The first time it happened, Steve almost clocked Tony in the face.
“Yy-ouch,” Tony had drawled, wandering into Fury’s office ten minutes after the meeting had ended. “Someone got you good, Cap.”
Steve frowned, remembering the dark bruise on the side of his face from the kick to the face he’d taken during his mission that morning. It was probably boot-shaped. “It’s nothing,” he grumbled out, but a moment later Tony’s lips were pressed against his forehead. Steve jumped out of his seat, nearly punching Tony away, but he stopped the swing of his arm before it could connect with Tony’s face. “What are you doing?!”
Tony winked, then laughed, clearly amused by whatever face Steve was making. “To make it all better, darling. Someone’s gotta kiss your boo boos.” Tony took in the otherwise empty room, apparently noticing for the first time that there was no meeting going on. “Well, guess you all got on just fine without me.” He stretched, long and languid, like a cat, then sauntered back towards the door. “You shouldn’t sit alone in the dark brooding, darling, it’s too depressing.” And then he was gone.
The side of Steve’s forehead burned where Tony’s lips had touched it. People didn’t really touch him much, since he’d been unfrozen. Jan, maybe, would tuck her arm through his while they walked, or pluck at the clothes she always told him were hideously outdated, but that was pretty much it. The kiss made him feel worked up and tense, like something was vibrating under his skin. It was like being threatened and then there was no threat. He was keyed up and uncertain.
In the end, he’d gone to the gym and beat the crap out of fourteen reinforced bags before the wild humming under his skin calmed.
The second time it happened, Steve seriously considered clocking Tony in the face.
The Ultimates had come together for a training exercise. Fury had offered to reschedule, since Steve and Jan had been out all night on a mission gone slightly wrong, but it wasn’t like he was going to sleep anyway. He might as well train.
The drills went well and the team met up afterwards for a breakdown. It took Tony a while to get the suit off and clean up that bizarre green goo, so everyone was already seated at the table when he arrived. When he finally showed, Tony breezed past Steve’s chair and, as he did, he bent and pressed a kiss to the top of Steve’s head, right next to the gash Steve knew was sliced through his hair from last night. “All better!” Tony declared lightly.
It was over before Steve really processed what had happened, before he could react, but the kiss plummeted down from his head to his toes, taking his mood with it. He scowled at the conference table while everyone else tuned into Fury’s post-drill analysis, unable to shake his mind free from thoughts of Tony. Why was he doing this? It was patronizing and almost certainly meant to bait Steve into anger. Tony was always so damn antagonistic, and the last thing Steve wanted was to be sucked into his little game.
No one else seemed to notice or think it was unusual for Tony to go around kissing people - men - Steve. Men could openly be with men now, apparently, but Steve didn’t think Tony was like that. If Steve didn’t react, didn’t make a fuss, surely Tony would get bored with his game and stop.
And it wasn’t like it bothered him.
When the third heavy bag split, Steve gave up and went home.
Steve didn’t clock Tony in the face, and the kissing wouldn’t stop. Every time Tony caught Steve hurt, he’d press his lips to the bruise, or cut, or burn, then wink and laugh. And Steve didn’t get it. He didn’t see the point. If Tony had been trying to get a rise out of him, it hadn’t worked, but even when he failed to react, Tony didn’t stop.
He bumped into him in the elevator of the Triskelion, on his way up to Fury’s office while Tony was headed who knew where - maybe to visit the cute new receptionist on the 12th floor. Steve tipped a finger towards Tony in a half-hearted salute, and Tony snatched his hand out of the air. He pressed his lips to the mostly-healed cut between Steve’s thumb and forefinger, eyes staying fixed on Steve’s. Steve snatched his hand back, forgetting about his plan to ignore this weird new behaviour, but only made Tony’s eyes dance.
“Look it’s healing already,” Tony joked, leaning lazily against the far wall.
“What are you doing, Stark?” Steve couldn’t help but bite out. But Tony just laughed. It wasn’t a mocking laugh - Steve didn’t think it was a mocking laugh - but he didn’t get the joke.
Only a few days later, Tony invited the whole team over for dinner. Steve had taken a violent smack to the inside of his wrist during training that day and even now, hours later, there was still a dark purple bruise mottling his forearm. He reached out to shake Tony’s hand, thanking him politely for the invite, but Tony caught his fingers and twisted his hand to frown at the bruise.
“What happened? You weren’t scheduled for a mission today, were you?”
Steve barely had time to wonder why on earth Tony knew his mission schedule when Tony brought Steve’s hand up towards his face. His lips were soft and gentle, but with the bruise every touch was magnified by a thousand. Steve could feel his warm skin and the puff of air that slipped between his lips as he moved away.
Steve was instantly tingling all over - probably blushing for Christ’s sake - and he wasn’t sure why. It was like the abused nerves in his wrist had set all the others alight as soon as Tony had touched him.
Dinner was ruined. Steve’s eyes kept drifting down to Tony’s mouth, distracted every time he wrapped them around the edge of his wine glass. Because he wouldn’t stop touching Steve with those lips. And every time Steve’s eyes latched on Tony’s face, as soon as he caught himself, he’d send them sweeping over the table, checking each of his teammates for a reaction.
Maybe Tony was doing this because he’d noticed something… noticed something about Steve. But there wasn’t anything to notice, not anymore. Because - because he’d been planning to marry Gail and he loved her and everything was… Fine. It was fine. Those things - Steve didn't think about those things. But Tony... how could he not think about Tony? He was in-your-face, impossible to ignore, and Steve wanted to - ignore it - but he couldn’t.
And Tony wouldn’t stop kissing him.
The mission went terribly. What was supposed to be a small smash and grab hostage extraction had turned into something much more complicated. Jan was nursing a broken arm, Hank had immediately passed out over her lap, and Tony’s armour was riddled with dents and burn marks.
Steve had taken part of a wall to the chest, and he could feel the cracking twisting pain of his ribs knitting themselves together again. Tony usually flew himself home, but even he collapsed on the helicopter to catch a lift back to New York. Steve let himself fall into the seat across from Tony, the back of the helicopter tight enough that their knees nearly touched. Tony had the suit on still, but the helmet off. He looked exhausted.
Steve frowned at him, trying to think of a way to ask him if he was taking care of himself without actually saying that. His tired went beyond the mission, it was pinched eyes and flat hair and gaunt cheeks. His skin looked thin, like it had been stretched out too far. And since when did Steve notice shit like that?
Tony looked up and caught Steve looking, but before he could look away, Tony leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “We were lucky to get out of that one alive, weren’t we?” He was smiling, but it was twisted through with something sad.
Steve nodded, not wanting to waste breath on speaking when his chest was still screaming in pain. Tony kept his gaze until Steve couldn’t take it anymore and dropped his eyes to his lap. Tony moved, and Steve flicked his eyes back up to watch Tony bring two gauntlet-covered fingers up to his mouth and press a kiss to them. He leaned across the small space between them and lightly touched those fingers to the centre of Steve’s chest, right where he’d been hit, directly over his heart.
Steve’s breath hitched in a way that had nothing to do with his injury.
Steve blinked awake more slowly than usual. He could feel his brain clicking painfully into action. And then pain everywhere. He breathed slowly, carefully. The lights in the room were low, so it didn’t take long for him to blink his eyes open and put together the curtains, the bed and the beeping to realize he was in the medical wing of the Triskelion. He was alone and everything hurt. He tried lifting one arm and something started beeping frantically. He turned his head towards it, but his movement was slow, muddled.
He blinked towards the source of the sound and - no - he wasn’t alone. “Tony?” His tongue was fuzzy and huge in his mouth. He rolled it around, scraping it between his teeth, trying to moisten his dry lips.
“There you are, darling. You were unconscious for an hour. Unprecedented.”
Tony looked awful. For some bizarre reason, Steve reached out to touch his face, but there was an IV line into his hand and it wouldn’t move. It was also really, really heavy. Steve stared at his hand, betrayed.
Tony chuckled. “They’re pumping you full of drugs, trying to overcome your supersoldier metabolism. You had a tank dropped on you. You probably feel a bit weird.”
“A lot. Weird,” Steve explained. He reached for Tony’s face again. Thwarted again. “Uh -”
“Stop trying to move, Steve.” Tony rested two fingers lightly on Steve’s wrist, and he stilled. “I’m going to get the nurse, okay? I’m sure they want to make sure you know your middle name and the president’s birthday and everything.”
Tony made to move away again, but Steve hadn’t touched his face yet. He reached for it. There was something in his hand stopping him. He tried to bring the other one around to pull it off, but it wouldn’t move properly either. A sharp shot of adrenaline shot through his bloodstream when he realized he was trapped. He needed to - ugh. He struggled.
“Steve. Stop.” Tony’s hand landed lightly on the middle of his chest. “You’re okay.”
Steve blinked up at Tony’s face. He still wanted to touch it, but if Tony thought he was okay, it was probably fine. He settled back on the sheets, the bitter chemical rush dissipating as his body burned through it at supersoldier speeds.
Tony hovered there, eyes on Steve, waiting for… something. When Steve let out a long sigh, Tony relaxed. His gaze brushed over Steve, from head to toe. He looked sad. He leaned forward until he cast Steve in shadow. Steve swore he could feel heat radiating off Tony’s body. Tony pressed his lips to Steve’s cheek, just below his eye - quite frankly the only part of him that didn’t hurt. Tony stayed there longer than he ever had before, leaning into the kiss. Steve found his eyes drifting closed.
When Tony pulled back, a cool chill curled into fill the space he left behind. “Get better,” Tony whispered. Then he walked out. If a nurse came after that, Steve was too out of it to remember.
It wasn’t until he woke up four hours later, most of his wounds healed and the drugs no longer muddling his mind, that Steve had the brain power to wonder why on earth it had been Tony who was there when he woke up.
The next time Steve saw Tony was three weeks later, for their regularly scheduled Ultimates meeting. Tony took the chair on Steve’s left side, and Steve’s hand flipped palm up on its own, moving towards Tony several inches before he realized Tony wasn’t reacting.
Tony kept his eyes on the martini he never seemed to be without, though Steve never knew where they came from. He didn’t look Steve’s way, despite the jerky movements Steve made next to him. Steve pulled his hand back, and something hot and new rushed through his chest and up into his throat. His eyes fell on the wicked burn that marred his palm. It was hot, red and angry, there was no way Tony wouldn’t notice it. If he looked at Steve. But he wouldn’t.
Steve found himself running through the last few weeks, wondering if there was a reason Tony would be mad at him, but nothing came up. Unless he’d said something when he was drugged up at the hospital. A lot of it was fuzzy, but the last thing he remembered of Tony was being kissed on the cheek. He was sure he hadn’t seen him since, so why the cold shoulder?
When the meeting ended, Steve felt a little thrill of anticipation wriggle up his spine. Maybe now? But Tony just said, “Later darlings,” and walked out, barely saving a glance for Steve.
And it was stupid. It wasn’t like it was possible that Tony’s kisses were having any real effect on Steve’s healing. It was stupid, and childish, and entirely psychosomatic.
But Steve’s hand hurt all day.
It wasn’t a fluke. The next three or four times Steve was visibly injured around Tony, he’d tensed up automatically, waiting for a kiss that never came. The looks stopped too. The flirting. The winking. The jokes.
Steve should have been grateful for it.
He should have.
He started giving the gym advances on the bags he knew he was going to destroy.
When Fury told Steve to go find out why Tony hadn’t shown up for the last two Ultimates meetings, Steve thought about protesting. Send Jan, hung on his tongue, but he snapped his jaw shut. He had an obligation to his team, whether he was having uncomfortable thoughts about one of the members or not. If something was wrong with Tony, it was Steve’s job to sort it out.
And, really, he needed to know he could still face Tony. Still work with him. Because Tony’s shift in attitude towards Steve had crawled under his skin like a swarm of bugs, refusing to settle. He kept flashing back to the hospital, to the warmth and comfort of Tony’s lips pressed to his cheek. Even as he thought about it, his hand drifted up to cover the spot. Somewhere along the line - he didn’t know when - Tony’s cruel practical joke had turned into something Steve needed.
Tony himself was, apparently, something Steve needed. He’d spent the entirety of the last two meetings startling up every time he heard footsteps in the hall, wondering if that was Tony arriving late, but it never was. And Steve had no choice but to admit that he missed him. And he missed the way things used to be between them, when Tony would look at him, smile, wink, touch.
Still, he managed to put off the visit to Tony’s house for several hours. He tried to call Tony to warn him he was coming over - maybe hoping Tony would answer with a decent excuse and he wouldn’t have to see him in person, but Tony didn’t pick up. And Steve couldn’t chicken out.
Steve arrived at Tony’s house and knocked, trying not to look as uncomfortable as he felt. It was a while before a harassed-looking Jarvis opened the door. “Good evening, Captain Rogers,” he drawled. “I assume you’re here about Mr. Stark.” He stepped aside and let Steve come in.
“Uh, yes.” Steve hovered awkwardly in the foyer while Jarvis gave him an unamused look. “He’s missed the last two meetings. Which isn’t exactly unlike him. But he usually at least calls in. So.”
“You’d better go on up. Maybe he’ll let you in - if he can find the door handle in his current state.” Jarvis gestured towards the stairs as he walked off down the hall. “If he does, get him to eat something, would you?”
Steve stayed standing in the foyer for a few minutes after Jarvis left, deeply uncomfortable. He didn’t know what the butler had meant by Tony’s “current state,” and the thought of going up to Tony’s private rooms without an invitation was twisting his stomach into knots. But by the sounds of things, Tony wasn’t letting anyone in and wasn’t eating? He already didn’t eat enough…
Steve sighed. Well, he probably wouldn’t let him in either, but he couldn’t leave without trying. And if he was honest with himself, he was worried now. Deeply worried. Steve climbed the stairs, wincing as his boots echoed noisily through the empty foyer. He’d never been up here before, but he assumed the large, ornate double doors at the end of the hall led to Tony’s rooms. To his surprise one of the doors was cracked open.
He made his way over to the door, then knocked lightly, eyes fixed on the light spilling out of the cracked door onto the carpet. “Tony?” There was no answer. He took a breath then knocked again, louder. A painful sounding, guttural cough broke the silence, and Steve startled forward, reacting automatically, pushing through the doors. Tony sounded awful.
No one was in the opulent bedroom, or the attached sitting room, but there was another open door off to the side of the room, and as Steve swept his eyes over the empty bottles that littered the floor, he heard another hacking, gagging cough. He jogged over to the open door and rested his fingers against it to push it open. “Tony?” Too late, he realized this was the bathroom, but Tony wasn’t in a compromising position or at least not the one Steve expected.
He was sprawled on the tile floor, one arm hooked over the toilet seat. His skin was pale and sweaty. His other hand rested on his thigh and it was shaking. There was a water bottle on the floor by his knee, but when Tony reached for it, he knocked it over, and Steve dove in to grab it before it emptied its contents on the floor.
Tony looked up in shock as Steve righted the bottle, then handed it to him. “Steve?”
“You - uh - You missed two meetings. We -” Steve had fallen to his knees to catch the water bottle, and now it was awkward both ways. If he stood, he’d be looming over Tony, but he felt stupid sitting on the floor. Tony hadn’t even invited him to be in here at all. He hovered uncertainly on his knees.
“Of course,” Tony chuckled to himself. “Sorry. I was a little, let’s say, ‘occupied?’” His eyes twinkled, but it felt forced.
“Right.” Steve didn’t know where to look, but when his eyes caught on Tony’s face he couldn’t get over how awful he looked. He didn’t look hungover. He -
“Steve, darling, do me a favour and hand me the two bottles on the counter? I think I’m done for now, and I need to get at least one of each of those to stay put.”
Steve rose, deeply grateful to have something to do, and snatched up the two pill bottles from the counter. He’d been expected something like Alka-Seltzer or Tylenol considering all the empty liquor bottles that littered the floor in the other room. But these were orange prescription bottles with Tony’s name typed on them and more warning labels than a nuclear power plant stickied all over the side. “What -?” Steve cut himself off when he realized what a gross violation of Tony’s privacy that was. He’d asked him to hand him the bottles, not review his medical history.
Tony took one of the bottles and popped it open. He poured one of the pills into the cap, careful not to touch it, then tossed it straight to the back of his throat. He gulped down several mouthfuls of water after. Once he had swallowed the second pill, with less care this time, he answered Steve’s unfinished question. “Brain cancer. Unfortunately the chemo doesn't sit well with my stomach. Not that all the scotch helps.” He laughed self-deprecatingly.
“You - cancer?” Steve asked. He knew cancer treatment had come leaps and bounds since his time, so, surely? Steve gestured towards the bottles. “These will cure you?”
Tony smiled, but it was sad. He rolled the pill bottle around between his hands. “No. Terminal, I’m afraid. So I thought, why not go out in a blaze of glory?” He winked at Steve. “Why else would a perfectly average guy like me wrap himself in tin foil and pretend to be a superhero?”
“It’s more than the suit that makes you a superhero,” Steve said, surprising even himself with his honesty.
Tony’s eyes went wide for a moment, then he smiled. “Well, thank you. I’d argue, but I’m not sure I have the strength for it right now.”
“Is there - do you need anything?”
Tony dropped his gaze to the floor, thinking, and Steve supposed he was deciding if he was likely to throw up again. When he gestured up, Steve slipped a hand under his arm, and Tony let himself be lifted to his feet. Steve didn’t let his arm go.
“It’s a tumor?” Steve whispered, unwilling to let Tony shift out of his space. Tony seemed in no hurry to leave himself.
Tony reached up with his other hand and tapped his forehead. “Mm, right here.”
Tony was close and warm and - dammit - sick. And it was just the two of them, and Steve suddenly didn’t give a fuck what anyone else thought. Or even what Tony thought. He wanted this, and he didn’t have the energy to care what that meant right now. He’d wasted enough time as it was. And Tony had cancer…
Steve leaned forward and pressed a kiss to Tony’s forehead right over the place he’d touched. Tony’s skin was warm and a little clammy, but he smelled distinctly of Tony, and Steve’s mind shot back to every time Tony had touched him in the last few months - every kiss.
“I don't think that’s one you can kiss better,” Tony joked with a weak smile, leaning towards him as he pulled away and gazing up at Steve with some unbridled emotion that Steve couldn’t name.
It sent a jolt of adrenaline through Steve’s body, and he was leaning forward again, eyes on Tony’s mouth this time, before he really registered what he was doing. But Tony flinched backwards, and Steve’s stomach twisted painfully. Of course, it wasn’t like that. What was he thinking? He was being stupid. But then Tony smiled. It was a different smile from his usual one. Not glittery and flashing. Soft, warm. Intimate.
“Not that I’m opposed, darling. Only, I just threw up enough scotch to drown a lesser man, and I’d kind of like to brush my teeth.” Tony’s skin was pale, and his hands shook as they re-tied his robe.
“Right. Sorry.” Steve helped him over to the sink, and as soon as he was steady against the bathroom counter, he stepped back, giving Tony some space. But Tony leaned towards him instead, shifting his weight to Steve’s chest so Steve had to stay where he was or risk Tony falling to the floor.
Steve supported Tony while he brushed his teeth, washed his face, and tucked the pills back in the cupboard. There was a worrying moment where he shifted to the side and almost lost his balance, snatching for the edge of the counter. But Steve snapped his hands to Tony’s waist and took his weight, until Tony found his feet again.
“What do you -?” Steve half-asked, and Tony, apparently understanding him, gestured towards the door. Steve helped him across the room to one of Tony’s large, plush armchairs. He paused there, not sure if he should get Tony settled and leave, or offer to stay, or - or try to kiss him again? If that would ever be okay. He wanted it to be okay, as terrifying as that was.
But Tony gave him a little shove until Steve was seated in the chair, then sprawled on top of him, curled confidently in Steve’s lap, his head resting against the large wing of the armchair and his cheek on Steve’s chest. Steve froze, unsure where to put his hands, his - everything really. But then Tony said, “Is this okay?” in the softest, most pleading voice, and Steve immediately wrapped his arms around Tony and tugged him closer. Because of course it was okay. Really, it was perfect.
“Yes.” Steve shifted around a little, until Tony was settled comfortably across his lap. A jolt of panic shot through his core at the thought that someone might come in and find them like this, but when his options were to risk that or move Tony, the choice was clear.
Tony reached up with one hand and brushed his fingers along Steve’s hairline and then down the side of his cheek.
A question Steve had never intended to ask welled up and burst free without his consent. “Why did you stop kissing me?”
If Tony was startled by his outburst, he didn’t show it. “I -” He broke off, eyes fixed on Steve’s face, and Steve was pretty sure he’d never seen Tony without words before. “It started as a joke. I thought it would bug you, and it did.” He smiled. “But then… then it wasn’t quite so funny anymore. I realized I was doing it because it was an opportunity to touch you - one I didn’t get otherwise. And that - that was… risky. When you were in the hospital, I couldn’t bring myself to leave until you woke up, and I spent that whole time thinking about getting to kiss you again. No, I couldn’t have that. So I had to stop. I’m sorry. It wasn’t a very funny joke, in the end.” Tony sighed ruefully.
“I -” And this was it, the turning point. Because they could forget the bathroom, but if Steve opened his mouth here, there would be no going back, no ignoring this anymore. “I wish you hadn’t.”
Tony’s smile bloomed slowly. He tipped his chin in invitation, and Steve bent over and finally - finally - pressed a kiss to his lips. It was hardly a wild, passionate coming together. Tony was exhausted, and had just spent god knew how long throwing up, alone in his bathroom. But it was sweet and heartfelt. And when Steve pulled back and waited for the twisted, hot guilt to writhe through his stomach - it didn’t.
Tony smiled again, that same soft, intimate smile that settled warm and comforting in Steve’s chest. Then he lurched up to cough. Steve tightened his hold, ready to bolt for the bathroom again, but Tony shook his head and settled back down. “I’m sorry, sweetheart. I’d love to talk about this delightful new development, but I’m utterly wiped.” His eyes fluttered closed.
“Jarvis said you should eat something,” Steve said.
“Wake me up in an hour? I mean, that is, if you want to stay. If you can. Or if you need to go you can tell Jarv-”
“I can stay.” Steve’s hold tightened again. He just found Tony - really found him - he wasn’t letting him go again that soon. “I’ll stay.”
“Okay. Thank you,” Tony’s voice was fading. He snuggled his face into Steve’s chest. “In an hour. I’ll eat something.”
“Okay.” Steve stayed still while Tony drifted off, waiting until his breathing had been long and slow and even for some time before braving a move. He shifted Tony’s head into the curve of his upper arm, bracing it against the wing of the chair. Cancer. He tipped his own forehead down until it met Tony’s, then pressed a series of soft kisses across Tony’s brow.
Maybe it wasn’t something he could kiss better, but he was sure as shit going to try.