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break the chain (can't live in circles again)

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There were several times in Tony’s life in which he had suddenly looked back and seen his experiences in a different light. Some of them had been good, like when he had realised that he was in love with Pepper Potts, and every moment of their friendship just seemed to shift and change colour; or there was the moment in which Tony had realised that Rhodey didn’t care about his money and actually wanted to be his friend, and every interaction in the first six months of their friendship was shiny and new. With just one shift in perspective, Tony realised that he’d been reading everything wrong all along.

Some of those shifts of perspective were… not so good. Like realising that his father figure wanted him dead, and was willing to pay to get the deed done. But the less said about that, the better.

So when Tony felt his perspective shifting towards one of the not-so-great readings with Steve, he did his level best to hold out.

“… I’m busy next Wednesday, actually. How’s Friday?” the blonde woman was asking, smiling as she handed Steve’s phone back to him. Steve’s phone, which now clearly included her number.

And Tony was expecting Steve to laugh awkwardly, maybe to rub the back of his neck as he explained the miscommunication. Instead, Steve looked thoughtful, and then said: “Actually, Friday works for me. Do you have a restaurant in mind?”

“Your choice, soldier,” she insisted, knocking him gently with her arm and then turning back to the crowd, looking flushed and pleased. “Anyway, I guess I’d better get back to the wolves. Text me, okay?”

“Okay,” Steve replied, and then waved as the blonde woman headed back into the crowd.

Tony froze. He hadn’t intended to eavesdrop – he’d just been getting a drink for himself and Steve, and had made the mistake of approaching him from behind. That hadn’t been intended for his ears.

For a moment, Tony’s mind shifted, and he saw what he didn’t want to see. Seven weeks of dating was turning into seven weeks of friends sleeping with each other. Sure, there had also been dinners and movies, but they’d hung out before they’d started dating, hadn’t they? And Steve stayed the night more often than not, but Steve was a gentleman from the freaking Bronze Era – he might not know that it’s not normal to snuggle after sex with your fuck buddy.

But no, that didn’t make sense. Steve was his boyfriend. The team knew that they were seeing each other, and surely Steve wouldn’t have let the team know if he and Tony had just been fucking. Right? Steve kissed him when they ran into each other in the kitchen. Steve came down to the workshop to sketch, just to spend time with him.

Steve sketched in your workshop before you started fucking, Tony’s traitorous mind pointed out.

“Hey,” Tony said, eventually pulling himself out of his mind.

Steve turned around, and his face lit up when he saw Tony. “I’d wondered where you’d gotten to,” he said, warm and affectionate.

Whatever Tony had thought he’d heard, he’d been wrong. Steve’s eyes were bright and affectionate as he looked down at Tony, and nobody looked at their fuck buddy that way.

“Here,” Tony said, handing over Steve’s drink. “I saw a member of my board on the way to the bar.”

Steve gave him a sympathetic glance. “Not working too hard, I hope?”

“Just the usual amount,” Tony replied.

But then he looked out to the dancefloor and saw that same blonde woman laughing with a friend, and it made something twist in his chest. And so, because Tony was turning over a new leaf and trying to be an actual adult blah blah blah, he decided to just nip this one in the bud instead of letting it fester.

“Who was the ‘dame’?” he asked, nodding in her direction.

Steve followed his eyes, and then his face did something weird. He smiled, but it was a guilty smile. Not an ‘oops, caught cheating’ grimace, but an ‘oops, how awkward, you probably don’t want to hear about this’ smile. “Uh, Sharon Carter,” Steve replied, and his voice was layered with that same ‘you probably don’t want to hear about this’ guilt. Tony’s pulse picked up. “We’re going to dinner next Friday. I didn’t… That’s not weird for you, is it?”

And then Steve’s eyes weren’t bright and affectionate anymore, they were cautious, like he wasn’t sure how Tony might react.

Tony’s heart seemed to be lodged in his throat for a few moments, there.

And then everything shifted.

They hadn’t been dating. They’d been sleeping together, and spending time together as friends. The rest of the team didn’t know they were ‘seeing each other’, they knew that they were fucking, and it was okay as long as it didn’t affect the team dynamic.

Well. That was a little humiliating.

Tony clamped down on his emotions and forced them somewhere small and confined, and then smiled at Steve. “Why would it be weird for me?” he asked. “I hope you have fun.”

Steve’s smile relaxed a little. “Thanks, Tony. I think we will.”

And then Tony just had to get out of there, before he did something stupid like admit everything or get himself a drink of something stronger than his lime and tonic.

He must have made an excuse to Steve, because Steve nodded and let him go, but Tony couldn’t remember what the words were the moment they were out of his mouth.

God, how stupid could he have been? Had Steve known that Tony had misread everything? Was that why he was so obvious with this Sharon woman?

Did everyone know that Tony had misunderstood?

Tony was outside before he had made the decision to leave. The night air was crisp, and it was too early to be heading home from this event, but he couldn’t stay. Not right now. He had to get away and regroup, lick his wounds before he had to see everyone again.

He wasn’t even able to face Happy, so he called the armour and flew back to the Tower. Nobody would think it strange if he locked himself in the workshop for a while.

“Okay, J,” Tony said once he was out of the armour and standing in a tux in the middle of his workshop. “This is a mess.”

What is a mess, Sir? ” JARVIS asked.

Alone, and with the new clarity the evening had shed on his life, Tony worked on rewriting the last seven (wonderful, amazing, life-changing) weeks in his head.

They’d first kissed in the middle of an argument about Tony not listening to orders during a battle. They’d been close to each other, snapping about something, and then Steve had broken the tension by planting one on him. That should really have tipped him off that this wasn’t a doodle-hearts-around-each-other’s-names kind of deal.

Then there had been dinner. Steve must have meant it as friends, making up for the weird fight-then-kiss-then-run-off deal, and Tony had misread that and thrown himself at Steve by the end of the night.

They had spent more time together after they’d started sleeping together, but it wasn’t because they were dating, it was because they’d relieved some of that crazy tension between the two of them.

Steve kissing him on his forehead at the end of the night. Not affection for a partner – Steve was just a physical kind of guy, and they were sleeping together, so what was a kiss on the forehead?

Steve gasping underneath him, one hand pulling Tony closer while the other clutched the pillow under his own head, eyes wide and trusting as he stared up at Tony—

“Fuck,” Tony said, dropping the wrench in his hand. He wasn’t even sure what he was creating. It would probably be revolutionary – things usually were, when Tony’s mind was elsewhere. “I’m an idiot.”

Steve had said things like you’re amazing and you’re beautiful and I can’t believe you want to be with me, but were they always directly before, during, or after sex? Jesus. He wasn’t saying Tony was amazing, he was saying that he enjoyed fucking him.

Jesus. How much had he misread?

“JARVIS,” Tony said, in a flurry of movement as he continued to do something revolutionary with his hands. “Start a list. Hide it somewhere, I don’t care where, just lock it up and bury it.”

What would you like me to put on the list, Sir? ” JARVIS asked.

Tony tapped the wrench against the edge of the table.

It was going to be a list for Tony to come back to when he forgot himself. When he thought that Steve might lo—might like him in a romantic way, or that Tony could convince Steve to see him differently. It was for recalibration, he told himself.

“Number one: you’re too old for him,” Tony started. “Two, he’s a good person and you’re not. Three, you’re the Merchant of Death, come on. Four, he’ll want a family, and you’re not exactly ‘family’ material. Five, you’re fucked up in the head and decide what you want reality to be without consulting any external factors.”

The list ended up with fifty-seven points by the time Tony called it a night. And by that point, it was incredibly, stupidly clear that a) they had never been ‘together’, and b) they should never be ‘together’. Steve was obviously really fucking far out of his league.

By the time Tony was ready to face the outside world again, the rest of the Avengers were returning from the party.

Steve caught his eyes and lit up, like he always did. Just because he likes you doesn’t mean he likes you, Tony reminded himself, and forced himself to smile back.

“Hey,” Steve greeted him, swinging an arm around his shoulders. “You get your idea down on paper?”

Ah. So Tony had claimed to have had a stroke of genius, and needed to leave to get it out of his head. It was close enough to the truth that it was barely a lie.

“Sure did,” Tony replied.

Clint scoffed. “Wish I could have ‘I’m an eccentric genius’ as an excuse to skip out on parties,” he complained.

When everyone was trickling towards their rooms, saying their goodnights, Natasha gave Tony a quick, assessing glance. “You okay?” she asked, quietly enough that nobody else could hear.

Natasha had too careful an eye to be able to get away with much in front of her. Tony wondered if she knew that Tony was stupidly head-over-heels for Steve. He wondered if she knew that Tony had been misreading their friends-with-benefits situation for all these weeks. He wondered why she didn’t tell him.

“Peachy,” Tony replied, and while Natasha looked suspicious, she didn’t push him any further.

Steve smiled at him, radiant as always. “Are you coming to bed?” he asked. “Or are you still working?”

Well. Steve may not have been with Tony, but he was with Tony in this way. And if Tony could do one thing well, it was a tumble between the sheets.

If Steve was only hanging around for the sex, Tony really needed to ensure that it was mind-blowing. The better the sex, the longer this might last.

Steve was going on a date with a beautiful blonde woman named Sharon next Friday night. But right now, he was with Tony, dancing his fingertips over Tony’s wrist and smiling his open, honest smile. Right now, he was with Tony, and that had to be good enough.

“Take me to bed,” Tony suggested, and leaned up to press his lips against Steve’s.  

 


 

If the sex was different that night, Steve didn’t seem to notice anything. But Tony knew. Tony made sure to make it extra fucking good, and dirty, and adventurous. And Tony made sure not to make too much eye contact, not to cling to Steve when Steve fucked into him again and again and again , not to let anything slip that would let Steve know that Tony had ever thought this was more than just sex.

And much later, when they were satiated and sticky, he made sure to leave the bed. Steve didn’t want him to stay, after all, not really. He was polite – God, was Steve ever stupidly polite about these things – but he didn’t really want Tony to still be there in the morning.

Steve was already asleep when Tony pulled his clothes back on.

Tony didn’t let himself stop in the doorway and look back.

 


 

It was, in a strange way, kind of liberating.

See, the thing was, Tony had never really understood why this had happened with Steve. He’d never understood what Steve had seen in him. And now he knew that his confusion was just his brain being uncomfortable with all the data that didn’t fit into the paradigm. It was just cognitive dissonance. And so now he had a new paradigm, and all the data fit together, beautiful and well-organised.

And Tony didn’t have to wonder what Steve saw in him anymore, because he knew what it was. And hey, sex was a pretty good reason – at least it hadn’t been Tony’s money or his company this time.

Now that Tony didn’t have to wonder, he didn’t have to worry about whether or not Steve was going to leave. And okay, maybe ‘yes, definitely leaving’ wasn’t the answer he’d hoped for in his heart of hearts, but at least it was a concrete answer. That was liberating. There was no point in wallowing in anxiety about whether or not Steve would stay with him, because he knew the drill. They’d sleep together until Steve grew bored, and then Steve would move on and Tony would nurse a broken heart (hopefully without falling off the wagon), and it would be fine. Eventually. They were still friends, so as long as Tony didn’t screw the friendship part up, they would go back to the way they were before the sex had happened.

So Tony steeled himself, and accepted Steve’s kiss in the morning light of the kitchen for what it was, and didn’t pin his hopes on anything impossible.

It was going to be fine.

Chapter Text

It was fine.

Well, it was mostly fine. But while Tony’s epiphany had certainly clarified much of their relationship for him, nothing had changed for Steve. That meant that Steve still smiled at him the same, still kissed him whenever they crossed paths, still touched him the same way. And Tony had once interpreted all of those things as precious, as proof of Steve’s feelings, so now it was… difficult. But Tony was a goddamn adult, and so he pulled himself the hell together and smiled in all of the appropriate moments.

This would probably all be easier if Steve didn’t like him as a friend, but Tony was far too selfish to push him away. It was a stupid amount of work for Tony to remind himself that fondness was not the same thing as romantic attachment, but it was necessary work. Steve wanted Tony, but what Steve wanted from Tony was not the same thing as what Tony wanted from Steve, and it was time for Tony to accept that. Steve wanted friendship and sex, and that by itself was amazing. Tony needed to stop taking that for granted.

After all, Tony’s selfishness was reason #17 on Tony’s shiny new list.

The fourth time that Tony found himself fixing the same non-problem in his left gauntlet, Tony sighed and put his tools down. It was obvious that Steve’s quiet presence had morphed from comforting to distracting. At least tomorrow was Monday; Tony could stay in his office after his morning meetings, and maybe he could avoid Steve for a while without arousing any suspicion.

Though, speaking of arousing…

Tony glanced over his shoulder to where Steve was sitting, frowning down at the page in front of him.

Steve had spent time in Tony’s workshop long before they had started hooking up, but the time he spent here had significantly increased over the last seven weeks. It seemed that most of the times that Steve’s sketching or paperwork overlapped with Tony’s hours in the workshop, Steve would choose to be here. Tony used to think that it was sweet that Steve wanted to be close to Tony even when they were ignoring each other, but that thought was suspect now, too. Tony picked up the data in his mind and looked at it from other angles.

If memory served, the two of them ended up fooling around when they were done working over half of the time when Steve spent time in the workshop. Maybe even closer to 70% of the time, though Tony would need to ask JARVIS to get any solid numbers, which wasn’t really an option while Steve was here. So: 55-70% of the time, when Steve worked or sketched in the workshop, they would fool around. It stood to reason that this was why Steve worked or sketched here. It wasn’t affection at all; it was efficiency. Tony’s engineering mind could admire that.

If Tony gave Steve what he wanted sooner rather than later, maybe Steve would leave and Tony could concentrate. The corner of Tony’s mouth ticked up. Oh, the hardship that would be.

And so Tony arranged his features into something calm and seductive, and turned to walk towards Steve--

Only to find that Steve wasn’t just frowning down at the page while he sketched - he had that little line between his brows, the one that arrived when Steve was really concentrating, and his tongue was peeking out between his lips.

Tony was overcome with such a strong wave of endearment that it was almost crippling. If this had been just 24 hours ago, he might have smiled sappily and watched Steve’s ridiculous expression for long minutes. But as it was, Tony had to turn away, because it was too much. It was too much.

There was this tiny part of Tony that had been saying you’re in love with him for weeks now, but it was too soon and too strong, and Tony had been patiently hushing it and waiting for a more appropriate time. But now that it knew that there was no appropriate time coming, that part of him broke free, and Tony had to sit down on a stool and face away from Steve as he realised the gravity of this situation.

He was in love with Steve Rogers. This was love. And Steve wanted Tony’s body, but he didn’t want Tony, and Tony was in too deep to do anything about it.

Tony could have laughed, if it wasn’t so goddamn fucking sad.

“Hey,” Steve said from behind him. “You okay over there?”

“Peachy,” Tony replied, forcing his voice to be even and confident.

Maybe Steve didn’t buy his tone, or maybe he’d seen Tony practically stumble onto this stool; whatever the reason was, he walked to stand in front of Tony and bent a little to look him in the face. Steve’s lovely face was frowning, but it wasn’t the expression of concentration anymore.

“Hmm.” Steve lifted his hand and placed the back of it against Tony’s forehead, which was a ridiculously outdated way to take temperature. “You look a little pale. Are you sure you feel okay?”

“I’m fine,” Tony assured him, and his smile came more easily this time. He reached up to pull Steve’s hand away from his forehead (where his temperature was perfectly normal, thank you), and before his brain had time to process the decision, Tony had linked his fingers with Steve’s. “You get much done?”

Steve squeezed Tony’s hand briefly before pulling away, and Tony tried and failed not to feel disappointed at that. Steve took the few steps to the couch quickly, and then came back with his sketchpad in hand.

Tony raised his eyebrows. “Really? You’re going to show me?” he asked, delighted. Steve was usually diligent at keeping his sketches away from the rest of the team, aside from the doodles he drew on his notepad to make Tony laugh during meetings. It had gotten to the point that Fury separated them like they were misbehaving children.

Those memories - the ones of Steve drawing tiny cartoon Furys waggling fingers at bored cartoon Hawkeyes and Black Widows - those memories were precious. Tony refused to let them be touched by the last 24 hours. Steve had done that a few times before they had started fucking, even back when they hardly got on at all. The first time that Tony had thought that he might like Steve even a little bit was when Steve had first reached over and drawn a clearly bored and frowning Iron Man in full armour onto the corner of the paper Tony had been spinning impatiently on the desk.

Those doodles were precious to Tony, and he kept them whenever he could, but the ones that Steve sketched into his sketchpad - the drawings that Steve spent actual time on - he’d barely been allowed to glimpse at them. He’d seen a few when Steve hadn’t hidden the page fast enough (once, he was drawing and re-drawing the armour in flight, like he was trying to get the movement right; another time, it had been the mountains they had chased a giant chameleon into during a battle).

“It’s not finished,” Steve insisted as he passed the pad over.

Tony grinned at him before looking down.

It was a picture of the team. It looked like they were posing for a photograph, but it wasn’t a picture Tony remembered, and Steve hadn’t been working from anything but his mind. They were all mostly in uniform, and looked a little winded, but it was unclear whether it was from training or a battle. Hawkeye was twirling an arrow around his fingers and winking at Natasha, whose arms were crossed as she stared back at him, unimpressed. Thor was sans hammer and cloak, but was otherwise in battle gear, and he appeared to be mid-laugh, with one hand on Bruce’s shoulder. Bruce was all Bruce, but his hair was mussed and his clothes were hastily thrown on, as if he only recently de-Hulked. He was pinching the bridge of his nose, but was also smiling.

And then there were Steve and Tony, front-and-centre. Tony wasn’t sure that Steve had really captured Steve’s own beauty, but his features were all obviously Steve. The shield was on Steve’s back, and he seemed to be halfway through removing his gloves, but his eyes were on Tony and he was grinning like he’d just told a joke. The Tony in the picture seemed to be responding with laughter, as far as Tony could tell from his gait - his posture was leaning backwards and slightly to the side, one hand curled around Steve’s arm, and his head pulled back.

And Tony was completely in armour. He even had his helmet on.

Tony wasn’t sure what he was supposed to think about that. Everyone else’s faces were visible - even Steve’s cowl was pushed back. Everyone else looked like they were preparing themselves for real life again after the battle or training. Nobody had full uniform or full weaponry. But Tony was completely in his armour.

A small, unhappy part of Tony said he doesn’t want to draw you, but he shoved that down and focused on the rest of the picture, instead.

“This is really damn good,” he said, grinning up at Steve. And it wasn’t a lie - it was good, and Tony was very pleased that Steve wanted to show it to him. The weird feeling over the armour could go fuck itself. “You should do something with this.”

Steve tilted his head. “Like what?”

“I don’t know, put it in an art museum, stick it to the fridge - other people should see this, Steve!” he insisted.

Steve smiled, bashful and boyish. “Oh. Gosh. Um, I’ll think about putting it on the fridge,” he promised.

Tony mouthed ‘gosh’ while Steve was still looking down, because he didn’t want Steve to know he was making fun of him, but he also couldn’t help it. Steve was just so genuine sometimes that it was hard to take seriously.

(Steve is so genuine, and you can’t take anything seriously was reason #26 on Tony’s list.)

“You should,” Tony assured him, and his hand was brushing Steve’s hair back from his flushed face before Tony gave it permission to move. He really needed to get a handle on that.

Steve’s eyes crinkled a little when he grinned at Tony, and then he leaned in for a brief kiss.

Well. Tony had been planning something before he had almost fallen over from realising he was in lo-- before realising that he was in love with Steve Rogers . He’d been planning a seduction.

Tony placed the drawing on the table next to them, and then stood and leaned up to kiss Steve properly. Steve went with it easily, hands finding their way to Tony’s hips, just like Tony was sure he would.

Tony bit Steve’s bottom lip just hard enough to make Steve draw a quick breath, and then pulled away for long enough to give Steve a heated look before pushing him to sit down on a stool. Steve blinked up at him, eyes gone glassy just from kissing, which was-- well, a pretty big compliment, if Tony did say so himself. This time, when Tony leaned down, it was to drop a gentle kiss on Steve’s jaw, and then just below Steve’s ear, where Tony knew he was extra sensitive. Steve gasped again, and one of his hands curled into the front of Tony’s shirt to keep him there.

Tony kissed him there again, just to feel his reaction, and then dragged his mouth up to say directly into Steve’s ear, low and smooth as honey: “I’m going to blow you now.”

Steve nodded. “Yeah,” he said, watching Tony with blown-wide pupils as Tony dropped to his knees. “Yeah, okay.”

 


 

Later that night, Tony found himself dragged into the sitting room because Thor wanted to watch Cinderella. “Clint has told me that it is a Midgardian classic!” Thor boomed, because Thor didn’t really know how to do anything but boom.

Earth’s Mightiest Heroes gathering around to watch stupid movies and shows had become a semi-regular occurrence in Avengers (previously Stark) Tower. It hadn’t exactly been planned, and it was kind of bewildering to Tony to think that some of the strongest people on earth had regular spots in front of his TV, but he was hardly complaining.

Tony’s place had been next to Steve since this tradition had begun, even when they had still been tip-toeing around one another. Tony claimed that he liked this particular spot on this particular couch because of the view of the TV, but he was pretty sure that he’d actually just been drawn to sit next to Steve. And as time had gone on, they had morphed from sitting as far away from one another as possible, to sitting a little closer than necessary, to practically cuddling (and therefore, of course, being mercilessly mocked by their teammates). Before, Tony had thought fuck ‘em, who cares if they think we’re sickening - we’re happy. Now, Tony was a little more tentative about the seating arrangements.

Had he thrown himself at Steve when they sat down to watch movies with the team? He was pretty sure that he had. If memory served, since they had started dating-- that was, since they had started fucking, Tony had just moved into Steve’s space and assumed that the arm being draped around him and pulling him closer was invitation enough. But just because Steve put up with it didn’t mean that Steve wanted it.

Steve, after all, didn’t want him. Apparently, he wanted a blonde woman named Sharon.

Tony pushed that thought down somewhere deep, and locked it away. He was refusing to think about Steve going out on a date, because therein lay madness. He was lucky that Steve’s date wasn’t for several more days, because it would give Tony time to adjust properly. For now, he could ignore it.

When Steve sat on the couch next to Tony, Tony didn’t do his usual move of leaning straight into Steve. Instead, he continued to sit up straight for long enough that Steve threw him a confused glance.

“Come here,” Steve insisted, lifting an arm, and - relieved, delighted - Tony leaned in and against him. As they arranged themselves comfortably, Tony saw Clint miming barfing to Bruce, who smiled and rolled his eyes.

Et tu, Bruce?

As Cinderella started, Tony couldn’t stop looking back towards Bruce, and then to the rest of the team. They were all in their usual places - Bruce and Thor on the other couch, Clint in a beanbag chair that he’d found god-knows-where, and Natasha perched on the floor with her back against the couch near Steve. And they all knew that he and Steve were just-- well, what would Steve call it? ‘Casual’, maybe? Casual was a good word. That felt more Steve-like than ‘friends with benefits’ or ‘fuck buddies’. The team knew that they were just sleeping together, and they obviously found it weird that Tony was basically an octopus on movie nights.

They obviously thought that Tony knew the deal, too, and they just thought that he lacked boundaries. That sounded right. Tony did lack boundaries.

Except, there was the problem of Natasha. Tony looked over to her, and watched her take a handful of popcorn without taking her eyes off the screen. Tony was pretty sure that Natasha would have known what was going on in Tony’s head. She usually did. When Tony had stopped drinking, after the explosive breakup with Pepper, Tony had barely been away from the booze for half a day before Natasha had commented on it. When the anniversary of Obie’s death came around, Natasha had frowned at him over breakfast, and then approached him an hour later after having clearly looked up what the day was.

It was possible that even Natasha had underestimated Tony’s stupidity. But it didn’t seem likely.

After a moment, Natasha looked around and caught Tony’s eyes. She raised her eyebrows a little, questioning, and Tony looked away.

Natasha knew, but she hadn’t clued Tony in. Maybe she thought that Tony needed to figure it out for himself. Maybe she just didn’t care.

Steve’s hand swept down his arm and back up again, a comforting gesture, and it was only then that Tony noticed that he had tensed up. He forced his muscles to relax.

 


 

The next morning, Natasha was in the kitchen when Tony walked in, bleary-eyed, after a night on the cot in his workshop.

“Good morning,” Natasha said, staring at him over the top of her cup of tea. “Were you working all night?”

See, Tony was right. She had taken one glance at Tony and knew that he hadn’t slept in his bed. Tony had once again left the bedroom after Steve had fallen asleep, to give Steve some space and allow him to wake up alone.

“Mm hm,” Tony said, figuring that a lie told through hums would be less transparent. “Steve already pass through?”

“He should be back from his run soon,” Natasha replied.

She was silent as Tony poured his coffee, and remained that way as Tony took the first mouthful. When Tony was feeling a little less groggy, he glanced around the room, only to realise that Steve had indeed put his drawing on the fridge. Tony smiled and walked towards it, taking in how fine the work was, and studiously ignoring the part of the picture he was in. Or, well, his armour was in.

“Isn’t this great?” he asked Natasha. “Steve’s so good at capturing everyone’s expressions.”

Natasha hummed in reply. “He even managed to get you perfect while in the armour.”

Coldness swept over Tony, but he recovered quickly. “Sure did,” he said, forcing the corners of his mouth to stay in a smile. “Anyway. I should be getting to work.”

If he got ready and left soon, he might not even run into Steve. That would be good. And then he could stay in the office for as long as he needed.

When Tony’s escape was within reach, Natasha spoke up: “Tony,” she said, causing him to pause in the doorway.

She waited for long enough that Tony had to turn to look at her. She was staring with her scary android face. It always made Tony feel like she was looking into his soul.

“Yeah?” Tony asked, careful to keep his tone light.

Natasha blinked, and some of the scary blankness was replaced with a hint of concern. “Did something happen?” she asked, voice careful, as if she wasn’t sure how to tread.

Ah. Tony stared back at her, realising that Natasha could see what had happened. Natasha knew that he knew now.

Why didn’t you tell me before, he wanted to say. Why didn’t you warn me about this?

But it wasn’t her job to be an adult just because Tony couldn’t be. So he pulled together the last shreds of his dignity, smiled a for-the-cameras smile, and replied: “No idea what you’re talking about, doll.”

And then, shameful as it might have been to admit, he fled.

Chapter Text

Tony half-avoided Steve, and it was fine. He couldn’t avoid Steve completely, for obvious reasons: they still trained together, and Steve continued to seek him out, and they had dinner plans for Thursday, anyway. There was an Italian place that Steve found while out on a run, a little hole-in-the-wall mom-and-pop shop, and Steve knew that Italian reminded Tony of his mother’s (rare, but excellent) cooking. Steve was thoughtful like that.

Tony also avoided sleeping in the bed with Steve for another night, but that didn’t last. He woke up at three am on Wednesday morning to Steve balancing himself on the cot next to Tony.

“Huh?” Tony asked, groggy and half-asleep.

“Shh,” Steve replied, slipping an arm around Tony’s waist. “Just me. Go back to sleep.”

“Wh’ you doin’?” Tony asked. “N’ room here.”

Steve tucked his face into the back of Tony’s neck, and he was so pleasantly warm. Tony felt a lot more comfortable and relaxed than he had since he’d started sleeping in the workshop.

“I don’t sleep so well without you,” Steve admitted, voice low but still loud in the big, empty workshop. “I’m not going to nag you to stop working when you want to work - I know that you go through phases of working more at night. But I figured I could just join you down here when that happens?”

Guilt flooded Tony, and suddenly he was a lot more awake than he had been. He turned carefully in Steve’s arms. “Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t realise.”

Steve held him close, and Tony’s heart might have been pretty broken and battered, but it also felt full. “Not your fault,” he said, even though it completely was Tony’s fault. “Just missed you.”

Steve fell asleep not long after, but Tony was awake for a long while, staring out into the darkness, which was cast a lazy blue by the light in his chest. He had assumed that Steve didn’t actually want to sleep with him after the fucking, but he guessed he had been wrong. Steve liked sleeping next to him. That, Tony realised, was going to be difficult to process. As much as Tony had hated leaving Steve at night, it had also helped him to maintain the boundary between ‘fuck buddy’ and ‘actual partner’. That line was going to be blurred now.

“JARVIS,” Tony said, quietly enough that it wouldn’t wake Steve. Steve had adjusted to Tony’s noises at night over their seven weeks of sleeping in the same bed. It used to be the case that Steve woke up whenever Tony had moved, but now, Steve was fast asleep. Like he trusted Tony.

Tony’s chest ached, and it wasn’t because of the Arc Reactor.

Sir?” JARVIS asked, just as quietly.

Tony glanced down at Steve, and then waved the arm that was freed. “Bring up the list here,” he said. And then, just in case Steve would wake up: “Translate to Japanese.” His Japanese reading wasn’t perfect, but he would understand enough to remind him of what each point was. “Keep it dim. Don’t want to wake Cap.”

Sir,” JARVIS replied, hesitant, “are you sure that this is a good idea?”

“Just do it, J,” Tony replied, and then he scrolled quietly through the list twice before he fell asleep.

It didn’t help him to feel any better. But it did mean that when Steve kissed him awake in the morning, Tony could differentiate between what this was and what he wanted it to be.

 


 

“Spar with me,” Natasha insisted later that morning, when Tony went to pass her in the hallway.

Clint, who was walking behind her, made a protesting noise that could only be described as a squawk. “We were going to spar!”

Natasha didn’t even look back at him as she responded: “Dealing with rejection is a part of growing up, Barton.” Her eyes hadn’t left Tony’s once, which was really freaking disconcerting. She was staring straight into his soul again. “Spar with me,” she repeated.

“I’m going to work,” Tony replied, gesturing to his suit. “Someone has to keep this place running, you know.”

There was a long and awkward silence as Natasha stared him out. Eventually, she said: “When are you back from work?”

“Why?” Tony asked, crossing his arms.

“I can’t want to spend time with you?”

Tony scoffed. “That would be a lot more convincing if you didn’t have your android face on,” Tony pointed out. Natasha continued to stare at him, until Tony felt his resolve start to crumble. It would probably be easier to give in and have this conversation. They both knew that it was about Steve, and about Tony-and-Steve (or the lack thereof), and about Tony-and-Natasha (and how she knew about the lack of Tony-and-Steve and let Tony go on making a fool of himself). It wasn’t like anything was achieved by Tony continuing to feel bitter about it while avoiding her. “Fine. I’ll be back by six.”

Maybe this way Tony could even get some closure on why she had left him in the dark. It was likely that he wasn’t going to be able to go back to normal with her without knowing that.

Natasha nodded. “I’ll meet you in the sitting room,” she said, and then continued her journey down the hallway.

Clint watched her go, and then looked to Tony. “What the hell is going on?” he asked.

“None of your business,” Tony replied, and went to walk in the opposite direction.

“What the hell is going on with you?” Clint called after him.

 


  

Work was Tony’s respite from this whole mess. Pepper was probably going to be suspicious of how much time he was spending in the office soon, but between these office hours and his late night bouts of inventing, he was doing a surprisingly good job with the company.

Maybe he could even convince Pepper that he needed to do a tour of the facilities. He could spend a week or so in Japan. And if he could leave before Friday, he could even ignore the fact that Steve was dating.

But Tony knew that, ultimately, he needed to face Steve dating someone else in order to process that it was happening. If there was anything in him still holding onto hope that Steve would wake up one day and realise that he wanted Tony, he needed to extinguish it now rather than let it grow.

Halfway through the workday, several meetings and piles of paperwork deep, Tony heard a light knock on the door. Tony’s new PA didn’t usually let anyone in to see him without calling through first, so Tony knew before he looked up that it would be one of the Avengers, and Steve was of course the most likely candidate to come by.

“Hey,” Tony said, before he dragged his eyes up from his paperwork. Steve smiled at him from the doorway. “Did we have a lunch date I forgot about?”

Tony almost flinched when he heard the word ‘date’ leave his own mouth, but he forced his face into stillness.

“No,” Steve replied, and held up a plastic bag with a questioning smile. “But Winnifred said that you’re free over lunch, so I thought I would surprise you.”

See, it was moments like this that nurtured the little spark of hope in Tony’s chest. It was the fact that Steve wanted to sleep with him at night, and brought lunch to his office as a surprise, and smiled at him like he was special.

Tony swallowed, and stamped the hope out. He couldn’t do this to himself, or to Steve. Steve liked Tony, and that was a good thing. Tony appreciated his friendship with Steve. He was not going to overstep, even in his mind. Not again. He’d spent seven weeks playing pretend - he was done now.

“Great,” Tony said, forcing a smile onto his face. “That’s great. Thanks, Cap. What did you bring?”

Steve placed the bag on Tony’s desk, but he didn’t sit down. He tilted his head like a goddamn golden retriever, and fixed Tony with a gaze that was half-frown and half-smile.

“Is this a bad time?” Steve asked. “I’m sorry that I didn’t ask. I thought Winnifred would know, but you seem… busy?”

By ‘busy’, Tony was certain that Steve meant that he was acting weird. And to be fair, he was.

Tony shook his head in a vain attempt to shake his own emotions away. “No, sorry, it’s fine,” he replied. “I’m just tired, that’s all.”

Steve’s frown cleared up. “Too many nights in the workshop?”

“Yeah, it’s probably that,” Tony said, lying through his goddamn teeth. Some friend he was. “I’ll stop sleeping there.”

Steve sat across the desk from Tony, and beamed at him. “I would like that,” he said. “But I understand - and I really am okay with just joining you downstairs when you need to be there.”

God. Steve was so goddamn good.

(Reason #2: He’s a good person and you’re not.)

“So what’s for lunch, Cap?” Tony opened up the bag, and when the smell wafted up, he immediately realised that he was ravenous. “Oh, that smells amazing. It’s the Chinese place that Thor almost put out of business?”

They talked over lunch, and it was easy. They were friends, after all. They’d been friends even before the benefits, the occasional shouting match aside. So Tony really didn’t need to be surprised that spending time with Steve was easy, even though a part of him felt like the whole universe was off-kilter.

“And apparently they just wait to see who you dance with?” Steve said, near the end of the meal. They were lamenting the inability to get out of the spotlight; even when at a private party, the possibility of someone taking a picture was always looming.

“Not usually a problem for me,” Tony admitted, packing up the last of the food they hadn’t eaten. “I dance with everyone, which throws them off the scent. Nobody would even bat an eyelid if you decided to take me for a spin around the dancefloor.”

Steve grinned. “Well, not that I wouldn’t like to, but I can’t dance. There would probably be pictures of me stepping all over your nice shoes.”

Tony narrowed his eyes, thoughtful. “Can’t dance, or don’t dance?” he asked.

Steve looked up, and he had the beginnings of a blush on his cheeks. That blush sent a rush of warmth through Tony, and he couldn’t keep the dopey smile from his face, which seemed to make Steve blush harder.

“I, uh, never learned,” Steve admitted, wiping his hands on a napkin. “Peggy was going to teach me, but we never. You know. Got a chance.”

Ah. Steve had mentioned the dance he had missed with Peggy, back when he had first moved into Avengers Tower. They hadn’t spoken about her since they had started hooking up, and Tony hadn’t shared any information on his exes yet, either. Tony had thought that they were building up to it, that they would have a long conversation about their romantic pasts soon, but that was back when Tony was misreading their relationship.

It was a strange thing to mourn, but in that moment, Tony was suddenly very sad that he wouldn’t get to hear about Peggy. And he was even sad that he wouldn’t share his stories with Steve, of Ty and Sunset and Pepper. But that was a small loss, compared with everything else that Tony now realised he would never get with Steve.

“Are you waiting for someone specific to teach you?” Tony asked, hating himself as he asked the question. For some stupid reason, he really needed to know this. Was Steve hoping that the love of his life would teach him to dance? It was a romantic notion. And Steve was a romantic person, wasn’t he, Tony aside?

Steve gave him a confused look. “What do you mean? Who would I be waiting for?”

“I don’t know,” Tony shrugged. “But if you want to…”

Steve’s face flushed again. “Are you offering to teach me?”

Tony actually hadn’t been offering any such thing, but now that Steve had said it and didn’t seem opposed to the idea, he was hardly going to let that go. “If you want me to,” Tony said, still treading carefully. He didn’t want to overstep, after all. The kind of relationship that he had with Steve was based on nobody crossing any boundaries.

It was also based on nobody falling in love, but Tony had broken that rule before he’d even known he was supposed to be playing by it.

Steve glanced around the room. “Here?” he asked, a little doubtful.

“I don’t see why not,” Tony replied. “J, play us something. Oh, give us some Ella. Something slow, but with a good rhythm.” He stood and held out a hand to Steve. “What do you say?”

The first bars started playing, and there was still a light blush on Steve’s face. Tony was so stupidly in love with him.

Steve looked from Tony’s eyes to his hand, and then his face took on that ‘you’ve punched Nazis, you can do this’ expression before he reached up and took Tony’s hand. “I am really sorry about the fact that I’m going to step on your feet.”

Tony laughed. “Come here, soldier,” he said as Steve stood, and then led him to the middle of the office, where they would have the most space. Tony arranged them so that they were standing close, holding one another, and began to show Steve some very simple steps. “Just trust yourself and pay attention to my body,” he explained, and then winked.

Steve huffed a laugh, and tried to move in the wrong direction. “Shoot. Sorry,” he said, looking up from where he had been staring at his feet. He had that same embarrassed aw, shucks expression that always made Tony’s heart squeeze a little. And then he promptly stepped on Tony’s foot. “Sorry!”

“It’s fine,” Tony insisted, voice softer than he’d intended. “I don’t think that watching your feet is going to help. Try looking at me, instead,” he suggested, and then immediately regretted it when they started dancing again, and Steve was looking directly into his eyes.

Love’s the same old sad sensation, Ella sang. Lately, I’ve not slept a wink…

Me neither, Ella, Tony thought, and pulled Steve close enough that they were cheek-to-cheek, just so that he didn’t have to keep looking him in the eye. Their close proximity muted their movements somewhat, and Steve had found his rhythm enough to relax into Tony’s arms. This, Tony realised, was probably a mistake. It felt far too good to be okay.

The song ended, and Tony and Steve stopped dancing, but they stayed pressed close for several long moments. Eventually, Steve brought their joined hands toward himself and dropped a kiss against Tony’s fingers. “Thank you,” he said, quiet and sincere, and Tony pulled back to smile at him.

“My pleasure,” he replied. “Now you can take all of the girls and boys for a spin.”

The corners of Steve’s mouth turned up into what was a barely-there smile. “Well, there’s only one person I’m interested in dancing with,” he said, and Tony went a little cold all over.

Tony pulled back from him properly now, and then ducked back in for a quick kiss, just because he could. “I should get back to work,” he said, hoping that it came off as a regrettable fact and not an excuse to make Steve leave so that Tony didn’t have to think about him dancing with Sharon - or anyone else, for that matter.

“Of course,” Steve replied. “Thank you, Tony. For having lunch with me, and-- and for teaching me how to dance.” He smiled, and it was so bright and beautiful, and it hurt something very deep within Tony. “I really appreciate that.”

“Any time,” Tony promised, and accepted another light kiss before Steve gathered what was left from their lunch and left.

Tony watched the door close behind him, and then sat heavily behind his desk. He breathed quietly for a few moments, and then rubbed his forehead as he said: “J, I need you to pull up the list again.”

Sir, I cannot recommend--

“Just do it, JARVIS,” Tony insisted, and then the list appeared in the air in front of him. “Okay,” he said, glancing through, recalibrating his heart. “Okay.”

 


 

By the time Tony arrived back from the office, he felt mostly prepared to talk with Natasha. It wasn’t going to be a fun conversation, but he knew that it would help him to put this mess behind him. Natasha would explain her reasoning, and either it would be something Tony could live with and they would figure out how to deal with one another, or it would be something that Tony couldn’t, and he would rethink their friendship. Hell, maybe he was just wrong about Natasha, too. Maybe they had never been friends.

Either way, it would be fine. Tony would ask his questions and Natasha would say her piece, and they would move on from this stupid goddamn mess.

That was the plan, but Tony ran into Steve on his way out of the elevator.

“Hey,” Tony greeted, looking Steve over. He was wearing a suit, one of the dark blue ones that Tony loved because it made Steve’s eyes look endlessly blue. “You’re looking good. Where are you off to?”

Steve fiddled with his tie, and Tony found himself smiling as he reached to fix it for him. Once it was straightened, Tony looked up at Steve’s eyes - yep, endlessly blue - and tilted his head up to receive a kiss. Tony smiled a little when Steve pulled back from the kiss. He really did like Steve in this suit.

“Thank you,” Steve said on a sigh. It was clear that he was nervous. Tony frowned. “Sharon’s schedule opened up, so we’re going to dinner tonight, instead. Which opens up my Friday, actually - will you be around?”

Tony knew that he had frozen, but it was probably the best case scenario right now.

He wasn’t ready. He was supposed to have until Friday before Steve went on his date. He was supposed to have more time to prepare for this. He wasn’t ready.

Tony’s knees suddenly felt weak, stupidly. He pulled away from Steve and went to lean against the back of the couch, hoping that he could feign nonchalance.

“Uh, not sure,” Tony said, and his voice came out shaky.

Steve frowned and caught Tony’s elbow. “Hey, are you okay? You’ve gone pale.”

“I’m fine,” Tony insisted. “Just feeling a little, uh. Tired. I’ll probably go take a nap. You should go.”

Steve’s frown only deepened. “I can stay back if you’re sick,” he said. “You went pale like this a couple days ago, too.”

Panic shot through Tony’s chest. Steve was far too close to figuring out what was going on. And if Steve figured out that Tony hadn’t known that they were just fucking, or if he found out that Tony was in love with him, it was all over - the benefits, but also the friendship.

“It’s the lack of sleep,” Tony insisted. “I’ll go nap. Don’t worry. Go have fun.” He tried his best for a smile, but it sat oddly on his face.

“What’s going on here?” a new voice asked, and Tony looked past Steve to see that Natasha had entered the room. She was looking between the two of them with open concern on her face. It was more emotion than Tony was used to seeing on her face, and was very disconcerting. “Tony?”

Tony took a breath. “I’m just tired,” he said again. “See, Natasha’s here now. She’ll make sure I get to bed without passing out in a plant pot. Not that there are any plant pots big enough for me to pass out in between here and my room. Maybe the one outside my office, though. Anyway. You go have fun.”

Steve looked a little doubtful, but he glanced over at Natasha as if to confirm that she was actually willing to ensure that Tony didn’t do anything stupid. “Okay,” he said after a moment. “I’ll be back in a few hours. I’ll try not to wake you.”

Steve brushed his fingers through Tony’s hair, pushing it back and away from Tony’s forehead, and then pulled away to go back towards the elevator. Tony watched him go, the panic from almost being caught fading to leave in its wake the fact that Steve was going on a date, right now. Steve was leaving Tony behind to go and meet with a woman named Sharon, who was blonde and beautiful and probably not a fuck-up like Tony. And maybe Steve would like her enough to want something serious, and he wouldn’t have any use for Tony anymore.

The elevator doors closed, and Steve was gone.

“Tony?” Natasha asked in a very quiet voice.

And then it was too much. Tony couldn’t hold it together anymore. He heard himself draw in a shaking breath more than he felt it, and there were actual goddamn tears in his eyes, and wow. He was making a real fool of himself.

The tears spilled over, and Tony found himself covering his mouth with his hand, and he felt like he could throw up at any moment.

“Tony!” Natasha repeated, and she was right in front of him, but Tony could hardly see her. “What happened?”

Tony shook his head. “I can’t, I can’t talk tonight,” he said. He managed to stem the tears - a few had fallen, but he wasn’t about to break down sobbing. This was humiliating enough as it was. He brushed the fallen tears away, feeling sick and angry at himself. “We’ll. Tomorrow.”

And then he turned and left, ignoring Natasha’s requests that he stop. Her voice followed him all the way down to the workshop, but he closed the door behind him and barked out: “JARVIS. Blackout.” And that was that.

And that was that. Steve didn’t owe it to Tony to give him time to adjust, because it shouldn’t have been necessary for him to adjust. And anyway, Steve didn’t owe anything to Tony. It was just sex. How Tony had ever thought otherwise was really goddamn far beyond him, and it wasn’t Steve’s fault that Tony was that good at lying to himself.

 


 

A few hours passed. Tony created some new trick arrows for Clint, and made a breakthrough in nanotechnology entirely by accident, and took apart one of his old armours just to rebuild it again.

He also read through his list three more times. It was helpful. It helped to remind Tony of why this was good. Steve should find someone who was right for him. Tony wanted Steve to be happy. It wasn’t even really the case that Tony wanted Steve to fall in love with him, because he would never be good enough for Steve. It was okay. This was good.

It was a little embarrassing that he’d broken down in front of Natasha, but to be fair, it probably wasn’t the worst thing he’d done in front of her.

Sir,” JARVIS called out into the workshop. “Captain Rogers is back and requesting entry.

Ah. Tony figured that Steve probably hadn’t been lying about coming home tonight, but Tony had assumed that there was always a chance that he would end up back at Sharon’s place. Though Steve probably wasn’t the kind of guy who slept with someone on the first date. That should have been a clue, too, in retrospect: Steve and Tony had fallen into bed together after their first ‘date’, once Tony had thrown himself at Steve. Tony wasn’t sure how he had managed to blind himself for so long.

“Give me a second,” Tony said, and walked to the bathroom to splash some water on his face. He didn’t look great - his reflection was drawn and unhappy - but there was no remnant of the tears from earlier. “Okay. Let him in.”

Steve was frowning as he walked into the workshop.

“Hey,” Tony greeted, trying for a smile. “How was dinner with Sharon?”

“It was… nice,” Steve said, hesitant. “Tony, Natasha was waiting for me when I got back. She said something is wrong. What’s happening?”

Natasha hadn’t told Steve that Tony had cried. Surely. She wouldn’t have done that.

Would she?

Tony tried for a smile. “No idea what you mean,” he said, and his voice came out smooth and polished.

Steve’s frown pulled in further. “Don’t… Don’t do that,” he said, waving a hand vaguely.

“Don’t do what?” Tony asked.

“You’re smiling like there are cameras here,” Steve replied. “You don’t have to pretend with me, Tony. Can’t you just tell me what’s wrong?” He stopped, then, and looked at Tony more closely. Tony felt a brief spike of fear before he forced himself to raise his chin. “Is this about Sharon?”

“What?” Tony hadn’t expected Steve to see through him so easily. The fear gripped him more steadily.

Steve closed his eyes for a moment, clearly steeling himself. “Tony, you said you were okay this. Are you not okay with this?” He opened his eyes again. “You could have told me that, you know.”

“I could have?”

“I’m not going to pretend I wouldn’t have been disappointed, but I don’t want to make you uncomfortable,” Steve replied. “Tony, it’s… it’s the past. And this, you and me, it’s new. I didn’t mean to rock the boat.”

“What?” Tony asked again, feeling the conversation slip away from him. “Steve, I’m not going to ask you not to go out with her. I don’t have a right to do that.”

Steve shook his head, and took a few steps closer. “Of course you do. It could have waited - it didn’t have to be right now, did it?”

Steve was approaching quickly, and Tony didn’t want him too close, so he took a step backwards. The second that Tony moved, Steve stopped advancing. He was thoughtful like that. Really goddamn thoughtful.

The fear was gone. Anger had replaced it.

“For fuck’s sake, Steve,” Tony snapped. “I’m not going to ask you to coddle me. You can go out with whoever you goddamn please. Obviously.”

Steve blinked, and he looked honestly confused by Tony’s anger. Tony guessed it probably didn’t make much sense for him to be angry, but it his emotions had been a freaking rollercoaster lately, and he did not want Steve Rogers coddling him because of Tony’s stupid feelings.

“I--”

“Go on whatever dates you want,” Tony insisted, and then immediately felt himself deflate. As quickly as it had appeared, the anger was gone. “I mean it, do what you want. You’re a free man, and you don’t owe me anything.”

There was a long pause, in which Tony refused to look at Steve, but could feel that Steve was staring straight at him.

After a few moments, Steve spoke up: “Did you say ‘dates’?”

Tony blinked, startled into looking up at Steve. Steve looked honestly confused. “Yes?”

Steve looked like he was about to speak, but visibly reigned himself in. Instead, he just continued to stare at Tony for a long, long moment. “Do you… By ‘dates’, what does-- what do you mean?”

And now Tony was the one who was thrown off. “I don’t understand the question,” he admitted.

The two of them stared dumbly at each other for another long moment, before Steve asked: “Tony, did you think I was on a date with Sharon?”

Tony stared, confused. “Were you not?”

No,” Steve replied immediately, as if the answer was obvious and the question was a little offensive. “I wouldn’t just go on a date with someone else, Tony, jeez.”

“You didn’t just go,” Tony said, put in the strange position of defending Steve. “You asked if I would be okay with it.”

Steve’s frown seemed to be a permanent fixture on his brow. “I asked if you were okay with it because she’s Sharon Carter,” he explained. “We were… She’s Peggy’s niece. We were talking about Peggy. I asked if you were okay with it because I was going to dinner to talk about Peggy.” He took a deep breath. “You thought I was asking if you were okay with me going on a date with someone else. Because I was just going to meet some woman and consider throwing all of this away?”

Before Tony could check his tongue, could figure out what was actually happening here, he found himself automatically replying: “Throwing all of what away?”

The frown cleared from Steve’s face. He stared at Tony, wide-eyed, as if he had been physically struck.

Oh.

Oh, that had been-- Tony had misread things.

And once again, everything shifted.

Tony and Steve had been dating. There had been the beginning of a relationship. Steve had liked Tony, really, honestly liked him. They’d slept together and laughed together, and Steve had come to Tony’s workshop just to spend time with him, not to increase the likelihood of sex. Steve had even followed Tony down here when Tony had started sleeping here, because Steve would have rather slept with Tony in the workshop than alone in a bedroom.

“Oh,” Tony said, and then he had to sit down. “I see.”

Steve approached again, and stopped right in front of Tony, but Tony didn’t look up. He was too busy rewriting everything once again.

“I guess we didn’t have a conversation about exclusivity,” Steve said, voice quiet. “But I thought we weren’t seeing other people. Were you…?”

“No,” Tony replied, honestly and immediately. His voice was coming out softer than he intended, but he didn’t have the energy to put on a front. “No, I thought that, too. Until you asked if I would be okay with you going on a date with someone else.”

Steve sighed. “I’m so sorry. I had no idea you thought that. I thought you knew who Sharon was.”

They were both silent for a long moment. Tony could feel Steve watching him, but he couldn’t bring himself to look.

He had been wrong about everything. But it didn’t make him feel any better.

“But now you know,” Steve added, eventually. “It’s just you for me, Tony. I promise.”

Tony swallowed against the lump in his throat. It would be easy, he realised, to just follow Steve’s explanation of Tony’s behaviour. To pretend that he had thought that they weren’t at the exclusivity stage yet, and that Steve was just playing the field.

It would be easy. But Tony was done with hiding.

“That’s not exactly what I thought,” Tony said, drawing all of his strength together and looking at Steve again. “I didn’t think that we weren’t exclusive yet. I thought that we weren’t in that kind of relationship.”

Steve sat down on a stool across from Tony, close enough to touch, but he didn’t reach out. “What does that mean?” he asked.

Tony squared his shoulders. He could do this. “I thought that I had misunderstood our… arrangement.”

“Arrangement?”

“I thought,” Tony said, forcing himself to go through with it, “that we were in a more… casual relationship than we were.” At Steve’s blank expression, he clarified: “I thought that we were just sleeping together.”

Tony saw the exact moment that Tony’s explanation was processed in Steve’s mind. His face went from confused but attentive to disbelieving and a little offended. “You thought that we were… friends with benefits? Is that what they call it?” he asked. At Tony’s nod, he added: “But… how?”

Tony pinched the bridge of his nose. Today was giving him a killer headache. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “It made sense, I guess? In my mind, at least.”

“It made sense to you that we were just using each other for sex,” Steve said, voice flat. “That made sense to you?”

“Yes!” Tony responded. “Okay? That made sense to me.”

“But,” Steve started, and then cut himself off and took a breath. When he spoke again, his voice was calmer. “How did that make sense to you? We spend a lot of time together. We go out for dinner, and to movies. We’re… affectionate.”

Tony finally looked up again. Steve’s expression seemed a little lost. “I don’t know,” Tony said. “I thought that was the ‘friends’ part, I guess. It seemed to make sense, for a while there.”

Steve reached across and took his hand.

“Well,” he said, “it’s not true. I’m in this, Tony. I am. You… You mean a lot to me. And I’m so sorry that you thought this, that you were in this place for the last few days, and I didn’t… I knew that something was wrong, but I didn’t imagine it was anything like this.”

Tony smiled. It sat oddly on his face. “It’s not your fault.”

“Well then, it’s not yours either. But we need to do a better job of communicating. Tasha can’t be our couple’s therapist forever,” he said, adding a sardonic smile to the mix. Tony huffed a laugh. “So next time you’re not sure what’s going through my head, just ask, okay? No matter what you think it sounds like. And I’ll do the same.”

Tony squeezed Steve’s hand.

This was going to be really fucking difficult.

“Steve,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Steve replied, immediate and genuine. “It’s okay. We’ll do better.”

“No,” Tony replied, reaching into a well of strength that he didn’t even know he had. He needed to do this now, and he needed to do it properly. “No, I mean-- Yes, I’m sorry about that. But I’m also sorry because… because this isn’t going to work out.”

Steve’s eyes were wide, and so, so blue. “What?”

Tony squeezed Steve’s hand again, and then let go.

“I know I was wrong,” he explained. “I get that now. I misread us. But that gave me a lot of time to think about the idea of us, and I realised that we shouldn’t be together.”

“What?” Steve asked again. And then he took a loud, shaking breath, and leaned back. “Oh. You’re breaking up with me.”

Tony swallowed back against the tears that wanted to come. This was so unfair. He wasn’t supposed to have to do this. “Yes,” he said, as firmly as he could.

Steve’s face fell, like he had been waiting for Tony to deny it. “Can I ask why?”

Tony had fifty-seven reasons. But he didn’t think that was what Steve wanted. He thought about saying you deserve better than me, or I love you too much to let you waste your life with me, but he knew that wouldn’t go down well, either. And so he said nothing, the silence awful and stretching out between them, until Steve finally nodded and stood.

“Okay,” Steve said, his voice rough and awful, like he was holding himself back from crying. “If that’s what you want, I…” He swallowed then, visibly. Tony wished he had been right before. He wished he didn’t have to hurt Steve to get Steve to move on from him. “I can respect that.”

Tony wanted to say that he was sorry again, but he knew that if he started talking, that would be it. He would break and ask Steve not to leave.

So instead, Tony locked his eyes on the workshop floor, and waited until he heard Steve close the door behind him.

Chapter Text

 

It sucked. It really fucking sucked.

Tony didn’t leave the workshop for two days straight. He had a cot and a bathroom down here, and some granola bars, so he didn’t really need to. He didn’t want to go up to his bedroom and see whether or not Steve had taken his stuff. And every now and then, when the urge to chase down Steve and take it all back began to claw at him, Tony would return to his list and remind himself that he was doing the right thing. He wasn’t going to let his own selfishness win this time. Even though it really fucking sucked.

After a full 24 hours, Bruce requested entry. He’d brought a plate of spicy pasta with him, so Tony let him in. This was the night that Steve had planned to take Tony to the Italian restaurant he’d found. Tony didn’t want to be alone.

Bruce, god bless him, only asked about Steve once. He’d looked up from some work he’d been helping Tony with, and asked: “Do you want to talk about it?”

Tony had shaken his head, and Bruce had let it be.

So for two days, Tony sequestered himself from the world. He ignored Rhodey’s calls, because he knew that Rhodey would be calling to yell at him for being an idiot, and thankfully, everyone else gave him space. But he knew that he needed to face reality at some point, and so he eventually showered, changed into the clothes that Bruce had brought him, and headed back upstairs.

“Man of Iron!” Thor greeted him when he walked through the sitting room. “It is good to see you. We were about to begin watching the Star Wars. Would you care to join us?”

Tony glanced over at where Natasha and Clint were already in their places in front of the television. It would have been nice to spend some time with his friends after two days of near-total isolation, but Tony wasn’t sure that he was ready to sit in front of the TV and not lean into Steve just yet.

“Not today, buddy,” Tony replied, still looking over toward the seating area. Natasha turned her head and caught Tony’s eyes, and he looked away. “But you have fun.” He brought up a smile as best he could.

“Alas,” Thor replied. “Until next time!”

Tony nodded. “Sure.”

Food and sleep seemed like a good plan to Tony, so he walked through the living room toward the kitchen. He was going to sleep in his own bedroom this time. He was too old to spend all of his nights on the cot in the workshop, and it was beyond time to reclaim his bedroom.

But when he walked into the kitchen, it was to find that Steve was already there, standing by the microwave.

“Hey,” Tony said, because the two of them needed to figure out how to be normal. He moved toward the fridge, and his eyes caught on the drawing that Steve had placed there. Right at the front was Tony in full armour. For a moment, Tony considered asking about it, but then he shook his head and opened the fridge. “You’re making popcorn?”

Steve cleared his throat. “Yeah. Are you going to watch Star Wars with us? You said… We’re up to Episode VI, isn’t that one your favourite?”

Tony smiled. He pulled out more of the leftover pasta from the fridge. “It is. But I’m not joining you tonight.”

“Oh,” Steve said. Tony closed the fridge behind him, still not looking up. He went in search of a bowl for his pasta. “Okay.”

The microwave beeped, and Steve went to remove the bag of popcorn. Wordlessly, Tony handed him a large bowl, and glanced at Steve long enough for Steve to smile briefly in thanks. Steve put the popcorn into the bowl, Tony put the pasta into the microwave, and then Steve went to leave the room.

Only, by force of habit, Tony tilted his head up when Steve passed, expecting a kiss.

That would have been bad enough, even if Steve hadn’t automatically leaned down to kiss him.

They stayed there for a moment too long, lips pressed lightly in a barely-there kiss, before Tony broke it and cleared his throat. “Sorry.”

“Me too,” Steve said, but he didn’t move away. And neither did Tony. They were standing too close together, almost chest-to-chest, and if it weren’t for the angles of their faces, they might have been kissing again.

Tony forced himself to look Steve in the eye. Steve’s gaze met his for a moment, and then dropped to Tony’s mouth, and then-- and then they were kissing again.

It felt so goddamned good. Tony pressed himself close, and heard the small moan escape him before he realised that he was doing it. One of Steve’s hands cupped the back of Tony’s head, like he was afraid Tony was going to pull away. Tony pushed himself flush against Steve, warmth flowing through him, and ran his hands down Steve’s arms. God, Steve’s arms were sexy. Everything about Steve was sexy.

Steve pushed him back against the kitchen counter without breaking the kiss, and Tony heard something clatter to the floor, but it was muted; he could barely hear anything over the rush of blood in his ears. Steve’s hands moved to the counter on either side of Tony, and Steve’s body was pressed tight against his, and Tony gasped in a breath--

“Uh,” a voice sounded from the doorway.

Steve pulled away a little, panting, and reality crashed around Tony’s ears.

Fuck.

“I thought you guys broke up?” Clint asked. “Like, don’t get me wrong, I’m rooting for you crazy kids, but could you post updates on Facebook like a normal couple?”

Steve huffed something like a laugh. “Go away, Clint,” he said.

“But you spilled the popcorn on the floor,” Clint complained.

Tony glared over Steve’s shoulder. “Go away, Clint.”

“Fine. Assholes.”

When Clint was gone, Tony breathed a sigh. Steve was still standing way too close, and Tony’s head was swimming, but at least he was actually thinking now.

“Sorry,” Tony said. “I shouldn’t have done that.”

Steve hesitated, and then backed off a little - just enough that Tony didn’t feel trapped against the counter. He was thoughtful that way. “It wasn’t just you,” Steve added.

Tony rubbed the back of his neck. “Yeah. I guess it was a force of habit.”

When he looked up, Steve was staring him out. “Tony,” he said, voice steady and firm, like he’d practiced saying this. “Can we talk about this? About you and me?”

“I don’t know what there is to talk about,” Tony replied, and he knew he was broadcasting unhappiness through his tone.

Steve lifted a hand, and then swept his thumb over Tony’s jawline. “I miss you,” he said. “And I think-- I think maybe you miss me, too. And if there’s a chance that this could work…”

“I do miss you,” Tony admitted, and then nipped it in the bud as best he could: “But that doesn’t make this a good idea.”

Steve’s brows drew in, and he didn’t move his thumb from the hinge of Tony’s jaw. His fingers settled on the back of Tony’s head, threading into his hair. It felt impossibly good. Which wasn’t fair at all. “Can we talk about why this isn’t a good idea, then?”

Tony wasn’t sure that his heart would be able to handle actually explaining this to Steve - explaining just how much better Steve could do, should do, than Tony. He didn’t know how to distill the whole list down into something that Steve could hear. He drew in a breath, trying to figure out the best way to handle this--

And then the Avengers alarm sounded.

The two of them stood frozen for a heartbeat, looking at one another, with Steve’s hand cupping Tony’s head. But it only lasted a moment, before Steve Rogers and Tony Stark became Captain America and Iron Man.

“Suit up,” Steve said, stepping away. “JARVIS, tell the Avengers to assemble by the quinjet ASAP.”

 


 

Tony was relieved to find that the issues between him and Steve didn’t extend to battle.

He had been worried for a few days that they might have lost their groove. But even when Steve and Tony had disliked one another, Cap and Iron Man had gelled on the battlefield. There was some way in which they understood one another in fight. Somehow, they always seemed to know what the other was planning to do before they did it, which made them work together seamlessly.

Of course, the fact that they could predict one another didn’t always mean that they approved. Cap’s biggest gripe since the beginning had been that Tony took too many risks with his own safety, but they had both been working on that.

By the time the Wrecking Crew had been taken off by SHIELD, it was late and Tony was annoyed by the fact that he hadn’t been able to eat his pasta before the battle.

“Yep, that’s broken,” Clint said cheerily after poking Natasha’s ankle. Natasha glared at him. “Come on, how often is it that a bone gets broken in battle and it isn’t one of mine?”

Natasha continued to glare.

Clint turned to pull a face at Tony. “I think she’s mad at me.”

“Yeah, no shit,” Tony replied, flipping back his faceplate. “We need to get you some medical aid. You can wait here for help to arrive, or I can fly you to the infirmary.”

Natasha pushed herself to stand on one foot. “You can fly me,” she decided, which was a relief. That meant that he could put off the weirdness with Steve a little longer. “And I have a couple of granola bars, since you’re hungry.”

Tony helped her hop onto one of his boots, and when she was steady and holding on tight, he took to flight.

“How do you do that?” he asked. “Sometimes I think you’re not a baseline human after all. You have mutant psychic powers, don’t you? And where are you even keeping granola bars? Do I want to know?”

Natasha gave him a long, unimpressed look. “I’m not psychic,” she replied. “I just know you.”

Tony didn’t know how to respond to that, so he flipped down the faceplate and focused on getting her to SHIELD’s medical team.

Natasha’s blank face was a solid mask, but Tony knew a few of her tells well enough to know that she was in serious pain. And he was glad to see those tells fade away after she had been given pain killers.

“So,” Natasha said, when they were waiting for her x-rays to be read. “You and Steve.”

“Not you, too,” Tony said. “I don’t want to talk about that.”

“You don’t have to talk,” Natasha replied. “But I think it’s my duty to tell you that you’re being an idiot.” Tony sighed and looked away. “I don’t mean it as an insult. I mean it as a matter of fact.”

Tony looked back to her. “Uh huh,” he said, hoping that this would be over soon.

“You are the smartest person I have ever known,” Natasha allowed. Her words were a little looser than usual, presumably due to the painkillers. If she had been saying anything else, it might have made Tony smile. “You and Bruce, maybe. You’re one of the most intelligent people on the planet. But there’s a thing that you do where you convince yourself that you’re not worth anything to anyone around you.”

Tony sighed. “Nat--”

“And I don’t know exactly how you managed to convince yourself that you and Steve were fuck buddies,” Natasha went on. Tony winced. He hadn’t been sure whether or not Steve would divulge that information. “But it’s a classic Stark move. They can’t let you down if you convince yourself that you’re not expecting anything. It’s bullshit, Tony.”

Tony wanted to look away again, but he refused to let himself. “Can you just trust me on this one?” he asked.

Natasha stared him out. “If you can give me one decent reason that you’re running away from this,” she answered.

Tony rolled his eyes. “I can give you fifty-seven reasons,” he said.

“Fifty-seven?”

“But it won’t make a difference. Just leave it be, Natasha,” he requested.

Natasha continued to stare, her gaze blank and piercing. Eventually, she nodded once, and let it go.

 


 

By the time Tony collapsed into his bed, he was tired enough that he hoped his brain would shut off. Of course, he wasn’t that lucky. Instead, his brain decided to catalogue everything that Steve had moved into his room in the past two months.

There was a toothbrush and razor in the bathroom, and clothes in the closet, and the book Steve was reading was resting on the bedside table next to Steve’s half of the bed. It hadn’t really occurred to Tony until now that they were on the verge of moving into the room together. Steve spent more time here than he did in his actual bedroom. Even when Tony had thought they were friends with benefits, his reaction had been to sleep in the workshop, not to assume that Steve should go back to his own room.

He buried his face in the pillow. It didn’t smell like Steve anymore. Probably because the cleaners had changed the sheets. Tony sighed, and made himself keep his eyes closed so that he didn’t glance around in the light of the Arc Reactor to see what else Steve had left behind.

It was harder, being back here. Tony had thought that this was unbearable when he was sleeping in the workshop, but it turned out that it could feel worse. And the worst part was that Tony could make all the pain go away if he wanted to, but he couldn’t, for Steve’s sake.

Tony thought about how Steve had looked in the kitchen, just after their moment of weakness. How his hand had felt when he had cupped Tony’s face. He thought about never having that again.

But this was the right thing to be doing. Letting go was Tony’s only real option, because he loved Steve. He would continue to love Steve from a distance, and soon, Steve would move on. He would find someone who was better for him.

Tony didn’t sleep well that night, but he did sleep.

In the morning, Tony checked on Natasha, and watched her hobble to sit on the couch. She was refusing help, which was normal for her in the aftermath of an injury. Tony knew her well enough to know that she didn’t like showing any kind of vulnerability, and she had been vulnerable yesterday. She needed to feel like she had control again today, so Tony just watched from a distance, and brought her breakfast before she had a chance to consider getting up to get it herself.

Natasha’s face was carefully blank when she took the plate of eggs, but Tony could tell that she was resentful that he had made her breakfast. Oh, well. At least this way she would eat without potential injury.

“Try not to fall down any stairs today,” Tony said, aiming for cheer. “I’ll see you when I’m home from work.”

Tony left her with her painkillers, a bottle of water, and a couple of snacks. She glowered at him, and he was pretty sure that she insulted him in Russian under her breath.

When he was almost out of the sitting room, Natasha called out: “Tony.”

Tony turned and raised an eyebrow. “You need anything else?”

Natasha just looked at him for a long moment before shaking her head. “That thing I said yesterday,” she started.

Tony sighed. “Do we have to do this?”

“I forgot to say one thing,” Natasha said. “And then I’ll leave you alone.” Tony gestured for her to go on. “That place that you go to - the place where you think you’re unworthy and that nobody loves you. I said that it’s bullshit.” Tony stood up a little straighter, automatically preparing himself for a blow. “I forgot to add that it’s bullshit because it isn’t true.”

Tony stared at her for a moment, and then felt the beginnings of a smile well up from somewhere deep. That might have been the kindest thing he had ever heard Natasha say. “Oh,” he said, and then nodded, trying desperately to keep his cool. “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome,” Natasha replied, and then went back to her eggs.

Tony watched her for a moment before he left the room. Once he was out of earshot, he said: “Keep an eye on her, J.”

Of course, Sir,” JARVIS replied. “I have two messages pending for you. Would you like to take them now, or wait until you are prepared for work?

“Give me twenty.”

He hopped in the shower - god, this shower was so much nicer than the one in his workshop - and got ready for work. When he was slipping in his cufflinks, he called out: “Okay, JARVIS, hit me with those messages.”

Of course, Sir. The first is a voicemail from Ms Potts. Would you like to hear it?

“Summarise,” Tony requested.

She requests the schematics for the new StarkPhone, which you promised would be ready for her afternoon meeting.

“They’re all done,” Tony said. “I should have sent them over yesterday, but… you know, the battle and everything. You can send them over. Did she say anything else?”

She is concerned for your well-being and would like you to arrange time to spend with her.”

“Yada yada yada,” Tony responded. “And the other message?”

This message is in text form. It would be easier to see than hear. Would you like me to display it for you?

“Sure, who’s it fr--”

Tony stared at the long text that was lit up before him.

It was his list.

“JARVIS, what the fuck?” he asked, moving closer to it and scrolling.

It wasn’t just his list. It was goddamned annotated.

Captain Rogers requested access to the list early this morning, and has sent back a second draft.”

Tony glared. “What the fuck do you mean, a ‘second draft’? How did he get this? I told you to hide it!”

With all due respect, Sir, you did not expressly inform me that it was private.” Tony spluttered. “I was under no orders for how to respond when asked for it directly.

“Um, I know that you can derive from context better than that, JARVIS, because I wrote your code. You gave this to him on purpose. Why did… How did Steve even know that it existed? Did you tell him?”

He was informed that a list might exist by Ms Romanoff when he checked on her this morning,” JARVIS replied. “I saw no reason that he should be denied access, considering that the list concerns him.

Tony shook his head. Of course Natasha hadn’t just let go of his ‘fifty-seven reasons’ comment. He should have seen this coming. “JARVIS, you do not get to interfere with my life like this. You have overstepped.”

My primary objective is your wellbeing--”

“Mute,” Tony snapped. “You can just… spend some time in time-out.”

Tony turned to the list, and then looked away from it and sighed. He was cold at the thought of reading it.

“Cancel my 9am,” Tony said, and then looked back at the list. “Damn it. Cancel my 10am, too.”

And then he began to read.

Steve had written a lot. Each point of Tony’s was commented on, sometimes just to directly contradict what Tony had said. Sometimes there were entire paragraphs, or stories demonstrating why Tony was wrong.

Under #10: He deserves so much better, Steve had written long paragraphs about how people didn’t ‘deserve’ one another - and how even if they did, there are reasons that he might have felt that he didn’t deserve Tony, either.

Under #17: You are selfish, he had added story upon story of Tony making decisions that centred other people. By the end of reading that, Tony had to sit down on his bed in order to continue, because his legs were beginning to feel unsteady. He was sure, deep down, that it wasn’t true, but it was hard to deny Steve’s perspective when it was laid out before him with such clarity. And it was really, really hard to think of Steve as being anything less than honest.

Under #34: You’re an alcoholic, Steve had written: I am so proud of you for realizing that your relationship with alcohol is unhealthy, and for staying away from it. Remember the day that we poured out all of the alcohol from the living areas of the tower? We were still barely able to talk to one another, but you didn’t even flinch when you told me why, and you let me feel helpful by joining you. I was so proud of you then, and I still am.

Under #57: He would be better off without you, Steve had written his own list of ways in which his life was better with Tony in it, finishing with: I was so lost in the future, and you made me a home here. And I know that if I had a chance to change any of it, I would still go down into that ice so that I could find you.

By the time he finished, Tony had no idea how he was feeling or how he was supposed to react, except that he couldn’t help but wonder if Natasha was right. If this had all been him spiralling after all.

And then there was a knock at the door.

“Come in,” Tony called from where he was still seated on the bed. He waved at the projected list and it disappeared.

The door opened, and Steve stepped into the room with a box under his arm.

“Hi,” Steve said, standing a little awkwardly, like he wasn’t sure that he was welcome.

“Hi,” Tony replied. “I just… read what you wrote.”

Steve nodded. “I know. I asked JARVIS to tell me when you had read it.”

Tony looked to the box under Steve’s arm. “Did you come to get your stuff?” he asked, feeling off-kilter.

Steve sighed, and walked to place the box on the bed. “No, I, uh. I wanted to show you something.” He stared down into the box and rubbed at the back of his neck. “It’s a little embarrassing, but after responding to your list in writing-- well. I’m not all that good with words. Not when it matters, at least.” He looked up at Tony with a half-smile on his face. “Not when it isn’t a speech.”

Tony leaned forward to look in the box. “Oh. Oh, you… you’re going to let me see?”

It was a box filled with sketchbooks.

Steve blew out a nervous breath. “Yeah,” he said. “This is all of them.”

Tony reached for one before he had even processed that he was moving, and then he stopped himself. “Are you sure? I know these are private.”

Steve smiled then, really smiled, and Tony’s breath caught in his throat. “I’m sure. Look at whatever you want. I think you’ll understand why I’ve been keeping them to myself.”

Tony picked up a blue sketchbook that he remembered Steve using when he had first moved into the tower. It was back when Tony had been more curious about the drawing, before he had really internalised how important it was to respect Steve’s privacy.

The beginning of the book had pictures of the old Brooklyn landscape. Then there was a picture of Thor with his cape waving behind him, a picture of the Hulk sulking with his arms crossed, and--

A picture of Tony, smiling at something beyond the page.

Tony hesitated.

It was the first time that Tony had seen Steve draw him, he realised. Even the cartoons had always been Iron Man in full armour. This was something else altogether.

There was something completely different about Tony’s portrait than Thor’s or the Hulk’s, or even the drawing on the fridge. It was like every pencil-stroke was careful, precious. Tony knew that the features on the page all belonged to him, but he also looked like something plucked out of a dream.

Tony turned the pages to find more of the team, and of Coulson, and places in New York. But his own face appeared more than anything else - laughing, rolling his eyes, leaning blearily against the kitchen counters in the morning - and in each of them, Tony could see himself through Steve’s eyes.

“Oh,” Tony said, voice coming out hushed and soft. He put down the blue book and reached for another.

This one was more recent - maybe just a few months ago. There were more pictures of other people from Steve’s past now, Peggy, and Bucky, and even one of Howard - but still, amongst the drawings, Tony appeared more often than anything else. There was a drawing that was clearly from the poker night in which Clint had wiped the floor clean with them, and Tony’s expression was disbelieving. And a picture of Tony on the couch, smiling over at what must have been Steve. A drawing of Tony windswept and grinning. One of Tony looking haunted at some kind of event, all the other guests around him blurred with movement.

Tony opened another book, and another, and kept finding his face.

He hesitated on a drawing of the team in front of the television. They were in their usual spaces, but it must have been drawn before Tony and Steve started seeing one another - they were sitting close together, but Tony wasn’t draped over Steve. Everyone’s eyes were forward, presumably looking toward the screen, except Steve. Steve was looking at Tony.

It wasn’t really possible to tell how an artist felt about a subject, Tony told himself. He was reading into this. He was seeing what he wanted to see.

Tony looked up from the book in his hands.

“Do you see?” Steve asked, and Tony realised that long minutes had passed. “Do you see why I didn’t want to show you?”

Tony’s throat was tight. He coughed, trying to clear it, and then said: “There are a lot of drawings of me, huh.”

Steve gave him a long, unimpressed look. “Right, and I might as well have written ‘Steven Stark-Rogers’ all over them,” he added. “Tony, I’m pretty sure that even aliens who have never met humans before could tell how I feel by the way I draw you.”

Tony looked back down at his own face on the page, and at the drawing of Steve watching him with a smile.

He swallowed.

Steve was painfully honest. Steve wouldn’t have written his list if he didn’t mean it - if that wasn’t really how he saw Tony. And Steve wouldn’t have shown Tony these pictures if they didn’t mean something significant.

Tony heard Steve draw in a deep breath. “If you need time to think, I can give that to you,” he said, voice firm and sure. “If you don’t want to be with me, I can-- I can respect that, too. But if you think that I don’t want to be with you , or if you think that any of those reasons on your list are valid, then. Then that’s not okay. That’s not true.”

“Steve,” Tony said, and his head was swimming with information. All of the very good reasons on his list were falling away, leaving just Steve and Tony. Tony kept his eyes down, because he wasn’t sure that he could stand to look up.

“The truth is,” Steve said, and his voice trembled a little on the words now, “I am in love with you. I’ve loved you… since a long time before we got together. I wanted to tell you on our first date, but I didn’t want to mess it up by telling you too soon, so I just… kept it to myself.” He sighed. “I realise now that I shouldn’t have done that. That maybe it would have helped you to hear it. So I’m saying it now, in case it isn’t too late: I love you. I’m in love with you. I have been for a long while.”

Tony breathed deep, looking from the picture toward Steve. Steve’s shoulders were set and his chin was high, like he needed to keep himself together physically to feel strong. All of those reasons that Tony had gone back to, that had seemed so solid and strong just hours ago, had crumbled. They were nothing - just dust, the remnants of Tony’s spiralling emotional state.

It had been so easy to believe that Steve didn’t really want him for more than sex, because Tony had never understood why Steve would want him for anything else. That was what was left. It had been easy for Tony to convince himself that this was just sex because Tony didn’t know why it would be more than that. But now he could see it - could read it in Steve’s list, or see it in Steve’s drawings, or hear it in his words. Steve loved him. Steve loved him.

Shocked through with sudden energy, Tony stood and placed the sketchbooks back into the box, and then moved the box from the bed to the floor. He would like to look through them more, with permission, but for now their message had been received.

When Tony turned back to the bed, Steve was looking up at him with an expression so open and raw that Tony was almost afraid again, afraid of how much power he had over Steve, how much ability he had to hurt him. But running from that wouldn’t contain damage, and he knew that now.

Tony placed one knee beside Steve on the bed, and leaned forward to kiss him. He pulled back quickly and leaned their foreheads together. “Steve,” he said, and then leaned forward so that he could bring his other knee onto the bed, too. Steve’s hands pressed against his lower back, helping him to balance there. “When I left, before, I thought I was helping you, but I wasn’t.” The corner of Steve’s mouth pulled down, betraying some of that pain. “I am so sorry that I did that to you.”

“I’m sorry,” Steve replied, “I’m sorry that I didn’t realise how badly you were hurting. For days, you thought-- And I didn’t realise how bad it was. I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t imagine...”

“We’ll do better,” Tony promised, and curled his fingers into Steve’s hair to pull him forward for another kiss.

Steve rocked forward into it, and for a moment he was the only thing keeping Tony from crashing into the floor. And then he lifted Tony as he shifted backwards on the bed, until he was sitting more firmly in the centre, Tony straddling his hips.

It was Steve who broke the kiss, pulling back to ask: “We’ll do better? Does that mean--?”

“I love you,” Tony interrupted, making himself say it before he chickened out. Everything was out there, now. It made Tony feel vulnerable, like an exposed nerve, but he was surprised that it didn’t make him more afraid. Instead, he felt oddly safe. Steve had read his whole list, had peered into Tony’s soul, and still loved him. “I love you.”

Steve’s breath left him in something almost like a wondrous laugh. “You…?”

“I love you,” Tony said, because he couldn’t contain it now that he had let it out. It was like a dam had broken. “Let’s-- you and me. Let’s be you and me again.”

“Yes,” Steve breathed, and then kissed him again.

They lost long moments like that, until Tony had to pull away. The laughter welled up from somewhere deep and spilled over, and he wasn’t sure that he had ever felt this crash of joy and relief before in his life.

When he was able to catch his breath again, it was to find Steve looking up at him with such an earnest expression that Tony almost laughed again. He managed to hold it back and grinned instead, and Steve brought a hand up to fit against Tony’s jaw. Steve ran his thumb against Tony’s bottom lip like he was committing his smile to memory.

Tony opened his mouth and caught the tip of Steve’s thumb between his teeth. He watched intently as Steve’s eyes darkened, and Tony sucked Steve’s thumb into his mouth, sliding his tongue over the tip of it with intent.

Steve’s breath hitched, and it was such a fucking beautiful sound.

“Tony,” Steve said, and his voice came out a little rough with desire - but confusingly, he tugged his thumb away. Tony sucked hard as Steve’s thumb slid out of his mouth, and Steve’s breath hitched again, but he pulled back nonetheless. “I don’t want to rush you.”

Tony fixed Steve with a disbelieving look. “You don’t want to rush me?” he asked, incredulous.

Steve’s mouth ticked up in an amused half-smile. “What I mean is that… for a while there, when we made love, you thought. You thought that I was just using your body.” He was serious again, now. “I know that that must have changed things for you. And if you need some time before we’re intimate again, then I would completely understand that.”

‘Intimate’,” Tony quoted back, because he couldn’t help it. Steve rolled his eyes. But Tony knew that this working was based on the two of them communicating, and everything else was out there already, so what did it matter if he talked to Steve about this? “Look, you’re right. There were a few days where sex between us was different for me.” Steve nodded, clearly intent on listening, but Tony responded by rocking his hips forward into Steve. “And I would really like you to fuck me right now,” he concluded. “I don’t want to wait.”

Steve’s eyelashes fluttered. Tony could feel the bulge in his jeans growing, and he continued to rock forward. God, but he had missed Steve’s body.

“Are you sure?” Steve asked, but he was also encouraging Tony’s movements forward with a hand on the small of his back.

Tony shifted his weight back from Steve for long enough to pull out the knot in his own tie, and then he slid it through his collar and dropped it off to one side. Steve’s eyes were intent as he watched. Tony hadn’t forgotten how much Steve liked to watch him undress, and he used it to his advantage, slowly removing his cufflinks, and then reaching down to unbuckle his own belt.

“I’m sure,” Tony said, low and certain. The leather of his belt made a smooth sound as he tugged it free. He dropped that to the side, too, and then leaned in to mouth at Steve’s neck, just below his ear. “Are you sure?”

The world moved, and Tony was on his back before he was even able to blink. He grinned, mission accomplished, and tried not to act too victorious as Steve’s hands made quick work of Tony’s shirt buttons. Steve kissed him, bruisingly firm, and Tony couldn’t contain the moan that built up inside him. God, he’d missed this.

With Tony’s shirt opened, Steve sat back to pull off his own clothes - the precision and speed of a soldier, seriously, Tony was going to have to teach him to striptease sometime soon, it was criminal - and when he fell back onto Tony, Steve was gloriously naked.

“Fuck,” Tony said, hands meeting bare skin. He would have to teach Steve to striptease, and soon, but for now, yes, this was perfect.

Steve’s mouth met his again, and then he drew away to pull Tony’s pants and boxers from him. When he leaned down for another kiss, Tony pushed him swiftly, and maneuvered Steve back down to the bed. Steve blinked up at him, smiling, and Tony straddled him and sat up carefully. He shrugged off his shirt slowly, basking under Steve’s gaze, and then pulled his undershirt over his head. One of Steve’s hands slid up his side, warm and big, and Tony shuddered.

“Like this,” Tony insisted, breathless, resting his weight down against Steve’s hips. Steve’s fingers dug into Tony’s thighs, firm, and Tony scrambled to reach under his pillow for the lube. “Just a second,” he said, and coated his own fingers. Tony looked directly at Steve as he reached back to prepare himself, and Steve’s eyes were so dark that they were almost black.

Steve watched him for long moments, as Tony’s breath caught and his eyes tried to flutter closed, and then Steve reached and picked up the tube for himself. Tony swallowed as Steve rubbed lube onto his own fingers, and then leaned forward to give Steve room to reach back and find Tony’s hand.

Tony tucked his face against Steve’s neck as Steve’s fingers sought out his own and joined them, and he knew the sounds coming out of his mouth were broken and maybe a little embarrassing, but he didn’t seek to quiet himself.

“I’m ready,” he said, and withdrew his fingers, but Steve kept pressing in. Tony moaned when the change of angle allowed Steve to push deeper, to press against that sweet place inside of him. He could feel his thighs trembling. “Steve, I’m ready. I’m ready.”

“Shh,” Steve insisted, continuing to move his fingers inside Tony. Tony’s hands tightened on the sheets below Steve, and he pushed himself up to look Steve in the eye.

“Now,” Tony said. Steve swallowed and nodded up at him, sliding his fingers out.

This was when one of them would reach for a condom, but they were all the way in the bedside table, and Tony--

“Let’s go without,” Tony said. “If you want. I’m clean, and you can’t get anything, anyway--”

Steve was frowning a little, clearly trying to catch up to what Tony was saying, and then the tension in his face loosened. “Oh, you mean… Just like this?”

Tony leaned down to glide his lubed hand over Steve, tugging twice just to watch the reaction. “Yes,” he said, and Steve swallowed and nodded.

“If you’re sure,” Steve said, and then Tony pushed himself up and aligned them before sinking down on Steve’s cock.

Tony moaned as they were joined, and it felt-- Tony had never done this before, never had sex without a condom, and he wasn’t sure if it was all psychological or not, but it felt like he was closer to Steve than he’d ever been. He kept bearing down, even when it began to ache, until he was settled, hips flush against Steve’s.

Steve was breathing heavily, fingers digging into Tony’s thighs again. Tony forced himself to be still, waiting out the burn, even when a part of him was begging for hard and fast.

“You feel,” Steve started, and Tony looked down at him. “You feel so good.”

Words like those had long sounded worn out and used to Tony, but somehow when they came from Steve, they always sounded honest.

Tony leaned forward and rested his hands on Steve’s shoulders - he could take Tony’s weight - and began to move.

Steve had been right. For those days when Tony was sure this was less than it was, the fucking had been… well, it had been nothing less than fantastic, physically, but Tony had been doing his best to distance himself emotionally. Now that he knew he didn’t have to, it was like it all rushed back at once, everything he’d ever felt about Steve, and Tony couldn’t bring himself to look away from Steve’s eyes. For those days, he had hidden his gaze as much as possible, and now it was like he couldn’t get enough.

Tony’s pace was increasing without his intent, because it felt too good not to keep rocking himself down on Steve’s cock harder and faster, and he knew he wasn’t going to last long but he didn’t have the self-control to slow down. “Steve,” he said, and he didn’t know what he was asking for, but his voice came out desperate and pleading.

Steve tugged Tony down until they were kissing, Tony’s hands twisted into the sheets either side of Steve’s head.

Steve’s hands ran down Tony’s back, one dipping low to feel where the two of them were joined - which made Tony gasp, pulling away from the kiss to breathe - and then Steve’s hands grasped Tony’s hips firmly as Steve shifted to plant his feet flat against the bed--

Tony was sure that he shouted out as Steve started fucking him, really fucking him, but at that point it was all Tony could do to hold on for the ride. Steve was hitting his prostate with every thrust now, and Tony had to reach one hand above their heads on the bed just to keep his balance, and at this angle they were pushed close, Tony’s cock trapped between them. Steve wasn’t slowing down at all, God, fuck...

Tony’s orgasm hit him hard, and he was sure that he was shaking, and Steve fucked him hard through it until it felt like Tony couldn’t take it anymore - and then Steve came, too, fingers bruising Tony’s hips.

It was a long while afterwards that Tony caught his breath.

“Wow,” he said, when he could pull together the brain function to form words. “That was. That was really fucking good. Really good fucking,” he snickered, patting Steve’s shoulder.

Steve laughed, and tilted Tony over a little so that he could pull out.

Right. That was one reason that people used condoms. Tony screwed up his nose as he realised how messy this whole situation was, and Steve kissed him on the forehead. “I’ll get a washcloth,” he said, pulling himself up from the bed.

Tony watched him walk to the bathroom, enjoying the view, and then allowed Steve to do all of the cleaning up because he wasn’t sure he could move.

“Seriously,” Tony said, when Steve collapsed next to him again on the bed. “That. We are doing that a lot. Set an alarm, because--” a yawn rudely interrupted his sentence, “because we are doing that like, three more times today.”

Steve kissed the top of his head, and then his mouth, and then his jaw. “I love you.”

Tony’s smile just wasn’t containable. It was a lost cause. “I love you, too.”

They kissed again for a few moments.

“Oh.” Tony pulled back. “Crap. JARVIS.”

Yes, Sir?

“Cancel my everything today. Today is a bed-and-shower-and-bed day.”

Of course, Sir.

Steve maneuvered the two of them so that they were actually using the pillows, not just sprawled on the bed where they had landed. Tony yawned again, the tiredness of the aftermath of good sex hitting him hard.

“Nap?” Steve asked, and his eyes were drooping, too.

Tony smiled. “Nap,” he agreed, and tucked his head into Steve’s neck.

After a moment, Tony remembered something. “J,” he said, and ignored Steve’s put-upon sigh. “The list. My original list. Delete it. Burn it. Throw it into a volcano.”

You will not see it again,” JARVIS promised, and Tony did his best to ignore the smug tone to his voice.

Steve’s hand ran down the bare skin of Tony’s back, and then up again.

“Oh, but keep Steve’s parts,” Tony added. When Steve made a questioning sound, he explained: “For posterity. You know, to recalibrate, if I ever need to remember.”

He had a new list now. And while he hoped he wouldn’t have to use it, wouldn’t forget himself or doubt himself for long enough to need it, Tony would keep it safe in case that day ever came.

 


 

Later that night, freshly showered and ready to face the world again, Tony stretched as he headed toward the sitting area. He wasn’t sure that he would stay awake through a whole movie, but since Star Wars night had been postponed for the battle, he wanted to at least try to join the team.

Natasha was stretched out across Steve and Tony’s couch, her injured ankle propped up on multiple pillows. She raised her eyebrows when the pair entered the room together, Steve’s hand on Tony’s back, but didn’t comment.

“Do you want me to move?” she asked, nodding toward the floor by the couch where she would usually sit.

“Of course not,” Steve replied immediately. “We can sit on the floor.”

Steve sat with his back against the couch, and Tony collapsed immediately next to him, and leaned in to use him as a pillow. Steve curled his arm around Tony’s shoulders, drawing him in further. None of the team commented directly - though it looked for a moment that Clint would, before Natasha pelted him in the forehead with a piece of popcorn. But Tony caught pleased expressions on their faces, and was glad that they didn’t push it any further.

As the movie started, Tony lifted his head to look behind him at Natasha. She looked back at him after a moment, questioning, and Tony mouthed ‘thank you’. She nodded.

When Tony lay his head back down against Steve’s broad shoulder, he felt Natasha’s fingers card gently through his hair, just once.