Steve’s known Tony Stark for a few months, and he’s still not sure how he feels about him. As Iron Man, he’s competent. Not exactly a team player, but he shows up, and he does the job, and it’s not like any of them have to be out there saving the world.
If he’s honest with himself, a big part of Steve’s ambivalence toward the younger Stark is just how hard it is to look at him without feeling sad. Howard could be a pain, yes, but he was also a good friend. He was clever and ingenuitive and funny. He was loyal and well... easy on the eyes.
Howard and Tony share enough of these traits, that spending time with Tony causes Steve’s chest to clench at inopportune times. To turn his sort of abstract concept of loss into something solid and awful. To Steve, it’s been less than 4 months since he flew into the icy water and left his friends behind. Tony’s presence in his life is a constant, painful reminder of that.
Steve’s SHIELD mandated therapist assures him he’ll feel better eventually. That he’ll ‘move on, in time’. Steve kind of wants to be a smart ass and remind the guy he’s pretty sure ‘moving through time’ is the crux of his problem but he keeps his mouth shut. Both to the shrink and to Stark.
It helps that Tony doesn’t seem any more comfortable spending time with Steve. By unspoken agreement, they avoid each other except out of absolute necessity in the field or with a strained sense of awkward politeness at charity functions.
It’s at one of these charity functions that Steve first meets Tony’s most recent fella. Steve’s been warned (yes, warned, because everyone expects that Steve will freak out) that Stark is bisexual. Steve considers pointing out to Hill that this generation didn’t invent bisexuality, or sex, for that matter but she’s trying to be helpful so he plays along. She looks relieved when he promises not to choke on his straw if he sees his teammate bringing around a man on his arm.
The paparazzi outside the fundraiser end up exhausting Steve before he makes it inside, and once he’s in there, he spends another hour shaking hands with half the city. By the time he gets his plate from the buffet and loads it up with twice as much food as anyone else in the joint, he’s just looking for a quiet place to sit down and recover. He’s pointed toward a VIP table by a helpful woman in a server’s uniform and he takes the seat labeled with his name. It isn’t long before Tony and his guest take the seats across from him.
Tony’s boyfriend is called Sean and he’s a personal trainer to the stars. Sean is tall and blonde and muscular, and Steve doesn’t fail to notice they could be cousins, as far as looks go. He hopes that’s where the similarities end because Sean’s an ass. Steve can be an ass, he knows he can, but he’s a polite ass at least. He manages himself fine in public, thank you. His dead, sainted mother won’t be rolling in her grave over anything he talks about in the company of strangers.
In addition to being an ass, Sean is loud. His voice is unpleasant in its snarkiness, and he’s rude to the waitstaff who stop by to refill the water and change out their dirty plates for clean ones.
Steve finds himself wondering if the men are in the middle of some kind of lovers’ quarrel, because for the first thirty minutes Sean doesn’t say a single word to Tony. Technically neither does Steve, but that’s because Tony won’t make eye contact with him. Or with anyone else for that matter. Not even with Barton, who has taken the seat to Steve’s left and whose company makes for a welcome relief from the rest of their dining companions.
Steve likes Barton, who early on in the conversation insists that Steve call him Clint, and who steals and eats the olives off Steve’s plate when he thinks Steve isn’t looking. It’s nice to have someone treat him like he’s normal. Like a friend.
The evening wears on and champagne is passed around like water, and it’s not even 9 PM and most of the table is drunk. Tony’s finally talking, and it’s about hydraulics and pneumatics and how they relate to some racecar Tony’s built, and he’s excited. Really excited, judging by the expressive way his hands move and the smile that finally reaches his eyes. Tony’s discussing a type of science Steve understands and even though Steve’s not part of the conversation he’s fascinated. He wishes he could see Tony like this more often. Happy. Unguarded.
“Does he ever shut up?” a woman interrupts. She’s talking to Tony’s boyfriend, who sighs loudly in exaggerated exasperation.
“When I give him something better to do with his mouth, he does,” Sean says.
Tony stops speaking as the occupants around the table (minus Steve and Clint) erupt into laughter. Tony laughs, too, but when the laughter dies down, Tony fills his next glass to the brim and drains it like a thirsty soldier with a canteen. There’s no more science talk. Instead Tony’s boyfriend takes over the conversation and launches into a story about another time he’d shut Tony up, this one involving a gag.
It seems like the type of story that ought to remain private. It also sounds like Tony wasn’t a willing participant in the events of the night that Sean is recounting. Tony was drunk at the time. Sean goes into a lot of detail about Tony resisting the gag and how his eyes had filled with tears, but how he’d loved it once it was in. Was a ‘total slut for it’. For some reason, that’s what gets the biggest laugh.
Tony’s looking down at his plate now, pushing his dessert around into a messy swirl of raspberry and chocolate. He’s smiling, but by the tense set of his shoulders, Steve can tell it’s a struggle.
“I think that’s enough,” Steve says abruptly, interrupting Sean as he starts in again with some new lurid detail.
“Excuse me?” Sean asks.
“You heard me. That’s enough.”
Sean’s drunk and maybe just plain stupid, because he gives the table a shove toward Steve, and it topples over glasses and a few bottles as it comes to an abrupt stop at the wall that is Steve Rogers’ abs.
“Fuck you, man,” Sean growls.
Steve stands. “You want to take this outside?”
The table goes silent. Hell, half the room goes silent. Clint stands as well, looking plenty ready to have Steve’s back, just like any Howling Commando would.
“Nothing to see here, folks,” Tony says in a voice that carries across the room. The look he’s giving Steve is murderous. “We’ve all had too much to drink. Time to go home.”
Tony puts an arm around Sean and tries to pull him back away from the table. Sean rips out of Tony’s grasp, but doesn’t have the balls to come at Steve. Instead he storms off and Tony follows after him. Clint nods to a side door.
“Come on’ Cap. I know a back way out. We can avoid the press.”
What Steve can’t avoid is Tony’s wrath. It’s a day later when Stark turns up in the gym wearing a sharp business suit and shoes that are perfectly shined. He’s wearing sunglasses, too, though he pulls them off when he speaks.
“If you’ve got a problem with me having a boyfriend, you need to get the stick out of your ass, Capsicle,” Tony announces. “This is the twenty-first century. Deal with it.”
“I don’t care who you’re sleeping with,” Steve says, trying to keep his tone polite. He turns from the punching bag to give Tony his full attention. “If someone’s going to act like an asshole I’m going to treat them like an asshole. In any century.”
“You don’t-- He’s not--” Tony starts. “You aren’t my Captain, or my keeper, or my anything. Stay out of my business, Rogers. Stay away from my boyfriend. Stay out of my life. ”
That stings. But the wounded look on Tony’s face stings worse. Makes Steve want to explain himself.
“I don’t like bullies,” Steve says.
“Then don’t be one,” Tony snaps.
“He had no right to say those things about you.”
“He’s my boyfriend. He has every right,” Tony says.
“To embarrass you?” Steve asks. “Or do you mean to make you do things in private you don’t want and then announce it to a table full of strangers.”
“You have no idea what kind of things I want,” Tony says.
“You didn’t want him to finish that story,” Steve argues. “You were uncomfortable. I was watching you.”
“And you’re an expert on me, huh?” Tony demands. “You don’t know shit about me. If you’re going to clutch your pearls over bedroom talk, maybe next time don’t sit at the grown up table.”
“There were place cards,” Steve snaps. “I sat where I was told.”
“Always the perfect soldier,” Tony sneers.
Before Steve can answers, Tony turns and storms out. The doors slam behind him.
“Good talk,” Steve says to himself. “Nice to see you, too.”
After that, Steve beats the hell out of a few punching bags until he finally hits one so hard it bends the steel girder above his head and he knows he needs to stop. He sits on the gym floor, dejected, missing Bucky and Peggy and Howard. Hating this stupid place and every stupid thing about it.
That’s where Clint finds him ten minutes later.
“Saw Stark out in the halls,” Clint says. “Whatever he said about last night-- you did the right thing. I was about three seconds from putting an arrow through that guy’s balls.”
Steve smiles. “I’d have liked to see that.”
“Let me buy you a milkshake,” Clint says, reaching down to pull at Steve’s arm in an effort to get him off the ground. “There’s a place down the street that named one after you. They put a whole piece of apple pie down in the blender with the ice cream. It’s awesome”
Steve looks up. “Seriously?”
“You’re a big, damn hero. Who wouldn’t want to drink you through a straw?” Clint asks.
“The future’s weird,” Steve says but he doesn’t object. He rises to his feet, pulls on his jacket and follows after Clint.
The milkshake is as good as Clint promised.
Reading in the paper, two weeks later, that Tony and Sean have broken up, is even better.