Tony had never been very good at saying the things he meant, but that didn't mean he wasn't feeling them. That was why it was so frustrating when Steve said he loved him for the very first time.
They'd been dating for a full three months – a length that, apart from Pepper, had been his longest relationship – and of course Tony felt the same way, of course he did.
He just couldn't say it.
“I love you,” Steve whispered, quite out of the blue, as they sat, quietly watching a movie.
Tony tensed, completely taken aback, but Steve just ran a reassuring hand through his hair and kissed the side of his head. He knew exactly how to make Tony feel at ease when it came to “commitment talks”, and wasn't that just the saddest thing?
“It's okay,” he murmured, nuzzling the side of Tony's head gently. “You don't have to say it back. I just wanted you to know.”
Even with Pepper, he'd said those three little words maybe once in the whole of their two year relationship. He had vowed, this time, that he would try to be better – try to let his feelings out in a healthy, adult manner – but... he couldn't do it. When he looked at Steve – beautiful, kind, perfect Steve – he had never been more sure of anything in his life, but he just couldn't bring himself to say those words.
He was really going to have to work on that.
The second time it happened was after a team-up with the X-Men to take down Magneto.
“How could you have been so stupid?” Steve screamed, tearing his cowl off as he stormed into the SHIELD locker room after Tony. “He can control metal, and you just flew right in there without even sparing a thought, didn't you?”
“We needed bait,” Tony defended, grimacing as he tugged his shirt over his head and pulled his aching ribs in the process. “We needed him distracted -”
“It didn't have to be you!” Steve yelled. “We were working out a plan, Tony! We were going to send someone in who wasn't likely to get crushed like a tin can -”
“So, what, you'd have preferred one of the kids face him alone?” he growled. “You would have preferred risking their lives over mine?”
Steve swallowed heavily, unusually pale all of a sudden. “We were working out a plan,” he whispered, “so that nobody had to risk their life.”
“I don't understand why you're making a big deal about this!” he laughed. “It worked, didn't it? I'm completely fine -”
“BECAUSE I LOVE YOU, IDIOT,” Steve screamed, punching the nearest locker and effectively stunning Tony silent. “I love you,” he repeated, whispering this time, “and I need you, Tony. Do you understand? Or are you so selfish that you didn't even think of me once when you went off to fight Magneto on your own -?”
“Of course I thought about you,” Tony mumbled, looking down at his bruised feet. “I'm always thinking about you.”
“Well you have a funny way of showing it,” Steve sighed, but the tension had left his body. “Just... talk to me next time, okay? And maybe think a little harder before you throw yourself unnecessarily into danger.”
“Okay,” Tony nodded, swallowing hard. “Sorry.”
“You're important to this team, Tony,” Steve replied, stepping forwards. Cautiously, Tony went into his arms when he held them out. “You're important to me. I couldn't bear it if something happened to you.”
“Sorry,” he mumbled again, resting his head against Steve's shoulder.
“You're forgiven,” Steve whispered into his hair, before kissing the top of his head and pulling away slightly. “Now, shared shower?”
“You just want to check me over for injuries,” Tony grinned.
He should have said it. Oh, God, he should have said it sooner, while he still had the chance. How could he blame Steve for straying when he couldn't even express his feelings properly? The poor man probably thought he was chasing a lost cause – that he deserved better – and he did, he absolutely did deserve better than Tony, who was broken and heartless.
Except he wasn't heartless at all.
In reality, it felt like his heart had been torn out. He paced back and forth in his workshop, tugging at his hair and trying desperately to avoid looking at the newspaper sat on his desk. On scan of the front page, blaring out a picture of Steve and Sharon holding hands on a park bench, had been more than enough for him, thank you.
He felt sick. God, he should have told Steve he loved him while he had the chance, because now he felt like he was drowning in all his feelings, and Steve wasn't going to want to hear it; too little, too late.
“Sir?” came JARVIS' voice, and he simply nodded his head, scrubbing at his eyes. “Captain Rogers is on his way down, and asked that I made his presence known.”
Oh, God, no, he didn't want to do this. He really, really didn't want to have this conversation. Break ups were bad enough as it was, but this was Steve – perfect, glorious Steve – and Tony really didn't think he'd be able to handle being dumped by him. What could he do, though? If Steve wanted to break up – didn't think Tony was enough for him – then who was Tony to say otherwise? If one person wanted to break up, you broke up.
He really, really didn't want to, though.
“Hey, Tony,” Steve's voice carried across the room, and he span around – not even bothering to hide how much pain he was in.
“Please don't,” he whispered, and Steve came to a stop in the middle of the room, frowning. “Please, please don't. I... I -”
Even now, he couldn't say it. Self-hatred reared its ugly head inside him and he hung his head, desperately trying to hold back tears.
“Tony?” Steve asked softly. “What's wrong, honey?”
If anything, the term of endearment just made it worse – reminded him of just how little he deserved.
“I'd... I'd understand,” he managed to get out, throat feeling like it was physically constricting, “if you picked her over me.”
“Tony, what are you talking about -?” And then, quite suddenly, Steve froze, staring intently down at the newspaper sat on Tony's desk. “Oh.”
“Not how I would have preferred to find out,” Tony whispered, “but that's okay, I guess.”
“Oh, God, Tony, no,” Steve replied, and he looked horrified when he glanced back up again. “Tony, I would never cheat on you. Never.”
“I... really?” Tony asked, wanting desperately to believe him. “But then -”
Oh. Oh. Suddenly, the picture made so much more sense. What he had taken as a picture of two lovers was actually a picture of two grieving friends. He didn't even know how to feel, he was so overwhelmed by his own idiocy.
“I'm sorry,” he whispered, bottom lip trembling as he finally caught Steve's eye. “I'm sorry for your loss.”
“Jesus, Tony,” Steve sighed, tugging him forwards into a bone-crushing hug, which he was all too happy to receive. “Have you been stewing on this all day?”
Reluctantly, he nodded against Steve's shoulder, and the man squeezed him a little tighter. He was such an idiot. All this time, he had been working himself up over something that he should have just asked Steve about in the first place, and all the while, the other man had been grieving without Tony there to make him feel better.
He was trash.
“I love you, Tony,” Steve kissed into his hair. “Why would you ever think I'd do something like that to you?”
“Because,” he whispered, “I can't... say it. I can't tell you, even though I do, of course I do, and -”
“Hey, hey, hey,” Steve soothed, gently taking Tony's chin between his thumb and forefinger. “I know you do, Tony. I can see you do, every single day. I don't care if you never physically say it; they're just words to me.”
Steve cut him off by covering his mouth with his own, and Tony immediately sank into the kiss with all the gusto he could manage. Honestly, he felt like he'd gone through a meat grinder about a hundred times in the last five minutes.
“You're stuck with me, Stark,” Steve grinned against his lips, before – with a last, chaste kiss – he pulled away again. “So, I originally came down here to ask if you wanted to order some pizza and come watch a silly rom-com with me, and now that's changed to an order. Get your butt upstairs, Mister.”
“Yes, Sir,” Tony smiled, the last of the tension in his body just seeping away as Steve took his hand.
“I don't want you to go.”
Tony smiled, fiddling with his tie as he wandered back into their bedroom. “I have to go.”
“Can you not send Pepper, instead?” Steve asked, just his head peeking out of the top of the comforter, and Tony gasped – faux horrified.
“Are you, Steve Rogers, Captain America, asking me to blow off my responsibilities to stay in bed with you all day?” he grinned, padding over to lean in and gently kiss the other man's lips. “If only the world knew the real you.”
“I'm allowed to want you to stay,” Steve pouted, and then – with a grin of his own – grabbed Tony around the shoulders and tugged him down on top of him. “I don't like it when you're away on business.”
“You don't like it when I'm not in the same room for more than five minutes,” he replied, and laughed when Steve proved his point by wrapping his arms and legs around him like a limpet.
“Steve, honey,” he grinned, face smushed against the other man's chest. “You're going to get sex sweat all over my suit.”
“Good!” Steve laughed, lifting an arm to cram Tony's head under. “You can't go if you smell! You'll have to stay here forever with me; how sad -”
“Steve, oh my God, get off me,” he cackled, shoving at him halfheartedly as he gasped for breath. “You're disgusting!”
“I'm in love!”
“Same thing!” he groaned, flailing a little more before he finally managed to roll over onto his side of the bed. Both panting, they laid side by side in a companionable silence as they caught their breath.
“I'll miss you,” Steve whispered eventually, rolling onto his side as Tony did the same.
“It's only for a few days,” he replied softly, taking Steve's hand in his own. “You'll barely have time to miss me.”
“I'm still going to,” Steve pouted.
Tony couldn't help but smile as he leaned in for a kiss, and felt the utmost contentment when Steve sighed happily and gently cupped his face in his hands to keep him there just a moment longer.
“I love you,” he smiled when Tony pulled away again. “Be safe.”
“I will,” he nodded. “And you've got me for at least another five minutes now, because I have to change my shirt.”
“You weren't complaining about the sweat when I was blowing your mind,” Steve smirked, and Tony just rolled his eyes as he clambered off the bed again.
“Just keep telling yourself, soldier,” he laughed. “It's all that's going to get you through the next few days.”
Steve had been acting weird recently. Tony couldn't quite put his finger on it – just knew that, for the past couple of weeks, Steve had been acting a little off.
Case in point: he'd booked a really expensive restaurant for date night. Steve hated big, expensive restaurants. He knew that Tony liked them, but Tony was more than happy to hang out at a crappy diner if it made Steve happy. Honestly, the greasier the food was, the happier it made him.
“You sure you want to go somewhere fancy tonight?” he asked, fiddling with his tie as they sat in the car. “We can just grab a couple of burgers if you'd prefer -”
“No, no!” Steve cut in quickly, and when Tony raised his eyebrows, he blushed a little. “I mean... um... I just want to make you feel special, is all?”
“Want to try that again, with a little more feeling?” he laughed, bemused. “Are you okay?”
“I'm fine,” Steve replied a little too quickly, and his smile was completely fake. If Tony hadn't been worried before, he sure as hell was now. “What, a man can't take his best guy out for a fancy dinner?”
Tony hummed, completely unconvinced, but let the issue go. He trusted Steve; if something was wrong, he'd tell him eventually.
They arrived a few minutes later, and Steve darted out of the car so quickly that he was opening Tony's door for him before he'd even managed to get his seat belt off. He took the other man's hand with a roll of his eyes, and let Steve link their fingers together as he shut the door again behind him.
“You're a sap,” Tony murmured, even though he didn't quite have it in him to let go.
They were seated in a nice, secluded corner, and Tony was just about to reach for the wine menu when Steve snatched his hand out of mid-air and held it in both of his own.
“I already ordered drinks,” he shrugged when Tony shot him a look.
“Since when do you know wine?” he replied. Steve's hands felt unusually sweaty around his own. “Seriously, what's going on?”
“Nothing,” Steve shrugged, shifting a little in his seat. “I ordered us some champagne.”
“Yeah? What're we celebrating?” Tony smiled, but it quickly dropped off his face as a thought came to him. “Oh my God, it's not our anniversary, is it? Wait, is it your birthday? Shit, Steve, I'm sorry -”
“It's...” Steve sighed, and then took a deep breath and sat up in his chair. “I'm hoping it'll be an anniversary, after I've...” He swallowed thickly, and seemed to slump a little. “I – I have to do this now. I was going to wait, but -”
“Steve, honey,” Tony murmured, a lump of anxiety settling in his stomach. “You're starting to freak me out, here. Can you just... will you tell me what's wrong? Please?”
“Nothing's wrong,” Steve replied stubbornly, and raised his hand to flag down a waiter. “The opposite of wrong, actually; these last few years with you, Tony, I've never felt so right. You're everything to me, and I can't stand the thought of losing you -”
“You're not going to lose me,” Tony frowned, confused.
“Hopefully not,” Steve agreed, taking two flutes of champagne from the waiter. He held Tony's out by the stem, giving him a perfect view of the -
“Holy fucking shit, there's a ring in that glass,” Tony blurted, feeling the whole world shift a little under his feet. “Steve... why?”
“Because I love you,” Steve shrugged, and then blushed a little. “And I may have been watching a lot of 90s rom-coms for ideas.”
“You're adorable,” Tony whispered, eyes still glued on the glass in Steve's hand. Cautiously, he reached out and took it, and then held it right up to his face.
The ring was gorgeous. It was simple – two strips of silver metal with a line of deep red fusing them together in the middle – and completely inspired.
“I know you don't really wear rings, so I didn't put a rock on top of it,” Steve murmured, leaning forwards in his chair as a twinkle lit up his eyes. “Bruce helped me shave a little bit off my shield, and – and please don't hate me, okay? – the middle bit is from one of your old suits.”
“You touched my suits?” he gasped, but it was without much impact, because he was still a little too stunned to really joke about anything.
“Well,” Steve cleared his throat, “the idea was that you're at the center, the heart, of everything I am.”
“I'm gonna hurl,” Tony whispered, even as he grabbed a fork and used it to fish around in the glass for the ring. Once he'd finally got it free, he plucked it carefully off the fork and just held it between his fingers for a few moments, examining it more closely.
“Are you... are you going to put it on, or not?” Steve asked quietly, voice finally cracking with nerves. “If you don't want it -”
Tony took a deep breathe. “Of course I want it,” he mumbled, and Steve's reaction was instantaneous. “I just... why? You could have anyone you want, and I can't even tell you that I -”
Still, after three years, he couldn't say it. Not even now, on what could possibly be the most important night of his life.
“I told you,” Steve sighed, though his ecstatic grin hadn't disappeared, “that I don't need to hear you say it, Tony. I know you love me.”
Tony swallowed thickly. “I really do.”
“So you'll marry me?” Steve asked, obviously for clarification. “I just realised I didn't actually ask.”
“Yeah,” Tony nodded, taking a deep breath. “I'll marry you.”
A steady beeping filled the room, simultaneously soothing and aggravating him. He'd been here for three days now – hadn't slept, had barely eaten anything – all because he was worried sick about Steve.
He was supposed to have woken up by now. When Tony had held him, body battered and bleeding out, Steve had promised him he wouldn't leave him on his own. The serum, he was told, was the only reason the other man was still breathing at all, and if Steve was still fighting, the least Tony could do was wait by his side.
He was just so exhausted.
The constant, throbbing pain in his side told him he'd probably cracked a rib or two, but he hadn't told anyone about it – didn't want to risk them insisting he move to get it seen to. He'd get himself patched up once Steve was awake. Until then, he'd make do and put all his dwindling energy into making sure his husband knew he was there.
“I love you,” he whispered, ignoring the pain as he reached out to take one of Steve's pale hands in his own - their wedding bands clinking quietly as they made contact. “I'm not afraid to say it anymore, honey, okay? I love you, and I need you to wake up so I can tell you.”
He'd had a lot of time to think in these past three days. Deep down, he thought he'd always known the reason why he couldn't say it. By admitting that he was completely, irrevocably in love – by announcing it out loud – it became real. It became something that could be taken away from him. But looking down at Steve now, after having almost lost him anyway, he realised his mistake.
Love wasn't a weakness. Love, right now, was the only thing keeping him going.
“I love you, Steve,” he whispered again – couldn't stop himself now he'd finally managed it. “God, Steve, I love you so much. Please don't do this to me; you promised me you'd wake up, you asshole.”
His voice cracked and he couldn't physically force another word out. Failing to choke back his tears, he raised his free hand and covered his eyes, letting himself – for just a few seconds – give in to the screaming in his head and the pain in his chest, and wept.
Heart clenching painfully in his chest, he scrubbed at his eyes and turned to look at Steve – half expecting the man's voice to have been in his head. Fresh tears spilled down his face when Steve squeezed his hand, half-lidded eyes staring back at him.
“I love you,” Tony croaked, squeezing Steve's hand as hard as he dared. “I love you, Steve.”
“So you keep saying,” he replied softly, but his smile – while obviously pained – was real, and honest, and so, so happy. “Only took me nearly dying for you to be able to say it, huh?”
“That's not funny,” Tony sniffed, even as he chuckled a little hysterically. “Don't you dare do this to me again, you dick.”
“What, save you?” Steve asked, a small, pained frown forming between his eyes. “Sorry, sweetheart; that's my job.”
“I was in the suit -”
“And you still have broken ribs,” the other man cut him off, and Tony really should have known he'd see right through him. “Why haven't you had yourself looked at?”
“Are you serious?” he asked, incredulous. “You've been unconscious for the past three days -”
“Plenty of time for you to pop down to medical,” Steve cut in, eyes momentarily fluttering shut as some kind of pain obviously racked through him.
“I didn't want to leave you by yourself,” Tony whispered, reaching out to run a gentle hand through Steve's hair to try and sooth the hurt away. “I love you too much for that.”
“I know I said I never needed to hear you say it,” Steve whispered, body going slack the longer Tony petted him, “but I really like hearing you saying it.”
“I like saying it, too,” he replied softly, tracing the line of Steve's nose and the bags under his closed eyes with a gentle finger. “Get some rest, honey.”
“Go to medical, honey.”
Tony grinned and, despite the pain, leaned down and brushed his lips lightly against Steve's. “I'll get right on that.”
“Good,” Steve hummed, already half asleep. “Love you.”
Unlike so many times before, Tony didn't even hesitate in replying, “I love you, too.”