"A date?" Tony said blankly, and would have collapsed into his chair, if he weren't already sitting. He listed sideways a bit, instead. Steve nodded.
"Yeah, I - I thought we could go for a burger, and then - "
"You mean - like, a romantic date?" Tony set his coffee down, and then gave it a suspicious look. Of course, the odds of Steve having mickeyed his coffee were lower than those of him asking Tony on a date. Just.
"Yeah," and Steve's face was going from pink to red. "I thought it would be nice?"
"Nice?" Tony had to stop repeating what Steve said. It wasn't helping. He scrabbled around on the table for something to do with his hands, and almost tipped his coffee into his lap. He grabbed the mug, and concentrated on keeping it still and not-tipping-over.
"I like you," Steve shifted nervously from foot to foot, which was something Tony had never seem him do; he was so placid, generally. A rock in a storm. "I like being with you, and I would like it if we could - be together, and so I am asking you on a date." He shut his mouth, and looked at Tony expectantly, and while it was tempting to bleat a date? and start the whole thing off again, Steve had put himself out there and Tony owed it to their friendship to be direct. But not too direct. Cushion the blow and all, because while Steve was a lovely, wonderful guy, he just wasn't Tony's type.
"I'm flattered - " he started, and Steve sagged. Not so much with the cushioning, then.
"Hey, these things happen, right? Working in close proximity, fights, tension running high, I'm really hot," a ghost of a smile flitted over Steve's face, so Tony babbled on, "It was bound to happen, right? No big deal. I mean, it'll pass, you'll get over it soon enough."
"I don't think so," Steve was pink around the ears. "I - " he looked away. "I don't think so."
"Sure it will. People get crushes on me all the time; I'm just that awesome." He gave his best cocky grin, but Steve wasn't looking at him.
"All right," Steve nodded firmly. "We're, uh - we're okay?"
"I'm just - I'm going to - " he fumbled for the door handle, and Tony bounced to his feet and grabbed his hand.
"Yeah?" Steve looked up, blue eyes very wide.
"Friends, right?" He held his breath; he really didn't want to lose Steve's friendship over a little crush.
"Of course," and he smiled and turned his hand to squeeze Tony's before pulling away and slipping out through the door.
Tony settled into bed that night with the warm feeling of someone who'd handled an awkward situation with grace. It would have been easy to botch that; but his long experience had, for once, been helpful. He'd tell Pepper to pencil in some time to hang out with Steve; maybe they could work on a car together? Something nice and heterosexual, to reinforce the Just Buddies message. It would be good to have Steve to himself for an afternoon; they were both so busy, and the rest of the team was always around - not that the rest of the team weren't great, but a little one-on-one bonding time would be good for their friendship. He'd sort of gotten the idea that now Steve had a bunch of friends, he didn't need Tony so much - but apparently Tony had gotten those messages all mixed up. It was nice, really. Flattering. Steve was an attractive guy, kind of dorky, a little behind the times, but a great guy.
Tony yawned. Less thinking about Steve, more sleep. He rolled onto his belly and buried his nose in the pillow.
Two days later, he wandered into the den to find Steve alone, lying on the sofa, watching some brightly coloured children's TV show with wide, fascinated eyes. He was also wearing a pink t-shirt, with what appeared to be a pony on it. Tony opened his mouth to say something withering about letting Tigra pick out one's clothes, but the words stalled in his throat as he studied it. It was both too tight and too short, which meant Steve's muscles were straining at the seams - if he were to flex it would probably just fly right off him. And below the hem, there were a good two inches of pale skin visible before faded jeans cut off the view.
Tony stared at those two inches of skin as if they had a secret message written on them; there was something he wasn't quite getting, some connection he couldn't quite make.
"Tony?" Steve was looking at him, a little crease between his eyebrows. "Is everything okay?"
"I - " Tony blinked. "I - no, Steve, it's not okay. It will never be okay as long as you take fashion tips from twelve year old girls."
Steve's lower lip pushed out a little, in that stubborn way he had.
"It's Fluttershy," he said, as if that explained everything, and Tony shook his head and they were off into a conversation that involved far too much talk of magical ponies for his liking.
There was a gym in the basement of the Mansion, and it wasn't unusual for various Avengers to stumble blearily up the stairs, hang a right into the kitchen, and attempt to bury themselves in the refrigerator. Spider-Man had more than once expressed his intention to move in, and Jan had once shrunk down to tiny size and thrown herself full-length into a bowl of jelly to cool off. The cause of this exhaustion was invariably training with Cap, who would follow sedately up the stairs, usually without a bead of sweat on him, and helpfully pour Peter into a chair or extract Jan from the jelly. Today, his entrance was heralded by the heavy, slightly erratic steps of Logan, whose healing factor took the worst of the strain, but who was still, apparently, capable of being worn out. He not-quite-staggered past Tony, wordlessly opened the heavy door, and extracted two of the green glass bottles of Coke he and Steve favoured (although Tony didn't buy them for Logan's benefit) and sliced the tops off before throwing back his head and pouring them both into his mouth.
"Logan," Steve chided, arriving right on time. "You can't leave broken glass on the floor." He was sweaty, not dripping but damp; when he leaned over to collect the bottle tops, Tony found himself with an excellent view of Steve's ass. Physical perfection, right there. Tony studied it with a scientist's eye, the way the muscles flexed as he shifted his weight, moving smoothly under perfect skin. Steve tossed the bottle tops into the recycling, and plucked his own bottle of Coke off the shelf. He popped the top off with his bare hand, and then tipped his head back; his neck was gleaming very slightly with sweat, and the same sweat had damped his tank so it clung to his muscular chest. His nipples had peaked in the blast of cold air from the refrigerator, Tony noted.
"Hey?" Steve cocked his head, a touch of uncertainty in his tone. "What's up, Tony?"
"Jarvis is going to kick your ass if you don't shut the fridge door," Tony said automatically, and Steve turned to do battle with Wolverine, who had shoved his arms right into the icebox. Tony picked up his coffee, and departed to the workshop. He was a busy man with things to do, after all.
"Psst," came a voice from the library, and Tony turned automatically towards it, expecting to find Peter or maybe Clint, up to something or hiding out. He was very surprised when Steve popped out, grabbed his wrist and dragged him inside before slamming the door and pushing him up against it. For a second Tony thought Steve had decided to try his luck again, with a more hands-on approach, and he'd already parted his lips - after all, a kiss from Captain America was something to tell your grandchildren about, even if he wasn't interested in Steve - but Steve was just staring at him with huge sad eyes.
"I'm sorry," he said, and Tony blinked, thrown. Was he apologising in advance for kissing him? Or was there, in fact, going to be no kissing?
"Sorry for what, Steve?" Tony patted his shoulder and tried to look encouraging.
"I should never have told you about my feelings. Now it's awkward." Okay, there wasn't going to be any kissing. Tony shoved the feeling of disappointment away, and focused on the important thing - getting that sad expression off Steve's face.
"What are you talking about? It's not awkward."
"It is, though. You keep giving me these suspicious stares, and - "
"I do not," Tony interrupted, flushing slightly.
"You do. And I should never have told you I was in love with you, I know, but - "
"In love?" Tony squeaked. "I mean, no! I wasn't - I just - " he racked his brains for a reasonable explanation. "I was wondering if you wanted to help me work on my car."
"What?" Okay, not so much with the reasonable, but puzzled was a step up from sad.
"Well, I got to thinking after you - " he made a vague gesture, and Steve nodded. "That we're not really very close." Steve looked hurt, which was a definite step down, and Tony rushed to fix that. "I mean, we're so busy - we hardly spend any time together anymore, and we don't talk - I mean, you apparently had this whole coming to terms with your sexuality thing and I didn't even know!" A little bit plaintive there; Tony had, maybe, been very slightly hurt that that had been the first he'd heard of it. He hurried on. "Anyway, I just want us to spend more time together, but I wasn't how to make it not be awkward after," the gesture again, and Steve nodded and smiled, a wide sincere smile that drew an answering smile from Tony.
"I'd love that," Steve said, and took a step back. "Your car, you said?"
"Yeah, I'm rebuilding the engine on the Bugatti - maybe this weekend? Saturday?"
"Sure!" They beamed at each other stupidly for almost a minute before Tony scrabbled for the door handle and let himself out.
Working on the car might not have been the best idea. Tony usually stripped down to his undershirt, and wore ratty jeans, and Steve had dutifully copied him. But Tony had never quite appreciated how sweat and grease could make a perfectly normally attractive guy look, well - sort of - Steve had a smudge on his cheek and his muscles were bulging as he tightened a nut with great care, and altogether he didn't look much like the clean and tidy Steve Tony was accustomed to, which was no doubt why Tony was feeling a little bit, well.
It was just weird. It was probably Steve's fault; he was behaving almost entirely normally, except sometimes his gaze would sweep down over Tony's body, or he'd get this warm look in his eyes. Which wasn't new, but Tony had always interpreted it as the you're my best friend look. Not an in love sort of look.
Not that it made a difference, of course. If anything, Steve being in love with him made it the more imperative that Tony not encourage him, or lead him on. Which meant no suggesting they could be friends with benefits, or anything like that.
Not that Tony would have suggested that, because Steve wasn't his type, he reminded himself. Because Tony liked them - he glanced at Steve again, his serious face as he laid out the parts in neat order. He liked them, well - he thought back over his romantic entanglements.
Well, assholes, mostly.
But that wasn't true, really; he'd fallen for wonderful people, he'd just never persuaded them to love him back. At least, not the way he wanted them to. Rhodey was like a brother, Pepper like a sister - and okay, maybe his feelings towards them would always be mildly incestuous, but he'd learned to accept that, and take what he could get. People like Rhodey and Pepper and Steve were, frankly, too good for him, and he had to settle for the people who were screwed up enough to want Tony, and just be glad he had good friends.
Tony took a step back, and sat down hard on a chair. Then he subjected that train of thought to more thorough analysis. Steve was far too good for him, so Tony would just have to be his friend, and forget anything more.
"Really, it's all their fault," he said out loud, and Steve turned to look at him.
"What?" He had a grease smudge on the tip of his nose; even knowing how appalling it would taste, Tony very much wanted to lick it off.
"Steve," he began, and then stopped. This was going to be tricky. I blame Pepper and Rhodey wouldn't cut it. Nor would I have issues on my issues. In the absence of higher thought, his mouth consulted with his baser urges, and improvised. "Could you take off your shirt a moment?"
Steve's brow furrowed, but he obediently hooked his thumbs in the hem of his undershirt and peeled it off. Tony surveyed the broad expanse of his chest, every muscle exquisitely defined, a living sculpture of perfection. Not his type, Tony's shiny metal ass. Cleopatra move over; he was truly God-Emperor of denial.
"Hypothetically... would that offer of going on a date still be open?" He smiled, sheepish, and Steve gave him a bewildered look, then looked down at his chest. "I think I was confused about my type," he added, which didn't seem to help Steve's puzzlement any.
"Is this just a physical thing?" Steve seemed to be addressing his sternum. "Because - "
"No. Yes. Not just a physical thing! But I thought there was no physical thing, and then I realised there very much is." Tony rubbed a hand over the back of his neck. "See, I was just thinking about how you and Pepper and Rhodey are my favourite people - well, and Jarvis, but I don't want to sleep with Jarvis."
"But you want to - "
"Yeah, I - my favourite people. The ones I - well, that I love. Just, you love me back, right? In the in-love way. And that - sort of threw me off. Because I'd been telling myself I loved you in the friends way."
"But you don't?" He squinted up from under his pale eyelashes, and Tony gave him an encouraging smile.
"I think I may actually love you in the in-love way."
"And I would like to check this. Through the dating process." Tony wasn't quite ready to put it all out there; he'd never claimed to be as brave as Steve, after all. It seemed to be enough, because Steve took two steps forward and dropped into a crouch in front of Tony, catching his hands and squeezing them. He grinned, and his eyes were lit up with happiness; Tony felt an odd little shudder go through him at the thought that he'd made Steve light up like that.
"This could be a date," Steve murmured confidentially.
"Uh, I suppose it could be."
"I mean, if it were a date, I could kiss you, right?" His grin widened even further, and Tony had to grin back.
"I'm in favour of the date hypothesis," and he put his hands on Steve's broad bare shoulders and leaned in for their first kiss.