Stark’s been sitting alone for almost two hours, and that’s when it first occurs to Steve that something is wrong.
No, that's the most obvious lie Steve's told himself all week. He knew he was thoroughly fucked the moment the sharp-dressed man entered, aviators neutralizing his expression as he loped up to the counter with the brisk air of someone who isn’t accustomed to waiting. Upon noticing the indecisive bodies pointing at the drinks board, the stranger quickly slid to the end of the line, index finger slipping the sunglasses so they hung from the collar of his Metallica t-shirt. Casual as anything. Could’ve been a celebrity, for all Steve knew, there was something about the way he held himself, something about the lines of his goatee and young face rang familiar. The distractingly attractive stranger squinted at the menu, tongue clicking, and god, those eyes -
Are suddenly, very firmly, locked on Steve’s own.
Steve almost drops the giant, steaming pot of tapioca pearls but manages to right himself at the last possible moment.
“Smooth,” Sam mutters from the cashier station. Steve feels his entire upper body flush and jerkily carries the pot back to the kitchen, with no intention of resurfacing for the rest of his shift.
They’re the only two people working at this hour. It’s 7PM and their tiny tea shop isn’t ever packed to begin with. Sure, the hipster college students can’t live without their bubble tea, and the broke coffee addicts will sometimes meander over from Starbucks to see what the fuss is all about. But once Steve clocks in after class, the morning rush has long since dissipated and he can drink his Oolong Chai and sketch in peace.
He works here because the space is all plush sofas and tabletop games, it pays his tuition, and Sam nabbed him the job after Thor transferred to a four-year school. Not because he’s a “total tea snob,” as Sam loves to tell him. Because only tea snobs drink Oolong Chai, invent delicious drink combinations daily, and make bubble tea with actual leaves.
“It’s downright unnatural, like mixing Kool-Aid on a green tea base,” Sam once complained. Steve retorted, “The drink has tea in the name, there’s nothing unnatural about it, and you’re not actually my boss, Sam. People deserve better than this, this powder bullshit.” It brings in more customers, he claims. They can taste the difference and their clientele has improved since he made the switch.
Which leads them to this moment, when Sam barrels into the kitchen. “So, uh, you gonna say ‘I told you so’? That Tony fucking Stark is here for your award-winning tea?”
Steve doesn’t pause in scooping boba. “Am I supposed to know who that is?”
“Don’t be stupid, Steve, I saw you make eye contact,” and I know what you look like when you’re helplessly attracted to some poor schmuck. “Billionaire son of the CEO to Stark Industries, ring any bells?”
That makes him slow down, but only for a second. So the celebrity guess wasn’t quite off the mark. Steve shrugs, no longer inundated with embarrassment at being caught staring. Now he has an excuse, and Stark must be used to it. “I didn’t know that.”
Sam just hums and hands him an empty to-go cup. “You’re taking his order.”
Steve’s not proud of the pitch he rises to. “Sam-”
“Is a fantastic wingman, and your ass better be grateful for it.”
Steve sighs. Resistance is futile.
By the time he’s refilled the teapot of a couple sitting in the corner, Stark is in front of the register, fingers agitating the wood counter and checking his watch every two seconds. Steve’s eyes narrow at that impatient display. He gears himself up for an entitled, assholeish customer, nevermind the annoying flutter in his stomach.
The smile he forces becomes genuine the second Stark lays eyes on him and smirks. Fuck it , thinks Steve, as he does before making most decisions.
“What can I get for you?”
Stark looks like he’s actually considering all the possibilities, appraising the wall of teas behind Steve. “One of everything? No, that was a joke, that was. Clearly I’ve never done this before, tea isn’t exactly my... scene,” he decides, apparently on his best behavior today. “Very cute though, very intimate.”
Steve’s mouth goes completely dry as Stark braces the counter with both hands, leaning in. “Um, thanks-”
“So I’ll just trust you to fetch two cups of whatever’s good, something hot, in a pot. Go pricey, but nothing expensive-tasting. You know what I mean? On the sweet side, too.” Maybe Steve’s reading entirely too much into this, but the look Stark shoots him at that is definitely suggestive.
It’s dizzying, like a shot of caffeine straight to the bloodstream. Steve nods as if this makes complete sense. “Right. So a more complex, fruity, not overly expensive-tasting blend.” He’s already running through the possibilities, and a light bulb comes on. They’ve got a hot pot of Paris steeping right now...
“Sure,” Stark says agreeably, subtly checking his watch again and glancing back at the door. “You’re the boss, I’m just the one paying.”
“I have something in mind. Give me a second.” Steve ducks into the kitchen and pours a generous sample of Paris. Stark eyes the little amber cup suspiciously but accepts it, and Steve wishes he had a camera when his customer’s brows reach his hairline.
“I thought tea was just, like, leaf water,” Stark sputters articulately.
Steve doesn’t outright grin, but it’s a close thing. “You’re not wrong. Two of those?”
“Two of those. God, that was candy. If candy tasted healthy. Why haven’t I thought of this?”
“Sorry to break it to you, but whoever discovered tea beat you to the punch by a few millennia,” Steve deadpans. Stark looks like he might be laughing if his face weren’t occupied with an odd expression.
“And he’s got a mouth on him,” he mutters, as if to himself.
Steve pretends he didn’t hear that.
He burrows in the kitchen afterwards. It’s his usual post, and he may be a bit of a masochist, but even Steve can’t put himself through watching Stark fix those intense eyes on his date. Because it’s so clearly a date. Someone like Stark would only come to this shop to charm someone unused to extravagance, as if to say I can be humble too.
Yeah, Steve’s never going to fall for that. The thought gives him the courage to emerge once Sam goes home... to discover that Stark is still sitting alone and playing with his phone, slouched in his seat as if he couldn’t give a damn. His flinty eyes give him away.
One cup sits empty, the other full as Steve left it.
He doesn’t know what compels him to fill a large travel mug of Paris and set it in front of Stark. Pity, maybe.
“It’s on the house.” Something tells him he shouldn’t treat Tony like glass. Steve would hate it, if he were in the same situation. The quiet, furious look Stark shoots him makes his blood run cold, but he can’t explain himself.
Stark sneers, “Not to be overbearingly cocky, but I could buy this place and turn it into my ping-pong room. You know who I am, right?”
Steve takes the opposite seat, and for a split second Tony visibly tenses before all of the fight seems to drain from his body. Steve shrugs as if it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t. “I didn’t until two hours ago.” And Tony must believe him, because it’s true.
“I mean, I wasn’t exactly intimidated. Marveling at leaf water, some genius you are,” says Steve, involuntarily smiling. Tony snorts, shuffling up to grab the travel mug.
“I’ll marvel as much as I damn please,” and the way he scans Steve, top to bottom, makes Steve’s face prickle with heat. “Your name, handsome? Calling you that in my head’s getting a little redundant.”
Oh. Steve realizes, with elation and a sinking feeling, that this is what flirting Tony is like. Earlier must've been his usual self, thinking out loud. Tony’s finally caught on; whoever he so badly wanted to impress isn’t falling into bed with him tonight, so he might as well settle for the next possible catch, right?
The warmth under Steve’s skin boils, bitter on the back of his tongue. Feeling hurt would imply that he’s attached to Tony, which he isn’t. But - god, it still stings, knowing he so easily could’ve been.
“Steve.” Tony’s brows knit, clearly realizing he’s done something wrong but oblivious as to what. Standing up, Steve heaves a sigh. “Listen, I gotta close up-”
“Steve Rogers, as in the artist behind all these?” Tony nods towards the signed acrylic paintings adorning the walls, as if he’s genuinely curious. “I had a little free time to admire them properly,” he says with a small, self-deprecating smile. “You got talent. But I guess you already knew that.”
Of course not, Steve thinks, chagrined. None of the artists he knows can recognize their work as anything more than hot garbage. It comes with the territory, but someone like Tony wouldn’t know that. “You don’t have to put so much effort into flattering me.” He hopes he sounds at least somewhat final. Instead, it just sounds tired.
“Okay but consider this, you deserve to be flattered, and I honestly can’t tell what I did to fuck up your mood but I’m, I didn’t mean to. So I’ll get out of your hair, but I’d just-” Seeing Tony struggle to find words and frustratedly run a hand through his hair makes Steve melt, just a little. “I’d appreciate knowing what I did? Seeing as I can’t seem to do anything right tonight.” There’s that tiny, self-hating grin again. Steve knows it’s a mask and wants to tear it off with a surprising viciousness. He does the same thing when he’s dying inside.
The air in the shop suddenly feels thick, cloying. “I don’t know who stood you up tonight,” Steve says quietly, “or why, but I know you didn’t deserve it. That’s on them, Tony. They fucked up. And I know you’re hurt, it sucks…” He chuckles darkly at that. Back in high school when he was still small and sickly, and sympathetic friends set him up on dates, he’d been stood up a few times. Courtesy of the almost-dates finding his Facebook, he supposes. “But I’m really not interested in being a backup plan.”
Tony’s mouth opens and closes a few times, as if processing that. It’d be comical if Steve could feel anything other than blank terror.
Tony clears his throat, standing up and walking slowly over. Steve realizes that he’s taller, enough so that if Tony kissed him, he’d have to stand on tip-toe. He also thinks, deliriously, that Tony’s eyelashes are really, ridiculously long, and he has half a mind to ask if he’s wearing mascara.
“First off, Steve, you are not a backup plan.” Tony’s voice comes out rough, an octave below its usual, and it sends shivers straight down Steve’s spine. “It was a blind date, I’ve never met them in person, so we met first, technically. Right now you have have dibs on, well, on all of this,” cue a sweeping motion at his own body and a heart-stopping smirk. Steve feels his own eyes blow wide; it’s downright unfair. “Or none of it. All I really care about right now is - can I see you again? Off the clock?”
The sentence is barely finished before Steve pulls him in for a kiss.