Steve is still riding the adrenaline high that comes after taking down a pseudo-sea monster when the team’s hazy post-battle conversation takes a turn.
“14, with the girl they hired to work a summer at the popcorn stand,” Clint says. Then, “Ow,” when the quinjet jolts slightly and jostles his dislocated arm.
Steve tries to tamp down on his expression, but Clint catches him looking and waves his good hand in the air. “What? It’s not that young.”
“It’s pretty young,” Bruce says.
Steve privately agrees, picturing himself at 14 and wincing.
Clint knocks his ankle into Bruce’s bare feet, the only part of him except his head that’s peeking out from underneath the blanket they gave him after de-Hulking. “Let me guess- 30?”
“Ha, ha.” Bruce sighs. “I was 21. It was with Betty. That’s all I’m saying about it.”
“Twenty-one,” Clint repeats, incredulous.
“Not everyone jumps into bed with the first popcorn vender they meet,” Tony tells him. Then, at Clint’s expectant look, Tony grins. “14. Jemma Valowitz.”
Clint high-fives him. “Up-and-coming supermodel?”
“Mm. Actually, she was after Stark secrets.”
Steve finds himself having to flatten down his expression yet again. He’s not alone in this: when Tony looks up from frowning down at his battered armor standing empty at the other side of the quinjet, everyone is either looking at him or pointedly looking away.
“What? It was a good lesson in being careful who you let into your room. Also why to definitely not keep blueprints in anything without a lock.”
Steve goes to ask just how old Jemma was if she was going after Stark secrets, unsure he wants to know the answer even as he opens his mouth, but Tony cuts across him.
“Thor! Buddy, share with the team.”
Thor is still picking sea-monster gunk out of his hair. He flicks a strand of gooey blue away and says, “I was… hmm. Around 800 years old, which would put me in mid-adolescence in your mortal years.” He beams at them. “She was a river nymph. I saved her from being eaten by an ogre. She was most grateful.”
He turns to Natasha, the only one apart from Steve who hasn’t spoken when the subjects had switched to virginity and the loss thereof.
“15,” she says instantly. Then, picking blue goo from under her fingernails, she continues, “He was a mark. It was okay.”
Steve wonders if one of them should apologize for bringing it up- in retrospect, asking someone who had spent a majority of their teenage years in a KGB cell about the first time they had sex probably wasn’t the best idea.
But then all eyes are turning to him and all Steve can think about is how everyone was more weirded out by Bruce and his 21 than Clint and Tony with their 14s.
“Come on, Cap,” Clint says. “One of those showgirls? Bucky?”
“I’m telling him you said that.”
“Oh god please don’t. Uh, was it Peggy?”
Steve is at least glad Clint said it with some degree of sensitivity. “No, Clint.”
Steve deliberately doesn’t square his shoulders. This is nothing to be defensive about, he tells himself. It sounds more feeble than he’d like it to. “I don’t have a first time, actually.”
He doesn’t know how he should feel about Natasha not looking surprised. The rest of them, however, all raise their eyebrows.
“Oh. Shit, really?” Clint snaps his gaping jaw shut. “You truly are Captain America.”
“Did the gear not give it away?”
Tony chooses that moment to burst out with, “But you’re so…”
He waves a hand at Steve, who feels his shoulders square automatically.
“Didn’t always look like this, Tony.”
Tony blinks at him. “Okay, that was not what the handwave was about.”
Steve starts to ask what exactly the handwave was about, but then JARVIS is cutting over him and announcing that they’re coming in to land on the roof of Avengers Tower.
Steve stands, tells Clint to go to Medical for his arm, and tries valiantly to think of other topics he can bring up to divert the questions if they come.
And surely enough, they come. It takes all of two minutes, wherein Steve bids goodnight to everyone and gets in the elevator with Tony to ride up to the floor where their bedrooms are.
Tony doesn’t even wait until the elevator doors are fully closed before turning to him. “Never?”
Steve bites back a sigh. “Nope.”
Tony squints at him. “How?”
“It just never happened for me,” Steve says, shrugging. It’s the answer he’s always given, but when Tony continues to stare at him, Steve lets the sigh out. “Tony. I was nothing to look at until I was 24, and then I was busy being Captain America.”
“But-” Tony’s mouth moves wordlessly until he manages, “What, the showgirls never propositioned you?”
“They did. I was waitin’ on Peggy.”
Tony deflates. “Right. Sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Steve says, giving Tony what he hopes is a reassuring smile and turning away, hoping that’s the end of it.
His hopes are quickly dashed when Tony says, “So what, you’re waiting ‘til marriage?”
“The right person? The one, or whatever?”
Steve considers it. It’s what he used to think, but he’s had a long and complicated eight years since the serum. “No,” he repeats, which make Tony’s eyebrows scale up his forehead even higher.
“Then what the hell’s your holdup?”
“I- don’t know,” Steve admits. “I’ve gotten used to sex not being a part of my life.”
Tony’s still looking at him like he’s a stubborn schematic that won’t piece itself together in his brain. “Are you okay with that?”
Steve blows out a breath. “I have bigger things to think about.”
“That wasn’t an answer.”
“Fine. I’d like to be having sex.”
Steve waits for Tony to start- god, flinging suggestions at him, or sex toys, but all that happens is Tony gets this thoughtful look that makes Steve imagine he’s one of Tony’s inventions.
“Okay. What’s stopping you?”
“Uh. A partner would be nice.”
“Yeah, no, I know, who do you want?” At Steve’s questioning look, Tony rolls his eyes. “I’m not expecting names here- though that would be fine, too- just give me an outline. Do you need trust to be a factor or should we go pick a stranger up for you at a club?”
“Good luck getting me in a club,” Steve says, then: “I think I’d prefer to trust them, yes. I can’t imagine- my first time, at least, I can’t imagine doing that with someone I didn’t know.”
“Okay, we’re getting somewhere. Attraction need to be a thing?”
“What? Of course.”
Tony shrugs. His gaze is calculating. “Some people just want a warm body. Figured you wouldn’t be one of them, but I thought I’d check. Do you have to like them?”
“As a person? Definitely.”
“Do you have to know them really well, or would you be fine with an acquaintance?”
Steve thinks it over. “I… think I’d like to know them well.”
“Mm. Okay.” Tony rocks back and forth on his heels. “Might be heading into difficult territory, then.”
The elevator doors slide open and Steve and Tony step out.
In the new light of the hallway, Tony’s calculating look has given way to something more nervous. “Yeah. Sleeping with friends can get complicated.”
Steve rolls it over in his mind. Someone he trusts, someone he knows well, someone he likes- yes, okay, friend is the first word that comes to mind. Damn.
“Oh. Nevermind, we can scrap that, then.”
Steve fixes him with a look. “I’m not exactly going to walk up to Nat and ask if she wants to get in bed with me.”
“Or- I don’t know, that was just an example!” Steve can feel his face start to get hot.
“No, that could work, if she’s game. Everything’s there.”
“I don’t want to sleep with Natasha. She’s- she’s gorgeous, and she’s great, but-”
“No, yeah, I get it.”
Tony is silent for a moment as they walk down the hall. His room is several rooms down from Steve’s, but he stops outside of Steve’s door with him instead of continuing down to his own.
“So, uh.” Tony clears his throat, eyes on the wall. “Just so we’re clear, you’d prefer someone you know well, someone you trust, and someone who has a mutual attraction with you.”
Steve nods. Tony is still looking at the wall, and Steve has this small, insane hope beginning to bloom in the back of his mind.
“Okay! Good. Uh, okay.”
“You said that.”
“I did. Yep.” Tony takes a bracing breath, deep in his chest, but he continues not to say it and Steve is half-convinced Tony’s going to walk away and they’ll never bring it up again but they’ll both know that the option was there.
Tony says, “We can go over your options later, if you want.”
If he isn’t thinking what Steve thinks he’s thinking, then he’s acting awkward as hell for no damn reason. But Steve doesn’t want to say it, because if Tony’s not meaning what Steve thinks he is-
“Who would be? An option, I mean?”
“Well.” Tony’s shoulders twitch. “You want mutual attraction, I think that rules out Bruce, Bucky and Thor. So if they were the top of your list, sorry, buddy.”
“So you think-” Steve runs through his list of friends. “Clint and Sam and Natasha-” And you, Steve doesn’t get the chance to say.
“I think they could be attracted to you, but that doesn’t mean they automatically want to sleep with you.”
“Right. Of course.”
“We’d have to ask them.”
“Hey, do you want to have sex or not?”
The phrasing of it gets them both bumbling over their words, until Steve bites the bullet says, “Tony?”
Steve struggles through finding the right words, then any words, and finally he goes with, “I trust you. And I like to think I know you well. And, uh. I don’t know if the attraction is, um, mutual, but if it is- I mean, that is, even if it is mutual you can still say no- obviously. Um.”
Steve had counted on Tony’s tendency to talk a mile a minute to put him out of his misery, but Tony keeps quiet as Steve stammers himself into silence.
It’s only a few seconds, but it stretches into eternity as Steve waits for an answer that doesn’t come until he starts backtracking.
“God. Tony, I’m so sorry, I thought-”
Steve stops. “Okay?”
“Yeah.” Tony blinks rapidly. “I’d be- I’d be down. If you’re down.”
“Okay.” Steve swallows. “Right. Good.”
Tony nods. They’re standing less than a foot apart and Steve can feel every inch.
“Uh,” Tony says. His throat clicks. “Did you want- I mean, should we- now? Or-”
“Now’s good,” Steve croaks. “If you want.”
“I want.” Tony takes a hesitant step closer and Steve watches his lips part.
Steve can feel incredulous laughter bloom in his chest. “I thought you were smoother than this.”
It surprises a grin onto Tony’s face, making his smile lines crease. Steve’s sketched those; traced them into being with charcoal too many times to count.
“Yeah, well. Like I said, sleeping with friends complicates things.”
The smile fades slightly, and Steve starts to say something along the lines of I don’t want to do this if it’ll mess up our friendship, but then Tony’s leaning up and in and Steve’s world narrows down to Tony’s mouth on his, Tony’s hands gripping his shoulders.
Steve makes a noise when Tony pulls back. It’s a nonsense noise, more a god I’ve missed kissing noise than anything else, but Tony’s face twists.
“Sorry. Are we kissing?”
It takes a moment for it to sink in. “What? Of course we’re kissing. Do you not want kissing?”
“I want kissing, I just- you might’ve found it too personal, I don’t know-” Tony draws another deep breath, smooths a hand through Steve’s hair. “But kissing is on the table, good to know.”
Then he drags Steve in.
Steve wakes up to the sound of his bedroom door clicking open.
He’s awake in an instant, adrenaline coursing through him as he sits up and searches for-
Ah, he thinks as he catches sight of Tony, clad in boxers and holding last night’s clothes to his belly, his other hand on the doorknob as he stares at Steve.
“Hi,” Tony says when Steve just looks at him. “Uh, I wasn’t sneaking out, I promise. I left a note.”
Steve looks beside him to see a note on the pillow. It starts with I’m not sneaking out, I promise-
“I have meetings I can’t blow off,” Tony says as Steve reads the same thing.
Tony checks his watch, which he’s carrying amongst his balled-up clothes. “It’s nine.”
“It’s-” Steve grabs for his cellphone, which blinks 9.04 AM when he clicks it. “Huh. I haven’t slept in this long for years.”
When he looks up again, Tony is grinning.
“Yeah, well, you had a big night.”
Steve nods. “Fighting that sea-monster really tired me out.”
They grin at each other. Steve eyes Tony’s messy hair, strewn in a hundred different directions from where Steve had no doubt mussed it up with his fingers, and knows his hair would look the same if he looked in a mirror.
“So- uh, thanks for last night,” Steve says, internally cringing as he does. Surely he wasn’t supposed to thank someone for sex unless he paid for it, right?
Either way, Tony takes it in stride. “Hey, I’m happy to help. Really. Very happy.”
His voice drops to a purr and Steve has to duck his head to smother the memories of Tony watching him with those dark eyes as he took off Steve’s clothes.
“I’m glad you liked it,” Steve says, and time his cringe is external. To think he teased Tony last night for not being smooth. “I mean- I assume- you, uh, seemed to enjoy it-?”
Tony’s shoulders shake with withheld laughter. “Don’t worry, big guy, I had a great time. What about you, you seemed to enjoy it.”
“Yeah, it was-” Steve swallows hard as the memories flood back to him, pressed permanently into his mind- the feel of Tony naked against him, Tony’s desperate gasps, his hands on Steve’s face and back and ass-
Steve eventually decides on, “Great, too,” which falls short of how Steve feels about last night, but judging by Tony’s shit-eating grin and Steve’s reedy voice, Tony’s getting the gist.
Tony leans against the doorframe like he isn’t half naked with his clothes in his hands. “You interested in doing this again sometime?”
“Good. You want it to be a thing?”
“Yeah. Friends with benefits.”
Steve assumes it’s sexy benefits. “If you want.”
“Do you want-”
“Okay. Cool.” Tony’s halfway through saying see you around when Steve says his name.
Tony turns back. “Yeah?”
“We don’t need to make this a thing. I still enjoy spending time with you.”
Tony’s smile does something strange, but then it’s up and running again. “We’re still going to hang out without banging it out, Steve. Sex will just sweeten the pot.”
He lingers after saying this, turns towards the hall and then back again. “Should we talk about it? Guidelines?”
Steve doesn’t know what they’d talk about, but it definitely strikes him as a good idea. “Sure.”
“Great. Catch you later, Cap.”
Tony throws him a wink, then the door is closing behind him and Steve lets himself fall back onto the mattress.
Today’s a good day, he thinks.
When Steve slides into the booth, both Sam and Natasha eye him.
“You’re late,” Natasha says.
“Yeah,” Steve says. “Sorry.”
She sips at her bubble tea. “You’re never late. Did something happen?”
“Uh, yeah. Sorry,” he says again. “Traffic.” Also I slept with Tony and lay in bed for twenty minutes after he left feeling great about life before remembering about this brunch.
Sam says, “Heard you guys fought a sea monster yesterday, how’d that go?”
“Worst we got was Clint’s dislocated shoulder,” Natasha tells him. “Steve, are you ready to order?”
“What? Sure. I’ll have whatever you guys are having.”
Which is how Steve ends up with a copy of both their meals- French toast with bacon, and two eggs benedict over toast and salad.
He’s taking care not to literally shovel it into his mouth, because he’s in public and he has manners, when Sam says, “Did you forget your post-battle snack again? And by snack I mean three course meal. If I ate like you, my six-pack would be a no-pack.”
“’s the serum,” Steve says after he swallows his mouthful of eggs. He’s suddenly bursting to tell them both what happened last night, but he’s not sure if Tony would be okay with it. Are they telling people? Do friends with benefits tell people about their arrangement? Do they even have a solid arrangement yet? Tony said they’d discuss it, but-
When Steve looks up, Natasha is slicing her bacon into bite-sized pieces at a methodical pace. She continues, “How was your morning?”
He immediately zeroes in on her. She’s keeping her tone level in that ‘no-of-course-I’m-not-up-to-something’ voice that Steve has learned to be wary of.
“Fine,” he says. “How was yours?”
She glances up at him before returning to her bacon. She tucks a small piece into her mouth. “It was good. I took a swim.”
Sam trades a look with Steve, having cottoned on to the careful tone Natasha’s using. Sam raises one eyebrow: what does she have on you?
Steve doesn’t reply, even with an eyebrow. “That’s nice, Nat.”
She chews another piece of bacon, swallows, says, “It really was.” She smiles at him. “I saw something interesting on the way there.”
Steve maps it out in his mind and instantly knows what she had seen on her way up to the pool from her floor. “Yeah?”
She continues cutting and eating her bacon. Sam looks between the two of them and says, “Nat, you know something juicy about Steve and you sat on it for twenty minutes while we waited for him to get here?”
“Nobody tells me anything.”
“Shh.” Natasha looks up at Steve expectantly. “I take it that conversation on the quinjet continued as you and Tony went up to your room…s.”
“What conversation,” Sam says as Steve looks at her flatly.
“Just say it, Nat, instead of trying to get me to say it.”
Natasha cocks her head before turning to Sam. “Our Captain here had his sexual debut with Tony Stark last night.”
Sam chokes on his orange juice, then glares up at Natasha throughout said choking until it subsides. “You fucking waited for me to take a sip before saying that,” he wheezes, then turns to Steve. “Shit, man, good for you! We were all wondering when you two would get together.”
“Oh. We aren’t- we’re just-” fooling around was the phrase people used nowadays, Steve thinks. “We’re friends with benefits.”
Both Sam and Natasha’s faces twitch.
“What,” Steve says.
Natasha looks down at her plate and starts cutting up bacon again. “Sam, you take this one.”
Steve looks at him expectantly.
“Uhhh.” Sam looks like he’s trying not to go into therapist-mode. “Steve, I don’t know if that’s a good idea.”
“Friends with benefits- well, that usually ends with one or both the people involved getting hurt, man. One of them develops feelings, or-”
“Tony won’t develop feelings for me.”
Sam and Natasha exchange a fleeting look that Steve starts to ask about before Sam talks over him: “And you’re sure you won’t, either?”
“Yeah,” Steve says, and pauses. The feelings he has for Tony have been less than platonic for a while now, but a crush doesn’t mean that he’s going to fall head over heels for the guy. He amends, “If I start to have feelings for him-”
“Break it off. Break it the hell off, seriously, you don’t want to get into that.”
“Okay, okay.” Steve looks down to see his egg yolks have run into his salad. Damn.
When he looks up, they’re both eyeing him.
“It’ll be fine, guys. Really. It’s no big deal.”
They both mm-hmm at him in unison, but dubiously.
This time, Steve wakes up to Tony kicking him gently in the shin.
“Ow,” Steve says, and it’s muffled into the pillow. He slits his eyes open to see Tony propped up on one elbow, staring down at him.
“You were taking forever to wake up,” Tony says.
Steve reaches to scrub the backs of his hands over his eyes. “You were watching me sleep?”
Steve grins and rolls over onto his stomach to realize that the covers have been pulled off of him. He looks up at Tony again, his head pillowed on his arms. “Pervert.”
“How dare you,” Tony says. He lowers his head sideways onto his pillow so they can keep looking at each other. “Okay, maybe I was watching you sleep and maybe I pulled the sheets off so I could watch you more thoroughly. In a friendly way.”
Steve snorts. Tony has taken to calling Steve pal or buddy or while he’s doing something decidedly un-platonic. Steve thinks it’s mainly to reassure Steve that this is strictly friends-with-benefits business they’re doing, and no matter how Steve feels about it, it’s funny.
“Sure, chum,” Steve says, which gets Tony laughing. When the laughter has died down, Steve says, “You mentioned yesterday that we should talk about this.”
Tony hums blearily, twisting his head momentarily into the pillow before bringing it back up to look at Steve. “Yep. That I did. Just to make sure things don’t get complicated.”
“Yeah,” Steve says, and chews the inside of his cheek. “Uh, Sam mentioned this arrangement might not be a good idea. Also I told Sam. And Natasha. Well, she found out.”
“I thought someone was watching me yesterday,” Tony says. He rolls onto his back and fits his hands behind his head, interlacing his fingers.
Steve watches him. “Is it okay that people know?”
“Hmm? Oh, yeah, sure. Tell whoever you like. We should probably keep it away from the press, but friends should be safe territory.”
Steve is making an agreeing noise before he realizes something. “Aw, shit.”
“Bucky’s gonna be pissed he didn’t know first. He’s been trying to get me into sexual situations since we were 15. Not like that,” he adds when Tony gives him a wide-eyed look. “He was just trying to help. He’s stopped since he came back, though.”
Tony looks towards the ceiling as he says, “He’ll be good with it, right? Our arrangement and, uh, the fact that it’s me?”
“Sure. Why wouldn’t he be?”
Tony shrugs. Then he clicks his fingers. “Right, okay, guidelines.”
“Guidelines,” Steve agrees. Then he waits. When Tony doesn’t say anything, he says, “Do you have any?”
“What, guidelines? Not really, but my inner Pepper kept telling me that this could end in disaster so I thought I’d try to come up with some anyway. Are we allowed to date people?”
“If we want to, sure.”
Tony nods. “And if one of us wants to stop, we’ll say so. No hurt feelings.” He snaps his fingers. “No feelings, period. I mean, friendship feelings, but no- feelings. This is a feelings-free arrangement.”
Steve thinks of Sam’s warning and smothers the tiny flicker of want for Tony that surpasses sex. “’Course.”
Tony opens his mouth, but a ringing phone drowns out whatever he was going to say. He sighs, and reaches across Steve to the bedside table for his phone to answer it.
Steve tries not to enjoy the press of Tony’s bare chest against his too much- he felt it’d be inappropriate to get an erection while Tony was on the phone to someone.
It’s a short phone call, and Tony drops the phone over his side of the bed when it finishes before lying back against the mattress. “Ugh.”
Steve pushes himself up on one elbow to lean over him. “Do you need to go?”
“Hm. No,” Tony says, gaze flicking down to follow Steve’s when he looks down to the sheet that’s still covering Tony’s waist. “You can touch, you know,” he says when all Steve does is stare at the cut of his hipbone.
“I know,” Steve says. “But I’m enjoying just… looking. I’ve never gotten to look at anyone like this before.”
Tony’s eyes soften around the edges as Steve glances up at them, then down the lines of his neck, the breadth of his surprisingly sturdy shoulders and muscled arms.
“Yeah? Look all you want, then.” Tony stretches out languidly, arms loose above his head. The motion drags the sheet down enough that it exposes the start of a neatly-trimmed thatch of hair.
Before Steve had even liked Tony- years ago, now- he had known Tony was gorgeous. It was an effortless kind of gorgeous, one that stuck with Tony whether he was grinning at a gala or swearing through an experiment in the workshop.
So of course Tony is beautiful like this- half-bare and laid out in front of Steve, comfortable and relaxed as he watches Steve watch him.
“Okay, now I’m starting to feel a little neglected,” Tony says as Steve continues to trace the lines of his body with his eyes. “You planning on touching me soon, or are you just gonna fuck me with your eyes for the rest of the morning?”
“I still can’t believe you’re sleeping with me.”
Steve regrets it as soon as he says it- suddenly he’s nineteen and stalk-skinny again, and the most he can get from a girl is a polite smile. People never remember that Steve’s still that guy, underneath what the serum did to him. He knows logically that people do double-takes now when they see him on the street, and not just because of who he is. But underneath that, he’s still quietly unsure about everyone’s attention, still a little disbelieving that Tony would chose him, of all people, to sleep with, when he could have someone who wasn’t awkward and bland and sometimes felt like he was in a borrowed body.
“Sorry, that sounded-” Steve rubs his forehead. “I didn’t mean to bring down the mood. You’re just- you’re very-”
He waves a hand vaguely at Tony, who sits up enough that their faces are close together and puts a hand on Steve’s arm.
“Hey,” Tony says, and waits until Steve looks at him. When he does, Tony continues, “So are you. Seriously. I spent all of yesterday thinking that the night before was a highly realistic sex dream.”
Steve has no idea what to say to that, so he settles for smiling. He thinks about kissing him, but the moment seems too intimate, so he just bumps a foot into Tony’s and says, “Thanks. I think.”
Tony smiles back. “Got anywhere to be today?”
“Want to order takeout and roll around?”
“Sounds great,” Steve says, and as Tony bumps their arms together and starts talking about Chinese food, Steve finds himself thinking that he might enjoy this intimacy almost as much as the sex itself.
When he tells Tony this later on in the day, Tony eyes him a little strangely before saying, “Yeah, I never really got much of this. The lying-around bit after sex. Or the talking bit. It’s nice.”
“You lost your flower and didn’t tell me?”
Steve very nearly gags on his breakfast. “Jesus, Buck. Lost my flower? Where the hell’d you get that from?”
Bucky wrenches a chair back and sits down in it hard. “Clint’s making me watch Friends.”
“Oh, he’s making you watch it? You didn’t sit down last week and watch a whole season in a day?”
“Every episode is only 20 minutes long, it’s not that hard,” Bucky snaps at him. “I had to find out from Sam. You couldn’t even tell me yourself- are you eating my granola?”
Steve swallows his mouthful and looks down at the bowl. “Maybe. Is it your granola?”
“Yeah, I made it.”
“You make your own granola?”
“It’s- nevermind the granola, Steve! You’re sleeping with Stark?”
Steve chews his granola. It’s good, for something Bucky made. Steve had been under the impression that Bucky burns water on his good days. “He’s one of your best friends, Buck. When are you guys going to start calling each other by your first names?”
“When hell freezes over. What the fuck are you doing with my granola.”
“No, I mean what the fuck are you doing with it. You’re supposed to add fresh fruit and yoghurt. What’s that, milk?”
“There’s no wrong way to eat breakfast, Buck.”
“There’s a wrong way to eat my granola.”
“Jesus.” Steve drops the spoon in the bowl and slides it over to him. “Take it already, if you’re so hot over it.”
“Fuck you, I’m not eating that. That’s a disgrace.”
“You could put yoghurt in it, there’s some in the fridge-”
“No, you’ve ruined it. Finish your mess.” Bucky pushes the bowl back at him and Steve sighs but resumes eating.
“You got a problem?”
Bucky slings his feet up on the chair opposite him. “I got a problem with you not telling me.”
“I was gonna.”
“When? The wedding?”
“Wedding- Buck, we’re not together! What’d Sam tell you?”
“That you’re sleeping together and have some idiot arrangement. Figured it’d snowball.”
“Well, you figured wrong.” Steve curls an arm around his bowl. “And quit glaring at my granola, just get some yourself.”
“I don’t want some, I want you to not have bastardized my creation.” Bucky’s gaze flicks up from the bowl to Steve’s face. “You really think this is a good idea? It’s you, Steve.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I mean you can’t do this. You’re gonna catch feelings. Shit, I thought you already had.”
Steve buys some time by chewing his granola longer than he needs to. Then he says, “Not to the point where it’ll get in the way of-”
“’S not a big deal! It’s just, it’s a thing, I can ignore it. It’s not going to get in the way.”
Bucky is looking at him like Steve just announced he’s becoming a professional beekeeper. But all he says is, “You’re a goddamn lug,” and gets up from the table, so Steve thinks he’s getting off easy.
Bucky spares one last despairing glance down at Steve’s breakfast as he leaves.
Steve cranes his head back to call after him, “You know, this would go better with fresh fruit and yoghurt.”
“Fuck you, Rogers.”
For six weeks, the new normal continues. Steve leads his team through battles with villains that vary from laughable to life-threatening (one turns downtown Manhattan into rubber, then the week after that someone releases a toxin that makes everyone who comes into contact with it uncontrollably homicidal), the team has movie nights once a week, and Steve and Tony sleep together about five times more than they have movie nights.
Despite this, Steve finds that they spend more time together not having sex. Which is a relief, because he doesn’t want Tony to think that all Steve cares about is the sex- instead, he finds himself enjoying Tony’s company just as much.
He’s enjoying spending time with Tony to the point that when things start going sideways, Steve manages to ignore it until it overflows.
It starts- well, it starts before the arrangement started, if Steve’s being honest. It started years ago, but now it narrows down: Steve keeps going to kiss Tony when they’re hanging out, only to stop himself. Steve goes to hold Tony’s hand, to push hair out of his eyes, only to remember that they aren’t a couple.
But he pushes away the uncertainties whenever they arise, because he loves spending time with Tony and he loves sleeping with him enough that he keeps the denial up until they’re watching a movie together one night after Steve mentioned he hadn’t seen it yet.
Tony has one of his legs slung up on Steve’s lap, the other curled under his own body, and Steve is picking absently at a stray thread on Tony’s sock. Every few seconds, Tony’s toes twitch as if he’s batting Steve’s hand away, but whenever Steve looks over at him he’s smiling, so he figures he’s in the clear.
“Watch the movie.”
Steve startles. “What?”
“Watch the movie, not me,” Tony says, eyes glued to the screen. He smacks Steve lightly in the knee with his foot. “You’re missing the best part. Well, not the best-best part, but one of the many best parts, because this is an amazing movie that you’re missing.”
“I’m watching,” Steve says, and turns to the screen.
But then Tony’s laughing at something in the movie and Steve has to turn back to watch it: the creases that bunch around his eyes, the relaxed lines of his shoulders, the slouch of his body that indicates how comfortable he is, a slouch that Steve didn’t know existed until four months into their friendship.
It’s a quiet, amused laugh that’s more air than anything, but it has Steve’s heartbeat hitching.
God, I love you.
It comes unbidden and unwanted, and it’s far from the first time that Steve’s felt this, but it’s the first time he hasn’t stopped his thoughts from forming in the middle of it. He thinks he’d been half in love with Tony before they started their arrangement, and the sex had tumbled Steve fully into it.
Not even the sex, Steve thinks- maybe it’s knowing how Tony sounds like when he’s about to come, or knowing how Tony’s hand feels sliding up Steve’s bare chest; the feel of Tony’s skin under his hands. Falling asleep next to him and waking up with him, hearing him grumble as Steve slides out of bed to go jogging.
Shit, Steve thinks as he watches Tony. Goddamnit.
It’s what he had pushed down whenever someone suggested it was a bad idea: the silent agreement smothered by the hope that Steve could handle his feelings for Tony, the assumption that Steve could keep it under control.
Someone always gets hurt, Sam had told him, and Steve had been too blinded by the idea of Tony in his bed, the idea that he might have something simple and good and that it wouldn’t drag Steve even further into loving Tony.
Tony must feel Steve stiffen, because his glance sticks and turns into a stare. “Hey. You good?”
“Yeah,” Steve says when he has his voice back. “I’m just tired. Think I might turn in for the night.”
Tony hums. “Want company?”
Yes. Come to bed with me every night. “Nah,” Steve says, feigning indifference. “See you.”
“See you,” Tony says, sounding less than reassured as Steve gets up.
Damnit. Damnit damnit damnit.
Steve gets out his phone and is halfway through a group text to Sam, Bucky and Natasha before he re-reads it and pauses on the buttons- ‘might have made a mistake with tony and this friends with benefits thing, how-’
He deletes it. He doesn’t have to consult people about it. It’s his mess, he’ll clean it up.
Steve looks up when Tony slaps a newspaper down on the table in front of him.
“No-one reads newspapers anymore, Tony.”
“Ha, ha,” Tony says, but there’s an undercurrent of worry he’s obviously trying to hide, so Steve leans over the paper.
It doesn’t take long to find what Tony is stressing about- it’s one of those gossip rags that reads more like a magazine than an actual newspaper, and tucked away in the celebrity section is a photo of Steve in the supermarket, reaching for a can of beans with a hickey very visible on his neck.
“Huh,” Steve says, touching the small print of the hickey in the photo. It must have been taken when he went shopping on Tuesday- bruises fade fast when it comes to Steve, but the occurrence in the photo had been preluded by making out with Tony less than half an hour previously.
He looks back at Tony to find him pretending like he isn’t making small movements from from foot to foot, his arms crossed.
“You don’t seem worried,” Tony says when Steve continues to look expectant.
Steve shrugs and skims over the article underneath the photograph. “It’s the usual fodder they always come out with. Why would I be worried?”
Tony shrugs back, the movement sharp and tight. “The photo’s running in a few other places. Most people think it’s just a bruise- you get into a lot of public battles as Cap. Plus almost every American has a hard-won belief that you’d never have a hickey.”
Steve tries not to be offended by that. He understands just how much Captain America was built up into myth during his ‘death.’ “Okay. Why are you worked up over it?”
“I don’t… know,” Tony says after a moment. He’s still moving his weight from foot to foot. “I don’t want to besmirch your image, I guess. Even though there’s nothing in it to implicate me.”
“Okay,” Steve says again. When Tony continues shifting, Steve places a hand on his arm and attempts a reassuring smile. “Tony. I don’t care what some magazines say about me. Stop worrying.”
“I’m not worried,” Tony says after a moment, but sits down next to him at the kitchen table. “What’cha eating.”
“He loves the stuff. There’s eight containers of it in the cupboard.”
“He makes it himself.”
Tony blinks, then breaks out into a grin. “Crap, really? I’m going to take the shit out of him so hard the next time I see him.”
Steve feels himself grinning back, caught up in it, but it dims slightly when he remembers he can’t have Tony how he wants him- he can have Tony as a friend and as a sex partner, but not as anything else.
Tony’s dims along with his. “Steve?”
“It’s nothing,” Steve says, and in an effort to distract him, continues, “Hey, you should try some,” and pushes his bowl towards Tony.
Tony takes the spoon when Steve offers it, and bites a small chunk out of the spoonful. His eyebrows bump upwards as he chews. “Huh.”
Tony chews and swallows, looking down into the bowl. “Didn’t Bucky burn pasta that one time to the point where the fire alarm went off?”
“Yeah, that was him.”
Tony pokes at the contents of the bowl. “Okay. This looks pretty easy.”
Steve wonders how the hell he can be so affected by watching a man push cereal around a bowl, then remembers how he used to be overcome with affection for Peggy for doing everyday things- combing her hair, rolling her eyes, quirking her lips at a joke.
He makes a note to tell Bucky that he’s apparently a giant sap.
He tamps down on his reaction when Tony leans their knees together under the table, but it’s enough for Tony to raise his eyebrows at him questioningly.
Steve doesn’t want to say it’s nothing again, so he says, “You can finish that, if you want.”
“Oh. Thanks.” Tony turns back to the bowl like he’d forgotten about it and digs the spoon in.
Steve shifts his knee away from Tony’s. Again, Tony notices- he hesitates on the next bite and Steve assumes he looks over, but Steve is busy pretending to read the other articles in the newspaper in front of him.
Steve is sparring with Clint when Tony comes into the gym to watch, leaning on the wall next to the door and flicking a wave at Steve when he looks over.
“Oi,” Clint says, and Steve looks back to see Clint falling back into stance expectantly.
Steve does the same, and the fight resumes: it’s more grappling than anything, since both of them want to get better at escaping holds, but Steve is distracted enough that he puts in more strength into twisting out of the hold than he means to.
Clint hits the mat hard enough that they both swear, and Steve leans over him to see Clint squinting up at him blearily.
“’M fine,” Clint says, starting to sit up. He rests his hands on his knees instead of standing. He doesn’t glance over at Tony, but Steve knows he guesses what this is all about when he says, “How’s about we leave this until you’ve got your head screwed on right.”
Steve thinks about insisting he’s fine. Instead, he helps Clint to his feet and apologizes again before walking over to Tony.
“That looked rough,” is Tony’s greeting.
Steve makes a noise that sounds vaguely like agreement. “If you’re looking to spar, Clint’s probably looking for a partner. I’d offer, but I have to run an errand.”
“Didn’t come here to spar, big guy.” Tony unfolds his arms. “Uh. Came here looking for you, actually.”
When Steve’s heart thumps particularly hard, he tells himself it’s due to the fighting he just stopped doing. “Yeah?”
“Mm.” Tony looks hesitant. “Did I, uh. Do something?”
Steve waits. When Tony doesn’t clarify, he says, “What do you mean?”
Tony sighs. “Did I do something wrong.”
“Of course not,” Steve says instantly, but it doesn’t get Tony to meet his eyes. “Tony, why would you think that?”
“God, I don’t know.” Tony lets out a short, almost bitter laugh. “Everything about how you’ve been acting around me for the past two weeks?”
Guilt swarms over Steve like locusts. He’s been pulling away ever since he’d become unable to push down his feelings for Tony, but the last thing he wants is for the man to feel rejected.
“I’m sorry. I’ve been-” Steve reaches for words that will make his actions seem justified, but nothing comes. “I’m sorry,” he repeats.
“It’s fine,” Tony says, but it’s flimsy. Still, his smile is hopeful. “You up for some close-contact sparring? Clothing optional.”
For a moment, Steve thinks about giving in- there’d be that easy affection, the new intimacy that Steve thinks he might never get enough of. But Steve would have to pull away after, because even though they sometimes slept in the same bed, they didn’t cuddle, because cuddling felt like one step too far for their arrangement. He couldn’t hold Tony’s hand whenever he felt like it, or tell him he was thinking about him and it made him smile-
Tony’s cautious smile is already fading by the time Steve answers.
“Nah, I’m okay. Think I might head up to my studio and get some painting done.”
“I thought you had to run an-” Tony stops in the middle of it and Steve holds back a wince at being caught out on a lie.
Tony says, “Right. Have fun,” and smiles again. This time it’s the smile he drags up in front of cameras, and it makes Steve kick himself to see it: it’s the smile Tony uses when he really, truly doesn’t want to smile but feels he has to.
When Steve walks into the kitchen several days later after his jog, Pepper is sitting at the table eating granola. She’s decked out in her business suit, which has Steve assuming she’s here to convince Tony to sign some papers.
Steve heads over to the sink. “Hi.”
She doesn’t reply. Steve fills a glass with water and drinks it all in one go before glancing over at her. “Would you like some water?”
The curtness of her tone- like she’s pissed he offered her water- gives him pause. He turns around fully, pushing his sweaty hair off his forehead to see Pepper placing her spoon down next to her mostly-full bowl.
Steve waits. Sure enough, Pepper sighs and folds her hands together in front of her on the table.
“You make it pretty hard to dislike you, Steve, but I think I’ll manage.”
Steve blinks. Up until two seconds ago, he had assumed he and Pepper were friends, or at least amicable. “Oh. Can I ask why?”
“I’m one of Tony’s closest friends. It comes with the territory. I’m interested to see how Bucky takes all of this, actually.”
Steve’s mouth opens and closes.
Pepper purses her lips at him. “You know, out of all people, I didn’t expect this from you.”
“Sorry isn’t good enough. And you should be apologizing to him, not me.” She cocks her head at him and sighs, and Steve suddenly feels like he did when he had to tell his mother he got into yet another fight.
“If you want to break things off with Tony, you could’ve at least told him instead of hoping he’d swing the axe for you. The two of you could’ve been adults about this.”
“I don’t want to break up with him,” Steve says, and then backtracks hastily. “I mean, break off the arrangement.”
Pepper had been opening her mouth, but at arrangement she pauses. “What arrangement?”
Steve folds his arms over his chest before realizing he looks defensive and dropping them to his sides. “Our… friends with benefits arrangement.” Ice sets in his stomach. “Did Tony think we were-?”
“Oh.” For a second all Pepper does is squint at him. Then she slowly closes her eyes, bringing her hands up to press against them. “No, he- that does actually make a lot of sense in context. My mistake. Oh, Tony, you idiot, this might be the stupidest thing you’ve ever agreed to. Steve, please tell me you’re kidding.”
“Oh my god,” Pepper mutters, seemingly to herself, before wrenching her face out of her hands. “You’re serious. You- Captain America is friends with benefits with Tony Stark. The world is truly ending. What were you thinking?”
I was thinking it’d be really nice to have sex and I was willing to settle for anything Tony had to offer it if meant being with him.
“I’d rather not explain it, ma’am.”
Pepper’s mouth twists a little at ‘ma’am’- she had protested to it when they first met, and every other time they had spoken after that had been with Steve calling her Pepper. “Good idea. Don’t tell me. Instead, how about you tell me how you were planning on dealing with it. Or better yet, how you were planning on playing damage control, because now that’s fallen to me. Tony’s going on a business trip for three weeks to get away.”
From you is unspoken, but Steve feels it like a punch.
“I never meant to hurt Tony.”
“Well, your first step in the wrong direction was entering into a friends with benefits relationship where one of you is clearly more attached than the other.”
Steve ducks his head. He’d hoped he’d been less than obvious. “It was a bad idea, I’ll admit. And I hoped- well, to be honest, I wanted to avoid that conversation.”
“So instead you avoided Tony and hoped things would go back to normal.”
“I feel like I’m in high school all over again. How the hell do these people save the world on a regular basis?” Pepper says to herself. Then to Steve: “You need to talk to him if there’s any chance for the two of you to be friends again.”
She looks him over, and there’s a flicker of softness in her eyes before her old loyalty to Tony kicks in in full force. “Look- Steve. Please let him down gently. And give him a few weeks where you don’t spend time together. It’ll give him time to get his head on right again. And to get over you.”
Steve has to run it over in his head to make sure he heard her right. “Ma’am? I think you misunderstood- I still want to be friends with Tony. He’s one of my closest-”
He stops, swallows. “Well, I can’t say that anymore, I’m guessing. But- more than anything, I still want to be his friend. I just can’t continue our sexual relationship.”
“I know,” says Pepper slowly. “But it’ll take Tony time to fall out of love with you.”
Steve stares at her. His mouth fits around several unspoken words before he can manage, “Excuse me?”
Pepper stares back at him until her eyes widen. She sits up razor-straight. “Did you not- I thought- Tony said that was why he needed to go somewhere for a while, that you didn’t feel the same way about-? Was that not why?”
Steve hears her from far away. “No. It wasn’t.”
“No? Shit. Wait- it wasn’t? So-”
“Has Tony left for his business trip yet?”
Pepper seems to be fighting a losing battle against a smile. “I don’t know if I trust you with him yet, if you’re both this bad at figuring out you like each other.”
As Pepper stands, JARVIS’ voice comes through from the ceiling.
“The Avengers’ assistance is needed immediately down by the docks. There seems to be yet another sea monster attempting to drown anyone who comes near it.”
Steve and Pepper look at each other.
“I know,” Pepper says. “Go. But later-”
“Later,” Steve agrees, and runs to where he stores his shield.
Throughout the fight, Clint manages to make a grand total of eight sushi-related jokes, which would be fine if the sea monster didn’t appear to understand English and got more pissed off every time Clint let another one fly.
“Clint,” Steve barks into the comm, scanning for the archer. When he spots him, Clint is backflipping off a building just in time to miss the sea moster’s giant tentacle.
“I know, but it was the perfect setup!”
“Quit making it want to kill us more than it already does.”
“I don’t know if we can do that, Cap. We did kill its brother.”
Natasha’s voice echoes through the comm. “Don’t assume monsters’ gender, Barton.”
“Fine. We killed its possible family member of indeterminate gender.”
In the back of his mind that isn’t occupied by dodging things thrown by the monster, Steve thinks back to Pepper saying how the hell do these people save the world on a regular basis?
“Focus,” Steve says into the comm. “We’re taking it down using the same method as last time.”
“Lopping its tentacles off until it’s a bleeding stump and then sticking holes in its internal organs until it dies?”
Steve is going to feel guilty eating sushi for months. “That’s the plan. Everyone take a tentacle.”
It’s tough going on Steve’s part- he takes one that’s already been partially cut through with Black Widow’s wire, but there’s only so much width to the shield. It takes several well-placed throws and a lot of dodging for the tentacle to detach.
“One down,” Steve calls, just as Thor echoes the same. Steve glances over during a second of safety to take stock of the team- Natasha is darting in and out of cover to strike gouges in the base of one tentacle with wire; Clint is using explosive arrows to chip away at another; the Hulk seems to be squeezing a tentacle off using his arms; and Tony is blasting away at the last remaining tentacle with repulsor shots.
Steve ducks behind a car as a tentacle whips down through a telephone pole and strikes the spot Steve had been standing seconds before. He waits until the tentacle is at a safe distance, aiming for Clint’s ever-moving figure, before Steve steps out behind the car to throw his shield in a gleaming arc. It slices through the left side of the tentacle that’s currently trying to kill Clint, and then cuts a line of flesh out of the tentacle aiming for Natasha as she scales the sea monster’s torso.
They’re down to one last tentacle, which is charred almost to the bone, when Tony goes down.
Steve is starting in on what he thinks is the sea monster’s eyes, and is in the process of bringing his shield down into one when Thor’s yell booms across the comms.
“Iron Man, to your ri-”
Steve twists just in time to watch the last tentacle catching Tony’s suit across the chestplate, hard enough that the tentacle follows Tony down to crack into the street below, sending asphalt flying.
The next minute is a blur- Steve hears himself calling for Tony to come in, hears himself dispatching orders to the rest of the team, orders that are followed like they know what Steve’s going to say seconds before the words leave his mouth, and Steve can hear the sea monster’s dying roar as he sprints the last few meters to Tony.
His knees slap the asphalt beside Iron Man’s unmoving body. Hawkeye is already there on Steve’s order, fingers finding the hidden catches that will open the suit so they can survey the damage.
“J’s offline,” he tells Steve, who nods and joins him in triggering the releases in the amour. Not that it’ll do much good- with that hit, Steve is betting on internal bleeding rather than anything they can see, and without JARVIS to monitor Tony, there’s not a lot they can do to help.
“Medics are on the way,” Natasha says from somewhere behind them.
It’s Steve that rips off the faceplate; the only section that has no catch. Under it, Tony’s eyes are closed.
It’s only when Thor places a hand on Steve’s shoulder that Steve realizes he’s muttering under his breath. They’re the things he’s heard too many soldiers say as their friends bleed into their hands: come on, don’t go, don’t you dare leave-
Steve quiets himself, but the words run on in his head until the medics arrive.
Steve is by the hospital vending machines when Pepper runs up.
“He’ll be fine,” Steve assures her, and Pepper’s shoulders drop in relief.
“Thank god. They didn’t tell me anything other than he was in hospital. I didn’t know if I should call Rhodey.” She pushes her hair back into place distractedly. “Is he awake yet?”
She nods, and for the first time she looks at him as something other than Someone Who Knows How Tony Is. Her gaze flicks over him for a moment and Steve can see something burning behind her eyes, but all she does is turn to the vending machine, still coming down from the panic.
“Um, what are you getting?”
“Most of what’s in there. We eat a lot after a mission, when it’s all of us.”
That earns him a smile. “Yes, I’ve heard about your post-battle meals. This must be a step down.”
“We’ll manage.” Steve watches the metal spiral uncurl from a bag of chips and offers, “Would you like anything?”
“No, I’m fine.” Pepper fits another strand of hair behind her ear and glances over at him. Steve looks back at her in a silent acknowledgement of the thing both of them are thinking about.
“Sorry for yelling at you,” Pepper says eventually, after Steve has loaded all the snacks into his arms.
“Sorry for- speaking very sternly. At you.”
“Hey, I deserved it.”
“You did.” Pepper pushes a bag of chips back into place after it begins to slough off the pile in Steve’s arms. “So I get the impression that Tony’s feelings for you are reciprocated.”
Steve feels a momentary thrill at the reminder- Tony’s feelings for you- which quickly dulls as he remembers how Tony was about to go on a business trip in order to get away from him. “Yes.”
“Well, you have some way of showing it.”
“I- yeah.” Steve is suddenly glad to be carrying a mound of snacks; it gives him something to do with his hands. “I didn’t think it through, honestly. Battles, I can do. Give me a goal and I’ll give you an attack plan. But when it comes to people- I’ve never been very good. Especially at, uh. Romance.”
“So how did rejecting Tony fall all of this?”
Steve clears his throat, looking around the hallway as they walk. This seems like a conversation too intimate to have when someone could walk by at any moment. Not to mention how close Steve and Pepper weren’t.
“I wanted to go back to the way things were. Just as friends. I couldn’t, um. Turns out I couldn’t handle being with Tony in that way, not with-”
“Feelings,” Pepper supplies when Steve struggles to find a way to phrase it doesn’t make him feel ridiculous.
“Feelings,” Steve agrees. “But I didn’t want to talk to him about it. I just hoped if I kept turning him down, he’d stop asking, and we’d just… be friends without benefits.”
The way Pepper is looking at him has Steve thinking she’s judging the heck out of him but is too polite to say it.
Steve sighs. “I know. In retrospect-”
“Very bad idea.”
“I tried not to think it through too much,” Steve admits. “I didn’t think Tony would feel so rejected-”
“By being rejected? Steve, you weren’t just turning him down for sex. That, he could deal with. From what he told me, you were pulling away entirely.”
“…Yeah.” Steve bites down on the urge to swear as they round the corner that leads them down to Tony’s room. “Yeah, I can- I can see how he’d think that.”
They fall into a silence that’s only broken when Steve is about to open Tony’s door.
“For a group of people with jobs that are important as yours, you’re all much less emotionally competent than I expected.”
Steve can’t help the smile. “Sam told me almost the exact same thing.”
They’re on the last few bags of chips and assorted candies when Tony opens his eyes and makes a bleary, questioning noise.
“It’s been a few hours, you have less internal damage than you should but it’s still going to take weeks to heal so we’re going to force you to take it easy,” Natasha tells him.
“Mrghh,” Tony grunts, and then he’s shifting painstakingly so he’s in a sitting position, eyeing Steve when he moves like he’s going to steady him. “’M fine. Did we make sushi?”
“Just after you hit the ground.”
“Yay,” Tony says faintly, his head falling back gently to press against the wall. “God. Any chance I ever had at being into tentacle porn is dashed.”
Steve lets out a short laugh, mostly due to relief of Tony being awake and talking. Tony shoots him a look that’s part suspicious and part puzzling.
But then he’s turning to face the others. “When can I get out of here? I have a business trip to get to.”
“Actually,” Bruce says, wearing hospital scrubs along with glasses from the Lost and Found, “Pepper dropped by. She said the trip’s cancelled until you’re healed enough to walk around and charm investors.”
“I can do that,” Tony protests, and then makes a pained noise as he shifts. “I can- I don’t know, I can be charming and just walk really carefully.”
Clint throws a balled-up chips bag into the rubbish. “Since when are you jonesing for business trips, man?”
Steve can almost feel the gaze that Tony is pointedly not directing at him. Guilt swarms his stomach and settles in to stay.
Over the next few days, Steve cautiously tries to repair the damage he’s done.
Tony isn’t exactly reaching out, but Steve brings him food and sits next to him on the couch and asks if Tony would be okay with him drawing in the workshop while Tony’s working.
“You don’t have to do this,” Tony tells him several times over.
“I know,” Steve says every time. “I want to.”
And each time, Tony pins him with a look that gets less subtle every time this exchange happens.
Finally, Tony lets his wrench drop onto his worktable with a loud clang and turns around to face Steve, who blinks back at him from his spot on the couch.
“What, so you want me again?”
Steve pauses in sketching the outline of Dummy, who had been posing but now has his camera twisted to face his inventor.
Steve opens his mouth to say something intelligent like uh, what when Tony continues, “If you want to roll around, just come out and say it, don’t- do all this, don’t fucking pretend to care! I mean, I’ll need some healing time-”
“I’m not pretending to care,” Steve says, quietly horrified. He was supposed to be fixing this, and instead Tony thinks-
“Tony, this isn’t me trying to get in your pants.”
Tony’s eyebrows crease together. “Well- if you feel bad about calling it quits, then don’t. I’m a big boy, I can handle it, you don’t have to try to make it up to me.”
“That’s not what this is! Tony, I care about you-”
“Could’ve fooled me!”
It comes out as a yell, and judging by the wince that immediately follows, Tony didn’t mean to burst out with that.
Steve watches the tight line of his shoulders, the hurt that Tony is trying so hard not to show. “I know. I’m sorry. I’ve been… figuring things out.”
Tony rolls his eyes. “What things?”
“I…” Steve wets his lips. He can’t say it now, Tony’s too raw, he’ll think Steve is messing with him, or doing it out of some sense of guilt. Instead Steve says the thing that has been true from the start: “I don’t want to lose you.”
Tony snorts. His arms fold, hands tucking under his armpits. “You won’t,” he says, though it’s a snarl more than anything. “Unless you keep acting like a complete dick for no reason.”
“Yeah, I know no-one who does that.” It’s automatic after years of friendship, but Steve regrets it the moment it leaves his mouth. “Sorry! Sorry. I think we both need some time.”
Tony still looks like he’s preparing for war. “Fine.”
“No, come on-” Steve stands and starts forward, but falls back. Tony is wound so tight he looks like he’d bite Steve if he came too close. “I really fouled this up, but I want to make it up to you.”
The suspicious look comes back with a vengeance, but it’s undercut with hope. “I’m listening.”
“Tomorrow night? Just you and me.”
Tony looks wary, but he gives a curt nod.
Steve takes it as his cue to leave, so he tries for a reassuring smile as he tucks his notebook and pen under his arm, pats Dummy goodbye and heads for the door.
“See you,” Tony calls behind him, still sounding less than pleased.
Steve answers in kind, determined that after tomorrow night, he’ll have things sorted out.
When Steve hears a knock on the door, he frowns. He’s arranged to meet Tony in the kitchen- maybe he’s backing out?
But when he opens the door, it’s Sam standing there with a severely unimpressed expression.
“Hi,” Steve says, stepping back when Sam makes to head into his room.
“So apparently you fucked up.”
Okay, then. “Yeah. I really did.”
Sam turns to face him, then spends a good second just staring at him with something like exasperation. “What did Nat and I explicitly tell you would happen.”
“And when you found yourself in the exact same position you knew you’d end up in, what did you do, Steve?”
Steve reaches up to rub at his forehead. “Are we really doing this? Because I still have to find champagne, and I don’t know how much I should spend-”
“Whoa, hey, no. Stop.” Sam takes a deep breath through his nose, and when he next speaks it’s in his Therapist voice. “Steve. You know what your main problem with Tony is? Not communicating. You’re planning- what, a romantic dinner date where you’re gonna confess your feelings and beg for forgiveness for making Tony feel like shit for two weeks?”
“That’s the plan, yeah.”
Sam gives him a look that hits too close to the hyper-wary look Tony had given him when Steve had suggested he make things up to him.
“What if Tony doesn’t want to get together? What if you jerked him around too much?”
“Then I try to make it up to him anyway. I try to repair our friendship.”
Sam shifts his jaw from side to side as he looks at Steve, evaluating. Finally, he says, “Communicate your feelings. Communicate what you want out of the relationship. Communicate everything you want Tony to know and try to get him to do the same. Think you can do that?”
Steve says, “I can and I will,” and wonders if it means there’s something fundamentally wrong or just a little bent about him finding it easier to take down a sea monster than having an open discussion about a relationship.
Steve turns off his phone before Tony’s due to meet him. Word apparently travels fast- Bucky and Natasha are off on a mission in Vermont, but both of them had started texting him hours ago about Steve’s idiocy.
He sends them both back ‘I know shut up I’m busy’ before switching it off and taking yet another look at the scene he’s set.
There’s a bottle of champagne in the middle of the table, which has a tablecloth on it for the first time since the table’s conception. There’s a meal that Steve just got out of the oven- a roast cooked in red wine, along with rosemary potatoes. It’s not too fancy, but Steve had guessed that if he tried anything remotely fancier he’d muck it up.
There had been rose petals sprinkled over the kitchen counters and the table, but five minutes ago Steve had been surveying the room and decided that he didn’t want to make Tony feel pressured by the gesture, and rose-petals seemed like Steve was trying some cliché technique to fail at seeming romantic, and that he was trying too hard to fit some mold that he could never pull off-
Steve had ended up sweeping the rose petals away in a frantic hurry, picking up what he couldn’t sweep.
He’s probably left petals in the crevice behind the fridge along with numerous other hidden places, but Steve doesn’t much care as long as they aren’t visible.
He’s suddenly doubting his decision to get rid of the petals when Tony walks into the kitchen, hands in his pockets and slowing down when he catches sight of the champagne and the meal. If Steve had left the petals, he might’ve been laughed at, but at least his intentions would be clear. Now he has to say the actual words. With his mouth. Out loud.
“Did you make all this yourself,” Tony says when he spots the tray in the sink, the one Steve had been in the middle of scrubbing when he decided to scrap the rose petals.
Steve tries to display confidence and then scrounges for a confident posture that doesn’t make him feel like he has to give a speech or punch a wrongdoer. “The food, yes. I think some guys in France made the champagne.”
“Some guys in France,” Tony mutters as he approaches the table. He looks dubious, but a hopeful sort of dubious. “Uh. It looks nice,” he says, nodding down at the food.
Steve thanks him and tries to suppress the explosion of realization that he should’ve put a candle on the table next to the champagne. Candles are romantic- but would it have been overkill? Would one be okay, or should he have placed them everywhere? Sounds too much like a fire hazard-
Quit it, it’s the rose petals all over again, Steve tells himself. Concentrate. Think of it as a mission.
Steve goes to sit down, and then freezes as he wonders if he should’ve pulled out Tony’s chair for him.
Across from him, Tony sits down and looks at Steve oddly.
“How are you healing,” Steve asks.
“Fine,” Tony says, still eyeing Steve.
Steve twists his hands together under the table. Sam had told him to be direct, but surely he shouldn’t batter Tony around the head with it five seconds after sitting down.
“Do you want some-” He reaches for the champagne and then stops, hand hovering in the air. “Oh. Are you on pain meds?”
Good job, Steve thinks in a voice that sounds far too much like Bucky. Steve tells it to shut its nonexistent face.
Tony’s reaching for his flute glass. “It’s fine, pour away.”
Steve is torn between not messing things up and not causing Tony health problems by mixing booze and pain pills. “Uh, there’s orange juice in the fridge, I can get some.”
Then he stands up and fetches the orange juice from the fridge, trying not to feel too pathetic as he pours it into Tony’s flute glass. He pours it into his own for good measure, and puts the champagne in the fridge when he goes back with the orange juice.
Tony is poking at his meal when Steve sits back down.
“Hey, this is really good,” Tony says on the first bite, and Steve hurries to cut into his own meal instead of staring at Tony like a dope.
They eat in silence for about half a minute before Steve decides now is a good time to at least start. “Tony.”
Tony looks up from where he’s been pretending not to glance over at Steve every few seconds.
Steve tries to remember the gist of the notes he had made, but the nervous look Tony’s covering up sends it all out the window. “I- I’m really sorry I made you feel like I was rejecting you. That wasn’t my intention.”
Tony chews slowly and swallows. “Okay,” he says, like he’s summing up a calculus problem. “What was your intention?”
“I wanted-” Steve licks his lips. They taste like rosemary and lamb. “I wanted to end the arrangement.”
Tony’s face shutters. He places his utensils down carefully on his plate. “Okay. Okay, Steve, I gotta say, this is about the weirdest way you could’ve let me down gently. I mean, you make a meal for me to tell me you want to end things-”
“I don’t want to end things!”
“-you want to just be friends, fine, I get it, that’s great, but did you have to- like, sure, this is nice, but what the hell, Steve-”
“Please just hear me out.”
Tony’s jaw clicks shut.
“I wanted to end the arrangement,” Steve says, and watches Tony’s armor build up and up to impossible lengths. “But it wasn’t what you thought. Pepper mentioned-”
“Pepper mentioned,” Tony repeats darkly. “Did she, now. Well-”
“Wait, just- she mentioned you thought I was pulling away because I figured out you had feelings for me and I didn’t feel the same way. That’s not what happened.”
Tony’s eyes are flat and dark and guarded, but a flicker goes through them at that. He doesn’t say anything, but he glances up and down Steve like he expects something to reveal itself.
Steve continues, “I was- I pulled away because I couldn’t handle being so intimate with you, not after I realized- not after I realized how I felt about you.”
Tony’s still looking at him, and the wariness is still there but some of the hurt is giving way to something else, something that looks a lot like hope.
Steve braces himself. Now or never- if Tony yells at Steve and breaks off their friendship entirely, then he’ll only have himself to blame. If Tony doesn’t feel the same way about Steve anymore, then Steve will deal with it.
“I assumed you didn’t feel as… deeply for me, as I did for you. That’s why I tried to back out of the arrangement.”
Tony continues to stare. A muscle jumps in his neck.
“You could’ve said something,” he says finally, after Steve has started to sweat down the back of his button-down shirt.
Steve has to force back a laugh. “You could’ve, too.”
“Mm. I.” Tony’s throat clicks. He looks from Steve, to the food, then back to Steve again, as he processes. “Huh.”
Steve waits, heart in his throat, beating like a hummingbird in flight.
Tony asks, “This isn’t some- creepy guilt thing that you talked yourself into after you decided to fix our friendship, right?”
“No,” Steve says instantly. “No, this is- a few years in the making.”
“Huh,” Tony says again. His hands come up, one of them drumming a nonsense beat on the table Steve assumes is binary code. “Huh.”
Steve moves on to the second step. “I was wondering if, uh. If you’d want to be in a relationship.”
Tony’s gaze moves from the tablecloth up to Steve’s face fast as a lightning strike. For a moment he says nothing, but then his mouth is opening.
“Is that a rose petal in your hair?”
“What?” Steve’s hand flies up to root through his hair, and a petal flutters down in front of his face. He pinches it between his fingers after it hits the table, and they both watch it.
“Uh.” Steve coughs. “Yeah. I was going to- there were petals everywhere about ten minutes ago, but I panicked before you got here and cleaned them all up.”
There’s the start of a smile on Tony’s face. Steve tries not to let that fact snowball into excitement, but it’s difficult. “I didn’t want you to feel pressured by the gesture? Or- I’m not really a rose petal kind of guy. Or a gesture kind of guy. I don’t know if I can pull it off.”
“I think you can.”
Steve can feel his own mouth stretching into a smile to mirror Tony’s. “I’ll keep that in mind for next time.”
“You gonna make me a lot of these romantic dinners, Rogers?”
“If you’ll let me.”
Tony looks like he’s struggling not to let his grin get too lose. “I’ll allow it,” he says, and stands up, coming around the table so he can sling one leg over Steve’s lap and sit down. He makes a pained sound as he does it, but says, “I’m fine,” when Steve steadies him and gives him a questioning look.
Steve’s hands come up to rest on the length of Tony’s spine, feeling the bumps of it under his palms. He closes his eyes as Tony tilts their foreheads together, relief flooding him at the feel of Tony so close to him, Tony forgiving him, Tony wanting him the same way Steve wants him back.
“There’s a condition to this,” Steve says, and feels Tony stiffen slightly, his forehead lifting off of Steve’s.
Steve’s eyes fly open. “Wait, no, it’s not bad! Some of our friends yelled at me about it- we have to communicate more.”
Tony blinks. “What, like- our feelings?”
“Huh.” Tony looks considering. He knocks their foreheads together gently. His nose skims Steve’s cheek as he tilts his head. “I’m liking you a lot right now.”
“Good,” Steve says. It’s softer than he intends it to be, but Tony seems to like it. “I like you, too. Might even go a step higher than that.”
Tony’s smile ticks. “Yeah?”
Steve runs his hands up the length of Tony’s back until he’s cupping the back of Tony’s head. “I love you.”
Tony makes a tiny noise, almost too quiet to hear. Then he says, “You, too.”
Steve kisses him, and it carries on long enough that Steve’s dimly worried about Tony’s lungs. When he pulls back, he bumps their noses together and asks, “How’s the injury?”
Steve pulls back enough to raise an eyebrow at him.
“Annoyingly persistent,” Tony admits after a moment. “I don’t think we’ll be able to, uh, consummate this for a few days.”
“Try a week.”
“Oh, come on.”
“Tony, you got slammed into the street by a sea monster.”
“I’m not saying we do anything strenuous- I could just lie there. You do all the work.”
Steve is laughing by this point, arms wrapping around Tony so he’s shaking slightly with it. “I’ll consider it. Later.”
Tony kicks lightly at his leg. “Whatever. You carrying me to bed or what? I’m injured, here. And you’re being romantic. With a capital R.”
“Aw, I guess if I’m being Romantic,” Steve says, and lifts Tony by his thighs, chair pushing backwards. “You good?”
“I’d be better if there were rose petals around.”
“Next time,” Steve promises.
Tony plucks the petal from the table as they leave it. He drops it into Steve’s cowlick.
Steve forgets about it until the morning. He’s stretching, rolling over to check if last night was a particularly good and vivid dream and then grinning to himself when he sees Tony, still asleep with his cheek smudged into the pillow.
When Steve reaches out to ghost his hand over Tony’s shoulder- not touching, because god knows Tony needs his sleep- he notices a small pinprick of red wedged under Tony’s shoulder.
Steve pinches it between his fingers and eases it out. It’s battered to the point of ripping from where it had fallen onto the bed and most likely stayed pinned to the mattress while Steve and Tony kissed for hours before falling asleep.
Steve rubs it between his thumb and forefinger before sitting up to lean over and place the petal in his bedside drawer.
A half-slurred voice from behind him says, “Sap.”
Steve turns back to see Tony squinting up at him, hair mussed.
Steve grins down at him before bending down for a kiss. “Yeah. But I’m your sap.”
“Damn straight,” Tony says, and drags Steve back in for a kiss that deepens until Tony’s cracked ribs force them to stop.