Do you really believe that you’re mentally stable enough to be a part of the Avengers?” a reporter with graying hair asks, disdain poorly concealed in his voice.
Beside Steve, Tony is tense despite his best efforts, one hand clenched in a fist in his lap where it can’t be seen and the other laying on the table before them, deliberately relaxed. Steve watches the vein at the back of Tony’s wrist pulse, counting each to keep himself from doing something stupid.
The first stupid thing he wants do to is shout at the reporter, or maybe just knock his lights out, but he’s the leader of the Avengers and he needs to be seen as calm and reliable. Sensible. Everything they like to claim Tony is not.
Steve snorts mentally.
Bucky would laugh himself sick if he could see Steve now. Sitting quietly because those are his orders while someone spews prejudice at one of his best friends. He woulda said he had to see it to believe it.
The other stupid thing Steve wants to do…
“I think I’ve proved time and time again that I can be trusted to do my best to protect the public regardless of my illnesses,” Tony says, voice clear and cool and unyielding. “I’m receiving treatment and it’s going well. They don’t make me any less capable than my physical ailments—” Tony smiles sharply. “—and no one ever asks about those.”
A slight tremor ripples through the carefully relaxed hand Tony has on the table.
Steve has to curl his own fingers into his palm to stop himself from reaching out and interlacing their fingers. He wants to squeeze Tony’s hand and steady it with his own. He wants Tony to know that he’s not alone. That there are people who think the world of him.
That Steve thinks the world of him.
But it’s not the time or the place and Tony probably isn’t interested anyway, so Steve holds his tongue and waits for the interview to end.
“Christ,” Tony sighs afterward, dropping into a chair and pressing the cold can of Coke Bruce had passed him to his temple. He slumps, exhausted, and Steve’s stomach writhes with guilt. He should have said something. Put a stop to it.
Then again, it was Tony who’d given the order for him to keep his mouth shut in the first place.
“Drink it, Tony,” Bruce presses, gentle but unyielding. “It’ll help more once you get some caffeine in you.”
Tony gives him a put-upon look and a dramatic sigh, but he cracks the can open and drinks a couple of mouthfuls before putting it back against his temple and loosening his tie.
“I hate sitting there with my thumb up my ass when they start in on you like that.” Steve knows he shouldn’t rehash this again, not when Tony’s freshly out of the fire and nursing a migraine to boot—they’ve had this argument—but he feels helpless and there’s nothing Steve hates quite like feeling helpless.
“Yeah, well, you have to,” Tony replies tersely and Bruce glares at Steve.
Steve almost manages to keep his mouth shut.
“It’s not right, the way they talk about you. We shouldn’t just sit by and listen to it, not when we could set them straight—”
“Dammit, Steve, I have told you, it’s your reputation as ‘America’s son’, as the guy who follows orders and plays well with a team that gives the Avengers the freedom we have. I can take a couple of assholes asking questions and implying what a worthless piece of shit I am if it means the Avengers stay in business. If you start arguing with everyone about what a great guy I am it’ll only cause trouble.” The anger in Tony’s face slips away as quickly as it had come and he sits back, pressing the can to his forehead and closing his eyes. “It’s not a big deal.”
Steve says his next words very carefully. “It hurts you, and that’s a big deal to me.”
Tony’s dark eyelashes flutter open and he smiles, albeit tiredly. “Aw, Cap, you care.”
Steve locks gazes with him for a long moment, the words, Yes, yes, I care, I care so damn much I can hardly stand it, beating at the back of his teeth. Before the words can make their way out of his mouth, Clint interrupts.
“Okay, Mom and Dad,” he drawls, “don’t fight in front of the kids. You’ll traumatize us.”
“Too late,” Tony snarks and takes another swig of Coke.
“That’s hurtful, Mom,” Clint says, putting a hand over his heart.
“Why is he Mom and I’m Dad?” Steve asks, but Clint just keeps talking.
“Seriously though, inquiring minds want to know: are we going trick-or-treating?”
Tony’s expression goes thoughtful. “Hey, yeah, you haven’t really done the whole Halloween thing, have you, Fabio?”
“Nay,” Thor says, “I have not been present for this day you call 'Halloween’.”
“Ooh,” Tony says, some of the light coming back into him. He points a finger at Clint. “Yes. We will be trick-or-treating. And haunted-housing.” He grins wildly. “You don’t scare easy, do you, Big Guy?”
Thor frowns. “I fear only the disappointment of my people.”
“That’s the spirit,” Tony says, gaze turning inward. “Oh my god, we’re going upstate. Haunted hayride!”
He’s like a little kid, the excitement wiping away the traces of pain from his face, and Steve is unaccountably fond of him. They fight because they have different views on how to get things done, but in the end they both want the same thing. There are few men—or women—who Steve has admired so completely.
“What are you going as Tasha?”
“Something fun. Maybe a bee?”
“Ooh, let me do your wings—”
It’s a little ironic, Steve thinks, as he watches Tony gesture enthusiastically—Steve’s encouraged several people to go for it with the subject of their admiration because he knows all too well how “the right time” is only an illusion. Waiting earns you nothing but regrets. And yet, he still hasn’t managed to voice his feelings for Tony.
It’s time to take your own advice, Rogers.
Steve’s feelings on Tony Stark had done an abrupt one-eighty after the effects of Loki’s scepter had worn off. He’d still been mourning Peggy in the following year, but there was no mistaking the way he reacted to Tony’s quick smiles and his big, dark eyes.
As of late it’s more like the early days with Peggy when he got tongue-tied and couldn’t stop staring. He’s just as eager to spend time with Tony as he had been with Peggy back then, which is why he so often finds himself coming down to the workshop in his free time.
On this occasion, Steve frowns when he gets his first look at the workshop’s glass walls. It’s dark inside, except for a single magnifying lamp on one of the benches.
“Tony?” he calls.
Something hits the concrete floor with a tinkle.
Steve straightens, eyes sweeping the dark shop warily. “Tony?” he calls again.
He receives no reply.
Lowering his center of gravity, Steve edges into the workshop. It seems impossible, but what if someone had gotten in? What if Tony’s hurt? Just the thought makes Steve’s hands curl into fists, his lip into a snarl.
Something pale and flowing sweeps toward him, barely visible at the corner of his eye and Steve whirls, throwing a punch. His fist goes right through the glowing figure and the unchecked momentum sends him crashing into a workbench.
Steve is scrambling back onto his feet when he hears Tony’s voice.
“Whoa, whoa, J, cut, cut. Give me lights, 100%. Steve? Are you okay?”
Steve stares, panting and scalp prickling with adrenaline as Tony emerges from behind one of the workbenches. He looks sheepish and concerned. “Tony, what the hell,” he demands.
“Uh, sorry, Cap. I got a little excited after our chat about Halloween the other day. It was just a hologram.”
Still on edge, Steve jolts a little when the flowing figure reappears in the air right next to Tony. It has a gaunt, skeletal face, barely visible under a hood, and it’s body is just the fluttering ends of a tattered robe.
“Pretty cool, huh?” Tony says eagerly and Steve heaves a sigh, the last of his anxiety fading.
Sheepishness overtakes Tony’s expression. “Uh. Hey. I’m sorry, that was stupid wasn’t it? I just started thinking about haunted houses and all the things I could do—”
Steve reaches out and squeezes Tony’s shoulder. “Just warn a guy, huh?”
Tony grins at him, rocks on his heels. “Wanna take a look at some of my other ideas?”
Steve says yes, of course, because there’s nothing quite like Tony’s enthusiasm when he’s caught a bug for something. And apparently haunted houses are one of Tony’s heretofore unremarked on pleasures because he has a lot of ideas.
He shows Steve several promotional videos for haunted houses from across the country, pointing out his favorite elements and it’s during the advert for Blood Manor that Steve realizes he’s being handed his best opportunity. A haunted house would be the perfect excuse to hold Tony’s hand.
“What I’m thinking would really be great would be to put together something that shifts around people instead of them doing a walk-through—it’d be great for people with mobility issues or, you know, kids in the ICU, like a haunted house that comes to you—”
“Tony, you are not going to make that thing jump out at sick children!”
Tony stops and turns to look at Steve, offense written across his every feature.
It only takes half a second for Steve to realize why, but it’s half a second too long. He flushes, heat racing up his throat. “But you’re not an idiot, so of course you wouldn’t do that,” he says voice trailing off into a mutter and he ducks his head, covering his face with a hand.
“I’m going to forgive you for that,” Tony says magnanimously. “I obviously spooked you and you’re not thinking straight.”
“I don’t know if I’ll ever be the same,” Steve agrees and Tony gives him another look, but it’s amused. Steve edges toward him a little contritely, slipping his hands into his front pockets. “Tell me more about what you arethinking?”
“Don’t think I don’t know what you’re doing,” Tony says, pointing a screwdriver at him. “I know the whole bashful boy routine. I’m doing this because I want to.”
“No, of course,” Steve says.
Tony pokes him in the chest with the screwdriver. “You’re a son of a bitch.”
“Hey, now. Leave Ma out of this.”
Tony snorts, but he turns back around and raises his arms in a sweeping gesture, holograms bursting outward. “All right, Cap, pay attention. There’s going to be a test.”
Steve does the best that he can to follow along, but it’s hard when he keeps getting distracted by the way Tony twists his wrists when he gestures and the way he licks his lips when he gears up to talk about something that makes his eyes light up. It’s interesting stuff, just not as interesting as Tony himself.
It gets worse when Tony gets on his knees and starts talking about the three and four foot tall mesh frames made of holographic light that look like obviously more kid-friendly ghosts and zombies. One of them is a seven-inch tall white rabbit with blood red eyes and fangs.
Steve’s heart beats too hard in his chest, aching with how much he loves Tony. He has to marry him. There’s nobody who will ever make him feel as much as Tony does.
Although, he should really start with a date.
“Tony,” he blurts out, and realizes a beat too late that he cut Tony off in the middle of a sentence. He flushes, but Tony’s looking at him now, so to hell with it. “Ah—you know, there’s a haunted house in Brooklyn. You should come with me and we’ll see if it’s any good.”
Tony sits back on his heels and gives him a strange look and for a second Steve thinks he’s really screwed the pooch again.
Then Tony says, “Yeah. Yeah, we should do that.”
Steve’s grin is too big, he knows, but he can’t stop it. “Okay.”
“Oh god,” Steve says, staring at his own stricken expression in the bathroom mirror.
He’s changed six times and still isn’t sure he’s wearing the right thing. It’s cold out, but he wants to wear something that fits nicely. Now he has a body like this, it’s a shame to waste it, especially when he’s trying to get exactly that kind of attention from Tony. The thin gray cashmere sweater Natasha got him seems like a good bet, though. He hopes so anyway. It’s soft, so maybe that’ll make Tony want to touch it? Touch him, that is.
The thought makes Steve’s insides feel warm and slippery.
Three sharp raps on the door to his bedroom make Steve startle, his heart suddenly pounding.
“Yo, Steve? Let’s do this.”
Steve swipes at his hair, frantically trying to smooth down a few hairs that just won’t lie flat.
“Steve? Buddy? You in there?”
“Yeah, uh—” Steve quickly adjusts his belt and then races for the door.
He takes a second to draw in a deep breath once he’s there and then carefully, calmly opens it. Ripping the door off the hinges in his enthusiasm probably wouldn’t make a good impression.
Tony’s eyebrows go up when he sees Steve. “Nice sweater.”
Steve flushes and scratches at his forehead. “Thanks,” he mutters, feeling more like an idiot every second. Tony thinks he looks ridiculous—that’s the opposite of what he wanted.
Tony himself is still wearing the Metallica t-shirt with long sleeves underneath combo he was wearing earlier. There’s even a fresh scorch mark on the thigh of his gray cargo pants. Somehow, Steve musters up a smile, even though he knows he blew it.
Tony has no idea this is a date.
Well, maybe they can have fun anyway, and if Steve plays his cards right, he could still turn the night around.
That thought bolsters his spirits and he lifts a hand, gesturing. “Shall we?”
Twenty minutes later they’re waiting in line in an alley in Brooklyn with thirty other people. They’re standing close because it’s chilly. The wind slices right through Steve’s sweater like it isn’t even there and he almost wishes he’d worn something more substantial. Then again, he probably wouldn’t be crowded so close to Tony if he weren’t freezing.
“I can’t believe you didn’t bring a jacket,” Tony says, amusement in his voice. “You hate the cold.”
Tony had grabbed one on their way out of the Tower, right out of the offering hands of the doorman.
“Not all of us are Tony Stark,” Steve reminds him.
Tony laughs. “Don’t give me that bullshit. You’re Captain America. That man would have taken off his coat right then and there if you’d asked him.”
I don’t want his coat, Steve thinks.
Tony is drumming his fingers on his thigh as his gaze skims over the rest of the line, his breath puffing out from between his lips in delicate clouds. It would be so easy for Steve to reach over and take his hand, claim it’s because his hands are cold. He’s sorely tempted.
Steve clears his throat and says, “Ah, I’ve heard this is one of the best haunted houses in town.”
Tony’s head doesn’t turn fast enough to hide the way his mouth twitches. After a beat, he replies, “Oh?”
As a haunted house enthusiast, Tony probably already knows that and Steve mutters a quiet recrimination under his breath. He struggles to recover. “Um, yeah. Gotta admit, I’m nervous.”
That gets Tony to turn around again, his eyebrows raised. “You’re nervous.”
Steve shrugs his shoulders, shifts his hands a little further into his pockets. “Yeah. I actually spook pretty easy?”
Tony laughs, but his eyes are kind so it doesn’t sting. “You going to be clinging to me like a giant patriotic barnacle?”
“I wouldn’t rule it out. I threw up when Bucky took me on the Cyclone at Coney Island.”
Steve is pleased when Tony laughs again. “That was probably your vertigo, not fear. Unless you have a much weaker constitution when you’re not running around in spangles.”
“I’m a fraidy cat, what can I say?” Steve says with a shrug.
“This is going to be fun,” Tony says gleefully and this time it’s Steve who laughs.
“That was the idea.”
That’s when a very small woman with dark circles painted under her eyes and a flat hollow expression edges up close to them. She looks between the two of them like she’s inspecting them, hardly blinking, and a prickle crawls up Steve’s spine. Steve swallows thickly when she tips back her head to look him dead in the eye. “Go in.” She points at the door, but doesn’t move.
To get to it, Steve has to go around her, separated from Tony for a brief moment and he can feel her eyes between his shoulder blades the whole way. The door creaks slowly open as he and Tony approach and the hairs on the back of Steve’s neck start to stand up, the nerves in his spine singing. Steve’s body is telling him do not go through that door, but he tears his eyes away to look at Tony and meets Tony’s amused gaze and he’s done for.
He goes through the door.
It wasn’t particularly bright in the alley, but it’s even darker inside and it takes a second for Steve’s eyes to adjust to the low red-tinted light.
What he can make out of the room is dilapidated; there are cracks in the wall and thin, stringy black tendrils crawling up them and across the ceiling to where they dangle down. Steve tries to push them out of the way as he edges into the room, but the room is thick with them and he can feel them brushing the back of his neck, sending chills down his spine.
As they cross the room, headed toward a filthy white door with a square-shaped cracked glass window in it, the broken lantern that’s lying on the floor sourcing all the red light flickers and goes out.
Steve’s heart leaps in his chest.
He glances back to make sure Tony is following him, but it’s too dark to see, even with the faint beam of light coming through the window in the door. “Tony?” he whispers.
Steve jumps when Tony replies from much closer than he expected. “I’m here.” Then Tony’s eyes catch the light from the window, gleaming in the dark as he laughs. “You scared already, Steve?”
Steve grumbles and mutters, “Hold on to me, would you?”
He’d rather take Tony’s hand, but he’s definitely not going through here untethered.
The lights in the next room begin to gutter as they enter. It’s just as eerie as the first, and Steve can hear the faint sound of the patrons ahead of them screaming. Or at least he hopes that’s what he’s hearing.
“Did you see this?” Tony whispers and Steve follows his pointed finger to a bucket in the corner that’s filled with a bubbling liquid that looks almost black. When the lights flare brightest though, it’s revealed to be blood red.
Steve’s eyes dart around the room, expecting someone or something any second. That’s what they do in these places, isn’t it? Jump out at you?
“Ssssteeeve,” a voice whispers from near the floor and when Steve glances down, there’s a panel about the size of a two by four missing from next to the ground, and there’s a face pressed into the gap, mouth stretching in a terrifying grin around the sound of his name.
Tony giggles as Steve bolts for the door to the next room, which is hanging off it’s hinges, smoke crawling in along the floor.
Things only escalate from there. A giggling man comes crawling out in front of them and sends Steve skittering back toward a wall, only to jump away when something slams into it from the other side, shrieking. Despite the small portion of his rational brain remaining telling him it’s a bad idea, Steve winds up clinging to Tony’s arm, ducking behind him. Strangely enough, Tony doesn’t seem that bothered.
One room is filled with creepy rusted robotics with bits of human features sliding from their unnaturally proportioned frames. They move when Steve isn’t looking.
At some point between having the pants scared off him every few steps, Steve realizes that Tony hasn’t startled once. A couple of times it seems like he starts grinning before something even happens.
Steve doesn’t piece it together until they get to the final room, when a phantom figure rushes at them with a scream.
As they burst back out into the chilly alley, the fear coursing through Steve dwindles, replaced with embarrassment. “You helped design this place, didn’t you?” he pants.
Tony immediately looks guilty. “Ah. Yeah. SI sponsors it every year. The proceeds go to the Maria Stark foundation.”
Steve scrubs his hands over his burning face. “Aw, Tony, why didn’t you say something? Why’d you let me make a fool of myself?”
Tony shuffles his feet, eyes darting around like he’s looking for a way out. “Well, I—” He glances at Steve and sighs. “Okay, cards on the table. I just figured it’d be a good excuse to get up close and personal with you.”
Steve’s eyebrows shoot up his forehead. “You what?”
“I just— I’m sorry! I thought it’d be a good date, only I, uh. Never got around to asking if we could make it a date,” he mumbles. “I just thought maybe if we got here and it kind of happened organically…” Tony puts his face in his hands and groans. “I don’t know what I was thinking, I’m sorry.”
“Yeah, it was a pretty terrible plan when I came up with it this afternoon,” Steve says.
Tony flinches and then frowns. “Wait, what?”
Before he can lose his nerve, Steve steps in and cups Tony’s face, tilting it up and into a kiss.
Tony gasps and then groans, throwing his arms around Steve’s back to try and drag him closer.
Maybe Steve’s plan wasn’t so bad after all.