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The Trial Run

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There are those in the world who’d protest, but the fact is that Tony can sometimes be an observant and thoughtful guy. And not even in the setting-up-Avengers-Towers way, or financing-everything-the Avengers-could-ever-want way (which, to be honest, he almost backed out of when Nick Fury came around to obliquely praise him for) but in a smaller scale, everyday, being-a-decent-coworker kind of way.

Which is its own accomplishment, because before the Avengers, strictly speaking Tony’s only ever had two co-workers his whole life; he had to kill one of them, and dated the other one. Not a good history, all in all, but what’s history but material to learn from and improve on, right?

So here Tony is, mostly-retired from Stark Industries and moved on to being an Avenger. Though he could keep going as Iron Man by himself – which he will, if the need arises – a team has its advantages, and the cost of being in a team is accepting that he now has a circle of peers (technically), and all that that it implies.

This includes making room in Tony’s life for figuring out and dealing with other people’s work habits, living habits, socializing habits and all other fun things of people he didn’t choose in the first place but is willing to go with now because hey, they did good together that first time. And Tony honestly thinks he’s doing a decent job (growing pains of those first few weeks aside) and has become a decent and thoughtful person who notices when his fellow Avengers are feeling suboptimal.

Or maybe it’s just because Steve Rogers has loosened up a hell of a lot since their debutante ball, and Tony can no longer count the Captain America scowl of disgruntlement as the default that Tony once thought it was.

Tony’s having a late breakfast in the kitchen when Steve stomps past to the fridge, his face a thunderstorm. Tony’s thoughts, which had been idly skimming through his tasks for the day, switches over to skimming through possible things he’s done to piss Steve off lately and, happily, he can’t think of any.

“Someone’s angry,” Tony says.

Steve grunts a little, but that’s the extent of his response because apparently he’s too busy foraging for food. Tony leans over to observe the way the edge of Steve’s mouth has curled, which usually means he’s well-aware he’s kinda being a dick but can’t be bothered to care just then.

After Steve stomps off, juice carton in hand, it’s Thor’s turn to come by. Like Steve, Thor is dressed down for a day of rest, but unlike Steve, he’s in good spirits and returns Tony’s greetings.

“How’d the gig go last night?” Tony asks.

“It was most pleasant,” Thor says. “We do have equivalents of talk shows on Asgard, but yours are far more—”

“Don’t you say provincial.”

“—charming.” Thor side-eyes Tony as collects his coffee. “I do like Earth, you know.”

“So it went well?” When Thor affirms that, Tony continues, “Then why’d Steve look like someone took a piss on his shield?”

“You really wish to speak of piss in the kitchen?”

“You know what I mean.”

Thor contemplates the previous day’s events. Tony was busy handling checks on Rhodey’s suit, but he’d heard from Maria that Thor and Steve had gone on some late-night talk show. Apparently, the invite had been open to any of the Avengers but only Thor had really wanted to go, and he’d somehow finagled Steve to join.

“Maybe he didn’t like the beer pong,” Thor says after a while. “My apologies, I can’t recall anything specific. He did seem a bit quiet after, but Steve always has those moments.”

“Right,” Tony says. “Thanks.”

“You’re most welcome.” And Thor marches off to shampoo his hair or bask in the sunlight or whatever it is he does in his spare time, leaving Tony by himself.

Tony sighs.

JARVIS confirms that Steve’s haunting the gym, so that’s Tony’s destination once he gets another shot of coffee. There are other things that Tony needs to do today, but a good co-worker knows how to prioritize and all that.

True to form, when Tony gets to the gym, Steve ignores him. Tony marches to the side bar and takes his own sweet time, adding sugar and cream to his coffee, letting it settle, and drinking it in careful sips. He even spends some time scrolling through the feeds on the table display, all the while Steve makes like a horse and pummels.

At long last Steve pauses, chest heaving. “What?”

“Oh, look.” Tony flicks a finger, blowing up the holographic screen to display in the air. “You were on TV last night.”

Steve inhales sharply. “Tony, no.”

“You really need to talk to your make-up crew before you go on these things,” Tony says. “Your cheekbones really don’t need the extra—”

“Tony, no.” Steve moves fast when he wants to, slamming both hands on the table before Tony can finish. “Not today.”

“Not today as in, you want me to drop this forever, or I can bug you about it later?”

“The first one.”

“Tough.” Tony waves off Steve’s wordless snarl. “You know and I know that every time you get mad at something that’s not me, I gotta be all over it.”

“I should’ve stayed in DC,” Steve sighs.

“Probably.” Tony moves the screen away from Steve’s grasping fingers, and highlights the closed-captioning. “Is it the school question, the serum question, or the dating question?” Tony nods at Steve’s flinch. “Ah, the dating question.”

Steve seems about to say something, but decides against it and turns away. Tony finishes his coffee thoughtfully, observing Steve’s exasperated wipe of his sweat-damp forehead, and the way he seems to be going through a lengthy internal argument and possibly debating the best way to get rid of Tony entirely.

Tony’s eye drifts back to the screen, upon which Steve and Thor are dressed in smart casual and sitting on the guest chairs of the talk show. Thor’s body language is loose and relaxed, while Steve’s is a merely decent imitation of the same. The closed-captioning follows Thor’s exuberant description of Jane’s work and brilliance, and how proud he is of her. Steve manages a laugh when the host’s attention moves to him, but Tony knows that look. That’s a mission-focused look, i.e. survival at all costs.

“It really is none of anyone’s business,” Tony says. “And even then, being single really shouldn’t be framed as a shortcoming.”

“Yes!” Steve whirls back to stare at Tony. “Thank you!”

“You know what you should’ve done? Brought up Peggy, make the whole thing painfully awkward.”

“I almost did,” Steve admits. “But I don’t want to use Peggy like that. She’s more than just… Anyway. I know the circus is what it is. And I know it’s all just part of the process of humanizing us, and connecting us with the people we want to protect and inspire.”

“Spoken like a man who’s made one-too-many PSA videos.”

“I’d rather make even more of those than talk about…” Steve winces. “I know I’m whining. You deal with that and worse on a daily basis.”

“Doesn’t mean you can’t still be mad about it,” Tony points out. “So Thor talked about Jane, and you got put on the spot about your love life?”

Steve’s been pacing the floor through his tirade, but now sighs and sits a stool. Tony pushes a bottle of water towards him, which Steve accepts, scowling through two aggressive gulps. Tony is content to hold his tongue; Steve needs no further prompting, for this seems to have been building for some time.

“I hate being put on the defensive about this,” Steve says.

“You hate being put on the defensive, full stop,” Tony says. “What’s hilarious is that I asked Thor about the show, and he didn’t seem to realize anything was off.”

“Well, he thought it was hilarious to join in on the jokes about Captain America being single and available.  Nat’s the same. Actually, no, she’s worse. She’s been trying to set me up since we were in SHIELD, and cannot take a hint.”

“No, Natasha can take a hint. If she doesn’t, it’s ‘cause she doesn’t want to.”

“Point. It’s good intentions, I know, but I’ve made some damn good friends since I’ve woken up, and I think that’s more important than finding a new dance partner, you know? I guess I should’ve said that yesterday but I was tryin’ to be polite.”

“Just as well,” Tony says. “They might’ve taken that as invitation to rib on you even more.”

“I just wish everyone would drop it completely. That would be the best.”

“You could tell ‘em that you’ve found someone.”

Steve gives Tony a look. “Right. Lying will solve all my problems.”

“You’re a private guy.” Tony ignores Steve’s skeptical scowl. “Comparatively, right? So just say that you’ve found someone but you’re taking it slow and don’t want to scare them off, and you’ll talk about them when you’re both ready. That’ll buy some time.”

“Wow,” Steve says flatly. “They told me you were a genius, but I had no idea.”

“Look, wise guy, the way I see it, there’s two surefire ways to get people to stop asking about that kind of thing. Either you find someone, or you have a break-up that’s so embarrassingly public that everyone will know to steer clear of the topic.”

“Did you bring Pepper up in order to make this painfully awkward?”

“Dammit,” Tony says, snapping his fingers. “I keep forgetting to hold on to some trade secrets.”

That, at last, gets a laugh out of Steve. It’s brief but genuine, and thus a definite win, because cranky Steve is the worst kind of Steve to go on missions with, and Tony is all about holistic improvement. Not to mention that Tony really doesn’t want to have to talk to Thor and Natasha about Steve’s boundaries, because that’s above even Tony’s pay-grade.

“But seriously, thinking up scripted answers helps,” Tony says. “Or just putting your foot down firmly and clearly.”

“Because that’s something that you would do.”

“No, I’d make up a story about already being with someone,” Tony says, to which Steve chortles. “You know what? You don’t like lying, so how’s this: you’re dating me now.”

Steve rolls his eyes. “I’m flattered, but—”

“Genius talking, shut up.” Tony grins when Steve does shut up, though his mouth is still pursed in a straight, unimpressed line. “You’re dating me now, but we’re taking it slow and are not yet comfortable being open about it. So if someone asks, you can picture someone real in your head – me! – for whatever details they want to know and will share with your vague and careful discretion. Voila.”

“That would create more problems than solve them. But I suppose that’s your expertise.”

“Ow.” Tony clutches his heart. “I’m hurt. You’ve hurt me.”

“I think I’d rather try putting my foot down.” Steve shakes his head, his smile appreciative. “But thanks. I know it’s not… I mean, Natasha is—”

“You’re best buddies, yeah,” Tony says. “That can make it harder sometimes. Same reason it’s tough to bring this up with Wilson?”

“I know they mean well, but I don’t want that kind of push.” Steve’s gaze goes distant for a moment, as though recalling a memory along such similar lines. When Steve comes out of it, he seems sheepish, and ducks his head. “I don’t find it funny.”

“I getcha,” Tony says. “And you’re right – making friends is already a hell of an achievement. It’s hard as fuck to do, and you’ve made more buddies in the past few years than I have in the past couple of decades. You should be proud of that.”

Steve stills, surprised and discomfited. Tony can see him gearing up to say something kind in return, which would actually be awkward, so Tony stands up and says, “Okay, that’s my good deed for the day. I’m gonna find Bruce and create something revolutionary over lunch. You feeling better?”

“Yeah,” Steve says. “And try not to make a mess with Bruce.”

“What on earth would be the point of that?” Tony sweeps his mug up. “You know where to find me.”

“Thanks, Tony,” Steve calls out to Tony’s retreating back. “I said: Thanks, Tony! You’re a nice guy!”

“Your threats mean nothing to me!” Tony yells over his shoulder.

 

 


 

 

For a while, Tony forgets about it. There are other things going on: following another lead on Loki’s scepter, cleaning up Hydra cells, stopping the occasional megalomaniac-wannabe in a world of superhero escalation. These and others keep the merry Avengers busy, and luckily it’s all relatively low-level, non-Armageddon-type events, which is thoughtful on Tony’s blood pressure.

It’s a couple of weeks after Steve and Thor’s talk-show appearance (and Steve’s subsequent tantrum) before Tony is reminded of it in a meaningful way. It happens on a Tuesday evening, while Tony’s in the general lab catching up on his feeds, and there’s a knock behind him.

This lab has no doors – the elevator opens immediately to the open work floor – so anyone who knocks has to make the extra effort of finding a surface to do it, and so far there’s only one person who bothers.

“Evening, Cap,” Tony says.

Steve murmurs a greeting, and Tony registers his approach on the left side, coming to stand behind Tony’s chair. More interesting is the fact that Steve sounds a little out of breath. “You busy?”

“Always,” Tony says.

Steve huffs a laugh. “What are you watching?”

“Small town news, quasi-viral videos, things that don’t always rise to the top of the primetime news cycle.” Tony enlarges one of the screens, which he brings to the forefront. “JARVIS highlights some of the more interesting items, and I catch up every week or so. I like keeping tabs on what’s out there.”

“You mean people with abilities? Like us?”

“A lot of it’s just noise, but sometimes…” Tony turns, catching the way Steve’s eyebrows go up when he watches the video of a humanoid shape climbing the side of the building. “Could be nothing. Could be something.”

“That’s good,” Steve says.

“Yay, I get a cookie.” Tony waits. “No cookie? Not even a small one?”

“Actually, I wanted to tell you something.” Steve clears his throat. “Do you remember a while back, I was in a… mood.”

“You’re going to have to be way more specific than that.”

“You suggested that the next time someone asks about my love life, I’m to imagine that I’m dating you.”

“Oh, that mood.” Tony slowly swivels in his hair to bestow Steve his full attention. For his part, Steve almost seems nervous, which is intriguing. “What’s happened now? Did you get into a fight on the internet?”

“I was at an event with Sam,” Steve says, which has Tony belatedly noticing Steve’s nice dress shirt and slacks, and the very picturesque way he’s rolled up his sleeves. “For the VA. Just a casual get-together – food, drinks, games. A couple of us got to talking and, uh… the topic came up.”

Tony rubs his hands together. “What did you do? Put your foot down firmly?”

“Tried that, failed that, because…” Steve frowns. “Look, they’re nice.”

“Never said otherwise.”

“I didn’t want to…” Steve pauses, discarding whatever roundabout story he’d been about to tell, and goes for bottom line. “I said I was seeing someone and didn’t want to share yet.”

Tony nods. “Did it help?”

“They moved on to another target.”

“Then what’s the problem?”

“First of all,” Steve says, with the air of someone who’s been bracing himself for this conversation, which is all sorts of delightful, “I’m sure I’m not the first person who’s let their guard down when in social situations with people I’m truly fond of.”

“Steve Rogers,” Tony says, grinning, “did you panic?”

“It’s not like I took your idea seriously. It’s a bullshit band-aid for a bullshit problem, but for a second – a second – what you said popped up in my head and it felt easier to just say yes when they asked. For once, I could say: yes, I am seeing someone, if only because I’ve never done that before and was a little curious how they’d react.”

“And?”

“I kept it vague. Just used some traits—”

“So you said you’re dating somebody who’s devilishly handsome and incredibly smart—”

“More like, somebody who’s interesting but challenging, and usually a pain in the ass.”

“You did not.”

Steve shrugs, unrepentant. “Seemed to work. But here’s the rub. I let it slip that we’d met at work. Small room, so Sam heard about it quick.”

That’s the problem?” Tony laughs. “Really?

“Sam knows it’s not Natasha. Nor Thor, because he has Jane. Not Clint, because he has that mysterious person he keeps calling that we pretend not to notice, and not Bruce because…”

“Because of the Natasha thing,” Tony says. “So what? There’s dozens of other people we work with. Maria, Nick, Rhodey, Helen, the guy who did the thing with the tracker, what’s his name – and even if Sam decides it’s none of them and I’m the only one left, so what?”

Steve blinks slowly. “So… what?”

“I’m a fucking catch, Rogers.” Tony gestures up and down at himself, not that Steve does the polite thing and check him out. “You should be nothing but proud if people think you’re hitting this.”

“But you’re okay with Sam thinking that?”

“Don’t know him that well, can’t say that I care.” Tony shrugs as Steve’s face passes through various permutations of confusion. “It’s a waste of energy to care about what people think of me.”

“You care what I think of you,” Steve says.

Tony pretends to think about it. “Not really.”

“Tony—”

“Goddamn.” Tony sighs. “I swear, I don’t care if Wilson thinks we’re banging, or if you’re banging all the Avengers, or if I’m banging all the Avengers, though hell if I know when I’d have the time for that. Do whatever you need to do. But I am glad that you’ve told me, so now I can have your back.”

“Have my back? Wait, you don’t have to—”

“And miss my chance to describe in fantastic detail how great you are in sack? No way.”

“You’re not going to say anything of the kind,” Steve says, voice low. “I already said that we’re keeping it under wraps, so you’re going to keep it under wraps as well.”

“What if Wilson asks me directly?”

“He won’t. He doesn’t come to the tower that often, and when he does, he’s always with me.”

“But what if he asks?”

“Under. Wraps.” Steve pauses, thinking. “Besides, we’re not having sex yet.”

“Why the hell not? I’m not saving myself for marriage.”

“Because I’m not even sure if I like dating you yet.”

Tony gasps.

“Exactly,” Steve says. “Don’t take it personally. Dating in the 21st century’s complicated, let alone when it’s with a personality like you. And what do I know about dating a fella? I’ve only just processed that that’s doable these days.”

“Ooh,” Tony says, warming up. “You asked me out on a whim. Didn’t even think I would say yes.”

“You blindsided me,” Steve says, nodding.

“And you’re afraid that I’m still hung up on Pepper.”

“That’s good. And since it’s complicated, Sam won’t push.”

“You are so lucky that I’m an understanding guy.”

Steve grins, and it occurs to Tony that this technically counts as collusion, and is the first time he’s colluded with Steve specifically. A milestone! Howard would be proud, or maybe horrified, because Tony can’t even collude with the guy over something more harrowing than the consequences of social norms and peer pressure.

“I probably won’t use any of this,” Steve says.

“I’m fine if you do,” Tony says.

“Sam probably wouldn’t even narrow it down to you.” The more Steve thinks about this, the more his expression brightens, and Tony can honestly say he’s never seen the guy look this pleased with himself when not using the shield on impossible targets.

“You know what?” Steve says at last. “Even if Sam does, it’ll serve him right for poking around where I said he shouldn’t.”

Tony laughs. “That’s the spirit!”

 

 


 

 

 

The thing about Sam Wilson ‘knowing’ even a limited amount information is that it’d lead to Natasha Romanoff knowing a great deal more information. Steve would’ve seen it coming; whatever those three got up to in the downfall of SHIELD welded them tight, and Steve knows his posse well.

Basically, Tony is the best choice for a low-key mostly-secret not-boyfriend, if only because he’s content to let Steve handle the actual story, and he doesn’t even remember that it’s going on most of the time.

Oh, he remembers sometimes, at idle moments when the memory of Steve’s worried-and-then-proud face pops up in his head and Tony cackles to himself. He and Steve work fantastic together but prior to this there hasn’t been much room for petty, non-work bonding between them – at least, not without at least one other Avenger involved as well. Tony figures it’s a mutual recognition of the volatility that reared its head the first time they met. That first eruption may have passed, but Tony feels the potential of it rumbling just under the surface every so often. The less ammunition they have on each other, the better, et cetera.

Anyway, Natasha. Tony likes her, but he doesn’t get her and doesn’t bother trying to get her beyond what’s needed to be effective out on the field. She’s mostly in Steve’s circle of the Avengers Venn diagram anyway, and tends to only seek Tony out if she needs equipment, intel, or entertainment in the form of harassing him.

Today, when Natasha finds him out on the Quinjet pad checking over the damage from their latest mission, she says by way of greeting: “You are not dating Steve.”

Tony looks up. “I can’t tell if that’s a question or an accusation.”

“It’s a statement of fact.” Natasha saunters forward, that annoying little smile on her face as she sizes him up. “A little birdie said that you and Steve are being intimate, which is the most bold-faced piece of bullshit I’ve heard this year.”

“That is definitely inaccurate, because you met General Ross just last week.”

Natasha’s smile widens into a grin, and for a second Tony is uncertain, his next response not immediately within grasp. The problem is, of course, that there are multiple ways to go about this, and the strangeness of the situation means that even this futurist can’t tell which path would be the most hilarious to take.

He can’t play Natasha; he’d figured that a lost cause since the time she and Pepper ganged up behind his back. But he can’t not play Natasha, because as Steve’s not-boyfriend-conspirator he has the God-given right to.

“A little birdie, that’s funny,” Tony says. “Could be either Clint or Wilson.”

“You’re not denying it,” Natasha says.

“Of course not.” Tony shrugs. “There’s no way I’m dating Steve. Absolute balderdash. I definitely don’t think the guy’s attractive in the least.”

Natasha pauses, and Tony thinks – ha! A double-bluff, which won’t last that long, but maybe just long enough.

“What are you doing, Tony?” Natasha’s gentled her voice, but Tony knows better than to fall for it. “What are you guys up to?”

“Is this like, a spy thing? Seeing conspiracies everywhere?” Tony shakes his head at her, mock-concerned. “Maybe we should speed up that search for our next target.”

“Mm-hmm,” Natasha says, noncommittal. “I’m just saying, as a courtesy, that I’m watching you.”

“You’re always watching. It’s one of your most consistent traits.”

When Natasha makes her exit, she leaves restlessness in her wake. Tony tries to refocus on the Quinjet, but it’s a lost cause. He keeps thinking about Natasha’s little squint, as though she knows everything, or will know everything, and the only way to counteract that is for Tony to seek out his accomplice.

“JARVIS,” Tony says. “Is the captain in the building?”

Yes, sir. He’s on the promenade.

“Excellent. Don’t let him know I’m coming.”

Tony sends a prelim report off to Maria and heads upstairs, along the way dropping by his suite to get a jacket and shades. He’d known that Steve liked hanging out on the upper promenade – sometimes by himself, sometimes not – but Tony had never had cause to bug him personally up there before.

The promenade looks over the south side of the tower, and used to be the launch site for Tony’s suits. It’s changed a lot from those early days, with all the equipment moved down to the lower decks, so Tony let the others decide what to do with the spare space. There’s a small botanical garden up here now, along with a dipping pool and benches to make full use of the open air view of the city.

Steve certainly makes full use of that view. When Tony arrives, Steve’s apparently moved his bench right up to the ledge, precariously close to falling off, because why not.

Tony speed-walks across the floor and yells: “Steve!”

Steve, whose mind was a million miles away in whatever dimension artists’ brains go when they’re at work, blinks up dazedly. “What?”

“I’m taking you out. Right now.” Tony observes the spread of equipment on the bench – Steve’s satchel is half open, a few pages of the sketchbook peeking out – though Steve is currently working on a monstrously large tablet. Tony grabs at said tablet, and even manages to hold on to it for two seconds before Steve’s reflexes kick in and he grabs it back. “We’re going on a date, get up.”

“Right now?” Steve leans away, holding his tablet out of reach from Tony’s hands. “I’m kind of busy.”

“So you’ll be busy with me. Let’s go.” Tony claps his hands. “Now, Rogers!”

“Geez.” Steve rises off his perch slowly, perplexed but compelled. He packs up carefully, and smacks Tony’s hands away when he tries to help. “I don’t know if I care for this kind of aggressive wooing.”

“You should’ve expected that when you asked me to go with you,” Tony says matter-of-factly. “Hut hut!”

Tony marches away, and nods with satisfaction when he hears Steve following. They get into the elevator silently, and it whooshes past a handful of floors before Steve says, “So what’s this about?”

“Natasha just came to see me,” Tony says. “Said there’s no way we’re dating.”

“Wow.” The sly little grin that widens Steve’s face tells Tony that this was the right decision. “She went to you instead of me. Probably thought you’d be easier to squeeze. What’d you tell her?”

“That we’re totally not dating and I don’t think you’re attractive at all. That threw her a little.”

Steve blinks. “You think I’m attractive?”

“It’s just your face, don’t let it get to your head. Besides, the Iron Man suits are more attractive than you.”

“That’s fair,” Steve says. “I wonder when Sam spoke to Nat. She hasn’t acted any different these past few days.”

“Who knows. Those two probably gossip all the time behind your back.”

“They would.” Steve just then seems to notice what Tony’s wearing. “Are we going out? I should drop my bag in my room.”

“Nah, bring it. You hungry?”

“I guess?”

 

 


 

 

 

They go to Central Park, their walkout in full view of the tower and presumably Natasha, if she is indeed wasting her time being an eye in the sky. Steve follows Tony without complaint, though probably more out of curiosity than anything else. Whatever he’s expecting, Steve’s surprised but agreeable when Tony leads them to an unused bench overlooking the pond and points for Steve to sit.

“Get back to it, then.” Tony makes himself comfortable a polite distance away from Steve on the bench, his legs stretched out. It’s relatively quiet for this time of day, and no one’s paying them and mind. “Go on.”

“With what?” Steve says. “Drawing?”

“Yeah, go for it.” Tony tilts his head back and closes his eyes.

After a few seconds Steve finally gets with the program and unpacks his satchel. Tony tries to guess his movements from the sounds: there’s the tablet, which Steve considers but puts down. There’s the sketchbook and Steve’s little box of stationery, which he picks through before choosing a specific stick. Then it’s quiet, Steve observing his surroundings for a long moment, before finally opening a page and starting work in faint scratches.

Tony drifts, the noises of Steve’s sketching and general park nonsense fading to the background. He thinks about the Quinjet, yesterday’s suit adjustments, his next appearance for the Stark Industries Board, Bruce’s latest radiation tests. There’s also the MIT letter that came, the next wave of stability tech he’d read some kid came up with in Germany, how JARVIS has been a little tetchy lately and might need some old-fashioned debugging.

“Tony,” Steve says.

Tony opens his eyes. “Ah, there it is.”

There’s a delivery kid hovering nearby, impatient but nervous, and he steps forward at Tony’s urging. “Did you guys order the—”

“Yeah, bring it.” Tony pats down his pockets while Steve accepts the pizza boxes and arranges them on the bench between them. “Ugh, who carries cash these days.”

“People who want to eat the pizza they ordered,” the delivery kid says, hand out to take Tony’s payment. “Thanks.”

They eat: Tony with his few slices and Steve twice that. There are drinks, too, though Steve jogs off at one point to get some water. The only conversation to be had is the occasional comment about the pizza, the park, and when on earth Tony made the order (during the walk over), and then Steve’s dealing with the rubbish and Tony’s back to stretching his legs out in front of him, ankles crossed and hands contentedly on his stomach.

Steve picks up his sketchbook again, but doesn’t move to flip it open. “You okay?”

Tony hums. “Yeah, why?”

“Don’t know,” Steve says. “You’re quiet.”

“You’re doing your art thing.” Tony leans over a little, not that he’d be able to tell how much of that sketchbook Steve’s gone through. “I’m letting you do your art thing.”

“Sure, but it’s unnerving that you’re just… not saying anything.”

“Do you think I talk all the time?” Tony scrunches up his face. “Sounds exhausting.”

Steve makes a soft, agreeing sound. He turns a page and contemplates it. “I am sorry about this.”

“The pizza wasn’t that bad.”

Steve barks a startled laugh. “Not the pizza. This. My thing about…”

“We all have our neuroses, Steve. It’s nice you’re not exempt.”

“I woke up seventy years in the future and you thought I’d be exempt?” Steve says wryly.

“You really need to let that be bygones,” Tony says, to which Steve rolls his eyes good-naturedly. “We’re all entitled to our hot buttons, and this is one of yours.”

“You have to admit that it’s stupid.” Steve pauses, as though waiting for Tony to agree. “In comparison.”

“Oh my god,” Tony exclaims, pushing his shades up to glare at Steve, “if you’re trying to get validation from me, you’re going to be disappointed. I don’t care why you don’t want to put yourself out there. It’s your business.”

“I don’t think I have that in me anymore,” Steve says, as though Tony hadn’t spoken. “I remember wanting those kinds of things once: making a home with someone, and always having that to come back to. But that used to come up against the other side of me – the one that knows how fragile life is, ‘cause when you’re a runt who’s one cold evening away from a hospital bed, you know not to take anything for granted. Those two sides were in balance for a while, until the ice.”

Steve says all of this simply, as though he’s reading out a shopping list. Tony’s always had trouble reading the less obvious of Steve’s expressions – the guy tends to hold things back until they explode – though it’s never bothered Tony as much as it does right now. Tony knows he shouldn’t be listening to this; he never invited it, and is far, far from the right person to know what to say. But he listens because he’s here, and Steve’s speaking, and Tony hopes that he’s doing as good a job with his own poker face as Steve is with his.

“After that, it’s like it went away.” Steve nods, as though saying that out loud has confirmed it. “So I felt that if I were to ‘put myself out there’, as you say, I’d be promising them something that I no longer have in me to give.”

“That’s depressing,” Tony says.

“Is it?”

“Not really, in comparison to the waking-up-with-your-whole-world-long-gone thing.” Steve ducks his head, smiling sheepishly. Tony adds, “But it’s a thing, and I guess it’s good that you sorta know what’s going on behind it.”

“Still figuring it out, actually,” Steve admits. “I thought I was just a workaholic.”

“Could be that, too.” Tony watches as Steve leans against the back of the bench, a picture of relaxed satisfaction. It would be nice if Tony could take credit for that.

“This was nice,” Steve says.

“Yeah.” Tony starts, surprised at his own answer. “Yeah, it is.”

 

 


 

 

 

A couple of pictures of their Central Park outing make it on the internet, but it’s a tiny drop in a miasma of noise. With the Avengers coming and going all the time – be it in the air or the ground  it’ll take far more than a pizza stop in the park to attract any major attention.

But there are those who pay attention.

Natasha’s one, of course, though she doesn’t do much except side-eye the both of them and pointedly refuse to mention it at all.

Another one is Rhodey. He drops by the tower a couple of days after for a working visit, and for the most part it’s a conventional visit, with the both of them hanging out in Tony’s workshop catching up on what the other has been up to.

It becomes markedly unconventional when, an hour or so in, Steve strolls into the workshop and comes to a surprised stop when he sees Rhodey sitting at a bench with Tony.

“Rhodey,” Steve says, opening a hand in greeting. “Didn’t know you were coming in today.”

“Hey, Steve,” Rhodey says. “Last minute showcase upstate, thought I’d swing by.”

“What’s with the nice pants?” Tony says.

“Oh,” Steve says. “Uh—”

“Is this for another pizza thing?” Rhodey asks. “Is that actually a thing? Because I’m game.”

“Pizza thing?” Tony asks.

“Well—” Rhodey takes out his phone and pulls up the paps photos of Tony and Steve on the bench. “Aww look at that, Tony, you even dressed up!” Tony laughs, and Rhodey continues, “It is nice to see candids of you where no one’s injured, drunk or naked, but I thought we agreed that workplace romances are a bad idea.”

“You know I’ve never met a bad idea I didn’t like,” Tony replies.

“No, I’m not here for pizza,” Steve says. “I’m taking Tony someplace else.”

Rhodey drops his phone on the counter. “Hold up, what?”

“You’re kidding me,” Tony tells Steve. “Right now?”

“Yes,” Steve says.

“Right now?” Tony echoes. “Is this revenge? I know I sprung the last one on you, but I actually am busy today. JARVIS, what do I have?”

Absolutely nothing, sir,” JARVIS says. “Except for this current sojourn with Colonel Rhodes.

“No, I checked my calendar this morning, you said I have the…” Tony trails off, distracted by Steve’s benign, only-polite-on-the-outside smile. “Did you get JARVIS to go along with whatever it is you’re doing? How do you – that’s not a…”

“I didn’t even know you liked Steve all that much,” Rhodey says. “Uh, no offense, Cap.”

“None taken,” Steve says.

Tony bristles, discomfited. “Of course I like Steve.”

“Really?” Rhodey says. “Name one thing you like about him.”

“He has very straight teeth,” Tony says.

“About his personality, Tony.”

Though seemingly impossible, Steve’s adjusted his stance into an aggressively casual lean against the far table, his head tilted in expectation. He makes a gesture at Tony – go on, then – and crosses his arms. Rhodey, when Tony turns back to him, has a similar expression, albeit a little more skeptical.

“Well,” Tony says slowly, “he doesn’t take any of my shit.”

Rhodey considers this. “Okay, fair enough. Sorry. So, Steve, where are you guys going?”

“That would be telling,” Steve says primly. “And it doesn’t have to be now, we can go later. I am sorry for intruding.”

“It’s fine, I need to get back soon, anyway.” Rhodey stands up, either ignoring or not noticing Tony’s bewildered flailing. “Tony. You’re going to tell me everything later, which will only just marginally make up for not telling me anything at all before, because I’m a decent friend.”

“No, you’re not,” Tony says.

“Right, I’m the greatest friend.” Rhodey pats Tony’s shoulder and then fucking shakes Steve’s fucking’s hand, before leaving the workshop like the traitor he is.

“This is an ambush,” Tony says. “You used JARVIS to clear my day.”

“Seemed the sensible thing to do,” Steve says. “He was quite nice about it.”

My pleasure, sir,” JARVIS says.

Steve’s attempt at looking guileless would fool no one, let alone Tony, but that’s the point, isn’t it? Tony can count on his hands the number of times that Steve’s come up to the workshop, but here he is, pleased as punch. Tony can’t even be mad at Steve’s assuming that he’d go; asking JARVIS is an underhanded and inspired move, and as far as Tony can tell, the only way that Tony can show his full appreciation of said move is to agree to its goal.

“Right.” Tony stands up. “Do I need to get dressed?”

“You’re not gonna make a little effort for me?” Steve says.

“Fuck you, Rogers,” Tony says good-naturedly. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go and make myself pretty.”

 

 


 

 

 

Steve takes him to a tech expo. Not even one of fancy ones on Tony’s radar, but a diddly event over in Nassau where they still use posters, there are no weapons on the roster whatsoever, and half the floor staff seem to be caffeinated, sleep-deprived college students.

It’s astonishingly, embarrassingly quaint, thought Tony is a nice enough not to say out loud that that matches Steve’s personality just right.

“Wait.” Steve catches Tony’s elbow as they’re moving to the doors leading into the main hall. “I need to look up our badges.”

“You do know that my face alone will get us free entry?” Tony says.

“But it’d be unfair to other attendees.” 

Tony watches Steve painstakingly browse the emails on his phone. “You’re just doing this to mess with me, aren’t you?”

“That would be petty,” Steve says. “Okay, here we are. Let’s go.”

Tony’s about to say something pithy, but Steve moves the hand that had been on Tony’s elbow to Tony’s lower back and that… is perfectly reasonable, because he’s just guiding Tony forward since they need to go inside, and Steve even drops the hand as soon as they start walking.

But it flicks a switch in Tony’s brain. A small switch that highlights the obvious: Tony doesn’t actually know why he’s here, other than that Steve asked him and it seemed like a reasonable thing to agree to at the time, just as taking Steve out had been a reasonable thing that other time.

There’s a lot about Steve that Tony doesn’t know and long ago accepted will never know, because even a super genius is limited by the kind of information they can gain access to. Steve has his issues, Tony has his own, and sometimes Tony thinks the only reason they get along these days is because they don’t push too hard and don’t spend too much time in each other’s company.

Yet here they are, walking the floor of a just-average exhibition center reading banners and scowling at prototypes (well, Tony is scowling) and talking quietly enough so no one overhears Tony’s bitching or Steve’s stupid questions. A few people clearly want to approach for photos, but back off when Steve gives them an apologetic smile, which is heinously effective.

“Is there food in this place?” Tony asks.

“You okay with corndogs?” Steve says. “I see a vendor.”

Corndogs, fries, and a couple questionable quesadilla samples later, Tony’s reasonable conclusion is that Steve’s lonely. He’s not even bored – he still seems genuinely intrigued by everything, despite their having walked the entire floor and seen more water reclamation systems in an hour than there are Iron Man suits in existence.

Steve already has friends but maybe he’s wanting a little variety, and thanks to the whole no-actual-dating thing, Steve’s options would be somewhat restricted.

Or maybe Tony’s just overthinking this whole fucking thing.

“What are you doing with your glasses?” Steve asks. By now they’re on the upper mezzanine overlooking the main floor, leaning against the railing and finishing off some merely-average coffee. “I can see the data stream.”

“Saving some things from the floor,” Tony says. “Might be useful, who knows.”

“Good. Thought you might be ignoring me.”

Tony huffs under his breath. “I don’t need the internet to ignore you, Steve.”

Steve hums noncommittally. It should be ridiculous for him to be wearing both their lanyards – Tony refused to put his on – but it isn’t. Just like there’s a lot else about Steve that should be ridiculous but isn’t, not least of all being the way he can switch between being so goddamned earnest and an utter shit-stirring bastard on a dime.

“So,” Tony says. “Sam and Natasha still giving you a hard time?”

“Sam’s backed off, but Natasha’s still trying. Keyword being: trying.” Steve grins. “Though I don’t think she’s told anyone else. Clint and Thor haven’t said anything. How about Bruce?”

“Why would I say anything to Bruce? This whole secret-pact thing comes from your damage, not mine.”

“Sure, that’s why you didn’t tell Rhodey what’s really going on earlier.”

“That’s because Rhodey’s a dick and sometimes I enjoy letting him believe the worst of me.”

“Dating me is that bad? Wow.”

“It’s not…” Tony curses himself, and curses himself again when Steve just sips his drink calmly, perhaps in expectation of another jibe that Tony knows Steve doesn’t take seriously anymore, but still. But still. “Rhodey knows Pepper was my one chance. That was it, and it didn’t work. I got a lot of regrets in my life but there? Not one of them. I know now, instead of always wondering.”

As soon as Tony says it, his stomach swoops a little, though this time in thinking of Peggy. Unlike Tony, Steve will never know how that might have turned out if, if, if.

But Steve just says, “Why is that your one chance? One, and no more?”

“Look at what we are, what we do,” Tony says. “Our world – okay, my world – is filled to the brim. Since the suit found me, since Loki and Chitauri, it’s all I can think about, and I don’t have time or space or energy for anything new. Okay? Work with me here, c’mon.”

“So… how does that tie in to Rhodey thinking we’re dating?”

“He’d see it as me setting myself up to fail.”

“You obviously know the colonel better than I do, but I don’t think he’d be that unkind.” Steve shrugs. “He seemed happy for you.”

Tony makes a face and shoves his empty coffee container at Steve. “I’m done, you can throw that.”

Steve starts to move away, but then doubles back, quickly putting his arm around Tony’s shoulder to squeeze. He’s done and gone before Tony can protest, and stupidly takes his own sweet time with the rubbish, so by Steve time he comes back, Tony’s irritation is gone and he’s distracted by a guy wearing tight lime-colored pants on the main floor.

“That is a dude with balls,” Tony says.

“If he turned this way, I could actually see his balls,” Steve replies, and Tony laughs.

 

 


 

 

 

They make it back to the tower unharmed, though it’s a hell of a lot later than Tony thought it would be. He could’ve ordered Steve not to take the scenic route on the drive back, but he’d been so startled by Steve’s opening the door for him and once again guiding him in with a hand on Tony’s back, that he’d forgotten about it.

On the elevator up, Steve asks, “Did you have a good time?”

“Yeah,” Tony says. “I actually did.”

“Don’t need to sound so unhappy about it.”

“I’m not fan of my expectations being exceeded without my say so.”

Steve laughs, and he’s still chuckling when they reach their floor. Tony steps out first – has to, what with Steve hanging back again to let him go, which is still weird as the dickens – and heads straight for the kitchen/eating area.

Only Natasha and Bruce are there this time of night, she leaning against a counter and he standing awkwardly with a mug clasped in his hands. It’s perfectly family-friendly, and does not at all merit the way Bruce takes a startled step back at the sight of them.

Natasha’s eyes move over them. “Where have you two been?”

“Out,” Steve says.

“What he said,” Tony says.

“Thor called,” Bruce says. “He says the interrogation didn’t go so well, but he did find a lead on the signal.”

Thor called?” Tony echoes.

“Okay, Erik Selvig called,” Bruce says. “But Thor was there. Said he should be back in the next few days if we want to gear up, otherwise he’s going by himself.”

Natasha inhales sharply and plucks the pair of lanyards off Steve’s neck. “You went to an expo? Really, Tony?”

“It was his idea!” Tony exclaims.

“It was my idea,” Steve agrees. “It was nice. Food could’ve been better, though.”

“Yeah,” Tony says. “I didn’t want to say anything.”

“We have leftovers from yesterday.” Bruce hunches over a little. “Just the two of you? I could’ve come, I wasn’t doing anything.”

Natasha smacks Steve and sets a warning finger in front of his face. “Don’t say that it was a date.”

“What would you call it, then?” Steve counters.

“A date date?” Bruce’s eyes are wide. “When did this happen?”

“Yes, a date date,” Tony says, while Steve fends Natasha off with a box of leftover takeout. “Not my usual scene but Steve is a man of hidden depths, apparently.”

“Whatever you guys are up to, I’m still not buying,” Natasha says.

Bruce frowns. “That’s mean.”

“Yes, Natasha,” Steve says, stepping away from her. “That’s very mean.”

“Oh, you—” Natasha’s mouth snaps shut when Tony ducks under Steve’s upraised arm, wrapping his arms around Steve’s waist. Natasha’s eyebrows damn near go up to her hairline, and Steve, bless him, does not jump at all.

“Just for that,” Tony says, “we’re going to go and have sex now.”

“But I want to eat the leftovers,” Steve says.

“Bring ‘em.” Tony pats Steve’s stomach – Jesus, it’s like hugging a brick wall – before walking off. “If you’re late, I’m starting without you!”

Tony makes it halfway down the hall before Steve comes trotting up, a couple of boxes balanced in his hands.

“Hotdamn, her face,” Tony says quietly.

“I know,” Steve whispers back. “Almost feel sorry Sam isn’t here.”

“She’s probably texting him angrily right now.”

Once they’ve gone around the corner Tony starts to turn for the stairs, but is stopped by Steve’s, “Where are you going?”

“To sleep?”

“My room’s closer,” Steve says. “Since we’re having sex and all.”

Tony makes a face. “Fine.” He follows Steve down the other corridor, and groans when Steve pops open the topmost box in his pile. “Ugh, did you even warm that up before digging in?”

“Yes, it’s fine,” Steve says. “You want some?”

“Thanks, but I’ll pass.”

Tony’s never been to Steve’s room since Steve moved into the tower, and he gives in to curiosity when Steve pushes the door open and turns the lights on. (JARVIS could do that automatically, but apparently Steve’s asked to be able to do it the old-fashioned way.)

It’s all neat and tidy, all furniture in place and the sheets of the bed so tight as to bounce quarters off. Over by the closet there’s the faithful shield on its display frame, right next to the latest iteration of the Captain America suit. Nothing embarrassing at all.

“The noodles are still good.” Steve pulls out one of the side tables to spread the food out on. “Dumplings are wilted, though.”

“Still passing.” Tony wanders over to the far window, recalling how Steve picked the room that directly faced Brooklyn, though there’s not much detail to be seen at this time of night. “How long we gonna have sex for? Half an hour? An hour?”

“I do want to eat,” Steve says.

“An hour and some, then.”  There’s a table near the window, with a splash of color that catches Tony’s eye. “What’s this? Oh my god.”

Spread across the table is a haphazard display of trinkets: letters, teddy bears, drawings, ornaments and more, all made by varying levels of talent. It seems like there was previously an attempt to organize the lot – figurines are near the back, some of the badges have been put on a small bulletin board – but right now it’s a small forest of Captain America love.

“Here.” Steve presses a bottle into Tony’s hand. It’s lemonade, because Steve’s the sort of guy to have chilled drinks in his room. “People like writing in to Captain America. I try to keep as much of it as I can.”

“Holy fucking shit.” Tony picks up a figurine of Cap in the previous suit. The likeness isn’t that great but the detail on the suit’s incredible, and there’s a little text underneath the base that proclaims the sculptor’s name and gratitude for saving their school a few months ago. “Wow.”

“Don’t you get them, too?”

“Like this? No. I do get some, but mostly it’s scientific papers dedicated to me or prototypes named after me, that kind of thing. Which are your favs?”

“I love that one.” Steve points at a card with a watercolor painting on the front, of a stylized shield with faces set into it. “And these, they’re so delicate.” He picks through the smaller pieces in front, finding a clay pin shaped like an old-fashioned herald, with the shield, Mjolnir, arc reactor and other symbols set into the divisions.

“This is sweet as hell,” Tony says.

“Really?” Steve says, surprised.

“Sure. You inspire people. We all do in our ways, but you in particular…” Tony trails off. “I mean, I personally don’t get it, because I have to work with you and you’re an ass, but if I’m on the outside? Yeah.”

“You inspire people, too.”

“I know I do. That’s partially the point. We won’t be doing this forever, and I want to keep the roads wide open for whoever’s coming next.”

“Looking to the future,” Steve says. “That what you do.”

“Earth’s gonna need her protectors one way or another, right? I can work on the tech, but that only goes so far if there aren’t the right people to wield it. That’s where you come in – you show them what’s possible if you believe in yourself.”

Steve seems to shrink a little on himself. “That’s not why I—”

“I know, you don’t think that way. But someone has to, and that’s me.” Tony waves him off. “Eat your food, it’s going to get cold.”

The bed is within reach, so Tony sits down and taps his watch, summoning a holographic screen air. Steve hasn’t protested thus far, so Tony takes off his shoes and lies down, screen still hovering over him so he can scroll through his messages.

“You don’t think it’s… egoistic?” Steve asks.

“What, that?” Tony laughs. “It’s not a shrine to yourself. It’s an acknowledgement of all those people who wanted you to hear them.”

“That’s one way to look at it.” Tony moves his screen aside so to look at Steve properly. The man is still eating, but also frowning contemplatively at his bowl of potato salad. “I write letters, too.”

“What?”

“Letters. To people who write in.”

“Holy shit, to everyone who writes in?”

“The non-joke ones. For most of them I just send a card with a few lines, maybe a picture? So that’s quick. But for others I write proper letters. I’ve even visited a couple of them in person, just to… you know.”

“Oh my god. I want to make fun of you right now but I can’t.”

“So it seems a little hypocritical that I reach out with this, but in other situations I draw back.”

Tony shrugs. “People’s brains are weird. You’re people, too.”

Steve doesn’t seem convinced, and silently continues eating. Tony watches him go at it, and realizes that could easily picture Steve alone in this room, hunched over that table writing letter after letter, and concentrating hard with each one to make it as personable and kind and good as he can manage. It’s a charming mental image, but also… not.

Tony remembers once wanting to know exactly where the soft, vulnerable spots of Steve were, and all the better to strike ‘em as hard as he could if he needed to. It should feel wrong, or maybe even rewarding, to get a glimpse of that now, but it doesn’t feel like either.

Somewhere between Steve polishing off one carton and moving to the next, Tony drifts off. It’s understandable – he’s lying on a bed and has had a perilous day navigating civilians with only Steve Rogers for back-up. Also, the pillow under his head is really comfy.

Tony jolts awake. “Guh.” He blinks. “Fuck.”

The lights are still on, but the table has been cleared and Steve’s moved to the large leather chair by the window. Steve is also blinking blearily, startled by the noise. “What?”

“What the heck,” Tony says. “I nod off and your solution is to sleep in a chair?”

“It is late,” Steve says.

“That’s not what…” Tony checks his watch and sits up. “Okay, so that was sex and a nap. Good job, us.”

“Sorry.”

“For what?” Tony stretches, back cracking. It’s far from the worst place he’s fallen in asleep in, though probably one of the most unusual. He puts his shoes back with some mild fumbling, and grabs the pillow he’d been lying on. “I’m taking this.”

“No, you’re not,” Steve says.

“My building, my pillow.”

“I bought my own pillows.”

Tony makes for the door, though even sleep-addled, Steve gets there first, blocking it. “Fine, I’m stealing this. I’m—” Tony sighs when Steve grabs a corner of the pillow, tugging gently. “Give it. I’ll be defenseless.”

“You plan on fighting Hydra with my pillow?” Steve says, amused.

“They’d never see it coming.” Tony squints up at Steve, idly noting that this is how Steve looks when softened by sleep, warmth radiating off him and his hair flattened on one side. Steve isn’t a man with obvious sharp edges, but at this moment those edges are worn down anyway, changing the shape of his smile. All good details. Crucial details. Tony clears his throat. “How was the sex, by the way?”

Steve blinks. “Uh… It was good?”

“Just good?”

“Good, but could be better.” Steve nods. “We’ll work on it.”

“Gotcha. And I’m taking the pillow.”

Steve sighs and reaches around Tony, pulling at the door handle. “You can borrow the pillow. But only because I know where you live.”

“Yay.” Tony nudges the door open with his hip and slips out. “My hero.”

“Sleep well, Tony!” Steve calls after him.

Tony hugs the pillow tight to his chest as he ambles down the hallway, changing direction every so often when JARVIS prompts him to not run into a wall. It’s interesting – he’s feeling that buzz that usually comes from getting shit done, which is strange because technically speaking it’s been a useless day of useless things.

As Tony turns the corner and up the stairs, he just makes out a faint figure marching from the other direction, hauling a backpack and equipment.

“Hey, Clint,” Tony says, yawning. “Night.”

“The hell,” Clint says.

 

 


 

 

 

Thor’s return to the tower leads into their next mission, following the latest potential Argentina-bound breadcrumbs left behind by one Baron von Strucker. In Tony’s opinion they don’t need the whole team for this one, but Thor’s been getting frustrated at how long this chase has been taking, and was quite adamant that everyone gear up.

So on the Quinjet they go; Natasha and Clint up front, Steve and Thor standing around looking menacing as they discuss the latest intel, while Tony and Bruce make themselves comfortable at the computer support station that’s mapping likely entry points.

“You don’t actually need the Big Guy for this one,” Bruce says. “There might not even be a full assault.”

“It is always good to have back-up,” Thor says. “This Baron is a wily one, and would pause if he knew we were coming in with full strength.”

“As a last resort,” Bruce says.

Steve nods. “As a last resort. But you are getting better at coming down, right?”

Bruce shrugs. “Still, I’d rather not try it unless necessary.”

“Okay,” Steve says. “So I’ll scout ahead with Thor, and you can stay with Tony in the jet so—”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Clint exclaims from up front. “That’s favoritism!”

“Excuse me?” Steve says.

Clint spins in the copilot chair to face them. “Iron Man’s a frontliner, the tank. Why does he get to stay in the jet? This is why it’s not a good idea to date within teams.”

“Oh please,” Tony says, rolling his eyes. “Steve’s idea of favoritism is throwing me out of the jet head-first. Am I right?” He lifts his hand for a high-five, which Steve promptly smacks.

“He’s not wrong,” Steve says.

“You’re right,” Clint says to Natasha. “They’re not dating. They’re married.”

Natasha gasps and punches Clint’s shoulder, just as Thor stands up slowly, saying, “You’re married?”

“Whoa, we’re not married,” Tony says.

“You got married without inviting me?” Thor waves the hammer at them. “When was this? Why wasn’t I informed?”

“We’re not married,” Steve says. “Thor, I promise.”

“It would be very hurtful if you didn’t invite me.” Thor looms over the work station, and drapes a threatening arm over Tony’s shoulder. “I love weddings.”

“We know you do, buddy,” Tony says.

“Asgard gives the best wedding gifts.”

“Which we will look forward to.” Tony adds quickly, “If there were a wedding for you to attend, which there isn’t. Though we’d definitely invite you, if there were.”

“That’s a relief. My feelings would be grievously hurt otherwise.” Thor turns his frown from Tony to Steve and back, before easing up into his usual smile. “You were saying? We’ll scout ahead, yes?” Steve replies in an affirmative, and Natasha chimes in with her opinions on how to proceed.

Meanwhile, Bruce is staring at the side of Tony’s face, and is way too amused at his expense. When Tony scowls at him, Bruce just moves into an exaggerated shrug and turns away to the computer screens.

Though Thor is still talking, Tony raises his eyes to meet Steve’s. There, at least, is some sympathy, even if Steve is making that face where he’s pretending that he doesn’t want to laugh. Those eyes don’t lie, though.

There’s that buzzing again at the back of Tony’s head, tickling behind his ears. It’s a plain fact that Steve smiles a hell of a lot more these days, so it shouldn’t still be so goddamned surprising to see joyousness leaking out of him in that subtle, understated way.

Tony turns back to the computer screen, searching for something to keep himself busy with.

As he works, his thoughts drift again, contemplating Thor, Clint and, Bruce’s reactions to this not-thing that’s been going on between him and Steve. At the start it was merely a thought exercise meant for no one specific, before being aimed directly at Sam and Natasha, before spreading out to the Avengers as a whole. Tony and Steve may not actually be dating, but it’s kinda nice to know that no one here would really mind if they were (beyond occasionally giving them shit for it, but they give each other shit for everything and anything).

It’s also true that no one would mind if Natasha and Bruce finally got off their butts to do something about their thing either, but that, at least, has been coming for a while.

It’s a funny ‘ol world.

 

 


 

 

They don’t find von Strucker, but they do find the remnants of a Hydra cell and the locals who’ve made merry use of the Chitauri-adjacent tech they’ve left behind. That keeps them busy for a while, but it’s easily containable, and the only time that Bruce needs to be deployed is in the aftermath as they collect the base’s abandoned data.

It’s not a win, exactly, but it’s a tentative step in the right direction. Plus some of their newer tech gets some decent field testing, which is always good.

“I’m just saying,” Tony says as they file down the Quinjet ramp back into the tower, “you have an actual in. You could use it.”

“Anything we get from my brother would hinder more than help,” Thor says. “We’d best proceed as we have done.”

At the foot of the ramp is Maria Hill, who nods at their entry. “Good job, everyone.”

“You’re only saying that because we barely made the news this time,” Natasha says.

“Obviously,” Maria says. “I’m also checking that I won’t need to change the seating arrangements on Saturday.”

“Seriously?” Clint says. “Fury’s going ahead with that?”

Maria smiles. “If you want to keep barging across borders on your merry easter egg hunt, then yes, Fury’s thing is still on. Be there and be nice.”

The group starts to disperse, some of them moving in a loose coalition to the pantry for drinks and snacks. Tony starts to follow, but is distracted by Steve’s removing his helmet and shaking his head, because that’s all it takes for this asshole to recover from helmet hair.

“Hey, your suit’s damaged,” Tony says.

Steve shakes his head. “I’m fine. Nat cleared me.”

“I’m talking about the suit, it’s torn up.” Tony catches Steve by a holster strap. “Who cares about you.”

“Really, Tony?” Steve says. “You know you’d miss me.”

A reply should be easy but Tony’s brain skips like the proverbial needle scratch. That half a second of non-response is enough for Steve’s smile to waver a little, surprised. Tony drops his hold on the holster and steps back, clearing his throat. “I don’t know why you insist on holding on to that thing. I’ve made a half-dozen more of my own suits while you were breaking that in.”

Steve shrugs. “I’m a simple guy.”

“Yeah, well, it offends me,” Tony says. “I’m making you a new one.”

“Geez, Tony,” Bruce murmurs as he walks past, “you don’t need to work so hard to get his clothes off.”

Tony whirls around, mouth open. “Bruce Banner, Ph.D. in what the fuck!”

Bruce puts his hands up, though he doesn’t look at all apologetic. “I’m just saying. You need to relax.”

“I…” Tony gapes. “I need to relax?”

“You do,” Steve says, and before Tony berate him some more, he smacks Tony right on the butt.

The silence that follows is heavy and shocked. At least, the two of them are shocked; Bruce’s face is best forgotten, and Thor has unnecessarily burst out laughing from the far side of the room.

“You needn’t censor yourselves, friends!” Thor yells. “Jane does that to me all the time.”

Tony slowly turns to stare at Steve, who is bright red.

“I’m going now, bye,” Bruce says quickly, trotting off.

Steve, for all the time that Tony has known him, has seemed immune to embarrassment. He’d always found a way to turn such flat-footed situations inside out, either by using the circumstances of his arrival in the 21st century as a shield, or absorbing it with that gosh-gee charm that seems to come so easily to him.

So this, with Steve actually, truly mortified? Is brand new. Tony grins slowly.

“I am so sorry,” Steve blurts out, low enough that the others, even if they were nearby, can’t hear. “I don’t know what—”

“It seemed like a good idea at the time?” Tony says.

“God, Tony—” Steve gasps.

“Butt-smacking’s pretty standard in the military, is my understanding. Hey. Hey.” Tony comes in close, keeping his voice to soft to break Steve’s face from its frozen rictus. “It’s fine. Steve? It’s okay, my butt’s right there, I cannot blame you for wanting to touch it. It’s a nice butt, isn’t it?”

That seems to snap Steve out of it, and he says with a frown, “This sounds like a trap.”

“Why do you think all my pants are so goddamned snug?” Tony angles his hips a little, though Steve quickly averts his gaze. “I like people looking. C’mon, you know what I mean. You know exactly what you look like in those shirts of yours.”

Steve’s mouth open and closes. Then he crosses his arms, biceps flexing. “I’m sure I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Tony laughs, loud and hearty, and pretty damn pleased when Steve relaxes into a smile of his own. “It is nice, right? Getting that kind of attention?”

“Sometimes,” Steve says carefully. “From certain people.”

Tony realizes he’d swayed forward as he’d laughed, hands braced Steve’s forearms. He draws back, as casually as he can manage, and says, “I am going to work on your suit. So it either has to be this one, or I’ll switch it out for a new one when you’re not looking and toss this one in the shredder.”

“This one, Tony. Like you said, I’ve already broken it in.”

“Fine. Bring it up to the workshop whenever. Actually, bring it tomorrow, I am beyond done for the day.” Tony scratches his chin and doesn’t look Steve in the eye as he adds, “Then I’m taking you out. We’ll watch a show or something.”

“Sounds good,” Steve says. “See you.”

Tony takes his leave of the floor, not once looking back even when the kitchen erupts with the usual ruckus of the rest of the team fighting over whatever’s in the pantry.

When Tony’s finally alone in the elevator, he says, “JARVIS.”

Yes, sir.

“How fucked am I?”

Not as much as you think, in my opinion.

Tony presses his hand to his forehead and sighs. “Yeah, what do you know.”

 

 


 

 

If one were to arrange the events of these handful of Steve-centric weeks in order, nothing much has actually happened. It’s not even a matter of a casual idea spinning out of control, because Tony knows what spinning out of control actually is, and this isn’t it.

This is something else. It’s a slow slide downward, or the gradual build of silt on a riverbed that changes its whole course before you even realize you’re even standing in water.

It’s Tony hard at work in the lab with Bruce as they discuss new worst-case scenarios for the team, and one section of Tony’s mind is instead planning the modifications he’s going to make on Steve’s bike for a surprise. Another section of Tony’s mind recognizes the ridiculousness of the entire thing and wonders if an outside opinion is in order.

“Bruce,” Tony says. “I need to tell you something.”

“No, the lasers are overkill,” Bruce says.

“Not about that.” Tony turns fully towards Bruce, which should in itself be an indicator about what’s to come, but Bruce just seems confused and suspicious. “It’s about me and Steve.”

“Okay,” Bruce says slowly.

“I took him out yesterday.”

“Yes, I’m aware.”

How to explain this? Even a straightforward lie with the purpose to deceive would be easier to explain than this, because at least there the binary of truth and lie is clear. Even in the darkest of days of Tony’s self-delusion, he is unable to deny that all the dates he’s had with Steve are dates, no matter what the intent behind them might have been. Tony can’t say that he’s not dating Steve, because he is in act and action dating Steve, and therein lies the problem.

Bruce smiles sympathetically. “Are all those feelings making you feel like a real boy?”

“No!” Tony yelps. “It’s not – I don’t even – you’re supposed to be my friend!”

“I am your friend.”

“Then why are you saying shit like that?”

“I could stop being your friend if it makes you feel better?” Bruce huffs at Tony’s exasperated sigh. “What do you actually want to tell me?”

Tony realizes he’s tapping his fingers on his knees and forces himself to stop. Perhaps he could think of this as a project that, like any other project, can be worked out by talking aloud about it, and an answer could make itself known.

“I really like spending time with him,” Tony says. “Like, a lot. An absurd and possibly dangerous amount.”

“And that’s…” Bruce pauses, studying Tony’s face, “…bad?”

“I told him about the Iron Legion.”

“We were going to tell the team eventually.”

“And Ultron.”

Bruce sits up. “Wow.”

“Yes! Exactly! I told him all about that, and the suits I made after the invasion, and how I couldn’t even last a day after destroying the lot before I started making new ones. If you told me a couple of weeks ago I’d be telling Steve any of this when not under torture? I’dve laughed at you.”

“Well,” Bruce says thoughtfully, “situations change. The way we relate to each other change.”

“But this is Steve fucking Rogers,” Tony hisses.

“Even with Steve fucking Rogers. But let’s take a step back, look at it differently. You’re feeling perturbed by this latest turn of events, correct?”

“Perturbed right down to my cojones.”

“Then do you want to break up with him?”

The noise in Tony’s brain stops. Not even with a screeching halt, but with the simple dropping away of everything cluttered and clamoring for attention, leaving behind that Bruce-delivered ultimatum that rings in Tony’s ears and around his skull. A solution! A logical solution, even. But a solution that would make tomorrow and the day after and the week after that an unappealing Steve-lite experience.

More importantly, Bruce’s question highlights the true issue lurking underneath, which is that it isn’t Tony’s call to make. This thing was for Steve who, now that Tony thinks about it, has likely only been so relaxed in Tony’s company because there’s no real expectations between them. Tony is ‘safe’, in the sense that they know exactly where they stand with each other. To ask for more would be breaking script, and unfair to Steve.

On the other hand, Tony breaks script all the time.

So, really, it’s a matter of weighing risk and reward, and analyzing down to its most minute detail how much Steve’s flirting is coming from a place of actual want, as opposed to an amusing thought exercise that will never be followed up on in any meaningful way.

Because Steve has been flirting. Tony can be an idiot sometimes, but not so much as to miss that. The only question is the intent behind it.

“Feeling better now?” Bruce asks.

“A tiny amount.” Tony holds his hand up, showing a tiny space between thumb and forefinger. “About that much. But you have clarified some things, which I am grateful for.”

“That is good.”

“Feel free to return the favor with Natasha, too. If you want.”

“Nope,” Bruce says, smiling. “Never.”

 

 


 

 

 

There are memorials taking place all over the country today, the anniversary of the Chitauri’s attempted beachhead on Earth. The largest is, naturally, outside and almost right on the tower’s doorstep, and a glance out pretty much any window will reveal the flood of people gathered in streets, on cars, on rooftops.

Avengers Tower has its own memorial, much like Stark Tower did before that, though today’s is only the second to be had with all Avengers present. Like last year’s, Maria’s in charge of the arrangements, with Steve, surprisingly, as her second in command. Though unlike last year’s, this year’s is open to more than just immediate friends and family.

This year, Fury’s brought in some potential contractors and a few members of the press, as part of expanding the reach and capabilities of the Avengers Initiative. It smells a bit too much like what Tony’s done for Stark Industries in the past, so he’s avoided that for the most part, content to leave it to Steve, Natasha and the others to rub the right shoulders and recognize the right people. There’s no question of him not attending, though.

Tony arrives as late as he can manage, timing it just a little before Maria would consider calling the cavalry to fetch him.

The party floor – so christened by Clint – is awash with more people than it’s ever housed thus far, bustling around the split-levels like a slightly more somber cocktail party. There’ll be speeches later – Fury will give one, followed by Steve and Thor – in remembrance of the attack and the work that still needs to be done, but for now it’s just mingling, food and photos, plus Thor enthusiastically describing the events of the Battle of New York to an eager group of listeners.

Tony takes in all of this and more as he exits the elevator, his steps slow and measured. Rhodey is at the bar chatting with someone Tony doesn’t recognize; they nod at each other, and Tony gestures that he’ll come over later.

Steve is one level up, slightly separate from the main crowd, and sitting at a table with Wilson and a few others.

Tony adjusts his cuffs as he ascends the stairs. Fury falls into step next to him, murmuring a greeting and comment on Tony’s always-reliable timing, but Tony doesn’t really register the words.

“Yeah, yeah,” Tony says. “I’ll make friendly when I’m ready.”

“Hmm, sure,” Fury says. “I’ve also been hearing how you and Rogers get along better nowadays.”

“You should probably check your sources.” Tony grins at Fury, who responds with the ever-present disgruntled squint.

Then, almost reluctantly, Fury touches Tony’s arm. It barely passes as a friendly pat, and is more suited as the reward for a well-behaved pet, but Tony finds his smile widening anyway. Not that he ever thought about or wanted Fury’s acknowledgement, but there it is, and Tony is going to fucking lord it over him forever.

Fury moves away, letting Tony take the last few steps up the stairs alone.

Tony hasn’t seen Steve since the talk with Bruce. There’s been work to be done and thoughts to be processed, and though there’s probably a better time and place for Tony to be doing this, he is sometimes (most of the time) helpless before the lure of the dramatic.

Steve’s in a dark dress shirt and slacks, which is nice and all, but Tony’s never seen Steve in a suit that wasn’t a uniform and wonders what it’d take to convince him to wear a three-piece like the one Tony’s currently wearing. But not exactly like the one Tony’s wearing, because what would the point in that be? Maybe something midnight blue and actually tailored to flatter, with a bright tie as the only splash of color.

Here’s the twist: now Tony can actually ask Steve if he’d wear something like that.

As Tony approaches their table, Steve finally notices him, and his face lights up. It’s not a huge smile by regular people standards, but by Steve Rogers standards it’s like the fucking sun rising, his eyes alert and welcoming and so perfectly pleased by Tony’s arrival. Like, holy shit.

That, alone, seals Tony’s decision.

Tony reaches his destination and stands over them for a moment, his hands stuffed in his pockets. He vaguely registers Wilson’s faint, “Oh okay, here we go.”

Steve’s not saying anything, either. He’s just looking up Tony, curious but lacking urgency, as though content to enjoy a moment where, technically, nothing’s actually happening.

Tony glances over his shoulder. There’s music playing, and on this slightly-more-private upper level a few pairs are dancing, among them Natasha and Selvig, and Clint and Helen.

Tony shifts his attention back to Steve, who’s still waiting. Then he holds out a hand to Steve, palm up.

And Steve – despite that sharp, strategic brain of his – takes Tony’s hand and stands up to join him.

There’s white noise in Tony’s brain, making it hard to focus on anything but Steve’s hand in his and walking in a straight line to the informal dance floor. It seems a tad unfair that Steve’s having no such problems on his side, his expression placid and amused, even when they get there and Tony turns to face him. Tony’s right hand is clasped in Steve’s left, and when Steve puts his hand on Tony’s back, he does it with this unnecessary slow slide of his palm from Tony’s waist to the small of his back, as if settling in.

“I can’t hear the music,” Tony says. “You’re gonna have to lead.”

“I can do that,” Steve says.

They move for a while – a minute, five minutes, an hour, who knows. Tony is so close that he can count Steve’s eyelashes and comment on the closeness of his shave. If Tony squeezes his left hand a little, he could make out the fine, fine definition of Steve’s arm and shoulder.

“Tony.” Steve hesitates, uncertainty flickering over his features. His smile narrows down, small yet hopeful. “I just want to say that… I’m really glad to have had the privilege of seeing you like this.”

“Dashing and handsome?” Tony says.

“Open. Approachable.”

“I’m always open and approachable.”

“No, you’re not,” Steve says, laughing softly. “Neither of us are.”

Tony would rather refuse to respond, but concedes with a sigh. The white noise in his head has receded some, but in its place is that sun-sharp awareness of where they are, what they’re doing, and how impossible the steps should have been in getting them there.

“It’s funny, isn’t,” Tony says. “We got out to the park, or an event, whatever – it’s easily brushed aside as friends being friends, coworkers being coworkers. This, though? Normally it wouldn’t even fall in the same ballpark, but I know the press and they know me, and it’s just as easily chalked up to…”

“Tony Stark being Tony Stark?” Steve supplies.

“Yeah.”

“That’d change if I kissed you.”

Tony jerks his head back a little, surprised. Steve says it so simply, though his eyes are damn near sparkling.

“You wouldn’t,” Tony says.

“Wouldn’t I?” Steve tightens the pressure on Tony’s back, a single strong snap closer that has Tony’s knees knocking Steve’s and Tony’s breath coming out in a rush. “That a challenge?”

“About that.” Tony thinks his eyes should be watering by now, he’s been staring into Steve’s for so long. “It’s about – what we’ve been doing – I want to actually—”

“Yeah,” Steve says.

“No, I mean… I want us to really be…”

“Yes.” Steve nods. “Me, too.”

Tony frowns. “But you have a—”

“Making an exception.” Steve ducks his head, sheepish. “And not just because you know exactly what you’d be getting into. It is that, but it’s also… Well. You.”

“Hmm.” Tony narrows his eyes. “That was way too easy.”

Steve sighs. “Your definition of easy is skewed, Stark.” He lifts the hand that had been on Tony’s back, moving it instead to cup Tony’s cheek. A beat, and then Steve’s moving in, pressing his lips to Tony’s.

It’s a slow kiss, an easy extension of how they’d been swaying against each other. Tony opens his mouth, breathes Steve in, and kisses back lazily. It’s soft and sweet and careful, and a promise of more good times but at no rush to get there. Steve’s lips are as ridiculous as the rest of him, tender and urging, though underneath Tony’s hands Steve’s body is coiled with readiness, his power held at bay for the moment.

Tony pulls back first. The sight of Steve – kissed and content – sends a flash of warmth through Tony’s body. It is with resigned acceptance that Tony now acknowledges how beautiful Steve can be.

“You really enjoyed that,” Steve says gleefully.

“Hah,” Tony says. “You’re not gonna be so smug when I ride your dick raw.”

Steve’s breath catches, but he covers it with a cough. “That’s not as enticing as you think it is.”

Tony considers the flush on Steve’s cheeks and the increased pressure in his grip. “Nah, it’s exactly as enticing as I think it is.

“Friends!” Thor exclaims.

They turn. Thor’s standing right there, and he perks up when he has their attention.

“Ah, you’re finished, good. You remember Jane?” Thor gestures to his side, where a mildly-embarrassed Jane Foster waves a hand a greeting. Tony adjusts his stance to mirror hers, tucking his shoulder under Steve’s arm, which Steve agreeably tightens.

“Hi,” Jane says.

“Hey,” Tony says, while Steve says, “Dr. Foster.”

“We will double-date, yes?” Thor says, while Jane looks up at him, eyes wide. “This is custom among friends, and don’t think I’ve forgotten your earlier slight.”

“You’re right,” Steve says. “We’re sorry.”

“Only a little,” Tony says. “But we’ll do something. It’ll be fun.”

“That is a promise.” Thor’s grin disappears. “I will hold you both to it.” He beams again and moves away, Jane in tow.

“You know, of all the consequences I expected, that was not one of them,” Tony says.

“There you go,” Steve says, shaking his head. “Always looking to the future.”

“A habit.” Tony smooths down his lapels and sleeves, both of which are ever-so-slightly out of place due to being pressed up against Steve. Oh, they’ll get properly rumpled later, once the visitors have left or they can make an unnoticeable exit, but for now Tony has to deal with his secondary goals for the night and make nice with whoever Fury and Maria have gathered here today. “Excuse me, I’ll be right back.”

“No, I’m coming.” Steve keeps level when Tony starts to walk away, staying close by Tony’s shoulder. When Tony looks at him questioningly, Steve just smiles back, ready and calm for whatever’s waiting at the bottom of the stairs. “I can look to the future too, you know.”

“Well,” Tony says breathlessly. “All right, then.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Okay,” Natasha says. “Now they’re dating.”

Sam looks at her. “We’re just going to have to agree to disagree.”