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Bros Before

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Tony leaned over the edge of his balcony and stared up at the night sky, a tall, cold glass of nature's best anesthetic dangling from his fingertips. Between the smog and the New York lights, the Milky Way might as well not have been there. Still, he imagined that one star winked especially brightly, just for him. Below, noise and cars and people all bustled around, filling the streets with life.

And me, stuck in the middle. He grimaced and took a hard pull at his drink, letting the burn do its work. Carol might have left him, but he'd be damned if he had to deal with it sober.

A big, warm hand settled on his shoulder, squeezing. "She's not coming back," Steve said quietly, voicing the thoughts Tony had been resolutely drowning. "You'll catch cold if you stay out here for long. It's getting chilly."

"Is it? I hadn't noticed." Tony didn't look away from his star. "Why'd she leave, Steve? I thought we had something."

"If you had to lose her, at least it was to a star. Not many guys can say that." The hand on Tony's shoulder squeezed again, and then pulled, until Tony had no choice but to turn around or lose his arm. Steve was bundled up in a dark turtleneck and a sweater. Snow dusted his shoulders. Tony hadn't noticed that it had started snowing.

Under the padding of his clothes, Steve's chest looked soft and comfortable, more like a pillow than the chunk of flesh-toned granite Tony knew it to be. Slowly, he leaned forward until his forehead rested on Steve's shoulder.

"I miss her."

"I know you do, buddy." Pat pat pat went Steve's hand, in the perfectly awkward Guy Hug of those who had never mastered comfort. "Come inside where it's warm. We'll catch a movie."

"Don't wanna. What if she comes back?" The cold and the whiskey had made Tony's nose numb enough that he couldn't feel the scratchy wool against it, but he could smell Steve's aftershave. Old Spice classic. Of course.

Gently, Steve maneuvered Tony back inside. "Then she can watch the movie with us."

Steve back flipped over a badly timed kick, landing a blow to his opponent's jaw and another one to his gut. The guy stumbled off-balance, one of his feet slipping on the blue mat when Steve's landing jarred it. He turned the landing into a sweep, and down his opponent went. The SHIELD agent lay gasping, fist pounding the ground. Tap tap tap, out.

Back on a bench, Tony started clapping. "Ten in a row, three moves or less each. Impressive." He was in one of his designer exercise suits, all blue and silver with his corporate logo across the chest. It hadn't even gotten wrinkled yet.

At least he'd left the alcohol outside the gym. It had taken Steve six months to convince him of that.

"They've got a lot to learn." Steve reached down and helped the fallen agent back up to his feet. The man muttered thanks and limped off. Steve checked the last name off his mental list and went to grab his water bottle from Tony. "If they didn't, Fury wouldn't ask me to work with them." Or, more likely, they needed to be taken down a peg. There was never any shortage of hotheads and braggarts in any military organization, and Steve didn't mind lending a hand.

"You just like beating people up." Tony made a token attempt to keep the water to himself, but gave up fast. "Admit it. You're bored."

"You haven't exactly gotten out on the mat and given me something to do," Steve shot back. "Afraid you'll get pinned?"

The Stark Grin that Tony flashed him deserved a trademark. It was the sort of smile that belonged in a bedroom, with candlelight and enough wine to bathe in. "I know I'll get pinned."

Steve looked away and tipped his head back to take a long, unnecessary swig of water. He'd barely worked up a sweat, but he hadn't really expected to. Keeping Fury's kids deflated wasn't worth calling a workout. "You've been coming here with me for a year, and I don't think you've even touched one of the machines. Thor does it more, and he calls gyms 'capitalist larceny'."

"I come for the scenery." Pointedly, Tony leaned around Steve and waved at a pair of girls walking by. They giggled, but kept walking, and Tony kept twisting to leer. "Aren't they stupendous? Maybe Thor has something right about this mother nature stu—hey!"

Rubber squeaked over concrete as Steve hauled Tony up by the arm and dragged to the mat. There was quite a lot of firm muscle on Tony's bicep for someone who Steve had never seen exercise, and who would rather build a robot to sharpen a pencil than walk across the room to do it. "Less talk, more action."

"I was looking at action," Tony whined. "Two of them. You don't seriously expect me to fight you, right? When you just took down ten SHIELD agents?"

Steve grinned and planted Tony in the middle of the mat. "I'll be gentle." When it looked like Tony might bite his tongue off to keep from laughing, Steve just snorted and brought up his fists. "Don't say it."

All around them, people were slowing their workouts to watch, the grind and clank of machines becoming subtly softer. Tony seemed to feel the attention; his shoulders straightened and his feet became more planted, even though he didn't move to defend himself. "But you make it so easy. How am I supposed to ignore an opening like this?"

"No bruises," Steve grinned. It was a shameless handicap, since Tony wouldn't have any reason to hold back, but there was no reason not to take the risk. After all, Tony wasn't a trained solider—if Steve wasn't careful, he could do a lot of damage. There'd been enough of seeing his friends in the hospital to last Steve another dozen lifetimes.

Moving in slow steps, he started circling clockwise. Surprisingly, Tony didn't twist his head to keep him in sight, instead turning with him to keep Steve at his front. Obviously he'd had some sort of training. Or maybe he'd just learned a trick or two as Iron Man.

Still, Tony couldn't possibly know everything. Steve darted in, moving high and then ducking under Tony's answering hook. He pushed in close enough to catch Tony's ankle with his own and tugged. At first, it seemed like Tony would go down for an easy win, but he wrapped his fist in Steve's shirt and yanked him off balance. They tumbled together on the mat, rolling three times before Steve broke free and they sprang to their feet.

Tony was already flushed and short of breath, but grinning, his blue eyes bright. "That all you got, soldier?"

"Not even close," Steve shot back.

This time he was more careful as he circled, looking for an opening to take Tony down safely. He hadn't expected Tony to be on the ball. That would teach him to underestimate a teammate, even one he'd never seen really fight outside four hundred pounds of metal. Two quick test jabs were avoided this time, rather than blocked, but that was expected. Tony learned fast.

Steve would just have to take him out fast, then. Or else he'd end up getting tricked into a corner, and Tony would never let him live it down.

Tactical decisions made, Steve rushed him. This time there was no finesse or trickery. He wrapped himself around Tony's chest and threw them down. Their legs tangled as Tony fought to find some leverage to break free, but Steve had already gotten a grip on his wrists and twisted them up behind his back. Short of ripping his arms out of the socket, there was no way Tony was going to break free. His hips and back bucked, almost knocking Steve off his knees, but a sharp yank on his elbow stopped that in its tracks.

Stubborn bastard that he was, Tony tried every angle and squirm before finally going limp. "I give—I give!"

"Tap out." Steve twisted his grip, making Tony stiffen and stretch to avoid the pain. "You're going to tap out, or I'm not letting go."

A snarl told him that he'd caught Tony's plan exactly. His back arched, chest rolling forward and head coming back to expose his neck as he tried to meet Steve's eyes. Muscles tightened and stretched under Steve's grip, lean and strong, an unmistakable reminder that Tony was more than just a desk jockey.

Tap tap tap went Tony's foot.

Steve didn't let him go. His eyes locked on a bead of sweat that was trickling down Tony's throat.

"What?" Lean shoulders rolled as Tony tried to shrug free without breaking anything. "I tapped out!"

Confused and distracted, Steve shook his head. Tony was right—he'd tapped out, he wouldn't try anything now. Even he had some limits, and cheating so obviously was (probably) one of them. Finger by finger, Steve loosened his grip until Tony slipped free of his hold. His hair was mussed, and sweat had collected on his forehead from the effort. Muscles and joints popped as Tony stretched.

"I'd almost think you liked that, Cap." The sleazy, bedroom look was back in his eye, and this time it wasn't directed at any girls.

Steve tried to ignore it. "You're out of shape. Why haven't we put you on a training regimen before now?"

With the air of someone making an irrefutable point, Tony held up a finger and tapped his forehead. "Tumor. Remember?"

Ouch. He hadn't remembered. But... "That hasn't been a factor since that thing on Mars. Why haven't we recently?" Steve put one hand on Tony's back and guided him off the mat, freeing it for the next pair. "What if you get caught without the armor? You'll be helpless."

"Then I suppose I'll have to die a valiant death. Thor would be proud." Another girl in a tight black excuse for clothing walked by, her blond ponytail swaying in time with her hips as she moved. Steve caught Tony's shoulder before he even started to turn to watch her.

"I'm talking to you."

It was almost disturbing how much Tony's expression resembled his brother's when he glared. Most of the time, it was easy to forget they were twins, but every now and then they had to go and remind everyone. "Really? I hadn't noticed."

"Sure you hadn't." They kept moving though, even when another gaggle of gals walked by, and Tony at least pretended not to ogle as they went to the lockers.

There was almost no one in the lockers, just the way they usually were. The Army hadn't gotten Steve used to sharing a shower, and the modern world just clenched it. Too many years being the smallest guy in the room weren't set off by years of being the biggest. Normally, he and Tony would have been going back and forth about the day, with Tony spending way too much time on the girls he'd met and flirted with. This time it was quiet, both of them going to their lockers and pulling out their towels and soap without a word.

"Why don't we make a habit of this?" Steve finally asked, to break the tension. "Instead of you just sitting on the sidelines while I work out, I mean."

"As much fun as it is being manhandled, I think not." Tony slammed the door to his locker closed, but he was smiling again. Whatever sorry mood had afflicted him had passed, the way they always did eventually. "I like not having broken bones, and scars really don't impress the girls the way they used it. We have Thursday for manly bonding."

"Movie night is not bonding. It's just a movie, and this is just a workout." Things rattled as Steve dug into his locker and tried not to think too much about the speculative look in Tony's eye. He'd been wearing that expression more and more lately. The things it did to Steve's blood pressure probably would have killed most other people. If Tony knew about them, he'd die too—of laughter. Just because Tony flirted with everything that moved, and a few things that didn't, didn't mean he was interested in Steve. "I'm not going to manhandle you."

"Even more reason to say no. Unless you're up for a little manhandling of your own?" Tony's big blue eyes batted at him.

He kept it up, right until Steve's towel smacked into his face. He sputtered and grabbed it, lifting his chin with offended dignity. "I'll take that as a no."

"Yeah, Tony." Steve grabbed his shower tote. "You do that."

Tony hated conferences. They had to be the most boring event of the year, or a close runner up, but they were a necessity of life. If Stark Industries sent some subordinate, inevitably something would go wrong and the stock would suffer. And if they didn't attend at all, the next day's tech blogs would be filled with headlines like Stark: Losing the Leading Edge? and the stock would suffer. The best option was to sacrifice a couple of days a year and suffer through the glowing announcements of breakthroughs he'd made in high school.

At least it would be the best option until he managed a robotic replica that wouldn't go evil and try to take over the world.

Wine swirled gently in his glass as Tony watched the latest stooge make a fool of himself on stage. It took all of his will not to toss the glass back and go for something harder to ease the pain. Heat dispersion in servers was a problem, really? If they'd just switch to a hydrogen-cooled shell the way SI had done four years before, it wouldn't be.

At least he'd get to go home after this. LA was nice enough, but it was Thursday. Maybe he could talk Steve into some trashy sci fi from the seventies that didn't even pretend to try. It had to be better than what he was going through.

"Excuse me?" An attractive woman leaned down and tapped his shoulder, smiling. "Is that seat taken?" Long brown curls fell over her shoulders to frame a truly impressive... nametag. Tony was riveted.

He made an effort to slouch a little less, so she could squeeze past. "Certainly not for Dr. Samantha Howards. Please, sit."

Her eyebrows rose, but she slipped past and took the offered folding chair. "You've heard of me?" Pleased tones lilted her voice, raising it enough that people next to them glared.

It would be a long, sober day before Tony cared about their opinions, but he used it as an excuse to lean in. She was wearing perfume, some sort of vanilla blend, but it was so light he hadn't known until he was close. "I've read your studies on engineering on the molecular level," Tony whispered. "They're inspiring. Centuries ahead of these fossils. You're a genius."

Dr. Howards flushed and made a show of looking at the speaker. "You flatter me, but unnecessarily. I'm no Tony Stark."

"That's funny, because I am." It was worth the corniness of the line to see her whip her head around, brown eyes wide. Just to prove he wasn't lying, he flashed his name tag, which had been mostly hidden by his lapel. "And I would hardly call it unnecessary flattery. There's no such thing, in my opinion."

She looked like she'd been struck breathless. He hadn't gotten that look from a woman since Carol left him. It felt good.

"I—Mr. Stark, it's—it's an honor to meet you," she stammered, holding out her hand.

He took it, folding it between both of his instead of going for the customary shake. "Please," he grinned, turning the full force of his charm on. It was gratifying to see her blush some more. "Call me Tony."

Throwing the phone through a wall would not make him feel better, but damn it, Steve wanted to try. "What do you mean, you won't get back tonight? I thought the conference ended today."

It was Thursday. They hadn't missed a Thursday night movie since they had started watching them together. Not even the time traveling monster from a probably different future had made them skip it. Steve had grown to enjoy putting in a bad movie and mocking it with Tony. It was something to look forward to, no matter how bad the week was.

"It did, but something came up." Voices echoed behind Tony's, made faint enough by the filter that he couldn't make out what they might be saying. It sounded familiar, but busy places sometimes did. "I'll make it next week, okay? Or we can do something tomorrow."

"No, tomorrow I'm supposed to meet with Fury's latest batch of numbskulls. Why can't you make it? Is it something I should know about?" Steve's boots made sharp noises on the kitchen tile as he paced, cellphone in hand. Whining like a bored teenager—or a bored Tony—loomed in his future, but Steve couldn't really bring himself to care.

"No, nothing like that. No terrorists plotting or anything. Just... Something."

Steve had made a point to keep his Thursdays clear. He kept a schedule planned well in advance, and Thursday night was always movie night. The least Tony could do is give him a straight answer when backing out. "What sort of something are we talking about?"

"Something, Steve." Tony sounded more amused than annoyed. Not that it would have stopped Steve, but it was easier to work with. "What are you, my mother?"

"I wish. You might have listened to her." He ran his hand through his hair. "Just tell me what it is. Dodging is only making it obvious that you don't want to."

Tony sighed. "I met up with Dr. Howards at the conference—you know, the author of that thing I showed you last month? Molecule-thick circuit boards? We're going to have some drinks, and this is the only night we can. Satisfied, Mom?"

Memories shifted and ruffled as Steve flipped through them, trying to remember the article Tony was referring to. It wasn't easy. Tony showed him a lot of articles, and they tended to blur together. "Dr. Howards wouldn't happen to be named Samantha, would she?"


Steve frowned at his phone. He'd thought as much. "Tony—"

"Come on," Tony whined, and Steve felt a brief flash of accomplishment for not having broken first. "This is the first date I've been on for a year, and she's leaving for a week to Miami tomorrow."

"Bros before ladies, Tony," he replied stonily.

On the other end of the phone, Tony went suspiciously silent. Steve waited him out, staring down at the tile. It was smudged and slightly grimy. His mother would have had a word or two to say about that. She'd made sure that he knew how to keep a house and sew a button. That didn't mean he liked to.

"Did you—" Tony finally started to say, sounding like he'd choke on his words. "Did you just say bros before ladies? Because I'm pretty sure the line is bros before—"

"She's a lady," Steve cut him off, before he could say something Steve might have to punch him for. "There's no need to be rude."

Not even when this Samantha woman was taking away his time with Tony. He knew how Tony got with some dames. Most of them were flings, but every now and then there was a Natasha or a Carol who would become the center of his world and then break it apart when they were done with him. It wasn't Tony's fault that he had a profound weakness for a pretty face, but it meant that Steve would probably have to say goodbye to their Thursdays pretty soon, and maybe even their gym time.

"I see." Tony's voice was strained, obviously on the verge of laughter. "Look, how about I show up late? It's just drinks, and I have the armor. We'll have plenty of time for a movie."

Just drinks. There was never such a thing as just drinks with Tony and a beautiful woman. One thing would lead to another, and Steve would end up waiting around until dawn while Tony tumbled around in bed having the time of his life.

Steve's mouth curved into what might be a permanent downward turn. "No, don't worry about it," he said as lightly as he could. "I'll see you when you get back. It's only a movie, right?"

Maybe he'd scrub the kitchen floor.

Samantha was lovely. She was charming, and brilliant, and had a great rack. Tony had been riveted the entire time they'd chatted over their drinks—hers a martini, his a JD on the rocks—and even more so when he walked her back to her hotel room. He hadn't gotten more than her number, but he hadn't tried either. His last three brushes with serious romance had gone both very fast and very badly. Taking it slow seemed a novel concept.

But when he'd gotten back to his own room, when he'd loosened his tie, kicked off his shoes, and sat on the edge of the bed, he found himself staring at the exquisitely dreadful art on the walls.

It was still Thursday in California, but it was almost gone midnight in New York. There was no one rummaging around for popcorn the next room over, or complaining that Tony didn't buy the cheap microwavable stuff that Steve preferred. He wouldn't be dozing off halfway through some dreadful romcom monstrosity and waking just in time to fight Steve for his drink. No one would argue about the necessity of the sex scenes for cinematic brilliance.

No, it was just him, a phone number and an empty room. The first Thursday in more than a year that he'd had time to himself.

Slowly he toppled back to the bed to stare up at the ceiling. At least it was better than the art.

Happily for Steve, things returned back to normal. Tony showed up for their next movie night without argument, and if he occasionally took an odd text message then it wasn't any of Steve's business. He was a grown adult, after all. If Tony wanted to pick up strange women in LA, that was his problem, not Steve's.

That the SHIELD report on Dr. Samantha Howards had come back clean, however, was Steve's problem. Natasha had fooled them, too. He'd be more comfortable once he'd found something on her. No one had a perfectly clean past, and a couple of news reels, parking tickets and top secret clearance with the CIA were too easy to falsify.

Still, things had settled. They'd almost gotten to the point where Steve could forget all about the hiccup in their usual routine. Tony never mentioned Dr. Howards again, and Steve's kitchen floor regained its usual state of slightly grubby. There weren't even any conventions to drag Tony out of New York for a while. Steve could breathe.

Three weeks later, in the grand tradition of all things Tony Stark, a bad idea had to ruin everything.

"Hi, I'm Sam." The gorgeous dame on Tony's couch stood and held out her hand. She was dressed casually, in jeans and a blouse, but she made it look classy. "You must be Tony's partner, Steve. I've heard so much about you."

He shook her hand on autopilot, noting that she had a nice grip. Firm, not too strong, not too weak. "Ah, yeah—I'm Steve." You're... Dr. Howards, right? Samantha Howards?"

She nodded, and God help him she had dimples. More than once, Tony had said he couldn't resist a girl with a nice set of dimples. Natasha had dimples, Tony had told him, though he hadn't said where. "Please, call me Sam."

"Sam." It took all he had not to glare at the sheepish Tony over her shoulder. "Nice to meet you. Can you give us a moment?" Smiling didn't come easy, but he made an effort. She seemed like a nice enough lady, and it wasn't her fault Tony had sprung this on him. "Avengers business. Classified."

"Oh, of course, please don't mind me." Dimples again as she back sat down, crossing her long legs. Tony liked those too. "I'll just wait right here while you two talk business."

He must have been imagining the subtle stress on the word business. Steve's jaw muscles bulged as he did his best not to snarl at her as he walked over and dragged Tony to the kitchen by his arm. For his part, Tony went along with it, like a man who knew what he had coming. As soon as they were out of sight, Steve yanked Tony around so they were face to face. "What are you thinking¸ Stark?"

"I'm thinking that she wanted to meet you, and it was either this or try to drag you out somewhere." Tony tugged his arm away and rubbed his arm like Steve had left a mark. "Sam's not going to bite, Steve."

"This is our night. Our Thursday." Steve gave Tony a wounded look, doing his best to imitate the puppy Thor had once brought home. "Bros before—"

"I know, I know." Tony ran his hand through his hair and glanced back towards the couch, where Samantha was quietly checking her phone. She looked utterly at home, in her perfectly pressed jeans and strappy little high heels. She'd probably never leave soot and blood stains on Tony's couch. Probably. Tony had bad luck with women. "Sam's a wonderful woman, and I like her. Maybe as much as I liked Carol."

Carol, who when given the choice between Tony and merging with the heart of a star, had chosen the star with barely a pause for thought. She might not have broken his heart as thoroughly as Natasha or Justine had, but she'd come close. That was the whole reason for their Thursday nights.

If Samantha was going to be that important, Steve might have to get used to it. "Just this once?"

"And then never again." One callused fingertip crossed over Tony's breastbone. "Thursdays will be sacrosanct from here on. Neither rain nor snow nor gloom of night and all that."

It wasn't fair. That was the only thing Steve could bring himself to think, though he know the thought to be absolutely ridiculous. But it was probably the best he could hope for, until Tony wandered back into the womanizing and forgot Steve entirely. "Thank you."

"Don't mention it." Tony patted him heavily on the shoulder before turning to the kitchen. "I'll get the popcorn, you set up the movie. I picked up The Hobbit for us." For some reason, his shirt had ridden up and his jeans ridden down, showing a sliver of his back above his waistline.

Steve averted his eyes to keep from staring. "Extra butter and—"

"White cheddar on yours, just like always," Tony finished for him just before vanishing off into the house.

The movie ended up being the live action version that hadn't even made it to theaters yet, and Steve made a point to sit between the two lovebirds to keep the hanky-panky to a minimum. Samantha didn't say anything about it, and in exchange, Steve didn't say anything when Tony kept stepping on his foot.

Sam smiled and looked down at her hands while they stood outside her door, a good three feet away. It was as charming as it was frustrating, and almost the entire reason why Tony hadn't kissed her after a month of dating. Her body language stayed casual and at ease, but he never managed to close in enough to make a kiss natural. Sometimes he wondered if she even noticed when he was hitting on her.

Maybe he was just out of practice. A year was practically forever. Or he was picking up bad habits from Mr. No First Date Without Commitment Rogers. If he weren't careful, Tony would be buying a ring before doing more than holding hands.

That was the stuff of nightmares.

"I never thought so much about how much difference the Brussels-Stroker Theory1 could make," Sam was saying, looking up through her lashes. "You're right, I should try and work that into my paper. It could really change everything."

"I live but to help," Tony grinned, shoving his hands into his pockets and admiring how the porch light lit her low-cut neckline. Flower prints didn't much suit anyone in Tony's opinion, but she managed to avoid old-lady frumpiness somehow "Would you like to have lunch tomorrow so we can talk about it more?" Sure, it would be Thursday, but lunch wouldn't interfere with his afternoon plans.

She laughed, and that was definitely not the response Tony had hoped for. "That would be three days in a row," she said, her voice lilting with a teasing tone. "If we keep this up, Steve's going to be jealous. He seemed like the possessive type."

Steve. Steve? "He does get a little strange some times," Tony replied with his mouth on autopilot. They'd just finished a lovely evening, and she was talking about Steve? There was moving slow and then there was glacial. "What he doesn't know won't hurt him."

Light pinged off a diamond earring as Sam tilted her head, dark eyebrows drawn together in a small frown. "Excuse me?"

It was definitely time to stop being careful. Tony stepped in, closing the space between them. "I don't really tell Steve about my girlfriends. Why would I?" Before she could slip away, Tony leaned forward and pressed a soft, closed-mouth kiss to her lips.

There was a moment of utter stillness. Her hands pressed against his chest, nails flexing through the thin fabric of his shirt.

And then she shoved.

Tony staggered backwards, just in time to catch a slap on the cheek.

"How dare you!" Sam's voice rose from her usual soft pitch to a battle cry. She poked a manicured finger into his chest, forcing him back off her porch steps. "Tony Stark, I thought you were better than this! How dare you do this to me—to Steve!"

"What are you—What do you mean, to Steve?" Tony let himself be pushed. She'd once told him that she had a brown belt, and from the look in her eye, she was close to giving him first hand experience with it. "Better than this? What are you talking about?"

"You know damn well what I'm talking about." Sam shoved again, pushing him down the last step. "Go. Just—just go. Before I do something I'll regret." Her floral print skirt flared as she stormed back to her door. "And if you think I'm not telling Steve about your cheating, you can think again!"



The door slammed, leaving Tony staring at a thin piece of white wood with absolutely no idea what had just happened.

Steve, this is Samantha. I—I'm sorry I'm calling so late, but you should know that Tony just tried to kiss me. I kicked him out as soon as he did, but you deserve to know what kind of man he really is. I'm so, so sorry to have to tell you this. I never wanted to come between you, and I hope one day you can forgive me for being so—so stupid.

The answering machine clicked, announcing the end of the message. Steve frowned down at it and sipped his morning coffee, wondering if it was some sort of practical joke. In his years of knowing Tony, he'd never heard a dame sound so honestly upset about getting a kiss from him. It was usually the other way around.

Why would she call him about it, anyway?

Someone knocked on his door. Steve weighed the circumstances, the predawn hour and his usual lack of visitors and came to a conclusion. "Come in, Tony."

The door creaked open and Tony trudged in, still wearing what Steve assumed was his date clothes. The suit was grubby and wrinkled, and his tie had been left loose around his neck. Bagged and bloodshot eyes were nothing new for Tony, but the hangdog expression was.

Without a word, Steve rose from his armchair and went to pour a second cup of coffee. Tony sprawled on the couch, taking up all three cushions, with his forearm slung over his eyes dramatically.

"I assume she called you."

"You assume right. Left a message." No cream, no sugar, with a shot of whatever was at hand. That was how Tony usually took his coffee. Steve glanced over at the sofa and made it a double. "Want to talk about it?"

Tony's feet were in the way, so Steve lifted them up and sat down, letting them rest on his thighs. When he passed Tony his coffee, Tony just clutched it without drinking.

"What went wrong?" Slow, measured sentences weren't the sort of thing Steve usually heard from Tony's mouth. His voice bubbled, most days, flashing through ideas like a mirror in the sun.

Hearing Tony be so thoughtful was almost worrying. "Why don't you tell me?"

A faint line of blue appeared under Tony's lashes as he peered down at Steve. "You're not jealous, are you?"

Heat colored the tips of Steve's ears red as he thought back on the last month. He shrugged and looked down at Tony's loafers. They'd finished the evening scuffed and scarred, far from their usual polish. "Why would I be?"

"No reason, I suppose. Just something Sam said before she gave me the boot." Tony dropped his head back to the arm of the chair. It exposed his throat down to the collarbone, left bare by his popped buttons. A visible pulse beat in the base of his throat, stronger than it should have been. In the silence Steve found himself straining to see timing, his toe tapping out the rhythm.

When he caught himself, Steve hurried to yank his attention away. "Are you going to tell me what happened, or leave me guessing?"

Tony hadn't taken off his shoes, so Steve did it as something to do with his hands. He'd never really noticed before, but Tony had nice feet. His toes weren't odd sizes, and they didn't have calluses or corns. Even his nails were neat and trimmed, with a faint gloss that suggested he'd had some sort of coat put on them, like a lady would her fingernails.

Of course Tony would have attractive feet. Of course.

"I don't know, your confused face is kind of cute." Muscles rippled up and down Tony's body as he stretched. How a man who never worked out stayed so skinny was a mystery. Steve suspected the mostly-liquid diet was at fault. "And it's been a long night. Maybe I should just get some rest and call her when I wake up. Straighten things out."

"If you were going to get some rest, you would have gone home, not come here." Steve eyed the marks on Tony's left shoe. "And walked all night besides."

"You know me so well." Toes wiggled against Steve's palm. For a man who'd probably never had an un-wicked thought, Tony was remarkably good at projecting an air of virtue. "You never answered my question."

"Which question?"

"You know which question."

Steve massaged the ball of Tony's foot, watching it flex and bend into his hand. Tony groaned shamelessly and melted down into the sofa cushions, going totally as totally limp as Steve had ever seen in a living man.

Quick estimates of Tony's reaction suggested that as long as Steve kept it up, he'd have plenty of time to think of an answer that wouldn't embarrass them both. If he did it long enough, Tony might even completely forget the topic.

Sometimes the best tactics were the obvious ones.

"I know what you're doing," Tony groaned. His eyelids moved, as if he were trying and failing to open them against a great weight. His mug of cooling coffee sat on his chest like a stone. "And it's working. Damn you."

"You walked for a long way." Steve's voice dripped innocence like honey. "I just thought your feet might hurt."

"Trying to disarmohgodrighhtthere." Steve's thumb dug into the space behind Tony's toes, reducing Tony to a quivering, inarticulate mess. When Steve moved on to the heel, Tony didn't even try to use words. He just grumbled under his breath and waved a hand in circles, as if he could mime what he needed to say.

Since Tony was still attempting to communicate, Steve doubled his efforts, until Tony's arm dropped to dangle over the edge of the sofa. After a few minutes of wringing every last ounce of coherent thought from Tony's brain, Steve said, "I'm not jealous. It's just that you're my only friend, and I enjoy spending time with you."

His hands paused to give Tony a chance to respond. What he got was a kick in the knee and a grunt that probably translated as keep rubbing if you value your life.

Who was he to argue with that?

A half hour later, Tony's grunts dissolved into the deep, even breaths of sleep. The morning sun had climbed high enough to bounce beams of light off Tony's hair, catching one or two silver strands in the middle of the dark. Shadows ringed under his eyes and deepened the lines of hard living around his mouth, making him look twenty years older.

Steve tucked a light blanket around him and left the coffee close at hand before going out for a long walk.

He had some thinking to do.

Awareness came back to Tony slowly. It spread out from the particular aches of having slept in a place not designed for full-grown men and eventually encompassed the scratchy fabric under his cheek and the scent of clean fresh coffee. Without moving he pieced together what had happened. First, the long night wandering the streets, going from bar to bar, so deep in thought that he barely touched his drink before moving on. Then, Steve's apartment, and...

"You might as well open your eyes."


Tony opened his eyes.

The light had shifted noticeably, and was now coming in at a higher angle. He'd slept at least six hours, maybe more. Fresh coffee steamed on the table beside him, just below eye-level. Groaning, Tony pushed himself upright and reached for it.

Steve's coffee was atrocious as always, the product of a man who'd learned to like Americano back in the war, when real coffee was watered down to suit the flat American palate. It was thin and cheap, with none of the subtleties of the more expensive gourmet brand he was used to. But Steve had remembered to add whiskey, and decaf was as much a dirty word to him as the last third of bros before. Tony knocked back the mug in one long swallow.

"Better?" Steve was sitting on the coffee table. In the haze of pre-awakening, Tony had missed him entirely. He was wearing the same jeans and undershirt that Tony usually saw him in at home, but they were different somehow. Less rumpled, with crisper lines. Usually Steve wasn't so... put together. Even his hair was neater than usual. It all set screamed signals that Tony wasn't used to around Steve the pure, Steve the iconic, Steve the ludicrously heterosexual.

"Mm." Soft cushions cradled him as Tony sagged backwards into the sofa. "I do believe I may live, though a second cup may be required." And maybe something stronger. He could feel sobriety lurking around the edges of consciousness, a mugger waiting for the moment his BAC dropped too low.

"We'll see about it." Tight, tight denim stretched over muscle as Steve leaned forward, touching their knees together. Tony found his eyes flitting between different sets of thinly clothed, barely decent muscle. Always delicious, that was Steve, but not quite like this. They were little changes, in the pressed clothing and the earnest look in his eyes, the way he leaned forward.

Tony had never considered himself even slightly heterosexual, no matter how many women he slept with. They were just easier to talk to without risking a punch to the face, and the number of women attracted to men was a much larger pool to pull from. That didn't mean he couldn't tell a come on when it came, even when it came from a man, or by way of pressed jeans and starched t-shirt.

"I talked to Samantha." Steve's voice rolled over the syllables of the words, low and private, like he was sharing a secret. "Do you know what she told me?"

Tongue-tied wasn't Tony's favorite thing to be. He swallowed to moisten a suddenly dry throat and shrugged, pretending a nonchalance he didn't feel. "I assume it wasn't her favorite recipe for shortcake."

The slow smile Steve gave him dried Tony's mouth right up again. "Do you know she thought that we're a couple?" His elbows rested on his knees, so casual it had to be fake.

Cooling ceramic turned in Tony's fingers as he played with his mug. Rules of a game he never thought he'd get to play with Steve settled into place in his head. He could do this in his sleep, had done it with both hands tied and a blindfold.

He'd liked Samantha. It had been hard not to; she was funny, brilliant, gorgeous... but she was no Steve. Maybe after a few years she could have been, but a month wasn't enough to stand up to years of friendship.

"She did, huh?" Catching Steve's eye, Tony scooted forward into his personal space. He dropped the coffee cup onto the coffee table by Steve's hip, ghosting his fingertips along stretched denim. They were so close he could actually make out Steve's eyelashes, so blond that they were nearly invisible. "And what do you think we should do about it?"

When their lips touched, Tony almost expected it. He could blame it on not being awake yet, but it was all Steve, moving in to kiss him before he'd had a chance to brace himself. The unpredictability was part of the thrill, chasing across his skin as Steve's big hand touched his cheek, blunt fingers sliding back to cup his head.

The kiss was unbearably restrained. Tony could feel the tension in Steve's body as he held himself back, a faint tremble and hesitation. That just wouldn't do at all. Tony slipped off the sofa and crawled onto Steve's lap, listening to the creak of the table and praying it wouldn't break under them. But then Steve's hand moved from his hair to his ass, kneading and pulling him closer, and Tony forgot all about the risks.

Tony's knee banged into wood as he pushed Steve back onto the table. Kisses loosened and relaxed, bringing tongues into play as Tony settled over his hips. More aware than usual of how easily and badly everything could go wrong, Tony kept his hands braced on the table as they kissed. With all the ripped, gorgeous specimen of science's bounty spread out under him, it was a Herculean task, to say the least.

Even with just kisses, the effect was obvious. Jeans that tight couldn't hide a quarter in Steve's pocket, and being slow to rise to the occasion had never been one of Tony's problems. one of Tony's problems. Still, he kept on his private mission to kiss Steve into oblivion, until his focus was shattered by Steve's hand cupping his dick.

"You okay with this?" Steve mumbled, not ever quite breaking the kiss. His fingers curled around Tony's cock through the thin linen of his trousers, stroking as if Tony needed the extra help.

Air was a precious commodity. Tony needed to remember that next time he went through his stock portfolios. "Depends." He rocked his hips down into Steve's, relishing the groan that he got in reward. "You going to punch me for afters?"

Surprisingly, Steve laughed and sank his teeth into Tony's lip. "Not unless you're into that sort of thing," he said, and the low rasp of his voice dragged over Tony's nerves like a silk scarf over broken glass. "This isn't my first time around."

Jealousy flared in the pit of Tony's stomach, side by side with arousal. "Who?" Romance hadn't seemed in Steve's stars after Jan. The thought that he might have missed something that big...

Steve's hand wrapped around Tony's unknotted tie, using it as a leash to hold him down for an extended kiss. The dance of tongues and teeth and heat melted Tony's thoughts, sent heat dancing through him enough to bite back the jealousy, but not enough to banish it.

Mouth too occupied to focus on his inquiries, Tony decided to focus on something better. He reached between them and thumbed the button open on Steve's jeans. His knuckles dragged over skin as he nudged the zipper down—there wasn't more than a wish and a prayer between Steve and his clothing. Unsurprising, with how he wore them, but terrible for Tony's blood pressure.

God, the man was as big as Tony had occasionally daydreamed. That was going to be awkward if this kept up. Tony didn't fancy being split open. His ass had limits, no matter what everyone else might say.

"Who?" he asked again as the kiss ended, dancing his fingers along Steve's cock. By now, Steve's fingers around his dick had gone slack. It would have been more of a disappointment if seeing the other man writhing under him wasn't such a turn on.

"Bucky." Strained wood protested as Steve arched into his hand. "Before the war—we were kids..." His voice faded away as Tony's thumb brushed just along the underside of his shaft.

Bucky. Old man. Married. Not about to swoop in and cart Steve off to some secluded love nest. Tony could deal with that. "Things have changed a lot since the forties."

"Not that much and I swear to God if you don't stop playing I'm going to tie you up."

Something cracked under them, and that was a really, really bad sign. "Maybe later," Tony promised, wrapping his hand around Steve's cock and jacking him firmly. Where ever the table had come from, it obviously wasn't up to supporting them for long. "For now, how about we move this somewhere softer, huh?"

"Bedroom. Now." Tony's blue and red silk tie stayed wrapped tight around Steve's fist as they moved. Clothes dropped behind them, shoes kicked off, shirts discarded. By the time they made it down the hall, the only thing Tony was still wearing was his tie and his socks.

Steve's body was made for sex. Well, technically it was made for fighting, but sex and fighting were essentially the same things on different axes. Muscles moved under skin that was stretched tight and flushed, bright eyes noting everything from Tony's trimmed body hair to childhood scars. Every limb moved with perfect precision as Steve laid back on the bed and dragged Tony down with him into a fresh kiss. His hand slipped around Tony's hip and immediately moved to the hot spot on Tony's lower back that not even oh-so-experienced Natasha had found without help.

Heat flushed across Tony's skin, rolling through him in a wave. He groaned, fingers digging into Steve's hips as he tried to remember what he was doing. "Fuck—"

Teeth scraped Tony's neck, and god damn him if Steve wasn't laughing. "I thought that might do it for you."

Desperate for any sort of retaliation that could be accomplished before his melted, Tony's fingers slipped between Steve's thighs, pressing behind his balls. The answering round of profanity felt like a small triumph. "What was that—you said?" he grinned.

They were close enough that he could hear Steve swallow, feel his heart pound behind his ribs. "If you're going to do that—" Steve growled breathlessly, and really, they had to record that. Play it worldwide and the terrorists would line up to be captured. "If you're going to play that game, I hope you're going to fuck me too."

If Steve kept saying things like that, Tony was going to die of a heart attack. "I thought you didn't curse."

"Time and a place." Steve's knee bent, wrapping around Tony's thighs and pulling him down. Their cocks lined up, a brief moment of friction that nearly made Tony want to just finish them both off the easy way. But Steve was nuzzling him, muttering things that only seemed filthy because they were coming from him, and it would take a stronger man than Tony not to take what he could while it was offered.

Lube and condoms were in the bedside drawer, right where a prepared man would keep them. Practice was nothing next to Steve's wandering hands, and but somehow Tony managed to get his fingers slicked up. He'd expected resistance, but Steve's body relaxed easily. Either it was a super soldier thing, or Steve had been keeping secrets.

Steve wasn't the most responsive lover Tony had ever had, but it wasn't for lack of effort. Pink flushed his skin, coloring him from collarbone to hairline as he growled and pushed down onto Tony's fingers demandingly. His cock lay against his stomach, thick and long and way, way more inviting than it had any right to be at that size.

Next time, if there was a next time. Tony knew better than to assume anything, ever.

One finger, two fingers... When he went to add a third, Steve's teeth sank into his lip hard as he pushed Tony to his back. Foil ripped as he opened up the condom with smooth practice. "You're done."

"Pushy, pushy." Tony's laugh turned into a groan as Steve rolled the condom down. God, he'd never thought it would be like this, but he should have guessed. Steve had never shown any signs of being a shy flower before. "How do you want it?"

"Just stay there." Steve tossed a leg over Tony's hips, straddling him and wrapping a careful hand around Tony's cock and the other around his tie. Taken altogether, it brought Tony's breathing to another abrupt halt. No one had a right to be that gorgeous.

And then Steve started sinking down. The thin band of silk drew taut as Tony arched up, digging his heels into the mattress, but Steve's body was opening up around him, hot and tight and—

"Fuck," Tony moaned, slumping back when gravity finally finished pulling them together. Immediately, Steve started moving again. His palm pressed against Tony's chest, fingers splayed for balance. Measured, even rocking started them off, just fast enough that Tony couldn’t justify trying to take over.

Bit by bit, Steve sped up, the slow pace growing faster, until the bedroom was filled with the skin-on-skin slap of hard sex. The tie bit into Tony's neck, rubbing and sliding with every movement, leaving a mark that was going to be hell to explain. Heat curled between them, blistering over Tony's skin and through his veins. Adrenalin demanded movement, fight or flight, but the few times Tony tried to match Steve's pace the tie around his neck jerked. It didn't hurt, much, but it was an unmistakable notice to stay still. How the hell he was supposed to manage that wasn't explained.

Maybe Steve believed in miracles.

When it seemed like enhanced stamina was going to be Steve's ace in the hole, self-preservation kicked in. Tony reached between them and wrapped his hand around Steve's cock. The hard pace faltered and slipped as precome smeared under Tony's thumb.

"Come on, come on," he murmured, sliding his callused palm along the shaft in time. Steve had barely broken a sweat, but his body trembled and tightened. Willpower that was a miracle of past science kept him going. Heat spiked as Steve squeezed down, and white flared behind Tony's eyes, wiping out the world.

Coming back to himself was pleasantly floaty, like the world sparkled with newness. Tony was distantly aware of an unpleasant stickiness on his stomach and a body pinning him to the bed. He groaned and shoved at Steve's shoulder, but couldn't even get a few inches.

Tony settled for biting Steve's neck. His own ached from the tie. A hickey was more than a fair trade. "No fair. I wanted to watch you."

"Mm." Steve's lashes dragged against Tony's cheek as he blinked, invisible in their length. "You'll just have to one-up me next time."

Next time. Tony grinned. Those were good words.

The next day Steve had a bouquet sent to Dr. Howards' office. The note read, simply, Thank you. S&T.