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Putting the Damage On

Chapter Text

If he had to put a date on it, a date when things really changed between him and Tony, Steve would have to say it was the night Kelly had broken up with him. When he arrived at her place to pick her up for their date, Kelly suggested they go for a walk before heading out. The couple of six months found themselves sitting on a park bench across the street from her apartment where Kelly tearfully confessed that she loved him and that, in a sick twist, was why she couldn’t be with him.

“Every time news breaks that the Avengers have been sent to deal with a giant frog incursion in Montana or a swarm of evil robots in California or… or… or whatever stupid thing you think you have to deal with this week, I wonder if you’re going to come home. I can’t take it anymore. I just… I can’t date Captain America.”

“I understand,” he said quietly, after several moments of silence pretending that his heart wasn’t clawing out of his chest. “And I’m sorry. I am, but I’m Captain America and I can’t walk away from that responsibility, no matter how much I care about you. It’s bigger than just me.” He watched as her face crumpled, some small part of her clearly hoping against hope that he would choose her over the uniform. He held her as she cried quietly for a few more minutes before she straightened up, wiped her eyes, and stood from the park bench. Steve walked her back to her apartment, gave her a final kiss on the check, and headed back to the tower.

He was settled on one of the couches in the common floor living room watching the sun set over New York, the sky ablaze in oranges and reds fading softly into purples and blues, when the elevator dinged. He glanced up in time to see an obviously exhausted Tony stumble in. He blinked blurrily at Steve as though he didn’t recognize him for a moment before throwing one hand up to point at Steve’s head and crying “Capsicle!” like a proud toddler.

Steve felt the corners of his mouth quirk up involuntarily. “Hi, Tony.”

Tony just continued to point and blink at him, then muttered something about coffee before dropping his arm and shuffling into the kitchen. Steve thought about following him to make sure he didn’t hurt himself, but decided against it. After all, what was the point of the world’s only advanced AI if it couldn’t keep its creator from burning the tower down trying to make coffee?

After a few minutes the rich scent of Italian roast wafted into the common room, followed closely by a significantly perkier looking Tony. The engineer started for the elevator again, then seemed to remember that Steve was sitting on the couch in the now-dim room. He dropped down next to Steve while cradling a cup of coffee in his hands.

“All right there, Stark?” Steve asked.

Tony just grunted at him and sipped his coffee. After a few seconds, his eyes seemed to focus on Steve again. “Hey! You’re here!” he blurted.

“Uh, yes. We already established that. When was the last time you slept?”

“Last night –“

“Sir last slept 23 hours ago for 1 hour and 38 minutes,” Jarvis reported.

“Traitor!” Tony cried.

“You should get some slee-“

“Nope!” the genius shook his head, interrupting Steve. “I meant, why are you here? It’s Friday. Friday night is always Kelly night. Well, Fridays and Wednesdays and sometimes Sundays and Tuesdays but never Thursdays but always, always, always Fridays. Wait, is it Friday?”

“Yes, it’s Friday. Kelly and I – well, she broke up with me.”

“She WHAT?” Tony sputtered. “No. She didn’t. Who breaks up with Captain America?”

Steve let his head fall against the back of the couch, closing his eyes with a bitter laugh. “Someone who doesn’t want to worry that her boyfriend is going to meet the business end of some super villain’s death ray every time he goes to work.”

“Or a nuke,” Tony said quietly. “Seems to be an issue amongst those of us who try to save the world on a regular basis. Can’t keep the girl and the job.” While it had been months since Pepper had packed her things and left, and she and Tony had rebuilt a close, solid friendship, Steve could still hear the pain in Tony’s voice.

“And we can’t leave the job.”

“No, no we can’t.” Tony saluted him with his enormous coffee mug. “I think we should order a pizza and watch SNL reruns from the 1990s.”

“Tony, you don’t have to try to make me feel better.”

“Who said anything about making you feel better? I want pizza, and while my philosophy has always been that any pizza is a personal pizza if you try hard enough, Pepper gets on me about things like ‘sodium’ and ‘cholesterol’ and 'dammit, Tony, there's shrapnel in your heart; can you please not tempt fate' if I eat an entire supreme pie by myself. So do a friend a favor, would you? I’ll even have them hold the green peppers, even though that’s basically an act of treason.”

Steve’s lips quirked against his will. “Treason?”

“Unless we get an order of garlic bread. Then it’s just a little offensive.”

“Well, by all means. It wouldn’t do for Captain America to be treasonous,” Steve laughed.

“J! You heard the man! Pizza and garlic bread! Chop chop!”

“Yes, Sir. Shall I also queue up some classic Saturday Night Live? The Farley years?”

“You know me so well, baby.”

Chapter Text

It became a thing after that, or, as Tony would say, “A Thing” with capital letters and air quotes. Sure, Tony and Steve had been friendly before, but it was the kind of friendship born in the fire and bathed in the blood of the Chitauri invasion. They were seamless on the battlefield, got along just fine at home in the Tower, but they weren’t what Steve would consider close.

Now, post-Kelly, there was a shift in their interactions. Tony would seek him out in the evenings to watch movies or bad TV. Steve found himself inviting Tony along when he did volunteer work. Suddenly Captain America and Iron Man were a common sight at children’s hospitals and after school programs. They went to baseball games. Lunches. Museums. Car shows. It seemed like where one was, the other was bound to be. They settled into the kind of comfortable, close friendship Steve thought he would never have again after Bucky fell.

And then everything changed again.

 

“I'm just saying, vampires aren't supposed to sparkle. It's unnatural. Unicorns sparkle. Vampires do not.” Tony threw his hands in the air, nearly overturning the bowl of popcorn in his lap. They had just finished watching The Breakfast Club and it was nearing midnight, or what Steve liked to think of as Tony’s Ranting Hour.

“Is that so?” Steve drawled, deliberately winding Tony up. “And who made this rule?”

“Who- who what? No. No, Steve. No one had to make this rule, it just exists. This isn't ‘My Little Pony: Vampirism is Magic’! Just say no to sparkly vampires!”

“I don't know what that means,” Steve said, trying not to laugh and failing.

“It means we’re not watching Twilight. Now give me the remote.”

“What remote? This remote?” Steve held the device in question high above his head.

“Yes, that remote, Captain Sassypants. You know what? I don't even know why we have that remote. Jarvis, change the TV to channel 231.”

“I'm sorry, Sir, but I can't do that. Captain Rogers has asked that I only intervene in emergencies so that he can get used to normal 21st century technology.”

“Are you kidding me right now? You're taking orders from Steve now? His middle name is ‘Dare Me’-“

“It's Grant!”

“- and he's basically an internet troll who predates the internet!”

“That doesn't make sense, Tony.”

“Screw this First Avenger bullshit! First Little Shit!” Tony declared, lunging at Steve for the remote and spilling popcorn all over the floor. Steve threw himself backwards into the couch to keep him from claiming the prize, causing Tony to end up sprawled over his chest as they both laughed.

“Tony, I'm half a foot taller than you. You're not getting this – oof” Steve’s breath left him mid-sentence as Tony poked him in the belly and quickly grabbed the remote. “Cheater!”

“Cheat to win!” Tony cried proudly.

“If you insist!” Steve wrapped his arms around Tony’s midsection and held him tight.

He felt Tony stiffen in his arms, then choke out, “Hey! Sexual harassment panda! Ease up on bondage unless you plan to make a pass.”

Tony's voice was light, but Steve felt in an instant that the mood had suddenly changed. Glancing down, he saw Tony was staring up at him, his eyes wide. You could, Steve’s mind supplied. You could kiss him right now and it would be-

That's as far as the thought got before he was slotting his mouth in place over Tony’s. He kissed him gently for several moments, his lips moving delicately over Tony's, before pulling away away.

Oh God. What had he done? “Tony? I… shit… I'm sorry-“

Tony contemplated him for a moment, not moving or pulling away. “That was intense," he said a little breathlessly. "And, uh, sudden.”

“I know. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have-” Steve started to try and wriggle out from under Tony.

“But… good?” Tony’s tentative questioned stopped him. Steve closed his eyes. Why had he kissed Tony? You know why, his brain prodded. He’s smart and funny and kind and you've been pretending you're not interested for weeks- Steve shook his head to clear it.

“No. I mean yes. Yes, good.”

“Good,” Tony agreed, leaning up for another kiss. This one was nothing like the first, deeper and hungrier and filled with something a little bit desperate. They continued to trade increasingly intense kisses until Tony’s hands came up to thread through Steve’s hair, yanking as his hips rolled against Steve’s in a motion that left him gasping.

“Do you,” Tony moaned as Steve nibbled on his ear lobe then moved down to mouth at his jaw. “Do you, uh, maybe want to take this to my room?”

Steve stopped moving his lips against the sensitive skin of Tony's throat to try to think about what he was asking, what Tony was offering. Contrary to popular belief, Steve was no blushing virgin. He'd been with men and women alike in this new century, but this was Tony; Tony was his best friend. He shouldn't… should he?

Tony rolled his hips again, sending jolts of raw pleasure down Steve’s spine.

“Yes.”

Chapter Text

When Tony regained consciousness the next morning, it was with a feeling of dread in his stomach. It was far from the first time in his life that he had woken up sore and sticky from dried sweat and… other things, but it was certainly the first time in recent memory. After Afghanistan, Tony had only been with Pepper, and after their breakup, well, it just didn’t seem worth it. He’d given up his “playboy” label when he had taken up the mantle of superhero.

But now? Now he had slept with Steve, his best friend and teammate. Steve, who was good and earnest and kind, everything Tony was not. The night before had been incredible, but there was no way Steve wouldn’t regret it, and now it was time to face the music.

Tony opened his eyes slowly, blinking himself to full consciousness. Steve lay sprawled out on the bed next to him, the light streaming through the windows catching in his blond hair and making his pale skin glow. He slowly took in the ridges of Steve’s abs, the planes of his chest, his strong jaw and full lips. The lips that were currently curling up into a smile.

Tony’s eyes snapped up to Steve’s eyes, which were wide open and seemingly taking in Tony with the same intensity with which he had been studying Steve.

“Good morning, Tony,” he murmured, then shifted enough so that he could place a kiss on Tony’s forehead.

“Uh…” Tony replied intelligently.

Steve chuckled and kissed Tony’s lips gently. “Are you awake?”

“Uh, yeah, totally awake. Just… processing.”

The smile slid from Steve’s face. “Processing?”

Tony nodded, sitting up slowly and scooting back on the bed so that the sheet was pooled around his waist and he was leaning against the headboard. Steve sat to face him. “I just… didn’t expect what happened last night.”

“Okay. Is that… is that bad?” Steve asked carefully.

“No!” Tony cried. “No, Steve. It was great. Just unexpected.”

“I’m sorry. I’m just trying to understand. You know I’m bisexual. I’ve been out publicly for a long time. You’ve met men I’ve dated. And you asked me, you invited me –“

“I’m glad! And I would again!” Tony cried.

“Well, good! Because I was kind of hoping we would, uh, you know, do it again.”

His matter-of-face statement brought Tony up short. “Wait, what? You… you would?”

“Yes, Tony. I would. I… I mean, if you want to. This could, this could be a thing.”

“A thing?” Tony asked numbly, mind racing.

“We already have a solid relationship,” Steve went on quietly, reaching out to take Tony’s hand between two of his. “This seems, I don’t know, like the logical next step?”

Relationship? Okay, calm down Tony. Calm down. This, this could mean something else entirely. He could mean friendship. But, logical next step? That, that sounded like relationship-relationship. No, no. He can’t mean that. He’s- he’s Steve Rogers. Captain America.

Except he was asking. He was looking up at Tony with such earnestness and offering – well, whatever he was offering, Tony wanted it. He was man enough to admit that.

“Yeah. Yeah, I think,” Tony swallowed hard. “I think so. Yes.”

Steve smiled and leaned forward to place another kiss on Tony’s lips. “Great. So what do you say we shower up, and I’ll take you out to breakfast?”

Breakfast. Breakfast was what couples did after sex, not fuck buddies, right? He’d never taken a one-night stand out to breakfast, that’s for sure.

“Sounds good.”

 

After a shower and a pile of pancakes at his favorite greasy spoon, Tony retreated to his workshop and dialed up Pepper.

“What did you break this time?” she answered after two rings.

“Pepper. Sugarplum. Light of my life.”

“Tony, just get it over with and tell me what you did.”

“I didn’t do anything!” Tony protested.

“Okay, what were you supposed to do that you didn’t do?”

“Pepper, can’t a guy just call his favorite CEO, his loving friend, and say hi?”

“People can, sure. You can’t.”

“You wound me, Pepper. I am wounded.”

Pepper sighed heavily on the line. “Okay, fine, I will play along. Good morning. It’s great to hear from you. How are you today, Tony?”

“Very well, thank you. How are you, Pepper-plant?”

“Well, other than fearing for the already-tenuous sanity of my best friend, I’m wonderful.”

Silence.

“Tony?”

“Yes?”

“Why are you calling?”

“I, well, I guess I have a question.”

“Alright. And that question is?”

Tony hesitated, suddenly realizing that asking his ex-girlfriend to help him work out if he was in a boyfriends-relationship or a friendship-relationship with bonus bathing-suit area touching may not be one of his best plans ever.

Pepper sighed again. “Tony-“

Well, too late to back out now. “How do I know if I have a boyfriend?” Tony rushed out.

Pepper was silent for several seconds before saying carefully, “Well, I would tell anyone else to ask-“

“I can’t just-“

“I said anyone else, Tony. I know you are practically incapable of actual serious conversation.”

“I’m not!”

“Tony, I love you, you know I love you, but unless you have no other choice, you aren’t going to try to talk about your feelings. Now, do you like this person?”

“I… yes. I do.”

“Do you want to be in a romantic relationship with him?”

“I didn’t know I did, but now that it seems like it might be a possibility? Yes, yes really I do.”

“And do you spend time together? Go to events? Share meals? Seek each other out to do things?”

“All the time.”

“Okay, and what about intimacy?”

“What?!”

“Sex, Tony. Have you had sex?”

“I know what it means, Pepper!”

“Okay, and...?"

“I – we, uh, yes. We’ve been together. I initiated; it was a heat-of-the moment thing. But this morning when we woke up, he, he said he’d like to do it again. Like to keep doing it, if I did. Said it was the next logical step in our relationship.”

“Tony? I am pretty sure you and Steve are a couple.”

“Steve? No one said anything about Steve!” Tony sputtered.

“No one had to, Tony. You two have been practically dating for the last three months. Now talk to him. You can’t be sure until you actually talk about it.”

“Yep, got it. Will do, Pep-pep!”

“No, you won’t!”

“No, I won’t! Gotta go!” Tony hung up his phone and spun in his chair, tossing a crumpled up paper for Dum-E to roll after. “Holy shit,” he breathed into the silence of the lab. “I’m dating Captain America.”

 

Not a great deal changed over the next weeks. Tony and Steve still spent most of their free time together. They still went out to meals, to events, and Steve was Tony’s plus-one for a couple of galas. What did change was their physical relationship. Steve now slept in Tony’s bed. Sometimes he would come down to Tony’s workshop, where they would fool around on the couch or in the shower. They didn’t kiss or anything in front of the team, but they did touch each other casually and didn’t bother to hide their affection. After a couple of months, the “are we dating or just sleeping together?” question no longer weighed on Tony. They were going on dates publicly, they weren’t hiding anything. They were together, and Tony couldn’t be happier.

 

It was an average Tuesday. Tony was in his workshop working on some upgrades to the suit while Steve sketched on the couch and played fetch with Dum-E. He had just turned off the acetylene torch and flipped his face shield up when Steve wrapped his arms around him from behind and placed a kiss on his jawline.

“Did I ever tell you how sexy you like this?” he breathed into the crook of Tony’s neck. "So clearly in your element. A little dirty. A lot confident."

“No, but I’m getting the idea,” Tony replied with a grin, pressing his ass back against Steve’s hips. “Maybe we should take this to the couch?”

“I think that’s a great idea,” Steve said, spinning Tony in his arms so he faced him and going in for another kiss.

Which is when Tony’s stomach decided to let out a loud growl. “Sorry!”

“When was the last time you ate, Tony?” Steve asked.

“Sir last ate 22 hours ago, at which time he consumed some dried blueberries and a cup of coffee.”

“Jarvis! I swear to God, if you don’t shut up, I am going to make you moderate YouTube comments for the rest of your life. And just as a reminder? I can make you live forever!”

“Tony, you need to eat. Now.” Steve took a step back, extracting himself from Tony’s arms.

“I can eat later!” Tony whined.

“How about this? Let’s take a walk, get some of those hotdogs from a cart you seem to love so much, and then walk back to the tower. After which, I will take you to bed and make you cry for mercy.”

“I’m intrigued,” Tony said, stepping back into Steve’s space so that their bodies were flush together again. “How, exactly, do you intend to do that?”

“I’m going to take you apart piece by piece, so slowly and thoroughly that you won’t have any choice but to lay there and take it,” Steve leaned down and kissed Tony deep and filthy, long enough that by the time they broke apart, they were both gasping for breath. "So what do you say?”

“Well, if I have to, I have to,” Tony muttered.

“That’s the spirit. Now get your jacket and let’s go.”

Chapter Text

“You know, I need super soldier serum,” Tony complained as they walked the last block back to the tower. “I’m pretty sure you just gained another ridge on your six-pack by eating half a dozen hotdogs.”

Steve chuckled and shoved the last of his final hotdog into his mouth. After chewing and swallowing his bite, he hip-checked Tony gently. “Nah, you just need more physical exercise in your life.”

“Is that so?” Tony returned, pressing himself against Steve’s side as they closed in on the side entrance to the tower. Steve’s arm snaked around his waist and pulled him even closer.

“Yeah, I think so,” Steve murmured, pressing his other hand against the concealed panel next to the door for a quick scan to release the lock.

“You uh,” Tony swallowed thickly, reaching for the door handle. “You wanna be my workout partner?”

“Well, I am unusually- what the hell?” Steve sprang away from Tony.

“What? What’s wrong?” Tony whirled around to find the threat. There were no super-powered baddies, no one with a gun or a knife, just a couple of the usual gaggle of paparazzi that followed Tony sometimes. One of Robin’s guys, Tony recognized dimly.

“He – that guy. He took our picture. I had my hands on you, and he took our picture.”

“Okay, yeah. That happens. He’s a paparazzo. That’s his job,” Tony replied, watching the man in question hop into a car with his partner.

“Tony!” Steve grabbed his arm and pulled him through the door of the tower. He was breathing hard when the door closed behind them. “They took our picture. We were… we were together. What if they print it?”

“Well, I imagine that they will print it. Why wouldn’t they? Is it that big of a deal?”

Steve prowled the private lobby like a caged tiger, raking his fingers through his hair. “Big deal? Big deal?! Tony, they might say that we're dating!”

“Uh, okay. Steve. Hey, Steve. Calm down,” Tony grabbed his arms and forced Steve to face him. “Steve, I need you to calm down and tell me what’s going on!”

“People are going to believe that, Tony. They are going to think I am dating you. What then? What if they print that we're dating?”

Tony stiffened, pulling his hands away from Steve’s biceps. “Then they print we are dating?” the statement came out more like a question.

“They can’t do that! Tony, I can’t – I don’t have the luxury of that! I’m Captain America!” Steve stabbed at the elevator button, then began to pace again as the car made it’s way down to them.

“Well, yes,” Tony said carefully, tracking Steve’s movements with his eyes. “But you’ve been out forever. I’m not the first guy you’ve been seen with.” Steve stopped, and turned to Tony, his eyes wide and almost disappointed. And suddenly Tony understood. “Oh. Uh, oh. Not ‘a man’. Me. I, uh. Yeah, okay. I get it.”

“Tony, this is bigger than me-“ the elevator dinged and opened.

“Oh, no. Yeah. I mean, no. I get it,” Tony plastered his best media smile on his face and clapped Steve on the shoulder as he walked past him into the elevator. Steve followed him slowly as Tony punched the button for the workshop. The doors closed, and Tony pulled out his phone, starting to tap out a message to confirm Pepper was in her office. “It’s, uh, it’s fine. I can fix this. The guy who took the picture? He works for someone I know. She’ll… she’ll work with me.”

“Tony,” Steve started, “This is bigger than me-“

“No, no I get it, Steve. It’s fine. I understand,” Tony glanced up and gave Steve his best fake-confident smile. “I’ll get it under control, I promise.”

“I’m sorry; I am, but this is so much bigger than me. It could overshadow everything Captain America stands for. I – I know you’re a good man, Tony. The man you are now? He’s a good man. But people have long memories-“ The elevator dinged as they reached the workshop and the doors slid open.

“No worries, Cap,” Tony’s voice was tight. “I need to make a few calls, and we’ll be right.”

“Tony-“ Steve tried again.

“It’s fine, Cap. Really. I understand,” Tony stepped through the doors into the workshop. He turned to give Steve a bright smile. “Go have a cup of coffee. Maybe top off those hotdogs with a gallon of ice cream or two.”

“Okay, Tony. I’ll... I'll just come back down later, okay?”

“Sure, Cap. See you in a bit.”

 

The elevator doors closed between them and Tony keyed himself into the workshop. “Hi kids, daddy’s home,” he said as the lights came up and the bots rolled forward. Rubbing his forehead, he let himself fall back into the couch. “Your idiot, fuck up of a dad. And now he needs to call and face the music with your aunt Pepper. J, can you ring her office on the lab line?”

“Of course, Sir.”

Pepper answered on the first ring. “It’s 1:30 PM. What’s wrong?”

“Again with the accusations, Pepper.”

“I notice you haven’t corrected me, Tony. So I ask again, what’s wrong?”

Tony hesitated for a moment before answering. “It’s not so much wrong, but a small PR… blip.”

“A blip? Tony, please tell me you didn’t call Glenn Beck a flaccid-phallused kitten killer again. He goads you into it so he can play the victim.”

“No, Pep, no. Nothing like that. Just a… relationship thing. Someone took a picture that could be construed as romantic, and I’m pretty sure Robin-what’s-her-name plans to print it. It's nothing too racy. A hug at best - could easily be spun as just friendship after it runs, but I really don't want to deal with it.”

“Oh, that’s – that’s surprisingly tame for you. Robin’s reasonable. I’ll text her.”

“Okay, thanks Pep. Buy yourself something beautiful from me.”

“You know I will, but this is really minor, Tony. You could have just gone public with your relationship with Steve. No one would believe you would cheat on Captain America.”

Tony closed his eyes and let his head fall on the backrest of the couch. “It’s, uh, a picture of me and Steve.”

“What?! Then why are you – Tony? What’s going on?”

“I misunderstood the situation. We aren’t dating.” Tony said, feeling tears prick at the back of his eyes as he finally said it out loud.

“What the hell do you mean you misunderstood? The whole team knows you have been dating for weeks!”

“Well, the whole team was wrong. I was wrong,” Tony swallowed hard, trying to chase the feeling of loss growing in his stomach. “He can’t be with me, Pep. He’s Captain America, and I’m… well, I’m me. Being linked to a slutty ex-arms dealer? Think about what that would do to his credibility. Like he said, it's bigger than us. His work-“

“Bullshit!” Peppers voice was hard. “That’s crap and you know it.”

“I’m not the kind of man Cap can be with. Just have Robin make it go away, okay?”

“Tony-“

“I’m not discussing this, okay? Can you make this go away or not?”

Pepper sighed heavily. “I texted as soon as you called. She’s already responded. She’ll delete them for an exclusive for the announcement of the next StarkPhone."

“Done.”

“But Tony?”

“Don’t, Pepper. Just don’t-“

“You deserve better.”

“Like what? You?”

“That’s not fair, Tony.”

“Ain’t that the truth?” Tony said quietly and ended the call.

Chapter Text

As soon as Tony stepped off the elevator and disappeared into the workshop, Steve punched the button to his floor. After a quick change into sweatpants and a t-shirt, he headed straight to the heavy bag in the gym and started working it over with his fists.

Guilt and shame roiled through his belly as he thought of the look on Tony’s face when he realized why Steve was panicking…

Oh. Not ‘a man’. Me.

Steve had never felt lower than he did in that moment. But he hadn't promised Tony anything! They'd never discussed their arrangement or what it meant! How was he supposed to know that Tony had just assumed-

Even in his own mind, Steve couldn't finish that sentence. He could see it. Now, looking back over the past weeks, he could see exactly why Tony would assume they were in an actual relationship. He should have been clear from the start, should have made sure they were on the same page.

But really, would that have changed anything?

Steve swallowed hard and wiped the sweat out of his eyes. If he couldn't be honest with himself, who could he be honest with? He'd treated Tony like his boyfriend because he had wanted to. It felt right; it felt good and natural. He wanted to be with Tony. He wanted to hold his hand as they walked in the park, to kiss him in full view of cameras and bystanders, to introduce him as “my boyfriend, Tony”.

He couldn't have that, though, not while also living under the crushing weight of Captain America. He was an example. He needed to do everything right, everything perfectly or all the things he'd been working for in this new century would be brushed aside and forgotten. Destigmatizing mental illness. Acceptance of bisexuality and of metahumans. Awareness for orphans and foster children. It could all come crashing down, his endorsements and work made meaningless by mistakes.

People needed to trust in Captain America, and to be worthy of that trust, Captain America had to live a life as beyond reproach as possible. He made mistakes, sure, but so far he'd been lucky. Nothing catastrophic. He had to keep himself in check. What Steve Rogers wanted could not matter. Steve Rogers had the potential to ruin Captain America.

He knew Tony Stark was a good man, one of the very best that Steve had ever met, but the world seemed blind to everything but Tony’s faults and past mistakes. Steve had seen so many of the great things Tony did overshadowed by a bit of decade-old gossip from a former flame looking to extend his or her 15 minutes of fame. Steve couldn't allow that to happen to Captain America, no matter how much he might want Tony.

At the same time, he knew how unfair he'd been to Tony. Now that he understood, he needed to call this off. He needed to dial it back to when they were just teammates and casual friends, no matter how awful the idea made him feel. He'd explain. He'd make sure Tony understood and then Tony could... he could move on.

 

Hours later, after a shower and a stop in the kitchen, Steve returned to the lab with dinner for Tony. After keying himself in and placing the dish on the nearest clean surface, he took a seat on the couch.

“We, uh, we should talk about today.”

Tony didn’t turn away from his holographic interface. “What? No. No talking. What’s there to talk about? I made an assumption. That assumption was corrected.”

“Jarvis, mute Tony’s display, please.”

“I’m sorry, Captain Rogers,” Jarvis returned icily. “Sir’s work is very important and cannot be interrupted.

Steve’s eyes widened minutely. Jarvis had never shot down a request to pause Tony’s work in the past, much less with the note of derision his electronic voice currently held.

“Tony, please give me five minutes.”

“Sorry, Cap. You heard the man – or, rather, the AI – this is important.”

“It’s a schematic of Dum-E’s new support strut. It’s hardly urgent.”

“I guess that depends on how you define urgent. Poor Dum-E is rolling around with insufficient support. He’s unsupported. He’s like Hollywood’s bad stereotype of a teenage girl. Can you imagine? He’ll have an existential crisis and then where-“

“You’re babbling,” Steve interrupted.

“I’m geniusing.”

“That’s not a verb, Tony.”

“I can verb anything. See? See what I did there?”

Steve lips quirked up against his will. He considered just letting this go, but took a deep breath. He needed to get everything back on track. “Please, Tony? Five minutes, and then I’ll leave you to Dum-E and his crisis.”

Tony sighed heavily. “J? Save progress. Mute projection.”

He spun in his chair to face Steve, crossing his arms over his chest and raising his eyebrows.

“Look, I-“ Steve started, then froze, unsure what to say. All the perfectly logical arguments and explanations he'd been rehearsing since he left the gym escaped him. A full minute passed in silence before Tony spoke.

“Uhm, I’m no expert on communication, but doesn’t one usually need to make some sort of noise or gesture to converse?”

“Er, yeah. I just – I’m not sure how to say this.”

“Look, Cap, it’s fine. I misread the situation. We aren’t dating. Consider our status clarified. Totally fine.”

“I didn’t know you thought… that,” Steve glanced at the floor, rubbing the back of his neck.

“I know. It’s on me,” Tony grabbed a screw driver off his bench and waved U over from his charging bay. “This is better. I’m shit at relationships anyway.”

“It’s not that I don’t care. I do. It’s just so many eyes are on me, especially when I’m with a man. I have to be better than perfect, or so many people would be let down. He has to be a good man, an example for other men-“

“And I’m not.”

“That’s not what I meant, Tony!”

“I know, Steve. It’s fine. I get it. I do. I have a history. I didn’t always make the best decisions, and that has consequences. It’s okay. Are we done here?”

“That’s not who you are, though, Tony. Not anymore, but it’s just people have long memories-“

“And I haven’t paid my debt, yet. I likely won't ever be able to. No, I know. I understand. Like I said, it was just a misunderstanding. We’ve cleared it up, and we’re totally fine.”

Now, Steve’s mental voice cried. Now tell him that you think it's time to go back to just being friends. No sex. No snuggling. No nights reading in bed. No shared meals just the two of us.

“Are you sure?” he said instead.

“Absolutely.”

“And we’re okay?”

“Right as rain, Spangles,” Tony said brightly.

“Then are we still-“

“Friends with benefits? You bet.”

What? No. Friends. Still just friends. But if Tony wanted to… if he was okay with…

“Nothing has to change?” Steve heard himself asking.

“Nothing has to change,” Tony said with a sharp smile that didn't quite reach his eyes.

Chapter Text

“Why the hell didn’t I just tell him no more sex?” Tony muttered, running his hands through his hair while Dum-E rolled around him, beeping in distress. It had been almost three weeks since the Not In a Relationship Revelation, and while Tony and Steve had agreed that nothing had to change, almost everything had.

It was clear Steve wanted no further mistakes about what was between him and Tony. He no longer spent hours on the couch in the workshop sketching and chatting with Tony as he worked. He didn’t stop by to bring Tony food, didn’t ask him to grab lunch, didn’t ask Tony to join him on his weekly museum trips.

It wasn’t just Steve’s behavior that changed. Tony had stopped booking box seats for Mets games for the two of them. He no longer asked Steve to be his plus one for functions, and quit seeking out Steve when he couldn’t sleep and wanted to watch a movie. There was no more casual touching, no more joking around, no more effortless camaraderie. They performed on the battlefield as flawlessly as ever, were friendly in passing, but the closeness, the comfort with each other was clearly gone.

There was, however, one thing that didn’t change. At least a 3 or 4 times a week, Steve would show up in Tony’s room or lab, or Tony would find himself in Steve's bedroom, always with clear intent. As soon as they were finished, bodies exhausted and pliant, they parted to their own spaces. There was no longer any cuddling, no lazy exchange of kisses, no falling asleep with legs twined together and sweat cooling on their skin.

“Idiot,” Tony muttered as a follow-up. “You’re an idiot.”

“Sir, if I may?” Jarvis interrupted his self-loathing. “It is your right to rescind the agreement at any time. It is not too late to tell Captain Rogers you are no longer interested in this arrangement.”

“Nobody asked you, Jarvis,” Tony snapped, annoyed in the way that only someone who had an obvious truth pointed out to them could be. He wasn't obligated or trapped in any way. Truth was, he wanted the physical relationship, even when it made him feel like dirt. A little bit of Steve was better than nothing. Shaking his head to clear those thoughts, he spun in his chair and stood. He groaned as he stretched his back, his vertebrae popping as he arched his spine. “What time is it?”

“It’s 5:07 PM, Sir.”

“Is there anyone around?” Tony questioned. Fortunately, Jarvis didn’t make him say out loud what he was really asking.

“Captain Rogers is in the common room with Ms. Romanov. They appear to be chatting.”

“Well, I’m going to go get a refill.” He hoisted his coffee cup and headed to the stairs that went directly to the kitchen off the common room.

---
Steve was on the couch, contemplating how things had gotten so out of control when Natasha dropped onto the seat beside him. He hadn’t heard her come into the room, and didn’t know whether he should attribute that to her uncannily ability to move with silence or his own preoccupation causing inattention to his surroundings.

“Rogers,” she greeted.

“Natasha,” he returned.

Steve became increasingly uncomfortable as Natasha studied him in silence. He was about to start babbling about the weather just to break the tension when she turned her head to one side and said, “So, am I supposed to be pretending that I don’t know you and Tony are fucking?”

“What?” Steve choked. “What- what are you talking about?”

“Do I need to repeat the question?”

“That’s – Natasha, it’s none of your business.”

"Okay, I hear what you're saying and I understand." Natasha nodded sagely, and Steve felt a stab of relief. Natasha was oddly protective of Tony, and Steve wasn’t sure he would survive a confrontation over him unscathed. “On the other hand, consider this; I’ve decided you are stupid and I’ve made it my business.”

“Listen-“

“No, Steve, I need you to listen to me. What are you doing? A month ago you guys were dating. Maybe you didn’t say it, but it was obvious. Then you have what I would have called a 1940’s internalized homophobia freakout if you hadn’t dated other men, and suddenly you won’t be alone in the same room with the guy-“

“Natasha-“ Steve tried to stop her.

“Nope, I’m not done, because I've been quiet for three weeks and watched him become more and more withdrawn. I would say this is normal breakup behavior and let it go, except the fact that I see the both of you sneaking around in the middle of the night doing the walk of shame, which is a term I absolutely hate, but it fits here because it’s clear you are ashamed.”

Steve licked his lips nervously before trying to respond. “Can I talk?” Natasha gestured for him to proceed. “I don’t know what you think you know, but it’s really not about you. Tony and I have discussed this. We agreed that nothing had to change.”

“Nothing had to change, huh? Well, that’s funny Steve, because from where I’m standing? Nothing is the same. Been out to dinner with Tony lately? How about a stop by the children’s hospital? Have you spent an hour in the workshop or even just talking to Tony in the last three weeks?”

“This isn’t just on me!” Steve burst out. “He knows. He understands. We discussed this. How am I supposed to date Tony, Natasha? How am I supposed to be with him?”

“Well, you were doing a pretty good job at it before you decided he wasn’t good enough for you,” Natasha bit out.

“That’s not it at all!”

“So what is it? You’ve never been shy about who you are dating before. Kelly? Eric? What was that nurse’s name? Javier? Do you want me to Google it? I’m pretty sure your romantic partners are listed on your Wikipedia page.”

“You know that’s different.”

“How, Steve? How is it different?”

“He’s- he’s my teammate,” Steve returned lamely.

“Lair. Try again.”

“Why is this all on me? We discussed this. We talked about it and agreed to a friends with benefits arrangement. He can walk away any time he likes. I’m not forcing him to do anything.”

Natasha was quiet for several moments before she finally said, “I don’t disagree with you, but have you thought about this from Tony’s point of view?”

“I don’t understand what you mean. It’s no different than mine.”

“I thought you were smart, Steve. Come on, think about it!”

“I HAVE BEEN THINKING ABOUT IT!” Steve cried. “It’s basically all I think about!”

“Then how have you not figured this out? Steve, he wanted to be your boyfriend. He thought he was your boyfriend. He was happier those few weeks when he was with you than I have ever seen him. Is it really so hard to believe he’d do anything to keep even the smallest bit of that he could?”

“What am I supposed to say? What do you want me to say?”

“I want you to tell me why you are denying this, because as happy as Tony was?” Natasha’s normally expressionless face went soft, her eyes sad. “Steve, you were, too.”

Steve took a deep breath, knowing full well Natasha was right. He’d been happy. He’d been dating Tony, and he’d been the happiest he’d been since waking up after the ice. “He’s… Natasha, you know better than anyone about Tony. Iron Man yes, Tony Stark not recommended, remember?”

“And I’ve admitted how wrong I was about him. You’re wrong about him.”

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with him!” Steve cried, attempting to leap from the couch. Natasha grabbed him by the arm and kept him in place.

“No, we’re finishing this discussion. You don’t get to dodge this.”

“I’m not trying to dodge anything!”

“Then tell me!”

“Does it matter what I want, Natasha? I can’t be with him. When I look at him I see this brilliant madman - generous and kind and selfless. The rest of the world? The rest of the world doesn’t see Tony. They see Stark.”

“And who is Stark?”

Steve sighed, stalling for several long moments. “Stark is... he's the merchant of death. The most famous mass murderer in the world. He’s an awful, selfish bully. He’s a drunk who doesn’t care about anything but himself. He’s a man-whore who uses people up and throws them away-“

The sound of shattering ceramic had Steve jumping from his seat whirling around to find Tony standing, one hand pushing open the door to the private staircase leading to his workshop. He had clearly just opened the door in time to overhear Steve’s last few comments.

“Tony-“ Steve choked out, reaching out as he tumbled forward.

Tony’s eyes widened before he turned on heel and fled down the stairs, the door latching closed before Steve could make it across the kitchen. Steve grabbed the latch and pulled only to find it locked.

“Jarvis, open the door!” he yelled.

“I’m sorry, Captain Rogers, I can’t do that.”

“Jarvis, please. Now is not the time. Open it!”

“Captain, I’m going to have to ask you to stop trying to force the door, or I will have to stop you. The workshop is off limits to you.”

“Did Tony tell you to lock me out? You have to let me in. You have to let me explain.”

“Sir is no state to give orders. I have determined that you are a risk to Sir and enacted the appropriate protocol. You will find all paths to the workshop and to Sir's personal quarters unavailable to you.”

“I’m – you think I’m a risk?” Steve blinked up at the ceiling, his hand falling away from the latch.

“Are you not?” Jarvis returned. “You will be barred from access to Sir until a time that I feel your presence is more helpful than harmful. Do not, as they say, hold your breath.”

Steve turned back to Natasha, who was standing I the doorway between the common room and the kitchen.

“What do I do now?” he asked.

Natasha slowly shook her head, “I don’t know, Steve.”

Chapter Text

Hours later, Steve found himself sitting at the desk in his suite, trying to prep for an interview taping scheduled for the next day. Instead of looking over the questions supplied by the network, though, his mind kept straying back to the scene in the common room that afternoon. After Tony retreated to his workshop and Steve had been warned by Jarvis to stay away, Natasha had tried to go to Tony. Steve waited in the common room, hoping she would be able to get Tony to talk to him, but when she returned she shook her head at him sadly.

“He’s in blackout mode. Jarvis says no one can get into the workshop, and he’s blocked all calls and texts. I couldn’t get anything more than that,” Natasha said, collapsing into the plush chair across from the matching one Steve was sitting in.

“What am I supposed to do, Natasha? How do I fix this?”

“I don’t know.”

“I need to explain that I didn’t mean that. He needs to know how I really feel!”

“And how do you really feel, Steve? Because I’m not sure you even know.”

“I- I..” Steve stuttered. “I care about him.”

“You might wanna figure out what that means to you before you try to explain it to Tony,” Natasha said, standing. “Jarvis?”

“How can I be of assistance, Ms. Romanova?”

“Keep an eye on Tony? Let someone know if he needs help?”

“Of course. Sir is, as always, my priority.”

Assured of Tony’s relative safety, Natasha had left for a run and Steve had retreated to his suite.

Shaking his head, Steve brought his thoughts back to the present. He looked down at the questions again, but he couldn’t seem to resolve the marks on the paper into words. He glanced at the clock, noting that it was almost 2 AM.

Standing with a sigh, Steve made his way over to his dresser and pulled out a pair of pajama pants and a t-shirt. He changed quickly and headed into the bathroom to brush his teeth before climbing into bed. He already knew he wouldn’t be able to sleep, but he should at least try.

He was still staring at the glowing numbers on his bedside clock an hour later when Jarvis called his name with a note of urgency in his voice.

“Jarvis?” he answered, sitting up quickly.

“Captain Rogers, you need to come down to the workshop immediately. Sir requires assistance.”

“I thought you said I wasn’t allowed near him,” Steve returned, practically jumping out of bed and running through his suite and into the elevator, silently praising Jarvis for having the doors already open for him.

“I said you would be barred access until such a time when I deem your presence more helpful than harmful,” Jarvis said as he closed the door of elevator and sent it speeding to the workshop level.

Steve’s stomach shot into his throat. “Is he okay? Jarvis, is he hurt? Is he in danger?”

“Sir needs assistance," Jarvis repeated. "He is still, sadly, most likely to accept it from you.”

“You know I don’t think about him like that. You can review the feeds in context. You could show him.”

“With all due respect, Captain, that is the least of your sins. I know the context, but I also know that you’ve been treating him like you believe those things yourself, whether you admit it or not.”

Steve shook his head, ready to issue an emphatic denial, but the elevator stopped and the doors opened. Putting the argument aside, he ran to the door of the workshop, finding that Jarvis had again opened it for him. Tony was nowhere to be seen.

“Tony?” he called out into the cavernous space. There was no answer, just Dum-E beeping urgently and rolling towards Steve. He grabbed Steve’s shirt and started pulling him along towards a workbench at the back of the shop. There he found Tony slumped against the leg of the bench, a nearly empty bottle of scotch dangling from his hand. Steve crouched down and removed the bottle. Tony stirred slightly.

“Tony?” Steve murmured, patting Tony’s face lightly to rouse him. “Hey, Tony?”

“Steve?” Tony slurred, opening his eyes. “What’re you doin’ ‘ere?”

“I’m here to help.”

Tony blinked up at him for several moments, finally pushing himself up straighter and glaring at Steve. “Get out,” he ordered clearly.

“Come on, Tony. We have to get you off the floor,” Steve insisted, then hoisted Tony up to his feet. “Can you walk to the couch?”

“I’m fine, Steve. Get out of here. You shouldn’t be here. Jarvis, I know you let him in, and don’t think there won’t be edits to your code for this.”

Jarvis remained silent as Steve helped Tony to the couch, then turned to grab a bottle of water out of the workshop fridge. “Here,” he said, handing it over to Tony who glared at it several seconds before finally opening it and taking a deep drink.

“Okay, you’ve saved me from myself. You can go now, Rogers.” Steve winced at Tony’s use of his last name, something he hadn’t done other than playfully in over a year.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Tony,” Steve breathed. “What were you thinking?”

“I was thinking I would get drunk. And I did, so yay me for meeting goals and shit. What I don’t understand is what you are doing down here. I’m fine,” Tony growled. “Now would you get the fuck out of here? I don’t know if you haven’t noticed, but you are not welcome.”

“I want to talk to you.”

“I really, really don’t care what you want. Now get out of here before I get Dum-E to eject you.”

“Tony-“

“No, we’re not talking,” Tony exploded as he jumped unsteadily to his feet and stalked over to workstation. “You’re not going to tell me how I misunderstood, how I don’t understand, how you didn’t mean it like that. I am tired of hearing it. I’m done trying. I can’t be good enough. I can’t change what I’ve done or how people see me. I can’t change how you think I can hurt Captain America. If I hear the words 'this is bigger than me' one more time, I might actually punch us both in the face at the same time. I get it. So. Just. Get. Out!” He flopped back into his wheelie chair, all the fight seeming to drain out of him with those last words. He grabbed a wrench off his bench and focused on fidgeting with it. “Please, just… please leave me alone.”

Steve sat frozen on the couch, guilt and shame nearly choking him as he watched Tony crumple before him. “I can’t leave you here alone. You… basically just tried to kill yourself with alcohol!”

“I'm really not that drunk, just exhausted. And it wasn’t me I was trying to kill.”

“What does that even mean?”

Tony took a deep breath, then looked up into Steve’s eyes. “I was trying to kill you, Steve,” he said quietly, tapping his head. “In here. I need you gone. I tried to give you what you wanted. I tried to be your friend and your fuck buddy, but I can’t. Not when I know how I feel about you and how you feel about me. I just can’t.”

“Tony,” Steve reached out towards him.

“Don’t- don’t touch me!” Tony cried, then took a deep, calming breath. “No, not this time, okay? Just let me get over you and then we can go back. We can go back to being friends and this can be over. But I need you to let me get away from you to get through this. So please, if you don’t hate me, please leave me alone.”

“I… God, Tony, I don’t hate you. Of course I don’t hate you. And those things you overheard, it wasn’t what I think of you, not at all. I know you. I care about you. You’re my best friend-“

“Then be my friend and let me have what I’m asking for, okay? Go.”

Even as everything screamed for him to keep arguing, Steve nodded slightly, stood and made his way towards the shop door. “I’ll send Natasha down for you, okay?”

“Yeah. Okay,” Tony sighed.

Steve stepped into the elevator and hit the button for his floor. “Jarvis, could you please ask Natasha to go sit with Tony until he sobers up? Maybe she can get him to get some sleep?”

“Ms. Romanova is on her way down, Captain. Sir is in good hands.”

Steve thanked Jarvis and leaned against the back of the elevator as it took him back to his suite. Once there, he went straight into the bathroom and splashed cold water on his face before crawling back into bed and pulling the covers up to his chin. Tony’s words still swirled in his head, as well as the statements Jarvis had made. Had he really been treating Tony like he believed the most awful things about him? He’d been trying to protect Captain America, but had he been destroying Tony in the process? All those times, all those things he had said. Did Tony really get it, or was it Steve who didn’t really didn’t understand what was happening?

Four hours later, as he replayed every conversation, every disagreement, every argument, Steve came to two conclusions.

The first was that he was completely in love with Tony Stark.

The second was that he absolutely did not deserve him.

Chapter Text

The interview progressed as they generally did, which was a blessing for Steve as he couldn’t seem to keep his mind on the interviewer. Shelby, he reminded himself vaguely as she smiled and threw him yet another soft question. Another open-ended query, another shallow answer with anecdotes about tower life that made her laugh her annoyingly high-pitched laugh. He hit all of the usual high points. No, Clint doesn’t actually crawl around in the duct work but he does eat sugary cereals normally marketed to children by the boxful. Natasha is kind, and is not just the token female on the team. Steve himself wouldn’t want to ever have to fight her hand-to-hand. Bruce’s value to the team is not just his ability to turn into the Hulk, but rather his scientific genius. He also likes sugary cereal. Laugh at the right time. Smile. Thank Odin that there was no audience for this taping. Remember Shelby is helping humanize the Avengers. Usually Steve had more tolerance for this kind of thing; sometimes he even enjoyed talking and laughing with the hosts, but today, after a sleepless night and a gut-destroying revelation, well, he just didn’t have the patience.

The allotted time was about through when Shelby asked her final question. “So, Steve,” she said with a flirty smile. “The gossip pages have been suspiciously quiet lately. Any special someone in your life these days?”

Steve opened his mouth to give one of his many rehearsed “no, I’m single” answers. He meant to say “Not right now. Do you know anyone who might like to date a guy who wears a lot of patriotic spandex?”, but that’s not what came out. The practiced cheeky grin did not make an appearance. Instead, he hesitated. Should he? Should he just let it go?

“I…” he cleared his throat, “Well, I guess it’s complicated.”

“Oh? Sounds juicy!” Shelby pressed.

“There is someone who is exceptionally special to me, but I – well, I screwed up. Badly. Horribly, actually, and now it’s over.”

“I hardly believe that! I’m sure it’s just a misunderstanding and she’ll come to her senses.”

“No, there is no misunderstanding. I treated him terribly without meaning to, without ever even realizing it.”

“Well, if you didn’t mean it, he has to forgive you!” Shelby replied, correcting her assumption that Steve was talking about a woman.

“It’s not that simple. Just because I didn’t mean to hurt him doesn’t mean I didn’t cause damage. In all honesty, I think the fact that I didn’t even pay enough attention to him to realize I was killing him inside makes me even more guilty, not less.”

“I’m sorry, Steve. It sounds like he means a lot to you.”

Steve gave her a sad half-smile. “More than a lot. He’s everything. He’s so much more than people realize, so quietly kind and generous. He gives away everything he really values so feely, so effortlessly that it’s easy to miss. I mean, he’s not a saint. He has his flaws. Some of the things he’s done aren’t good and he’s been trying so hard to make up for them for so long now, but it’s like no one wants to forgive him. I guess that included me up until I got a wake up call.”

The words were tumbling out now, to hell with Steve’s dignity. “But when he smiles – really smiles, not his fake spotlight smile – you can’t help but smile back. Sure, he can say thoughtless and rude things sometimes, but it’s not because he’s malicious. He just doesn’t know how hard things might land because that’s how people talk to him all the time. Sometimes he has to be sharp with his words because it’s the only way he can keep people from sinking their hands into him and tearing him apart. From the moment he was born he's had to live his whole life in the public eye, and people can be incredibly cruel and unforgiving."

Shelby was looking at him, her mouth slightly open in shock and her eyes wide. She was silent for several seconds after Steve stopped talking, her facing morphing from confusion to suspicion. “Are you talking about To- I mean who... who are you talking about, Steve?”

Steve took a deep breath and looked directly into Shelby’s eyes. “Tony Stark. I am in love with Anthony Edward Stark and I treated him so poorly that I would say now, looking back on it, that it borders on abuse.” He turned and looked at the camera. “I was scared of what you all would say, how you would judge Captain America for dating him, that I destroyed the best thing I had in this century and lost him forever.”

“Steve, you can’t actually mean that. You would never-”

“I do mean it, because I did it. I’m sorry, Shelby,” he said, turning back to her and reaching for the microphone pinned to his collar. “I don’t think I can talk anymore. I’m done.”

With that he stood, ripped the mic pack off his waistband, and tossed the whole setup on the chair he vacated before walking off the sound stage. The production assistants were standing, shocked still in a way Steve had never seen before. He walked unhindered though the studio and out the door.

His mission was clear, now. First was to try to right the wrong, and he'd just taken the first step there. He’d made sure the world knew how he really felt about Tony. Second was to give Tony what he'd asked, no, begged for. He needed space and time, and Steve was going to give it to him. He had about 6 hours until the interview would air. That meant that after the 30-minute drive back to the tower, pack his things and, since there was no way Tony would talk to him right now, write Tony a note explaining how sorry he was before he had to be gone. He'd somehow get Jarvis to make him read it before the interview hit the airwaves.

---
Back at the tower, Steve moved with purpose. He pulled a large duffle bag out from under his bed and took a quick mental inventory of his belongings. Almost everything he owned was something Tony had given him. The art supplies, the books, the electronics... even his phone was a Tony Stark one-of-a-kind, built to withstand frustrated super soldiers.

He’d only take what was absolutely necessary, he decided. After a few weeks, maybe he could talk to Tony and work something out. Maybe he wouldn’t have to leave forever, but if he did? Well, that was his own fault. Focus on the task, he told himself. Focus on the task or you’ll break down and you don’t have time for that.

He started with his clothes, packing jeans, socks and boxers at the bottom before collecting the few framed photos he had scattered around his suite and placing them on his bed to be wrapped in t-shirts for safer carrying. He picked up the first, a picture Natasha had taken in the limo as they were coming home from one of the charity galas they’d all attended before Steve ruined everything. Steve’s bow-tie was undone and his shirt open at the collar. Tony was leaned up against him, obviously asleep with his face mashed into Steve’s shoulder. It wasn’t that unusual, Tony often crashed after putting on The Stark Show at an event. What was unusual, though, was the way Steve was looking down at him. His face was soft and fond, his affection was clear in his expression.

How had he not seen it before? How had he been so blind to his own feelings? He admitted to caring, but in this picture, the love was obvious. And of all the pictures he could have kept and framed, Steve had chosen this one. What did that say about what his subconscious was desperately trying to get him to acknowledge?

“Too late now, Rogers,” he said to himself. “Story of your sorry life.”

He picked up a t-shirt and was about to wrap it around the frame when he heard the door to his suite fly open and bounce off the wall behind it.

“Steve?” Steve’s head shot up as Tony’s frantic voice filled the apartment.

“Tony?” he dropped the picture in his hand and turned towards the door.

“Steve!” Tony shot into the bedroom, a whirlwind of manic energy. He was pale and breathless, his eyes wide.

“Tony, are you okay? What’s wrong?”

“Did you mean it?” Tony demanded, crossing the room to Steve. “Did you really –“ Tony cut himself off as his eyes settled on the half-packed bag open on the bed. “What the hell are you doing?”

“Tony,” Steve began with false calm, choosing to answer the one question he knew how to. “I’m packing. I’ll be out in an hour or two, at most.”

“Out of here? You’re leaving?”

“Yes.”

“And what? You were just going to sneak off and not say a fucking thing?”

“No, Tony. I wouldn’t – I wouldn’t do that. I didn’t think you’d see me, so I planned to write you a letter. I was going to talk to the rest of the team before I left.”

“I see,” Tony was stock still by the edge of the bed. “So is this a departure from the team, too?”

Steve swallowed hard around the lump in his throat. “I had hoped to stay on the team, but if you don’t think I should-“

“So, Iron Man yes, Tony Stark not recommended. I guess that answers that. Good luck, Cap. I’ll –“ Tony’s voice shook as he turned towards the door. “See ya next time the world’s about to go boom, I guess.”

“Tony, please-“ Steve took a step towards him, his hand out as if to grab his arm.

“Please what?” he demanded he spun to face Steve again. “Please accept your parting gift of the Captain America seal of approval? Reap the benefits of the biggest fucking lie you’ve ever told and liberate you from whatever fucked up guilt you have rattling around in there? Fine. You’re absolved. Good for you! I wish you would have told me you were going to do it, though. I could have saved you the trouble of crucifying your reputation on the altar of the merchant of death. Fuck. I knew I should have fucking… I knew it. I knew you didn’t- fuck!”

And suddenly, it all clicked into place. “You’ve seen it already. You saw the interview.”

“Yeah,” Tony replied, seemingly no longer angry, just defeated. “Shelby sent it over to Pepper the second you left. It hasn’t aired yet. She said she wouldn’t air if I didn’t want her to. She’s willing to cut that last question out and edit in a new ending if you want to go back and tape it. Or she can just, you know, do some post-production magic and make it seem like you had to leave for an emergency or something. I’ll tell her that you’ll call her to discuss what you want to do.”

“Don’t do that,” Steve choked out. “I did it for a reason, Tony.”

“And I’m telling you that you didn’t need to!” Tony’s anger made a quick return as he finally looked Steve in the eyes. “You don’t have to be Mr. Self-Sacrifice this time. Lying to the world isn’t necessary. It’s fine.”

“Tony, no-“

“I said it’s fine."

“No, it really isn’t,” Steve said, finally moving forward and grabbing Tony’s upper arms.

“What the fuck, Cap?! Hands off!”

“No, not this time. This time I’m actually going to say what I need to say, and you’re going to listen.”

“Steve, let go,” Tony growled, struggling under Steve’s hands.

“I’m sorry, I can’t. I can’t let go right now because you'll run and you won't hear me say I meant it, Tony. I meant every word. Every. Damn. Word. You are… God, I can’t even ask you to trust me on this, to believe me, because I’ve screwed everything up so badly, but Tony, I love you. I love you so much.”

Tony froze under Steve’s hands and tilted his face up to stare up at the taller man. Moments passed in complete silence and Steve realized he’d made another huge mistake. He quickly let go of Tony’s arms and took a half-step back, putting some space between them.

“You-“ Tony sputtered.

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, I shouldn’t have done that. Tony, I’m-“

“You cursed!” Tony breathed, his eyes wide.

“What?"

"You actually said a swear word!"

"It’s been known to happen,” Steve replied, confused now.

“But not when you’re not, you know, actively being shot at.”

“First time for everything,” Steve smiled sadly.

“And you meant it,” Tony looked him in the eyes.

“I did.”

“Then why are you leaving?”

“You said you needed to kill me in your head, that you needed time, so I need to go away and give you that. I don’t want to hurt you anymore, Tony. What I did? That’s unforgiveable and I know that. I hope we can be friends again eventually, but, well, I understand if that’s not in the cards.”

“Oh, fuck this,” Tony growled. It was all the warning Steve had before Tony closed the space between them and was kissing him.

Steve sank into the kiss without hesitation, hands coming up to settle on Tony’s hips as he got caught up in the feeling of rightness. It was so familiar, so comfortable, that tension he didn’t even know he had been carrying around bled out of him.

Tony’s hand came up to rest against his neck, running his fingers through the short blond hair at his nape as he nibbled at Steve’s lower lip. Finally, Steve gently pulled away, his breath coming in harsh gasps. Tony immediately leaned forward to try and catch his lips again.

“Tony, no,” Steve breathed against his mouth. “As much as I want to, we can’t do this.”

Tony stepped back, his eyes going to the floor. “Right, of course. You lo- you meant it, but you aren’t interested in-“

“Oh, I’m interested,” Steve interrupted. “I want you so badly right now it's a physical ache in my gut. It's taking all my self-control not to just strip you down, throw you on my bed, and tease you until you’re sobbing for release.”

“You could. We could, uh, do that, right now," Tony swallowed hard. "You should do that.”

“No, I absolutely shouldn’t,” Steve took a deep breath. “I did this all wrong, and I need to fix it, if you’ll let me try, before we get there.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“We jumped into sex before we really acknowledged we were dating, and then I let you believe we were in a relationship for months by not letting myself see it. I need to untangle that. This is too important to get it wrong if you decide to give me another chance. To be clear, I’m talking about dating you. Out in the open, with dinner and movies and holding hands and cuddling and gratuitous public displays of affection that will land us on page 6.”

“I – you don’t want a relationship with me, Cap.”

“I do, but if you don’t, Tony? That’s totally okay. That’s more than okay, that’s expected. As much as I would like to, though, I won’t sleep with you if we aren’t together, because yes, sex with you is amazing, but it’s not worth it if I don’t have all of you. I won’t do that to you again, and I won’t do it to me.”

“You want to date me.”

“Yes, but first I want to regain your trust. I want to prove myself worthy of your friendship. I want to repair the damage I’ve done as best I can, and if, at some point, you’d like to maybe date me? I’d want that, too.”

“I trust you,” Tony murmured. “I always have. I want to be with you.”

“You can’t let me off the hook for this that quickly.”

“You weren’t the only one that made mistakes, Cap. I could have said no. I could have put a stop to it. Hell, I could have actually talked to you and told you how I was feeling.”

“Neither of us did a good job communicating, I'll admit that, and that will have to change if this is going to work, friends or otherwise. I know it's going to be hard and we're going to screw up, but I really want to try.”

"What about Captain America? I'm still Tony Stark, I'm still the former arms dealer who drinks too much and who has slept with too many people and done too many stupid things to be considered good enough by, well, anyone. I can destroy Captain America's reputation."

"I never, ever should have said that-"

"It's not untrue."

"But it is. It was the excuse I hid behind because I've never felt for anyone what I feel for you, and that confused me. No, it scared me. I told myself, and you, that I was worried about the reputation and credibility of Captain America when really I was worried about the heart of Steve Rogers. I couldn't even admit the truth to myself."

Tony shook his head emphatically. "No. No, that's not true. We both know know what people think of me. You said it yourself; most people don't see Tony, just Stark. Don't look so shocked," Tony said when Steve started in surprise. "It is my tower. I can review security footage, you know, when my head clears enough to realize there might be more to the conversation."

"An extremely wise being told me that context in that situation didn't matter because I have been treating you like I believed those things, and he was absolutely right."

"Whatever the case, and I'm not saying I agree with you, but I know better than to argue with your stubborn ass sometimes, it's still true that me being who I am could ruin everything you stand for."

"It won't. The kind of people who still care about things you've been making amends for for years and who can't see the hero you are aren't the kind of people who change their opinions based on facts and logic, let alone a plea from me. They aren't going to stop hating gay kids just because Captain America told him to."

"It's not that black and white, Cap, and you know it."

"Maybe not, Tony, but I don't care. Maybe for once I want what Steve Rogers wants to be more important than Captain America."

"You can't-"

"Remember that thing about being stubborn and knowing that sometimes you shouldn't argue with me? This, too, is one of those times."

"So you want us to be friends?" Tony cocked his head to one side.

"I do."

"And to date me?"

"I don't expect that. I know I ruined things and I have a lot of work to do before you believe me, but if that's something you might want someday? I do. If it never happens, I'm grateful you just gave me chance to apologize and to try to be your friend again."

They stood there, staring at each other for long moments until Tony finally spoke.

“Steve?”

“Yes, Tony?”

"I want to be with you," Tony said in a small voice. "Will you be my boyfriend?”

"Tony, I want to so badly, but we need to take this slow. Jumping into a relationship might not be a good-"

"Remember how we just established that you can be stubborn sometimes?" Tony interrupted. "Well, you aren't the only one. This is something you want. This is something I want. Why won't you let us both have what we want?"

"Are you sure?"

Tony nodded, a small smile softening the lines of his face. "I'll even do my best to talk about feelings with you, even though I'm awful at it."

Steve’s laughter bubbled up from deep inside, genuine and disbelieving. He had made so many mistakes, hurt Tony so badly, and yet here Tony was, willing to give him another chance, to give them another chance. “And you'll let me take you on real dates? Where I pick you up, take you to dinner, and then stare at you awkwardly when I walk you to your front door at the end of the evening, wondering if I should give you a goodnight kiss or not?”

“Well, we do already live together… don’t we?” Tony’s voice was hopeful. “You’ll stay?”

Steve hesitated for a moment. "Tony, I'm not sure I should-"

"Please? You belong here. With me, and with the team. Stay?"

"You're sure?"

"Positive."

“Okay. I’ll stay,” he confirmed. “And now for the hard part.”

“The hard part?” Tony questioned.

Steve nodded. “Jarvis?”

“Yes, Captain?”

“Can I depend on you to help me stay on track?”

“I will do my utmost to ensure both you and Sir remaim true to your respective promises.”

“Thank you.”

“It is my pleasure, Captain.”

“I’m not sure I like my AI colluding with my boyfriend,” Tony groused, moving forward to wrap his arms around Steve’s waist and rest his head on his chest.

“Well, in the wise words of the Spice Girls, if I want to be your lover, I apparently need to get with your friends.”

“Oh God, Steve. No. No, you cannot take relationship advice from mid-90s pop princesses!” Tony leaned back to look up at Steve, laughter coloring his voice.

“I can, and will,” Steve grinned. “Hey, Tony?”

“Yeah?”

“I love you.”

“I'm not going to help you make nice with Natasha,” Tony said, leaning up for a kiss.

“Some boyfriend you are,” Steve chuckled, bending to meet him.

Chapter Text

Art for chapter 4 by the unparalleled Kelslk. Check out her Tumblr at http://kelslk-art.tumblr.com/.

Chapter Text

First of all, thank you. No, really, thank you. You guys have been so gracious and kind and I really appreciate it.

Second, there is no new content here. I just wanted to let those of you who already read chapter 8 know that I made some updates and re-wrote a chunk at the end so I feel a little happier with it. Maybe you'd like to check it out?

Third, a couple people mentioned wanting alternate points of view on things - is that a thing? I started to write where Tony watches the interview, but it didn't work well with the flow so I scrapped it. Would people be interested if I finished it and posted it as a standalone? Are there other parts that people want to see from another character's point of view? Just Steve and Tony or Natasha, too?

Is this all ridiculous and excessive?

Hello, my name is I Don't Know How to Fic, and I care what you think.