“Did you lose another contact?” Bruce winked and smiled slyly as they tried to quietly re-enter the room. Why Steve had bothered to entertain any notion of privacy with this bunch was bewildering. He should have known better by now.
“Didn’t find your gift, Cap?” Natasha added from beside him, gesturing towards Steve’s empty hands, her eyes knowing.
“Darn it.” Steve was miffed at himself for once again leaving it behind, though in the shape he was in, he was lucky he remembered to zip his fly.
I did, didn’t I?
He tried to discretely check, folding his hands near the bottom of his jacket. “I can go back and get it.”
“I could help,” Tony offered, turning to him with the naughtiest grin, eyebrows wagging. It was then Steve noticed the ‘you’d-have-to-be-blind-to-miss-them’ reddish purple marks along the side of his neck. Steve reached out, trying to be nonchalant in adjusting Tony’s wide-open collar in a way that covered them.
“No way,” Natasha protested. “You two are not allowed to go anywhere alone together until this reception is over.”
“Weren’t you wearing a tie earlier?” Bruce pointed out.
“Weren’t you minding your own business?” Tony retorted.
“Hey, if you guys are done playing hide the salami,” Clint chimed in as he joined them, “my husband and I would like to get this cake cut. He’s already taken one nap in the chair.”
“I’m sorry,” Steve said, chagrinned. “It was thoughtless to disappear. Phil needs to rest.”
“Don’t feel bad,” Clint assured. “The last thing he wants to do is go to bed. I think he plans to close this place down.”
“Understandable, after what he’s been through,” Bruce said thoughtfully.
“Looks like you won’t be needing your personal space heater anymore.” Clint laughed as he elbowed Steve, grinning like a fool. He had definitely been imbibing pretty freely.
“What is he talking about?” Tony asked, looking from Steve to Clint then back again, the wheels in his head almost visibly turning.
“It’s warm in here?” Steve tried feebly.
“Where is the promised cake for this feast?” Thor bellowed as he approached, Phil motoring along in front of him.
“There better be chocolate involved,” Phil declared. “Or someone is going back to the bakery.”
“I don’t think chocolate is on your approved diet list,” Natasha commented.
“Seriously?” Tony asked, folding his arms. “You? The rule keeper? Sorry. Doesn’t jibe.”
“My man can have all the sugar he wants today,” Clint stated, leaning down to give Phil a tender kiss on the lips.
“Says the man drinking both of your shares of the booze,” Bruce laughed.
“Weren’t you wearing a tie?” Clint asked as he straightened, then pitched unsteadily towards Tony.
Thor took hold of his arm to right him. “Come, Clinton. Your cake awaits.”
“Is that some kind skin condition on your neck, Stark?” Natasha inquired wickedly as they all walked towards the table with the huge wedding cake.
“I think Tony’s allergic to his contacts.”
“I didn’t know you wore contacts, Stark,” Phil remarked.
“Actually, I have remarkable vision. Bruce, on the other hand, might need to look into contacts to go along with his glasses, since he keeps mistaking Natasha’s door for his own in the wee hours of the night.”
Steve’s jaw nearly dropped to the floor. At first, he thought Tony was mouthing-off, but the way both Natasha and Bruce shifted uncomfortably, taking a step apart from the other as they walked, spoke volumes. Coulson’s lips turned up slightly in the corners and Hawkeye laughed hysterically.
“Bruce and Natasha?” Steve dropped back to whisper to Tony. He sure had missed that one.
“Old news.” Tony waved his hand. “I want to hear more about this space heater thing.”
“Knock it off.”
“Do I need to ask Barton?”
Steve came to a stubborn stop, taking hold of Tony’s arm, letting the others walk ahead of them. “You will not grill any more of my friends about anything from here on out, understood?”
“I am so hot for you right now, Captain.” Tony’s grin was absolutely filthy, making Steve’s thighs sweat. “Are you sure we can’t go back and look for your present?”
“And sexy. Don’t forget sexy.”
“That, too,” Steve admitted, fighting the nearly overwhelming urge to kiss him right there. “Let’s go eat cake.”
He walked away, but Tony was close behind him shamelessly whispering, “I can think of something I’d like in my mouth way more than wedding cake.”
“Not at all.” Phil looked tired, but content. Clint was right about him dozing off in the chair. Steve had seen him do it a few times, though he resisted any attempts to be brought back to his room to rest. “He’s having a great time. It brings me pleasure to watch him.” Phil’s eyes tracked Clint, the corners of his lips curling unguardedly.
Steve nodded, thinking he understood. “You’ve both been through so much. This must feel like—” Steve realized he didn’t have the words.
“Prison release?” Phil supplied. They both laughed.
“I guess something like that, yeah.”
“I wish I could keep up with him tonight.”
“You will,” Steve assured. “Soon.”
Phil nodded. “I’m grateful to be here at all.”
“We’re all grateful you’re here.”
Phil turned away from his husband-watching long enough to meet Steve’s eyes and smile. “Thank you.” His head canted to the side. “Glad to see you’re having such a good time tonight. You look very happy.”
Steve downed his bottle of water, squirming awkwardly. “Yeah, it’s, um, a good party.”
“Where exactly did Stark get off to?”
Steve looked around, trying to shrug casually. “Phone call, I think.”
In truth, Tony had gone to make a few business calls, but not until first informing Steve how “fucking hard it is being around you and not jumping your bones right now.” He had gone on to complain, “If you’re going to make me behave, then I gotta stay busy, distracted, you know?”
“It’s only for a little while more.” Steve was trying to be mature, but inside he was struggling as much as Tony. He was partially relieved when Tony disappeared from his view to make his calls. Of course, the other part of him was miserable, scanning the room every few minutes, desperate for even a glance of him.
“Hey, husband of mine,” Clint greeted as he approached them. He looked so stinking happy. It made Steve grin. “You ready for another spin out there?”
“I think I need to pass.”
“Time for bed?” Clint asked in concern as he crouched in front of Phil’s wheelchair. Phil reached to stroke his cheek in assurance.
“I’m fine. Sitting here among our friends, watching you have such fun. This is the best medicine for me.”
Clint looked up at Steve. “He’s telling me the truth, right?”
“Then how ‘bout you, Best Man? Ready to boogie?” Clint lost his balance and toppled, crashing into Steve’s legs. He laughed as he helped to right him, slipping his hands under Clint’s armpits and hauling him up.
“Don’t think I can keep up with you. I’ll just keep Phil company. Thor was looking for you, though.”
“Oh, man,” Clint shook his head as he finally settled on his feet. “That guy’s gonna kill me. Those Asgardians got the moves.”
“You looked pretty good when he flipped you earlier,” Phil pointed out.
“You mean when my head almost went through the ceiling? Yeah, that rocked.”
“Go get him, tiger,” Phil encouraged. After giving Phil a quick kiss and wink, Clint was gone again. “Thor better watch out. My new husband’s got moves he hasn’t even tapped yet, and he’s been cooped up in a hospital room for a lot of weeks.” Phil looked upward. “Hope those chandeliers are reinforced.”
Steve sat, watching Phil watching Clint. “Did you know?” he found himself asking. “I mean, way back. When you met him. Did you know he’d be the one?”
Phil took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. “I knew he mattered. You know how you can go through a day with a sea of faces in front of you, but you barely take notice? It’s like the background on a painting. It’s there, but it’s not what catches your eye. The minute I met him, he stood out in the foreground. Everything else blurred behind him. Still does. Does that make sense?”
“I still don’t get how I ended up owing you a dance because I wore my uniform today.”
“It’s very complicated logic. No sense troubling your pretty head trying to figure it out. Trust me. You owe me.”
Steve made the mistake of turning toward Tony. “Don’t look at me like that. Those eyes of yours are dangerous.” Steve managed to get his arm free as he lowered his voice more. “It’s not that I don’t want to. But it’s not a good idea. Not after before.” Upon his return to the party, Tony had cornered him, rubbing shamelessly against him before stealing a kiss. Steve had to spend fifteen minutes in the john waiting for the embarrassing bulge in his uniform pants to correct itself. Pressing Tony to his body in something as intimate as a dance in the middle of a room full of people was the definition of a bad plan.
“What if I don’t care what they think?” The playful air had fled and Tony’s voice was thick with emotion. “Who cares what they know? I want to be near you. I was kinda hoping you might want the same thing.”
“Of course I do.” Steve was floored. He had hidden for so long. Burying aspects of himself, even from his own unforgiving scrutiny, had become second nature. The idea of embracing it was something he’d never considered. The realization that Tony wasn’t looking to run from this thing between them, or hide it away in a dark corner, was profound.
“Yeah?” Tony’s smile was hopeful and nervous at once.
Steve took Tony’s hand in his, interlocking their fingers. “There’s a lot happening really fast and this is supposed to be Phil and Clint’s day. It doesn’t feel right to make it about myself.”
“That’s what I get for falling for the good guy, I guess.”
“Falling for?" Steve repeated, sure he had heard wrong.
“Clint!” Natasha called out. Steve’s head whipped around quickly, eyes immediately discerning the cause of her distress. Clint had been doing a flip off one of the chandeliers, but the alcohol intake had apparently impaired his usual impeccable balance. He was falling towards the floor. Fast.
Steve’s reflexes took over and he was under him before the collective gasp in the room had finished fully forming. He caught him easily enough, though Clint was dead weight and would have crashed to the floor pretty hard if not for Steve’s intervention.
“You okay?” Steve asked, shaking Clint.
“Gotta get those stairs fixed, Stark,” Clint slurred.
“Is he hurt?” Phil’s voice was steeped in concern as Thor wheeled him to the center of the dance floor where Steve was holding Clint.
“I stepped away for but a moment to procure refreshment,” Thor was saying.
Bruce had raced over and was feeling Clint for broken bones. “He seems all right.”
“You sure?” Natasha asked. “Crashing into Steve is almost as bad as hitting the floor.”
“I was careful,” Steve assured.
“Okay, party’s over,” Tony announced as he joined them. “Barton, you are officially cut off.”
“Good idea,” Clint lifted his head to agree, right before he passed out.
“Jackass,” Natasha admonished the unconscious man in Steve’s arms as she reached out to check him herself.
“Thank you all for coming,” Phil said, calm and collected, waving his good arm at the crowd. “My husband and I have had a lovely time. It’s been a great party, but I think it’s time for bed.”
“I’ll take him,” Steve offered.
“I’ll go with you,” Bruce added. “Make sure they’re both okay.”
“I’ve got a whole medical team on standby in their suite,” Tony reminded.
“I know, but I’ll feel better if I check for myself.” Steve noticed the silent looks exchanged between Natasha and Bruce, realizing he was doing this as much to assure her as himself. How did I not see what was between them before? Too busy being jealous, I guess.
“Helluva party you throw,” Fury commented to Tony after saying goodnight to Coulson. “Wouldn’t be a Stark party if someone didn’t get drunk and make a fool of himself.”
“You drive carefully, now, Nick,” Tony ground out around an obviously false smile. “Please come again soon. How does 2025 work with your schedule?”
“I’ll pencil it in.”
“I’ll be back soon as I can,” Steve said, trying to draw Tony’s attention from the daggers he was glaring at Fury. “Maybe we can finish our conversation?”
Tony’s entire demeanor softened. “Yeah, I’d like that.”
“Shit!” Clint screamed when the cold water doused him.
“Too warm?” Bruce teased.
“What the hell,” he groused as he tried to get to his feet.
“Swinging from chandeliers ring any bells?” Steve asked as he reached in and helped Clint get vertical. His arm got soaked, but he had already taken off his uniform jacket, so it wasn’t so bad.
“Oh, man.” Clint’s dragged his hands over his face. “It’s fuzzy, but I remember.” He straightened, looking around. “Is Phil okay?”
“He’s fine,” Bruce assured. “The nurses are taking good care of him, getting him ready for bed.”
Clint pressed his hands to the wall, ducking his head under the cold spray. “Where the hell was Thor anyway? He was supposed to be dancing with me.”
“You might want to consider how often he breaks for food next time you’re expecting him to spot you.”
“In his defense,” Bruce added, “he says he told you he was stepping away.”
“Yeah, I don’t remember that part.”
“Not surprising,” Steve said, grinning. “I’m actually a little surprised you’re upright.”
“Sorry to disappoint you guys. You’re not getting to give anyone a sponge bath tonight. I got this.”
“Glad to hear it.” Bruce backed away. “There’s a fresh pot of black coffee waiting for you when you get out of there.”
“Thanks. And Steve? Good catch. Appreciate it.”
Steve left the bathroom and went in to say goodnight to Phil, but he was already asleep. The hospital bed Tony had brought in looked practical but comfortable, and it was wider than the standard ones. Even though there was a perfectly good bed in the suite, they pretty much figured Clint would bunk in with Phil for the most part, like he did in the hospital whenever he could get away with it, so there was plenty of room beside Coulson.
“Tell him I’ll be here in the morning to help him with his exercises,” Steve informed Mark.
Steve exited the bedroom, making his way through the living room and towards the door, but he stopped when Bruce called to him.
“Hey, Steve, you forgot your jacket.”
“Oh, thanks.” He took the jacket from Bruce’s hand. “Clint okay? Maybe I should stay.”
“He’ll be fine. You go on. I’ll make sure he gets to bed. I don’t want to hold you up. Tony’s not very patient.” Bruce grinned and Steve studied his feet awkwardly.
“No, I guess not.” Steve was feeling pretty impatient himself, but he didn’t want to be rude. He’d been petty and unfair towards Bruce for weeks, and even though it was all in his mind, he felt like he owed the guy an apology. Knowing how weird that would have sounded, he searched for something else to say. “So. You and Natasha, huh?”
It was Bruce’s turn to look at his shoes as he shrugged. “Yeah. Kind of strange, right?”
“No. I think it’s nice. I’m happy for you.”
“Thanks.” Bruce’s head came up and he looked genuinely pleased. “I appreciate it. I think it’s nice about you and Tony, too.”
Steve nodded, though in truth he was still getting used to the fact there was a ‘him and Tony.’ Felt odd to be speaking about it. “Talk about strange, huh?”
“Not really. It’s a good fit.”
Bruce’s kindness and support only made Steve feel guiltier about his unkind thoughts. “Look, I feel like I should apologize to you. I’m not proud of it, but I was really jealous of you and Tony.”
“Yeah,” Bruce nodded. “The night after the Battle, right? I understand. But I’m sure he explained how it was, or I’d be ducking right about now.” He laughed, looking very amiable.
How it was?
Steve stiffened, responding cautiously. “Yeah, you know Tony. Never stops talking.”
“Don’t be too hard on him. It was a mistake. He just gets carried away sometimes. He was pretty shook up from the whole Chitauri attack and the almost dying thing.”
Everything inside him told him to leave it be, but Steve didn’t. He couldn’t. “I know how much your friendship means to him. You guys are so close. And you did go home with him that night. Guess it stands to reason.”
“Yeah, exactly. No big deal. It happens with friends.”
“Yeah, Natasha explained it to me earlier. Friends with benefits, right?” Steve wasn’t sure how he was speaking around the bile in his throat. He felt all the food he had eaten churning in his stomach as he turned to leave.
“Wait a minute.” Bruce grabbed his arm, and it was all Steve could do to keep from shoving him into the next decade.
“I gotta go,” he said shortly. He’d heard enough.
Bruce took a good look at him, his expression changing to panic, eyes going wide. “You didn’t know anything about it, did you? Oh, fuck. Steve, wait, you’re misunderstanding—”
“No, this one I got. Loud and clear.”
“No. You don’t understand. You’ve got it wrong. Let me explain,” Bruce implored.
Steve yanked his arm back, raising a warning finger. “Bruce, just don’t. Hulk or no Hulk. You do not want to be in my face right now.”
As he stormed out of the suite, blood boiling, he heard Bruce calling after him before muttering, “Shit. Tony’s totally going to kill me.”
Instead, he sat on the rocks looking into the Long Island Sound, winded, drenched in sweat, shaking hard. His thoughts were complete mayhem. He wanted to blame Tony, or Bruce, or even Thor for betraying him, but there was no one to blame but himself. Tony was Tony. Sex was a game to him and nobody twisted Steve’s arm to play. Picturing Tony with Bruce was making him see red, a rage he had never experienced before. But what difference did it make? It wasn’t like Tony probably hadn’t slept with half the population of Manhattan. Steve was plain stupid for believing what had happened between him and Tony was special. Why would he matter that much to anyone? He never had before.
He was a relic, pure and simple. The man out of time—the oddity—the thawed popsicle who probably would have wound up in the freak show if they hadn’t needed his help to save the planet. He was never going to understand. He would never fit in. People in this day saw sex as a means to an end. It was all very casual and the players were interchangeable. Who you were and what you felt had no business in it.
Not for Phil and Clint, he thought, thinking of their beautiful wedding. He ached to have someone love him like that, but it was a stupid dream. It was never going to happen for him. What was so bad about this ‘hooking up’ stuff? At least it meant he could be with Tony.
Sure, and I could twist my guts to shreds every second thinking about who he’s with when he’s not with me.
But up until today, he wasn’t even with me at all, which was pretty awful, too.
“I am such a jerk,” Steve said aloud, dropping his face into his hands. He didn’t know what he wanted anymore. Not to feel tortured in his own skin would be nice. What he truly dreaded was going back there. They would all know. They always knew everything. It wasn’t like he would get to be a loser and an idiot in peace for a while until he could get his head on straight. They probably got quite a laugh out of him, how quaint and naïve he was.
Running away was no option, though. He had never run from things in his life and he wasn’t about to start now. Phil would be expecting him to show up and help with his therapy like he did every morning, and Steve wasn’t about to let him down. He had other responsibilities as well. This city had bigger problems then his insignificant hurts. Feeling sorry for himself was a selfish proposition and he knew it.
Still, he couldn’t bring himself to get up. Not for a few more hours. He let himself wallow in the pain, the shame, the disillusionment and disappointment, and the stinging knowledge of how utterly pathetic he was. Mostly, he tried not to think about Tony Stark. Best not to dwell on things he was never going to have, not the way he wanted it, anyway. Of course, he hadn’t been successful putting Tony out of his mind before and it was only harder now; hard not to think about the things he wanted—the things he’d only begun to touch and now could never really have. Would it have been better to never have had a taste? What did he even want from Tony?
When dawn began to break in the sky, he finally managed to get to his feet and start his journey back. He ran hard again, hoping to sweat out the ache eating him alive inside. By the time the tower was in sight, he was exhausted, emotionally and physically. He dragged himself up the stairs, figuring he had time to shower and change before he needed to be at Phil’s suite.
The last person he wanted to see was Tony, yet there he was, sitting on the floor outside Steve’s apartment door. He was still in the suit he had worn to the wedding, only it was totally wrinkled now. He must have been dozing, because when Steve closed the stairwell door, he started wildly, then jumped to his feet, going from zero to furious in three seconds.
“Where the hell have you been?”
“Out,” Steve answered, too tired for the drama.
“Out where? You look like you’ve been break dancing in a bucket of lard.”
“Can I please get into my apartment?” Steve asked, hoping Tony would move away from the door.
“Can I go in with you?”
“Then no.” He folded his arms stubbornly. “We need to talk.”
“I’m surprised you’re not already in there. You could probably have JARVIS override the locks whenever you want.”
“I won’t do that to you. I told you this was your place and I’ve gone out of my way to respect it as such, though it’s pretty damn hard for me.”
“Thanks.” Considering how few boundaries people around here respected, Steve was grateful. “We really don’t have anything to talk about, though. Bruce already told me about you two, a conversation I’m sure he reported to you five minutes after it happened.” Which was why Steve had left the tower in three.
“Bruce is a jackass and there is no ‘we two.’ You’ve got it wrong.”
“Tony, you don’t owe me anything.” Steve’s anger at Tony had muted somewhere around mile two hundred. All that was left now was anger at himself. And sadness. “I don’t need any explanations. What you do is your business.”
“Well, I’m making it my business to tell you what I didn’t do.”
“Are you telling me Bruce lied about you two?”
“I’m telling you that you didn’t stick around for the whole story.”
“I’m not real interested in the play by play.” Just the thought of it sent Steve’s already unsettled stomach roiling.
“I didn’t have sex with Bruce,” Tony implored, his features distraught, his body tensing like this actually mattered to him; like he was sincere. But this was Tony Stark. He could pretty much talk his way out of anything. Steve waited, just staring, wondering if he was going to get the truth. Tony fidgeted, then paced, taking several deep breaths in and out before finally admitting. “Okay, it was more like attempted sex.”
“Attempted sex?” Steve repeated, wondering if this was another euphemism he didn’t get. “What does that even mean?”
“It means there was an offer on the table, but both parties couldn’t agree, so there was no merger.”
“Which party took it off the table?” Steve needed to ask, though Tony’s nervous fidgeting gave him his answer.
“Technically, that would be him.”
Steve didn’t think it was possible to feel worse than he already did. He was wrong. He yanked his key from his pocket, desperate to get inside and get the door between them. “Tony, this is none of my business and I’m running late. Please just leave me alone.”
“But I’m not done explaining.”
“What’s to explain? You can have sex—or attempted sex—with anyone you want.”
“I was hoping to have it with you again. The real kind. Not the attempted—”
“Because of Bruce?”
“Because of me. Because I’m not the right person for you. Because I can’t handle the stuff that comes so easily for the rest of you. I mean, I don’t even know how far down on the list I was.”
“What list? What are you talking about?”
“Was I second? After Bruce? Or did a few more people have to turn you down before you got to me?” Steve would have bitten off his tongue if it could have taken back the words, but there they were, in all their pathetic glory.
“That’s what you think?” Tony staggered back a few steps, his face white.
Steve took a deep breath, determined to get through this no matter how hard it was. “What I think is you’re a great guy. And I want you to be happy. I’m just not cut out for this kind of thing. You should find somebody better suited for you and the kind of stuff you like.”
“Just like that?” Tony muttered, his voice thick. “You’re done with me?”
Steve turned away, his hand shaking as he struggled to get the key in the lock. He hadn’t expected Tony to look and sound this hurt. It was tearing at his heart, but what choice was there? They would only keep hurting each other. They were too different. It took him three tries, but he finally got the door open. “If you want me to move out, I will.” When Tony didn’t answer, Steve turned around.
Tony was gone.