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Love in the Hearts

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Tony's low-tech senses were tingling.

Okay, so to be precise, he did not have a separate sense for the purpose of locating someone using an embarrassingly low-tech solution when a perfectly good technological one was freely available, thank you, Mr. I prefer to read print for my news Barton, honestly, the only thing printed newspapers were good for was housebreaking an unruly puppy. He certainly wished he'd had one, it would have made things so much easier, but so far, he had to make do with the traditional five senses. And yes, there were more than five, thank you internal Bruce, but he rather doubted his vestibular or kinesthetic senses would be of much use in locating such atrocities.

This time, the one catching the offending person was his sense of sight, which saw clear as day Captain goddamn America eating candy. Eating stupid candy, at that. Something had to be done, in the name of decency, progress, and good taste.

Did that count as a candy pun? He hoped it didn't. It always somewhat annoyed him when his internal monologue made puns without his permission.

"What," he asked, striding up to the kitchen counter, "is that?" He pointed a finger at the offending confectionery. Take that, stupid candy. Nobody points a finger like Tony Stark.

"Huh?" Steve blinked, looking up from the roll of candy he was opening. "It's candy. You want one?"

"I know it's candy." Tony frowned. "However, it's stupid candy. Candy that is utterly offensive to my very being. I'm actually not sure how Jarvis allowed you to bring it into the tower."

Steve blinked, appearing confused. "You have something against hearts?"

"What? No! I love hearts. Hearts are great. I'm very fond of my heart, thanks, even if it's not equally fond of me. What I do have something against," he picked up one of the candies, "is this." Now, he pointed at the text on the candy.

Steve stared at him like he'd just grown another head. And what exactly was so wonder-worthy, now? "You don't approve of the messages?"

"Exactly! They're utterly useless. I mean, what's the point?" He looked at the candy in his hand, reading the text aloud. "'Hug me'. Hug who? You can't hug the candy. I highly doubt you're going to hug whoever came up with the text, or any of the numerous people who had a part in producing it. So what's the point in having a message in the first place?"

"Well, you could give them to someone else." And Steve simply put a candy in his mouth, like there was nothing wrong with it. Did he not see the enormous problem?

"But there's no point in that! You're limited to however many messages there are, which are randomly packaged and distributed. There's no way to have meaningful communication with these. Or is someone going to actually think you love them because you give them a single piece of candy worth some pennies?"

"It's just a cute gesture, Tony. It's nothing to get all worked up over."

"The hell it isn't!" He tossed the piece of candy over his shoulder. "These aren't even American! Where's your patriotic loyalty, Cap? American candy not good enough for you? Have to bring your sugar in from overseas?"

Now, Steve frowned. "I just came across these in an import store. They reminded me of my time in London, so I bought a few."

Well. Shit. Way to go, Stark, be a dick and crap all over his war memories, why don't you? "That's not the point!" Okay, totally great recovery. Not.

"So what is the point?"

Tony fumed. He probably would have been giving off steam if it had been physiologically possible. "I'd think it's obvious."

"So I'm slower than the great Tony Stark. Humor me."

"It's just so old-fashioned." Obviously. "If you want to give someone cute little messages with no real effort involved, you can always text them!"

"Ahh, so that's what it is." Steve's face took on a look that would have been almost sly except this was Captain fucking America and he couldn't be sly. "You're just annoyed because they're not all about tech."

"So sue me. They go against everything I stand for!"

"You stand against love and fuzzy feelings?" Steve blinked innocently. God, the man's eyes were just ridiculous, he looked like a puppy.

"No! I stand against Victorian leftovers that should have been abandoned years ago! There's no way to communicate yourself efficiently with these throwbacks, so clearly, they're useless."

"Is that a challenge?"

"Will you accept it if it is?"

"You're on." And suddenly, Steve looked simply determined. Oops.

Now what had he gotten himself into?

*

It started, like so many bad things, with his liquor cabinet.

Okay, so technically, many great things started with that as well. He did some of his best engineering while drunk, and usually even managed to backwards engineer whatever it was he'd built afterwards. (That one time when he was twenty-seven totally didn't count, even if it would have been interesting to figure out just how he had managed to build a working holographic projector out of the contents of a well-stocked pantry and a box of car parts. It wasn't his fault Rhodey's mom's cat dropped it off the table before he was done analyzing it, okay?) However, some pretty bad things started there as well, and this was definitely one of those.

He stared at the small, circular piece of processed sugar with distaste. "Just say no," the candy told him cheerfully.

"Oh, for fuck's sake." Tony made a face, reaching for a bottle and knocking the candy to the floor in the process, not entirely by accident. "They actually print that message? Who even wants something like that in a candy that's supposed to be about love?"

Obviously there was no answer, either from the candy or the one who had set it there. There wasn't even an explanation offered for how or when Steve had sneaked the candy in there. Tony had kept the door all nice and locked since the last time Thor and Clint had emptied two bottles of some of his finest alcohol so they could send each other messages in a bottle in the pool, and he didn't want to think Captain America was accomplished at picking locks. It was bad enough to be living with a couple of spies, he didn't need the one true American icon to go rogue on him, too.

The next one was even sneakier, appearing while he nodded off for what was absolutely only a couple of seconds at best, honestly, and no he was not drunk and passing out, just a little tipsy and he worked hard, okay? Except this time it wasn't just a piece of candy, but a pizza box, still warm and smelling absolutely heavenly. On top of the box was another little sugary circle, with a new message. "All yours," the candy proclaimed.

Well. Maybe he could get used to this new trend. Assuming it didn't get too preachy, which, considering the first message, he wasn't all that convinced about.

But, hey, pizza he didn't have to do anything to get. That had to count as a bonus, right?

*

"Jarvis?" Tony asked on what he was pretty sure was the morning of the third day of silent treatment from Captain America, as he found a "yours" heart next to a plate of sliced-up fruit, and honestly, why had Steve taken this challenge as an opportunity to get on Tony's case about his lifestyle choices? So not fair. "Exactly how many of these does Steve have?" After all, he'd run out of messages eventually, especially since Tony doubted all of them were appropriate for interaction between colleagues.

"I do believe he has ordered two wholesale boxes following your challenge to him," Jarvis replied calmly. "That would mean that aside from his initial purchase, he has a hundred packs of twenty pieces to work with, working out to two thousand sweets."

"Really?" Tony gaped, just a bit. He hadn't expected Steve to take this quite that seriously.

"Indeed, Sir. I believe Agent Barton assisted him in opening all the packages and sorting them out by message, after which he proceeded to donate the ones he deemed extraneous to children in need as well as the Hungry Avenging Archers foundation, which is Agent Barton's private organization. Apparently the good agent finds the entire concept rather amusing." Tony could swear Jarvis sounded amused as well. Of course. Only someone of his level of excellence and awesomeness could create an AI that was amused at the expense of its creator without proceeding to kill him. And then people said immeasurable genius wasn't a burden.

"Should have known he got Legolas in on this. The man has a truly twisted sense of humor." Tony paused. "It's because of that Merida doll I left at his door, isn't it?"

"Quite to the contrary, Sir. Agent Barton seemed rather pleased with the gift. It seems he has simply chosen to affiliate himself with the opposing side in this matter."

"Figures. Let's all gang up on poor old Tony Stark, why don't we?" Not that she'd ever say that aloud around any of them. Certainly not the old part. He was not old, thank you; he had simply occupied space on this plane of existence slightly longer than, say, Clint or Natasha, those lethal brats. And been awake for longer than Steve, and damn, that man made thinking about age far too confusing.

"I am sure you shall prevail victorious against this onslaught, sir." Jarvis's voice was nothing if not sincere. Great! His AI was even capable of faking. His was, indeed, the greatest genius this world had ever known.

And yet, he couldn't get Steve to talk to him.

Oh, he had tried. He'd poked and prodded, tried to throw discussion starters in the air, figured out Steve's interests and dislikes. However, unless Steve could pull an answer out of his apparently endless reserves of literal sweet nothings, he simply ignored Tony. It was starting to get rather annoying. Or at least Tony was annoyed; everyone else seemed to find the situation rather amusing, the bastards.

The worst part was just how creative Steve was getting with the messages. Sure, he couldn't hold a long conversation with them, but he managed to find answers to most simple questions and statements. Sure, said answers sounded more like innuendo most of the time, but Tony could totally read them to mean something more innocent, no big deal. After all, "Yes Dear" was pretty much the only way Steve had at his disposal for his affirmative responses, and "Hold me" was more likely to refer to Steve's tablet while he dug around for a remote than Steve himself, more's the pity. Yeah, he could communicate just fine, and on the other side of it Tony was doing damn great at deciphering everything.

Of course, that didn't mean he was going to like it. Steve would notice the sheer inferiority of his candy as a communication device sooner or later, damn it.

Where exactly did Steve find all these "Grow up" hearts that he kept dropping everywhere? Or maybe it was Clint. Tony certainly wouldn't have put it past Clint to do that with the bribes he had received, the filthy traitor.

Some love.

*

They were fighting slime monsters. Big, neon-colored slime monsters that the news reporters were theorizing had something to do with an explosion at a jell-o factory, a hypothesis Tony wasn't about to dismiss off-hand, because holy shit this was ridiculous. How was this his life now?

There was mostly silence on the comms as they fought, only Clint's occasional brief but all the more snarky comments breaking through the silence. Usually Tony might have tried to fill it himself, but there didn't seem to be much of a point when he knew Steve wouldn't answer. What was the point of making noise if nobody was going to tell him to shut up? Nothing, that was what.

Clint said something that finally got Coulson to tell him to shut up for a moment, something dirty no doubt, which of course only encouraged him. Clint really enjoyed riling Coulson up about such things, and for some reason, Coulson let himself react, even to things he would have ignored with some disdain coming from anyone else. Tony wasn't going to claim to understand their relationship, but hey, they were the ones dating, not he.

Suddenly, a new file appeared in his HUD, tucked off in the corner yet immediately catching his attention. "Jarvis?" He frowned. "What's that?"

"It's from Captain Rogers, Sir," Jarvis replied, ever helpful. "He collected the images beforehand so if need be, I could illustrate any changes in battle plans for you. Would you like me to expand, Sir?"

"Do it quickly." The image filled about half of his view, leaving enough for him to see where he was flying. And, sure enough, he was looking at a moving diagram of photographed love hearts. Tony wasn't sure whether to be annoyed at Steve's stubbornness or amazed at his creativity.

Of course, now he had to decipher the stupid thing, which he really wasn't looking forward to all that much. One was clear as soon as he saw them; the green one labeled "Wild thing" obviously represented Hulk, clearing out the larger clusters of the slimes. The pink "Bonnie lass" was Natasha, because that was how Steve's mind worked, moving around the white "Guess who", which he was going to assume was Steve himself. Somewhere to the side was the purple "Cheeky boy", which would be Clint, with Thor's yellow "Angel face" swerving around, and, hey, he wasn't going to argue with that. Now, if he could only figure out what he was supposed to do…

The last one, he noted, was orange, which he supposed was as close to gold as he was going to get. The text on it, though, made him blink in surprise.

"My hero." Well, that was weird. Maybe Steve was trying to make up for that whole "you will never be a hero" mess? He'd already apologized for that, though, rather profusely at that. There was no need for him to be silly like this.

And no time for him to muse about stupid captains, Tony decided as another giant slime almost took his head off before he managed to hit it with a repulsor blast, splattering it around and wondering if it would stain. Battle first, weird Steve behavior later. For now, he could just file it away with all the "concern for Tony's well-being" and "wanting to be friends" crap that obviously proved there was something wrong with Steve's head.

Of course, the next time he had a moment to think about anything else but the next move and next monster and next repulsor blast wasn't until after the battle was over and they were all trying to clean parts of slime monsters from themselves. Clint had mostly dodged all of it, working at a range, and Coulson of course was as pristine as ever, but everyone else had taken more or less damage from the mess. Fury looked like he had half a mind to tell them to debrief right away anyway, but then mercifully told them to go shower and get their reports to him by the next morning, yes Stark, that goes for you too, and no you do not live in your own private timeline where tomorrow occurs three weeks from now. Of course, that was less because of anything resembling human emotion or sympathy and more because the stuff was starting to smell. Tony had rarely been so glad that his suit had its own air filtration system. He'd only lifted his mask for a second, and wasn't about to make the same mistake again.

"Cap." Fury's voice brought Steve to a halt as they turned to head back to the tower. "A word."

"Yes, Sir?" Steve sounded like he wasn't sure what to expect. To be honest, neither did Tony, which was why he walked out after the rest very loudly, then snuck back as silently as he could, happy to find the door ajar just enough for him to hear the conversation. And to see Steve standing in front of fury, all prim and proper despite the fact that even his hair was dripping with monster slime, and honestly, how did he manage that when he wore a cowl? The man was incredible in the worst of ways, sometimes.

 

"So let me get this straight." Ah, Fury's long-suffering voice was music to Tony's ears, especially when he sounded even more suffering than usual. "You have been communicating with Stark through candy?"

"Yes, Sir." Steve stood still, the perfect soldier as always, meeting Fury's gaze without flinching. That in itself probably qualified you for a medal or two.

"Candy that is decorated with hearts and cutesy little messages that sound like a sappy episode of some stupid teen drama?" And what did Fury know about those? He wondered if Jarvis could somehow hack the info on what Fury watched on TV.

"Yes, Sir."

"And it never occurred to you that communication during missions might be compromised by your little scheme to flirt with Stark without him noticing?"

"No, Sir." Which was totally not the kind of denial Tony had been expecting at all. And holy shit, was Steve actually blushing? This obviously required further investigation. Or interrogation, whichever came easiest. He'd have to see about that, once they were back in tower and he'd showered once or maybe five times. Even through the suit the slime had somehow gotten into them, and it was so much less pleasant than nice, familiar motor oil.

First, though, he had to stop by a candy store.

*

Steve was, Tony discovered, in the kitchen. This was something of a natural habitat for him, what with the super human metabolism and other such strange things. He'd apparently managed to get through the shower faster than Tony, as he was already eating a fresh omelet when Tony walked in, finally feeling vaguely human again now that he'd washed all that smelly slime off.

"So." He gave Steve the most serious look he could muster. "We have to talk."

Steve didn't say anything, of course, just raised his eyebrow. Well. It had been worth a try.

"Here." Stepping closer, Tony set the piece of candy he had been carrying on the table. "Hope you're happy."

"I surrender," Steve read aloud, then grinned. "See? They actually are useful."

"I've half a mind to buy the damn company just to fire anyone who ever came up with a single one of those texts," Tony sighed. "But, sure, yeah. You can survive without talking to me, that's been established. Great! But that's not what I wanted to talk about."

"Oh?" Steve continued eating. "Then what is it?"

"I overheard you and Fury." Why, no, he had absolutely no trouble admitting that, should he have?

"Did you?" Steve tried to sound casual, Tony could tell, but his shoulders tensed just a bit. "Eavesdropping isn't nice."

"Then maybe you shouldn't discuss flirting in the office. Someone could get an entirely wrong impression about you and the good director, and wow, that's an unsettling mental image." Tony gave an exaggerated shudder. "So, what? All of this was some elaborate mating ritual?"

"I never said that." Steve apparently found his omelet immensely fascinating just now.

"You didn't deny it either, though." Tony shrugged. "Not that I care all that much, really. But that's not the point." He pointed a finger at Steve. "Do you like me, yes or no? And no, I'm not going to pass you a note for you to draw a check on. Time to talk to me again, Captain."

"I don't dislike you." Which was totally not an answer.

"Of all the people, I didn't expect you to refuse adult conversation." Tony leaned over the table. "Are you attracted to me?"

"You are an attractive man," was Steve's response this time, which was utterly true but also absolutely not helpful. He was absolutely doing this on purpose.

"Fine. Last chance to give me an actual answer, Rogers." He dug out a piece of candy from his pocket. "I had to buy and open at least fourteen rolls of this stuff to find one of these," he commented. "So you'd better appreciate the effort." He threw the sweet at Steve, who snatched it out of air with no visible effort. As he actually looked at the text, though, he blinked, appearing surprised.

"Date me." And honestly, if that got misinterpreted, Tony was swearing off modern civilization and moving to some remote mountain top to become a hermit. Not in a cave, though. Caves bad.

Steve blushed, then, an honest to god schoolboy like blush, before taking out a piece from his half-eaten roll of candy and tossing it at him. Tony caught it easily, he had excellent hand-eye coordination after all, and looked at the message.

"You and I," it stated simply. Tony grinned.

So, rather unsurprisingly, it turned out that despite adapting marvelously to certain new things like equal rights and tablet computers and approximately a zillion different flavors of soft drinks, Captain America was still pretty old-fashioned in some aspects. Due to this lamentable but actually a bit adorable fact, instead of some wild sex aided by remarkable stamina, they ended up having a movie night that wasn't all that different from the ones they had with the team sometimes. Well, except that there was nobody but the two of them there, and Steve kept stroking Tony's hair in a way that really shouldn't have felt so damn good, and at some point Tony realized he was kind of dozing off and wow Steve made a really good pillow.

The surprising part was that he kind of liked it.

*

When Tony woke up, there was a sheet of paper on the coffee table, neatly folded in two.

Of course, the notable part here was that he was next to the coffee table. On the couch. Next to an empty spot that still had some lingering warmth in the shape of an absent super soldier, with some annoyingly wholesome whistling carrying over from the kitchen. He was pretty sure he could smell coffee and bacon, which definitely merited investigating, but first there was the matter of the paper.

It was meant for him, Tony concluded, partly because it hadn't been there the night before and now it was, and partly because the top of the folded paper bore his name. Well, that certainly explained why it was still there even though Steve must have noticed it, the man lacked absolutely anything resembling healthy curiosity in favor of that terrible thing called proper manners. Yawning a bit, Tony stretched himself just enough to reach the note, collapsing back on the couch as he unfolded it, reading the message.

"I have a picture of you and Captain America snuggled up together on the couch," the note read. "Unless you want it spread all over SHIELD, have your computer hack the organizational files and give Agents Coulson and Barton both five days of vacation time, because they're both awesome and shouldn't be overworked like this. And make it at the same time, too."

It wasn't typed, not even written by hand. Each letter had been painstakingly cut out from newspaper headlines, slightly uneven rectangular shapes in different sizes and colors, glued on what he was pretty sure was a sheet of some of Steve's best sketching paper and shit was there going to be puppy eyes about that later, so what that he could order a dozen new pads of the stuff in the blink of an eye. It was, Tony was forced to conclude, a ransom note. An actual, honest to god ransom note, about a cutesy photograph of him and Steve.

Okay. So maybe there were some things print newspapers were better for, after all. Too bad this was an utterly ridiculous attempt when he knew perfectly well who was responsible. Not that he thought the culprit had actually expected to hide his identity with something like this.

Digging out his phone from where it had earlier been wedged between him and the back of the couch, good thing Stark tech was so much more resilient than easily crumbling pieces of candy, he quickly typed a text. "Barton. Get me a blown-out print to hang on the wall, and I'll make it an even week. P.S. I'm more awesome than you, I seduced Captain America." And that occasion was absolutely something that deserved to end up on the wall of his workshop in a huge print-out that would probably make Steve stammer and blush, the poor thing.

Okay, so there hadn't been any actual seducing going on, yet, just some awfully cutesy teenager first date kind of fumbling that Tony had mercifully missed entirely in his considerable hurry to get rid of his virginity a long, long time ago. He'd have to get right to the seducing part, then. After all, he did have a reputation to upkeep.

Right after breakfast. It would have been rude to ignore fresh coffee, after all. And besides it wouldn't have been very gentlemanly and Steve deserved nothing if not a gentleman, and boy was he a fool for wanting to date Tony if that was the actual case.

Steve could only blame himself for Tony's perfect, flawless, utterly admirable self-control finally cracking like a junior agent under Fury's one-eyed glare after he set the little pink "kiss me" heart right next to Tony's plate, thank you very much.

*

(Almost two years later, while he was still actually dating Steve and hadn't fucked anything up and honestly nobody was more surprised about that than himself, Tony did a search for the current list of messages available, just out of boredom and certainly not because Jarvis had reminded him their second anniversary was coming up and it would be socially acceptable to do something special, absolutely not. When he realized that there was, actually, a type of heart with "Marry me" on it, he had what surely amounted to panic attack, hiding under one of his work tables and rocking back and forth like a frightened child. Then he decided to be a mature adult about it, crawled out from under the desk, and called Pepper.

She did not agree to buy the company just so he could recall the entire stock and destroy all the unlucky messages and make sure none were ever produced again ever, which Tony took as proof that she didn't love him and wanted him to suffer, a fact Pepper cheerfully confirmed because she was a cruel, cruel woman. This was made even more obvious as he soon received a package, delivered by the fastest courier Pepper had managed to find, containing nothing but a single piece of candy stating, "Ring him". Obviously, this was a conspiracy. Steve, on the other hand, did not question just why he looked so shaken at dinner, just acted sympathetic and didn't push for him to talk and had amazing sex with him, which was why he was Tony's favorite. Of course, it would have been quite inappropriate for him to have sex with Pepper now that he was dating Steve instead of her, but still. Sex trumped cruelty any day.

Of course, it turned out his plan would not have succeeded anyway, since Steve had actually custom ordered a heart the size of a saucer, with the more formal "Will you marry me, Tony?" printed on it, which he presented over dinner at their favorite restaurant. Pepper had apparently helped him acquire it, which explained her deceit and cruelty to some extent but did not make it any more forgivable.

The only part Tony couldn't fault her for was the fact that he had, in fact, stored an "I will" one in his pocket, just in case.)