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Overhaul

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It starts on the anniversary of Tony’s return from Afghanistan.

Well, technically it started before that, with the toppling dominos of Thor’s return from Asgard, the Avengers coming back together, and then living together. But for this particular segment of what Steve’s been thinking of as the Rogers vs. Stark Status Tracking Graph, it starts on the anniversary of Tony’s return from Afghanistan.

Steve knows the significance of the day, but he also knows that said date hasn’t overtly bothered Tony before in the two years they’d worked out of the tower together. That said, things do change, and maybe the Ultron episode (plus Wanda’s joining the team) has rubbed some old wounds raw.

Whatever the case, when Steve steps into the common area on this day, Tony’s there by himself, half-sprawled in one of the chairs and watching TV. There’s a documentary playing – or a retrospective, or whatever they call it these days – with narration set over old footage of Tony and various Stark Industries-stamped set pieces.

Steve doesn’t hide his approach, and comes up to lean against back of the couch. He’s sure that Tony heard him, but there’s no telling if the tilt of Tony’s head is an acknowledgement, or a response to what he’s watching.

And the turning point,” the narrator says, “at press conference number one.”

Steve’s seen this footage before. It was part of Fury’s welcome pack, and the first glimpse Steve had had of Tony as a person. He remembers how he’d felt disappointed, at both not recognizing enough of Howard in Tony, and wondering how on earth a supposedly-genius weapons manufacturer could take so damned long to realize what he’d been sending out into the world.

But mostly, Steve had been angry at being woken up, and it felt good to have someone to aim that anger at. The world didn’t seem at all better than the one he’d left behind (so it’d felt at the time) and Tony seemed to be part of the system that kept the world fucked up (instead of someone who’d been fucked over as well and had just figured out how to break out of old patterns).

I had become part of a system that is comfortable with zero accountability,” Tony-on-TV says.

Steve sees now what he hadn’t then. He knows Tony’s face, the masks and the real, and how he flips between both. Tony-on-TV is trying to keep the mask on yet bring it down at the same time; terrified of doing both, but wanting to.

“I should’ve fixed my hair.” Tony sounds curious, almost detached. Not upset.

Steve relaxes. “No, it suits the message you’re trying to get across.”

“No fucks given?” Tony smiles, though his eyes don’t leave the screen. “Yeah, I’ll give me that.”

Steve moves around the couch and sits down. There’s footage of the fight with Stane in the suit, along with amateur shots of Tony’s earliest flights. Surprisingly, Tony seems to lose interest just as the retrospective gears up for its big climax – a predictable one, Steve thinks, with the reveal of the red-and-gold – and instead tips his head against the back of seat as though in preparation for a nap.

“It’s the anniversary of the day I came back,” Tony says. “Didn’t realize at first.”

“Oh,” Steve says. “They made this show especially for that?”

“Probably.” Tony frowns. “No one asked me for an interview. Or maybe they did and I forgot? Anyone ask you?”

“No. I would have, if they asked.”

Tony swivels his head, pinning Steve with a surprised look. “Really?”

“Sure.” Steve shrugs. “I’m happy to share my thoughts about you, as a teammate and so on.”

“How you hated my guts from the get-go—”

“Come on, now.”

“Anything else would be a lie, Steven. You wouldn’t lie to the public, would you?”

Steve sets his face in a glare that has Tony grinning. “I’d talk about the important things, and how we didn’t hit it off at first is not important.” Steve can see Tony start to protest, so he adds, “Better to talk about how we surprised each other, and brought different, necessary, viewpoints into the team.”

“How boring.”

“Would you rather I talk about how persnickety you are about the coffee machine?”

“The human touch. People like that. Off-topic, though.” Tony’s brow furrows for a second. “Right, they can’t interview you. You didn’t know me, before.”

“Does that matter?”

“This is a—” Tony flaps his hand at the screen, where the credits are playing. “It pivots on the kidnapping. Before and after.”

“Should’ve asked Pepper, then.”

“She has better taste than to say yes.”

“So you’re saying that I have poor taste, because I would say yes.”

“Precisely.”

Tony sounds cheerful, lazy, but there’s something else going on behind his eyes, no doubt kicked into the motion by old memories brought to the surface. There’s nothing about him that’s demanding that Steve leave, so he stays, waiting. It’s not new for Tony to seem like he’s contemplating a dozen things at once, but his moments of open introspection are rare enough that Steve still hasn’t quite figured out how to handle them without striking a nerve and causing Tony to close off.

Afghanistan is one of those nerves. They’ve never talked about it, so all Steve knows is what Fury put in the files, plus the one time that Tony, with his usual flippantness, mentioned that he knows what it feels like to be waterboarded. They were tearing a Hydra base apart at the time, which of course meant that Steve had no time to acknowledge it, and by the time he wanted to they were back with the rest of the team and he’d known in his gut that Tony would kick his ass if he brought it up.

“They called it my rebirth,” Tony says at last. “People like using that term, don’t they?”

“All of us have had a rebirth of sorts,” Steve says. “All of us Avengers, I mean.”

“Mm, yeah.” Tony twitches, a familiar tic that usually precedes an exit or a joke. His fingers drum on one knee, two waves back and forth before they go still, and Steve wonders if he should call Rhodey, or Pepper, or someone else better at this. Steve considers himself damned lucky to get along with Tony the way he does these days, but he knows his limitations.

Maybe Steve should say something. Such as how he’s had near-death trauma, too, except Tony knows that, too. Not to mention that Steve doubts his ability to make it sound like anything but using his experiences as currency, or worse yet, as a comparison to belittle Tony’s.

Geez, even Natasha would be better at this.

“Can I change the channel?” Steve says. Tony gestures an affirmative, so Steve does, flipping through the channels until settling on what looks to be a procedural.

The moment passes.

At least, it should pass. But then Tony says, the strain evident in his voice: “I don’t think it was a rebirth. Not really. I’m still an asshole putting all my creative eggs in one basket, just aimed in a different direction.”

Steve shakes his head. “It’s more than that.”

“You don’t know, you weren’t there.” Tony says this so carelessly that there’s no bite in it. “I’m focused on this work now, but I think I’ve always had the ability to do this. To be this. I just needed the kick to get it started.”

“That’s not bad, whether it’s true or not.”

“I’m not saying it’s bad, I’m saying that there was no actual change in my core code. Not enough to call it a ‘rebirth’.” Tony uses the finger quotes, though it’s hard to tell exactly what has him frustrated. “An awakening, sure, or a switch being flipped on. But it’s not…” He trails off, mouth working silently as though for the first time since Steve’s known him, he can’t find the words.

“Well,” Steve says slowly, “if rebirth means a change in your deeper self, I didn’t experience one either. I was merely given the ability to do what I’ve always wanted.”

Tony stares at Steve, appalled. “That’s not what I’m talking about.”

“Then you better go slowly. I’m old.”

That startles a laugh out of Tony, who then frowns and wags a finger at him. “Stop that.”

Steve raises an eyebrow. “You are telling me to stop joking around?”

“I’ve got a point here! Look. The point.” Tony pushes himself up in his seat, moving from a slouch to a business-like curl forward, his elbows on his knees and his hands gesturing as he speaks. “You never needed to change. You were always a hero, you just needed the means to execute that drive.”

“That’s—”

“I’m not saying you’re perfect, because you’re not, you’re also a dick,” Tony says, which of all things has Steve relaxing minutely, “but your focus, your purpose, was always due North. I was presented a new, logical purpose and shifted everything around to accommodate that, but I never actually changed.”

“I don’t know if I agree with that either, but I accept that since I didn’t know you before, I cannot comment.”

“Good. So.” Tony rubs his hands together. “It is generally agreed upon that I was a bad person before. Selfish, self-centered, uncaring about anything not immediately relevant to my personal gratification. And if my core code is the same as it was then, doesn’t that mean I’m still a bad person now, just working for a good cause?”

“Tony,” Steve says patiently. “I have no doubt that you were a bigger pain in the ass when you had different priorities, but if you were a bad person through and through, Pepper would have quit ages ago.”

Tony thinks. “Okay, that’s true.”

“And of course you’re changed. You’re not even the same person you were when we first met.”

“Am I? I don’t feel like I it.”

“Come on, Tony. Accumulative changes are a thing, you know that.” When Tony still looks skeptical, Steve adds, “Maybe the problem is that you believe that a massive change – a ‘rebirth’ – into Iron Man should have been painful. Not physical pain, but mental.”

“Had that, too.”

No.” Steve sighs, while Tony just smirks at him. “The pain of an uphill climb, where every choice in the new direction is a battle against your older self.”

Tony cocks his head, considering. “Like dieting.”

“I suppose that’s closer. From my perspective, you changed. But from your perspective, you didn’t, because the change was an obvious, natural choice after what you went through. You didn’t have to fight yourself to turn due North. But that doesn’t mean you didn’t change at all – it probably means the change went so deep that it shifted your core code without you realizing.”

Tony stares at him, eyes narrowing as though in suspicion. “I don’t like that.”

“Why, because I’m right?”

“I do hate it when you’re right.”

“Tell me something I don’t know.”

Tony reaches behind himself, grabbing the cushion that he lobs at Steve’s head. Steve could catch it, but he chooses to lean over a little, letting it hit the couch seat. It’s a good decision, because it deepens the petulant curve of Tony’s mouth.

“Maybe you’re onto something,” Tony says. “But it doesn’t seem to – I don’t know.”

“Doesn’t seem to what?”

“Doesn’t sit quite right.” Tony wrinkles his nose. “Why am I even thinking about this, it’s stupid.”

“It’s not stupid.”

“You are not the authority on what’s stupid or not.” Tony stands up and pats at his pockets in search of his phone. “Dammit. I have to go.”

Steve feels himself deflate a little. This was just getting interesting, but of course Tony’s busy. He starts to flip through the channels again, this time in earnest, but pauses when Tony, standing at the threshold of the sitting area, says, “Hey.”

Steve looks over. “Yeah?”

“I don’t…” Tony shrugs.“My head’s kind of in a weird place right now.”

“Understandable.”

“I don’t think I should be alone too long. I’ve got to finish a thing for Hill, but want to do something later?”

“Oh,” Steve says, surprised. “Sure, I don’t have anything tonight.”

“Okay, I’ll…” Tony starts walking again, heading for the stairs though his voice carries as he calls out, “…I’ll ping you when I think of something. Dinner or whatever.”

“Sure thing,” Steve calls back.

 


 

 

They go out for dinner, just the two of them. This isn’t something they do often, for there’s usually at least one other Avenger or Avenger-ancillary with them, but it goes well enough, mostly thanks to Tony’s buzzing with so much energy that the food’s long gone before the conversation is.

It’s obvious that something’s been knocked loose in Tony, casting him with a fresh burst of restlessness not unlike how he gets whenever hit with some new revolutionary idea. There hasn’t been much of this side of him in the past few months since Bruce disappeared, so Steve’s glad to see it even if he doesn’t exactly get what’s going on behind it.

“No, look,” Tony says, moving the cutlery like chess pieces around their now mostly-cleared table. “I don’t disagree that pre-emptive measures can be misused. But the fact is, all measures we create have the potential to be misused, preventive or not.”

“But that’s looking at it glass half-empty,” Steve says. “How about, by moving pre-emptively you create new enemies where there weren’t any before? Or, your actions give your enemies the means to move against you?”

“Isn’t that a worthwhile risk?”

“I don’t know. Is it?”

Tony’s face twists – in disappointment or maybe disgust. His gaze is ostensibly on the tablecloth, yet in reality is probably looking into things that Steve can only vaguely imagine.

For the briefest second Steve thinks that this pause in the conversation is a boil about to rupture, but this isn’t one of those. There are no immediate threats breathing down their necks, no resurfaced mistakes begging for attention. In fact, this turn in the conversation was Steve’s doing; he’d commented on one of the café’s servers accidentally dropping a dish earlier, to which Tony had posited ways to prevent that from happening, and here they are.

“You don’t actually have a plan,” Tony says. “For when that hole in the sky opens up again.”

“No, I don’t. But I understand that you need one.”

“If that’s true, it’s a very shallow understanding. Which blows my mind, because you survived things I can’t even imagine.”

“Oh. Well. I’m sure your imagination can picture it.”

“Not accurately.” Tony’s slouching now, a lopsided man made out of slow-ooze putty, his weight resting on one elbow braced on the table. Steve realizes that in comparison he’s been sitting almost ramrod straight out of subconscious contrariness, which is a microcosm of their relationship, really.

“I get why you made Ultron,” Steve says. “I get the idea. But you hadn’t even launched it and it already went sideways.”

Tony hums an acknowledgement. “You know, I thought we were doing well.”

“With the Iron Legion?”

“No, the Avengers. Teamwork, cooperation, yadda yadda. But one goddamned day with the same goddamned sceptre and we were all ready to throw down, like the last how many missions we’ve had at each other’s backs didn’t happen. Funny, that.”

“Not that funny.”

Tony smiles ruefully. Steve feels a pang; as team leader, he should’ve done better. After the Sokovia rescue, he and Tony had talked it out, and although it had been stilted as they’d both tried to avoid another shouting match, they’d managed to boil it down to better communication and show of trust, though who knows if such well-intentioned yet vague promises are enough for the next time something like that happens?

“We were doing well,” Steve says firmly. “Yes, it got bad, but when was the last time we’d had an argument like that? Ages.”

Tony makes a face.

“And we were all compromised,” Steve adds.

“We can be compromised again.” Tony’s given up on the cutlery and has moved to his sunglasses, folding and unfolding them on the tabletop. “We have to do better.”

“Yes.”

“I never, uh…” The twirling of the sunglasses stops. “I’m really grateful for everything you’ve done.”

Steve blinks. “I… What?”

“I am really grateful,” Tony says, enunciating the words slowly, “for everything you’ve done. You see things I don’t, you bring people together in ways I could never… Yeah. I’ve learned a lot, and I don’t think I’ve ever, you know. Told you that. You’ve done a lot for us, and for me, too.”

Steve’s neck feels warm, appreciating the apparent sincerity with which Tony just said all that, except there’s a tinge of wrongness all over it because earnest? Tony?

“I…” Steve trails off, at a loss.

“Hey, put these on.” Tony lifts his glasses, bobbing them in the air in front of Steve’s face. “Put ‘em on. I want to see.”

Steve takes the glasses and puts them on.

“Whoa there, Tyler Durden.” Tony whips out his phone and snaps a picture before Steve can react. A flick of Tony’s fingers has his phone projecting a holographic display of the resulting photo, which has captured Steve looking particularly offended, though this time said offense is partially masked by large, pink-tinged lenses. “You look like a douche.”

“Of course I look like a douche,” Steve says.“They’re your glasses.”

“No, it’s the face. You have one of those faces. I should add lenses to your helmet.”

“Please don’t.”

“Push the glasses up.”

“If I do that, do you promise not to add lenses to my helmet?”

“Yes, cross my heart.” Tony is practically bouncing in his seat as Steve slowly urges the glasses up to his hairline. The hinge catches at a few strands but Steve soldiers on until he can perch the no doubt hideously-expensive pair of sunglasses on the top of his head. When Tony lifts his phone again, Steve gamely angles his head to peer at the middle distance of nothing.

There’s a fake-shutter click, followed by Tony’s happy, “Yeah, that’s going on the Avengers twitter.”

“A small price to pay.” Steve scoots over and goes along with Tony’s very important discussion on filters to use, which at least keeps Steve from wondering if he should be relieved or not that this side of Tony, at least, is familiar.

 


 

 

The next morning, by the time Steve’s returned from his run, he’s almost forgotten about Tony’s unusual flare up over dinner. Tony has his quirks, after all, and they’ve only known each other for a few years, so of course there’ll still be moments where Steve will be taken off-guard.

Steve’s very close to filing away the whole thing when he walks into the kitchen for breakfast.

Natasha’s there alone, which is not unusual since barely anyone else is up at this time of day except Rhodey and maybe Sam, who are currently away. She waves her phone at him, where the screen is lit to Tony’s twitter upload from the night before. “You encouraging his crush now?” she says.

“Hey,” Steve hisses. “Not so loud.”

“There is literally no one here.”

“That’s not…” Steve sighs and sinks into a chair. Natasha helpfully pushes her bowl of granola towards him, and he takes a handful, popping the pieces into his mouth between speech. “Don’t be mean.”

“You know when I’m being mean,” Natasha says. “This isn’t mean. This is me asking politely if I should be aware of a change of status among my teammates.”

“It wasn’t like that,” Steve says. “All right, it wasn’t entirely like that.”

“A-ha.”

“It was a nice night out.” That comes out gentler that he intended, making Natasha’s eyebrows jump up. Steve adds, exasperated, “It was nice the same way it’s nice when you and I hang out. He was flirty, but he’s always flirty, that’s not new.”

Natasha bobs her phone in Steve’s face, only pulling away when Steve threatens to grab it. “You posed for him,” she says.

“It wasn’t a date. It’s possible that he wanted it to be, but he didn’t ask, and he wasn’t pushy at any point. In fact, he was more…”

Truth be told, Steve doesn’t want to be unsettled by Tony’s behavior yesterday, with the flashes of intensity between his more typical, irrelevant chatter.

The man could talk a mile a minute about any topic, even the ones he knew barely anything about, but over dinner they’d fallen into discussion about the Avengers, the choices they’ve made and the consequences they’d faced, as though those were things they talked about in incredible detail all the time, instead of merely skimming over what is functional for the day-to-day.

Honestly, Steve thinks that Tony was shaken by the reminder of his Afghanistan experience, and he needed to burn that energy off. The fact that he chose Steve instead of Rhodey or even Natasha is unusual, and Steve can’t dismiss the possibility that Tony’s feelings for him were indeed a factor in that choice. But even so, Steve can’t judge him for it.

If Tony needed help with a less-obvious problem, Steve was more than happy to do what he could.

“What if he does ask?” Natasha says. “Hey, Steve, you want to go steady sometime? That’s how they say it these days.”

“I know how to handle it.”

Natasha hauls a spoonful of granola into her mouth, her polite expression making perfectly clear her opinion of the accuracy of that statement.

“I do,” Steve insists.

 


 

 

As far as Steve’s aware, only he and Natasha know of Tony’s feelings for him. Natasha, whenever she brings it up, refers to it as the ‘crush’, but that doesn’t seem like the kind of word that can be applied to someone like Tony Stark.

Natasha knows about it because she’s Natasha, and that’s what she does.

Steve knows about it because although he can be a little obtuse about such matters, once you’re living with and spending enough time with another person to notice patterns in their behavior, you figure some things out. Plus, it’s literally Steve’s job to observe his teammates, usually to the goal of bringing out the best in them, with genuine friendship and camaraderie being a wonderful bonus.

The Rogers vs. Stark Status Tracking Graph in Steve’s head looks like the following.

It starts low to begin with (their first meeting) before dropping like a stone to negative points. Recovery into the positive is a surprising loop upwards, though the points stay in the low, nothing-to-write-home-about range. The build up from there is slow-going, awkward, with brief drops to negative here and there, though those get rarer as time goes by and eventually vanish altogether.

Then it gets good. And better. By the time they’d gotten Hydra base-smashing down to an art, it was at an all-time high, culminating in a particular mission off Sri Lanka that only went a little sideways, requiring crashing the Quinjet in open water.

Steve’s memory is excellent, but he doesn’t know why that particular incident was the turning point for Tony. He remembers that they’d been arguing (no surprise) about whether Clint and Natasha would find them, or whether they should make the effort to get back to the mainland. Tony’s suit was damaged but he believed it could make the flight. Steve disagreed. Words were said, Tony accused Steve of wanting the both of them to sink together, and Steve snapped back that maybe that wasn’t as bad as the alternative.

It was far from one of their worst arguments. Tony caved and agreed to stay, using the suit to strengthen the Quinjet’s signal. They worked together, and waited.

Something happened in those few hours of waiting; Steve knows that in retrospect. Nat and Clint did find them, and Tony was quiet on the way back. Quieter, anyway.

After that, there was a week or so Tony being an absolute prick. He was snappish, irritable, and seemed determined to pick a fight with Steve, and only Steve, over every little thing. It was the worst kind of throwback to their earliest days, so to say that Steve was bewildered was an understatement. It got so bad that even Thor noticed, and made a comment out of Tony’s earshot that the man must have a desperate craving for sport.

Enough was enough. Steve went up to Tony’s workshop and, after letting Tony’s first few petty jibes roll off him, squared his shoulders and said, “I’m sorry.”

Tony’s scowl, already a fearsome thing, deepened. “What?”

“I must have done something to upset you. I don’t know what it is, but if you tell me, I’ll listen and do my best to make it better.”

Tony stared at him, but said nothing. Unfortunately, Steve had timed his visit wrong and Tony was wearing goggles, making it harder to read his expression.

“I know I did something,” Steve pressed. “Just tell me what it is.”

Steve braced himself for another round of Tony’s snark, but to his surprise, Tony deflated. Tony also turned away, hiding his face from view. “No, you didn’t do anything.”

“Tony. I’ve always been able to count on you to tell me when I’ve done something—”

“It’s not you, it’s me. It’s literally me.” Tony kept his back to Steve, hands moving across the computer screen that was there, but that was just an excuse. He didn’t even notice his reflection.

The glass surface of the lab’s far wall showed enough of Tony’s face, which was very clearly contorted in self-directed dismay.

Said face, hidden as it was, did not at all match Tony’s calm tone: “I’m just working through some things.”

Steve remembers the white noise in his head, a familiar companion of the panic he still sometimes gets in social situations when there’s no immediately obvious action to take save, perhaps, jumping out the nearest window.

“Okay,” Steve managed to say.

“Yeah,” Tony replied, curt. “Don’t worry about it.”

Things went back to normal after that, for the most part. The Rogers vs. Stark graph returned to the nice, comfortable equilibrium of late, with companionship and snark and teamwork, and only low-level belligerence in between. Everything seemed to be and effectively was back to normal, except Steve had a piece of additional information.

Initially, Steve railed against the immediate conclusion. It was egotistical, narcissistic. Not everything had to be about him.

But Tony’s actions fit a particular profile, and said actions clearly did center on Steve, and Tony was very much the kind of person who could get pissed at himself for falling for someone and choose to lash out in response. And for all that Tony acted afterward that nothing had changed, Steve would every so often catch glimpses, brief and fleeting; whenever they’d had a particularly good day, or when Steve looked over at Tony too quickly, or when Tony said something that made Steve burst out with genuine laughter.

The little bow on top was Natasha’s casual comment one day: “Better watch out there, Tony’s going to start etching little hearts all over your uniform.”

Steve had stared at her, horrified. “You – you can tell—”

“He’s good at hiding it, but yes. Obviously.”

“Don’t tell anyone,” Steve said urgently. “And especially don’t tell him I know. I don’t want to hurt him.”

“He’s a grown man, he’ll be fine,” Natasha said, rolling her eyes. “But don’t worry, I won’t say anything.”

That was a few months ago, just before Ultron and their latest clash. Honestly, Steve had hoped that it would go away.

Tony’s a fine guy. Difficult, but he’s a hardworking man with a huge heart, and Steve’s proud to fight alongside him. It’s even flattering that someone who’s lived the life Tony has could want him, but Steve’s brain can’t help slipping off the idea of even trying to think of Tony like that. Good looks and personality may be criteria to consider, but Tony’s like Natasha and Sam, or Thor and Bruce when they were around. Steve trusts him, enjoys spending time with him (for the most part), and would gladly follow him into battle, but that’s it.

The other key factor here is that Tony hasn’t acted upon his feelings, to the point that every so often Steve forgets they’re there or assumes that Tony’s moved on, right until something happens to remind him that nope, Tony hasn’t weighed anchor.

Like that time a building fell on Steve (long story) and Tony visited him while he was in the tower’s recovery.

Steve had drifted in and out while Dr. Cho did her work, and retained just enough consciousness to choose not to move. The building collapse had been the finale to a really long week, leaving Steve exhausted and just plain grateful to be able to lie down on a comfortable surface. There wasn’t anything to worry about either, because the session in a cradle and a few days of the serum doing its work would have him back on his feet in no time.

Tony knew that, too. Yet at some point after Dr. Cho took her leave, Tony came in with the apparent mission to hold Steve’s hand, which he did while muttering half-hearted threats to kick Steve’s ass as soon as he woke up.

Steve didn’t hear all of it, but he does remember Tony’s faint, “You are never allowed to criticize my sleeping habits ever again.” Tony’s hands were calloused and warm.

He eventually put Steve’s hand down, though his fingers lingered, trailing over the back of Steve’s knuckles.

“Ugh,” Tony said when he finally pulled away. “Stop being a creep.”

Like every other incident before it and since, Tony pretended it never happened, and Steve pretended he didn’t know that it happened.

If anything, Tony’s always seemed content to leave things the way they are. He’s still a brilliant and driven teammate, their working relationship is tight-ish, and any blow-ups they do have are more ideology-driven than anything personal. Tony’s feelings, whatever they may be, are background noise, and barely noticeable if one doesn’t go looking.

So whatever’s going on with Tony right now has nothing to do with that.

Probably?

 


 

 

Two days after the unexpected dinner, Tony takes Natasha out for a night on the town. Steve finds out after the fact, when the pair of them swan back into the compound close to midnight, while Steve is playing board games with Wanda and Vision in the common area.

“Wow, I feel underdressed,” Wanda says.

“You would’ve been bored.” Natasha’s in a low-backed dark purple stunner, her hair up but with a few curls loose. She parks herself at their table while Tony moves past to the TV area – he’s talking on the phone, but pauses at the threshold to remove a silver clutch from under his arm and toss it at Natasha. She catches it, naturally.

“One of the usual meet-and-greets?” Steve says.

“Just dinner, actually,” Natasha says. “And a show. Well, half a show, because I got bored.”

“That dress is not for ‘just’ dinner,” Vision says.

Wanda grins at him. “You have that type of information in your databanks?”

“It’s self-evident, wouldn’t you think?” Vision says.

“Tony dared me to look prettier than him, so I rose to the challenge.” Natasha pushes a hand into her hair, drawing a handful of pins out and shaking her tresses loose. Partway in the motion of lowering said hands, she reaches over, tapping a forefinger to Steve’s nose knowingly.

Steve narrows his eyes but stays silent, conscious of Wanda and Vision’s presence.

“Wanda, if that’s something you’d like to do, we could bring you,” Natasha says. “Both of you, even.”

“Oh,” Wanda says, “no, that’s…”

“Tony’s up for it,” Natasha says, sounding way too confident despite there being barely any historical precedent for this. “At the very least we should bring you to the tower. You didn’t get to enjoy the views much before we moved out here.”

“I think the views from the compound are perfectly nice,” Vision says. “Though an organized outing to the city would be nice as well.”

“Discuss anything interesting?” Steve asks.

“You can ask Tony. Actually.” Natasha leans back in her chair and throws her voice: “Hey, Tony! Did we discuss anything interesting?”

“That dumbass dossier you made on me!” When Tony returns, the jacket’s gone and the top button of his dress shirt undone. If there was indeed a competition on who was prettier for the night, Natasha would’ve won, but Steve’s objective enough to admit that Tony put a decent showing. “The one she wrote up after spying on me.”

“That is what I do,” Natasha says.

“You made a dossier on Tony?” Wanda says curiously.

“If I was suitable for the Avengers initiative, way back when.” Tony pulls a free chair from the table and swivels it before sitting down, arms braced on the frame. “Rejected me outright.”

“No, I rejected Tony Stark,” Natasha says. “Iron Man got a pass.”

“Yeah, that,” Tony says. “You knew I was dying at the time. You should’ve been nicer.”

“I also knew you would get better,” Natasha says.

“No, you didn’t. You assumed I would, you didn’t know.” Tony combs a hand through his hair, a masculine mirror of Natasha’s movements, which is a very strange comparison to settle in Steve’s head. “What’re you guys playing?”

“Game of Life,” Vision says.

“Holy shit,” Tony says. “Who’s winning?”

“Viz,” Wanda says. “Why did you ask Natasha about the dossier she made on you?”

“Oh, ‘cause I figured she had the deeper 411, reams upon reams of politically incorrect opinions that she didn’t put into the report.”

“Happy to share,” Natasha said.

“How do you play, actually?” Tony rises up to poke at a game piece. Steve smacks his hand, mostly on automatic, but Tony just grins at him. “Okay, serious business, got it.”

“You need to go to bed,” Natasha says. “You have an SI meeting in New York tomorrow.”

“I do?” Tony pauses, and there’s a faint chime from his watch of FRIDAY agreeing. “Yeah, I do. Okay, I’m off. Hey, thanks for the—”

“Yep,” Natasha says. “Got it.”

Tony gets up, and starts down the hallway before double-backing to grab his jacket from where he’d left it. This gives Steve an extra couple of seconds to decide to get up, which he does, following Tony down the hallway to reach him before he gets to the stairs at the far end.

“Hey, Tony,” Steve says.

Tony stops, surprised to see him. “I forget something?”

“No, it’s…” There’s probably no polite way to say that Steve can see how Tony’s thrumming with the same restless energy from two days ago, which Steve thought had been burned off but is instead simmering steadily, and where Steve had been startled by this show of bluntness where Tony usually resorted to empty bluster, Natasha had been clearly enjoying it. “Just surprised you went out with Natasha, that’s all.”

Tony huffs a laugh. “Don’t worry, I’m not trying to steal her from you.”

“I’m not—” Steve tamps down his smile, but Tony sees it anyway. “I’m glad you had a nice time.”

“Natasha’s… complicated, but you know that. I get why you’re BFFs.” Tony leans a little, as though to share a secret. “She notices things.”

“She does.”

“She saw the mistakes I didn’t. I mean. I know I was in a bad way, but there were things I did that I know I did, and the things I did that I missed. You know? That.”

“But why now? That was years ago.”

Tony hesitates.

“Is it because of the… that show you watched the other day?” Steve tries.

Tony nods slowly. “There was a man with me, back at the… A captive like me, but he didn’t make it. Died in front of me, and the last thing he told me was to not waste my life. Barely a year later, I almost did exactly that. I mean, just because your life happens to be short doesn’t mean you should still waste it, right? Didn’t make the connection then. Those last words didn’t resonate the way they should have, maybe.”

“Erskine,” Steve says.

“What?”

“Sorry, no, it’s nothing to do with—”

“Erskine. Erskine. The serum guy.” Tony’s eyes widen a little. “Right. He died in front of you, too.Huh. Well, he probably didn’t tell you not to waste your life.”

“Just to stay a good man, instead of a good soldier,” Steve says weakly.

“Hah. As if you need a reminder for that.”

“Maybe I do,” Steve snaps.

“That’s fair,” Tony says easily. “And so we live, and we carry these words with us. Rebirth. You need to get back to your game before they fleece you.”

Steve, used to Tony’s sudden sharp turns in conversation, says, “We’re not playing for money.”

“For favors, then. No? I swear, all of you live on another planet. I’m going to bed.”

Tony turns on his heel and starts walking, the jacket that’s folded under his arm flapping like the edge of a cape. Steve watches him go all the way down the hallway, then turn for the stairs with a little flourish – Tony always moves as if he’s putting on a show, even when his guard is down – and bounds up the stairs.

There’s a knot in Steve’s stomach. He knows he’s overreacting, and it’s worse because he’s not sure what he’s overreacting for.

 


 

 

It’s one thing to go out with Natasha, or have a weekend in Nice with Vision, or even to sit out one of their group training sessions to watch from the sidelines and take notes.

The last straw, if it can be called that, is when Steve goes to gym and stumbles upon a tableau of Tony, Wanda and Natasha together on a yoga mat. Tony and Wanda are sitting cross-legged and facing each other, while Natasha’s a little ways behind them, as though in a spotting position.

Steve tenses up, hands dropping to his side in readiness. There’s no obvious fight, but Wanda has her hands up in a frame over Tony’s head, red tendrils of magic curling out from her fingers to  Tony’s temple.

He steps forward, about to ask what’s going on, but Natasha holds a hand up.

She looks at him meaningfully. It’s okay. Wait.

Steve decides that he can work out later. As he leaves, he glances back one more time. Tony’s face is tense, but there’s stubbornness in the set of his shoulders. That’s familiar, at least.

They’ll need an hour or so, probably. Steve goes down to the training hall to check on the equipment and makes notes, then comes back up for a snack. His timing’s good, because just as he’s reading the news he sees a flash of black move past – Tony in one of his band shirts, heading up for his personal quarters.

Steve jumps up to his feet. “Hey, Tony.”

“Hmm?” Tony turns. “Oh, hey. What’s up?”

“I went by the gym earlier. What were you guys doing?”

“Trust exercise,” Tony says promptly. “I let the kid rustle around my head a little. I know, dumb idea, but is it more or less dumb that your inviting her to join the Avengers? That’s the real question.”

“We discussed that in committee.”

“I discussed this in committee, too. Natasha said it was a good idea.”

“A good—” Steve feels his face contort, mouth moving into a silent snarl that, aggravatingly, just has Tony’s smile widen.

“We can’t watch each other’s backs if we’re watching each other,” Tony says. “I don’t expect her to forgive me, but I’d like her to know me, at least enough that we can work together. It goes the other way, too – I can trust her if I have better understanding of where she’s coming from, what she wants. She’s got a lot of pain, and I think there’s, uh… there could be kinship, in that. Maybe. I don’t know.”

Steve’s used to Tony provoking him, but that’s always been Tony weaponizing his ideas and ideals against Steve’s ideas and ideals. This is different, and Steve’s so used to (and accepted) Tony having walls as dense and impenetrable as the armor of his Iron Man suits, that any behavior to the contrary of that has to be dangerous.

“Dagnabit, Steve,” Tony says with a sigh. “You complain that your teammates don’t tell you things. Here I am. I’m telling you things.”

“Tony.” Steve’s eyes are imploring, his voice gentle.“Are you dying?”

Tony’s mouth falls open. “Wow. Okay.”

He flips Steve off with both hands and starts to storm off. Steve might even be relieved how typical this response is even if it’s not what he wanted, but then Tony stops mid-step.

For a second there’s stillness, and then Tony turns, stiffly, to face Steve again. His jaw clacks, and that’s when Steve understands what’s happening. “I’m not dying,” Tony says.

This is a choice. A conscious choice, made deliberately and repeatedly, and against Tony’s instincts. Steve’s head spins, so he almost misses Tony’s next, “I want the team to be better. You handle the strategy, the training, the teamwork. I’m… seeing how we fit as people.”

“That’s not it,” Steve says, almost breathless. “You think that whatever shortcoming we have as a team is your fault, and you’re forcing yourself to act differently to fix that.”

“It is my fault, though,” Tony says.

“Jesus, Tony.” Steve comes in close, putting his hands on Tony’s shoulders and squeezing. “It’s not on you alone. It’s on all of us.”

“Sure, but I’m doing my part, because that’s the part I can do.” Tony shouldn’t look so pleased, not when Steve’s very, very close to shaking him hard enough to rattle his teeth. “And it ripples. It echoes back. You see that, right?”

“I don’t want you to think you have to force yourself to be someone else with us,” Steve says angrily.

“I’m not being someone else. I’m just being more me, in a productive and highly obnoxious way, which is par for the course for me.”

“But it scares you.”

Tony blinks, eyes flickering. Another pause, another choice is made. “Yeah, ‘course it does. But the pay-off’s gonna be worth it.”

“For the Avengers?”

“Sure. The Avengers, protecting the world, whiskers on kittens, all my favorite things. But I also enjoy taking the holistic view, so this is also for me. Personal gratification. Become a slightly-better person. Who knows? Maybe then you’d like me.”

Steve stiffens.

“As a friend, as opposed to a person you work with,” Tony says, a shade too smoothly. “That’s what I meant.”

“You are my friend,” Steve says.

“Sure, I guess. But if we were really friends, Ultron wouldn’t have happened. I would’ve been able to tell you about my worries, and you would’ve listened with a significantly less amount of judginess.” Tony purses his lips in a coy expression, a light touch that should ease the tension in Steve except that none of this is going the way he thought. “You know I’m right.”

“I’m the leader,” Steve says distantly. “Everything that went wrong is on me. I should’ve been there for you, with or without judginess.”

Tony beams. “See. It ripples. I talk to you, you talk back.”

“Okay.” Steve slowly removes his hands from Tony’s shoulders. “I… don’t know if this is the right thing to do, but…”

“What, you mean there’s risk in giving a whole bunch of people – some of them untested – enough ammo to completely destroy me?” For a second Tony’s grin takes an edge of hysteria, before he tucks it away. “Where on earth would you get that idea? Pro tip: don’t destroy me, Cap.”

“I won’t. I wouldn’t.”

“Much appreciated.”

“It is funny, isn’t it,” Steve says quietly. “It’s easier to sacrifice our lives than to sacrifice… that.”

Tony’s eyes widen. “Exactly! That’s exactly what I’m talking about. Why is that, Steve? Why is it easier to put our lives down than to open up? That’s one of the things been rattling around my head, and it’s just... I don’t know if it should be easier to die.”

“For a given value of easy.”

“Right.” Tony’s practically vibrating now. “I’m hungry. You want to get lunch? I know a place.”

“You always know a place,” Steve says. “Yeah, lunch sounds good.”

Chapter Text

Not a date, Steve tells himself. Tony didn’t frame it as such, and in his current mood of being open about uncomfortable things, he would have definitely spelled it out if that’s what he wanted it to be.

That doesn’t mean that the intention isn’t there. Or the hope of it.

Also, Tony fixed his hair and changed his clothes. He’s not dressed up – there’s no designer jackets today – but he switched to a slightly nicer band shirt with a long-sleeved tee underneath, plus jeans that don’t have oil stains on them. It’s deceptively minimal effort, though it has Steve’s chest clenching at the sense of near-nakedness permeating off of Tony.

“No, but you do understand the purpose of the World Council,” Tony’s saying. They’re eating pizza at an outdoor table, and there’s Tony’s fingers glisten with cheesy grease when he gestures. “They have made and will make stupid decisions, but at the core of it is the necessity of decisions being made at all, by authority, to an end goal.”

“Honestly, I’m just surprised none of us have been arrested for anything yet,” Steve replies. “At the very least someone should have smacked me for SHIELD.”

“That is curious,” Tony agrees. “I wonder if Fury had a hand in that. What’s your game plan if that happens?”

“If what happens?”

“If we get in someone’s spotlight, and I can’t throw money at them to make them go away. What do you think we should do?”

“An exit plan, you mean.”

“Huh.” Tony sounds intrigued. “You’ve thought about it.”

“Worst case scenario, we split. Priority should be on individual safety, no question. From there, regroup once it’s possible, but that’s assuming that, uh…”

“Assuming what?”

“Assuming that everyone wants to regroup,” Steve says with a wince. “It’s… The Tesseract brought us together the first time. The scepter, the second. Now we’re moving by momentum, but I feel like if the team were to take a hard-enough hit…”

“It could stick.” Tony nods. “It would take something else just as huge to brings us back together, instead of the team being reason enough in itself. Makes sense. Why you looking so green? I’ve thought the same thing.”

“It’s cold.”

“Or realistic.”

“I don’t like thinking that way,” Steve says tersely.

“Of course you don’t. You’re Mr. We’ll Do It Together, even you don’t have a plan to back that up.” The words could cut but the delivery is warm, affectionate.

“A part of me thinks it would be better if I did think like that, especially after what happened with SHIELD,” Steve says.

“What was that like?”

“What?”

“SHIELD,” Tony says. “When you realized that people who should’ve been your allies were… not.”

Steve stares at him. Tony has an elbow on the table, his head resting on the loose fist that’s propped up. Here’s a man in good company, relaxed and alert and interested. His focus is entirely on Steve, who should feel more self-conscious about it.

“Not fun,” Steve says.

“’Not fun’ like, they got your order wrong at the restaurant not fun, or ‘not fun’ like one of your workmates is rage monster who’s destroying a city not fun?”

“You need a more accurate scale.”

“Sorry.” Tony’s smile is small, though no less genuine. “Just working with what I have.”

“Disappointing.”

“Me?”

“Finding out the people I’d counted on were two-faced shitheads. It was disappointing.”

“Oh ho ho.” Tony grabs another pizza from the box, though his eyes never leave Steve’s face. “Keep going.”

It spills out, fast and easy. Steve’s anger at himself for not seeing it until it was almost too late; the small hints he should’ve picked up but had chalked up to his also having to adjust to the twenty-first century. Tony asks if Steve was close with any of them besides Natasha, and Steve admits that no, he wasn’t. Maybe his subconscious knew something was wrong, because he’d reached out for friendship beyond SHIELD instead of within.

Steve’s worked most of this out with Natasha and Sam, but that was back when the betrayal still burned, and Steve’s priorities aimed forward instead of back. There’s freshness in talking about it now, especially with Tony’s poking at new angles and asking different questions.

“You believe in the best in people,” Tony says. “The problem is, not everyone gets with the program.”

“Sometimes I wonder if I could have figured it out if I had made the effort to get to know them better.”

“Fury didn’t know, so how could you? Oh right, the expectations you place on yourself are even more impossible than the expectations you place on others.”

“You have great appreciation for my flaws,” Steve says, smiling when Tony does. “I think Natasha took it harder than I did, all things considered. SHIELD was her touchstone for a long time. That said, I think she was happy to get out, try something different.”

“Try a gamma radiation specialist,” Tony says. “Too soon?”

“Of all my mistakes, that might be my worst one.”

“Why would that be your… Oh shit, you tried to get them together, too!” Tony laughs when Steve grimaces. “What was that even like? I mean, Bruce would just throw things at me to get me to shut up, but Natasha—”

“I wasn’t going to talk to Nat about it!” Steve exclaims. “I… just offered Bruce some friendly advice.”

“What, like don’t step on her feet? You know, I still try to picture sometimes, what that would’ve been like, if Bruce was still around and they gave it a shot. Dating in the team, holy shit, that would’ve been something.”

Steve keeps his expression bland, even as his eyes jump to Tony sharply. He can do that, because Tony’s preoccupied with another slice of pizza and staring off to the side, probably doing the literal imagining right at this moment.

“That’s also interesting,” Tony says, “in the sense that of course I would encourage Bruce. I’m all about the boundary-testing experiments. But you. I am genuinely surprised you’d do a little push-push.”

“Right, because I’m the boring one.”

“Steve, you are plenty things, but boring is not one of them.”

“Glad to hear it.”

“Would you consider it yourself?”

As the answer rises out of Steve, so does a sense of dread. “Consider what?”

“Dating within the team.” Tony’s voice barely changes, still tinged with the same light curiosity it’s had throughout. But Steve’s watchful, taking note of when Tony shifts away from eye contact and (an especially good tell) when he keeps his hands busy, in this case with the pizza and the straw of his drink.

“Natasha and I aren’t like that. Or Sam, either, he’s just—” Steve realizes his mistake the moment he says Sam’s name, because now he’s got to list everyone in the team.

But then Tony cuts in, blessedly, with an amused yet impatient: “I just mean in theory, not for anyone specific. We could recruit more people, and there could be someone who’d… well. You never know, right?”

Steve doesn’t know how to untangle this. Tony’s on a New Year’s Resolution kick sans the New Year, and a subsection of said resolution seem to involve his attempts to… what? Make himself interesting and agreeable for Steve’s sake? But this isn’t Tony being manipulative. At least, it doesn’t feel like that – Tony isn’t putting on a front for the sake of a specific goal.

There may be a goal but the efforts are genuine. The interest is genuine.

“I guess I haven’t thought that far ahead,” Steve manages to say.

“Yeah, I hear ya.” Tony leans back, stretching his arms. “You have your position as team leader to consider, too.”

It’s strange to be on the receiving end of this. Even after getting the serum, Steve still thinks of himself as that little guy who’s only ever known rejection, both the kind and unkind type. Which isn’t the whole story, because he has had to relearn the ropes post-serum, along with the brand new skills of gently nudging unwanted interest away.

But that post-serum interest has always come from strangers, or acquaintances at most. Some really good acquaintances – a few he’d even given a shot with on good faith – but none of them were people Steve’s gone into battle with, pulled out from wreckage, or thought dead more than once. None of them were anything like Tony Stark, either; Steve wouldn’t know how to date Tony, even if he wanted to.

Steve reminds himself that whatever Tony’s feeling, it’s perfectly understandable, and Tony’s not done a single thing wrong with it. When people spend time together, things happen, even between personalities that may not look compatible at first glance. Steve was in the army, he knows well enough that proximity encourages attachment.

Steve needs to be kind. The more so now that Tony’s like this, cleaving pieces of himself in offering, and not only to Steve, but the others as well. But he also needs to be honest.

“There is that,” Steve starts, “but I believe it wouldn’t be that much of an issue if I really wanted to be with someone.”

“You’d make it work, come hell or high water? Yeah, that sounds about right. But only if the person’s worth it, I suppose.” Tony’s playing with a napkin now, folding and unfolding the corners. Steve’s not sure Tony even realizes he’s doing it.

“And there hasn’t been anyone like that since…”

“The Lady Carter. Naturally. Obviously. There’s no one like her in the whole world.”

Steve doesn’t feel relieved.

“I met her a couple of times,” Tony says, which causes a minor explosion at the back of Steve’s head as he tries to picture it. Peggy, wonderful amazing Peggy, existing in the same space as rapscallion prodigy Tony Stark.

“My mom knew her,” Tony continues.“Or she knew my mom, I guess would be more accurate. Howard wasn’t… I think they had a falling out, but I didn’t know the details. I could tell that there was something epic about her, but had no idea. Or maybe I was just too much of a baby idiot to put the effort of figuring it out.”

Icy fear grips Steve’s chest. He knows how precious this is, that Tony’s able to talk so freely when a few weeks ago this wouldn’t have hit the top 50 list of Most Improbable Things that Steve could’ve imagined of the new century. Tony’s reaching out – not just to Steve, but to others as well – and if Steve is to actually be a good person he claims to be, he should at least try to reciprocate.

The fear stays, thickens. Steve opens his mouth anyway.

“There’s something I need to tell you,” he says.“About your parents.”

Tony’s eyes are guileless. “Okay.”

 


 

 

Steve might have fucked it up. The thing is, he’d be okay with fucking it up if he’d only fucked up this single day, this single lunch, and not the entirety of his relationship with Tony.

Tony’s quiet, after.

The food’s gone, so Steve suggests they head back. Tony says he’s fine with that, so they go. In the car, Tony asks a few questions that Steve does his best to answer, but other than that, he’s silent. Still. Not thrumming anymore.

They part ways once they get home, Tony understandably needing to look into the post-SHIELD info drop by himself.

A few hours later Steve finds out from FRIDAY that Tony’s left the compound entirely. He took one of the suits, didn’t say where he was going, but promised to keep them updated once he gets there. At the end of the day Tony sends a group email that he’s in Malibu to check on some things, and that they’re to let him know if they need him for anything.

Steve composes and discards various emails. They sound trite no matter how much he works on them, and decides that anything he can say should be said when Tony gets back.

But Tony’s gone for over a week, long enough that the rest of the Avengers catch wind of a mission, leave for it, and return. It’s a relatively small field trip, involving the breaking up of an illegal arms exchange – a useful field exercise for their newest members, but not big enough to call Tony in. They get back a little bruised but having learned a few things, which is good.

Steve’s good at compartmentalizing, so the mission passes without incident. He only really parses how anxious he is about the matter when Tony finally drops a message in the team inbox that he’ll be back in time for the mission’s post-mortem, if they want to keep him in the loop.

The next day, Steve has the most efficient shower possible after his morning run, and comes down to the common area where Sam and Vision are watching TV.

“I saw Tony’s car,” Steve says. “He come in yet?”

“Yeah, he just went up,” Sam says. “Why do they keep getting my bad side?”

“I thought you said don’t have a bad side,” Vision says.

“It’s not a bad side per se,” Sam says, while Steve belatedly registers that they’re watching a news report about the Avengers’ latest public sighting. “But it’s slightly less flattering than my best side.”

“Hazard of the job, I’ve been told,” Vision says.

Steve perches on the arm of the couch, half-paying attention while Sam and Vision debate the nature of celebrity attached to being an Avenger. If Tony went up instead of down, that probably means he’s in his quarters, and Steve can’t exactly bug him while he’s there. Or he could? Maybe that’s okay now?

The decision is taken out of his hands when Tony appears around the corner. He’s frowning, but he’s also tapping away at his phone, so it could mean anything. Overall, he looks fine and put together, but that could mean anything, too.

“Hey,” Steve says.

Tony looks up. “Oh, hey.”

A distracted smile is still a smile, and one of the knots in Steve’s shoulders immediately unwinds.

“You okay?” Steve says.

“Yeah,” Tony says slowly. For a second or two his throat works silently, accompanied by a visible (and visibly awful) effort to control his facial expression. “I went to visit to ye olde Stark Archives, thought I might find—”

“No,” Steve says quickly, “you don’t have to say anything.”

“It’s kind of—”

“Not like this.” Urgency propels Steve, dropping him from his seat to approach Tony, his voice low so he knows this is meant only for him. “I know you’re making a point with all the… sharing. And I appreciate it, I really do, but this is new and it’s hurting you. Keep that, okay? Keep it until you’re ready, and I’ll be there to listen when you are.”

Tony rolls his eyes. “The whole point is that I can’t tell when I’m ready.”

“Then let me make the call on this one. How about that?”

There’s an argument on Tony’s lips. Steve can see it gathering together like a storm, up until Tony gives in, relaxing. “Okay,” he says. “I’ll take that for now.”

“All right.” Steve hovers for a second, then gives in as well, throwing his arms around Tony for a hug.

“Oh okay,” Tony says, muffled and surprised. While Steve squeezes, Tony brings his hands up awkwardly, patting Steve’s back.

He’s so solid in Steve’s arms, which is appropriate because sometimes Tony seems more a real person that Steve’s ever been. Have they ever done this? Steve thinks they haven’t, not even with all the world- and life-saving they’ve accomplished over the years. Maybe it’s because Tony’s always in a suit when they’re out on the field together, but that’s not an excuse.

Steve’s aware of the peril in here. When he draws back, he catches a half-second of Tony’s eyes, half-shut and wistful, before that’s shuttered away. But Steve doesn’t care about that; Tony can use the memory of this any way he wants, as long as he also knows how glad Steve is that he’s here, and they’re talking, and they’re friends.

Steve exhales slowly, and shrugs when Tony frowns at him. “I was afraid you’d be mad at me.”

“I thought we’re not gonna talk about this now,” Tony says, amused.

“That’s right.”

“So,” Tony says, “am I late for the meeting or what?”

“Just waiting for Natasha,” Steve says. “But afterward, do you want to, uh. Are you doing anything?”

“I’m stealing your bud, actually.”

“Stealing my…?” Steve turns on his heel, following Tony’s gesture over his shoulder.

Sam, though still watching TV, has raised a hand. “If I have a billionaire for a teammate,” he says, “I am gonna take advantage of that.”

“I’m letting him drive my car,” Tony says. “Plus whatever cars I have at the tower. Within reason.”

“I am all right with that,” Sam says.

Steve just manages to stop himself from saying, “Without me?” Because that would have been petulant and embarrassing, and Sam’s already making that face that warns of a great deal of shit-talking in the near future.

“Don’t worry,” Tony says, patting Steve’s shoulder. “I’ll bring him back in one piece.”

 


 

 

For the next few days, the universe conspires against Steve.

It shouldn’t be difficult to get Tony to himself for a little while, maybe an hour or two. But things pop up one after another, for Tony, then Steve, then both of them, then back again. Although they do see each other around, there are always others around as well, or the conversation has to be cut short.

On one hand, there’s no rush to catch Tony by himself and thus get a better handle on how he’s doing. (He’s shaken but fine, and is understandably still processing.) On the other hand, Steve has had the worst luck with regards to timing and lost chances, and there’s always the possibility that another potential apocalypse is just around the corner, so it would be just swell if Steve could get this done before anything of that sort happens.

“How about this weekend?” Steve says, the one time he manages to snag Tony before the man’s heading out for a meeting with Hill. “What are your plans for the weekend?”

“Wanda wants to visit Clint,” Tony says. “I said I’d take her.”

“You’re going to Clint’s? Can I come?”

“I don’t know, can you? Actually I can’t answer that, you gotta ask Clint. He gets tetchy about people crashing uninvited, you know how it is.”

But Steve does get Clint’s go-ahead, so on Saturday they take the second Quinjet out to Clint’s farmstead.

Steve’s been there a handful of times, but this is the first that he’s going without Natasha. The flight is subdued, Steve chiming in only occasionally while Tony and Wanda share the vaguest, least-baggage stories of their childhoods. Once there, Clint is a grumbly but welcoming host, and through the late afternoon he and Tony wander the grounds together, talking about who knows what.

As for Steve, he stays on the porch, a paperback and sketchbook for company. Wanda eventually joins him, bringing a tray of lemonade and snacks courtesy of the Barton kitchen.

“I like to be reminded that there are places like this in the world.” She says this matter-of-factly, as though it doesn’t occur to her to be pitied for it. “Keeps things in perspective.”

“I know what you mean,” Steve says.

 


 

 

That night, Steve asks Tony to join him up on the roof.

“What, star-gazing?” Tony says, his disgust only half-mocking. “Not so much a fan of space since finding out there are overpowered aliens out there who want to destroy us.”

“There are plenty of non-aliens who want to destroy us right here, too. You can’t hold that against Earth.”

“I’ll hold whatever grudges I want, Rogers.”

Tony follows him anyway. It’s a warm night, but Steve brings two sets of blankets just in case. Natasha showed him the hangout spot the second time they came here – it’s just over the second guestroom, and sturdy exactly for this purpose – and Steve now guides Tony across the slates to sit down.

“I am this close to talking Clint into letting me upgrade his equipment.” Tony takes some time to make himself comfortable, turning left and right and making a face all the while. “Nothing fancy, because I know that that would defeat the purpose. But some of the stuff he has lying around here is almost as old as you.”

“And just as dependable?”

“I am not going to answer that.” Tony finally settles, half-lying down with his legs propped up at angle, feet braced against the eaves. Steve sits upright, the view just as magnificent this way than if he were on his back. Pitch black save the little pockets of light from other farmsteads and distant towns, and stars all the way to forever.

Sure, Steve’s a city guy, but he can appreciate the safety (or the illusion of safety?) within this vastness Clint’s claimed for himself.

“I know two illegal ways to find Bucky,” Tony says. “But, you know, illegal.”

“Let’s not.”

“Hah! You’re only saying that because I’d be involved.”

“He doesn’t want to be found yet,” Steve says firmly. “I understand that, though I… Even if I wish it weren’t so.”

“That’s gotta take willpower.”

“I do have some. It’s just…” Steve steals a glance at Tony; he doesn’t seem on edge, or angry. Tony’s the one who brought Bucky up, anyway. “I hate not knowing, and I hate that I can’t be there for him. I’d already lost him twice and I didn’t even – I should’ve kept at it. Found him, before they finished what they were doing to him.”

Tony doesn’t say anything. Steve can almost hear the usual replies: Don’t blame yourself, if wishes were horses, there’s no changing the past. But that’s just Steve’s brain clacking along its familiar paths, round and round in circles waiting for a new sign to jump tracks.

Steve used to be better at waiting.

“Sometimes I think it would be better if he doesn’t get any of his memories back,” Steve says. “It’d kill him to know – to really know – what they made him do. I’m sorry, are you okay?”

“It’s fine,” Tony says. “All right, no, it’s not fine, but—”

“No buts.”

“You were talking about Barnes.”

“He’s not going to show up right now.”

“That’d be neat, though, wouldn’t it?”

Steve pointedly doesn’t reply.

“It’s just.” Tony pauses, gathering himself. “There are two things going on in my brain right now: that your friend is out there, needing help, and that HYDRA had my parents killed. Every so often I need to remind myself that they’re connected, and… I can’t hold on to it.”

“Then maybe you shouldn’t.”

“There are so many things I hated about my dad, and the thing I hated him for the most wasn’t even his fault.” Tony’s eyes shift away from the star-filled night sky, settling on Steve’s face instead. Even now, Tony’s wary about talking to Steve about Howard, though the days have long since passed that Steve might’ve tried to measure Tony against memories of a man he didn’t know very well.

“Pulls the rug out from under you,” Steve says.

“Yeah. And it’s weird, ‘cause like, I’d already been thinking about him a lot lately. Him and my mom, but mostly him, and how much I don’t want to be him. He was good at the big things – creating, looking to the future – sure, I give him that. But he was lousy at the small things. At being a decent human being up close. I want to do better.”

“I think you’re doing pretty damn good.”

“No, no, it’s…” Tony brings his hands up in his chin, drumming his fingers together as though itching for a keyboard. “I know why it didn’t work out with Pepper. She never asked for this, for Iron Man, the Avengers, all of it. She doesn’t understand why we do what we do, and by God, she shouldn’t have to. And it’s not just that. It’s also me – I didn’t do enough. Wasn’t there enough.”

Tony pauses, steadying himself, and it’s here that Steve realizes what’s going on.

“If I ever try again with someone, I’d do better,” Tony says. “I am better.”

Is it possible to feel sad and proud at the same time?

“I think you’d make someone very happy,” Steve says quietly.

“Thanks.” Tony’s gaze has moved away again. He’s staring up at the sky, almost as though daring it to blink first. Steve finds himself checking Tony’s chest, just to make sure that he’s breathing. “That means a lot.”

Does it? Steve knows he hasn’t done anything to lead Tony on, but as Tony’s body stays tense next to him, that sour feeling in the pit of Steve’s stomach seems a lot like guilt. Which isn’t fair. Steve knows what Tony’s doing; he’s putting himself out there, doing the soft sell.

Steve had no idea Tony had this in him, and he almost wishes he were interested in him, because it’s beautiful.

“You told me something, once,” Steve says. “We were here, actually. Over there.” He points. “You said that reason we fight is to end the fight.”

“Sure, I remember.”

“I hated you for saying that.” Steve laughs shakily. “You were right on the money, and you didn’t even know. When Wanda mind-whammied us, I saw Peggy, but Peggy as she was back then, as though it was the end of the war. But I knew it wasn’t real, and that it was a taunt of what I could never have. It would never end, and I didn’t want it to end because I don’t have anything else anymore.”

“Steve.”

“I don’t know who I am without the fight.”

There it is. Steve’s scrubbed raw, and cold despite the blanket. He wants to take it back but it’s done, it’s out there, and now Tony knows that Steve’s not someone that anyone can hang expectations on.

Tony puts his hand on Steve’s. It’s not handholding, but a curl of his fingers over Steve’s wrist: I’m here, I heard you. It doesn’t solve anything, or offer any answers, but Steve is warmed by it anyway.

“That sucks,” Tony says.

“Yeah,” Steve says.

Thank goodness they’re not sharing a bed this visit. That one time was bad enough, and not only because Tony’s feet had been cold where they’d poked at Steve’s calves.

Chapter Text

Steve’s glad he invited himself along for the weekend getaway. By the time they return to the compound he feels rejuvenated, and he thinks the others are as well.

Most critical, of course, is that Tony’s okay. Though they didn’t talk of it outright, he seems to be taking Steve’s disinterest in stride (though it’s also possible that Tony thinks that Steve’s being dense and hasn’t noticed what he’s doing at all) and continues to be his baffling, over-the-top self. Which is wonderful, because Steve can talk to him about Bucky now.

A couple of days after, there’s a meeting with Fury and Hill. Tony’s interested in taking over some of SHIELD’s international assets, and wants a breakdown of what they can take, along with what other agencies will be grabbing for themselves.

This isn’t really Steve’s forte, but he’s content to be a figurehead, sitting in while Tony, Natasha and Rhodey figure out the actual nitty-gritty. The meeting’s at the compound’s conference area, and it’s apparently a special enough event that FRIDAY’s called in catering.

“Go back to the old list,” Rhodey tells Tony. “The old – Tony!”

“I’m not going to lowball it,” Tony says, pulling his tablet out of Rhodey’s reach. “I’ve already promised to let you do the talking, isn’t that enough?”

Natasha’s sitting next to Steve at the head of the long table, her own list in front of her. “Would it be rude to eat first? Those cupcakes are calling me.”

“Today, you’re the boss,” Steve says. “Go for it.”

FRIDAY lets them know when their guests have arrived, though only Steve, Natasha and Rhodey stand at first – Rhodey pinches Tony’s shoulder until he follows suit, just in time as the door opens.

Fury enters first, his greetings perfunctory, his handshake firm. Behind him are three other people, two of whom Steve doesn’t know, but the third.

“Oh,” Steve says in surprise. “Hey, neighbor.”

Sharon looks sheepish, but only for a second. Her smile is warm as she shakes his hand. “Back at you, neighbor.”

“Long story,” Steve says, when Rhodey looks between them, confused.

“Not that long,” Sharon says. “I was placed as his neighbor in DC. To keep an eye on him.”

“’Keep an eye’… spying,” Steve says. “The word is spying.”

“Don’t worry,” Sharon says, “the only intel I got was on your laundry.”

“We can learn a great deal from laundry,” Fury says. “Well, goddamn, is this a meeting or a tea party? Your idea, Tony?”

Tony’s head jerks up. “What? No, I’m not allowed to say anything. But the red velvet’s pretty good.”

It’s a productive meeting as far as Steve can tell. He can’t follow everything, but he knows enough to pick out the conflicting interests and batting back ‘n forth. The Avengers could use SHIELD’s assets but it wouldn’t do for them to get too powerful, and Fury’s having a merry ‘ol time arguing both sides with his former subordinates.

Tony, though. Steve hadn’t taken seriously his promise to let the rest of them do most of the negotiating, so it’s unsettling to notice that he’s hanging back, only piping up with fact checks or when the punchline is too tempting to ignore. All the more baffling is that Tony hasn’t mentally checked out – Steve knows that well enough what Tony’s like when he’s distracted – yet Steve’s handful of efforts to draw him in get no joy.

Roughly halfway through, Rhodey calls for a break. Fury’s glad for it, descending on the rest of the table spread with glee. Sharon rises from her seat next to Steve to join him, though Steve stays where he is, more interested in a getting loose-translation recap from Natasha.

She’s in the middle of explaining about transfer taxes when Steve notices, at the corner of his eye, that Tony’s also by the snack table. In fact, he’s chatting with Sharon, him smiling and her nodding along with interest. She’s taller than him in heels, though she’d probably still be taller than him if they were both barefoot.

There’s nothing in the sight that should mark it out as incongruous. And yet?

Steve turns back to Natasha, who has a suspiciously blank face.

“What?” Steve says.

“Nothing,” Natasha says unhelpfully. “Want me to go over it again?”

 


 

 

Tony’s current trajectory being what it is, Steve learns what’s going on soon enough. The very next day Tony corners Steve after a training session, this time eschewing casualness for deliberateness.

“So,” Tony says, “there’s this cabaret show in the city. Great reviews, SRO, I honestly don’t know what it’s about but it’s going viral the old-fashioned way and there have been knife fights over tickets. Okay, I made that last one up. But here.”

Two tickets are shoved in Steve’s face. He almost goes cross-eyed trying to read the neat print, but he takes them.

“You just… decided to get tickets?” Steve says, mystified.

“They’re both for you. It’s for Thursday night.”

“I can take anyone I want?”

“That is the idea.”

Steve considers the tickets in his hands, and holds one out to Tony.

“Not me,” Tony says, exasperated. “I’ve got something on, anyway. But these are the good shit, I am not kidding. You should go.”

Steve spends a few seconds wondering exactly who would be more entertained by a maybe-cabaret, since Steve’s not at all convinced that Tony knows exactly what he’s trying to shill.

“Oh my god,” Tony says with a sigh. “Am I really going to have to spell it out for you? Sharon’s still in town.”

Steve looks up sharply. “What?”

“Sharon, in town. Fury, too, but he’s not the boss of her, technically, anymore. I got to chatting with her—” Steve recalls in full technicolor their heads close together, dark and fair, “—and she likes this kind of thing, so you should take her.”

The back of Steve’s neck grows warm. Tony’s mouth quirks upward at whatever expression is on Steve’s face, and that’s – wrong. It’s a sweet gesture, to be sure, but Steve has the prickly-dizzy feeling of being caught doing something he shouldn’t be, and it’s not even a thing that he is doing.

“I—” Steve says. “I don’t—”

“There was something there, right?” Tony says. “There’s a vibe.”

“It’s not a vibe!”

“Looks like a vibe. Your ears are red.”

“Tony.”

“Go for it. Okay? You need wardrobe advice, I’m here, too.” Tony glances at his watch. “Oh, I’m late, I’m going to be yelled at. Bye!”

There goes Tony Stark, still a goddamned mack truck. Steve thinks he should be concerned by the reappearance of Tony’s habit of dropping things and fleeing, but no, this is understandable. The gift’s made with good intentions, but Tony wouldn’t linger. Steve wouldn’t want him to linger either, especially not when Steve’s embarrassment can apparently be read the wrong way.

Looking back on the tail end of his time with SHIELD, that was very much a strange pocket of time. He’d gotten comfortable enough to reach out to people (strangers) outside of SHIELD, hoping for a hit. Sam was golden, thank God. And Sharon was… something. A maybe, a could be.

There’s no question what Steve’s going to do with the tickets.

 


 

 

On Thursday night, Steve is mildly surprised to discover that Tony’s hard at work in the lab. He half-expected Tony to be off the compound altogether, but while Steve is in the kitchen making a snack, Vision comes up to collect coffee and snacks, and tells him that they’re for Tony; they’re in the lab doing some studies on the scepter gem.

It’s about fifteen minutes later – the right amount of time for Vision to tell Tony, and for Tony to put down whatever crucial thing he’s doing – that Tony comes marching into the kitchen.

“What are you doing here?” Tony demands. “Don’t you have a thing?”

“Sold the tickets,” Steve says.

“What?”

“To be more accurate, I gave the tickets to Sam, who sold them online. I think he put the money into his motorcycle fund.”

“Goddammit, Steve.”

Steve puts his sandwich down just as Tony practically flings a chair into position in front of Steve and drops into it. Tony’s body language screams itchiness for a fight, but Steve’s ready. He meets Tony’s gaze, and reminds himself of the obvious: it isn’t ethical to accept a favor from someone who has feelings for him, and use said favor to take someone else on a date. Steve won’t say this, of course, because Tony would get upset. But there are other ways to bat it aside.

“Why would you do that?” Tony says.

“Are you prepared to actually listen? Because you should calm down.”

“I am calm!” Tony clears his throat. “I’m calm.”

“Here’s the thing,” Steve says, “when I tell you something in confidence, it’s not an invitation for you to meddle. I am not a problem for you to solve.”

“I know you’re not,” Tony snaps.

“I appreciate the effort, really I do.”

“Not enough to actually use it.”

“Tony,” Steve says patiently. “What did I just say?”

“That you’re not a problem for me to solve. Which is certainly a take, because if anything you’re actually problems on top of other problems, and I have plenty of problems of my own, so if I thought of you that way at all, we’d both be fucked. This—” Tony slaps a hand on the table, so loud that the sound echoes, “—wasn’t meant to be a solution to anything.”

“I get that you’re on this whole turning-over-a-new-leaf thing—”

“It’s not about me!”

“Isn’t it?”

Tony inhales sharply.

Steve didn’t mean that as a precision strike, but it might as well have been. Tony’s staring at him, breath stifled, and a cold ripple passes through Steve with the realization that this could be it.

All this time Tony’s been vague about his intentions towards Steve, but this could blow it wide open. Hot on the heels of that thought is that although Steve thought (and told Natasha) that he could handle it, it’s clear now that he’s standing in it that he really, really can’t.

Tony stands up. “Okay, I’m gonna—”

“Wait.” Fear propels Steve onto his to his feet. This could be it, and but one false step from him would have Tony closing off again, and they’d be back the way they were. Friends but not really friends, and Tony always at a remove, and it hasn’t even happened yet but Steve already misses it, and him. “I’m sorry.”

“No, no, I’m the one who’s sorry,” Tony says quickly. “It’s fair, I overreached myself, I’m going—”

“No, please. No.” Steve takes Tony’s hand in his. Tony’s fingers twitch, but he doesn’t pull away, so Steve holds it firmly. “Tony, these past weeks have been… I’m grateful that you’ve been able to talk to me. You should be able to talk to me. I know I haven’t… made that possible for you, before. You said you want to be better, right? Me, too. I want to be better, at this.”

Tony’s throat works silently.

“Let me be your friend,” Steve says.

“Okay,” Tony says, voice hoarse. “Okay.”

They sit down, knees almost touching. Steve lets go, but Tony’s hands stay within range, clasped loosely in front of him.

“I understand what you meant,” Steve tries again. “But you didn’t have to.”

“I know. It’s just – God, I want you to be happy.” The words rush out of him, low and explosive, as though Tony had needed to say that quickly or he’d never have said it at all.

The fierceness of it is shocking, and it rushes over Steve in a full-body zing from toes to fingertips. Steve’s seen Tony angry and animated and jubilant, but this is none of that. This is Tony with his emotions funneled into a narrow, tight space, as though he cannot – will not – show more, but the strength of feeling compels him to at least show something.

“That’s pretty much…” Tony trails off, licks his lips, takes a steadying breath. “That’s all I want.”

This honesty of that rings like a bell, perfectly clear and perfectly recognizable.

“Tony,” Steve says tightly, “that’s very sweet of you but—”

“No, no. I know life hasn’t dealt you the best hand. And I know it’s scary, after everything you’ve been through, to even try. You said that you don’t know you are without the fight? This could be a way to find out. It doesn’t have to go anywhere because, yeah, that’s also a possibility, but I’m just making an opportunity, because I can’t stand it. This—” Tony reaches out, two fingers tapping hard and blunt at Steve’s chest. “There’s so much to give.”

Steve swallows. “I don’t know if there is.”

“There is, of course there is. If I could make a trade, that you’d never believe anything that comes out of my mouth ever again, as long as you’d believe this one thing, I’d be content. Core code.”

“Core… Your core code, the one that you said hadn’t changed after you became Iron Man?”

Tony’s eyes light up. “Wow, you remember? You were right, my code has changed. But I’m making another change, on purpose. An edit, if you will. Priority one: make sure everyone I care about is safe. But there’s priority two: make sure everyone I care about is happy. That includes you, too.”

The truth hits Steve, like a punch to the gut. Tony loves him. Tony’s in love with him. Not a crush, and not some vague feelings due to proximity even if they may have started that way.

Why is Steve only seeing this now? Because Tony’s only now decided to let him see it, or at least a portion of it, for he’s accepted that he doesn’t have a chance. Steve will never see him that way, so it’s fine to give in a little, and share some of what he really feels, in case it could help.

It’s so brave.

“Where do you fit in that?” Steve says.

“Where do I fit what?”

“Where does your happiness come into that?”

Tony stares at Steve as though he’s stupid. “Uh, are you not paying attention? Those are two most important things in the world, right there. That’s for me. So, yeah, I’m sorry if I overstepped. Did I overstep?”

“It’s okay.”

“I overstepped, so stepping back. But you get it, right?”

“I get it,” Steve says weakly. “And I’ll… think about it.”

Relief changes Tony’s face, drawing out a pleased smile that crinkles the corners of his eyes. “Okay. Thank you.”

Thank you. As though Steve would be doing Tony a favor.

“Okay, I’ve got to go,” Tony says. “Vision and the bots might have started another revolution while I wasn’t looking. Are we cool?”

“We’re cool.” Steve sits back, feeling strangely numb as Tony rises to his feet. Tony’s motions are fumbling and casual, but still somehow elegant, with a rustle of cloth that seems absurdly loud and making the hairs on Steve’s arms rise. There’s a pause where Tony hovers, as though unsure if this exit is indeed the good one, so Steve meet his gaze and smiles. It’s good, it’s okay.

Well, it’s just mostly okay, but that’s not Tony’s fault.

Tony smiles back and, after another moment of indecision, darts his hand out, patting Steve’s shoulder. Awkward, but meant well.

Has Tony always been this handsome?

 


 

 

That night, Steve has trouble sleeping. It’s not an unfamiliar problem, though the cause of it is. He tosses and turns, gets up, jogs around his room a few times, then lies down again. Accumulated knowledge of Tony churns around his skull, and it seems mighty unfair that it took only one conversation to give every single moment they’ve had before new context.

“Damn it,” Steve whispers to the dark of the room.

He’d accepted that he’d left parts of him behind. The burn he’d felt for Peggy was once in a lifetime, which was fine because that lifetime was done and over, and Steve has this now. Steve is here, to keep fighting for a world that needs it, even if it may not need him specifically.

But then there’s Tony, who burns and bright hot in a different way. Tony of the miracles, who’d pulled another miracle out from a dried-up husk of a man who thought he’d had everything about himself figured out.

Steve’s heart can still beat like this. He had no idea. He thought it was all gone.

Holy shit.

 


 

 

Sam knows something’s up not even five minutes after Steve’s sat down for breakfast. Natasha, who’s already there next to Sam, is presumed to know everything.

Steve could be self-conscious, but what would be the point? His head is barely able to hold the massive idea that Tony loves him and Steve could very well be capable of loving him back, so what does he care for the fact that Sam and Natasha are exchanging looks right there where they know he can see.

Steve has his cereal, coffee, and a tablet set to the morning news as is his usual. Around him, Sam and Natasha exchange small talk about their plans for the day, the status of an ongoing investigation they’re looking into, and Sam’s defense in the face of Natasha’s critique of his outfit’s color coordination.

Steve hears Tony’s voice before they do. Enhanced hearing, but also it could just be that every nerve in Steve’s body is on high alert.

“Are you having a heart attack?” Sam says. “Can you have a heart attack?”

“I’ve seen him get electrocuted,” Natasha says, “so the answer to the second one is yes.”

Steve keeps his head down. “I’m trying to read, thank you.”

Tony’s coming up the stairs, and a few seconds later he and Rhodey come through the doors. They’re both in workout clothes, apparently having come up from the gym, and are talking shit as they normally do but Steve isn’t really listening.

Steve lifts his cup halfway to his face, all the better to hide behind, and refocuses his eyes on the tablet. He’s pretty sure he read that headline already, but he’d better read it again to be sure.

Tony laughs. Probably at something Rhodey said.

Apparently, Steve’s willpower only goes so far, because his graze drifts again, sliding across the table and upward, to where Tony’s mixing something by at the counter. One of his smoothies, no doubt.

Steve’s seen these clothes before. Tony wears them all the time for gym and hand-to-hand, i.e. dark tank top, grey stretch pants. Tank top that shows off his strong mechanic’s arms, notches of muscle along the length from shoulder to elbow to wrist. Stretch pants that follow the very picturesque curve of Tony’s ass, and somehow managing to suggest both firmness and softness of the shape. When Tony tilts his head, the muscles in his neck tense move in a particular way, suggesting a distinct texture of skin that has Steve’s fingers twitching.

Arousal flickers low in Steve’s body. All right, there it is, that’s good to know. And yet, he could not have possibly chosen a worse time to seek confirmation for this, at the communal table with other people nearby and Tony functionally two million miles away and hideously attractive despite the post-gym sweat and flush of his skin.

Steve inhales slowly through his mouth, air rushing over his teeth, and wills himself not to get hard.

“Seriously, man,” Sam says, scooting closer, “if you’re gonna—”

Steve panics, hand jerking sideways.

“Wow.” Sam blinks down at his shirt, the dark blue synthetic fibers now stained with Steve’s latte. “You are gonna pay for that.”

“I know,” Steve says quickly. “I know, and I deserve it.”

Sam raises an eyebrow. “But not right now?”

“Not right now.”

Tony and Rhodey are looking their way, wearing near-identical expressions of unimpressed confusion. Tony pops the lid off the blender and dumps the lot into his extra-large bright red STARK tumbler, which he then taps Rhodey on the arm with.

“Let’s get out of here,” Tony says. “They’re being all three musketeer-y.”

Steve relaxes a tiny fraction when the pair disappear down the hallway.

“Did you know your coffee had gotten cold?” Natasha says.

“Of course I did,” Steve says, affronted.

“It’s not cold,” Sam says as he peels off his shirt. “Lukewarm. Which is concerning enough that I’m going to hold this over your head for as long as possible, and pull it out when you least expect it. That okay with you?”

Steve deflates, and holds his hand out to take Sam’s soiled shirt. “Yeah.”

“Tony, huh?” Sam says.

Steve deflates even more, sinking into his seat. “Yeah.”

“Stranger things have happened.” Natasha says that so casually, as if none of this matters to her and that she hasn’t known for a long time that—

“Tony talks to you about me,” Steve says suddenly.

“I talk to lots of people about you,” Natasha says.

“No, Tony talks to you about me.”

Natasha hums. “Even if he did, I would not be at liberty to say.”

“You gonna ask him to prom, Steve?” Sam says. “Thinking of getting him a corsage?”

“No, I was thinking I’d bang him loud enough to make you uncomfortable.” Steve double-takes, appalled at the betrayal of his own mouth, though Natasha just laughs and Sam whistles under his breath. “Um,” Steve says.

“You’re back,” Natasha says. “That’s better.”

“Is it?” Steve asks.

Natasha pats his hand. “You’ll be fine.”

Surprisingly, it makes Steve feel a little a better.

 


 

 

Obviously, he needs to do something about this as soon as possible. Never mind that he’s never done this before, let alone with someone like Tony, let alone with someone he has an extra piece of information about and feels guilty for having in the first place. Any mediocre success Steve’s had in the past has been accidental, so in a sense, this is his chance to prove himself. Or something to that effect.

After the less-than-stellar morning, Steve has quite a few hours to get his game plan together, in between other day appointments in the city. Ideally, he would take more than a few hours, or even a few days, but the timing is already all off (Tony’s had this for so long) and Steve knows too well the dangers of not taking the chance while it’s still within reach.

By the time he returns to the compound he’s… not ready, exactly, but that’s okay. He’ll give it a whirl, see where it’ll land.

Up on the common floor, the place is lit up for the early evening and Tony’s standing alone by the balcony, hands on his hips. He turns at the sound of Steve’s approach. “Okay, there’s you.”

“What’s that?” Steve says.

“I can’t find anyone. Thought maybe the rapture happened while I was having a nap.”

“You napped?”

“Napped, or designed a prototype suit with stealth mode without realizing I’d gone almost five hours without liquids, one or the other.”

“Tony.”

“I’m kidding. I had coffee.” Tony leans against the back of the couch and checks his phone. All casual movements, very relaxed, yet Steve almost doubles over from the surge of want inside him – to reach out, to touch, to smell.

Does Tony feel like this all the time? Probably not. He hopes not.

All right, here it goes then. Here it is. Steve’s teammates are all decent folk who’ve (apparently) chipped in to help this happen, so it’s only polite for Steve to make the most of it.

Steve thinks back on the scenarios he’d painstakingly plotted out today in between meetings with city officials. The best is of course to ask Tony out casually, the way he’s done before but with flirtatiousness on top, and an explicit spelling it out as a date as soon as a neat point in the conversation opens itself up.

“FRIDAY is being so weird,” Tony mutters.

Looking at him, Steve suddenly remembers that this started with Tony’s opening himself up by sheer willpower. There’s a pattern there, in that Tony acts – making big bold decisions seemingly out of nowhere – where Steve’s only ever reacted to things around him.

That sends Steve’s thoughts down another path: what can Steve give him in return, really? Tony has ideas, tangents, radical studies of himself and others that he unwinds and stitches back together in fascinating ways, and Steve has… melancholy. Frustration. Anger.

Hell, while Tony’s told him about core code and ways to focus and how he’s trying to be a better person, the only real thing Steve’s told Tony in return is that his parents were murdered.

But.

Tony’s smart. He knows all of this and more; he lived through the part where they couldn’t get along until he did. He wants Steve anyway. That counts for something.

Tony looks up, and frowns when he sees Steve’s face. “What’s wrong?”

“I know you have feelings for me,” Steve blurts out.

This is why people say he’s bad at planning.

Tony blinks slowly, recalibrating. Flight has to be his first response, but seems like he’s got a good hold on his resolution to try not to do that. “Yeah, so?”

“So…” Steve echoes. “Um.”

“It’s not a problem, is it? I – oh.” Tony smiles, which for a half-second is much too bright. “If you want to bring Sharon around, it’s fine. No big deal.”

“No, that’s not why—”

“Wait, how long have you known?”

“After the Sri Lanka crash.”

“What?” The tension in Tony’s body snaps, sending him bowing forward and over, hands on his knees as he breathes. “Wow. Shit. Wow. Okay. That’s. But that means—” He stands back up and points accusingly at Steve. “It means you’re fine. You haven’t been avoiding me, or treating me any different. So it’s fine, isn’t it? You’re okay with it.”

“I’m… yes?”

“Then it’s fine!” Tony exclaims. “Why’d you need to bring it up?”

“Because!” Because Steve’s really lousy at words when it’s not the safety of the world at stake. “Tony, it’s because I’m… I’m trying… Fuck.”

“Oooh,” Tony says, almost on automatic. “Bad word.”

Steve gives in. He lets the want flood him, propelling him forward and up in Tony’s space, hands on Tony’s face while Tony’s eyes startle wide. Steve hangs there, just a second to let Tony get what’s happening, and then kisses him. It’s a solid press of the lips, leaving no doubt as to his intentions.

“Ngah,” Tony says against Steve’s mouth.

Steve pulls back, ready to apologize.

“What?” Tony’s eyes are wide and stunned as they stare up into Steve’s. Steve braces himself for a push, but instead Tony’s fingers claw up Steve’s arms to his shoulders to his neck, where the blunt fingernails dig into skin. “What?”

“Yeah,” Steve says.

Tony surges forward, his mouth finding Steve’s. He kisses like a man starving, his fingers tight at the back of Steve’s head.

It’s great. It’s frantic and messy, their mouths sliding against each other and limbs knocking together, which may not be romantic but hell if it’s not a damned rush. Steve’s body is singing, the tension finally gaining an outlet in Tony’s body and in the mirror of Tony’s responses. Tony’s even still talking between kisses: “Oh my god. What. Oh my god, oh my god,” the words breathless and desperate.

Steve’s jaw aches at how deep Tony is kissing him, tongue curling daringly against Steve’s teeth. A decent response would be to nudge Tony back against the couch, so Steve does that, which is especially good because it gives Steve leverage to properly touch Tony, palms moving over everything he can reach – hips and sides and arms – and learn how solid he is. (Very solid, and very lovely.)

Tony’s arms are around Steve’s shoulders, as though he cannot bear the idea of any space between their bodies. His legs come up, the right hooking around Steve’s waist before the left follows and that’s – wow. Tony’s legs are around him and that’s the sexiest fucking thing. Steve pauses, forehead pressed to Tony’s, as he pants.

“Oh my god,” Tony says. “Is that for me? Please say that’s for me.”

Tony grinds against him. Steve didn’t even realize he was hard but that is indeed an erection, throbbing insistently against the back of Tony’s thigh.

“That’s for you,” Steve says hoarsely.

“Oh my god.” Tony’s legs tighten, the delicious grip sending a pulse of pleasure rushing down Steve’s spine. “Give it – let me have it. Let me – Steve, please.”

“Yes. Yes, whatever you want.”

 


 

 

In theory, they could have sex right then and there. But that would be rude to their still-missing teammates, so they arrive to the unanimous decision to move (run) elsewhere, in this case Steve’s room, since it’s closer.

Once inside, Tony crowds him up against the wall, knees knocking Steve’s and eyes wild where they roam over Steve’s face. “It worked. I had a plan, I executed it, and it worked.”

“Not the way you thought it would,” Steve says.

“Doesn’t matter, still worked.” Tony brings his hands to frame Steve’s face, fingertips moving over Steve’s forehead and cheeks. “You know… what I was doing?”

“Yeah.” Steve darts in, taking another kiss as he puts his hands on Tony’s collarbone, then pushes them back to nudge Tony’s jacket off. Tony hums, arms flexing to help the jacket on its downward trajectory. The soft flop of the jacket landing is a jolt, too.

“Tony.” Steve hisses at the drag of Tony’s hands up his chest, thumbs finding his nipples. “Tony, I hope you know that this is – that I—”

“I know,” Tony says, mouth warm against Steve’s chin. “You’re you. I get it. Now if you’ll excuse me.”

Tony sinks down to his knees. Steve’s breath catches, and it takes him a second to remember to help out, fumbling with his belt while Tony works the buttons. Tony moves efficiently, pulling Steve’s pants down to his knees and then pushing the hem of his shirt up; Steve helps on that last bit and tugs the whole thing off.

“Hey.” Tony tilts his head, considering, and plants his face on Steve’s stomach.

“Wha—” Steve laughs. Tony rubs his face there, facial hair tickling the surprisingly sensitive skin around Steve’s navel. After a second Steve realizes the sensation is pleasant, and curiously pushes his fingers into the hair of Tony’s head, noting the difference in texture.

Under Steve’s hands, Tony tips his head back to look up at him. He’s almost glowing, his smile as broad as Steve’s ever seen it.

“Hi,” Steve says.

“Oh, right.” Tony shakes his head, refocuses, and carefully pulls Steve’s underwear out of the way. Steve’s erection bobs loose and knocks Tony’s nose – Steve almost apologizes, but loses that train of thought when Tony darts his tongue out to swipe it against the head.

Oh.” Steve’s cock throbs, heavy and insistent between his legs. It gets harder as Tony strokes it, his grip firm but experimental, thumb dragging deliberately along the vein.

Steve can’t watch, but he wants to watch, because Tony’s latched his lips around the head – somehow grinning as he does so – but if Steve keeps watching he’s going to shoot off in no time. But that could be a good thing? Steve forces his eyes closed only to drag them back open.

Tony’s hands stroke up and down Steve’s thighs, and around his knees to the sensitive skin behind. Light tugging pressure has Steve leaning forward a little, sinking deeper into Tony’s mouth. Wet heat surrounds him, and it pulses as Tony sucks. Tony’s enthusiasm from earlier is back, in the sloppy glide and suction of his lips around Steve’s dick, as though it’s best fucking thing in the world to have in his mouth.

Of course Tony would be like this: excited and obscene and beautiful. His hands pump the base of Steve’s cock in time to his swallowing around him, and all the while faint gleeful sounds rise from the back of his throat. Steve realizes that he’d love to do this for hours, just stay hard and comfortable with Tony – in his mouth or, or, other places – just to be with him, drawing their arousal sharp and thin to breaking point.

All right, so Steve was going to shoot off quick no matter what.

“I’m close,” Steve breathes.

Tony flits a hand in the air dismissively – yeah, whatever. Steve untangles his fingers from Tony’s hair, sets them in fists by his sides, and gives in. The pleasure in his body narrows down to Tony’s mouth, the only place any relief can be found.

Steve curses as he comes. Tony is relentless, swallowing with fervor until he’s caught all of it, and then gently pulls away to nose around and lap at Steve’s balls.

A handful of deep breaths get the room to stop spinning.

He looks down. It’s Steve’s turn now.

“Hey. Hey, Tony.” Steve tugs at Tony’s shoulder, drawing him up to his feet. Tony wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, but there’s a second where his lips are parted and Steve catches a glimpse of come on Tony’s tongue before he swallows.

Steve grabs Tony’s forearms and shudders.

“I want…” Steve kicks his pants all the way off and reaches for Tony, plucking at his dress shirt that is disheveled but not disheveled enough. “Tony.”

“I don’t know,” Tony says, “I have lots of things to do, so maybe—”

Steve bends his knees, just enough to wrap an arm around Tony’s back, pulling him tight against Steve’s body and lifting. Tony’s face of shocked arousal is more than worth it, and Steve walks them – Tony backward, Steve forward – to the bed, where Steve helpfully tosses Tony onto his back.

“Well, fuck,” Tony says.

“I want to touch.” Steve climbs onto the bed, leaning over him. “It’s—is it…?”

“Yeah.” Tony nods rapidly. “Yeah, go for it. Just, uh, fair warning. I’m not gonna last that long either. I mean, I’d like to, but I got the taste you in my mouth and that’s kind of, uh. Yeah.”

The strain in Tony’s pants is picturesque. His cock is packed to the right, and it twitches when Steve puts his hand on it. That’s his, that’s for him.

Tony’s hands fall back to the mattress. He’s engaged and on edge, but also curious what Steve’s going to do. The most obvious tell of his impatience is the way his hips hitch upwards in seek of friction, but Steve stops that with a firm hand on stomach.

“Ah, fuck,” Tony gasps.

Steve opens the bottom-most buttons of Tony’s shirt, ignores the rest, and shoves the shirt up to his armpits. Tony’s pants are opened next, buttons and the zipper, but Steve only pushes them the minimum amount down his hips so Steve can get his dick out. It’s a nice dick, flushed and wet from pre-come, and curves upwards to Tony’s stomach when let go.

Steve draws back, hands off of Tony, and lets his gaze roam. There’s Tony all sprawled out for his sake, naked from sternum to balls and panting heavily. Nipples, freckles, scar tissue and cock – Steve memorizes it all.

“God, please,” Tony gasps. “Steve, if you keep doing that – I can’t—”

“You can come like this?” Steve says in surprise.

No, but it’s really, really really very—” Tony cries out when Steve wraps a hand around his dick. “Steve, please, I need—”

Steve pumps him, root to shiny tip, and slowly at first. His intention isn’t to tease, but to watch how Tony’s entire body strains for it, the muscles in his thighs and chest and arms working together to push his hips up, driving his cock into the ring of Steve’s fingers. It’s a clumsy rhythm, made clumsier by his desperation, but he does not change his pose or adjust himself – his focus is on reaching Steve’s fist and fucking it.

Steve promptly adds another item to the list in his head of things that are Very Sexy about Tony.

“Can you come like this?” Steve says.

Tony shakes his head frantically. “It’s not – I mean, maybe? But I – kiss me?”

Steve lowers himself down. He follows the letter of the request, settling his mouth at Tony’s hip while Tony garble-laughs at him. But mercy is also a virtue, so Steve moves, kissing a path up Tony’s stomach, through the hair around his navel, and up to his pecs where he pauses to lave his tongue on a nipple. It’s a nice, dusty nipple, and it hardens when Steve suckles it.

Tony’s laugh takes a sharper edge, and his thrusts into Steve’s hand speed up.

“You asshole,” Tony hisses. “Son of a bitch, you son of a bitch.”

Steve raises his head. “That’s rude.”

“Fuck you, kiss me. Kiss me.”

Tony groans when Steve finally moves up and presses their mouths together. Steve kisses him deep and steady, and swallows Tony’s whimpers as he goes. Tony’s relived to get what he wants but his breath still comes out in hitches. He is determined to kiss and be kissed, no matter that his coordination is shot and he’s almost wheezing in desperation to come.

“Okay, okay—” Tony pulls his mouth away. His arms finally rise up off the mattress, grabbing at Steve’s shoulders and hauling him close. Steve follows his lead, adjusting his knees to stay low and tight against Tony, which happens also be to his own advantage since it allows him to feel every shake and tremor of Tony’s body.

Tony buries his face at Steve’s neck, and clings tight all the way through his orgasm. “Oh.”

It’s heady stuff.

Tony eventually stops shaking and unpeels himself from Steve, who carefully sets him down. The buzz in Steve’s body may be satisfied, but it’s still there, and it jolts a little at the sight of Tony’s lazy smile.

Steve kisses Tony one more time, soft and sweet. Tony kisses him back, but then bats him away. “Clean up,” he says.

They putter around the room. It should be surreal to have Tony in his private space, especially while the both of them are down to their underwear. It is surreal, actually, once Steve thinks about it, but a great deal of his life in recent years has been one surreal thing after another, so why not this?

Why not this man, who keeps surprising him, and helping Steve surprise himself?

It’s probably endorphins that have Steve very calm and collected as he gets back into bed. He stretches out, propped up on one arm as he watches Tony unrumple his clothes and semi-properly fold them before tossing them to the side chair. Tony’s collected his phone from his jacket, and taps through it as he climbs onto bed and settles down on the mound of pillows next to Steve.

Steve considers his options, then plucks Tony’s phone from his hands and tosses it away.

Tony raises an eyebrow at him. “Oh, I see.”

“Hi,” Steve says.

“Hello.” Tony sinks into the pillow and mirrors Steve’s pose. “How are you?”

“Doing well, actually, thanks for asking. How about you?”

“Remarkably well, considering I thought I was having an aneurysm about an hour ago.”

“Sorry,” Steve says ruefully.

“Eh.” Tony shrugs. “So. You knew all this time, but were not interested. When did it flip?”

“Last night.”

“Last…” Tony gapes at him, then bursts out laughing. “Last night? And you’re already—damn, you’re easy.”

“I prefer the term ‘efficient’.”

As Steve studies the minutiae of Tony’s oh-so-pleased expression to his heart’s content, it occurs to him that the coil of expectation in his belly is still there. A part it gained relief in the sex, but that was just part of it – that first bolt off the starting line. But this is a long-haul marathon, of which this expectation – this want – will remain a steady companion. Another due North, to use a certain fella’s parlance. It’s exciting.

The more so because Steve’s been enthralled by the new journey that Tony’s on, and now he gets to be a part of that, right there with him.

“I knew what you were doing,” Steve says. “It was very brave.”

“Side project,” Tony says airily. “I was working on the team anyway, why not try this, too?”

“Tony, listen.” Steve shuffles closer, and draws a thumb in a delicate line across Tony’s cheekbone. Tony goes very still, though there is effort in the way he tries to return Steve’s steady gaze. “It was very brave of you. All of it. I don’t know if I could ever be that brave.” Tony starts to protest, but Steve sets his fingertips on Tony’s mouth. “You inspire me.”

“Okay, no.” Tony draws away, seems to think better of it, and shimmies down a little to press his face against Steve’s chest. Steve immediately puts his arms around him, holding Tony tight. “I can’t handle this right now,” Tony says, muffled. “I think about you all the time. What it would be like to be so sure of things the way you are.”

“But I’m not sure about things.”

Tony sighs. “Yeah, I’m getting that. You smell nice, by the way. Like vanilla and freedom.”

“Thanks.” Steve buries his smile in Tony’s hair. “But really. Thank you. For everything.”

“Just returning the favor, Steve.”