated. Thank god, they had never managed to follow him to Gail and Bucky’s house, though a couple of bastards had tried.
Betty had been pissed at that particular lawsuit and had even made Steve apologize publicly. Apparently, the Paparazzi could follow you around snapping your picture, but if you took their camera and snapped it in half, and threatened to do the same thing to their face, you got brought up on charges.
He noticed people tailing him on the street, but at those damned events they and their god-forsaken camera flashes were everywhere and they faded in the background after a while. Which was how one of them had managed to get a photograph of Tony with an arm around Steve’s waist leaning in to kiss him on the check like he was Steve’s sweetheart. Damn Tony and his lack of personal boundaries, and damn his love of messing with people by acting flamboyant and affectionate. And damn Steve for forgetting where he was and rolling his eyes instead of pushing him away. The tabloid obviously thought he was Steve’s sweetheart. Or they figured they would make money by printing they believed it.
In any case the result was the same, plastered in full Technicolor on the front page.
Tony must have been having a good laugh somewhere in his gaudy mansion, probably spilling expensive alcohol all over his equally overpriced dressing gown in an effort to control his chuckles. Steve took a deep breath and told himself it was only the tabloids. Maybe the more broadsheet press, and really, in Steve’s opinion it was only marginally more professional than it’s sensational cousin, was going to ask them about it and speculate for a while, but no one of consequences was going to take it seriously.
“Hey! Here you are! It’s not nice not to tell your teammates that you’re dating another teammate.”
“Shut it Clint,” Steve snapped, picking up his pace so he would cross the living room quicker.
“Oh come on, lovebird. Don’t get mad.”
Steve stopped and did a turnabout to tell Clint… Well, something, when he noticed what was on the TV.
“… Role models. Well actually I think, if those rumors have any truth to them, that it would make them wonderful role models for LGBT youths who are sadly lacking in that department.”
He opened his mouth, closed it.
“Yeah, another group that sees you as the greatest role model, aren’t you glad?”
“Turn that damn thing off. And don’t call me lovebird!” He stalked off.
Pietro, Clint and Wanda just laughed at him.
“Wow, the stick up his ass is bigger than usual today,” Jan fake whispered loud enough that everybody could hear.
Steve slammed the front door. Time to go for walk.
“Are you Captain America?” The middle aged man behind Steve in the line at the subway shop asked.
“Yes,” Steve answered cautiously. You never knew how people would react, from dames taking their clothes off for him to signs to getting doused in red paint by hippies screeching about mass murder.
“They say that you and that Tony Stark are fucking.”
“Last week they said Wanda was pregnant a roosevelt alien,” he shot back as his sandwich was rung up. Really? Why did people take this drivel at face value.
“I just don’t think it’s right for you to wear the flag when you’re gay, you’re supposed to represent this country,” the man scowled.
“Well unfortunately for you, this country was build under the principle of freedom and liberty for all,” Steve rolled his eyes. So much for the future’s vaulted social enlightenment.
Steve wasn’t sure what he had been expecting when Betty Ross had asked to see him and Tony in one of the mansion’s half finished new conference rooms. But this wasn’t it.
“You want us to do what?!”
“You heard me the first time, Captain,” Ross said with that annoyed look she got whenever the Ultimates didn’t jump to her command. “So don’t waste my time.”
Steve was going to kill Betty Ross. And Tony.
“You can’t be serious,” He tried, even though he knew from experience she was always serious.
“Spare me the outraged old man routine, Rogers. I know for a fact that you participated in your fair share of stunts to boost War Bond sales in your days. Hell, in your days the movie studios ran their actors’ public lives with an iron fist. And they did it for the same reason we’re doing it now: Romance sells. Everyone loves couples and, right now, we need all the love we can get. Do I need to remind you of the rumors about Hank and Janet Pym’s relationship being abusive...”
Rumors? Steve could understand not wanting the abuse to be public. but could she not make it sound like it had never happened?
“...and the “little” scuffle Thor got into with the Phoenix police department.”
“Now, Ms. Ross,” Tony said, leaning against the wall and gesturing with his scotch glass- it was not even 10 in the morning, but Steve had stopped being shocked or surprised a while ago- like he was at a cocktail party and not in a room that still smelt of carpet glue and whose furniture was covered in sheets. “He was just exercising his constitutional right to protest.”
“He got caught on camera flipping a police car and calling the officers ‘corrupt government dogs’, the protesters were claiming a major pharmaceutical company was poisoning the water supply.”
Tony shrugged. “Business as usual then.” And Steve had to shrug with him. This was what Thor did, what he had done long before joining the Ultimates and with everything that had happened since Steve had gotten out of the ice, he wouldn’t put it past said corporation to really be poisoning the water.
Betty massaged her temples. “Nevermind Thor. And nevermind that everyone and their brother saw Doctor Pym help the Liberators. The public needs to know that the Ultimates are the right persons to wield the amount of power you do. We need to show them that the Ultimates are sane, responsible grown-ups capable of healthy, stable, grown-up relationships- You make one crack about me and Bruce,” she pointed a finger at Tony without looking at him. “And I will hurt you- and as much as it pains me to say, you two are currently our best bet, so suck it up, soldier.”
“Absolutely not,” Steve gritted out, just getting over the sheer gall of the woman, ordering him to pretend to be with someone- and with a man too!
Betty turned away from Steve and toward Tony. “I have booked a TV appearance for the two of you to confirm you are head over heels for each other next Wednesday at 11AM. Makes sure he shows up and says the right things.” She told him, speaking over Steve in a way that made him wish he hadn’t been raised not to hit dames.
Tony nodded and gallantly took Betty’s arm to escort her out of the room. He opened the door and gestured at her to pass with exaggerated politeness and then told Betty just as politely "We'll think about it." Before slamming the door shut in her face.
They heard a snarl from behind the door but nothing else. Apparently Ross had decided to concede defeat... For the moment.
"Now," Tony says, dusting his hands off three times in a stereotypical "good riddance" gesture. "Let's talk about this. Ah!" He held up a hand when Steve opened his mouth to shut him down. "We're not part of S.H.I.E.L.D. anymore. She does not have the authority to order you and no one is going to. But how about we weigh the pros and cons of this before we write it off, hmm?"
Steve took one good look at Tony's smiling face and eyes that were honest to god twinkling and rolled his eyes.
"You're enjoying this." Of course he was.
"Of course I am! It's not everyday I get the opportunity to legitimately oggle- and fondle a bit too, maybe?..."
Steve gave him his best glare, not that it ever seemed to have an effect on Tony.
Tony held his hands up defensively. "Hey, realistically, some amount of physical contact would be necessary…"
"You are not selling it here, pal," Steve kept his expression stern but it was hard to stay offended at Tony, the man was slippery that way.
"Alright, ogling then, the opportunity to ogle Captain America and troll the media at the same time. So yes, I think this is a splendid idea. Come on, let's sit." he gestured toward the conference table.
The chairs were still in their plastic wrap. They sat.
"Ok," Steve crossed his arms over his chest.
“Now,” Tony crossed his legs. “You know that once something like that is written, you can deny it all you want, someone is always going to believe it. And a good portion of the ones that don’t believe it will always wonder. But we can take advantage of that. Because to be serious, we do need a bit of positive publicity.”
“And this would bring positive publicity?”
You couldn’t argue that the situation had gotten vastly better for homosexuals since the 40s. For one thing, neither Steve nor Tony would be hauled to jail for sodomy if they did announce to the whole country that they were… well practicing sodomy. But even if it was legal Steve knew damn well that not everyone thought it was swell.
“Oh yeah, surprisingly enough. The simulations have been run, by myself and others and all point to an overall positive response. Oh, don’t get me wrong, the conservatives are going to clutch their pearls and hail the end of American values but they’ve been doing that for so long that the only ones still listening to them, is them. We’ll be the new darlings of the bleeding heart liberals- at least the ones not holding a grudge for putting Thor in prison- until the next time we do something that proves we’re all government dogs jumping as the Man commands. Middle America? Well they might think being Gay is ok, they might think it makes us slightly weird but it’s no skin off their nose. And they’ll cheer the new exotic, cute couple.” Tony drained his glass in one go. “It’s not even that big a departure from usual for me. I’ve been openly bisexual ever since that male model from my 19th birthday party, granted I’ve been on a women kick lately and the media as a collective has the attention span of a goldfish, but still, anyone who looks already knows I’m not straight.”
“And me?” Steve asked, curious of what Tony would have to say to that. Captain America was the Ultimates’ best symbol.
“You?” Tony leaned forward, smile wide and gleeful as if Steve was the best part. “My dear, dear Steven, the world could stand to be reminded that America means more than white, straight and protestant.”
Bastard. Steve thought fondly. Tony knew this was an argument that would appeal to Steve, except…
“Except I am not…” he discarded the first word that came to his mind and searched for another.
“Gay,” Tony supplied helpfully. Steve nodded.
“Yes. I’m not gay. And we’re not together.” he said. Uncomfortable.
“We’ve told bigger lies.”
Steve winced. Tony had him there. The Ultimates had done more than their fair share of spinning the truth to their advantage before. Hiding the fact that the Hulk was one of them the time he rampaged through Manhattan was a prime example and although Steve might have felt guilty then, he had still gone with it willingly. Too late to play the honesty card now. But this? This was different.
“How about we go on a trial date?” Tony said suddenly, broking Steve out of his brooding.
“You, me, some romantic little restaurant where we can figure out if we can do this…”
And by that he obviously meant “If Steve could do this”
“…before we take the big plunge in front of national television.”
“So that people can take pictures with their cell phone and then it’ll be a done deal?”
“You wound me, Rogers. That’s cheating, what would be the fun in that? No, I mean the kind of dates I go on when I don’t want them splattered all over the news. Come on,” He put a hand on Steve’s forearm and Steve half expected him to use the occasion for a lingering rub but he only tugged. “I’ll be a perfect gentleman, I swear. And if you’re still so against it then we’ll find another way to give the public some faith in the team.”
Tony’s face had the earnest daring expression Steve had seen on plenty of boys- hell plenty of soldiers- before they dragged their pals in some kind of jam or other. Steve usually had known better, he did know better now but Tony was the kind of guy that made you want to go along with him.
“Well, if you promise to be a gentleman.”
Steve could see Gail’s silhouette moving around the kitchen of her house and he knew that at this hour Bucky was often working in his garden, but he could make himself move from his spot against a wall one block away. Agreeing to a “date” with Tony had been easy back in that room, with Tony being his usual nonchalant and laughing self, making it sound like a lark. A few hours later, it didn’t seem like such a little thing anymore and Steve was having second thoughts.
He wanted… someone to talk it over with, a friend. But Bucky and Gail were his only friends. The only friends he trusted with his daily troubles as opposed to his back in battle. But how could he talk to them about that?
The truth was, if Steve was being brutally honest with himself, that for a good part of their life together Steve had had a crush on Bucky. It was not something he had admitted to himself for a long time. And he still had a hard time thinking it. But there it was. He had had a crush on his best friend and even now, in the 21st century, it still made his stomach twist with a mix of shame and dread.
It was… not quite everything the bullies had thrown at him, but a it had a good deal to do with it. Small, thin, weak, Steve. Who couldn’t hold a man’s job and worked in the factories with the dames. How easy was it to associate him with the sissies and the nancy boys? How many times those insults had been thrown at him? And he wasn’t! Steve was braver and stronger, where it really counted, than any of those brutes. As much if not more of a man than them. So his feelings for Bucky were not only a violation of their friendship it was also like proving all the neighborhood boys right.
Back then, back then Steve had done his damned best to believe it was something else. Bucky was his best friend, his only friend. They had grown up together, like brothers. Of course they were close. Nothing more to it. And then there was Gail.
Gail. This was another thing that made Steve’s blood turn cold whenever he entertained the thought he might be like that. He had been drawn to her, those feelings had been real, but how much of her interest in her had been because she was a woman and so it proved he wasn’t a homosexual? And how much of his attraction to her had been due to the fact that she was an ambitious reporter with every intention of hanging on to her job after the war and a personality miles away from the sweet, amiable girls lauded as the feminine ideal? That too, made him twist with shame, that he didn’t know, that he couldn’t be sure he loved her because she was an amazing woman or for those reasons.
The National Anthem started playing. Steve fished his phone out of his pocket.
“You’re not getting cold feet are you, sweetheart? Tony’s voice came through, not letting Steve the time to answer. “Cause it’s getting close to time to go and you’re nowhere to be seen. We’re still on, right?”
And suddenly Steve was 8 again and hearing “I bet you’re too chicken to…” from James Sullivan of apartment 7D.
“I had errands to run, I’ll be back in 15. Anything special I should wear?”
“Nope. Just nothing distinctive or associated with you. That means no flag or items of clothing that belongs to someone in his 90s.”
“Funny,” Steve hung up and stared at his phone. Well, no going back now.
Maybe Jan was onto something when she male pride was the biggest downfall of males.
“I am so glad you came.” Tony said as they got into the- for Tony- remarkably drab car, Tony into the driver seat, no Happy tonight, and Steve in the passenger seat.
Steve rolled his eyes. Despite this being a classic Tony sentence, the man managed to make it especially flamboyant today.
“Should you be driving?”
“Oh, pffffff.” He waved a hand around, wrist strong or Steve would have called bullshit right there and then, while he negotiated the turn to get out of the garage one handed. “I’ve had two glasses of whiskey at lunch and then one bourbon around 6. For me this is sober as church,” He reached to pat Steve’s thigh reassuringly and Steve batted his hand away. Tony took his eyes off the road long enough to shoot him an innocent look that was picture perfect except for the fact that Steve knew the man was a libertine and loved to rile Steve up. Steve responded by crossing his arm and looking levely at him, daring him to try it again.
And the game was on.
For the 30 minutes it took to get to their destination, look for a parking space and walk up to the restaurant, Steve was deeply engrossed in thwarting every one of Tony’s little attempt at invading his personal space and/or touching him in a more than strictly platonic way. He batted wandering hands away, ignored Tony’s chivalrous hand out of the car, ducked out of would be embraces once they started walking and leaned away whenever he tried to lean in. And every time Tony would give him the most ridiculous overblown pout. It was great fun until he caught a glimpse of their reflection in a passing window and the image of a man and a woman from his time, the man leaning in and the woman stopping him with a hand on his chest and a blush, firmly establishing that she wasn’t a girl you could toy with, flashed in his mind.
It made him uncomfortable and awkward all over again, so when they came up to the restaurant’s door- a small understated mom-and-pop Italian restaurant, apparently Stark could do low-key- he opened the door for Tony and once they were inside he drew his chair for him to sit.
Tony took it as his due.
Of course. Of course the bastard wasn’t bothered by it. Worse, from the smirk he was sporting, Steve could tell he knew why Steve had done it. Stark 2- Rogers 0.
Tony leaned in and put a hand on his forearm. “Hey, it’s not a competition, you know?”
Steve felt his cheek and ears redden. Had his face been that easy to read? He was trying to think of a witty reply when they heard someone clear his throat. They raised their hand to see their waiter, a young twenty-something kid that looked like he was the son or the nephew of the owner, standing in front of their table with menus in hand.
And they had been sitting close to each other, touching and looking into each other’s eyes. God, what a pictures they must have been. He forced himself to stay where he was and not jerk his arm back. A date, they were pretending to be on a date. He had agreed to pretend to be on a date and two people on a date would not jerk apart.He braced himself For the waiters reaction.
“Sorry,” Tony said jovially, accepting the menus and giving one to Steve. “First date.”
“Oh?” The boy smiled at them. “Well I hope you have a good evening here then. Now, can I get you anything to drink?”
That was it?
No matter how many time he did it, Steve still hated preparing for an interview.
“Ok the ‘Because it would have gotten me thrown out of the army with dishonorable discharge’ can stay, but don’t say it like you want to bite someone’s head off and ‘because it’s none of your business’ won’t cut it but maybe we could go with something along the line of ‘I had things to figure out and I wanted to do it in private’...”
He especially hated prepping for an interview with Betty Ross.
“Hi, it’s a pleasure to meet you.”
After being assailed by a small army of make up artists and stylists, Steve and Tony finally met the host of the show in what the assistant had called the green room. She was an attractive woman in her mid-thirties that looked vaguely familiar to Steve. She shook their hands.
“I’m Barbara Jones.”
“Pleasure to meet you.”
“Sit, sit, Captain... May I call you Steve? It creates a better atmosphere for the show.”
“Steve then,” She smiled, sitting in an armchair, leaving the couch in front of it for them.
They sat, Tony put himself so close their thighs touched and put a hand on Steve’s knee. Steve tensed for a second before he remembered they were supposed to act as a couple and forced himself to relax.
“We’re not used to showing affection in public quite yet.” Tony told Ms. Jones. What that meant was Steve wasn’t used to showing affection in public and the woman understood that very well. She gave Steve an indulgent smile.
It took some effort but Steve was reasonably sure he managed to keep his face pleasant. He hated when people looked at him like that. He had never liked it back when it had been due to his lame leg and he liked it even less now. That patronizing air, as if having being born in an age before cellphones and the internet and the sexual revolution made him simple minded. Personally Steve didn’t think any of those were particularly impressive.
“Alright then, Let’s go over the interview. It’s going to be in two parts. First we’ll have a sort of conversation where we’ll establish your sexual identity and how you met and when you fell in love, those kind of things. And then after a commercial break we’ll move on to a question period where members of the audience can ask you questions. Everything good so far? Great. So to go into more details: as far as the public knew you were completely straight...”
“Welcome back to The Morning Show, I’m Barbara Jones and for those of you who are just joining us we have two very special guests today, Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, also known as Iron Man and Captain America.”
Steve smiled and nodded when his name was mentioned. Tony gave a little wave. They had survived the first round and after an all-too-short commercial break, they were back on for the question segment.
So far it hadn’t been too bad. It was both better and worse than the other times the Ultimates had had to lie in front of the camera. Better because this time there was no lives involved. They were not trying to claim they were not responsible for people losing loved ones, homes or livelyhoods. Or to paint themselves as the good guys when they were only marginally better than those they had put down. It was worse in that this was about their private lives, about a subject that was extremely… difficult for Steve. And here they were making a mockery of it.
But the story they had concocted was simple enough and fit their personalities if you ignored the fact they would never date. Or well, Steve would never date Tony, Tony had made it very clear he was very agreeable to this pretend turning real if Steve ever felt like it. Steve had so far managed to pull the interview off, contrary to Jan’s prediction that he would blow a gasket mid-way.
“And now I would like to start with question time. People in the audience but also at home have been sending us questions they would like to ask our couple. Here is the first one from Matthew, 27, Queens: He says: You started your relationship right after you became independent from S.H.I.E.L.D, a paramilitary organisation. Is there a link between those two events?”
“Not really,” Tony started, stopped and looked at Steve. "You want to...?" He twirled a hand to make up for the missing words.
Since Tony had monopolised a fair amont of the first segment and this was an easy question, Steve took it.
“No, not in the way you mean,” He told the camera behind the host. “There was a lot to organise after we broke off from S.H.I.E.L.D, budget, schedule, housing, everything. And as I’m the de facto leader and Tony is our new financial backer, well a lot of that organizing fell to us. So we ended up spending a lot of time together and... things happened.”
Yes, Steve had gotten roped into watching Star Trek and how that sugary drivel was considered a classic, Steve would never know. That bunch of snivelling idiots bumbling around in bellbottom pants and gogo-boots had about as much resemblance to any kind of navy as a chimp had to a pin-up.
“Alright, next question is from a member of the audience. Go ahead Rebeca.”
A woman from the second row stood up, she was wearing a navy blue suit with tasteful pearl earrings. “Hi, I have nothing against gay couples, but as the mother of two young sons I have to say that I don’t feel comfortable when gay people shove their sexuality in front of people like that,” She nodded at Steve and Tony’s joined hands. “And I was wondering how you planned to address that since the two of you are such a high profile couple.”
“Shoving?” Tony asked with an arched eyebrow. Steve just stared.
“Well, how is it fair to make parents have to explain to their little ones...”
With the complete calmness he usually felt in middle of battle where everything was muscle memory and clear cool tactic, Steve turned his upper body toward Tony, put a hand on the back of his neck and planted a kiss square on his mouth.
“Wow, oh wow. Rogers.”
“Steve, I didn’t know you had it in you!” Jan crowed.
Steve couldn’t remember the last time she had sounded as proud of him, albeit a surprised pride, and how messed up was it that the pride was on account of him kissing another man?
The rest of the Ultimates had swarmed them the moment they got back in the Mansion.
“You kissed him!” Wanda giggled. “I can’t believe you kissed him.”
“On national television.” Hawkeye specified, as if anyone had forgotten. “Live.”
“Yeah, what got into you?”
“It’s fine for billboard to plaster naked women’s bodies in order to sell merchandise folks don’t need,” He said, feeling steam gathering once more. “It’s fine for movies to picture a man and a woman having sex on screen, it’s fine for men to walk down the street catcalling and making advance at women as they pass, it’s fine for couples to walk down said public street with their hand on each other’s bottom, hell, it’s even fine for those two tenth graders we saw at the high school we intervened at to be climbing into each other’s throat with their hands up their shirts in the middle of the cafeteria, but if I hold hands with the man I am dating then I’m shoving my sexuality in people’s face?” He finished incredulously. “What the hell is wrong with people?”
Steve could admit it, this was the best charity galas he had been forced to attend so far. That was not so much due to the charity gala, some sort of Save the Whales, Greenpeace thing Thor had insisted the Avengers patron as to the company. The upshot to this dating sham, Steve was discovering, was that it offered the perfect excuse to spend the majority of the evening right by Tony’s side and the man’s wit was certainly more entertaining than making small talk with clueless socialite (of both sexes) and the bevy of entrepreneurs and actors that made the attendees of those things.
They were currently leaning against the open bar sipping something that could only be termed a girl’s drink, it was even pink, but tasted incredibly good, and discussing the merit, or lack of thereof, of what passed as evening gowns in this century.
“This is nice,” He said, feeling relaxed and loose tongued.
“This? Steve you have to let me take you somewhere to have some real fun if this is your idea of a night on the town.”
“I am not setting foot into a club.” again. Jan had dragged him to one once and once was enough.
“Alright, something else then, Steve you have to. Come on, once, I’ll even let you drag me to an activity of your choosing if you do something fun and of this century with me.”
“Come on, I’ll do something old timey with you and I won’t say a word, one little activity, one teeny, tiny little activity.”
Tony was hanging onto his arm the picture of supplication but his gaze was steely. He was going to nag until Steve gave in.
“Fine,” He seemed to be saying those words a lot lately. “But if there are naked dames involved there’ll be hell to pay.”
“Give me some credit. I save the naked girls for those who appreciate them.”
It turned out that Tony’s idea of a fun activity was stock car racing.
Not watching stock car driving, oh no, that was too pedestrian for Tony Stark, but racing stock cars. It was probably violating dozens of the laws and regulations of the sport but there was Steve, dressed in a racing suit that had to have been bought for the occasion since it fit Steve and he was a mite bigger than the average pilot, standing in front of a car modified to go as fast as it could and the pilot he was replacing for the race. Laws and regulations, were also too pedestrian for Tony Stark.
“This is crazy, I can’t just take his place.”
“Of course you can, Andy doesn’t mind, do you Andy?”
“Hell no,” The man answered. “And miss on the story that would make for my grandkids? That Captain America drove my car?”
“I’ve never driven this sort of car, nevermind in a race with dozens of other drivers.”
“You’ve got super soldier reflexes not to mention an incredible knack for trajectories. And I’ll be your spotter,” He tapped the headset he was wearing over the Nascar baseball cap he had filched from somewhere. “You’ll do great.” He shoved a helmet in Steve’s hand. “No shoo, get on the track, the race is about to start.
The noise of the engines when they started was deafening, and even more so when all the cars tore off. Steve quickly ended up squeezed between two other cars, bareling down the track way too fast, listening to Tony’s voice in his ear telling him of every opening up ahead and every car trying to pass him from behind.
This was reckless, this was probably irresponsible... This was incredibly fun.
They were laughing when they stepped inside the Mansion.
“That man, Bob Deker, was good, He almost had me there for a while. That last turn? I thought he was going to leave me in the dust,” Steve was speaking too loudly but couldn’t bring himself to care.
“Yes, but he didn’t,” Tony said just as enthusiastically as Steve. “We still won!”
Steve felt his smile widen at the memory. Tony slapped his back. “We freaking won. I knew you would do good, but I wouldn’t have put money on you winning the frigging race on your first try.”
“It a bit touch and go at first,” Steve admitted. Remembering the surge of adrenaline. “I was pretty much only trying not to plow into something during the first lap. You crazy son of a bitch.”
“Hey, it was great.”
“It was.” It had been frivolous and extravagant but Steve couldn’t remember the last time he had been able to cut loose and test his skills purely for the fun of it.
“I’ve gone on plenty of real dates where I didn’t have a quarter as much fun. In fact, if this is the fake date then we really should date for real, imagine how great it would be?”
“Tony,” Steve was suddenly tired. “I was having a good day. Don’t.”
“Don’t what? I like you, you like me. I think you’re smoking hot, I’ve seen you look at me. Why shouldn’t we? I mean what’s the problem here?”
“The problem is that you can’t leave well enough alone!”
“And you’re being your usual tight-assed, pig headed self, but you don’t see me yelling.”
“Argggh.” Steve stalked off in the direction of his room. The asshole. Why did he have to push? Why couldn’t he realise that this was not easy for Steve? Just because he didn’t have any problem with climbing into bed with anyone that caught his eyes didn’t everyone else was the same, or even thought it was a good thing.
He took the stairs two at a time only to stop at the top when he heard a voice.
“You look worked up.”
Steve almost startled when he saw Thor standing next to him.
“Though I must say I agree with Tony.”
“Why don’t you court him for real? The two of you certainly seem to have a blast faking it.”
“Oh I don’t know, maybe because....”
“You’re not gay. I’ve heard you say this a lot lately. One of your bards had an excellent line on this subject. It goes: “Me think the lady doth....”
“Shut up!” Steve felt his cheek turn red and his inside twisted.
“Can you tell me you’ve never felt your blood stir for broad shoulder or an handsome face? That you’ve never felt drawn toward a man? That you never longed for one the way you long for your Gail?”
Slowly, Steve felt the dread in his stomach turn to anger, but Thor wasn’t finished.
“I say it’s more cowardice than strength, to ignore attraction toward a worthy individual because of the vipers whispering in your head. I say it is deeper betrayal to deny a part of yourself than to have feelings for a friend who doesn’t share them.”
Steve tried to shove Thor out of his way but the god didn’t bulge.
“Stay out of my head!” he hissed.
“Ah,” Thor smiled. “So I was right.”
“What the hell do you want?”
Thor’s face went serious. “I consider Tony a friend, recent misunderstanding aside, and he’s been ill used lately. He could do with a little happiness. And you, you are a good man at your core, you deserve better than this mausoleum of your old life you try to bury yourself in. I think you two could make each other happy, if you let it happen. Of course,” He said, smirk coming back on his lips. “That’s only my bleeding-heart hippie opinion.” And with that he went down the stairs, whistling.
“Hey buddy! We hadn’t seen you in a while.” Bucky greeted Steve when he turned up at their house, like a lost puppy, again. “Come up here,” He told him jovially from his seat on the porch. “I won’t get up, my back is still tender and my leg needs rest.”
Steve felt a stab of fresh guilt. The armored S.H.I.E.L.D. agents that had been sent against him during the Liberators invasion had not been gentle, and for a man of Bucky’s age and health being thrown to the ground was no laughing matter.
“Are you ok?”
“I’ll be fine, but at this age, the old bones don’t like being jostled.”
“Come now, Stevie, It’s not your fault. It was that Black Widow woman who framed you and those S.H.I.E.L.D. boys who decided tossing me about was worth getting to you. I hope that isn’t why you haven’t been by.”
“No, no,” Steve said. In fact, with the paparazzi and the whole dating business, Steve had almost forgotten about Bucky’s injury. “Things were just... buzy.”
“We saw that,” Bucky smiled. “When you first called to warn us about it we thought you were joking. And then there you were on the morning show, cuddling with Tony Stark.”
“You watched it?” Steve said with a strangled voice.
“Of course,” Bucky chuckled. “We thought you did pretty well, especially given how embarrassed you were on the phone.”
“Oh believe me, that thing was choreographed within an inch of its life. First they went over every question they could think of and made up answers for them, then they made me rehearse until I could answer in my sleep and when we got to the studio? The Show host went over the interview with us and made us rehearse that. So trust me, not a second of that was left...”
“Really? Even the bit about appropriate public display of affection?”
Steve felt his face heat up. “No. That one got away from me.”
Bucky laughed. “Yeah that’s what it looked like.”
Steve eyed Bucky. “You seem...ok with it.”
Not that Steve had spent a lot of time trying to imagine how Bucky and Gail would react, in fact he had tried very hard not to imagine how they would react.
Bucky shrugged. “Well, it’s not something I thought I would ever see you do. But it’s not the worst lie you ever told the press.”
Again, Steve winced. “No.”
“And there are plenty of worse things to do than to hang out with a man I’m assured is ‘devastatingly handsome’ and occasionally hold hands and kiss.”
Easy for Bucky to say, But Steve granted that he had a point.
“You even seemed to be having a good time at the racetrack.”
“Oh? That?” Steve laughed despite himself. “That was Tony being his usual crazy self. It wasn’t exactly a date. He nagged me into doing something fun and that was the crazy bastard’s idea of fun. I still can’t believe we didn’t crash.”
“So it’s good?”
“Beside the fact that he’s a man I’m supposed to be dating?”
“And that’s a problem?” Gail's voice was different from the one he remembered. It was frail and uneven, an old woman’s voice but it rang loud and clear from the kitchen window, the open kitchen window now that Steve was paying attention. He turned his head but she was standing to the side of the window, where he couldn’t see her without moving, and since she had refused to even speak to him until recently he decided not to push his luck.
“Does it makes a difference if he’s a man?” She asks again and Steve can only stare at Bucky. Bucky didsn’t look like he’s disagreeing with Gail.
“You don’t think that...” his voice caught in his throat and he couldn’t speak. “I’m not a....”
“I was only saying that as long as you’re not interested in them, what does it matter if he’s a he instead of a she? But it’s interesting that your mind went that way, let’s talk about that.” Gail said, and there was that bite, that flash of wit that used to cut a fellow before he even realised that Gail had claw. The small part of Steve that wasn’t icing with dread was ridiculously happy to see that Gail still had that bite.
But it was a very small part, mostly Steve felt like like he had stepped into his worst nightmare. “You think I’m..”
“Well, No,” Bucky says, half-defensively. “Back then, I never for one minute would have thought you could be gay. But then,” He shrugged. “I never thought Jenny from editing could be a lesbian either before she presented her girlfriend of 20 years to me. And don’t you laugh,” He pointed a finger at the window. “Your gaydar isn’t any better than mine.”
“Jenny and Rebecca got married 6 years ago.” Gail said. “It’s not legal of course, but it was a lovely ceremony. I don’t think they could be any happier than they are together.”
Steve was just a soldier, not a reporter who made a living out of playing with words, but he could sense there was a point there that had nothing to do with the loveliness of the ceremony.
“You know there is nothing wrong...” Bucky started.
“I know there’s nothing wrong with homosexuality! I’m not stupid and I do read things published past 1945. And it makes sense, intellectually.”
“But it’s not so quick to sink in emotionally?” Gail said and her voice was noticeably softer.
Steve clenched his jaw and didn’t answer. This was exactly the type of discussion he always refused to have. But this was Gail. Why did the first time Gail deigned to speak to him in this century have to be about feelings?
“I think we forget that for you 1945 was ten months ago, not 60 years. You didn’t get to absorb the changes as they happened.”
Steve still said nothing. Half of him was going “Yes, thank you!” and the other “Not pity, not from you”.
“Gail and I,” Bucky said. “We only want you to be happy. And since you woke up, you’ve completely shut out everything except the people you knew before the ice or your work with the team. And it’s not that we mind having you here, but it’s not healthy.”
Steve saw deadly serious blue eyes and long blond hair flash in his mind.
“Thor said I was burying myself in a mausoleum.”
“Well, you’re friend has a way with words.”
Steve opened his mouth to say they weren’t exactly friend but he stopped himself. It would only prove them right.
“You need... I don’t know how to put it. To make connections outside of us and the rest of the old guys. And since it didn’t work out with Jan, who else do you see yourself becoming close to? Romantically or otherwise?”
Steve rocked on his heel. His first instinct was to dismiss the whole conversation but he forced himself to consider the question seriously. He and Jan had not worked out. Hank was a bastard. He liked Clint well enough but they hadn’t clicked that much before and now that Clint was grieving for the death of his wife and kids Steve hardly knew how to deal with him. The twins were their own contained unit that were no more accepting of the outside world than Steve was. He and Thor were just too different. He could barely stand Betty at times. He still thought Banner was an asshole. Fury was a man to respect but not exactly the type you had a beer at the pub with. So that left.....
“It’s all your decision, buddy.” Bucky said. “But you looked genuinely happy fooling around with that race car. So if Stark can make you happy, as a friend or.... or more- Jesus that talk was easier to have with Cassy.”
Steve studiously ignored the fact that Cassy, 15, was Bucky and Gail’s oldest grandchild, and what that said about his life that Bucky was giving Steve and her the same kind of talk.
“If the two of you have a chance together it would be a shame to toss it away.”
...I say it’s more cowardice than strength...
Steve walker to the porch rail and leaned on it. “I... I need to think.” He turns back to Bucky. “Take care, Bucky.”
“You too, old friend.” Bucky smiled fondly.
Steve swallowed. “Bye Gail, see you soon?” He said deliberately not looking, just in case it made Gail change her mind.
“See you soon, Steve” she answered, and Steve felt a weight lift from his shoulder and rush of warm spread in his chest at the same time.
The next time he saw Tony, it was during a team meeting during which they were supposed to establish a training routine. But he couldn’t seem to concentrate on rooster and individual skills. His stupid mind kept going back to Thor’s words, to Gail’s words, to Bucky’s words and to his own traitorous feelings.
“...I’m just wondering if it’s really worth it to drag everybody in full costume and everything to train when we don’t even have the facilities to do it properly.”
“No, the hologram programs won’t be operational until the wednesday after the next. But the gyms are and there’s no reason we can’t run simple drills there...”
He was tired of being alone. Even with Jan toward the end it had felt like being alone.
“...We could do with some exercise in teamwork, to bolster our camaraderie.”
“Oh god, not the hippie rhetoric...”
Even he couldn’t bury his head in the sand on that issue. He was attracted to men.
“...For God’s sake. Who cares what day training is, half the session are going to be scrapped and rescheduled due to emergencies anyway. What’s wrong with Tuesdays?”
“Some people have a life outside of shooting things...”
He was attracted to Tony even. There was no point of denying that at this stage. his gaze wandered back toward Tony and he forced himself not to ignore the handsome face, the eyes that shone with amusement, the body that was slim and compact, fit for a businessman, especially one with Tony’s health and lifestyle. He was wearing his eternal dressing gown, tied carelessly. Steve’s eyes followed the angle of his collarbone up to the shoulder and the dip where the neck muscles gave place to the shoulder muscles.
Jan’s voice made him jerk away. She was looking at him, then at Tony. She raised an eyebrow at him.
“Are you listening?”
She had seen him. Goddamn it.
“Yes,” No he hadn’t, “I say we keep Tuesday, Friday and Sunday. Like we did before. Next?”
They moved on to a different subject but Steve caught Jan looking at him, he could see the wheels turning behind her eyes and his heartbeat sped up in response.
He couldn’t do this. It was hard enough when he could tell himself it was all a game and the people whose opinion mattered to him knew it wasn’t real. What was he thinking, considering doing it for real? He was getting cold sweat at the idea of Jan knowing he was homosexual.
“Okay, if that’s settled and Cap is taking care of creating the drills, then we’re done here?”
Steve was no coward. But he wasn’t like Thor. Who could wear his fears and pains on his sleeves and appear stronger for the honesty. He wasn’t like Tony, who flaunted everything carelessly and ended up looking as if it slid off him like water on a duck's back. Steve’s strength laid on control, and stoicism. Masculinity as it was understood in his time, not the ever-changing mess it was in this century.
He was distantly aware of the Ultimates leaving the room and shifted his weight to get up and follow.
“Those look like deep thoughts.” Steve raised his head to see Tony standing right in front of him, a little closer than most would judge appropriate. Since the beginning of their charade, Tony cared about appropriateness even less than he had before, and that hadn’t been much.
“Well, you did leave me with a lot to think about,” he said, getting defensive.
“I kinda thought it was a simple decision to make, or one that required a different level of thoughts,” Tony leered.
And Tony’s face turned serious and attentive. The change was enough for Steve to try to relax a little. “This,” He indicated between the two of them. “Is not easy for me.”
Tony snorted. “What’s easy about it? You’re a tight-assed 26 year old going on 90 who’s set in his- extremely prudish- ways who’s bound to have a heterosexual freakout or two or twenty. And I’m an unapologetic libertine who’s lost count of how many lovers I’ve had somewhere in my early twenties. You’re going to hate the parties I got to, the music I listen to and the movies I watch and I’m not going to let you fence me in. And that’s only the beginning of the reasons why we have the potential to blow up spectacularly.” Tony’s hands made wide circles as he gestured.
“You thought about us ‘Blowing up’?” Steve said surprised. Tony had never seemed like he had any concern about this, or even given it any thoughts beyond “hot”. But those were definitely signs of upset he was seeing.
“It’s kinda hard to ignore, it’s right there.” Tony pointed at the space between them. “On paper we are an incredibly bad idea.”
“I didn’t know you were concerned.” He certainly hadn’t shown it.
“Why would I be,” Tony smiled a parody of his usual smile and never broke eye contact with Steve. “It’s not like my last serious relationship- one of my only serious relationships- didn’t blow up in my face in a way that was seriously not fun.”
Steve felt a surge of protectiveness toward Tony. It wasn’t that Steve had forgotten, he hadn’t, but Tony hadn’t seemed like it affected him so Steve hadn’t thought it did. Of course you never saw anything affect Tony until he let you see it. Steve brought up a hand and, before he could think better of it, put it on Tony’s shoulder.
“Of course you would never betray me and kill one of the very few people I consider family,” Tony said, his expression open in that naked way it had been the first time Tony had invited him and Thor to dine with him. Steve still had no idea how to deal with it but, perversely, having Tony express doubts about this relationship made him want to defend it.
“But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t make me think extra hard about all the little things that can go wrong with us,” Tony finished.
“So why were you so... enthusiastic?”
“Because,” Tony seemed to gather himself again, putting his usual armor back on. “I didn’t get where I am today by playing it safe. And I’ll be damned,” He leaned forward to say into Steve’s ear. “If I let her rob me of more than what she’s already taken.”
Steve leaned back to be able to see Tony’s face. This was in essence, the same argument Thor and Gail and Bucky had given him.
It was a good argument.
Steve leaned in again and kissed Tony for the second time. This time he let himself enjoy it.
“Let’s give this a try then. We won’t blow up.”