Actions

Work Header

Better Off

Work Text:

STEVE

“Why are you washing dishes by hand? You have a state-of-the-art dishwasher right there,” Tony grouses, pulling a chair out to seat himself at the table in his kitchen.

“It’s just me,” Steve replies, rinsing bubbles from a water glass. “I don’t have that many dirty dishes.”

“Not the point, Steve. Time-saving device. You could be using the time you save more effectively.”

“I don’t…” Steve swallows hard, facing the sink. He won’t say that time is one thing he has too much of, so he stows the glass in the drainer, wipes his hands, and tucks the towel over the handle of the shiny steel dishwasher before leaning back against the counter.

“See? That’s now a three-thousand-dollar towel rack.”

Steve fights to keep his expression neutral at that ridiculous price tag. “I didn’t ask for a fancy dishwasher.”

“They come standard,” Tony says, pulling off fingerless gloves. Steve isn’t sure if he was lifting weights in those or just wearing them as a fashion statement. He can't be cold; he's wearing a sleeveless black undershirt. Tony’s fashion sense is slightly baffling at times.

“It’s not that I don’t appreci-” he starts, but Tony raises a hand. It really isn’t as if he doesn’t appreciate all this -- the apartment here in the tower, the gym...Tony even improved his uniform material. He sits down, feeling resigned. “I’ll start using it.”

“Seriously, you could be working out, entertaining some hotties, something.”

“I said I’ll use it,” Steve snaps, and boy, did that ever come out wrong.

“You don’t have to use the dishwasher,” Tony says, hoisting a brow. “I don’t care. I’m fucking with you.”

Steve just nods. Of course he is.

“Speaking of which, you know you can entertain people here, right? I mean, mi casa is...well, this is your apartment. Is living here cramping your style?”

And now he’s just confused, because Tony’s here again, and Natasha and Clint were down just the other day to watch a movie. He entertains all the time. He squints at Tony.

“Hotties, Rogers.” Tony repeats slowly. “Women, ladies, babes, dames. Is the thought of having them run into one of us in the building freaking you out?”

“No. Why...what are you talking about?”

“Should you meet an attractive member of the opposite sex and bring them home to view your etchings, JARVIS won’t drop tear gas or anything.”

Steve forces a laugh. “Of course not.”

“Unless you prefer to take them out instead. Maybe you’re afraid of bunny-boilers.”

“What’s--”

“Never mind. Stay gold, Ponyboy.” That's over his head too, but it's okay. Steve pulls out a carton of orange juice and pours two glasses full -- never let it be said he’s a bad host -- while Tony yanks over Steve’s laptop and quickly locates a website with pictures of smiling couples on it and starts typing. “I’m a Man, looking for a Woman.”

“Tony.”

“Shhh. Finding you a life partner. You’ll thank me later.”

A life partner. Tony’s matchmaking for him? This is really not a good idea in any way. Steve frowns.

Ages...the default is 25 to 35. Let’s do 21 to 30.”

“Come on, Tony, don’t do this.”

“What? You don’t like older women?” Tony asks, sipping.

“Tony, come on,” Steve repeats, rubbing the back of his neck. It's clammy and too-cool to the touch. “21 is awfully young.”

“You’re not actually 90, Steve, except in spirit. Date of birth. 4 July…oh, this is hilarious. It doesn’t even go back to your birth year.” Tony smirks. “Let’s just subtract 24 from the current year...and done.” He swivels the laptop so Steve can see it, and then slides it back.

“Tony, just…”

“Lets go with 23 to 30, then. One time I dated a 21-year-old and a song came on the radio so I made a timely crack about Milli Vanilli. Fell flat. No clue. Total cultural blank slate.”

“Who’s she?”

Tony looks at Steve. “It’s a really long story. But actually, that reminds me that the whole cultural blank slate thing won’t be an issue for you.”

Steve thinks he should feel vaguely insulted by that. “So, did you want to watch a movie in the other room?” he asks, because Tony should really drop this, and if he distracts him... “I bet that couch cost several thousand dollars.”

Tony screws up his face and downs the rest of his juice before standing up. “Sure, we can do this in there, if you want to.” Steve sighs and places their glasses in the dishwasher, to a smug nod of approval.

“Wait, there’s more. It’s asking for a description. Um.” He follows as Tony wanders over to the sofa and settles into the tawny leather with the laptop and pats the seat next to him, so Steve takes it gamely, and Tony continues to fill in the blanks, not looking up. “Blond hair, blue eyes. There’s no ‘amazingly buff and sexy as hell’ choice so we’ll go with fit and athletic, and you are Never Married, Political/Government/Military, I guess is the closest choice here, and, do you have any kids? That you know of?”

“No. Come on, this is silly,” Steve says, shaking his head, because he knows Tony's just busting his chops and trying to draw a blush with that 'sexy as hell' stuff. Tony doesn't think of him like that. “I don’t want to sign up for a...I’m not interested.”

Tony cracks his knuckles. “Do you want kids? No, Someday, Definitely, or Not Sure?”

Steve considers giving up, conceding to this, since Tony is obviously enjoying himself and it’s...well, he likes it when Tony’s having a good time, and he likes Tony's company, so he leans back into the cushions. “Not sure.”

“Seriously? With the fine genetic stock you’re toting around, hombre?”

“I can’t hand down the serum,” Steve says softly. “I was sickly.”

“You weren’t that sickly."

“I was pretty...sickly,” Steve wrinkles his brow. “I would consider adopting kids.”

“Nice,” Tony says, and he sounds sincere, not sarcastic. “No, really. Selfless of you.”

Steve shrugs. “It’s not selfless at all. I like kids.”

Tony scoots closer so they’re hip-to-hip -- Tony’s always so warm -- and edges the laptop over so Steve can see the screen better. “Okay, do you smoke? No.”

“Occasionally,” Steve says, seeing the choices in the dropdown box. “During the War I smoked all the time.”

“You did?” Tony looks surprised.

“Sure. Everybody smoked back then. ‘More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette’.”

“Well, you don’t anymore.”

“Nope, I just did it because...well, we all did it. To pass the time. I don’t mind -- what is it called? Secondhand smoking. Serum fixed my asthma.”

“Oh, good point. The Tower is no-smoking though, unless it’s weed on the balcony and you share. With me. And also Bruce. But not Clint because he gets paranoid and throws up sometimes.”

“Fine.” Steve waves a humoring hand. It’s not as if he’s going to actually date anybody on this thing anyway.

“I wonder if we got Natasha stoned, if she’d put on lipstick using her cleavage.”

What?”

“Sorry. I had this...Molly Ringwald thing once. I’ll show you The Breakfast Club sometime. What sports do you like? Baseball, I know about,” Tony fills out the checkboxes without waiting for an answer. “Running, swimming, weights.”

“Billiards,” Steve adds, pointing at the screen.

“Really? I didn’t know you like pool. I like pool,” Tony says. “Educational level?”

“Some college,” Steve says, because Some College is an option. “I went to Art school for a while.”

Tony cocks his head. “Cool. Languages?”

“English, German, French.” Steve feels Tony’s eyes on him. “What?”

“Nothing. Spiritual beliefs?”

“Um.”

“Christian, right?”

“I don’t judge other people’s religious choices,” Steve points out.

“Of course not. We’ll put ‘no answer’ so you don’t freak out the atheists.”

Steve shrugs, watching as Tony’s hands fly over the keyboard. He’s drawn Tony’s hands before, or at least attempted to; they’re often in frantic motion, gesturing or building something or busy with his projections. They’re hard to get right. Tony stops and elbows him. “Political views?”

“Hmm,” Steve surveys the choices. “Why? This is a dating site, right?”

“Sure. We’re just weeding out the ‘no ways’. You probably don’t want to date a Communist.”

“I thought you said you weren’t prejudiced.”

“Against 21-year-olds? No, but.” Tony shakes his head.

“The reds were on our side during the War.”

“True, however…”

“The Cold War is also over,” Steve says, rubbing his chin. "And Russia isn't even a communist country anymore."

“...do you want to date Natasha?”

“No!”

“Not your type?”

“Not, well...no. Not exactly.” Steve’s not sure how to answer that. “It's not that. She’s very pretty. It’s not that I don’t like her, I just…”

“‘Like her like a sister?” Tony ventures, and that’s close enough, so Steve nods. “Yeah, me too. A sister with deadly skills. Political leanings: no preference. Okay. Charities. Animals, planet, people, illnesses. Pick one.”

“All of them?”

“Pick one, Steve.”

“Fighting illnesses.”

“Okay Florence Nightingale.” Tony flicks Steve’s knee. “Next one: What would you do with an unexpected bonus?” Tony asks. “Spend, save, donate…”

“How much is the bonus?” Steve asks.

“Irrelevant.”

“If it’s a lot I can do all of these things.”

“...pay off credit card bills…”

“I don’t like credit cards."

“Okay,” Tony says. “I’ll put donate since we all know you’re a soft touch. Movies. Foreign, Classic, Action, Horror, Romantic.”

“All of them.”

Tony duly clicks all of the choices without making fun of ‘romantic’, to Steve’s surprise. “Trips - would you go to Europe, the beach, stay at home, drive across the-”

“Drive across the country,” Steve says decisively.

Tony nods. “I’ve never even done that. That sounds good. Now I want to. Okay. Favorite local hot spots?”

“I like the cafe down in front of the train station…” Tony huffs and fills in some names Steve doesn’t recognize, not that it matters. “Hey, this isn’t for you. Do your own.”

“I don’t need-”

Steve leans away. “And I do?”

Tony shakes his head quickly. “Absolutely not.”

“I think I could find someone to...date, if I wanted to. If I was looking.”

Tony stops. “You could have almost anyone you wanted, Steve.”

“Well, that’s just not true.”

“Pfff,” Tony says, dismissive. “You know there are celebrities with ‘Captain America’ on their bucket lists? Hot celebrities. Celebrities I could put you in touch with. Sofia Vergara. Have you seen her? Oh my god.”

Steve wonders why Tony isn’t doing this, if it’s true. Not that he wants to date celebrities; he can barely stand the Avengers press conferences; walking that flashbulb-lined red carpet at that premiere last month with Tony had been barely tolerable, only because Tony had been at his side through it all, making him laugh the entire time. Hmm. Maybe that’s why. Tony has to know Steve wouldn’t like to be the center of all that attention. Then again, there are certainly celebrities who've said complimentary things about Tony Stark's assets; Steve knows because Clint makes a point of laughing at their terrible taste, which only makes Tony sulk: "Megan Fox says you're her #1 crush, Stark. She must need glasses."

Tony tilts his head and looks at him. “You know who else? I wasn’t going to tell you because if it was me, the ego, but you'll like this. Taylor Swift. But then the world would inevitably have to suffer through a song called ‘Star-Spangled Heartache’ when things didn't work out.”

Steve rolls his eyes. At least he knows who Taylor Swift is. “I like her songs.”

“Oh, you would.”

“They’re catchy,” Steve says. “You can understand the lyrics and sing along.”

Maybe they can turn the conversation to music and spend some time talking about that instead, but he already knows Tony's favorite kinds of music, and Tony knows Steve doesn't "get" them.

“Show me sometime, in the field. Are you chickening out? Come on, get back here; don’t be that way.” Tony focuses on the screen again. “Pets. Dog, cat, fish, horse?” He pauses. “Chickens?”

“I like dogs best, I guess,” Steve says, leaning back against Tony’s shoulder. “I wanted one, as a kid, but I had allergies.”

“You know you can get a puppy if you want to,” Tony says. “Mi casa-”

“No, we’re gone too much. It wouldn’t be right.”

“Hobbies, besides fighting evil and washing dishes by hand?”

Steve surveys the options. “Art and museums, watching sports, coffee and conversation.”

“Well-rounded. This would make a great college application. Nice. Tell us something you recently read’,” Tony recites.

“The SHIELD Field Armaments Manual.”

Tony stretches his fingers over the keyboard. There’s a shiny white crescent-shaped scar on the webbing between his index finger and his thumb, a soldering slip when he was 18, Steve recalls. He's drawn it before. If Tony would just slow down more often, he'd be able to get his hands just right.

“Well?”

“A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving.”

“Any good?”

“Loved it.”

“Okay!” Tony says brightly. “Now we fill out requirements for your date. What’s her hair color?”

Steve slumps. “I don’t care.”

“Well, what have you traditionally preferred?”

Steve thinks. “Brunettes.”

“Good taste. Though I like ‘em fair, myself. Lately.” That makes sense. Pepper’s a strawberry blonde. It’s a shame they didn’t work out. Then maybe Tony would be occupied instead of playing matchmaker for him. “Eye color?”

“Dark.” No hesitation there.

“Right, Peggy Carter,” Tony says, and Steve gets up. “Sorry. Tactless. Uhh, Sofia Vergara? Maybe I should call her people for you.”

“No, you definitely shouldn’t. It’s...fine. .Just getting another drink. What would you like?”

“Whatever you’re having.” Steve nods at that and leaves Tony to tap away until he returns. He feels uneasy, like his skin is far too tight, his throat too dry, but that doesn't matter, he figures. This will pass and tomorrow Tony will focus on something else. He brings back two glasses from the kitchen.

“More juice, of course. Got any vodka? How tall is she?”

“No. I mean, I have no vodka. Not too short,” Steve says. He'll have to buy some vodka and keep it around if Tony likes it. “Or too tall. I don’t care, really.”

“Knew you’d say that. Ethnicity? Religion?”

“This is like ordering a pizza,” Steve sighs. “Too many choices.”

“And all pizza is delicious. Well, New York-style pizza is the most delicious, and we specified a 20 mile radius.”

“Tony,” Steve sits down again, and sips his juice. “Don’t fill out any more.”

“You need to meet someone.”

“I don’t need to meet anyone,” Steve says. “I have you. All of you, I mean. The Avengers.”

“Not for that.”

“For what?”

“For sex.”

Steve frowns. “Is this one of those escort sites?”

“No! Good god, we’re not throwing you in the deep end until you learn to doggie-paddle first.”

He drops his head, runs his thumb over his lips. “This is not...what I want.”

Tony stops typing and swiping, and looks at him. “Well, what do you want?”

“I...don’t want…” he swallows. “I don’t want to pick a bunch of options for a human being like I’m ordering from a Chinese restaurant menu.”

“First pizza, now Chinese. Should we order in? Dude, seriously, it saves so much time,” Tony protests, and Steve's not sure if he's referring to meals or dating.

“I don’t care,” Steve replies.

“Excellent. Ordering in. JARVIS?”

“Sir?” JARVIS intones.

“Lunch for two. Chinese from that place from that one time. Get a lot of everything.”

He fills out the rest of the questions, asking for details at times. Steve answers as required, but his heart isn’t in it, and he can't enjoy this like he might if Tony really wanted to know these things out of friendly curiosity: ideal date nights, favorite foods. He might get message or emails or phone calls or whatever is supposed to happen here, but he's sure now; he won’t reply to any of them.

 

Tony finishes, enters Steve's email address, and shuts the laptop, sliding it along the coffee table before turning his way. “Why do you hate the idea of dating?”

“I-I don’t. It’s not dating. I mean, that…” Steve gestures at the offending computer, “...isn’t, is it? When people fill out these detailed questionnaires, what’s left to discover?

“Time-saver, I told-”

“Yes. Right, but that’s the best use of time,” Steve says. “Why would you want to save that nice getting-to-know-you time when you’re supposed to talk about all of these details?” Like when you told me about your first robot that night in your workshop. That was a great story.

“It can take more than a few months for politics to rear its ugly head, Steve.” He shrugs again as Tony goes on. “Look, I was able to fill out most of that for you, but I didn’t know you liked billiards and romances and that book you just finished.”

“I rest my case then, Tony,” Steve says. “I suppose I’m just too old-fashioned.”

“No.”

“I can’t even imagine going out with someone on there, to tell you the truth.” That is not what he wants. He thinks he knows, but he can't say. He can't ever say. It'll pass, he tells himself again.

“Why not?”

“Were you ready to meet other people, after Pepper?”

Tony takes a deep breath. “That’s unfair and completely different. And I--”

“It isn’t, really. I'm not giving you a hard time. I'm just saying. You have to have the right mindset for these things.”

“Not for casual--”

“I don’t want casual,” Steve says. “I’m not built that way, not the way you are.”

“You think...with Pepper, you think that was casual?” Tony sounds incredulous. “I knew her for years before we ever kissed.”

“Were you a monk in the meantime?” Steve’s lip quirks upward.

“No, but that doesn’t mean you have to be, either. Don’t you miss…” Tony trails off. “Don’t you miss waking up with someone? Not that I did a lot of waking up with people when I was casual. I’m not a ‘good, morning, d’you want coffee?’ kind of guy.”

“I really wouldn’t know...” Steve says, and pauses for a moment. “...what that’s like.” And suddenly his collar feels too tight, and he’s fidgety and his stomach is jumping, and he wants to snap at Tony again. It’s not something he does, normally. He knows how to keep still, to bite his tongue. He knows how to behave.

And then JARVIS announces that the food is here.

* * *

TONY

“I really wouldn’t know what that’s like,” Steve says, slowly, and Tony immediately feels defensive.

He sits and stews as Steve gets to his feet and heads for the door to pay the delivery girl from Shanghai Pavilion. Maybe she’s a cutie and maybe Steve’ll get her number, but he’s not holding his breath.

There’s been a weird vibe present ever since he walked in this morning. Sometimes it seems as if Steve doesn’t want to see him, as if his attention is begrudging in some way, as if Steve’s just too damned polite to tell anyone to get the fuck out, and then they have a few laughs and he loosens up, and then the stage curtain drops again at some point in the conversation.

It’s frustrating.

The thing is, every time, every time Steve finally gets fed up with his shit, it’s justified. And it's not unprecedented, in any case. Tony loves pushing people’s buttons. Rhodey, Pepper, Fury. Agent, even, god rest. Half the people he knows would have kicked him out by now, shut him down. But here's Steve, putting up with this scheme with typical good nature, even as he gets irritated, because he irritates everyone eventually.

He hadn’t come by today with a grand plan to sign Captain America up for a dating service, almost against his will, but it’s not a bad plan. It's for the best.

Tony’s not fronting when it come to who he is. He admits it; his ego is probably visible from space. But it’s tempered with self-awareness. He knows what he’s good at and what he’s not, and being aware of what you’re not good at, what you’re bad at, who you would be bad for? That’s hard-won self-awareness, not self-loathing.

He’s a genius. He’s a hero a predominating percentage of the time, and if you made a pie chart (he prefers bar charts) he’s not even trying to prove anything (usually) when he does something heroic, which the public probably would not believe.

Yeah, so maybe he’s a genius. And he’s pretty good at this superhero gig.

But he'd be bad for Steve Rogers.

He repeats that to himself, a silent, metronomic mantra, with every field he fills out on that fucking online dating site, as the column of photos on the right repopulates with pretty girls every time the data changes. Pretty, nice girls who would be good for Steve. Better for him than…just better. Girls like Heather, a medical transcriptionist from Queens who collects baseball memorabilia, or Shanice, who works in finance and loves dogs. Or Beth, the waitress from that coffee place Steve likes. She’s nice. She’s from somewhere else, maybe upstate, or maybe Oklahoma City or Des Moines. She could help Steve raise two-point-five adopted orphans and offer unflagging moral support and massages and frequent blowjobs. He could give her the equivalent, watch the kids in the evenings while she gets her Master’s degree. Maybe they’ll leave the city and move to a four-bedroom in Westchester and get a minivan and an Irish setter and a...fucking pony, hell if he knows. They skipped over City, Country or Suburbs on the questionnaire, even though he was drawing it out as long as he could because listening to Steve talk about himself is always better than watching some movie.

(He's pretty sure that Steve would pick City, though. He talks about how much he loves New York all the time.)

As good as anyone is, and people are usually fairly decent, Tony knows, all cynicism aside, deep down he thinks that nobody deserves the guy who rolls up the sleeves of his crisp button-down blue shirt and scrubs his own omelet pan because it's just the one pan. Steve. And god, what a way to think. Steve's just flesh-and-blood. Superhero-worship is so last century.

Steve's too good to be true, but he isn't too good for a nice woman like Beth or Shanice or Heather or any one the other astoundingly pretty and probably perfectly nice women on the website, or a celebrity every man in America wants as much as Steve’s wanted. He deserves that -- somebody normal. Somebody who’ll treat him right, who won’t make fun of his outmoded slang, who won’t bitch at him for not using the dishwasher, for christ's sake. He can't understand why he tolerates Tony's bullshit, to be honest. Steve deserves better. Steve deserves everything.

Steve's fetching plates and forks from the kitchen, because they’ll mess with the chopsticks but eventually reach for forks, and he’ll put those plates in the dishwasher but probably pull them out when Tony leaves and soak them in a basin and run his fucking soapy dishcloth over them and dry them with the towel made of flour sack with a jolly, smiling cartoon tomato on it, the second Tony leaves.

Tony heads in and fills a plate with broccoli and pork lo mein and three crispy spring rolls and a plastic container of scorching hot mustard, his favorite, and Steve's sort of hovering just behind him. Supersoldier's probably starving and here he is, diving into the food first. Steve takes the plate from Tony's hand and sets it on the counter with a too-loud clatter.

He makes a brief sound of protest, but stills when Steve reaches out, gently maps the landscape of his jaw with both hands, slips them to Tony's shoulders and kisses him, hard, on the mouth.

Steve deserves better. Steve would be better off without whatever this is. And Tony doesn’t care.

Steve grips the dishwasher handle for leverage as he leans in, that old-timey tomato towel falls to the floor, and the sight of that finally unscrambles his brain; he tightens his own hands around Steve's back to draw him closer, a thumb playing against a sliver of bared skin at the top of his jeans, as Steve's lips open, wet and welcoming. Tony might be dreaming.

And then Steve yanks the handle off the dishwasher.

They part and Tony wants to laugh at Steve's incredulous look, but he simply takes the handle out of his hand instead and sets it gently on the countertop before leaning in again. He'll fix the handle later, and put in a pool table because Steve likes billiards, and they're going to go on a road trip across the country as soon as Tony can swing it. And he's going to delete that dating profile ASAP, before some nice, decent girl decides to write to Steve.

* * *

“Hey, Iron Man. Play something else; that's an order,” Cap says through the comm as the feds lead the hackers away amid the piles of debris and robot parts to the sound of another kind of heavy metal. He’d tried, he really had, but he prefers Tony’s music in small doses and he can't tell JARVIS to turn it off soon enough when it's the morning alarm. On the other hand, it does get Tony up-and-at-em immediately, and whoever is awake first gets the coffee. Steve can live with it.

The music changes immediately and Tony warbles along, drowning out the vocalist:

“I wear armor, you have a shi-eld,
You wear tight pants, I built a force field.”

"Busting my chops, Shellhead?" he asks, grinning at the sky.

"Always, Cap."

“I knew it. I knew you secretly liked Taylor Swift,” he says, brushing the dust from his uniform as he stands amidst the rubble.

Iron Man lowers boost power and drops from the sky, flips his visor up, and pulls him in for a kiss.