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The Way of Things

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The thing is, the new kids are looking at Steve funny.

It starts the same day the new team does, their first day on the new team, at the party the Avengers throw after the press conference. The party isn't really a party in the way that would require organization, preparing a guest list -- they're just all still there in the front room after the reporters leave, and Tony says, "Hey, does anyone else want pizza?" and then somehow there are pizza boxes spread out all over the elegant mahogany tables, and Wanda's got the radio on, and Carol's behind the bar mixing drinks, and everyone's laughing and talking and laughing more.

It's a good evening. It's going to be a good team. Except for Vance and Angel, who are brand-new to the Avengers, the new team is the old guard -- Clint, Carol, Wanda, Thor, and of course Tony. Steve's still not sure about Vance and Angel; they'd been New Warriors, but they were still awfully young -- it wasn't that long ago that Steve turned Vance down for the team for being too young. But Clint had persuaded him that they were old enough now, good enough now, and Steve had let them on as reserve members.

They're still kids, though.

When you were their age you were shipping out, Steve tells himself. They can handle it.

Since mostly the team already knows each other, the majority of the evening is spent catching up, relaxing, enjoying being alive and on Earth again. It's good to be back.

Eventually, the party winds down, and Steve ends up where he usually ends up, which is to say, on the couch with Tony next to him. Tony's ended up where he usually ends up when he's this tired, which is to say that he's asleep with his head on Steve's shoulder. His face is shoved up against the mail of Steve's uniform, but Tony never minds. Steve's arm is around him; Tony's pinned his arm to the couch with his body. Steve also doesn't mind. It's not like he was using that arm for anything else anyway.

Steve looks at the way Tony's curled into him, the way Tony is peaceful and at ease and trusting, and he thinks about how lucky he is to be on a team with someone like Tony. He thinks about how amazing Tony is. He thinks about how handsome Tony is. Maybe this will be the year he tells him. Maybe he'll finally get up the courage to tell him how he feels about him.

But for right now, Tony's about to drop his soda. His can of Coke is still half-full and somehow it's still in his hand, listing dangerously to the side. Jarvis is not going to be happy if there's Coke on the Persian rug -- and when he wakes up, neither is Tony. Steve reaches over and gently extricates the can from Tony's grasp. then, after a moment's thought, has a sip. It's not like Tony's going to begrudge him that.

And when Steve looks up, he sees that Angel... is watching him?

Her yellow-tinted glasses hide a lot of her expression, but she's looking at him, eyes a little wide, and then narrower, her brows drawn together in thought. She looks like she's curious about something. Like there's something she wants to ask him.

Steve clears his throat. "Can I help you with something, Firestar?"

Under the bottom edge of her glasses, Angel's cheeks are a little flushed, and she jumps like she's been caught doing something she's not supposed to. "Sorry!" she says, far too quickly. "No, Captain. I don't need anything."

It sounds like there definitely is something, but Steve knows better than to push her.

"Okay," Steve says. "My door is always open if you have any questions. Welcome to the team."

She's still sitting awkwardly, hands in her lap, hunched in on herself. "Thank you, Captain."

Tony chooses that moment to half-open one of his eyes. "Mmmmrfmrrrr," Tony says, and he shuts his eyes again. Yep, he's definitely asleep.

"If you'll excuse me," Steve says, politely, to Angel, "I should go tuck Tony in." He moves his arm, and Tony opens both of his eyes. "Come on, Shellhead," he says, pitching his voice low. "Bedtime."

Tony's sleepy enough, uncoordinated enough, that when he gets up, he careens forward and hits his shin on the coffee table, and Steve's up in an instant, getting his shoulder under Tony, letting Tony lean on him, the way Tony always does. Tony's legs are asleep. These things happen.

They stumble out of the room together, and by the time Steve gets Tony up the stairs, down the hall, and into his room, he isn't thinking about Angel anymore.

"I think I can take care of the rest myself," Tony says, as he sits on the edge of his bed. "Thanks."

Steve nods and smiles and tries not to think about Tony asking him to stay, about what it would be like to undress Tony slowly, button by button, about what it would be like to kiss Tony.

"No problem."

He waits in the hallway until the light from under Tony's now-closed door goes out.

Maybe this year I'll tell him, he thinks, but he can't see why this year should be any different.

Steve puts the entire strange exchange with Angel out of his mind... until two days later, when the same thing happens again. With Vance.

It's morning, and Steve's in the kitchen eating breakfast. He's about halfway through his plate of eggs, and across the table from him Vance is eating one of those sugary cereals for children, the kind with the marshmallows in it. Steve's got the paper open to the sports section -- he pulled out the business section for Tony, like usual -- and he's reading about last night's Dodgers game with some dismay.

There's a shuffling sound behind him, and then the noise of the refrigerator opening. And then there's Tony's voice, which manages to be both affectionate and annoyed at the same time.

"Steve, did you eat the last of the eggs again?"

Guiltily, Steve glances down at his plate, and then at the empty egg carton in the trash. "Uh," he says. "Yes?"

Tony sighs.

"You can have some if you want," Steve offers. "Here."

He scoots back from the table as Tony comes over, picks up Steve's fork, and helps himself to most of Steve's eggs in three bites.

"They'd be better with cheese," Tony says, but he's smiling. He licks his lips ostentatiously as he finishes.

Steve snorts. It's a long-standing argument. "And when you make them, you can add cheese."

"I do," Tony says, mock-indignant, and he snags a piece of Steve's toast, which is fine, because Steve's sure Tony's going to make toast, and he'll have some of Tony's. It all works out in the end.

As he thought, Tony wanders to the toaster, crunching away on his ill-gotten bread.

Steve turns back to his meal -- and Vance has put his spoon down and is staring. He's staring just like Angel was staring the other day, like he has something on his mind. A question. His face is wrinkled in confusion.

"You okay there?" Steve asks. "Justice? Everything all right?"

Vance blinks. And then, for some odd reason, his head hangs almost sheepishly down; he picks up his spoon and curves himself over his bowl like he wants to lose himself in it.

"Fine," Vance says. "Everything's fine."

It can't be, though, not with the way he's acting. Maybe he's having problems settling in. Getting used to the team. Steve frowns. "You know, if you or Angel have any questions about being an Avenger, you can always ask me."

"Or me," Tony puts in. "Or any of us, really."

Vance looks wildly around the room, like this is an interrogation rather than a meal. "We're fine," he says. "I'm fine. I promise."

"Okay. If you're sure," Steve says. Why won't they say anything?

What the hell is going on here?

It's midnight, and he and Tony are coming back from an unscheduled grocery run -- because when your team needs several gallons of ice cream, who are you to say no? -- and it's really the first time he's had alone with Tony all day. Maybe he can ask Tony about the new kids. Maybe Tony's noticed.

They're almost home, and Tony passes the bags to Steve and starts fishing in his pocket for his identicard so he can get the gate open.

"Hey, Tony?" Steve asks, as two gallons of mint chip swing from his hands.

Tony swipes his card and the gate clicks. "Yeah?"

"Is it just me, or are Justice and Firestar acting... strange?"

Frowning, Tony pushes the gate open and holds it for him. "Strange how, exactly?"

"I don't know," Steve says, as he ducks inside. "They've been looking at me, both of them, like there's something they want to ask, but neither of them have said what it is. And it keeps happening. Like today at breakfast. But it's happened before." He sighs. "If they're not fitting in, if they're not doing well, I wish they'd say something."

"I haven't really noticed," Tony says, with a tilt of his head, letting the gate fall shut behind them. His eyes glimmer like the sea at night in the light from the mansion. "But if you say there's something going on, obviously I believe you." He shrugs. "Maybe they'll talk to one of the rest of us, though. I don't think you should beat yourself up because they're not confiding in you personally. You're kind of--"

"I'm kind of what?"

Tony half-smiles. "You are Captain America, you know. You might be intimidating. They're just kids."

Steve squints at him. "Am I really that bad?" He knows people often find the costume, the flag, everything... daunting. But he's a regular guy underneath it all. Surely anyone who's made it to the team knows that, and that includes the new kids. He casts his mind back. "I don't remember you ever being intimidated by me."

"Me?" Tony scoffs. "Do you know how long it took me to get over the fact that Captain America was living in my house? It was just because you didn't know me. And you were busy being dazzled by color television and the polio vaccine. You had bigger things to notice."

"Well, you're not intimidated now," Steve points out.

Tony gets the door open for him, too, and they get caught in the doorway, brushing up against each other. Tony's face is inches from his. If Steve leaned in, he could kiss him. For an instant it seems that Tony knows. His face is serious, taut with an unknown anticipation, half-shadowed.

"No," Tony murmurs. "That's definitely not how I feel about you now."

They pause there for a second. Two seconds. Steve's heart is pounding.

He can't, he tells himself. Tony doesn't want him. It's been ten years. For God's sake, Tony would have said something.

The moment is broken; they walk inside. Steve stashes the ice cream in the freezer and together they go to find whoever is still awake to tell them that dessert has arrived.

There are voices from the library. It sounds like Clint and Wanda, at least, and the quieter voices are probably Vance and Angel. Good. Maybe the new kids are asking them whatever it was they couldn't bring themselves to ask Steve.

And then Steve pauses a few feet from the door, confused, because Clint and Wanda are talking... about them.

Wanda's voice is soft and mild, but what she's saying... oh, God, what she's saying is--

"Tony's bisexual," she says. "Everyone knows that." That part, Steve acknowledges, is true. But he's in no way prepared for what Wanda says next. "And everyone knows he's had a crush on Cap for his entire life."

Steve can't breathe. He glances back at Tony. Tony doesn't look surprised, or shocked. He just raises his eyebrows and smiles a lopsided half-smile, a tell me something I didn't know kind of smile. That doesn't make sense. Nothing makes sense.

Oh, God. What is this? What's happening here?

"I mean, the guy has his own Captain America memorabilia collection." This is Clint. "It's not exactly a secret."

"But they're not--" Vance begins, and it sounds like a question.

"Nope," Clint says. "They aren't. Look, I know what it looks like. We all know what it looks like. But they're just Cap and Shellhead and that's just how they are."

"Obviously they've talked to each other about it," Wanda says. "We figure they've worked it out to their satisfaction. Cap doesn't want to hurt Tony's feelings, I'm sure."

Steve's heart is pounding in his chest, hammering against his ribcage, and his throat is tight. No one has talked to him about it. Did everybody know? Does everybody know but him? Is he still in the right universe?

"But they were cuddling," Angel says, sounding confused. "Captain America was cuddling Iron Man."

"Aww, that's just Cap," Clint says, sounding more earnest than Steve has ever heard him in his entire life. "He's just like that. He's always been like that with Iron Man, even before we all knew he was Tony -- and, come on, nobody but Tony could have ever had feelings for that tin can."

Steve did. Steve always did. Steve does. Oh, God.

On the other wall of the hallway, Tony is still looking at him, thoughtfully. He's going to deny it, obviously. He can't feel like that. He's going to open his mouth and tell Steve they're all wrong, any minute now.

"He's from the forties," Clint says, full of confidence. "Things were different then. Straight guys, they cuddled. It was before they invented gay people."

Okay, now Steve has to say something, because that-- that is ridiculous and wrong, and Steve's just going to have to sort this out. They're wrong about that. And they are obviously wrong about Tony. This is a mistake. It has to be a mistake. Tony doesn't feel like that about him.

"Come on," Steve says to Tony, tightly. They have to clear this up. He takes three bold steps and he's inside.

The four other Avengers have dragged the chairs into a loose semi-circle by the fireplace, and Vance and Angel jump when they see him.

"Captain--" Vance begins.

"I had been going to tell you all that there's ice cream in the kitchen," Steve says, "but now I think I should point out that we actually had gay people in the forties."

"Uh," Clint says. "This is awkward."

"You're telling me," Steve returns, ruefully. It can't be true, what they're saying about Tony's feelings. Any minute now, Tony's going to say this isn't true.

Tony hasn't said anything.

"You've interrupted The Talk," Clint says. The way he says it, it sounds like there are capital letters. The Talk.

"What's The Talk?"

"Clint," Wanda says in an undertone. "You're making Steve uncomfortable. This is why we don't tell him about The Talk."

"Well, he's here now, isn't he?" Clint mutters. He raises his voice and looks up at Steve. "It's a... tradition we have. The new recruits, whenever we get new recruits, we -- whoever's on the team -- like to sit them down and explain things to them. The, uh, situation between you and Tony. Sometimes they ask before we get a chance." He gestures at Vance and Angel. "These two asked."

The new kids... had wanted to know if they were gay. That was why they'd been looking at him. Not just him. Him and Tony. They'd been trying to figure out if the two of them were a couple.

"A tradition?" Steve echoes. He can't even make sense of this. The whole team thinks Tony has a crush on him? They all think that? They can't all think that. This can't be possible. "How long has this been going on?"

"Since the beginning," Wanda admits. She folds her hands together and shifts uncomfortably in her chair.

"What do you mean," Steve says, "the beginning?"

He'd have known, wouldn't he? How can they have done this without him knowing about it? How the hell can they all know? And why isn't Tony saying anything?

Clint's gaze veers wildly around the room. "When I joined the team," he says, "you were pretty broken up about Iron Man taking a leave of absence. You were really upset. And I thought, well, maybe the two of you were an item. So -- you remember? -- I asked you."

It's the curse of an eidetic memory. Steve hasn't thought about it in years, but the precise way in which Clint had said so does he take all the armor off when you fuck, or are there just convenient holes is never going to be able to leave his mind. His face is hot.

"You asked me," Steve says, and then he stutters, stumbles over the words, tries to catch himself. "You actually asked me-- I won't repeat it in company." He has some sense of decorum, after all. "But I believe I told you I wasn't going to dignify it with an answer."

"Yeah," Clint says. "You did. So what I did was, I called up Jan. And she explained to me that, no, that was just how the two of you were. And then I told the twins--" he gestures at Wanda-- "just so they'd know."

"So since then," Wanda concludes, "it's been a tradition. Whenever we get someone new, we explain... the way of things."

Oh, God. It really has been going on since the beginning. A decade. Everyone else wondered. Everyone else has seen them. Everyone knows. Maybe he wasn't really hiding anything. The room swims around Steve. He wonders if he's going to fall.

And then, thank God, Tony has his arm around him, strong, bracing, holding him up. Tony knows what to do. Tony's here. Tony's going to explain that obviously they're mistaken. They've misread the situation.

"We're just good friends," Tony says, and Steve relaxes. See, there, Tony's going to explain the truth. But then Tony keeps talking. "I mean, sure, Steve knows I have a thing for him. Everyone knows that, right?" He chuckles.

Steve feels all the blood drain from his face. Tony isn't denying it. Tony likes him? Oh, God, Tony likes him? Tony thinks he knows? That's why Tony's never said anything. Tony thinks he already knows.

It can't be true, can it?

The past decade of Steve's life flashes before his eyes. The way Tony's looked at him. The way Tony's acted around him. Tony's always been this way. Steve's never questioned it, because isn't that just how Tony is?

Apparently that's how Tony is... because Tony has feelings for him too.

Steve's starting to tremble. This can't be happening.

God, they've wasted so much time. They could have been together for years.

"Uh," Clint says, glancing rapidly between the two of them. "Tony?"

"Anyway," Tony says, "he's definitely not interested, but he's nice enough not to let it affect our friendship." Tony's not looking at him; he's smiling an easy, comfortable smile at the rest of the team, like he's explaining a known fact. "He's a real gentleman. He's never even brought it up."

"Tony," Wanda says, desperately, and she gestures toward Steve.

That's when Tony sees him, and Tony's face goes three shades lighter in half a second, and he jumps back from Steve like he's been burned.

"Oh, my God," Tony says, his voice hoarse. "Oh, God, Steve."

Steve forces the words out. "I-- I didn't know. I didn't know any of it."

They stare at each other, an agonizing frozen silence. Tony's face is a mask of horror. Steve wants to tell him it's okay, he's okay, he loves him, but he has no words left. He can't think.

"I have to go," Tony croaks out, and then he's running.

Steve is too stunned to move at first, and that means Tony's already in the foyer by the time he gets his feet under him. As he's racing down the hall, Steve hears a series of familiar metallic clicks, and he knows that's Tony suiting up; he'd left his armor by the front door.

He has to talk to Tony. He has to make things right.

Sure enough, by the time Steve's reached the foyer, the front door has been thrown open, and he can see Tony standing outside in the darkness, the lights on his helmet, chest, and hands glowing in the night. He's not quite at full power yet, but he's working on it. He flattens his hands down, palms parallel to the ground, and Steve knows him well enough to know he's got about five seconds until he takes off.

He knows Tony so well, and yet he never knew this.

He supposes he should be glad that Tony bothered to open a door and didn't just throw himself through a window.

"Tony, wait!" he cries out.

Tony's boot jets are alight, and he starts to rise. Steve doesn't even need to think about it. He runs, he leaps, and he crashes into Tony in midair.

Steve has enough momentum built up that they sway dangerously close to the brick wall that surrounds the mansion, as Steve knocks him back in the air. But as they rocket up, Tony rights himself and they clear the wall by inches. Steve has his arms wrapped around Tony's waist, and he's dangling from Tony's side, barely keeping his legs away from the exhaust of the boot jets. It's not their most graceful take-off, but it will do. Steve squirms, trying to climb his way up Tony and get a steadier grip. He didn't exactly think this through.

They're maybe thirty feet up now and getting higher, heading over Central Park. Trees loom dark below them. The park's not exactly a popular place at this time of night.

"Jesus, Steve, hold still!" Tony says, and there's panic even in his masked and filtered voice. "You think I want to drop you? From this height?"

"I'm fine!" Steve calls back. It's not the most comfortable he's ever been, but he's not going to fall. "I want to talk to you."

"Yeah, I can tell," Tony says. Even with the filtering, his voice is shaking.

He can't run away from Steve. He literally can't. Steve's holding onto him. Eventually he's going to have to put them both down, and they're going to have to talk. He knows that. Tony's not dumb. He's the most brilliant man Steve knows, even if somehow he never knew how Steve felt. It's okay. Steve didn't know about Tony either.

Sure enough, in a minute or two Tony's descending into the park, and they finally set down in the middle of a stand of trees. There's a shaft of moonlight, just enough to make out Tony's face when he shoves the faceplate back. There's no one else here. Tony's eyes are wide, glassy in the moonlight, and his face is still deathly pale, and he won't look at Steve.

"It's okay," Steve says, quietly. He isn't sure where to begin, how to say this, but he sure as hell wants Tony to stop looking at him like he's terrified of him, like he's going to burst into tears. Steve holds up his hands. "Tony, it's going to be all right."

There's no sound but Tony's slow, trembling breaths. Tony's gaze is fixed on the ground, his head slumped forward. Even though the armor is huge, Tony looks so small.

"I thought you knew," Tony says. His voice is rough. "I wouldn't have-- I thought you already knew. I know you never said anything, but I figured it was your way of letting me down gently." He breathes in, a rasping sound. "Well, now you can let me down hard, I suppose."

He raises his head and looks at Steve, and Steve bets he can guess what's going through Tony's head: he's thinking of all the ways Steve could reject him, what Steve is going to say, exactly how he's planning to break Tony's heart.

"Tony," he says, and Tony shivers. "I'm not going to hurt you, okay?"

He wants to say it. He wants to say I've been in love with you for years but the words are too huge. Too immense.

And Steve's always been a man of action. So he takes three steps forward and wraps his arms around Tony. The armor plates are harsh under his hands. Tony blinks quizzically at him, and that's when Steve leans in and presses his mouth to Tony's.

Tony jumps in surprise, and he's frozen for a few seconds, but then he's kissing Steve back. Honestly, it's not the best kiss Steve has ever had -- Tony is nervous, rigid, hesitant -- but it is Tony, and that means a lot to Steve. Maybe Tony will let him kiss him again.

Tony draws back. "Steve?" he asks, and there's so much hope in his voice. "Steve, if this is-- if this is you trying to let me down gently--"

Steve wonders who the hell kisses Tony and then tells him no.

"We had gay people in the forties," Steve tells him. "We had bisexual people too. You want to ask me how I know?" He smiles. "I kept thinking I should tell you how I felt. But then I figured that if you felt the same way, you'd have told me."

Tony's looking at him like he can't believe he isn't dreaming. "You really-- God. Steve, do you really--" he tries to say, and Steve knows he's rattled when he can't even get a sentence out.

Steve smiles. "I really, really do."

This time it's Tony who kisses him, slow and soft and wondering. It's a lot better this time.

"You want to come back home with me?" Tony asks. He smiles. "I hear we've got ice cream."

"There are a lot of things I like better than ice cream," Steve says, and Tony's smile is even wider.

Everyone knew except Steve. He hopes he's all caught up now.

If the team keeps giving The Talk, Steve thinks, it's sure going to be different now. Maybe next time they'll even want a couple of guest speakers.