Everybody else knew long before they did. It was inevitable, really. When you lived with and saw a person pretty much everyday and that person more or less became your best friend, you were bound to be a little too close to see when things started changing.
From the beginning, things with Steve went differently. There was the obvious (their shaky start upon first meeting, the way Loki's scepter exacerbated their issues with each other, the fact that both were unquestionably alpha males), but even after everybody shook hands and made up, things were still different.
Following the Chitauri attack, Tony'd realized he was going to be spending a lot more time in New York whether he liked it or not. Therefore, it wasn't long before he'd moved home base from Malibu to Stark Tower. He'd spent the next several months while the various members of the Avengers were fucking around doing god-knows-what steeling himself for what was probably a really bad decision, then blown open the doors of the old Stark Mansion on Fifth Avenue and begun a massive revamp of his childhood home.
He'd opened it up to his scattered teammates, and over the next few weeks, they all came back.
When Steve did return a month after the rest of the crew had settled in, he took one look at the place, shook his head, thanked Tony for thinking of them, and walked out.
Tony'd followed him, of course. People didn't reject his gifts unless they were Pepper, and even then Pepper rejected them only when she knew there was an ulterior motive she didn't agree with or when she was... well. Allergic. He was never going to live that down, really.
This time, Tony didn't even have an ulterior motive. He just wanted his team safe and sound, living somewhere with equipment and comfort and safety, somewhere that wasn't a depressingly spartan SHIELD housing complex. (If it won him some brownie points from his teammates in the process, hey, who was he to complain?) He'd gotten Bruce back from Africa to call this home between his travels, he'd gotten Clint to settle down and make his nest there, he'd gotten notoriously distrusting super-spy Natasha willing to walk around in her pajamas, he'd even gotten Phil Coulson post-resurrection using the "spare office" with the secret red, white and blue-themed bedroom hidden behind the cheesy secret bookshelf.
Honest, steady, "go, team!" Steve Rogers was not the person he'd expected resistance from. So, Tony'd followed him.
They'd found a cafe and gotten some lunch. They'd talked, the first real, proper, full-on conversation they'd ever had. Afterward, Tony'd invited him back to Stark Tower to check out some new arrows he and Barton had brainstormed, and Steve had gone, riding them both on his SHIELD-issued bike rather than waiting for Happy to come pick them up. Tony'd jokingly warned that photos of them riding off into the sunset together were probably going to make Twitter explode (and then he'd had to explain what Twitter was), but Steve had reminded him that he was used to publicity, used to being made fun of, and really didn't care if Tony didn't care.
They'd looked over the arrows. Tony'd shown off his workshop. Steve'd politely not mentioned Tony's signs of trepidation at having somebody here, since he was obviously trying to ignore them. Tony'd offered to make some upgrades to his bike. That'd led to taking a look at Tony's cars, and by then it had been late enough that Steve just stayed over. By the time Tony woke up the next morning, coffee was brewed and waiting for him and Steve was channel-surfing as he ate some eggs, casual as anything.
Then there was the new gallery opening up on sixth that
Pepper Tony had invested in, so now was as good a time as any to check it out. Steve's SHIELD-issued phone was an atrocity that SI's interns could hack in their sleep, so he insisted on making him a new one. Steve's french toast was like a gift from god, so he had to make them one more time. Tony's firepower as Iron Man was spectacular but his hand-to-hand as Tony was a little more lacking, so Steve showed him some useful take-down moves. Tony wanted to make some renovations to the workshop for a project but needed a heavy lifter with a more delicate grip than the Iron Man suit, so of course Steve offered to help. It seemed like there was always something else for Steve to look at or Tony to improve, something else for them to do.
Steve never did get around to leaving.
Two months later, clearly feeling that it was his duty as SHIELD's representative for the team, Coulson was the first address it. That was how Tony found himself at the end of that professionally polite smile one Tuesday afternoon instead of working on the paralytic-tipped caltrops Natasha'd bullied him into making for her.
"We only want to ensure that nothing jeopardizes the cohesiveness of the team," the loyal agent insisted firmly as he absently accepted another strange, semi-liquid concoction from the overly eager resident arm on wheels. "Thank you, Dummy."
"I'm pretty sure it's in our job descriptions that who we are and what we do inherently jeopardize our cohesiveness," Tony pointed out. "You know, the whole tendency to get punched, kicked, tossed into buildings, electrocuted, set on fire, the usual. I think dying jeopardizes cohesiveness, which is why I'm trying to, you know—" He held up a caltrop in one gloved hand. "—Prevent that."
"That is true, but we still try to monitor what variables we can, including personal ones." Coulson hesitated only for the barest of moments before continuing. "Your fieldwork with Captain Rogers is astoundingly complementary, so we would hate to have to reassign one of you should you prove unable to keep your domestics off of the battlefield."
Tony stared at him. "I'm sorry, our whats?"
"My apologies; a domes—"
"No, stop, I know what a fucking domestic is, but you're way off base here."
Coulson just gave him a mild look.
"I think I'd know if I were dating someone, Agent. You can cool down, I'm not barging into your fanboy territory."
"Stark, you have a Captain Amer—"
"Whoa, hey there, no—"
"That's Howard's collection. I just didn't get around to cleaning it out yet."
"And you go out to dinner regularly."
"Just showing him the tastes of modern day New York. You want him to like modern day New York, yeah?"
"You flew him to the most romantic city in the world for a weekend getaway."
"To see the Louvre! He likes art, you know that. I go to France all the time, that's nothing."
"You won't let anyone else upgrade his suit or weapons."
"Only the best for our leader, right? And I'm the best. We've established this many times."
"You don't sleep around anymore."
"Been there, done that, got bored. What, I'm not allowed to grow out of it? I'm forty now, come on."
"You all but sit in his lap on movie nights."
"Low blood pressure. I get cold and he gives off obscene amounts of superhuman body heat. And he likes having someone close by for the sad scenes." Tony paused. "And I do not. That is a gross exaggeration of our proximity."
Coulson let out a carefully controlled sigh—which meant it was probably just barely this side of a scream. "Stark, you sleep in the same bed. Do you really expect anybody to believe there's nothing going on?"
At that, Tony began laughing. Laughing. He took one look at Coulson's exasperated face and had the audacity to laugh harder. "Seriously, is that what this is about? Oh my god, are you sure you're not the one born in the twenties?"
"Ninety-three floors in this building—"
"Okay, come on—"
"With six bedrooms in your so-called 'bachelor pad' alone—"
"My building schematics are really not—"
"And he sleeps with you."
Tony finally got his snickering under control enough to shake his head, pull off his gloves, and rest both of his hands on Coulson's shoulders. "Look. All we're doing in that bed is sleeping, I swear to Fury, Odin, Cap's shield, whatever you want me to swear to. It's just—"
Dusting his hands off like they were annoying little flies and doing it again when Tony simply placed them back, Coulson sighed. "I really don't need the sordid details."
"Sleep, Phil, perfectly platonic, non-sordid, fully clothed sleep. We both—you know, it's just—"
Tony did let himself be brushed off this time and dropped down onto his chair, rubbing a hand down his face. "Jesus. Look, neither of us are even into men past the usual college experimentation thing. But we—" He paused for a moment (thereby disproving Pepper's theory that he was incapable of thinking before he spoke). "It's the Avengers thing. We're... we worry. We're responsible for the rest of the team, his tactics and my tech. You know how it is—Merida told me about the ops you used to head for him and Natasha. It helps, having someone else nearby who you know's got your back and is capable of taking care of himself.
"And everyone on this team has bad nightmares, that's nothing new. We did the separate rooms thing for a while, but it turned out both of us were having JARVIS wake us when the other had a bad one so it just... became a thing. We probably spend more time falling asleep on the couch watching a movie or down in the workshop than we do in that bed. His virtue is safe, Phil. Really."
This time, the look Coulson cast him wasn't one of frustration. It was... it was almost sad. He wasn't sure if Coulson was now pitying them (unlikely) or thought Tony was in denial (ugh), but either way, that wasn't okay.
In fact, it was pretty irritating.
What the hell? What was there to pity? They'd all seen bad things, after all. Who the fuck cared if Tony and Steve had found a way to work through dreaming of torture and betrayal and cold and water? Why was it anyone's business if they found comfort in their mutual trust? Why did Coulson need to blow things out of proportion and try to make their camaraderie into something else simply because he couldn't understand it?
"Out," Tony ordered, swiveling away back to his table and roughly yanking his gloves back on. Okay, maybe he was a little more than irritated now, but seriously. He was sick to death of having his relationships be dissected by outsiders, first by the media and the Board of Stark Industries once they began worrying that he was being crazy ol' Stark again, on the verge of a meltdown.
It wasn't like he was treating Steve like crap, either. Their friendship was probably the healthiest one he had, compared to how he constantly left Rhodey and Pepper hanging and then relied on them to clean up his messes. He would be the first to admit he didn't always treat his friends the way they deserved, which was why he spent so much time trying to make up for it. In fact, it was probably in their best interests that they give up on him. He knew that; he was perfectly aware of what he was like, and that was precisely why he was trying to do right by Steve.
"I'm done with this conversation. Get out."
"I'm only concerned—"
A week later, Steve and Natasha were unwinding in eastern Europe. The "infiltration" part of their mission had gone smoothly, and they were getting some rest before finishing up the "rescue" part the next day.
"Eager to get home?"
As soon as the words left Natasha's mouth, Steve's eyes shot to her, back in Captain America mode despite the white t-shirt and red sweatpants he was now sporting. Natasha simply did not do small talk, so he couldn't help but be on his guard. If she were the real Natasha, she wouldn't take offense; the potential to be compromised was no minor matter, and they'd both been there for Thor's stories of planets of shapeshifters or parasites that took over the minds of larger species.
"Why do you ask?" he asked, continuing to wind the bandages around his hands even as he mentally took inventory of where his weapons were.
Natasha took a drink of water and capped it before responding. "Six days away from the Tower and you've hardly slept one of them. I bet Tony's not faring much better."
Relaxing minutely and not noticing the smile spread across his face, Steve rolled his eyes. "I'm sure he's just up to his neck in a project. Once things hit the 48 hour mark JARVIS starts threatening to shut down his systems if he doesn't get to bed," he replied with no small amount of affection.
Natasha tilted her head as she tied her hair back in a short braid to keep it out of her eyes and ears while she slept. "JARVIS isn't his teddy bear," she replied mildly.
"Tony doesn't have a teddy bear."
"I meant you, Cap."
Steve blinked at her as he accepted the water bottle she passed over to him while she held her hair in place with the other. "Excuse me?"
She gave him an even look. "We're okay with it, you know. I'm aware it's probably ingrained in you to be cautious, but this isn't the forties anymore."
Steve didn't suffer from low self-confidence. He'd been bright before the war, and sometimes still feeling lost and clueless in the modern era didn't diminish his confidence in his ability to understand and adapt. But right now, despite being in perfectly familiar surroundings with perfectly familiar company, he felt stupid. "I'm sorry, but I'm really not following you."
Hands pausing in her hair, Natasha gave him one of those ambiguously homicidal looks she was so good at—ambiguous because one could never be sure what Natasha's looks meant, and homicidal because, well, Natasha. Finishing with the braid, she dropped her hands back down to her lap. "I mean your and Tony's relationship. We're okay with it. You don't have to hide it from us."
"I—that's good?" Tone rising like he was asking a question, Steve's bemused response clearly indicated that he still wasn't quite getting it. "It didn't occur to me that any of you would be opposed. I haven't noticed that 2013 sees friendship as any less of a good thing than the forties did."
Natasha laughed, short and sharp. "I'm not talking about friendship, Steve. I mean the dating."
"Who do you think?"
"Tony and me?"
"I'm sorry. I think there's been an extreme miscommunication here." Steve was staring at her fully now, bright blue eyes wide with genuine surprise. "We're not—we're not dating. I don't have any idea what Tony's sexual preference even is, but I—it was only ever—I mean, I'm not—we're not—"
Natasha's gaze shifted from analytical to something almost like pity. "Of course you are. Everyone knows it."
"Everyone?" Steve asked, uncomfortable with the team making inaccurate assumptions about his relationship with Tony. "Wait, no—no, there's nothing to know. We're not dating!"
"Does Tony know this?"
"Are you sure?"
Steve set down the water bottle and rubbed his eyes with one hand. "Nat, we just hang out. He builds things while I draw or work out or train the recruits, we catch me up on seventy years of pop culture, sometimes we step out for a change but it's usually for burgers and malts. We're not dating."
Natasha leaned forward. "You live with him instead of us, you go on trips together, you're tactile with each other in ways neither of you ever are with anyone else, you share a bed. You fuss over him, he dotes on you. You ground him when he's got his head in the clouds, he makes you relax when you're tense after missions."
"The Avengers Mansion is just too... much for me. It's nothing against you guys, it's just not my kind of place. We're tactile because we're more familiar with each other, the trips are just sightseeing or unwinding, I worry about all of you, and he—" Steve pulled his hand away from his eyes and looked up at her then, cheeks slightly pink with embarrassment as he made himself continue. "He doesn't dote on me. He just likes to make things better, and the rest of you are all competent, well-adjusted people who belong here. Things are a lot better now, but I'm still a misfit. So he tries to make things easier for me, like he would for any of you."
"You give him massages."
"He spends too much time hunched over a desk; his shoulders get knots. There's nothing intimate about that. I've seen you, Clint and Coulson give each other massages, too; that's what prompted me to offer."
Natasha ignored that. The dynamic between her, Clint and Coulson was atypical and rooted in close to a decade of companionship on and off the field; if Cap couldn't see his own situation, he was never going to get hers. "You taught yourself how to make his favourite foods and drinks."
"Sure. To make him eat." Steve was starting to look a little uncomfortable now. "It's hard to pull him away from the lab when he'd rather work himself to exhaustion."
"You cuddle on the couch."
"He gets cold," Steve defended a bit tersely. "It's not his fault. If he had JARVIS turn up the heat to comfortable temperatures for his blood circulation the rest of us would complain that it's roasting. He spent most of his adult life living in Malibu and traveling to the tropics. He's not accustomed to New York autumns and winters yet."
"Steve, I don't care that you cuddle on the couch. I'm just saying, he could wear a coat but prefers to attach himself to you."
"It's not cuddling," Steve protested with more embarrassment. "It's just..."
No. No, he really didn't have a good answer for that. Tony did often lie with his head on Steve's lap, or pressed against his arm until Steve moved said arm to tuck him in against his side. It hadn't been intentional at first—comforting gestures when they were half-asleep watching Battlestar Galactica—but it was warm, and comfortable, and nice. But even he could admit that okay, that much was maybe kind of weird.
He shook his head. "I can't explain it, and frankly, don't feel I should have to. We're comfortable, we enjoy each other's company, and so what if we're a little tactile? There's nothing else happening, and we're definitely not dating. Why on earth would Tony even—" He paused, frowned, sighed, and shook his head again. "No, forget it."
"Would Tony even what?"
"Would Tony even what?" She was giving him a Look again, but this time it was the "You're a colossal idiot" look she normally directed at Clint when he was trying to wind someone up. "Why would he want to date you, his kind, reliable, and frankly, gorgeous best friend and roommate?"
Steve was definitely flushed now, never having learned to accept praise that wasn't along the lines of 'Good work, soldier.' "I'm not—"
"What did the file call it, 'peak of human perfection'? No, of course Tony wouldn't have any interest in tapping that," Natasha drawled over him. "Nor would he appreciate the way you always take care of him. That's not at all why he takes you out to eat, or compulsively buys you anything you look at, or drags you to the parties he has to schmooze at."
"I've been in the public eye before and I'm capable of handling it," Steve piped up, relieved that he could defend against at least one of those points. "You and Clint are discreet, Bruce would go green at the stress, and Thor is..."
She nodded. He didn't even need to finish. Thor had a way of breaking everything around him in his enthusiasm, and that didn't generally bode well for formal affairs.
"So I'm the logical choice when a non-Tony Avenger appearance would be beneficial. Besides, if it helps a good cause, I'm all for it. There's nothing romantic here."
Natasha unceremoniously dropped backwards onto the cot she was using for a bed during their mission. She let out a sigh. "Whatever you say, Rogers."
"There isn't," Steve insisted. "And please don't mention this sort of thing to Tony. It'll just make him weird about things."
"Tony's always weird about things."
Natasha responded with only silence. That didn't make him feel any better.
It was three more days before they got home. The rescue part of the mission hadn't gone as smoothly as they'd hoped, and while everyone ultimately came out alive, there were more hostages than anticipated—definitely more than the jet they'd come in could carry. Due to their inconvenient location, that meant waiting for some all-terrain vehicles to be dispatched in order to haul the majority of them to safety while the oldest and most injured—and those of their opponents who were alive and tied up— were airlifted away, and that meant more delay. Once the ATVs arrived, there was the matter of making sure the hostages were all spoken to and sent home properly.
And then there was the debrief. And paperwork. And everybody who stopped him in the corridors of SHIELD to talk.
Only when he stepped off of the elevator and into Tony's living room did Steve finally breathe out a sigh of relief, slump his shoulders, and close his eyes. The transition was immediate; the weight of the extra days of dealing with scared, doubtful, angry, and sometimes mentally unsettled civilians lifted from his shoulders and ran off him like rainwater.
He was home.
That was all he had time to do or think before JARVIS welcomed him back, the microwave dinged, a door slammed open, and Tony strode in, pants still covered in grease but pulling on a clean t-shirt.
Steve stared. Having been expecting to have to go and dig Tony out of the workshop as soon as he got back like they usually did, this was... different. Not bad. Definitely not bad. Just different.
"Hey," the inventor casually greeted as he ducked into the kitchen and poured himself some coffee from the ever-present, ever-on percolator. Extracting another mug from the microwave, he slipped onto one of the stools at the kitchen table and slid the mug of hot, honeyed milk over to the other side. As Steve continued to stare, Tony looked uncomfortable for a fleeting moment before covering it up with a "What?" sort of look. "The mission went overtime. Nat called to say you were alive and on your way. Nat called, by the way, not you." His look switched to one of mild accusation.
That... okay. That was surprising, too. Then again, considering the awkward conversation they'd had before the rescue, maybe it shouldn't have been. Maybe it was less surprising and more worrisome.
Before he could decide what to do, Tony sighed and dropped his forehead down onto the counter, cradling his coffee as close as he could without burning himself. "I told her this wasn't how we rolled. I told her it would be weird," he mumbled, the words muffled by his arm. "Whatever bee's gotten into her bonnet—"
"No, it's okay, I was just—surprised." Slipping onto the stool across from him, Steve picked up the milk and took a sip. "So—Natasha called?"
"Yeah." Lifting his head, Tony looked disgruntled. "Said you'd had a rough time playing therapist to a bunch of hostages and that I should give you a warm welcome or she'd make sure I was traumatized away from power tools for life."
Unable to help hismself, Steve let out a laugh at that. Tony without power tools was like Clint without a bow. Tony grinned at him in relief at the laugh, and he felt himself relax again as Tony took that as a sign to keep babbling. "We can totally start over if you want. No, really. Dump the milk, you go downstairs and come back up, I'll get back to the lab and get myself covered in crap. Important crap, not just trial 38 of stretchy pants for our friendly local Jekyll and Hyde. Not that that's not important since, you know, yuck, and underaged eyewitnesses whenever we're fighting apocalyptic evil, but. Work. You might wanna go all the way to the lobby. You know, just to make sure I have enough time to really get distracted so it all seems more legit."
"It's fine, Tony. Thanks for trying, but you're right, this was weird." With the world righting itself once more, Steve finally gave Tony a once-over. He took in the bags beneath his eyes, a slightly weathered look to his skin like he hadn't seen sun or fresh air in days, and the grime caught beneath his fingernails even after the rest of the muck had been washed off, and in spite of himself, he smiled warmly. He knew he shouldn't, since they were all signs of self-neglect, but they were also... Tony. Besides, he appeared to be in pretty good spirits now other than threats of torture from a protective teammate and he wasn't even working at the moment, so he couldn't criticize him too harshly. "You've been ignoring JARVIS," he observed.
"I don't know what you mean. I'd never do such a—"
"Indeed he has," JARVIS tattled from all around them, tone sounding remarkably dry.
"JARVIS, status update?"
"Mister Stark has been asleep a total of—"
"Hey, stop, you rat!"
"—fourteen hours and thirty-six minutes in the last nine days. He has ingested approximately—"
"Hey, hey, hey, don't—"
"—seven-thousand, six-hundred and twenty milligrams of caffeine in the form of—"
"Seven-thousand—" Steve choked, setting down his milk quickly on the counter.
"JARVIS, master override, stop status update. Traitor," Tony accused. "You're not supposed to snitch, you tool, I made you."
"My apologies," JARVIS replied primly. "I was simply following your order to obey Captain Rogers's requests. As he asked that I monitor your health while he was away—"
Despite his concern, Steve felt his dwindled smile reappear as Tony and his AI continued to bicker. When Tony shook a fist at a mounted ceiling light (he made a mental note of the camera that was probably hidden there) despite all the times he'd mock the Avengers for talking to the ceiling when addressing JARVIS, his smile grew wider and he let out a silent laugh. Crossing his arms on the tabletop, he rested his cheek on them and contented himself with listening to the familiar voices bantering, surrounded by the scents and sounds of home.
This was home.
Sure, maybe Tony forgot the basic essentials of day-to-day survival, and yes, his ego was big enough to have its own gravitational pull, and okay, he had more issues than a subscription to Time Magazine, and without a doubt, he was completely eccentric sometimes... but it was all so worth it.
This was more of a home to him than any place he'd known since his mother died. This was what brought him back here every night.
It wasn't, like Natasha seemed to think, something neatly defined as dating. If he compared this to how he felt around Peggy, the differences could fill another seventy years. Peggy'd given him the butterflies, the nervous flutters, the embarrassment, the urge to prove he was worth her. Peggy made him constantly alert, constantly on the lookout, constantly needing to check and make sure he was performing up to standards. Peggy made him push himself to his full potential, to reach above the sky and for the stars, to be the best he could be.
Tony just made him feel like Steve.
"Hey, come, don't fall asleep there, Cap." Tony's voice was focused on him now, and it was the direction of the crisp tone that caught his attention moreso than the words did.
"I'm not asleep," he replied, quiet and happy. "Just glad to be back."
Tony eyed him thoughtfully as JARVIS returned the sentiment in unmistakably fond tones. His brow furrowed for a moment as if he were trying to work out a puzzle, but the moment passed and he was shaking his head again.
A sudden palm slapping down on the table jolted Steve upright, or at least more upright than he'd been a moment before. "C'mon, you're a dead weight when you pass out, up you go. JARVIS drew a bath for you when you got in and pizza's on its way. Wash up. I'll queue up a movie."
Steve shot him a grateful look and was warmed by the way Tony's amused look melted to offer a reassuring smile back. Everyone knew that Tony wasn't the comforting sort—something he'd heard Pepper complain about many a time—but he liked to think that people just didn't know how to translate Tonyese to English.
Tony did care, and did offer plenty comfort. It just wasn't in the form of hugs or words or empty promises.
He hugged them in the form of his own home donated and redesigned, a steady shelter to return to. He snapped and criticized to keep them from wallowing in regrets or self-doubts. He didn't make empty promises of safety; he made real promises in the form of stronger armour, faster vehicles, sharper arrows, better tech. If he didn't spend much time hanging out with them now, shooting the breeze, well, it was to make sure he would have more time with them in the long run.
He looked out for his team in the only way he knew how.
Steve didn't get up immediately. Using the excuse of finishing his milk, he stayed and basked in everything that had become so familiar and so beloved. Once he was done, he took his and Tony's cups to the sink to rinse them out and pop them in the dishwasher, and on his way to wash up he clapped a hand on Tony's shoulder in a wordless Thank you. For just a moment Tony's hand was warm over his, an equally silent Anytime that nonetheless rang loud and clear.