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Number Four

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It was incredibly low-tech, but part of Tony's morning routine was always reading the paper.

There was something comforting about the feel of the paper rasping beneath his hands, so much softer than metal or wires. Besides, having a leisurely cup of coffee with a huge breakfast and the paper was some kind of Norman Rockwell heaven, and also the only peace he got.

"Tones," Carol said with a yawn, shuffling into the kitchen and cracking open the fridge, rifling through it until she found Peter's sandwich from last night, unwrapping the plastic and taking a bite. "Paper?"

"Paper," Tony confirmed, flipping a page. "Got through politics and current events already; Byrd's being a dick, to no one's surprise. It's an election year."

"Oh boy," Carol said, making a cup of coffee and sitting down next to him as she added cream and sugar. "Where are you now?"

"Sports," Tony said. "Not much here, and after's Sunday, right?"

"Yeah," Carol said, "the Bugle should have its Life and Style section today. We're usually in there, right?"

"For JJ to complain about us, but yes," Tony replied, leaning back in his chair and putting his feet up on the table. Carol laughed, adding another packet of sugar.

"Steve'll kick your ass if he sees you," she said. Tony snorted.

"Steve's out on a run this morning. He won't be back for an hour," he said. Carol's grin grew huge.

"Oh, so you've got the good Captain's schedule memorized? How efficient of you, Tony," she teased.

Tony crumpled the paper in his fists and put it down to glare at her. She waggled her fingers teasingly in his direction.

"Pain in the ass," Tony muttered. "It's in case I need him for monitor duty."

"Mhm," Carol said in the tone of disbelieving best friends everywhere. "So, do you know when the Captain takes a shower after?"

"Oh, shut up," Tony said, turning the page and trying not to think about it. He'd wanted to be in there scrubbing the other man down after a long, languid exercise session far too often to be swayed by some casual teasing.

"Hey," he said, blinking as he put his paper down. "You know those 'Top Ten Sexiest Men Alive' lists that the paper does from time to time?"

"Mmhm," Carol said, getting up to look over Tony's shoulder. "Didn't you get voted in?"

"Yeah, well, nothing new," Tony said with a yawn, skimming the list. "Let's see who else got on, though, I'm curious."

He read through the list, humming. "Huh. Okay, so I'm number six—a travesty if you ask me—then there's Clint, and—"

Tony almost dropped the newspaper. Carol read the headline over his shoulder and hooted, breaking down into giggles.

"Holy shit," she said, "ho-ly shit, it's—oh my god, it can't really be—"

She stole a look at the headline again and gave Tony a knowing smirk. "Is chain mail a turn on for you, Mr. Stark?"

"Carol, shut up," Tony grumbled, picking up the paper and reading it with narrowed eyes. "I'm still not thrilled he placed above me. The son of a bitch was even modest about it."

"He'd be modest if he saved the world single-handedly, don't act so surprised," she said. "He certainly seems surprised, huh?"

"He doesn't know how good-looking he is," Tony murmured. "It's part of his charm, really. He doesn't use his attractiveness to titillate or manipulate someone, so you're taken in by his innocent beauty."

"Whoa, waxing poetical before two cups of coffee," Carol said. "You must love him a whole lot."

Tony ignored her, continuing to read. The next few sentences slammed him in the heart like a trainwreck, sending his thoughts skidding to an abrupt stop.

"...Carol?" he asked. "Does...does Steve happen to have a girlfriend?"

"Uh, not that I'm aware of," Carol said. "Tone? Something wrong?"

"No, it's—" Tony stopped, shook his head, and swallowed, clutching the paper. "'s nothing."

"Tony, come on," Carol said, ruffling his hair. "You two act like you're dating anyway. We all know you love him. Everyone knows but Steve himself, honestly. What's wrong?"

"My lack of subtlety, for one," Tony remarked, making her laugh. He sighed and smiled, pain spreading into the creases of his lips.

"He talks about a girlfriend here," he said. "He doesn't give names, but he does mention one. And I mean, I know—I know he's not gay, and I know he isn't into me, but I thought...I thought he'd tell me if he'd...if he'd, y'know..."

"What? That I'd tell you what?"

Carol watched with a single raised eyebrow as Tony practically jumped halfway out of his skin.

Steve stood in the doorway shirtless, a white shirt thrown over his shoulder as he leaned on the door frame and watched the kitchen goings-on with a small smile.

"It's nothing," Tony said hurriedly, standing up and pushing past him. "I have to go. Work in the lab to be done."

He fled so fast Carol didn't realize he'd gone until Steve sighed and sank into his vacated chair.

"Carol, did I happen to do something to hurt Tony's feelings lately?" he asked. "Tony's been avoiding me, and I don't know how to confront him about it."

Carol stared at him for a long minute and tried not to scream. She swallowed it down and smiled to cover the tic in her jaw.

"I'm going to punch some sense into you both," she murmured, so soft Steve didn't pick it up.

She made him a cup of coffee and pushed it across the table gently before sighing and sitting down across from him as he picked up the paper.

"I don't think you've done anything, no, but—"

"Oh," Steve said, "my interview with the Bugle is in here!"

Carol smiled as Steve's face flared red. "Oh, right. That interview."

He looked up at Carol with a raised eyebrow. "Was Tony reading this?"

"He was," Carol said, interested. The look in Steve's eyes was more concerned than she'd expected; she wanted to see how this would play out if she baited him.

"Oh, dear," Steve said, rubbing his temples. "Ah, hell. Tony..."

"You didn't tell him about your sudden girlfriend," Carol said. "I'm pretty sure that pissed him off."

Steve's shoulders slumped as he took a dejected, slow sip of his coffee. He put it down and put the paper down as well, running a hand through his hair.

"I would've told him," he said, "but it was such a shock, and I didn't have time..."

"Well, if you've been dating for any amount of time longer than, say, a day or two, I'm pretty sure you've had plenty of time to do that," Carol said. She hated how short her voice sounded, but Tony had looked so goddamned hurt by it that she couldn't help but feel a bit cross.

"What?" Steve said, looking up at her and furrowing his brows. "No, not that. The interview. I had to make up a girlfriend so no one would harass us or hurt him, or stop investing in his company."

"Whoa, wait—whoa, hold the phone," Carol said, "since when have you two been dating?"

She'd only had one cup of coffee this morning. The way things were going now, she wanted ten more.

"We're not," Steve said, sighing. "It's...not like that. I—"

He stood up, sighed, and headed for the door. "I need to talk to Tony."

He left, leaving Carol thoroughly confused and a half-empty coffee cup on the table. She knocked it back with a sigh and settled in to wait. If things got stormy between the two of them, she'd end up mediating an argument somehow.


Tony wasn't working in the lab, and Steve knew full well he hadn't been. He was, in all likelihood, storming around in the midst of a temper tantrum and ranting to his robots—which, in fact, as Steve descended the stairs to check on him, he already was.

Steve sighed and hid a smile in his sleeve before listening to what Tony was saying.

"He didn't even tell me he had a girlfriend, you know?" Tony said to the assembled robots and suits. "Like, I think I deserve that. I'm his best friend. I think. I hope. But he doesn't tell me something as important as that and, I mean, y'know..."

Tony sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "Steve's got a good reason for hiding her, I'm sure. I know I'm being jealous and stupid, still bothers the hell out of me! I trusted him with my girlfriends, and now he doesn't even give me the courtesy of letting me know I'm going to end up with heartache from reading the stupid newspaper?"

Steve paused. Tony sounded a lot more pained than angry. And now he felt a lot more guilty. He had to clear things up, and quickly.

He gathered up his courage and resolve and reached out to knock on the door.

It was only when Tony opened the door and stared, openmouthed, at him, that Steve remembered one important fact.

He was not wearing a shirt.

He smiled, hesitant, and gestured to the lab. "May I come in, Tony?'

"Don't you have a date to get to, Cap?" Tony said, pulling back from him. Steve didn't react; he had been the cause of Tony's anger over this, and getting angry back would be unfair.

"I don't," Steve replied. "That's what I'm here to talk to you about, actually. May I please come in?"

"Oh, you haven't noticed? I'm not exactly the guy to ask when it comes to relationship advice," Tony said, his voice cold. "Why don't you go ask someone you actually trust enough to let them know about that sort of thing?"

"Tony, Jesus Christ," Steve said, slamming his hand against the doorframe, "I want to come in so I can explain why I didn't let you know and why I didn't mean for this to happen!"

"Well, maybe letting me know about her before I had to read about it in the newspaper would help your case a bit, Cap, but—"

"Tony, I didn't tell you about my girlfriend because she doesn't exist," Steve said, cutting him off so quickly he could've sworn there was a snap as silence fell.

The silence extended between the two of them for a few minutes as Tony took him in with huge, hurt blue eyes. Steve sighed.

"So if I could come in and clarify, I'd appreciate it," he said. "Do you mind?"

"No," Tony finally said, his voice small and soft. "Not at all."

He opened the door wide enough to let Steve come inside and sit down, Tony settling into the chair across from him.

"So, what's all this about, then?" Tony asked, a weary smile wearing down the corners of his mouth. "I mean, you could've just said you were single. I mean, Jarvis would've been drowned in love letters by tomorrow's post, but..."

"But that wasn't why I did it," Steve said. "I did it to protect you."

Tony looked baffled, and Steve had a sudden, sinking feeling this hadn't gone over the way he'd wanted it to.

"Me?" he murmured. "Why me? I can protect myself, Steve. I have armor."

"Yes, I know," Steve said, "but not for this kind of fight. You can't build armor to defend yourself against bigotry, Tony."

"Which would have something to do with this because..." Tony trailed off, suddenly aware of his heart picking up speed in his chest.

"Well, I, er," Steve mumbled, ducking his head. "Didn't...aren't we..."

"Aren't we what?" Tony said, his chest tight in anticipation of Steve's next few words.

Steve's face was red and his lips were parted, like he wanted to force words through and couldn't work hard enough.

"Well, we went...for dinner, and you...I mean, the way you always look at me...and I thought we were...aren't we..." Steve trailed off. "Maybe if I explain why I said I had a girlfriend it might help."

Tony nodded, his entire body numb even as his mind trilled with a single squeal of delight. Steve settled in, folding his arms over his chest and frowning.

"Well, you know how some people can get about homosexuality," he said. "I didn't want to say anything about the two of us that might implicate you. You have a company to worry about, and besides, I, uh, I wasn't sure how seriously we were taking this, so I didn't think outing you over a fling was...was a good idea, so I just..."

"Steve," Tony said, his voice shaking with the effort it took to say his name and not kiss him, "what the hell did you think we were doing for the past few months?"

"Well, I thought all those dinners and party invitations and patrols together and monitor duty together and movie nights when we shared the couch and the times you made my coffee and breakfast were...well, courtship," Steve said. "So I went along with it and bought you those roses and took you to the park and out to lunch and made your coffee and sat down here in the lab with you while you worked, and..."

Tony would sooner be held at gunpoint than admit it, but maybe Carol's teasing had been just a little bit justified.

"Right, uh," Tony said, "that...I didn't...realize I was..."

"Oh," Steve said, and the finite pain that managed to infuse that little word cleaved Tony's heart in two. "Oh. I'm...I'm sorry, then. I shouldn't have assumed—"

"Shut up and come here," Tony said, because he only noticed Steve leaving, and in a panic, resorted to control. He had to take control of this situation. Had to make sure Steve didn't leave.

Steve got up and made his way over to him, standing in front of him like he'd done something wrong. Tony wanted to shake his shoulders and kiss him in equal measure.

"You idiot," Tony said, his voice soft and fond. "C'mon, Steve. You're smart; not as smart as me, but don't feel bad about that. Don't you get it?"

"Get what?" Steve said. Tony smiled.

"That I'm pretty sure we've been fake-dating for a good few months now," he said. "On the bright side, if you ask me out right now, we probably won't have to change our routine much."

Steve beamed, picking Tony up and holding him against his chest. Tony yipped and squirmed, suddenly realizing his feet couldn't touch the floor when Steve cuddled him.

Steve laughed, picking him up and supporting him with a hand on his bottom so Tony could wrap his legs around his hips.

"Better?" he asked, a smile on his face as he nuzzled Tony's cheek.

Tony leaned his head on Steve's chest and smiled, content. "Much."

"Good," Steve said. "Then do you mind if I, uh...if I formally ask?"

"Go ahead," Tony mumbled, snuggling into his neck as Steve carried him up the stairs.

"Tony? Would you do me the honor of being my boyfriend?" Steve asked, reaching up to hold his hand. "I promise I'll do right by you. I've wanted to be doing this—exactly this—for a long time now."

"Me too," Tony agreed. "So...what else can I say but yes?"

"Well, there's something else you can answer for me, actually," Steve said as they headed up to Tony's room, Steve unlocking the door and carrying him in. Tony's stomach tightened in anticipation as his blood began to burn.

"Yeah, handsome?" Tony breathed, his eyes glimmering with anticipation. Steve huffed and looked away; if anyone but America's most beloved patriot had looked that way, Tony would've said they were pouting.

"You didn't vote me any lower than number four on that list, right?" he asked.

Tony laughed, letting Steve tumble him gently back onto the bed and hold him close.

"Cap, you've always been number one on my list," he promised, feeling Steve's little purr of delight against his skin and smiling in triumph. He'd finally found someone who really appreciated those corny pickup lines.

"You're number one on my list too, Tony," Steve said with a grin. Tony gestured down to his pants, already rumpled and unbuttoned.

"Good," he said. "You have a plan on doing something to prove it?"

"I always have a plan," Steve replied, and that made Tony very satisfied indeed.