Steve didn't get his first inkling something strange was going on until Tony walked into his room on the first day of their visit to Atlantis, stopped dead in his tracks, and said, "Whoa. How do you rate?"
"Aren't all the rooms like this?" Steve asked, surprised. He'd just assumed they were. Even though it was underwater, Namor's official residence was still a palace, and Steve's room was downright opulent. Steve's rooms, actually, as he had a sitting room with a fireplace and a wet bar, plus a dressing room and an enormous bathroom in addition to the bedroom. The whole suite was decorated in lavender and pale green, and had a lot of expensive-looking stuff in it. "I thought everyone's was this nice."
"Uh, no," Tony said rocking back on his heels to look up at the domed ceiling dotted with what appeared to be solid gold fish crusted with real gemstones. "My room is small and smells like seaweed, and has water dripping from the ceiling--which is incredibly worrisome, by the way--and there's an octopus living in the wall that keeps stealing my watch."
Steve gave him a sympathetic grimace. "I'll trade, if you like," he said. He didn't much care where he slept, and this room was a bit much. It was more than a little ostentatious—it had chandeliers, for God's sake. Probably more to Tony's liking, anyway.
"Nah," Tony said, but he walked over and sprawled himself out on one of the couches in the sitting room, nearly disappearing into the jumble of soft pillows that littered it.
"I'm serious, take the room," Steve said, trying not to stare at the blissful expression on Tony's face. Tony hadn't looked happy much at all in the last year or so, ever since Pepper left. The last time Steve had seen Tony look like this was at his birthday party a couple weeks ago, but Steve tried not to think about that night too much, for his own sanity.
Tony flicked an eyebrow at him as he fussed with the pillows, getting them exactly to his liking. "Stop acting like you don't deserve nice things," he said offhandedly, which was how he always said things that he really meant, Steve had noticed. "It irritates me."
"What are you doing here?" Steve asked, which was a little blunt, but he generally didn't have to worry about offending Tony. It was also a good way to change the subject.
"Hanging out," Tony said as he closed his eyes. "We've still got an hour before Namor gives us the grand tour. Fury and Hill are meeting with some other military bigshots, probably about something nefarious. Everyone else is playing Uno in Thor's room, and you know my rule about Natasha and card games."
Tony actually did have a rule about Natasha and card games, because she could read him like a book, and Tony hated losing.
"I’m not sure which of those things I'm more worried about," Steve mused. Nefarious military plotting was obviously bad, but the last Uno tournament had set off a prank war that raged on for days and spared no one. Steve still double-checked his shower before getting in it. "Probably the Uno."
"Same here," Tony agreed. "Anyway, time to kill, blah blah blah, I'm gonna catch a nap," he said, burrowing down a little deeper into the pillows. He yawned and waved a hand at Steve. "Go ahead and do whatever you want," he added magnanimously, as if it were his place to give Steve permission to do whatever he liked in his own room.
"Thanks," Steve said wryly, and grabbed his computer tablet off the table. He was in the middle of a really good book, and it was actually kind of nice to have some time where he was literally unable to do anything but relax. Being stuck under the ocean with a bunch of merpeople was a guilt-free excuse to finally finish his book.
He settled on the other couch and put his feet up on the gilded coffee table, just as Tony started to snore.
Their entire group—all of the Avengers, plus Agents Coulson and Hill, and Director Fury—dutifully gathered in the grand foyer at the appointed time and waited for Namor to arrive for the official tour of the official residence where they were staying while on an official visit. Steve was officially uninterested in this kind of butt-kissing stuff, but that was just too damn bad, as Fury had so eloquently put it.
Namor, the King of Atlantis, swept regally into the foyer—barefoot, as always—looking cold and imposing in a long, flowing golden robe. He was a tall, muscular man, and everyone knew just how muscular, because his robe was open, and under it he wore nothing but his usual tiny green swim trunks. Steve had never seen him wear anything else.
As everyone stopped chattering and focused on him, Namor came to a halt in front of Steve and the others. His eyes flicked quickly over the group, but he didn't smile or act pleased to see them, which didn't surprise Steve at all. Namor had a poker face that would put Mr. Spock to shame, and Steve was very familiar with Mr. Spock, because Bruce and Tony loved watching those movies. They mocked the science the entire time, scoffing and groaning, but God help anyone else who put forth even the slightest criticism of Star Trek. Steve had learned that the hard way.
Namor even bore a somewhat eerie resemblance to Spock, too, with his black hair and pointy eyebrows and even pointier ears. Steve had never tried to make a joke about it--Namor seemed like the kind of guy who wouldn't appreciate it.
"Welcome to Atlantis," Namor said to the group at large, with the same air of disdain for human beings with which he said everything. It always seemed like he was leaving the word "peons" off the end of his sentences.
"Thank you for your hospitality," Fury said stiffly. He didn't offer to shake hands.
Namor barely acknowledged the greeting, instead spinning on his heel and beckoning them to follow as he led them through a massive set of double doors into what turned out to be the music room. It was a beautiful space, decorated in lush red and shimmering gold, and as he led them in a circuit of the room, it became evident Namor was surprisingly knowledgeable about even the smallest details of each piece of furniture and art.
As Steve paused to admire a particularly interesting tapestry, Namor came to stand beside him, hands clasped behind his back.
"Are you interested in tapestries?" Namor asked, with a tone that implied he couldn't care less, but that was sort of how Namor said everything, so Steve answered him anyway.
"I don't know much about them," he admitted. "But I do appreciate beautiful art, and this is beautiful."
Namor was silent for a moment, and when Steve looked over, Namor was giving him an appraising look, with perhaps slightly less contempt in it than usual. "Yes, there is much beauty in this room," Namor said, with an intensity that made Steve a little uncomfortable. "This particular tapestry depicts an ancestor of mine named Nethuns," Namor continued, turning his attention back to the tapestry. "He is most commonly known on the surface world as Neptune."
"You're related to Neptune?" Steve asked, curious despite himself. He'd thought Neptune and all the other gods of mythology were just that: myths.
"Of course I am," Namor said, raising a judgmental eyebrow at Steve's apparent dimwittedness. Then he clasped Steve by the elbow and turned him to point out another, even more beautiful tapestry, on the opposite wall. After they eased up to it, he went into a detailed description of the origin and subject matter, during which Steve noticed Namor never let go of his arm.
As they moved on to the drawing room, Namor urged Steve to walk at his side, rather than rejoining the group, which Steve reluctantly did. While they wandered about the room admiring the many Atlantean treasures on display, Namor again paid special attention to the things Steve was interested in, and provided him with commentary. The same thing happened in the library, and again in the conservatory.
As they were en route to the throne room, Steve looked back over his shoulder, baffled, as he was once again steered along by Namor's grip, but most of the others were too busy looking at all the gold leaf and elaborate artwork to notice. Tony--who was ambling along next to Bruce, as usual--was the only one who met Steve's desperate eyes, but he only raised an eyebrow and smirked.
Namor's obvious attention made Steve distinctly uncomfortable. It seemed like it should be Fury's place to walk with him, as he was nominally in charge, but Steve's attempts to slip away and insert Fury in his stead were completely unsuccessful. Namor stuck to his side the entire time, and Steve couldn't shake the feeling that he was trying to impress him—him specifically--with his extravagant palace.
And the palace was beautiful, Steve had to admit, and also ingeniously built. From the outside, it looked like a towering fortress of coral, but the inside was luxurious and comfortable. Most of it was filled with water, since it was populated by Atlanteans, but the section they were in now was dry as a bone, clearly built with the comfort of humans in mind. Namor, who was half human, was able to breathe both in and out of the water and could move freely about anywhere.
When they got deeper into the palace, Steve noticed some of the walls between those wet and dry areas were made of thick glass, allowing people on either side to see each other. As the group made their way through one particularly busy corridor, several Atlanteans--swimming by or simply going about their daily business on the other side of the glass divider--acknowledged Namor and returned Steve's friendly wave. It was like Sea World for people.
Steve, who had never seen another Atlantean before this, was surprised to realize they didn't all look like Namor, the main difference being that they were blue. He wasn't sure why no one had ever mentioned this to him before, because it seemed like the kind of thing that would come up. Namor's pointy ears, on the other hand, appeared to be pure Atlantean.
The tour finally concluded in the gallery, where Namor explained the stories behind the huge paintings that adorned the walls, many of them immortalizing the heroic exploits of Namor himself. Even Tony was rolling his eyes at the level of self-promotion being exhibited, which was really saying something. Thor, on the other hand, seemed to think it was perfectly normal.
Steve usually enjoyed learning about history and architecture, and this was a rare chance to learn about an amazing culture that was still mostly a mystery to everyone up on the surface, so he should have been firmly in his element and eager to hear it all. But the weird way Namor was handling the tour, his obvious focus on Steve, and his enormous ego and overbearing manner, were sucking the joy right out of the experience. The more Namor talked, the less Steve liked him.
"I will see you this evening at dinner," Namor finally said, mostly to Steve, before he swept out of the gallery at the conclusion of the tour, and Steve gratefully escaped back to his room to enjoy some peace and quiet before it was time to change his clothes and make his way to the official dinner he had no desire to attend. It was really too bad his remarkable constitution made it impossible to feign illness.
When he arrived at the huge banquet hall, Steve discovered he was expected to sit near the head of the table, at Namor's right hand. He balked when he found the card with his name on it, and immediately appealed to Fury, who was no help at all. "Don't rock the boat, Rogers," he growled under his breath, and went back to talking to the admiral from Uruguay.
The banquet table was comically long, and filled with Atlantean dignitaries--easy to pick out by their blue skin and the special wrappings they wore around their throats that enabled them to breathe out of the water--plus the rest of the Avengers, and numerous representatives from other surface world countries. As was normally the case at things like this, the seating was intentionally arranged to encourage conversation among strangers, so everyone in Steve's party was scattered far and wide around the table.
Thor was easy to pick out, tall and fair-headed, and wearing an actual cape. He was making his way to the table while conversing with a thin, fidgety man with glasses so thick his eyes looked like billiard balls. As Steve slowly made his way up and up and up the length of the table, he saw Bruce and Natasha were in place already with their dinner companions, and then he came upon Tony, who had been assigned a seat between an Atlantean and a woman who introduced herself as the envoy from Thailand.
Steve lingered near them for a few minutes, making idle small talk, before finally making his way to his own seat. Delaying the inevitable, he knew, but he couldn't help himself. He would much rather have spent the meal with Tony and Ambassador Sampatsri, who seemed friendly and easy to talk to, two things Namor was decidedly not.
Once he took his seat and dinner got under way, the conversation around Steve was lively, but he couldn't help sneaking a few glances at his friends, who all appeared to be having a really good time with the people around them. Even Coulson was smiling. The other guests at Steve's end of the table seemed honored to have been seated so close to Namor, and Steve wished once again his place had been given to someone who appreciated it more than he did, but he tried to make the best of a bad situation and engage his dinner companions in conversation.
Unfortunately, Namor wanted to talk to Steve about World War II, which was not Steve's favorite subject for a variety of reasons. He knew, courtesy of a general briefing several years ago, that Namor was much older than he looked, and that he'd helped fight against the Nazis during the war. Had it been anyone else, Steve would have welcomed a bit of shared history, but he had so little else in common with Namor that it hardly mattered.
Namor and Steve were similar in age, but Namor had grown up here in Atlantis, not up on the surface, and thus all of their points of reference were completely different. They certainly weren't going to reminisce about the price of a loaf of bread when they were kids, or what it felt like to watch the Empire State Building reach for the sky a little at a time, or a million other things about Steve's early life that his current friends were too young to remember.
Namor didn't seem to notice or mind that they had little in common, and continued to monopolize Steve's attention. In fact, this was by far the most Steve had ever spoken to him in all the time they'd known each other. They saw each other occasionally up on the surface, when Namor showed up to begrudgingly offer his assistance and insult everyone, but their conversations were normally limited to the tactical variety. Despite Namor's attempts to engage his interest now, Steve didn't find himself warming to Namor much, and was relieved when he finally turned his attention elsewhere for a few minutes.
There was, in Steve's opinion, an unnerving amount of seafood served at dinner. Which probably made sense—what else would people who lived in the ocean eat?—but it still seemed a little like cannibalism. Steve dug a garlicky snail out of its shell with a tiny fork and tried not to think about it.
"How did you find your chamber?" Namor asked, as he popped a snail into his own mouth. "Was it to your liking?"
Steve hesitated just long enough for Namor to notice. He raised an already pointy eyebrow, awaiting Steve's answer.
"Is it not to your liking? I can have you moved to another. There are many beautiful rooms in this part of the palace," he said. "You could sleep in a different one every night, if you wished."
"That seems like a lot of work," Steve said dubiously. Who would do that? "And my room is very nice. But now that you mentioned it, I think Tony would appreciate moving to a different one. There's an issue with an octopus."
"Tony Stark's room is fine," Namor said, dismissing Steve's point with a wave of his hand.
Steve was a little taken aback by the whiplash change in attitude. "Actually, he said there's a water leak--"
"There are no other rooms suitable for him, he'll have to make do," Namor cut him off, reaching for his glass and avoiding Steve's eyes.
"But you just said there were lots of--"
"Ah, at last," Namor interrupted again, nodding at the servants who had appeared next to the table with an enormous platter covered in what looked like grilled fish. "One of my favorite dishes. I insist you try this one, Captain," he said, and Steve never got a chance to bring Tony's room up again.
Once the meal was over, they were all herded into a cavernous ballroom, where Namor gave a speech that basically came down to explaining how lucky they were he was willing to let them visit Atlantis. After the grudgingly polite applause died down, Namor glanced around the ballroom, searching until his eyes landed on Steve, who suddenly felt the urge to bolt as Namor strode toward him. He was absolutely certain he was not going to like what happened next.
Namor barely seemed to notice the way the crowd parted for him as he crossed the floor, clearly intent on Steve as he smoothly shrugged out of his shimmering robe, leaving it to be caught by one of the servants who always seemed to be scuttling along behind him. As everyone else looked on, Namor, now clad only in his teeny swimsuit and a pair of golden gauntlets, came to a stop in front of Steve, who felt distinctly like a cornered animal as he looked up at him.
"The first dance is traditionally the Dance of the Royals. I request you dance it with me," Namor said imperiously. He held out his hand, palm up.
Next to them, Bruce made a choking sound, but Steve was too busy staring at Namor's outstretched hand to look at him.
"Thank you, but I don't dance," Steve said into the silence that he realized was stretching on too long. "It's a whole big…thing." It was probably a major faux pas to turn down royalty, but desperate times et cetera.
The split second of shock that preceded the displeased tilt of Namor's eyebrows indicated it was definitely a major faux pas. "This is the Dance of the Royals," he said again. "No one else is allowed to dance until I do. If you refuse me, there will be no dancing at all, as I have no wish to dance with another."
The room was utterly silent. Everyone was looking at them. Everyone. Steve felt his face get hot as it sunk in that his choices were either dance with Namor or ruin the ball for everyone. And when he met Namor's challenging stare, he realized instantly that Namor knew very well which one Steve would choose, and Steve hated him a little bit right then.
Steeling himself for what was sure to be an excruciating couple of minutes, Steve reluctantly set his hand in Namor's, who immediately latched on with a tight grip and led him out onto the dance floor. Conversation picked up around them again, this time in hushed tones, and Steve could only imagine what everyone was saying; he didn't enjoy being made the center of attention in this way.
When they reached the middle of the ballroom floor, which was decorated with an elaborate inlaid design of cavorting dolphins, Namor stopped and pulled Steve toward him with an arm around his waist, holding their clasped hands at what appeared to be a precisely chosen angle. After a second's hesitation, Steve set his other hand on Namor's bare shoulder, as that seemed like the thing to do.
Namor was several inches taller than Steve, and warm, much warmer than Steve had expected, probably because Steve thought of Namor as being part fish. Which probably would have offended him, if he knew. In that moment, Steve actually thought of mentioning it, purely out of spite.
At Namor's brusque nod, the Atlantean orchestra went to work on an assortment of instruments Steve had never seen before, and proceeded to produce music that Steve graciously decided probably sounded better when heard underwater as originally intended. Namor tightened his grip on Steve's waist, and they began to move.
Once they got going, Steve realized the dance was similar to a waltz, which he really didn't know how to do either, but Namor obviously knew the steps by heart and had no compunction about steering Steve across the floor. Steve mostly just shuffled along and tried not to step on Namor's bare feet.
"I was pleased that you accepted my invitation," Namor said, once they settled into a rhythm. "I have been looking forward to the chance to get to know you better, when our attention is not diverted by our responsibilities."
"Thank you for inviting us," Steve replied stiffly, intentionally using the plural pronoun even though he suspected Namor was talking about Steve himself specifically. He politely didn't mention that he hadn't had much choice in the matter, and he absolutely was not going to contemplate the dawning suspicion that Namor had arranged all of this as an excuse to get Steve down here. Not only was it preposterous, it was a little terrifying.
Namor made several more attempts at drawing Steve into personal conversation, but Steve stared over his shoulder and responded with distant politeness. He knew he was behaving immaturely, but he was angry that Namor had manipulated him into dancing; Steve's hatred of bullies had not diminished at all over time.
They spent the last few minutes of the song plodding along in silence, made even more awkward, at least for Steve, by their physical proximity. Their faces were only inches apart, their thighs brushing against each other as they moved. It was all much too intimate, and Steve really wished Namor had at least left the robe on, because he didn't much enjoy dancing with a nearly naked man he barely liked.
When the dissonant clamor of the song finally, thankfully, ended, Namor escorted Steve back to his friends, who all looked like they were trying not to laugh.
"I thank you," Namor said, and bowed over Steve's hand, and then, as Steve stared in mute shock, kissed it.
There was a loud knock on Steve's door in the middle of the night, and he got up to answer it very reluctantly, afraid it was Namor, who apparently had some kind of weird obsession with him. It was actually Tony, looking harassed. He was in his underwear and his hair was a fright, and he had little round red marks all over his chest and neck.
"I need to crash on one of your many sumptuous couches," Tony said, and Steve automatically stepped back to let him in.
"What's going on?" Steve asked as Tony stalked through the sitting room, his arc reactor lighting the way.
"That damn octopus," Tony spat, gesturing at the marks on his skin. Now that Steve could look closely, there were more of them than he'd originally thought, on Tony's arms, and even his face, on his jawline. "It keeps trying to—to make out with me or something!" Tony said, waving his arms and sounding what Steve thought was appropriately horrified. "It wants to cuddle."
"You better sleep here," Steve agreed right away, nodding. "You can have the bed if you want."
Though Steve would obviously take the couch himself, he couldn't help the way his mind immediately leapt to the thought of sharing the bed, and what that might lead to, and how many times. It was pointless, but he couldn't stop himself.
"An octopus does not make for good cuddling," Tony went on, either missing or ignoring Steve's offer of the bed. "They're cold," he complained, as he settled on the couch and tugged a small blanket down off the back of it and over his legs. Steve tried not to feel disappointed. "And slimy."
"Well," Steve said, and then failed to come up with anything to say after that. Tony didn't seem to care. He was already turning on his side, away from Steve, and yawning. His tanned back was muscular, and he had a dimple on each side of his spine, right above his underwear. The dip of his waist looked just right for resting a hand.
"Night," Tony said, before he smashed one of the pillows down over his head.
"Night," Steve said, trying not to feel wistful as he walked back to his own bed alone.
He couldn't really blame the octopus.
It took Steve a while to fall asleep again once he'd climbed back into bed and turned off the light. Just knowing Tony was out there on the couch made it impossible to stop thinking about him. Specifically, what he wanted to do with him.
Up until recently, Steve had chalked his interest in Tony up to a low-level attraction to someone he liked and respected, something that wasn't inherently overwhelming or problematic. Tony fell into the category in Steve's brain labeled "Good-Looking, Would Have Sex With," but he was far from the only one classified as such. Most of the Avengers fell into that category.
It had been so much easier, when Tony was in a relationship, to avoid dwelling on it, because Steve genuinely liked and admired Pepper, and it felt like betrayal to secretly lust after her boyfriend. Once Tony was single, though, Steve started dwelling on those things fairly often, and in great detail. Tony had unintentionally nudged that along just by being in New York more, basically ceding California to Pepper and taking up permanent residence in the newly-christened Avengers Tower.
Eventually, Steve had been forced to admit to himself that what he was feeling had grown a little beyond idle attraction, edging more towards a burning want. Even so, no one would ever know about it but him, because he'd never actually act on it.
Except, eventually, he did act on it.
It didn’t happen completely out of the blue. Once Tony set up shop in New York full-time, he and Steve started spending more time together, especially the kind of time that didn't involve trying not to get killed. Eventually, gradually, Steve started to think Tony was interested in him.
It wasn't any one thing that convinced him, it was more a subtle shift in not just how often Tony wanted to hang out with him, but also how he acted. The way Tony looked at him and talked to him, and the way his leg occasionally bumped against Steve's under the table, and the way neither of them moved away when it happened. It was the feeling behind those things, an intention. A possibility of more hanging between them.
Then, a few weeks ago they'd had a surprise birthday party for Tony in one of the restaurants in the Tower, just a small group of his friends in a private dining room. Because it was almost impossible to buy anything for Tony he hadn't already bought for himself, they'd all gone out of their way to find funny stuff for him, and by the end of the evening the table was overflowing with ridiculous gifts, like a velvet painting of Iron Man that Thor had purchased on a street corner, and an enormous bright yellow stuffed giraffe with a bow tie around its neck, courtesy of Rhodey.
Steve had somehow wound up sitting next to Tony, a spot that usually went to Rhodey or Bruce, and it was nice to sit close to him and see him so at ease, and laughing so much. Things got a little rowdy toward the middle of the party, but once the gifts were opened and dinner was eaten, everyone mellowed out and pretty soon there were several different quiet conversations taking place at the table. Tony slouched in his chair, leaning a little toward Steve, looking soft-eyed and happy as he smiled at him, and there was the feeling again, like this was a moment when something could happen, if Steve wanted it.
That feeling had made him bold, and once the party was over he lingered at the table as one by one everyone else said their goodbyes. Rhodey was the last to leave, sent off with a hug and a smartass comment, and finally it was just the two of them left in the private room.
"Good party," Tony said, as he stretched his arms above his head, tipping his head back on a big noisy yawn. "Time to call it a night."
Steve felt like he couldn't look away from the tanned column of Tony's throat, the little hollow between his collarbones. He stepped closer, smiling, and asked, "You want some company?"
Tony froze, hands still locked together above his head, and for a split second looked so shocked—his jaw literally hanging open--that Steve immediately backpedaled, realizing that he'd jumped to the wrong conclusion. A very, very wrong conclusion.
"Someone needs to carry the giraffe," Steve said quickly, hoping the joke didn't sound as flimsy as it felt. He grabbed the stuffed giraffe by its neck; it was ridiculously big, and Steve used that as an excuse to step away from Tony so he had enough room to heft it up under his arm.
Tony's eyes flicked to the giraffe, then Steve's face. He was grinning now, open and relaxed. "Yeah, good idea," he agreed, which made it even worse, seeing how relieved he was that Steve had realized his mistake and was changing course. "I definitely need help with my giraffe."
He finally let his arms fall back to his sides, then began to gather the rest of his gifts, which included a lava lamp from Natasha and a T-shirt that looked like a tuxedo. Once he'd managed to grab it all, Steve, now clutching the giraffe in a stranglehold, led the way out of the restaurant. They were stopped twice by people wanting to take their picture, so Steve knew that within minutes there would be photos of him with a stuffed giraffe all over the Internet.
Still feeling mortified, Steve chickened out when the elevator arrived. He couldn’t bear the thought of the awkward ride up together; he lived on the floor right beneath the penthouse, so they would be stuck together for the whole trip.
He stepped into the elevator with Tony long enough to prop the giraffe in the corner, and then shoved his hands in his pockets as he backed out again. Now Tony looked…annoyed? Confused? Both?
"I'm gonna get a cup of coffee," Steve said, hooking a thumb over his shoulder. There was a great coffee shop nearby; he went there sometimes when he wanted to get out of his apartment but didn't actually feel like socializing. The regulars all left him alone.
Tony's eyebrows shot up. "Right now?"
"The place around the corner's open all night." He looked at his watch anyway. It was late, but not that late.
"Okay," Tony said slowly, as the giraffe tipped over and face-planted on the floor of the elevator. "If that's what you want."
It wasn’t, but Steve nodded anyway. "So I'll see you tomorrow?"
Tony's smile was whip-quick, and wiped the confusion right off his face as if it had never been there. "Yep. Thanks for the gift," he said, dipping his chin at the jumble of stuff in his arms. Somewhere in there was a Snuggie from Steve. "Don't stay up past your bedtime."
Steve smiled back so he wouldn't wince instead. A few minutes ago he'd thought he was going to stay up way past his bedtime, with Tony. He didn't need the reminder.
"Have a good night," Steve said, as the elevator doors started to close.
"Yeah," Tony said. "You, too." He was already distracted by the way the velvet painting was trying to slip out of his hand, and didn't even look at Steve.
Tony retreated a little after that night, perhaps realizing he'd been giving Steve the wrong idea. It probably wasn't enough to really be noticeable to anyone else, but enough that Steve got the message loud and clear: Tony wasn't interested in him that way. All that stuff Steve thought he felt was just friendliness, or even loneliness. Pepper had been gone about ten months at the time.
They hadn't really been alone much since then, until they got here and Tony started having problems with his room. Apparently Tony considered Steve good overnight company when his only other option was an overly amorous octopus.
That was okay, Steve thought, as he turned over and shoved his head between two oversized pillows. He was tough. He could take it.
In the morning, Steve wandered out to the sitting room in just his boxer shorts and T-shirt to find Tony already awake, messing around with Steve's tablet. Some of the sucker marks had faded, but a few had deepened into purple bruises, including the one on Tony's jaw. Steve was just about to mention it when there was a knock at the door.
When Steve opened it, he was surprised to see it was breakfast. Big, heaping platters full of delicious-smelling food, rolled into his room on bejeweled carts by an army of blue people who didn't seem to care that he wasn't dressed. They were suitably somber-faced as they laid out the meal on the table in the sitting room, but Steve saw them glancing at Tony, and then at each other.
Tony was still sprawled on the couch in his underwear, tablet now cast aside as he inspected the marks on his body. "Look at this one," he said to Steve, pointing at a particularly deep sucker mark next to his nipple. Steve did not want to look. He really, really did not want to inspect Tony's half-naked body. At least not under these circumstances.
"Steve, seriously, look at this," Tony insisted. "This is not acceptable."
"Are you hungry? I'm starving," Steve said, and only just managed to keep his voice from cracking as Tony lifted up the waistband of his underwear, frowning as he peered down at his nether regions. The servants were very much not paying attention in a way that made it obvious they weren't missing a single bit of the entire scene.
As soon as they'd uncovered the last platter, Steve herded the servants out of his room as politely as possible, thanking them over and over, and wondering if it was obvious to everyone that he was suddenly sweating like a condemned man. When he finally closed the door and turned back around, Tony was already checking out the food selection. As Steve took a seat on the opposite couch, Tony lifted a bowl and sniffed it, then spooned some of the contents onto a plate and handed it to Steve. Eating was at least a distraction, so that's what Steve did.
Everything was delicious, and they passed things back and forth, commenting on what was spicy and what was sweet and what was so delicious the other had to absolutely try it. They ate until they were stuffed without making much headway in the generous portions, Tony sitting on the couch in his underwear the entire time, because he obviously had nothing else to wear. It wasn't the first time they had eaten breakfast together, but it was definitely the first time they'd done it with no one else around, and so close to being naked.
Steve was finding that part hard to put out of his mind, and it was a tribute to Namor's chef that he was able to give any thought to the food at all.
"You can clean up here if you want," Steve offered once they were finished with the meal, trying not to get too caught up in the thought of Tony naked in his big, steamy shower with the bench seat in it, just the right height where if you were kneeling...
"What?" he asked blankly, when he realized Tony had said something to him while his mind was wandering.
"I said thanks but I'll go back to my room." Tony gave Steve an appraising look. "You okay? You looked a little off for a second."
"Me fine. I mean: I'm fine," he managed to say, embarrassed. He really needed to get it together and stop thinking about things that were probably never going to happen. "I'll see you later."
"How was your shower?" he asked Tony as the Avengers gathered in the grand foyer again, waiting on Namor.
Tony didn't meet his eye. "You don't want to know."
"You have some eight-legged company?" Steve pressed, unable to resist. At least he wasn't the only one getting unwanted attention. It made him feel like he and Tony were in this together.
Tony ignored him.
"It lives in the water," Steve pointed out. "It likes water."
"Yes, I know," Tony said, focusing intently on doing something to the wristband of his watch. "Very aware of that, actually."
"Hey, what happened to your face?" Clint asked Tony as he joined them, because there was no way Clint wouldn't ask.
"Nothing," Tony said, and took his phone out of his pocket, even though he couldn't get a signal down here.
Clint was not going to be deterred. "Is that a hickey?" he asked, ducking around to get a better look, but Tony pivoted away from him without looking up from his phone.
"Who has a hickey?" Bruce asked, appearing out of nowhere, carrying a ridiculously huge golden mug full of what smelled like coffee. Thor was behind him, holding an identical mug in each hand; his love of coffee was unparalleled.
"Tony has a hickey," Clint said, pointing to the sucker mark on Tony's jaw. It did, actually, look a little like a hickey, and Steve suddenly flashed back to earlier that day when the servants had looked startled to see Tony sitting on the couch in his underwear, with what appeared to be suck marks all over his body. In Steve's room. Early in the morning. They thought--they must have thought--oh, God.
Steve groaned and covered his face with his hands, which was the wrong thing to do, because right at that moment Natasha was asking, "Who gave that to you?" and then they all turned to look at Steve.
"Holy shit, was it you?" Clint practically shouted, and Steve frantically shook his head no, but Tony just smirked and said, "Wait'll you hear about the breakfast Steve had in his room this morning."
"Please tell me that's not a euphemism," Clint said, while Bruce inexplicably gave Tony a thumbs up.
"What's a hickey?" Thor asked.
The group activity for the day was some kind of underwater Atlantean tournament that the group observed from a special enclosed viewing room in one of the palace towers overlooking the arena. The event began with an elaborate ceremony that Namor presided over from out in the water, his dark hair floating gently around his head as he gave a short speech and then officially opened the games by blowing into a giant conch shell. The shell produced a noise so loud they could hear it in their water-tight enclosure; Steve imagined it was what a dying stegosaurus must have sounded like.
The viewing room was much like the stadium luxury boxes Steve had been in a time or two—mostly when Tony wanted his friends to accompany him to a sporting event--with tiered seating and lounging areas, and a lot of food and drink. The main difference here was that every once in a while an oblivious fish would swim by.
Namor joined his human visitors shortly after the games got underway, striding into the room with his hair still dripping water onto his bare shoulders. He cocked an eyebrow at a servant as he settled in his chair, and a few seconds later Steve found himself gently but insistently urged into the seat next to him, much to his own dismay and everyone else's amusement; Namor's fixation on him hadn't gone unnoticed.
Sadly, the games weren't very interesting, as they were mostly all variations on swimming really quickly. All the same, Steve found himself feigning fascination in them as Namor once again insisted on interacting with him. He seemed unusually interested in Steve's lineage, which was a little baffling, and not much to brag about, especially in conversation with someone who was descended from Neptune himself. Once they covered that paper-thin topic, the conversation moved on to Steve's goals and ambitions. It was like being interviewed for a job he wasn't aware he had applied for.
"We are both champions of our people, well-respected in our worlds," Namor pointed out unnecessarily, relaxing into his chair with his chin resting on his fist. His skin was perfect, Steve noticed, against his will. He didn't have a mark or blemish on him anywhere. "Do you aspire to rule your people as I do?"
"Not at all," Steve said, which was absolutely true. He could think of few things he wanted less than to be a politician.
"But you would be a good leader," Namor pressed. "You would be adored by your people, and make decisions with their best interests at heart, would you not?"
"I prefer to do what I can from the sidelines," Steve told him. "I think being in charge of the country would just get in the way of doing what I do best, which is help people."
"Ah," Namor said. Steve wasn't sure how to interpret that, but Namor looked, for whatever reason, very pleased with Steve's answer, and thankfully dropped the subject.
"This is the competition we spoke of, the one you said you wished to see," Namor said a little later, when several Atlanteans were waiting their turn to throw a rock roughly the size of a Quinjet.
"I did what?" Steve asked, baffled. He had no recollection at all of saying any such thing.
Out in the arena, the rock landed with a thud that could be felt, albeit faintly, up in the viewing area. A cloud of sediment unfurled into the water, and Steve thought he saw a fish or two flee for their lives as the crowd cheered.
"You expressed admiration of my strength, after I assisted you in defending your city of Seattle," Namor explained. "You were very appreciative of my…power." He made "power" sound like a dirty word, and Steve struggled against the urge to grimace as he wracked his brain. When had he…?
Now Steve remembered. He remembered being outnumbered, and the streets overflowing with the enemy. He remembered Namor picking up a city bus, thankfully empty at the time, and swinging it like a cricket bat, clearing a path like it was nothing. Afterwards, Steve had mentioned it, impressed, and Namor had seemed to momentarily drop his air of antagonistic disdain long enough to actually converse with Steve, telling him it was not unusual for his people to display that kind of strength. Steve had possibly said something like, "I bet that's something to see," or, "I'd like to see that," but that part he couldn't remember, exactly.
But that had been over two months ago. And he hadn't meant it literally, and it certainly hadn't been any kind of indication of attraction to Namor. Was that what Namor had read it as, though? Had this whole thing, from the tour to the dinner to the dancing to sitting here right now watching a bunch of fish people toss around a rock, been set in motion by his innocent offhand comment?
Even more distressing was the thought that this was how Tony must have felt the night of his birthday, when Steve had read way too much into an innocent situation and made an unwelcome overture. No wonder Tony had worked so hard to put a little distance between them since then. This was so awkward.
Steve could only stare dumbly out the window as the circular absurdity of the situation slowly sank in. Namor must have interpreted Steve's current state of stupefaction as rapt attention, because he said no more, except to excuse himself as the games finally inched toward their end.
While Namor presented the winners with their over-sized golden trophies, Steve noticed a small red octopus clinging to the upper corner of the window, feeling its way along the edge, as if looking for a way in. Steve tried to get Tony's attention, curious to know if it was the same octopus that was living in his room, but Tony appeared to be ignoring both Steve and the octopus with all the power of his being. That was all the answer Steve needed, really.
Once everyone was sufficiently lauded and the Atlantean national anthem had droned on for several excruciating minutes, Steve and the rest of his party were finally excused. As with the day before, everyone was given free time before dinner, which was to be the final official function of their visit. Tomorrow morning they were returning to the surface.
Steve was startled, and a little unhappy, when one of the servants discreetly pulled him aside as they were leaving the viewing area, and informed him that Namor wished to speak with him privately. Steve had to remind himself not to take his irritation out on the poor servant; it wasn't his fault Steve had already had his fill of Namor, and was looking forward to getting a break.
After what seemed an interminable hike through the palace, Steve was shown to Namor's private sitting room. It wasn't as ostentatious as some of the other parts of the palace, but it did have an entire set of shelves that held nothing but small statues of Namor himself, one of them sporting a pair of brilliant green swim trunks made from what were probably real emeralds.
What was most surprising, though, was that Fury was also there. Steve shot him a questioning look, but Fury simply shrugged. The servant settled them in a pair of ridiculously ornate chairs, and there was a short pause while he left the room before Namor acknowledged them.
Namor was lounging languidly on a comfortable-looking couch directly across from them, one foot placed on the floor in a way that made it nearly impossible to not look at his groin. Steve decided to focus on his widow's peak instead, with mixed results.
Unsurprisingly, Namor didn't waste time on pleasantries; Steve wasn't even sure if Namor knew what a pleasantry was. "Director Fury, I would like to formally announce my intent to take Captain Rogers as my bride," he said. "I understand the captain has no immediate family living, so I make my intentions known to you in their stead."
Fury stared at Namor for a second, and then turned his eye on Steve, who had been stunned into silence. "Rogers, what the hell did you do?"
"Nothing!" Steve protested, holding up his hands to ward off Fury's disapproval. "I had no idea he was going to do this!"
"We can begin discussion of the dowry whenever you are ready," Namor went on, as if no one else had spoken. "I realize your nation has made a mess of its finances, so I am prepared to settle for something small. Your state of Hawaii will suffice."
"I am not giving you Hawaii," Fury said through clenched teeth.
"'Because I'm not marrying you!" Steve exclaimed, because Fury seemed to be forgetting that part, the part where Steve did not want to marry a merman.
Steve managed to flee back to his suite without making any wrong turns, though the poor servant assigned to escort him ended up hurrying to keep up, and was red-faced and winded by the time they trotted up to his door. When Steve burst inside he was relieved--and not at all surprised--to see Tony was already there, lounging on the same couch he had commandeered the day before. This time there was a fire burning in the fireplace and he was reading one of the many books that lined the shelves in the sitting room.
"Hey," Tony said, not looking up. "I'm reading an Atlantean romance novel. You wouldn't believe the sex scenes--"
"Namor wants to marry me," Steve blurted.
There was a long pause. "Or maybe you would believe the sex scenes," Tony finally said, staring up at Steve.
"I didn't have sex with him!" Steve said, shocked Tony thought Steve would have sex with someone like Namor. "Or do anything with him."
"You danced with him," Tony pointed out. He sat up and dropped the book on the table.
"That was under duress, and it was only a dance. You don't marry someone after dancing with them once!" Steve protested. Though if things had gone differently, he would have married Peggy after one dance. But this was not the same. Not the same at all.
"What did you tell him?" Tony asked, looking genuinely curious.
Steve's jaw dropped. He couldn't believe Tony even had to ask. "I told him no!"
"Okay, okay," Tony said, raising his hands placatingly. "I was just making sure."
"I don't even like him," Steve said, irritated. Tony had to know that.
"Nobody likes him," Tony said matter-of-factly, which didn't help at all.
To Steve's total lack of surprise, he was seated next to Namor at dinner again that night. If Namor was angry or disappointed that Steve had refused his hand in marriage, he didn't act like it. He spoke at length to Steve about his future plans for Atlantis, and the challenges facing his city due to offshore oil drilling, sonar testing, and the ever increasing amount of plastic trash in the ocean. These were all topics the other Atlanteans seated around them felt very passionately about, with good reason.
It hadn't occurred to Steve that Namor actually did anything all day long except make people grovel for his attention, and he realized now that was a bit narrow-minded of him. Namor had been born into his role as ruler of Atlantis, rather than elected, but that didn't mean he didn’t take it seriously. Despite his other issues with him, Steve certainly respected that. Respected, but did not want to be involved in as his spouse.
The after dinner entertainment was a showcase of Atlantean culture, including a stand-up comedian who made a lot of jokes about surface dwellers, a synchronized swimming troupe that performed in the water on the other side of the glass wall, and a chorus comprised of Atlantean children who sang several native folk songs before closing with John Lennon's "Imagine." It was approximately the 412th time Steve had seen a children's chorus sing that particular song, and he'd been living in the 21st century for less than five years.
There were some light refreshments after, and it was only then, with Namor standing at his side loftily explaining the cultural significance of krill, that Steve realized one or two Atlanteans were glancing over at them with obvious envy.
"Ignore them," Namor said dismissively, when he saw Steve had noticed. "They are jealous of my attentions."
Steve couldn't ignore it, though, because it suddenly made him see the situation from a different point of view. Namor was single, and powerful, and obviously open to marriage, and it hadn't occurred to Steve, in all the shock and confusion, to wonder why he hadn't chosen one of his own people to marry. He seemed well-liked by many other Atlanteans, who were perhaps used to his loathsome personality, and Steve had to admit Namor was an attractive man, though he himself had always preferred lean and wiry to big and bulky.
"It looks like you have plenty of admirers down here," Steve pointed out. Yes, he was trying to take a little of the pressure off of himself, but it was also true.
Namor cut him off at the pass, though. "I wish to marry someone who is my equal," he said, and Steve was flattered by that for about half a second until Namor added, "Or as close to my equal as I am likely to find."
"You know, I think your true superpower is the backhanded compliment," Steve told him.
Namor didn't deign to respond to that. Instead, he said, "We would be a good match, Captain. You understand duty, and sacrifice. I would not have to justify my choices to you, and we could fight side by side, as we do now. And our marriage would form an alliance between our people, which would be advantageous to both sides. In fact, marrying you is of such obvious benefit to everyone involved that I wonder why I did not consider it sooner." He leaned in, his nose lightly bumping Steve's cheek, and his voice dropped to a whisper. "That you are beautiful only sweetens the deal."
Much to his annoyance, Steve felt a little shiver pass through him, mostly because of the way Namor's mouth had teased at his ear, but also because of the hot tickle of his breath, and the low purr of his voice. He suddenly remembered, against his will, how warm Namor's skin was, and it was a stroke of good luck that Thor chose that moment to demonstrate just how many members of the children's chorus he could carry on his person.
The answer was "all of them."
It was a good thing Steve hadn't hoped to make it out of Atlantis without one final, painful conversation with Namor, or he would have been deeply disappointed.
Instead, he was only mildly annoyed when Namor came striding into the airlock the next morning, carrying what looked like a fancy ceremonial trident made of gold, and wearing a black unitard thing with a V-neck that went all the way down to his crotch. It somehow managed to make him look even more naked than the fish scale Speedo he normally wore.
Namor swiftly made the rounds of the room, exchanging business-like farewells with everyone else before approaching Steve, who was standing near the emergency oxygen station with Tony and Natasha.
"I hope that's not for me," Tony said, eying the trident. "I already have one just like it at home."
Namor ignored him, which, in fairness, was often the best tactic to take with Tony, as it annoyed him more than anything. "I bid you farewell, and a safe journey," Namor said to Natasha, who nodded regally in return.
"I bid you farewell," Namor also said to Tony, and it wasn't lost on anyone that he'd omitted the part about the safe journey. He was probably hoping Tony would get eaten by a kraken on the way up. Steve had no idea why Namor disliked Tony so much, but it was pretty hard to miss. No one else's room had been as nice as Steve's, but no one else's had been as bad as Tony's, either.
"It's been a real pleasure," Tony said, with a complete and utter lack of sincerity.
"I would like a word with you," Namor said to Steve. "Alone," he added pointedly.
"That sounds like our cue," Natasha said, and Steve watched, feeling betrayed, as she looped her arm through Tony's and led him away. Tony at least had the decency to look back apologetically and mouth, Sorry.
"I will admit that this visit has not gone as I had planned," Namor began.
"That makes two of us," Steve replied, but Namor kept going as if he hadn't heard him.
"However, I find myself relieved that you are reluctant to rush into a lifelong commitment without giving it due consideration. This speaks well of your judgment." Steve didn't say anything. If only Namor knew all the stupid things Steve had done on impulse over the years. "There is no rush," Namor went on. "Therefore, I have decided to do what I should have, in retrospect, done from the outset."
"Uh, what exactly is that?" Steve asked, though he wasn't sure he wanted to hear the answer.
Namor leaned a little closer, his eyelids dropping down a fraction of an inch as he made a low, hungry sound in his throat. His voice, when he spoke, was thick and warm. "I plan to woo you, Captain," he said.
The gifts began arriving at Avengers Tower almost as soon as Steve got back on dry land, accompanied by what could only be described as love notes—excessively wordy odes to Steve's strength and wisdom and beauty, and how perfectly he would complement those same qualities in Namor himself, all written on heavy paper in old-fashioned handwriting. The letters were always slightly damp and smelled like saltwater, and what Steve shudderingly suspected was octopus ink. Maybe from Tony's admirer, even.
Every day brought something new: boxes of delicate chocolates, bouquets of exotic flowers, and enormous baskets full of strange fruit. Other times it was a case of expensive wine, or a heavy wooden box holding a single bottle of rare, aged liquor. On one memorable day, Steve received two lovebirds in a little golden cage, which, if Namor was trying to be metaphorical, was exactly the wrong thing to send.
Namor himself showed up once a week or so to deliver a gift in person, always acting like an old-fashioned suitor, greeting Steve by bowing over his hand and inquiring as to his health. It was unbelievably surreal.
In the past, Namor had appeared sporadically to help the Avengers or the X-Men or the Fantastic Four (or all three, if things were really going to hell) when they needed a little extra manpower, but suddenly he was around all the time, lending a hand even when it wasn't particularly needed. He always sought Steve out afterward, praising his strength and his bravery, and looking at Tony as if he were something he scraped off the bottom of his shoe. And Namor didn't even wear shoes.
But for all the personal awkwardness between them, Steve had to admit that Namor was still one damn fine superhero. He was strong and fearless, and was quick both in the air and underwater, which came in handy surprisingly often. Despite his rampant narcissism, he was a good team player in battle, and could be relied on to carry his own weight. There were, actually, several times when Steve found himself thinking Namor wasn't actually so bad. Namor usually ruined it immediately by saying something condescending.
When Steve continued to remain unmoved by Namor's attentions, the presents got increasingly extravagant and embarrassing. Steve gave away or donated all of it, including the enormous ruby that arrived in a box carved from coral, and the sleek blue sports car that ran on seawater. Tony snatched up a truly hideous painting that bore a disturbing resemblance to de Gheyn's Neptune and Amphitrite, if Neptune and Amphitrite had looked like Namor and Steve.
"What are you going to do with that?" Steve asked nervously. Tony looked way too gleeful for this to turn out well.
"I'm hanging it in my living room, obviously," Tony said, holding it in his outstretched arms as he gazed at it admiringly. "I think the artist really captured your essence here," he continued. "And he got your eyes exactly right. I mean, the color match is uncanny."
"Shouldn't you be packing?" Steve asked, because he knew Tony well enough to realize changing the subject was his only option at this point. They were supposed to leave in two hours, and Tony was lounging about Steve's quarters while Steve wandered around, throwing things at the suitcase on his bed.
"Packing for what?" Tony asked, getting up to lean the painting in the corner by the door, presumably so he wouldn't forget it.
"Weren't you invited?" Steve asked, but he could tell by the look on Tony's face he knew nothing about the latest trip to Atlantis. "Please tell me you were invited."
"You were not invited, Tony Stark," Namor said, with jaw-dropping rudeness, when they arrived at the palace.
Tony was unfazed. "I figured my invitation got lost in the mail. In the tide. Whatever." He shoved his hands in his pockets and bounced on the balls of his feet, and gave Namor a truly ugly smile that dared him to fuck with him on this. Steve was grateful all over again Tony had agreed to come along anyway.
Namor crossed his arms over his chest and looked down his nose at Tony. "I'm afraid the palace is full. You will have to return to the surface immediately."
"He's staying in my room," Steve said impulsively. Which Tony probably would have ended up doing anyway, if he got the room with the octopus again. Namor lifted a judgmental eyebrow but didn't say anything, and when they were escorted to their rooms the servant ushered Tony on down the hallway, an available room mysteriously having been discovered.
Tony was back at Steve's door three minutes later with his suitcase. He didn't even bother to knock.
"You get the octopus suite again?" Steve asked, already knowing the answer.
"Yep," Tony said. He left his bag in the middle of the floor and sauntered over to the bookcase, where he ran his finger along the edge of one of the shelves until he found what he wanted. Book in hand, he sank into the couch and started to read.
Steve walked over and bent down to look at the spine: Love Among the Hydrothermal Vents. "Is that the book you were reading last time?" he asked.
"Yes," Tony said, in a tone that implied that should have been obvious. "I was just getting to the good part. Llyra and Ghaur had sex for the first time, but then King Karthon sent Ghaur to retrieve the Serpent Crown, and now he's missing."
He didn't even look embarrassed.
Steve spent most of the afternoon with Namor, eating lunch in his private sitting room. Just the two of them. Steve had known the whole "diplomatic visit" thing was bullshit--this had just been another of Namor's excuses to get him down here.
As long as he'd come all this way, though, he was going to eat. Lunch was a generous feast that made the breakfasts in Steve room look like a light snack, and Namor insisted they eat on the floor, sitting side by side in a nest of fluffy pillows while soft music played in the background. Steve felt like he was in one of those commercials for erectile dysfunction pills.
"I understand you have dedicated yourself to aiding orphans," Namor said, as he broke off a piece of herb-scented bread and held it up to Steve's mouth. He was propped up on his elbow at Steve's side, and Steve swore he'd inched closer since they started eating, and it was distracting. He was having a hard time keeping his eyes off of Namor's bare thighs, and he suspected Namor knew it.
Steve took the piece of bread with his fingers before answering. There was no way he was letting Namor hand feed him. "Yes," he said. "I fund a couple different projects, and volunteer when I have the time."
"I would not expect you to give that up, of course," Namor told him, with a distinct air of benevolence. So far he had refused to stop acting as if their marriage were inevitable, rather than impossible. "And there are a great many orphans here in Atlantis. You could assist with their care as well."
"A great many?" Steve asked, surprised.
Namor shrugged a resigned shoulder. "Sharks," he said, as if the idea of being eaten alive was perfectly normal. Steve supposed for him it was. "Have you tried the compote? I believe peaches are your favorite."
Steve took the compote—peaches were his favorite--and then, seeing a perfect opening, said, "Actually, the project I'm working on right now is an international one. The more countries we can get involved, the better. I'd really appreciate your support."
He didn't quite bat his eyelashes.
There was a short reception that evening before dinner, with more Atlantean music--but thankfully no dancing--during which Namor escorted Steve around the room and introduced him to everyone in attendance, most of whom were Atlanteans of importance. Steve felt disconcertingly like a show dog being paraded before the judges, and the way so many people discreetly looked him up and down, some even nodding approvingly at Namor, did nothing to dispel the feeling. It was a miserable hour.
When Steve was finally able to lay eyes on him, he found Tony comfortably surrounded by a group of blue people, and they appeared to be having a good time, laughing and smiling. Steve tried to tell himself he wasn't jealous, and turned his attention back to Namor just as he lifted a glass off a passing tray and handed it to Steve. All the forced politeness and pinched smiling had made Steve unbearably thirsty, and he accepted it gratefully.
"I would like to announce our engagement during dinner tonight," Namor said, and Steve nearly spit a mouthful of punch onto Namor's bare chest.
"We are not engaged," Steve choked out, once he managed to swallow. "We barely know each other!" And he didn't even like Namor all that much, he thought to himself, but he held back that little piece of information.
"We have enjoyed each other's company when we have seen each other," Namor said, which made Steve wonder just how Atlanteans defined "enjoy." "It is normal to feel some trepidation about entering into a marriage agreement with someone such as myself," he went on, in an infuriatingly patronizing tone. "I will not hold it against you."
"I'm not afraid of being married to you," Steve hissed, aggravated but trying to keep his voice down. They were surrounded by people.
"I know you find me attractive," Namor said, humble as always. "So that cannot be the cause of your hesitation."
"It's not," Steve admitted, though it nearly killed him to say so. Namor's looks were fine. It was his personality that ruined it.
Namor waited for him to say more, but Steve couldn’t bring himself to explain that he'd been in love before and knew what it felt like to want to spend your life with another person. He couldn't imagine putting that permanently out of reach in order to marry someone he found overwhelmingly irritating ninety percent of the time, no matter what Namor promised him, or how nice his abs were.
"It is not uncommon for arrangements such as ours to turn into romantic attachments," Namor said, either guessing at what Steve was thinking or being eerily perceptive. "And we are well-suited for each other."
Before Steve could reply, a servant sidled up and whispered something in Namor's ear.
Namor scowled for a moment and then schooled his expression into something more determined before he lifted a hand to keep the servant from immediately darting off.
"Inform Farax there will be a toast tonight during dinner. He'll know which wine to prepare," he told the servant, who nodded and slipped away as Steve shook his head and said, "No no no no." There was no way he was going to let Namor tell everyone they were engaged and then stand there while everyone toasted their happiness.
"Excuse me for a moment," Namor said, ignoring Steve's protests. "Duty calls." With that, he exited the room, his intricately embroidered robe twirling around his legs as he walked away.
Steve spun in a small circle, searching for Tony, who was now leaning in an arched doorway, one hand in his pocket and the other holding a glass of punch. He was looking right at Steve, who basically sprinted across the crowded floor and dragged him out of the room, down the hall and into an alcove behind a statue of—naturally—Namor.
"You're not going to believe this," Steve said, trying not to sound like he was panicking, even though he absolutely was. This was a disaster.
The amused look fell from Tony's face immediately, and Steve practically felt the weight of all his attention zeroing in on him. "What happened?" he asked immediately. Tony's concern wasn't exactly foreign, but Steve wasn't sure he'd ever seen it directed at him this intensely outside of a battle situation. It made him feel strange, like he wanted to hug Tony, or be hugged by Tony, or something.
"Namor is going to announce we're engaged," Steve said, still not really believing the words. "Tonight. At dinner."
Shock registered on Tony's face before morphing into a glower. "You know, that guy has some serious boundary issues," he said disapprovingly.
"You have no idea," Steve said fervently. He made an impulsive decision: "I'm not going to the dinner."
"Whoa, hang on, that's not the way to handle this," Tony insisted. His hand came up to rest on Steve's arm, squeezing lightly, as his eyes locked on something just past Steve's shoulder. It was the look he got when he was considering and discarding a dozen options at once. Tony was thinking about his problem, Steve realized. Tony was trying to figure out a way to help him.
But before they could even talk about it further, the awful music in the other room suddenly ceased and the bell rang, summoning everyone to dinner. "Tony," Steve said urgently. They were out of time.
"Go, go, it'll be okay," Tony said, pushing at Steve's shoulder, and if there was anyone Steve trusted to make things okay, it was Tony, so he went.
As he walked into the dining hall, Steve made himself take a few deep breaths and remember he was an excellent strategist, and he'd gone up against men who were intent on killing him, not just marrying him. He'd panicked for a second there, but he could do this. He could handle Namor and his crazy insistence on matrimony.
Still, Steve didn't think he'd ever dreaded a meal as much as this one. He squared his shoulders and took his usual seat at Namor's right hand, politely greeting the others around him as he settled in his chair. Namor was looking particularly arrogant and self-satisfied, having now achieved his goal of snagging Steve. Steve tried his best not to glare resentfully at him.
Now that he had calmed down a little, and was actually sitting next to Namor and facing the impending announcement, Steve realized, with a sinking feeling, that he was going to have to make a scene. He was going to have to refute Namor's claim of an engagement right there in front of everyone, and it was going to be embarrassing and horrible, but he had no choice. Namor had backed him into a corner.
Deep in his misery and dread, Steve was actually startled enough to jump when someone pulled out the empty chair next to him and took a seat. When he looked over, he was shocked to see it was Tony, giving him a tense smile. Steve knew for a fact that seat was actually slated for the Lord Argos, the Atlantean Deputy Undersecretary of Nematode Management.
"How did you—"
"Namor isn't the only crafty asshole at this party," Tony said under his breath, bumping Steve companionably with his elbow. He looked past Steve and blew a kiss at Namor, who was glaring at him, but didn't seem inclined to create a disturbance by having Tony banished back to his assigned seat.
Though Steve spent the entire time feeling like he was waiting for the axe to fall, nothing happened during the meal. In fact, Namor barely spoke to him at all. Apparently now that their engagement was a done deal, he felt no need to continue to woo him, or even acknowledge his existence. Steve was a little offended by this.
He was just starting to wonder if Namor had somehow changed his mind when suddenly dozens of servants came out of nowhere and began carefully placing tall, delicately fluted wine glasses next to every plate. Behind them came more servants, who swiftly filled the glasses with wine. It looked a lot like champagne, bubbly and crisp, but was tinted slightly green, and the bottles the servants poured from looked very old, crusted with barnacles. The special wine Namor had requested from the servant, no doubt. The one he wanted to use to announce his engagement to Steve
When everyone's glass was full, Namor pushed back his chair and stood up, lifting his own glass as he looked out over the table where everyone had fallen silent, waiting.
"I'm sure it has not escaped your attention that Captain Rogers has been my guest here several times in recent weeks," Namor began pompously.
Before he could continue, Tony suddenly surged to his feet, his own glass in his hand and said, "Thank you, Namor, for allowing us the chance to go public here at this illustrious event." Namor opened his mouth to speak, looking furious, but Tony plowed on. "I would like to formally announce that Steve Rogers and I--" here he put his hand on Steve's shoulder and squeezed "--are engaged to be married."
The silence was deafening.
"There was talk among the servants, but I did not believe it was true," Namor fumed as he paced back and forth in Steve's sitting room, the glittery fabric of his robe snapping like a whip. He'd come storming in just minutes after Steve and Tony had returned from the incredibly awkward conclusion of dinner. "And I certainly never believed you would willingly choose him over me," he said, giving Tony a look that positively dripped with contempt.
"Guess only one of us knows the way to his heart," Tony said, unruffled by the insult. He was slouched on his usual couch, tie loose, glass of whiskey in his hand, looking both bored and triumphant, which was probably something only Tony could pull off.
"I told you I wasn't going to marry you," Steve reminded Namor. As far as he was concerned, Namor had no one to blame but himself for the way the evening had gone. In fact, Steve was going to blame Namor, too. Namor deserved all the blame.
Namor finally came to a halt and turned toward them. He looked at Steve and then Tony, and there was something in his eyes that made Steve uncomfortable, as if Namor could tell they were trying to pull a fast one on him. For all his faults—and there were several, as far as Steve was concerned—Namor was not stupid.
"We will discuss this later, after you have had time to reconsider your folly," Namor declared, with an appalling level of arrogance, even for him.
"I'm not going to reconsider," Steve said firmly, Namor's persistence making him feel oddly stubborn in return, even though his engagement to Tony was completely fabricated.
"We shall see," Namor said, and left the room in a cloud of fury and egomania.
"I know you were trying to help," Steve said to Tony, after Namor was gone, "but I'm not sure this was the best way to go about it." He was trying to be kind. Tony had meant well, after all. But now instead of being engaged to someone he didn't like, Steve was fake engaged to someone he actually did like. His end goal had been more along the lines of not being engaged to anybody.
"Listen, it'll be fine," Tony said, swirling the whiskey in his glass. "Who's gonna know but a bunch of people who live underwater?"
CAPTAIN AMERICA TO WED IRON MAN!! the headline screamed. Below it was a picture, enlarged to the point of blurriness, of Tony standing at the Atlantean banquet table, his hand on Steve's shoulder, giving Namor a look that could only be described as smugly victorious. Namor himself looked homicidal. Steve looked like he was going to throw up. Whoever had taken the picture had certainly captured the moment perfectly.
"How…?" Steve managed to sputter, the tabloid newspaper crinkling in his hands. They were so screwed. "Are there even paparazzi in Atlantis?"
"Everyone has a cellphone," Tony shrugged. Unlike Steve, he was still eating his breakfast. Steve's appetite had fled to parts unknown as soon as he'd seen the paper.
"I told you that hickey was from Steve," Clint gloated as he held a hand out expectantly in front of Natasha's face. When she ignored it, he snapped his fingers, then wiggled them.
Natasha slapped him away, hard enough that he winced and shook his hand like it stung. "I'll pay you later," she told Clint, as Steve looked on in horror. They'd wagered on it?
"It certainly is…sudden," Bruce said, giving Tony a questioning look that Tony blithely ignored. Bruce probably knew Tony better than anyone else in Avengers Tower did, except maybe Jarvis. He had to be wondering how the hell this had happened.
"Congratulations, my friends!" Thor bellowed, giving Steve a series of hearty whacks on the back. "May your happiness be long and your loins fruitful!"
"Someone please kill me," Steve moaned. Surely there was at least one person here capable of doing it.
"Don’t panic," Tony said, once they were alone in Steve's quarters. "Just wait until the insanity dies down and then you can dump me, and it'll be fine. After a while everyone will forget we were even together. We'll be like Bennifer."
"Benniwho?" Steve asked.
"Exactly!" Tony said.
Steve finally gave into despair and threw himself face down on his couch and cursed Namor with every cell of his being. If he had just taken no for an answer, none of this would be happening.
He loathed personal drama, and absolutely did not want to be involved in this kind of charade. Especially with Tony. It seemed exceptionally cruel that in order to avoid someone he did not want to date he was going to have to pretend to be in a relationship with someone he actually did want to date, but never would. That definitely stung a little.
Caught up in self-pity, he wasn't sure how much time had passed when he felt Tony pat his calf, and then squeeze for a second in a comforting gesture, which he appreciated. He really did. Except it was partly Tony's fault they were in this mess in the first place.
"I'm on friendly terms with a couple reporters," Tony told him. His voice was oddly gentle, like he was trying to be extra nice to Steve as atonement for making his life even more complicated. "We'll keep the lie going for a little while, then give one of them the scoop about our break-up, and the first story out of the gate will be tasteful and respectful, and then neither of us will speak on the record about it after that, and it'll just go away."
That sounded plausible to Steve, and he was grateful Tony was adept at handling this kind of thing, until he remembered why he was adept at it. This would be two public dumpings in a little over a year for Tony. Steve couldn't do that to him.
"I think you should break up with me," he decided, sitting up. He expected Tony to appreciate the gesture, but instead he looked at Steve like he was crazy.
"Are you crazy?" Tony asked, disbelief written all over his face. "If I break Captain America's heart, I'll be the most hated man in the country," he said. "In the world. In the universe!"
Tony shook his head vehemently. "Nuh uh. No way. You are dumping me. End of conversation."
"All right," Steve said glumly. He didn't want to argue about it, and he probably had at least a couple weeks to change Tony's mind anyway.
"All right," Tony echoed, nodding decisively, like it was all settled. Then he slapped Steve on the leg and said, "Now get your head in the game. I'm being honored by the Humane Society tonight for rescuing all those hamsters. You have to be there."
This was news to Steve—the honoring of Tony, not the rescuing of the hamsters. He knew all about the hamsters. "Why do I have to go?"
"You're my fiancé," Tony said, with exaggerated patience. "If you aren't there, people will talk."
"I'm not really—"
"But no one knows that," Tony cut in. "So you have to come. And it's black tie, so dress up."
Steve felt like his insides were shriveling. It was one thing to have the newspapers talking about it, it was quite another to actually go out in public and play the part.
Tony's gaze sharpened a little as he took a step back and crossed his arms over his chest. "You're not freaking out because we're both guys, are you?" he asked. "I know there were rumors about you and Barnes, but maybe they're just rumors…" He let the sentence trail off.
"They weren't rumors," Steve said, glancing up at Tony to see if that confession surprised him. It didn't appear to. "What about you?"
Tony just said, "Eh," and shrugged, like it was no big deal, and didn't provide any further detail.
"Okay," Steve said. "I guess I'm just freaking out in general." He slumped back into the cushions and stared at the ceiling. "I can't believe this is happening."
"You'd be surprised how often I hear that," Tony said. It sounded like he was smiling.
"Not really," Steve said. He knew Tony well enough.
"If you really don't want to go tonight, you don't have to," Tony said, as he sat down next to Steve. "But I'll be lonely, and bored to tears without you," he added, like he knew exactly what to say to get Steve to give in. And he probably did. The hopeful look on his face wasn't making it any easier for Steve to say no.
"As long as I don't have to dance," Steve sighed, caving like a house of cards.
Tony's grin was at least a mile wide, and made Steve feel immeasurably better.
That lasted until they got out of the car in front of the Ritz-Carlton and the flashbulbs started going off. Tony was his usual press-friendly self, smiling and posing, and making jokes and calling out to people he recognized. Steve smiled for the cameras—stiffly, it felt like—and only managed to relax a fraction when he felt Tony's hand on his waist, giving him a reassuring squeeze. Steve gratefully let Tony hog most of the attention, which Tony normally did anyway, until they could escape into the Ritz.
It wasn't much better inside, though, where Steve felt like everyone in the lobby was staring curiously at them. These people were going to want to talk to them, Steve realized with a jolt, not just take photos, which meant they would probably ask questions that required him to come up with details about his non-existent relationship with Tony on the spot, invent an entire backstory about something so incredibly private and a little too close to home. This was actually worse.
Tony nudged him through the crowd with his hand on Steve's back. "Relax," he said under his breath. "Smile."
"I can't relax!" Steve hissed. This was rapidly becoming unbearable. He never should have come here. He never should have let this go as far as it already--
Steve suddenly found himself herded through a discreetly placed swinging door that led to a hallway that probably led to the kitchen. A startled waiter took one look at them and scurried away, tray of champagne glasses balanced on his hand. Steve had just enough time to give him an apologetic look before he was neatly turned and pressed back against the wall.
"Hey. Look at me," Tony said, cupping his hands over Steve's shoulders. He was so close Steve could see each one of his dark eyelashes. "It's just us. We know each other, right?" His eyes were warm and amused, and Steve probably looked into them a little longer than he should have, but his eyelashes were so…interesting. "We like each other, right?"
"Yes," Steve gulped, nodding. Oh, if Tony only knew…
Tony smiled, and the laugh lines at the corners of his eyes jumped to life. Steve loved Tony's laugh lines. "Think about it like it's just you and me." His voice was soft, conspiratorial, and reassuring.
"Okay," Steve said, nodding again, aware that he was staring, and also that he'd probably do anything Tony asked him to do if he used that voice.
"Okay," Tony said, and squeezed Steve's shoulders one more time before he ushered Steve back into the lobby, and from there into the noisy ballroom.
And it was okay.
Everyone wanted to congratulate them, and either tell them how surprised they were to hear the news—a sentiment Steve could wholeheartedly relate to—or that they'd suspected all along something was going on between them. The latter came as a shock to Steve, who felt perhaps it was indicative of how poor a job he had done hiding his interest in Tony, but when he glanced over at Tony, he didn't seem to find anything odd about it.
Steve even got into it after a while, because Tony was right—it was the two of them, and he liked Tony, and it wasn't much of a hardship to stand around while Tony casually touched him and flirted with him for everyone else's benefit. He didn't have to pretend he liked Tony, because he did. He didn't even have to pretend he was attracted to Tony, because he was.
And Tony…well, Tony practically doted on him all night. He smoothly jumped in with a joke after Steve drew a blank when someone asked about picking a wedding date, deflected attention away from him when people got a little too fawning, and generally acted like he was completely besotted. At dinner, Tony even happily took Steve's beet salad off his hands, because Steve had eaten enough beets during the Depression and was done with them for good. And then when he got up from the table to accept his award, he bent down and kissed Steve right on the mouth, and Steve hoped no one noticed how surprised he was by that.
He sort of spaced out for a bit during Tony's speech, thinking about Tony's eyelashes, and the feel of his mouth, and then when he came back to reality Tony was gesturing toward him with a hand and saying, "…and, of course, I have to thank my amazing, handsome, husband-to-be. I call him 'honey,' but you know him as Captain America. Ladies and gentlemen: Steve Rogers." Then he winked at Steve.
The place went nuts with applause, and Steve couldn’t help himself. The smile on his face—probably huge and goofy and embarrassing—wasn't fake at all.
The next several weeks were some of the strangest of Steve's life, and that was really saying something after everything that had happened to him already. Every time he went out in public with Tony, he had to pretend to pretend to feel something he was actually feeling, which was so confusing no one could really blame him for not knowing what he was doing half the time. Several times a day, Steve ping-ponged between enjoying Tony's attention and being despondent over the fact that it was all for show. He'd had no idea it was possible to simultaneously feel so happy and yet so angst-ridden at the same time, but he was somehow managing to do it.
Tony didn't seem nearly as conflicted; he threw himself into their fake relationship with gusto, which wasn't too surprising, because Tony never did anything in moderation—if he wasn't 100% invested in something, he simply couldn't be bothered to do it at all. He was really invested in being the best fake fiancé he could be.
The calendar on Steve's phone magically filled up with Tony's many commitments, so Steve felt obligated to keep Tony updated on his own schedule, which wasn't nearly as packed. He had a few charities he supported, and that big project he was trying to get off the ground, and he got invited to what seemed like every military medal ceremony and ribbon cutting, but even so his schedule had nothing on Tony's. When they could manage it, they attended things together, and it didn't take long for Steve to feel Tony's absence during the times Steve had to fly solo. It was nice to have a friend along, most of the time. But sometimes coordinating two schedules created its own problems.
"But I'm supposed to be at the food bank at noon," Steve protested, when Tony mentioned that he wanted Steve to attend a lunch meeting with him the next day. They were in the elevator, on their way to meet the Secretary of State and her husband for dinner, and they were already running late due to yet another narrowly averted national disaster. That was why Steve was tying his tie on the way down.
"I know, but I can't blow off the Hong Kong guys," Tony said, shooting his sleeves out and adjusting his cufflinks. "And they really want to meet you." He turned toward Steve and leaned his shoulder against the wall of the elevator. He had a bruise on his cheekbone that made him look appealingly vulnerable. "C'mon," he said cajolingly. "It'll make 'em happy."
"I think feeding the hungry is more important than making you another billion dollars," Steve said crankily, yanking on his tie a little harder than necessary. He hated it when Tony tried to seduce him into giving in, mostly because it never ended with actual seduction.
"Seven hundred and fifty jobs, if I can make this happen," Tony bit out. He was getting angry, Steve realized with a start. "That feeds people, too."
"Why is what you do more important than what I do?" Steve asked, feeling a little angry himself. Just because it was on a smaller scale didn't make it less worthy of his time.
"I'm not saying it's not important, I'm saying I'd just like your support on this."
"I've always supported you!" Steve said, his voice rising before he could stop it. "You're the one who doesn’t make my stuff a priority."
"That's bullshit and you know it," Tony snapped. "I've kissed so many military asses since we got engaged—"
And that brought them both up short.
"We're, um—" Steve started.
"Not really engaged," Tony finished for him.
They stared at each other, the anger still simmering between them, but quickly dissipating under the silliness of the situation. Before either of them could say anything else, the elevator floated to a stop and the door opened.
Tony moved back into Steve's personal space as they stepped out of the elevator, and their shoulders brushed as they made their way across the lobby; he seemed to have a preternatural ability to detect when he was being watched or photographed, and it never stopped being strange how casually he could morph into the Tony who was engaged to Steve. In another life, Tony probably could have been an Oscar-winning actor.
They were almost to the door when Steve couldn't keep it in anymore, and he covered a laugh by coughing into his fist as they stepped out onto the sidewalk.
"That's good, keep that up. Maybe you'll be smiling in a picture of us for once," Tony said through a shark-like smile.
"Oh, God, don't start on that again," Steve muttered. Tony and Steve were in the tabloids constantly--shots of them at charity events or coming out of coffee shops, or standing next to each other beside the smoking remains of giant evil robots--and Steve usually had the same poker face no matter which situation they were in, because he did not at all appreciate the constant presence of cameras in the 21st century. He couldn't even buy a bagel without it ending up on some gossip website. Tony teased him about it all the time, complaining that he was giving everyone the impression that Tony made him miserable. "Can we just enjoy ourselves and fight about it later?"
"This is more realistic than some of my actual relationships," Tony said under his breath, as he curled a possessive hand around Steve's hip and flipped a peace sign at the paparazzo staked out in front of the Tower.
Steve was smiling in the picture that appeared on all the celebrity gossip websites the next day, thanks to Tony's perfectly-timed joke. Tony wasted no time in sending a copy to Steve's phone, accompanied by the message YESSIR THAT'S MY BABY!
Despite that, and their many other efforts to appear in public as a blissfully happy--and sometimes realistically unhappy--couple, Namor was not discouraged at all by Steve and Tony's engagement. In fact, it only seemed to motivate him to double his efforts to win Steve over.
The gifts and letters had finally stopped after Tony's announcement at the banquet, and while it was a welcome break from Namor's strange and extravagant presents--and weirdly insulting declarations of devotion—Steve still had to deal with the man himself. He continued to show up to assist the Avengers with unusual frequency, always taking some time afterwards to make conversation with Steve, and inquire as to the current state of his engagement with an obvious air of suspicion.
"You must visit Atlantis again," Namor said, as Steve wiped bright green alien blood off his shield. "My people hunger for the sight of you." His eyes lingered on Steve's leg where his uniform was torn open, exposing his bare thigh. "As do I."
"No, thanks," Steve said. He dropped his arm so his shield was in front of his leg, and Namor finally looked him in the eye, a knowing smirk playing around the corners of his mouth.
"I am considering adding a wing to the palace," Namor informed him, ignoring the fact that Steve had just shot down the visit idea. "As my future bride, I feel I should offer you the chance to have your input considered."
"I'm not going to be your—your bride," Steve sputtered. This was not the first time Namor had called him that, and Steve thought about arguing the point, but then decided it was silly to fight about semantics when there was a much bigger problem here. "We can be allies, and we can be friends," he said, even though he didn't really even want to be friends. "But we're never going to be more than that."
Namor lifted an eyebrow at him. "A less enlightened man would accuse you of relegating him to the friend zone," he said, and then they both ducked as one of the dying aliens suddenly flopped over and started spraying more green blood everywhere.
"How is it Namor knows about the friend zone and you don't?" Tony asked later, when Steve inquired as to what exactly the friend zone was. "He spends most of his time in a reverse aquarium out in the middle of the ocean."
"I think he's on Facebook," Steve said. Thor would know; he friended everyone on Facebook as soon as he met them. That seemed to be where he got most of his knowledge of Earth culture, so maybe it was the same with Namor and the surface world.
"It's a good thing you're gorgeous," Tony said, handing Steve the bowl of popcorn. "Or I'd be embarrassed to be engaged to you."
"It's so annoying," Steve complained to Natasha the next day while they were sparring. Thor was supposed to be there, too, but he'd begged off--he was nearly finished with the copy of Love Among the Hydrothermal Vents Tony had smuggled home from Atlantis, and wanted to find out what happened to Llyra and Ghaur. "I've told him no a hundred times, in a hundred different ways, and he won't let it go."
"That's because he thinks if he keeps asking, you'll eventually give in," Natasha said as she smoothly ducked under Steve's roundhouse kick. Before Steve even got his foot back on the floor, she'd darted in and jabbed him in the chin. "He's trying to make you feel guilty, and wear you down until he gets his way."
"That's kind of disgusting," Steve decided, eyeing her warily as she circled him. He didn't want to get punched in the face again if he could help it. "If he actually cared about me, he'd care about what I want, not just about getting what he wants. It's like my feelings don't even matter!"
"Now you know what it's like to be a woman," Natasha said, and swept his legs out from under him.
More weeks passed, and Namor continued on in his delusional belief that Steve would see the light and dump Tony for him, and Tony and Steve continued to pretend they were going to get married. Steve had initially expected it to be all over by this point, and as it dragged on his guilt over the whole thing grew increasingly terrible when it came to the other Avengers. He'd never had a problem fudging the truth in the past if he felt it was necessary, but this was different. This was his private life, and some of the people they were lying to were their friends. Their teammates. People he trusted with his life, and vice versa. It just felt wrong.
It crossed his mind several times that he and Tony could at least be honest with the Avengers. They really had no reason at all to deceive them along with everyone else. Coming clean would inevitably lead to some good-natured teasing, but everything led to good-natured teasing with this group. He wasn't sure why he didn't suggest it, but Tony didn't either, so by unspoken agreement they continued to play the part for their friends, too.
They must have been pretty good at it, because everyone—from the general public to the people they worked with every day—seemed to believe it was real.
Their engagement was included in the list of new babies and birthdays and other life milestones on the SHIELD intranet page for employee announcements. When Tony was found knocked unconscious after a fight, Thor brought him, frighteningly limp even in the armor, right to Steve, and everyone patted him on the back and told him Tony would be fine until Tony woke up and was fine. Steve started getting invitations and other mail addressed to "Mr. Steve Rogers & Mr. Tony Stark." Even Jarvis seemed to be buying into it, announcing Tony's whereabouts--and sometimes even moods--the second Steve set foot in the private area of the Tower.
Tony was close with Bruce, and Steve spent a lot of his time with Natasha and Thor, but Steve and Tony seemed to gravitate toward each other more often when they were both home and not doing anything else, and Tony took to checking in with Steve several times a day when they were apart. It was on the tip of Steve's tongue, several times, to point out that Tony didn't really need to do so, because Steve didn't expect it, and it wasn't really necessary to the charade, but he couldn't quite bring himself to say it.
Tony probably missed Pepper, and was enjoying feeling like half of a couple, Steve reasoned. He didn't have the heart to tell him to stop.
Steve wasn't sure if it made things better or worse to experience firsthand what it would be like to be in an actual relationship with Tony, and it didn't help that they were turning out to be weirdly compatible. They had fun together, and laughed a lot, and even though they were very different in a lot of ways, their strengths and flaws lined up well enough to create a balanced whole. Steve couldn't help but think they would be really happy together, which was a depressing realization, given the fact that they weren't together at all.
And Tony touched him a lot more now, even when they were alone and he didn't have to, but he only kissed Steve when other people were watching.
Sometimes Steve felt a little overwhelmed by how difficult it was to live with everything he couldn't have so close and yet tantalizingly out of his grasp, but there was nothing to do but grin and bear it. He still wanted Tony, more than he ever had before, but now the want had taken on a bittersweet edge, deepened and made more painful to bear by Steve's growing affection for Tony as a person.
That wasn't to say their fake relationship was flawless. Far from it. Tony was sometimes obnoxious and infuriating, and Steve often got tired of how public his life was, all the time, even when it didn't need to be, and the way Tony made almost everything into a joke.
"Give me three reasons not to strangle him in this sleep tonight," Steve said to Bruce as he slapped a crumpled page from the Post down on Tony's favorite lab bench.
It was a picture of Tony gesturing towards Steve's butt like a presenter on one of those shopping channels, winking exaggeratedly at the camera. Steve, who had his back turned and was busy waving to the crowd in front of him, hadn't even been aware of what Tony was doing, until he saw the picture this morning. Someone—probably Clint—had taped it to the door of the Tower's private elevator, the one all the Avengers and their visitors used.
"Well, for starters, a lot of SHIELD people would be really angry with you for taking Iron Man out of commission," Bruce said mildly. It was really early, and Steve was about to go for a run, but Bruce probably hadn't gone to bed yet. He was wearing a pair of safety goggles as he examined a yellow blob covered in wires. It had what looked like a large bloodshot eyeball on one side. Steve noticed it, opened his mouth to ask, and then decided he really, really didn't want to know. "You found the picture, I assume?"
"Yes," Steve sighed. "And someone at SHIELD is always angry at me. They don't like having orders second-guessed. So that's not a very compelling reason."
"Hmmm," Bruce said. He paused to rotate his right arm where it was shoved deep inside the—the thing, and something inside it squelched. Steve made a face, but Bruce didn't notice. "You'd probably set the scientific advancement of mankind back by about fifty years. Possibly a hundred years."
"I was standing between the president and the king of Wakanda in that photo," Steve pointed out. On either side of them were several prime ministers and presidents and the like of many other countries—including Namor.
Bruce winced, but Steve couldn't tell if it was because of what Steve had said or the sudden tearing noise that came from the eyeball thing. When he pulled his arm out, it looked like it was covered in tapioca pudding.
"Okay, reason number three: think of all the little kids who idolize him. Think of their tears," Bruce said, going right for the jugular.
"Fine. I'll do it for the children," Steve huffed. "Or not do it for the children, I guess." He turned back toward Tony's bench and started opening drawers until he found a marker, which actually took a long time, because Tony almost never wrote things down. He just said them or typed them.
When he finally did locate a Sharpie it looked like it had never been opened. Steve wrote YOU ARE NOT FUNNY on the picture and used a sticky note he found in the same drawer to hang it on one of Tony's monitors.
While he was doing that, Bruce wiped off his arm and started tapping one of the screens on his workstation. When he finished tapping, the printer next to Tony's monitor hummed to life and spit out a piece of paper.
Bruce walked over and stood next to Steve. "You gotta admit, that's pure Tony," he said, nodding at the picture, and Steve had to agree. A little bit of pure Tony went a long way, though.
"He told the reporters he's the president of the Steve Rogers Booty Appreciation Society," Steve said. He plucked the page off the monitor and handed it to Bruce so he could read the accompanying text. "While I was three feet away getting my photo taken with children."
The reporter from the Post was supposed to be there to publicize the launch of Steve's charity project, an international program to aid young victims of super villain violence, but instead they'd reported on Tony waxing rhapsodic about Steve's butt.
Bruce took the picture and studied it for a moment. "Well, he is a button-pusher," he said, with noticeable fondness. He looked up at Steve. "It's a good thing you like having your buttons pushed. Til death do you part. Right, Cap?"
Steve did his best not to squirm under the look Bruce was giving him, eyebrows raised expectantly, like what he'd said was a test and…it was a test, Steve realized. Bruce knew—or at least suspected—something wasn't right about their engagement. This was the first time anyone in their social circle had openly challenged Steve to confirm or deny the validity of his relationship with Tony, and in the end he found he couldn't bring himself to lie right to a teammate's face about it. Bruce was his friend. They fought side by side.
"I'd rather not tempt fate with that particular phrase," he said by way of avoidance, viciously regretting starting this conversation. That wasn't a lie, at least. Death had a way of honing in on the people Steve loved.
Bruce watched Steve's face for a moment longer, then reached over and picked up whatever it was he'd printed.
"The thing to remember about Tony is that even though it seems like he wants to be the center of attention all the time, some of the stuff he does is a misdirection, like a magician doing a trick. He makes you look over here," he said, holding up the Post page with his right hand. "So you aren't paying attention to what he's doing here." He held up the paper he'd taken off the printer in his left hand. "And eventually you realize things aren't what you thought."
He tossed the photo back onto Tony's bench and held the sheet of printer paper up in front of him, pinching the top of it between his thumb and his finger. It was a spreadsheet, Steve saw, neatly organized rows of color coded text filling the entire page.
"This," Bruce said, "is a list of the favors Tony owes—well, he and I owe, because you know how that goes--various people in various countries, in return for their promised ongoing support of a certain charity supporting children affected by super villain crime." He offered the paper to Steve. "He refused to provide anything that could be used as weapon, so it's mostly medical technology, clean energy, that kind of thing."
Steve took the list with a hand that wasn't quite steady. He and the rest of the board of directors—influential business people, politicians, religious leaders of all faiths--had worked for over a year to get that project off the ground, begged and groveled and, in Steve's case with Namor, manipulated in order to get the funding and political support they needed. Steve had been shocked to learn how hard it was to get people to agree to help kids. It had been a learning experience in a lot of ways.
And now in another one.
The list had dates on it, of when the agreements had been made, and when delivery was promised, and some of them—a lot of them—pre-dated Steve's fake engagement to Tony by months. Steve hadn't even realized Tony knew about the project before they started spending so much time together, but Tony had been quietly helping him all along, and never said a word.
A hot wave of shame washed over him as Steve remembered accusing Tony, during that fight in the elevator, of not making Steve's things a priority. Tony could have shut him down right there, made him aware of just how wrong he was, with one sentence, but he hadn't. Winning the fight hadn't been worth using this as a weapon.
Steve stared at it for a little longer, but he couldn't really absorb most of what was on it, not right now. He reached over and carefully picked the picture up, placed it on top of the list, and then folded them up together into a rectangle and put them in his pocket.
"I won't tell him you showed me this," he said to Bruce. He'd done a good thing for him, and for Tony, by giving him this list. Steve didn't want it to cause a problem for him.
Bruce shrugged a shoulder. "He never told me I couldn't tell anyone. I just didn't have a reason to until now. Seems like the kind of information that would come in handy."
An alarm started beeping in the lab somewhere, and judging by Bruce's reaction it was a very important alarm.
"I have to take care of that," he said. "See you later, Cap." He clapped Steve on the shoulder as he walked by.
"Thank you," Steve said. "I owe you one."
"You can thank me at the wedding," Bruce called out as he hurried off. Steve almost succeeded in not flinching at the words.
Every so often, usually when he was just about to fall asleep, Steve would get hit with a guilt attack over what he was doing, and feel bad for deceiving Namor. Then he would spend five minutes with him and remember that Namor was insufferable and not feel bad at all.
"Captain Rogers, Namor is waiting to speak with you on the observation deck," Jarvis said, just as calmly as he said everything, which was usually very comforting, but sometimes Steve thought certain things deserved an appropriate level of annoyance or disgust, and Namor showing up at Avengers Tower again was absolutely one of those things.
"Is Tony home?" Steve asked, as he got in the elevator. If he was, they'd have to put on a little dog and pony show, so Steve was almost relieved when Jarvis informed him he was not. He didn't feel up to pretending that much today.
Jarvis opened the door to the penthouse for him and Steve stepped inside, feeling a little strange about being here when Tony wasn't. The blue Snuggie Steve had given him for his birthday was balled up in the corner of the couch, as it always was, even though Tony claimed he never used it. Steve probably would have teased him about it, except so far Tony hadn't followed through on his threat to hang that awful painting of Steve and Namor in his living room, and Steve didn't want to provoke him.
Namor was out on the observation deck, as promised, hands clasped behind his back, posture commanding and arrogant, staring out at the city as if he ruled that, too. The little white wings on his ankles were fluttering in the breeze.
"Namor," Steve said, when he stepped outside. He was feeling too annoyed to sound friendly, but it came out neutral at least.
Namor turned toward him, his eyes moving over Steve's body in a way Steve was used to but didn't appreciate.
"I am here to offer you one last chance to be my bride," Namor said, as if he were bestowing a favor upon Steve, instead of just harassing him.
"Stop calling me your bride," Steve said grumpily. "I'm a man, which makes me a groom."
"Bride is a gender-neutral term to Atlanteans," Namor sniffed. "Though it is not your fault the language of surface dwellers reflects their narrow-minded approach to sexuality and relationships."
"Uh…" Steve said, utterly bewildered.
"It is not too late to undo your disastrous decision to wed Tony Stark," Namor went on, with his usual penchant for understatement and tact. "And though your partiality towards him shows bad judgment on your part, I am still willing to accept you as my betrothed."
"I can't be your betrothed," Steve said, ignoring the numerous insults in Namor's words with the ease of long practice. "I'm engaged to Tony." He'd gotten a lot better at saying it out loud without feeling gutted by the fact that it would never be true.
Namor's mouth turned down like he'd just bitten into a lemon. "I do not consider him worthy of your affections."
"Well, I do," Steve said, bristling. Which was ridiculous, because he and Tony weren't even really getting married—he shouldn't feel offended by Namor's dismissal of him. Except Tony was his friend, and Steve absolutely did consider Tony worthy of marriage. He just wished Tony felt the same way about him. "And it's my decision, not yours, so that's that."
"I don’t see what he can possibly offer you that I cannot," Namor persisted.
"For one thing, I actually enjoy being with him," Steve said, but Namor didn't react to the insult that implied. "Plus, he's smart, and he's funny—"
"He's an arrogant, spoiled brat," Namor said dismissively, waving a hand.
"Well, if that's a deal-killer, that rules you out," Steve replied. It was probably the rudest thing he'd said to anyone since that time they'd all been possessed by Loki's magic scepter, but all it got him was a haughtily raised eyebrow.
"He's a good friend. A generous friend," Steve went on. It was still fresh in his mind what Tony had done for Steve's project, all without being asked, and without seeking any recognition. Namor had only agreed to help because he was trying to get in Steve's pants. "And he wants to make the world a better place."
Namor outright scoffed at that. "He is an opportunistic death merchant."
"He was," Steve admitted, because there was nothing to be gained by refuting that particular point. "Not anymore. He's a hero. And if you can't see that, you're an idiot. Even that creepy octopus knows better than you do."
Namor didn't respond to that immediately. He simply crossed his arms over his chest and narrowed his eyes at Steve, pinning him with his familiar autocratic stare. Steve crossed his arms over his chest, too, and stared right back. Neither of them moved, or even blinked. It was slightly ridiculous, but Steve had had enough of this crap. He wasn't going to let Namor continue to bully him like this, and he let him see it on his face, in his posture.
"I have misjudged you, Captain Rogers," Namor said finally. "I did suspect that perhaps this was all a show, but I can tell by the way you speak of him that your heart truly does belong to Tony Stark, as inferior as he is. And it is admirable that you are loyal to him, even when presented with temptation such as myself and everything I could give you."
His eyes were going to roll right out of his head, Steve thought. Roll out of his head and off the building, and bounce around on the street below.
"It's not a show," Steve insisted, and it wasn't a total lie, because all of those things he'd said about Tony were absolutely true, and just a few of the reasons Steve was now desperately in love him. The last few months had made it impossible for him to pretend otherwise. He wasn't just attracted to Tony. He loved him.
Namor suddenly stepped forward, right into Steve's personal space. Steve wasn't going to yield, so he stood there even as Namor's eyes drifted over his face, even as he leaned in until their mouths were just millimeters apart. For a second, Steve was sure Namor was going to kiss him. Instead, he said, "Perhaps you would like one last chance to sow your wild oats, as your people say. I would be willing to accommodate you."
The suggestion—that Steve would cheat on Tony—was so offensive that before he could think better of it, Steve planted his hands on Namor's chest and shoved. He thought for sure Namor would respond in kind, and there was a very good chance they were about to trash the place with a fistfight, but Namor simply took a step back and let himself be pushed away, and didn't even appear to be bothered by it.
"I am never going to sleep with you!" Steve practically yelled, suddenly angrier than he'd been in a long time. "Ever."
Namor simply smirked at him. "You would not be the first to make that claim. Perhaps you will be the first to stick to it." He took to the sky and was gone.
Steve thought for sure it would be over after that, now that Namor was convinced of the purity of Steve and Tony's love. The only thing left to do was wait a reasonable amount of time and then fake call off their fake engagement, and things would finally go back to normal. Steve naively believed that for all of a week before Fury called him and Tony into his office and broke the news that Namor, in honor of their true love, was throwing them a bachelor party.
Tony seemed unbothered by it, but Steve was dreadfully tired of going to Namor's parties, and also less and less enthused about playing the part of Tony's fiancé. He just wanted everything to go back to how it had been, before this whole mess had started. He couldn't take all the lying to his friends anymore, and he couldn't take living every day with a facsimile of what he wanted to badly and couldn't have. He was miserable.
But there was nothing to be done but see this thing through to the bitter end. And Steve was sadly familiar with bitter ends.
When they arrived at the palace this time, it was automatically assumed Steve and Tony would room together, though Steve half-expected Namor to put them in the drippy octopus suite out of spite. To his credit, they were shown to the same purple and green room they'd stayed in during every other visit so far. Namor wasn't a sore loser, apparently.
"I feel like I spend more time here than I do at home," Tony sighed, as he dropped his overnight bag on the couch and headed for the bookcase.
"Hopefully this is the last time we have to come here," Steve said. For him, it definitely would be; this whole place, and this room in particular, held nothing but bittersweet memories for him, and he'd already resolved to never return. From now on, he was going to fake an illness whenever an Atlantis trip came up. He didn't care if no one believed him.
Steve wasn't sure what to expect of an Atlantean bachelor party. He feared it would be full of blue strippers, and beer bongs with Namor's face emblazoned on them, but it turned out to simply be a less stilted and more enjoyable version of the functions Steve had attended previously while visiting Atlantis. There was a lot of food and drink and music, and the Atlantean band even played a few songs Steve recognized, including a wheezy version of "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy."'
The guests were about evenly mixed men and women, which Steve knew wasn't all that uncommon in modern times. In addition to a lot of other superheroes, like the X-Men and the Fantastic Four, Namor had also invited a bunch of Atlanteans and foreign dignitaries Steve had grown to know and like during previous visits. It showed a level of forethought that Steve actually found touching.
Before the music started, Namor gave an embarrassing speech extolling Steve's virtues and emphasizing over and over again how lucky Tony was, and even reluctantly admitted that perhaps Tony was a bit of a catch as well. He never even hinted that he considered himself a far superior option, or that he held a grudge against Steve for not choosing him. For all he had been infuriating and overbearing over the course of the last few months, he was actually quite gracious in defeat. Steve found himself, ironically enough, finally warming to him a little.
At one point, Steve retreated to a small table near the back of the room for a few minutes of quiet, only to end up cornered by Sue Storm and Emma Frost, who were both blonde, beautiful, and powerful. He'd worked with them numerous times, and they ran into each other at various functions now and then, but he'd never spent any extended amount of time just talking to them, which was why Steve hadn't realized they had something in common: Namor.
Steve wasn't the first person to find himself on the receiving end of Namor's affections, and it quickly became evident that Sue and Emma now considered Steve part of a club consisting entirely of people who had been sexually harassed by Namor. Steve wasn't sure he wanted to know who else was in the club. He was definitely sure he didn't want to be in the club.
"I'm just glad it's over now," Steve said, and then asked, "What?" when Sue and Emma both laughed.
"I'm sorry to tell you this, but it'll probably never be truly over," Sue said, while Emma gave him a look that could have been pity or could have indicated she thought he was a moron. "Not until he actually does get married."
"He's not going to give up?" Steve asked, not at all happy to hear this. He leaned over and plucked a beer off the tray of a passing servant. This kind of bad news called for sustenance.
"He won't actively pursue you the way he has," Emma explained, looking elegant and bored. "But he'll flirt with you every time he sees you, and make suggestive comments. I He likes to remind you that if your marriage goes south, he's still an option. You get used to it."
"I have to admit, it's been a nice reprieve," Sue said, as she sipped her drink. "Having him focused on you these last few months gave us a bit of a break. Part of me was actually hoping you'd go ahead and marry him, take him off the market forever."
"Do you think that would actually stop him?" Steve asked, more glad than ever he hadn't gotten entangled with him. He'd had no idea Namor made a habit of this kind of thing, and it seemed doubtful a guy like that would be faithful. "If he still behaves that way toward people he knows are taken?"
"I believe it would," Emma told him. "Namor talks a big game, but he would take his own marriage vows very seriously. It's a matter of chivalry and honor." She gave Steve a pointed look. "And he never kisses and tells."
Steve could only stare at her. Was Emma actually implying Steve should take a shot at Namor before he officially got married? "Sow his wild oats," as Namor had invited him to do? It was so hard to tell with her, because her face didn't give anything away.
It didn't matter. Steve was never going there. Never never never.
Emma gave him a sly look as she ran her fingertip around the edge of her champagne glass. "Everyone knows Tony enjoys…experimenting," she added.
And just like that, Steve went there. Immediately and graphically, his mind went there.
"They hate each other," Steve said, more of a reminder to himself than anyone else. His brain. Oh, God. "They really, really can't stand each other, at all."
Emma only smiled slowly at him and said, "I know. It would be delicious."
"Did he send you gifts?" Sue asked, jumping into the resulting gap in the conversation, while Steve sat speechless and Emma exuded an air of smug bemusement. "He always goes way overboard with the gifts."
"Oh, God," Steve groaned, wrenching his thoughts away from Namor, and Tony, and Namor and Tony. "Did he ever."
"I suppose he sent you those ghastly birds," Emma said, and they spent several minutes deep in a gossip session about Namor's over-the-top presents. The huge gemstones and the expensive wine were both staples of Namor's seduction arsenal, and Steve learned he had lucked out by being a guy-- Namor also liked to send frilly lingerie. It made that godawful painting seem downright tasteful in comparison.
"It's tempting, though, isn't it?" Sue asked, leaning in and dropping her voice. "To marry him and be a queen? And the sex!" Her eyes rolled back in her head a little. "Oh, my God, the sex. So good."
Steve's shock must have been obvious, because the blissful expression slid right off Sue's face. "You never slept with him?" she asked, looking as surprised as Steve felt. "Before you and Tony were official?"
"You did?" Steve asked. "But aren't you…?" He wasn't sure if it was rude to come right out and point out that Sue was married, even though they all knew it. Sue's eyes flicked to Emma and then back to Steve, and Steve knew what that meant. "Both of you did?"
"I haven't always been married to Reed," Sue said, a little defensively. Emma offered no explanation at all, just a look that said she didn't owe him one in the first place, and Steve agreed with that wholeheartedly. What people did in their relationships was their own business. He was just a little taken aback that they were being so open about it with someone they barely knew. Maybe it was a side effect of being in the club.
"I—no, we never. I mean, he's so..." Steve waved his hands around helplessly, trying to come up with a word that could adequately describe the way Namor was incredibly hot but also an incredible dickhead. "...Namor!" That would have to do.
"Oh. Well, that's a shame," Sue said, sounding disappointed in Steve's decision making skills. "He's really something. I mean, the stamina." Her cheeks were turning pink just talking about it. Steve wasn't sure if that was because she was embarrassed or if she was remembering.
"He doesn’t need to breathe through his mouth underwater," Emma said, blinking her eyes languidly. The corner of her mouth twitched when Steve choked on his beer.
"That's…great," Steve said weakly, wondering if he'd ever get any of these images out of his head in the next decade. First the threesome, and now this. Steve didn't care what side Emma was actually on now—she was pure evil.
"You and Tony seem happy, though," Sue said, finally taking pity on him and changing the subject, and Steve could have sworn he heard Emma snort. It was very soft and very ladylike, but it was definitely a snort. She was a telepath, he remembered belatedly. She probably knew the truth.
Before Steve could decide whether it was worth it to try to bluff a mind reader, Namor appeared at his side and demanded a dance. The timing couldn't have been better.
Two seconds later, Steve decided the timing couldn't have been worse, what with his brain freshly loaded with images of Namor having a lot of stamina, and Namor breathing underwater, and Namor and Tony hate-sexing the hell out of each other. By the time they found an empty spot on the dance floor, Steve's whole body felt sweaty. He took a moment to silently curse Sue and Emma as Namor gathered him into dancing position.
"Was your conversation with Emma and Sue enlightening?" Namor asked. There was no humor in his voice at all, but when Steve looked at him, feeling his face start to flush along with all the rest of him, there was just a bit of laughter teasing at the corners of Namor's eyes. He either knew or suspected exactly that they'd been talking about, and he didn't appear to be embarrassed in the slightest. Namor probably felt shame was for lesser beings.
"Very," Steve said, voice pitched a little lower than he'd intended. He gave Namor a tiny, close-mouthed smile, and even though Namor didn't smile back, he did pull Steve a little closer. Steve let him do it. If pressed, he would maybe, possibly admit that he was flirting with Namor, just a little bit.
"One thing I have wondered, Captain," Namor said, as they shuffled back and forth--Steve still didn't know how to do any of these dances. "Why did you and Stark pick an Atlantean banquet to announce your engagement?"
"You didn't leave us much choice," Steve said, irritated that Namor had brought it up when Steve had just started to feel something positive in relation to him. Namor was acting as if he didn't know full well why the evening had gone the way it did.
"Me?" Namor leaned back a little to meet Steve's eyes. "In what way do you mean?"
Steve glared at him. He didn't find his feigned innocence amusing. "You were going to tell everyone I was engaged to you."
Namor looked, for the first time since Steve had met him, genuinely baffled.
"Don’t pretend you don't know what I'm talking about," Steve said, though even as he said it he was thinking it was utterly unlike Namor to be disingenuous. "You were going to tell everyone we were engaged, even though you knew I wasn't interested."
"I was going to do no such thing," Namor said shortly, as if he were offended. His eyebrows scrunched together so tightly it looked like they were going to pinch his face in half.
"Yes, you were," Steve insisted, swiftly sliding from irritated right into angry. "You told me you wanted to announce it, and then you told your servant to make sure the wine was ready."
Namor seemed to have regained control over his eyebrows, but he still looked as if Steve had gravely insulted him. "I told the servant there would be a toast, Captain," he said, words clipped. "I had previously arranged with Farax to have two wine selections ready—one for a betrothal announcement, and the other for a toast in your honor. I was simply instructing my servants on which I would require. The wine for the toast, it turned out, since you were still balking."
Steve's feet stopped moving, and he was only able to pick them up again when Namor more firmly pressed him back into motion. A toast in his honor? Was Namor serious? All of this, the pretending, the tabloids, the entire fake engagement, the last three months of Steve's life, had all been because Steve had misunderstood? Because Namor was going to toast him?
Steve swallowed hard. "You weren't going to announce we were engaged? Really?"
"Absolutely not," Namor said. "I have no need to force anyone's hand in marriage, I can assure you."
"Right, of course not," Steve said hastily. "I apologize."
"Also," Namor added, still sounding a little huffy, "I would not take away your agency in such a manner."
Steve blinked at him. "My agency? Where do you get this stuff?" he asked. Sometimes Namor sounded a little bit like, well, Jane's friend, Darcy. "The Internet?"
"I do enjoy spending time online," Namor admitted, and Steve had a very sudden and amusing mental image of Namor in his private underwater quarters, sitting in front of a computer made of coral, with a clam shell for a mouse.
Steve opened his mouth, but before he could get a word out, Namor said, looking pained, "Yes, I am aware you call it 'surfing.'"
"I wasn't going to say that," Steve lied.
"Of course not," Namor responded, with obvious skepticism.
They danced in silence for a moment, and then Steve asked, in an effort to distract them both from Namor's disappointment in his sense of humor, "What site? Facebook?"
"Certainly not," Namor sniffed, much to Steve's amusement. So that was something Tony and Namor definitely had in common: Tony referred to Facebook as "the armpit of the Internet" and refused to ever go on it, no matter how much Thor pestered him. "I have no desire to squabble publicly with my family over politics, or play with imaginary cows."
Steve couldn’t help it—he laughed out loud, right there in the middle of the dance floor. Namor was so much like Tony. No wonder they couldn't stand each other.
"You are even more handsome when you laugh, Captain," Namor said, looking at him with what Steve was pretty sure was actual affection. His hand on Steve's waist squeezed a little. "It is a shame that I will never see you do that in my bed. Instead, I'm left to pine for all eternity."
Namor wasn't smiling, but he wasn't being completely serious, either, Steve suddenly realized. He was being playful. There was a telltale crinkling around his eyes that was easy to miss if you didn't know to watch for it. It didn't change the fact that Namor was a little too blunt, and a little too overbearing, and a lot too arrogant, but he was capable of making a joke. Even a joke at his own expense.
Well. This evening had certainly been illuminating.
When the song ended, Namor dutifully escorted Steve back to Sue and Emma, probably unaware it made Steve look like the heroine in a Jane Austen story, returning to his circle of girlfriends after dancing with the dashing rake. Namor next offered his hand to Emma, who accepted it after she and Namor exchanged disdainfully raised eyebrows. Steve briefly wondered why she hadn't ended up with Namor after all. They certainly had plenty in common.
"Well, that was strange," Sue said, once Emma and Namor were on the other side of the room. "One minute you guys were staring into each other's eyes, and the next it looked like you were going to have a fistfight, and then you were laughing. It's almost like you really did get married."
"I offended him by asking if he's on Facebook," Steve explained. He didn't want to talk about the other thing, the giant misunderstanding that had led to months of pretending to be engaged to Tony Stark. He was still undecided on whether he was required to confess his mistake to Tony; the fake engagement had been Tony's idea, after all.
Sue's eyebrows shot up. "The horror," she said, bemused. "The King of Atlantis would never lower himself to join Facebook."
"Believe me, I know that now."
"You really wanted to be his friend on Facebook?" Sue asked, as if it were the cutest thing she'd ever heard.
"No," Steve said firmly. He only had two Facebook friends: Thor and Jarvis. That was enough, as far as he was concerned; Thor took a lot of quizzes. "I was just wondering where he gets all this stuff about friend zones and agency and gender neutral language."
"Oh, that," Sue said knowingly. "He hangs out on Jezebel.com a lot. He actually leaves really insightful comments."
"You having a good time?" Tony asked him, when they had a minute alone by the empty chocolate fountain. Thor had practically passed out from joy when he saw it, and laid waste to it immediately. The last of the chocolate was pooling in the lowest tier, a lone strawberry drowning near the edge.
"I am, believe it or not," Steve admitted. He was having a great time, laughing and talking with his friends, and no longer dealing with Namor's unwelcome advances, or at least better able to laugh them off. He was enjoying the party way more than he'd anticipated, even as the evening had strengthened his resolve to finally end this whole charade. It had officially gone too far--they needed to put a stop to it soon, or next they were going to find themselves actually standing at the altar. But that was a worry for tomorrow.
"Good," Tony said, smiling. He was holding Steve's hand, his thumb rubbing a circle into Steve's palm, and he looked so handsome, so relaxed and happy, that Steve leaned in and kissed him, lingering a little when their mouths touched. He'd never initiated any kisses before; it had always been Tony.
For a second they just looked at each other, Tony's smile growing big and pleased, and Steve's heart thudded hard in his chest. At that moment, in the middle of a noisy and crowded room, it was just the two of them, and everything they'd shared over the past few months, every touch and kiss, and none of it seemed fake, because they liked each other, just as Tony had said that night of the hamster award. No matter what happened, they really did like each other, and that wasn't going to go away. Maybe it would be some small consolation, later.
It was probably a bad idea, but Steve was going to kiss Tony again, just because he could, and it wouldn't be much longer before he couldn't, but as he leaned in, wondering if he dared use a little tongue this time, something twitched in his peripheral vision, bringing him up short.
"What's wrong?" Tony asked, tilting his head. He tugged lightly on Steve's hand, urging him closer, like he really did want Steve to kiss him again, but--
"Um, Tony," Steve said, as the tip of a mottled red tentacle slowly snaked out from behind a cornice and reached to gently pet Tony's ear.
When the night finally came to an end, Namor himself escorted Steve and Tony back to their room. At the door, he shook Tony's hand and congratulated him, as if Steve were a prize Tony had won. Then Namor turned toward Steve, pausing as he raised a questioning eyebrow at Tony. "May I?"
"He makes his own decisions," Tony said, a little pointedly, and Steve adored him for it.
Steve, assuming he was agreeing to being hugged, nodded and said, "Okay," right before he made an undignified squawking noise when instead Namor grabbed him and dipped him—tilted him right back over his arm like an old-fashioned movie star--and kissed him.
Really kissed him, with his big, demanding mouth, working slowly and deliberately against Steve's shocked one. Steve didn't even make a conscious decision to open his own mouth but he somehow did it anyway, and Namor went for it, brash as always, hot tongue stroking against Steve's, and all Steve could do was cling to Namor's shoulders and get thoroughly Frenched by a mostly-naked merman.
He doesn't have to breathe through his mouth underwater, Steve thought, a little hysterically, and that only led to thoughts about threesomes and stamina and damn that stupid club. Steve's whole body went hot and tight, and he was about an inch away from openly moaning when everything suddenly went topsy turvy for a second as Namor brought him back up onto his feet and spun him back towards Tony, who looked positively delighted by what had just happened.
For a moment, all Steve could do was sway on his feet and blink. He was out of breath, and his shirt had somehow come untucked, and he was pretty sure his hair was all messed up, too. How had Namor managed to do all that with just a kiss?
"A kiss to remember me by, Captain," Namor said smugly, and bowed gracefully before sauntering off down the hallway in his itty bitty bikini trunks. Steve was convinced his ass didn't usually move like that. He was showing off.
"You okay?" Tony asked, reaching a hand out to steady him. Steve, still reeling, simply nodded. "Sure you don't want to change your mind? I bet he'd take you back in a second."
"I'm sure," Steve insisted, trying to pat down his hair, which was indeed a mess, but his voice came out kind of weird and breathy, which made it sound less than convincing. He jerked his eyes away from Namor's retreating butt.
"I’m glad this isn't our wedding night," Tony laughed, as he opened the door and ushered Steve inside. "I’m not sure how I'd top that."
"Hnngh," Steve said, and made his way to the bedroom on wobbly legs.
"Good night! Sweet dreams!" Tony called after him, a little too cheerfully to be sincere.
By the time Steve had brushed his teeth and stripped down to his underwear, he was feeling a little more composed. Enough that as he pulled back the covers on the huge bed, it occurred to him that their sleeping arrangements might be a problem. And then it occurred to him that the solution might be an even bigger problem, at least for Steve. After several seconds of hemming and hawing, he padded back out to the sitting room.
Tony was already settled on his couch, this time with a book called Heart Like the Tide. He was working his way through the whole series, and had already announced his intention to take as many back with him as he could cram into his suitcase.
"I'm not sure you should sleep on the couch," Steve said, around the sudden dryness in his throat. "If the servants find out, they'll think something is up. They report everything back to Namor."
"Good point," Tony said, after a short pause, swinging his legs off the couch. He was in his underwear, too, and nothing else. He walked past Steve and straight toward the bedroom, apparently unfazed by the idea of sleeping in the same bed with Steve. But Steve was fazed. Steve was very, very fazed. He ducked into the bathroom and brushed his teeth again, just to give himself another minute to calm down.
It couldn't be that bad, he told himself sternly as he rinsed his toothbrush. Then he opened the bathroom door and immediately realized that it was that bad. In fact, agreeing to sleep in the same bed with Tony was colossally bad.
Steve felt like his heart skipped several beats when saw Tony in the bed, propped up on numerous fluffy pillows, reading his book. Tony barely looked at him as Steve pulled back the covers on his side of the bed, and Steve squashed the stab of disappointment that went through him. This was all fake, he reminded himself for the millionth time, and there was no one to see them right now, so Tony didn't have to act like they were anything more than friends.
"I have a feeling they end up together," Steve said about the book, once he was settled. That was how all those stories ended. Everyone knew that.
"I hope so," Tony said, turning the page. Then he said, "It'd be nice to see someone get a happy ending for once."
It was like a little knife slipping into Steve's heart, knowing Tony hadn't gotten his happy ending with Pepper. Steve hadn't gotten his with Bucky or Peggy, and he sure wasn't going to get one with Tony. They'd just spent the evening celebrating a relationship that didn't exist, and an upcoming marriage that wasn't going to happen. Their romance novel was drawing to a close, and there would be no happy ending for either of them in this particular story.
Steve turned over, away from Tony, and closed his eyes, so there was no chance at all Tony would ever know how badly Steve wished it were otherwise.
Their final night in Atlantis as an engaged couple ended abruptly, with a middle of the night wake-up call and a rushed trip back to the surface—along with all the other heroes--so they could fight a swarm of radioactive zombie rats. Namor, Steve couldn't help but notice, didn't bother to tag along this time.
Once the hazmat team showed up and started picking up the rat corpses—big and hairless and unsettlingly pink—Steve and Tony had just enough time to get cleaned up and arrive only half an hour late to see Rhodey get a humanitarian award from a soda company. It wasn't until they were seated at their table, Tony's arm slung easily across Steve's shoulder, his thumb lazily rubbing a circle into Steve's neck, that Steve remembered he'd wanted to talk to Tony about putting the break-up plan into effect.
It could wait, though. Tony was clearly thrilled to see Rhodey, and when the whole deal was over, he promptly declared they were all going out for a drink, which turned into several drinks, which turned into Steve hovering over a slightly unsteady Tony in the elevator when they got back to the Tower.
"I'm fine. I'm not drunk," Tony insisted, and maybe he wasn't, but he was looking suspiciously loose-limbed and slouchy, and when Steve got out of the elevator on his floor, Tony followed him out.
"I think you are drunk," Steve said, trying to gently turn Tony back toward the elevator. "This isn't your place."
"I want my books," Tony said, a little petulantly, craftily turning a full circle to avoid getting in the elevator. In the chaos of leaving Atlantis in the middle of the night, Tony had stuffed his own bag to bursting with stolen Atlantean romance novels, and then shoved the rest into Steve's suitcase. Steve had forgotten about it.
"Oh, right." Steve gave up on trying to turn Tony back, afraid of the consequences if he kept spinning him around. "I'll get them for you."
Steve meant he would bring the books out to him, but Tony, contrary as always, tagged along into the bedroom, where Steve's suitcase was still on the bed, unopened. Tony shrugged out of his tuxedo jacket and flung it at the armchair in the corner, and then sat down on the bed, watching as Steve opened his bag and started digging around for the books.
"Here you go. Thor'll be thrilled," Steve said, when he was satisfied he'd gotten all the books and left the dirty underwear behind. Tony took the armful of books and slowly set them down on the floor next to his feet, and then looked up at Steve, who stared back at him, unsure what was happening.
What happened was Tony slowly reached up and closed his fingers around Steve's tie, used it to reel him in, and kissed him. They were alone, and they didn't need to prove anything to anyone, but Tony kissed him anyway.
Steve hadn't realized until that moment how playful and chaste the other kisses had been, because this one was not playful at all. It was hot and full of intent, and Tony went down onto his back, still holding Steve by the tie, pulling until Steve came down on top of him, arms bracketing Tony's head. Tony opened his mouth, and when their tongues touched the bottom fell out of Steve's stomach and he only barely managed to hold back a whimper as Tony kissed him, really kissed him, for the first time, slow and deep.
Namor had nothing on Tony. Nothing.
Namor had manhandled Steve, and kissed him like he was demonstrating what he could do to him, showing him that sex was another thing Namor was really good at, like swimming really fast and blithely insulting people. It had been fantastic, had made Steve's toes curl in his shoes at the time. But Tony's kisses were like an open invitation to do every dirty thing Steve could think of, and then maybe make up a few, too. Like he was going to do the exact same thing to Steve, until they were both exhausted, because he was desperate for it. Like he needed him.
"There's—" Steve said, when they came up for air. His dick was hard and throbbing in his pants, and it took a whole lot of self-control to focus on talking instead of grinding down onto Tony's thigh. "There's no one here," he managed. To pretend for, he meant. His brain felt clumsy, and it hadn't come out right.
"That's right," Tony murmured, shifting his leg just enough to give Steve some delicious friction as he sucked on Steve's lower lip, nipped at his jaw. "Just you and me."
Steve wanted to ask what Tony was doing. No, what he really wanted to ask was if Tony was doing what Steve hoped he was doing, but Tony started working on Steve's jacket and Steve got distracted letting him do that, and then by Tony rolling them over and crawling on top of him. He tugged Steve's shirt out of his pants with his quick, agile hands, fingers stuttering over Steve's damp skin as he moved against him, slowly and deliberately, rocking his hips in tight little arcs.
"Tony—" Steve had to stop and swallow so his throat would work right. "Wait," he said, because he wanted them both naked for this. He wanted to see and touch, but his voice seemed to snap Tony out of the moment, and he suddenly levered himself up and off of Steve's body, until he was standing next to the bed, rubbing his hand over his face. Steve could see the glow of the arc reactor rising and falling rapidly with the motion of his panting breath.
"Dammit," Tony said, sounding angry or irritated or—Steve wasn't sure. He propped himself up on his elbows, regretting he'd said anything. He hadn't expected this reaction, certainly. He hadn't wanted him to stop completely.
Tony turned away, not meeting Steve's eyes, and Steve thought for a horrified moment that Tony was going to leave, walk out without even explaining what had just happened, but instead he flopped down into the armchair, right on top of his own jacket, and pressed his fingers to his closed eyelids.
Steve was just about to ask what was going on when Tony spoke. "Listen, Steve, I need to be honest with you." His voice was quiet but steady. He didn't seem drunk at all now.
"All right," Steve said, even though that sounded like a terrible idea. Because then he'd feel compelled to be honest with Tony in return and that would be humiliating.
Tony blew out a breath and tipped his head back until he was staring at the ceiling. He tapped his thumb on his knee, a nervous gesture Steve recognized. "I've kind of been…taking advantage of you."
"No, you haven't," Steve said quickly. He pushed himself all the way up to sitting, taking a second to furtively adjust himself where his pants were now pinching him.
"Yes, I have," Tony insisted. He finally lifted his head and looked at Steve. The skin around his eyes was all red where he'd rubbed it. "I did want to help you with this Namor thing. I really did. But this whole fake engagement was also a really convenient way to get you spend time with me, and steal some kisses, and that was wrong. Actually, it was pretty gross. And I feel really bad about it."
Steve couldn't even speak at first, processing this news. Tony had used their fake engagement as an excuse to kiss him. Tony had wanted to kiss him from the start. Tony had enjoyed it. All this time. Was this what Bruce had really been trying to tell him that day in the lab? About misdirection, and things not being what they seemed? Had he known about this the whole time?
"And now this," Tony went on, gesturing between them. "This isn't just a few kisses—this is way out of line. But you kissed me at the bachelor party and I kind of used that to convince myself that you wanted more." He scrubbed a hand through his hair and sighed. "So I'm really sorry. I'm--"
"I do want more," Steve said quickly. "I've wanted more for a long time."
"Really?" Tony asked, clearly skeptical. "Because on my birthday—"
"You shot me down on your birthday," Steve cut in, words clipped. It was a little surprising how much that still stung, and he couldn’t hide it.
Tony's outraged expression would have been hilarious under any other circumstance, and Steve didn't know what to make of it until Tony said, "That is utter bullshit, Rogers. I thought you were trying to get me alone and put the moves on me, and then before we even got upstairs you changed your mind and sent me home alone with a giraffe and a Snuggie."
"What?" Steve asked, astounded. "I changed my mind because I thought—oh, screw it," he said, heaving himself up off the bed. "This is ridiculous."
"What are you doing?" he asked, sitting up straighter, like he was alarmed, when Steve started yanking at his own tie with one hand while he shoved his suitcase off the bed with the other.
Steve didn’t answer. It should have been obvious to a guy as smart as Tony that Steve was taking off his tie. And then his shoes and socks. Once that stuff was gone, he stripped down to his underwear, only hesitating for a second before he skinned out of those, too, and kicked them away. Ignoring how fast his heart was pounding, he straightened his back, pulled himself up into full Captain America height, and said, "I think you should come back to bed."
Tony was staring at him, looking gratifyingly slack-jawed. "Uh," he started, and then paused and cleared his throat. "Are you sure?"
Steve glared at him and waved his hands in front of his groin, where he was still very obviously hard.
That did the trick. Tony practically vaulted out of the chair and flung himself into Steve's arms, and they went down on the bed together, kissing frantically, Steve rolling them until he got Tony half underneath him. He took a second to kiss him some more before pushing Tony's shirt up and his pants down. Something tore, and Steve mumbled, "Shit, sorry," and Tony hissed, "Shut up, God, shut up, I don't care."
Steve wanted Tony totally naked, but before he could make that happen, Tony licked his own fingers and wrapped them around Steve's cock, jerking him off with long, loose strokes. Willpower suddenly in short supply, Steve gave in and reached down until he had Tony's dick in his hand, leaking all over his wrist. Tony's breath caught in this throat and he said Steve's name, voice so ragged it made the hair on the back of Steve's neck stand on end.
"God, do something. I'm going to explode," Tony said before he went back to sucking on Steve's throat, and Steve certainly didn't want that to happen, so he got to work, stroking him in an underhand grip that dragged the head of Tony's cock over the heel of his hand every time. Tony made a small sound like he liked it, and dug his nails into Steve's shoulder. Between them, their arms kept brushing against each other, and Tony kept trying to lift his hips, and Steve realized this was going to be over fast. Three months of foreplay was catching up to him.
"A little tighter," Steve gritted out, and Tony gripped him a little harder and shortened his strokes, working the foreskin smoothly over the head, which was exactly what Steve liked. He moaned and pressed his forehead against Tony's shoulder, his own hand sloppily falling into Tony's rhythm.
"I want to blow you," Tony said hotly in Steve's ear.
"Yes," Steve said, and then came all over Tony's balls. "Uh, next time," he promised sheepishly, panting against Tony's jaw. Tony's cock was still twitching in Steve's hand, hard and wet, waiting.
"Oh my God," Tony groaned, fumbling between them to pull out of Steve's grip and slick himself with Steve's come. "That was the hottest fucking thing—I'm going to—"
And then Steve recovered enough to put his hand over Tony's and help, and Tony didn't say anything after that except, "Steve Steve Steve."
Tony had hung the painting of Steve and Namor, Steve realized the first time they had sex at Tony's place, but not in his living room. It was above his bed.
He grinned cheekily at Steve, who decided not to play into his hands, not matter how disturbing it was. Instead, he acted like it didn't bother him at all. Once they got their clothes off, he forgot about it anyway.
Two could play at that game, though, and Steve was good at biding his time.
A few weeks later, they were hanging out at Tony's again, waiting for the Top Chef season finale to start. Tony liked the show because he claimed cooking was actually delicious science, and Steve liked it because Padma Lakshmi had once been seated next to him at a charity dinner and he'd had a little crush on her ever since. Just because he was (still) engaged didn't mean he couldn't look.
"It says here the octopus is one of the smartest animals," Steve announced, scrolling through the Wikipedia page on his phone. Tony was next to him, bare feet shoved under the Snuggie, reading a book called Tsunami of Love. "And they're ingenious problem solvers."
"Could we please not talk about that?" Tony said pleadingly. "I'd rather just forget the time I was bad-touched by a cephalopod."
"Hey, did you know one of the plural forms of octopus is 'octopodes'? That's a great word!"
"I am going to kill you in three seconds," Tony said as he turned the page.
"And they have three hearts," Steve continued.
"Two seconds," Tony said grimly.
"That's probably why his love for you is so strong," Steve said as earnestly as he could manage, and Tony tackled him over the back of the couch.
"You choose the cake," Tony said, flicking his finger at an equation that wasn't to his liking. The numbers shattered into a thousand little blue pixels, complete with appropriate sound effects, and vanished. "I don't care what you get, as long as it isn't that disgusting white cake everyone has at their weddings."
"Sir, you may wish to remind Captain Rogers that you also do not like carrot cake," Jarvis said crisply. A hologram carrot appeared above Tony's head, with a big red anti-symbol through it.
"So no white, and no carrot?" Steve asked, amused. "Anything else?"
"Just as long as you're there," Tony said, offhandedly, hands fluttering in the air, sending blueprints and videos and news headlines flying. "That's the main thing. I don't care about the cake. Surprise me."
Tony was definitely surprised.
[Image Description: a cake shaped like a big octopus.]
Now with awesome fanart by pancakiest!
- Llyra, Ghaur, Karthon, Argos, Farax, and the Serpent Crown were all borrowed from Namor's comic continuity, where their roles are decidedly different than they are different here.
- In the comics, T'Challa, the king of Wakanda, was one of the pallbearers at Steve Rogers' funeral. *sniffle*
- You can see de Gheyn's Neptune and Amphitrite here.