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The issue was this:

Tony had never wanted to like Steve. He hadn’t. He’d never meant to like him, never meant to trust him, and most certainly never wanted to love him. That was absurd. Had someone told a younger Tony that, the boy would have probably spat on you, because yes, it really had been that bad. Tony had had a chip on his shoulder his whole damn life when it came to Steve Rogers, and so when they pulled him out of the ice and threw him into the world, Tony had automatically gone on the defensive. All those younger issues had painted his picture of Steve already, and he’d been convinced there’d be no changing that. A lost cause. A colleague who he could work with, but never become close to. 

All in all, it took about a month for Tony to realise that he was kidding himself.

That was the most irritating thing about it all, because Tony had tried very damn hard to hate him. He’d been a dick  at every opportunity, petulant and childish and pulling out all the stops to try and create the correct atmosphere between them. One that would satisfy that bitter loveless teenager still knocking around in his psyche. He’d forced himself to sneer when Steve did nice things for elderly people, roll his eyes every time Steve gave strangers genuine compliments for no other reason than because he could . Tony had pulled out all the stops to make himself into the sort of guy that Steve Rogers wouldn’t want to touch with a ten-foot pole, overall. 

But Steve didn’t stop making him his coffee in the morning. No matter what Tony said, what snide comment he made. He didn’t stop saying shit like ‘this is amazing, thank you’ when Tony handed him a new bit of equipment to use on the field (he was an asshole, not an asshole , and Steve’s SHIELD uniform seemed like it’d been designed by a child). He stayed away, kept himself to himself, but he refused to sink to Tony’s level. He never stopped being kind. And maybe it was overcompensation for the way he’d behaved during the first time they’d met, but maybe it was just because Steve was good. Good in the way so few people were. 

Steve was also very obviously battling with some demons of his own, and so when Tony hadn’t been busy trying to think of new reasons why Steve sucked, he’d been worrying about whether Steve was doing okay, and whether Tony needed to go pick a fight just so he had an excuse to check on him. And yes, he realised how fucking ridiculous that was,  but he’d never tried to pretend he was emotionally healthy about this shit. Back then, that was the only way Tony had known how to talk to him.

But even in his sadness, Steve’s goodness had never wavered. Not for Tony. Not for anyone. He still made the god damn coffee in the morning, even though he himself only ever drank tea. That was definitely what had cracked Tony first. Made him re-evaluate exactly why he was so desperate to hate the guy. And, of course, once he picked on that particular internal thread, the whole goddamn thing had come loose. He didn’t hate Steve. In fact, he never had. 

So he gave it up. He let himself smile when Steve was around, sought the man out if he knew it had been a tough fight. They began to share drinks together in the dead of night, when neither of them could sleep. Tony started talking to him- really, truly talking, and God, had it been anyone else, the concept of that would have terrified him. But it had just been so easy with Steve. Everything was so easy. Chatting. Laughing. 

Falling.

Which brought Tony back to his Issue. 

Their friendship was still fairly new. Hell, the whole team was still in its infancy- they’d only just managed to convince Natasha into staying at the tower for more than a night, despite the fact that technically they were supposed to have become a fully cohesive team unit about two months ago now. Point was, everything was fresh and tender. The bonds had only just been formed, and they were not strong enough to withstand, say, a stupid crush on a fellow team-member that would almost certainly end in tears if discovered. And yes, Tony knew he was a dick who probably deserved this. He’d been cold and brash with Steve for weeks before realising that maybe his bastard-like tendencies were unfounded, and so the recent development that involved him deciding that Steve Rogers was actually one of the best people to walk the Earth was probably something to do with Karmic retribution. He could practically hear Rhodey’s voice in his ear informing him that ‘this is what you get for being a bitch’.

Imaginary-Rhodey was right, unfortunately. Tony had now resigned himself to simply watching himself get more and more invested in this ridiculous crush of his. He wasn’t going to bring it up, obviously. And maybe it would fade after a while. But for now, he was simply going to deal with it. 

Of course, that was easier said than done. 

“Morning, Shellhead.” The words filtered in through Tony’s layered mind, and he blinked in surprise, a little internal ‘ Ping’ sound that was reserved especially for notifying Tony of Steve’s presence going off in his brain. He looked up in response.

Yep. Steve was definitely there. And, of course, in response to the wonderful visual image of Steve Rogers walking into the kitchen wearing tight shorts and a sweat-damp running shirt, Tony felt his body react in a dozen different ways. His mouth turned upward in a smile, his hands flexed with the desire to fix his hair, and his heart fluttered around in his chest, to name a few. “Hey,” he responded, shifting a little in his seat. “How was the gentle morning marathon for you?”

Steve walked over to the counter, laughing as he did so. It was such a nice laugh. “Just fine, thank you.” He pulled a banana from the fruit bowl and then leaned against the kitchen surface, locking eyes with Tony. When he smiled, Tony’s chest tightened, and he took another gulp of coffee in order to try and ignore it. Steve’s head cocked a little, then he frowned. “You shouldn’t drink so much coffee, you know. It’s not good for your heart.”

Tony shrugged. “Shards of metal aren’t good for my heart either,” he quipped, “and being an Avenger probably doesn’t help. There’s worse things than coffee in my life, Steve.”

That made Steve’s face pull tight, and he sighed before reaching into the fruit bowl again and tossing Tony an apple. Tony raised an eyebrow, but Steve didn’t waver. “Eat that,” he said, pointing a finger at the piece of fruit, “it’s good for you.”

“I don’t think the apple is gonna make much of a diff--”

“Tony.” Steve pouted and folded his arms, the muscles and veins in his forearms twitching as he flexed, and oh good God that was hot. “Eat the apple or so help me God...”

“Alright, alright,” Tony hastily looked away before he could do something foolish like start drooling and bit into the apple. It tasted like shit, mixing jarringly with the lingering coffee in his mouth. But it took his attention away from Steve, at least. 

He still felt the other man watching him though. “Sure you’re feeling okay?” Steve asked, somewhat out of the blue. Tony turned to him, half-eaten apple still stuffed in his mouth, and gave him a thumbs-up. 

“Dandy,” he confirmed, wincing at a particularly bitter section. 

Steve seemed, for some reason, unconvinced; his eyes flicking down briefly toward Tony’s chest before he just shrugged. “If you say so. Still up for the movie tonight?” He asked, pulling away from the counter and starting to back off in the direction of the elevator, presumably to shower. 

“I actually think Pepper wants me in that meeting I attempted to cancel.” Steve stopped in his tracks in order to look at Tony disappointedly, and Tony just made an apologetic face. “I’ll buy Chinese on the way home and we can watch Friends?” 

That seemed to appease him, and Steve nodded in satisfaction. “Alright,” he agreed, “I’ll take that.” With one last smile, he turned on his heel and made his way over to the elevator, waving behind him. “I’ve gotta go to SHIELD today, so I probably won’t see you ‘til this evening. Have a good day- and make sure to eat lunch.”

Tony tamped down on his smile and watched Steve’s back as he walked away. “Alright, Grandma Rogers,” he mumbled under his breath.

Despite the distance, Steve turned his head. “Heard that,” he said wryly, and then disappeared behind the elevator doors before Tony could respond, leaving him alone in the kitchen with an empty cup in one hand and half an apple in the other. 

He sighed, putting both objects down and pointedly not looking over to the chrome fridge, where he knew he would inevitably catch sight of his slightly pink cheeks. He really needed to sort this issue out, dammit. He couldn’t just walk around blushing , that was completely unacceptable. He was Tony Stark. He did not blush, or giggle, or-- or swoon. Not for anyone. Not even when they had muscles that popped from shirts and a smile that made Tony feel physically warmed to his bones when it was directed at him.

Jesus. He was so screwed.



*

 

Of course, it only got worse from there. 

He was fine-tuned to Steve and his movements, and sort of always had been, even when he’d not-really-hated him. Steve just commanded space, even without meaning to. He was a big guy with heavy footsteps, and he stood like a soldier subconsciously. It was impossible not to know when Steve Rogers was nearby, no matter how hard he tried to be inconspicuous. 

But these days, Tony could barely even concentrate whenever he thought that Steve was in the vicinity, let alone the room. He’d started sitting differently in the kitchen and communal areas and he knew it-- back straighter, mouth shut, ass just a little pushed out, because he wasn’t going to waste his best asset, but he didn't want to be a total slut about it -- and that was just in preparation for Steve to walk in. 

He didn’t even want to analyse that particular set of behaviours, honestly. It would just be a humiliating experience. 

Anyway. There he would sit, reading or working or cooking in the kitchen, and then the elevator would open, he would hear a cough and Ping- there went his internal Steve Alert. Following that, inevitably, his body would respond. He’d get warm. His hands would go to his hair, his shirt, checking hurriedly that everything was in order. He’d feel his heart start to thump a little harder in his chest. Then Steve would say something like ‘hey’ and Tony would just have to do his level best to respond like a vaguely normal human being. He had a 90% success rate with that, which was pretty decent, all things considered. But it still wasn’t good enough, because he was pretty sure that Steve was starting to catch on. 

“Are you okay?” Steve asked one afternoon, a few seconds after sitting down on the couch beside Tony, who’d been trying to read through one of the new papers Reed Richards had released about hyperdynamic quantum loops until getting Pinged and ceasing to remember what any word other than ‘Steve’ meant. “You’ve been a little… tense, lately.”

Tony breathed out, blinking at the diagram in front of him before giving it up and tossing it to the side. He pushed his glasses up his nose. “Yeah, no, I’m good,” he said hurriedly, “just been busy.”

Steve hummed, then his gaze shifted on Tony’s face, a small smile forming as he waved a finger toward the frames of his reading glasses. He opened his mouth, but Tony got there first. “Yeah, yeah, get it out, Tony Stark wears glasses at home. Nothing you’re about to say hasn’t been said by Barton already--”

“No, I…” Steve’s words caught in his throat, and he raised a hand to the back of his neck, smiling bashfully. “They’re cute, is all,” he said, and then luckily, before Tony could splutter out an undoubtedly incoherent response to that comment, the man’s attention shifted elsewhere, his eyes turning up to look at the ceiling. Then he sniffed. “Bruce is making curry,” he muttered.

Tony frowned. “He’s like two floors up, how do you… can you smell that?” He asked incredulously, before the meaning behind the words themselves sunk in and he sat up straighter. “Wait-- he promised next time he made curry we could share.”

Steve’s face was grave. “I think we should go up and confront him, personally,” he said, “maybe bring some forks too. To help with the confrontation, you know.”

God, see, this was exactly why Tony was crazy about him. “You’re so right,” he responded with a grin, standing up at the same time as Steve and making his way hurriedly to the kitchen, “he better have made enough for us, the bastard.”

“If he hasn’t, we’ll just poke him with the forks until he makes more.”

Tony clicked his fingers. “See, they don’t call you the strategist for nothing.” 

Steve’s responding laugh made him feel inordinately proud, and he made the mistake of glancing over at the other man just as his eyes set on Tony and took a step closer, soft and fond and happy. He was so achingly beautiful, soft around the edges in his extra-extra-extra large sweater and Hulk slippers. Tony wanted to run his fingers through his hair and hold him, grip tight to the fibers of his clothes as he leaned up and learned what Steve Rogers’ mouth tasted like. 

He took a small breath and stepped away, casually putting the distance back between them while he pulled out the cutlery. That was just the proximity talking. Steve’s smile flickered away for a second, and Tony could have sworn the move was subtle, but maybe not quite subtle enough. “Let’s go harass Bruce,” he declared, just a touch too loudly. “I’m hungry.”

They made their way up, and Steve’s nose proved to be correct, because the man was indeed making his famous Lamb Tikka in attempted secrecy, the bastard. As it turned out, though, he had made enough for three-- he’d been wanting to eat the other portions later, but upon seeing Tony and Steve’s betrayed faces, he conceded and let them have it. 

Tony sat with one chair between him and Steve while they ate, for precaution. Steve’s gaze flicked over to the space, and he swallowed, but didn’t say anything. When Bruce came and filled the gap half a minute later, Tony forgot all about it. He just had to show some restraint, that was all. Being so close to Steve all the time was undoubtedly not going to help him top falling for him. Space was good. Even if it was just one chair’s worth of it. 

He made a point of enforcing that rule after that. He and Steve tended to gravitate toward one another naturally, so much so that Tony had stopped even thinking about going to sit or stand as close to Steve as possible. But that was just making everything worse. Closeness was intimacy, and Tony knew that all he needed was a brush of fingertips or a whiff of Steve’s cologne to turn him into a complete mess in under a minute. He couldn’t think of any other ways to stop it other than pulling away a little. Steve wouldn’t mind; at the end of the day, he still had the rest of the team. And it wasn’t like Tony was gone . He was just… one extra step away. 

That being said, some things didn’t even require proximity. Sometimes, Steve just being Steve managed to make Tony feel like a teenage girl watching her crush in awe from across the room. Case in point- Tuesday, in the SHIELD mess hall. 

“I cannot believe I am sitting here,” Tony grumbled as he took a spot on the bench next to Natasha, “this is the first time I’ve sat in a cafeteria since highschool.”

Clint poked him playfully in the ribs. “How does it feel to live amongst mortals?” 

“Uncomfortable.” Tony wrinkled his nose and poked at one of the limp salad leaves on his plate. “The SHIELD bodysuits don’t exactly have breathing room. I feel like I’m breathing in a hundred different BO’s.” 

He watched Steve roll his eyes from the opposite side of the table, and then prodded his speared lettuce into Steve’s vicinity. “Don’t roll your eyes at me, Mister,” he said, “you were complaining about the exact same thing last Tuesday.”

“No I wasn’t.”

“You absolutely were.”

“Nope.” Steve shrugged and picked up his spoon, mouth twitching. “Tuesday was when I complained about one agent’s body odor in particular. I complained about the general SHIELD body-odor problem on Sunday.”

Tony grinned and waved a hand. Now he thought about it, that was definitely true. You wouldn’t have thought Captain America was even capable of bad-mouthing anyone or anything, but once you got to know him in the way Tony did, you came to realise that Steve Rogers actually hated people. Sure, from a philosophical or general viewpoint he was all positive and followed that ‘I believe in the goodness of individuals’ mindset, but on a day-to-day basis, he tended to find a lot of stuff irritating. On the surface, he’d brush it off or try to excuse them, but Tony would see the way his eye would tick or his hands would flex, and he’d smile at the knowledge that he’d be getting a little rant about it later on when everyone was gone. Steve loved to complain. And Tony loved to listen to him complain. It reminded him of how un-Captain America Steve could be. Tony liked that. 

Beside him, Clint was asking Steve which agent he’d been talking shit about and rattling off a list of potential names, but Steve was too busy watching Tony, sharing a silent conversation that involved him glancing judgingly down at Tony’s food as if to say ‘what the fuck is that crap?’ . Tony poked him with his foot under the table in response, but in all honesty, Tony wasn’t even sure himself. Some sort of lettuce and vegetable concoction that might have tasted mediocre a day or two ago when it had been fresh, but now just tasted like wet grass and regret. The only reason they were eating here at all was because Clint’s leg was broken, and so traveling for lunch had become a lot more effort for their injured colleague. And seeing as they were supposed to be embodying team spirit and all, they’d made the sacrifice of just eating within SHIELD.

It was a sacrifice Tony would not be making again, mind you. 

“Can you two stop making swoony-eyes at one another and tell me which agent stinks enough to make Captain America wince?” Clint’s fist banging on the table made Tony jump and shoot him a glare, but Steve only sighed. 

“I was only joking,” he lied, glancing briefly to Tony in conspiracy, “everyone here smells lovely, Clint.”

“Well that’s not true,” Thor argued, nose wrinkling, “I mean, personally, I think all humans smell a little funny, but Clint especially is foul.”

“Hey!” Clint looked indignantly over to the God while everyone else just laughed, “humanity-- and me-- smell fine, actually.” 

Tony patted his shoulder. “Of course you do. Who doesn’t like the lingering smell of cheetos on a man?”

“Oh, shut up, just because you can only get a stiffie over clean-shaven American pie over there doesn’t mean that other people don’t go for the musk of a real man.”

Everyone shuddered and groaned at the same time, Tony subtly choosing to ignore the first point in favour of scoffing at the second, despite the fact that he could sense Steve had gone still opposite him. “We’re counting cheeto-dust as ‘real man musk’ now?” the other man commented, and Tony breathed a sigh of relief at the fact that Steve had also let the first part slide. 

Clint started saying something about the values of Cheetos to society at that moment, but Tony’s focus on him gradually shifted away and back over to Steve, noticing the man’s expression, which had suddenly stopped matching the lighthearted nature of their conversation. The smile which, mere seconds ago had been easy and loose, was now dead, sticking to his face jarringly as he glared at a point over Tony’s shoulder. A moment later, he lost the smile altogether, turning instead into a dark scowl.

Tony glanced behind him, but he didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. The rest of the mess hall was busy and full of chatter,  agents sat at tables and conversing over coffee. He turned his head back to his own table, but didn’t even get a chance to open his mouth and ask what had made Steve look like that, because suddenly the man was stood up, halting whatever it was Clint had been saying as all of them glanced at him in surprise. “Steve?” Bruce asked, glancing warily around the table, “are you--”

“One minute,” Steve muttered,  holding up a finger. Then without another word, he was striding away, cutting through the lingering agents and passing by tables, uncaring of the curious looks people were giving him. 

Tony looked quickly to Nat. “Should we go after him?” He asked, “he looks pissed.”

“What even happened?” Bruce piped up, “he was fine two seconds ago.”

“Think he’s just seen an agent he hates or something?”

“Nah, he wouldn’t react like that.” Tony craned his neck to look through the crowds, brow furrowed with concern as he watched Steve keep walking, until he made it to the end of the mess a good 30 meters away. “Hold on. He’s talking to one of the guys.”

With morbid curiosity, all the team watched as Steve leaned his hands against the table occupied by three young men, all of them eating their lunch. His posture was tense and flexed, eyes hard as he said something to the guys that none of the team had a chance of hearing over the racket. Tony watched as the smile dropped off the man’s face slowly while Steve continued to talk. He shifted in his seat like a naughty school boy, cheeks pink, eyes down on the floor. “What the hell is going on?” Natasha asked sharply, “Tony, do you know--”

“Nope, this is new.” Tony shrugged helplessly, and then jerked in a motion to stand when he watched Steve lean in closer, a fairly obvious threatening pose. He wasn’t going to fight that guy, surely?

But a second later, after some furious nodding from the poor SHIELD agent, Steve leaned back. He said something else, to which the man continued to nod along with, and then once he was satisfied, Steve turned and started to walk back once more. Just like that. 

The team remained silent, right until Steve slipped back into place with them. Then they burst:

“What was that about?” 

“Who was that?”

“Are you okay?

“What did they do?”

“It doesn’t matter, guys,” Steve sighed and picked up his spoon again, his eyes catching with Tony for a second before looking away, “it’s sorted--”

“What’s sorted? You can’t just do that and then not tell us the beef, man,” Clint pouted and leaned forward on the table, but Steve remained unmoved, his shoulders stiff as he shook his head.

“Let’s just leave it, okay? It’s not any of your business,” he snapped, but once more, almost subconsciously, Tony watched Steve’s gaze brush over his again. Tony knew enough about body-language to be able to tell that clearly, in some way, this was something to do with him. Although he admittedly didn’t have a clue as to what that something was, exactly. 

However, he did know that Steve was Steve, and so undoubtedly when Tony asked him next time they were alone, he’d spill. He might not tell the others, but it was different with Tony. Steve let himself go a little more when it was Tony he was talking to. 

And, of course, that moment came not even a day later, while Steve was puttering around making his evening cup of tea in the communal kitchen. After their time in the mess together, Tony hadn’t been able to get much social time with him where he could ask about it-- too busy arguing with Fury and the WSC over a video-conference. By the time he’d gotten back to the tower, the most he’d communicated with Steve was adding on to the man’s arguments as to why the Avengers were a necessary part of the SHIELD roster and sharing an occasional exasperated look. 

Tony padded down the stairs into the communal area, clad in his pajamas and clutching his trusty StarkTab, and searched out the coffee machine, but found Steve instead. Ping . The man was slumped against the countertop, watching the kettle absently while it boiled. He looked tired, which was understandable-- Tony was worn out from all the bureaucracy of the day too, and he’d been doing this shit for years, so God only knew how poor Steve felt. 

Sometimes Tony remembered how young the guy still was, and it made something in him start to ache painfully, so he tried not to think about it too much. He knew Steve had made these choices of his own volition; chosen this path, warts and all. Even if a part of that meant arguing the level of his own value to a council of old fucks who thought he was too expensive to have been pulled out of the ice. 

“Hey,” he said quietly, smiling when Steve turned to look at him. 

The smile was returned. “Hey,” Steve responded, twisting his hips around and facing Tony properly. “You want in on the green tea? I’ve made enough for two.” There was a twinkle in his eye that told Tony he knew exactly who it was he was asking that question to, but Tony still felt obliged to decline him politely. 

“I think I’ll pass, thanks,” he said with a wry smile, bumping their shoulders together as he made his way over to the cereal cupboard. He felt Steve’s eyes on his back as he leaned up to grab the Cheerios, but forced himself to remain composed.

It was just a look. Hundreds, sometimes thousands of people looked at him every day. He was very used to looks. 

They quietly worked on their separate tasks for a few minutes; Tony making his bowl of cereal and Steve pouring out his tea. They both ended up sitting opposite one another at the breakfast bar, talking idly about the events of the day in quiet tones. Steve’s frustration at what had happened during the meetings was palpable, but Tony assured him that most of what the WSC had been spouting was just empty promises and hollow threats that would never come about, which seemed to make him relax a little. Their conversation came easily as always, and the next time Tony glanced over to the little clock on the oven, it was midnight. He didn’t even mind that he was tired. He would keep talking to Steve until their words ran out. 

“So,” he cleared his throat and leaned forward in his seat, looking at Steve with a raised set of eyebrows, “we’ve gotten through most of the topics from today, right-- so all we have left to talk about is that show in the mess hall this afternoon.” Steve sighed and leaned back, but Tony was not perturbed, holding his hands together in prayer as he looked at Steve. “Come on, Steve, tell me why you went all Deadly Captain America on them, pretty pretty pretty please--”

“Tony, it’s not important--”

“It is totally important, Steve. Gossip gives me an endorphin rush, you know this. I want to hear what they did that was bad enough that Captain America had to get involved. Were they staring at a lady’s ass? Did they litter?”

“Tony--”

“Just you and me here, Steve, I won’t tell a soul, and I saw you looking at me when you sat back down, so it was either something to do with me or something you really wanted to tell me. Oh my God, wait, were they the guys you were talking about a few weeks ago who tried to send around that sheet for everyone to sign saying that Agent Sitwell needed to remove the stick from his--”

“They were saying that you didn’t belong there. With them. SHIELD.” Steve’s expression was tight, that unhappy look back on his face again, and Tony’s mouth snapped shut in surprise. He hadn’t expected that. “They were just… I just heard them being assholes to you, and I know they would never have had the courage to say it to your face, ‘cause you would’a torn ‘em a new one, but I couldn’t just sit there and listen to them say that stuff about you, so…” He shrugged, that terribly wonderful Brooklyn accent coming out in his anger, “I told ‘em exactly where they could stick it, and exactly who belonged where.”

Silence fell in the room as Tony just stared blankly over at Steve and tried to process that. He had a lot of questions. “What exactly was it they were saying?” Was the one he chose first, and at Steve’s conflicted look, Tony just cocked his head tiredly. “Steve, believe me, whatever it was, I’ll have heard worse. Just tell me.”

“That doesn’t exactly make me feel better you know,” Steve mumbled, before sighing and then leaning forward on the chair. “They were just… I dunno, they started talking about how they had the Avengers sitting in with them at lunch, and how cool it was… and then one of them brought you up, and-- and that you stuck out like a sore thumb because you were ‘just a rich civilian trying to play hero’, and you’d… uh, you’d probably just slept your way into the team and stuff.” His cheeks went pink at that, fist clenching angrily. “And it was just-- it was so stupid, I couldn’t even believe what I was hearing, so I went over and I, ah, I had words with them. And they said they wouldn’t say things like that again. So."

Tony felt like he wasn’t breathing right, and he took a split second to try and understand what Steve was telling him. “You reamed them out for… for being mean to me,” he stated dumbly, blinking at Steve and waiting for confirmation. “Why would you… what did you even say ?”

Steve’s cheeks went a little pinker then, but he held his chin up obstinately. “I set them straight, is all. Said that you were a better man than they ever will be, and that the only reason they were able to sit there and talk shit was because Iron Man was out there risking his life to save everyone. Then I said if they wanted to keep their jobs, they’d shut the fuck up and keep your name out of their mouths. They seemed to take that to heart.” He smiled tightly, but it didn’t last, and a moment later he was leaning over the table and resting his hand over Tony’s wrist, fingers curling around his skin. “They’re fuckin’ idiots, Tony. Don’t take a shred of notice about what they say. Everyone with two brain-cells to rub together knows you’re a hero through and through, and nothing they say is ever gonna change that. They’re assholes, but you… you’re the best person I know. And I-- I won’t ever let someone talk about you like that.”

Tony looked down slowly at the way Steve was holding him, gentle yet resolute as his thumb started to brush across Tony’s wrist and send sparks of energy right down into his bones. Steve's smile had turned more real by then, soft, sleep-worn and framed by those perfect pink lips that Tony wanted nothing more than to-

Ping Ping Ping Ping Ping-- his Steve-Alarm was suddenly blaring in his ears as he became aware of all of the variables in this situation. He and Steve were both leaning forward on opposite ends of the table, and their faces had gotten close. Kissing-distance close. It was late at night, both of them were tired, and no one else was around. Tony could feel Steve’s ankle brushing up against his, and Steve was dangerously close to flat-out holding his hand.

Oh God. This wasn’t good. What if he did something terrible, like lean forward and close that small little gap between their mouths? Because he sure as hell wanted to. Goddamnit, Steve was just sitting there in his sweatpants, all earnest and amazing and beautiful, and he’d just told Tony about how he’d gone to bat for him without a single moment of hesitation, and Tony could count on his hand how many people had done that. Why did Steve have to be so… so Steve all the time, dammit? Why did he have to do stuff like that, stuff that some delusional part of Tony’s psyche might interpret to mean that Steve cared about him more than he cared about everyone else? He didn’t. Steve would do that for everyone. He’d do it for a stranger.

But in this one instance, he hadn’t done it for a stranger. He’d stood up and he’d walked those 30 meters and he’d done it for Tony . And that was the part that was sending him reeling more than anything.

“You’ve…. You’ve got good hearing,” he commented weakly, because it was better than what he wanted to say. Better than blurting ‘I think I might love you’ into the otherwise silent room. 

Oh God. Did Tony love him?

Fuck. Fuck

“Guess so,” Steve responded, but his face was morphing, turning a little tighter, “talking of good hearing-- are you okay? You, uh, your h--”

“Fine. I’m fine.” Tony leaned back hastily and took in a sharp breath, trying desperately to weather the emotional storm with a straight face while his mind was internally screaming ‘ oh God oh God oh no you can’t fall in love with him, you can’t, that will tear you apart, you cannot be falling in love with him, please don’t fall in love with him, no no no no no no-’ “just… you didn’t need to do that for me, Steve.”

“I know.” Steve shrugged, “I just wanted to. You deserve so much better.” There was a beat of silence where Tony felt those words settle around him; agonizingly heartfelt and entirely platonic. Steve’s frown grew deeper, his eyes flicking down to Tony’s chest just for a second. “Tony, are you-- if I said something...”

Oh God. Tony must be giving it away. He’d thought his face was blank, he’d practised that for so long by then, but Steve might have spotted a tick or something, a tick that revealed Tony’s spiralling pit of emotions.

Damage control. He needed to do damage control. 

“God, it just hit me how wiped out I am,” Tony laughed nervously and ran a hand through his hair, shuffling further back away from Steve. “Think my body’s telling me it’s time to sleep, actually.”

Steve wasn’t biting. He looked at Tony warily. “It doesn’t seem like it,” he began, but Tony waved him off with a chuckle and then got hurriedly to his feet, hearing the chair scrape gratingly across the tiles. It was too loud. He was too loud. All his life, he’d gone and done shit like this. Ruined something good with his stupid emotional conflict, his oversensitivity. He’d used to be a cryer, Jarvis had once told him- quiet kid, always felt just a little too much. Too hurt by this, too upset about that, and why the hell did that even matter now? He was digressing. He was panicking. Point was, Tony needed to just… just not do that here. This was important. This was the most important thing Tony was ever going to do with his life, and he was doing it side by side with one of the best men Tony had ever known, and he could not ruin this. 

“Sorry, I just, uh, it’s a busy day tomorrow. Meetings, etcetera.” Tony waved a hand and smiled as he stepped backward. He needed to get away from Steve. “Thank you. Seriously. That is… that’s one of the nicest things someone has done for me in a long time. Uh. So. Yeah. Goodnight.” 

Steve made a small noise in the back of his throat, but Tony didn’t stick around to hear what words it might have made. As quickly as he could while remaining casual, Tony engaged in a tactical retreat, heart thumping like a jack-hammer in his beaten old chest. Steve was onto him. He had to be. He’d been looking at Tony with concern rife on his face, like he could see where Tony’s mind was wandering and he didn’t know how to tell him to stop. And it wasn’t exactly as if Tony had been being subtle about it; leaning into Steve’s space, smiling up at him through under his eyelashes, accidentally-on-purpose making their knees brush under the breakfast bar. God, he was making a fucking fool of himself. He’d told himself he’d try and cut it out, and instead, he was just getting worse. 

What he needed was some self restraint. Granted, that had been a rather elusive personality trait in his life so far, but now the stakes were higher. His friendship with Steve was on the line. This was a gamble that he couldn’t afford to bet on, and he needed to sort himself out before it got too late to turn back. 

He wasn’t in love with Steve. Love itself was just a chemical reaction in the brain that was triggered by close proximity to others. Human beings were pack animals, and they relied on these chemicals to keep them connected to one another. Ergo, if Tony just kept his distance, properly this time, his feelings would fade. It was just plain logic.

So he did just that. 

The next morning, Tony didn’t come down for breakfast at his normal time. Instead, he waited for an extra hour, until he knew that Steve would have gone in to work. When he arrived in the kitchen, as predicted, only Clint and Bruce were present. His mug of coffee was still on the counter though. Cold, now. But Steve had still made it, even though Tony hadn’t showed up to take it from him that time. He wasn’t sure why the sight of the abandoned cup made something clench up inside him, but it did. However, it was a good start. Changing up their routine would make things less… domestic, between them, and Tony would stop connoting their shared actions as some sort of couple-thing. 

He didn’t even see Steve that day. Not once. He busied himself with meetings, work, appointments and R&D, and whiled away his evening hours tinkering with Iron Man. It was nice and comforting to slip back into that particular pattern, although Tony had to admit, it felt strange not to be… around people. Living with the team even for this short period of time had gotten him used to company in most aspects of his life, even if it was just a quietly shared lunch or quick yells of goodbye as he walked out of doors. So the complete silence of his StarkIndustries office was what had become unorthodox. 

Steve texted him a few times, but Tony informed him he was swamped, and then Steve stopped. Which was good. 

By day three, he’d done all his paperwork and caught up with his meetings, so he instead holed himself up in the workshop and focused on some fine-tuning. The fingers of the suit could always be made more dexterous; it was just a matter of finding where the weakness was. Which he did, obviously, because he was awesome and his mind hadn’t stopped racing ever since his conversation with-- 

Ping

“You realise you’ve been in here for 12 hours, right?” Tony looked up as Steve stepped into the workshop, smiling gently and holding a plate of sandwiches. He was dressed in his casual gear- jeans and a grey shirt with the top buttons undone- and his hair was slightly damp, probably from showering. “You haven’t even come up for air yet. I could only ask JARVIS about your wellbeing for so long before having to intervene.”

Tony blinked owlishly at him, trying to find something to respond with that was cool and collected and utterly masked the way he could hear his pulse in his own ears. “Sorry,” he muttered in the end, “got distracted.”

Steve wandered closer, and Tony felt his shoulders start to tense, his mind blaring out ‘danger: proximity’. One whiff of Steve’s shampoo when Tony was wound up like this and who knew what would happen. 

Unfortunately, it seemed Steve clocked the action. He went still, face moving through a range of emotions that were then carefully hidden away a nanosecond later. One of them looked like hurt. Nevertheless, he pushed on. “I made you sandwiches,” he said in forced cheeriness, waving the plate around. “You should eat them. You’re bound to be--”

“I will. Thank you, Steve.” Oh God, this felt physically painful . He was looking at Steve, and the man was wearing a shirt that was extra-extra-extra-extra large just so that it would hang loosely on him because he said that he found big shirts comforting, and he was bringing Tony sandwiches that he hadn’t even bought, but ones he’d made himself, and Tony had the briefest of urges to run his fingers through Steve’s damp strands of hair, twist them up into bunches and clip them into place so his hair dried curly. It was stupid. It was all so stupid, how one look at a man could make Tony’s brain explode, make his hands shake and his heart clench. 

He looked away. “Sorry. I’m, uh, busy right now. I’ll be up in a few hours.”

Steve stood there for another moment, then took a small breath in like he was going to say something. Tony glanced up automatically, and he saw the way Steve was looking at him as if he’d just been punched in the gut. Tony thought this was going to be it; that Steve was going to snap then, start a fight, ask why Tony was being so curt. Steve wasn’t one to just let something lie, and that had always been something Tony admired him. If something was wrong, he faced it head-on. He wasn’t like Tony. He wasn’t a coward.

But in the end, he didn’t say anything else. Instead, his whole body seemed to sag a little, shoulders hunching in on themselves like he was trying to make himself smaller while he took a step back. “Okay,” he muttered, voice unnaturally soft, “sorry. I… guess I’ll see you round then.”

“Yeah.”

“Right.” Steve bit his lip, stepping back slowly. “Bye. Sorry.”

And with that, he turned and walked away hurriedly, continuing to keep his shoulders tucked in as if he wanted to be half the size he was. Tony watched him until his back disappeared around the corner, before sighing heavily and running a hand over his face. He knew he wasn’t doing the right thing. But there was no right thing here. Any move Tony made would only end in disaster. He just needed to try and find the path that caused least harm. Sure, Steve might be hurt that Tony was being blunt with him for a few days, pulling away a little- but it wasn’t like he’d really miss Tony. Not for long, anyway. And then after Tony had gotten over this, they could start again; maybe with some more space between them this time, in case of a relapse. 

He kept up the pattern, in any case. Avoided Steve when he could. Left at the next available opening if he couldn’t. He tried not to look Steve in the eye, lest the other man see something hidden within Tony’s gaze that he wasn’t supposed to see, and also made a point of keeping a firm distance between the two of them to prevent accidental contact. His Steve-Alarm continued to blare in his ears if ever Steve walked into a room, sending his breath stuttering to a halt and his heart thrumming painfully under his chest, but for all intents and purposes, he did his level best to pretend as if Steve did not exist. 

It was agony. That was a given. But what was even worse was the fact that, even after a few days, it didn’t seem to be helping. In fact, it was just making things worse. 

He’d thought Steve might get pissed. Snap at him, ask him flat-out why he was being such a dick. He’d been prepared for that. It was an angle he knew how to work, and no one could argue like Steve and Tony could argue. The fallout from that might even have given him a few extra days of unchallenged absence from Steve’s life as they both cooled off. 

But Steve wasn’t getting pissed. He was getting… sad. 

He’d tried, in the first few days, to keep up a conversation if Tony came into a room, but even that only lasted a short period before he just seemed to give up, which, admittedly, hurt just a smidge. He stopped talking when Tony came into a room, stopped greeting him. He’d still smile if Tony caught his eye, but it was a strange one, like Tony was a scared animal or a frightened civilian, and his body would become so hunched and tense-looking that Tony thought he might pop a vertebra. And if Tony didn’t leave first, then it started to be Steve who did the honor and scurried from the room with a hasty farewell muttered under his breath. Tony couldn’t make sense of it. He didn’t think Steve had ever run from a confrontation in his whole life before right now. But when it came to this, he was sprinting full-speed away, and looking like Tony had ripped his heart out along the way. 

He couldn’t stand it. He didn’t understand it. 

It had been seven days. Seven days of ignoring Steve had taken a toll on Tony, physically and mentally-- and not remotely in the ways that he’d hoped for. Instead of forgetting about him or finding the emotions to fade, they just got worse. He started to miss Steve like an ache; miss the way he smiled at Tony as they shared a joke, or how he’d always check in on Tony to see if he was doing okay. He thought about Steve constantly, and nothing he did could distract him for long. Everything just circled straight back. Not to mention the mounting guilt he was feeling over how this was affecting Steve. The whole team was telling Tony to sort himself out, giving him the same talk from a different angle each time. But they didn’t get it. Tony was trying to sort himself out. This was what it looked like. He just had no idea why it was making Steve look so damn sad, and why he hadn’t called Tony out about it yet. Anger, shouting, sneering, snarling, all of that Tony could take-- but the clear unhappiness? The meekness, like Steve had gone right back to how he started before Tony, before life had picked up for him? Tony hated thinking he’d done that. It made him want to hit himself. He knew he wasn’t a good guy, but for some reason, the thought of Steve starting to realise that was just a different level of agony entirely. 

And then Steve called him. 

Thursday evening, 8:09 PM, while Tony was lying on the floor fixing the boot of his armour, his phone rang, and JARVIS told him it was Steve. Calling him. At first, Tony just thought it was because Steve was out, but then he asked JARVIS where the man was, and he responded with, “The kitchen, Sir.”

Tony blinked, paused for a second, then sat up. “Why is he calling from the kitchen?” He asked incredulously. 

“I cannot answer that, seeing as he didn’t divulge the information. Would you like me to reject his call?”

Tony bit his lip. He knew if he wanted this whole thing to work, he couldn’t have any lapses where he let Steve back in, even if it was just for a little bit. 

But it was starting to make Steve upset. And Tony’s resolve was quietly crumbling with each sad little look that appeared on the other man’s face. If he was being realistic, he knew that he simply couldn’t keep this up for much longer. He’d thought avoidance would make things better, but it was making things worse instead, and Tony… Tony just didn’t want Steve to be miserable over this. He’d much rather take anger, which was undoubtedly the emotion that would become most prevalent once Tony came clean about everything.

That was the only option he had left, really. Maybe then Steve would actually encourage the distance between them. Tony would get what he wanted, and Steve would get the truth. He sure seemed to fucking love that. 

“Put him through,” Tony mumbled quietly, shutting his eyes as he heard the line crackle to life. Dread was mounting in his stomach and he felt a little nauseous, but he straightened his back and kept his voice even as he said, “hey, Steve. You want something?”

There was a short silence. And then, “Hi. I, uh, I’m in the kitchen.”

“I know. JARVIS informed me. Why are you calling from the kitchen? You could have just come down.”

“I thought…” Steve trailed off, his voice tired. He didn’t sound like the Steve Tony was used to. “Just thought you might be more comfortable like this. Uh. Anyway. I was wondering if you could come up here for a minute or two. I just need to talk to you, that’s all. Nothing else. I promise.”

Tony frowned, a mixture of mild confusion and intense dread. But he couldn’t put this off, not when Steve had given him an opportunity right on a platter. He may as well confess to everything now. No biggie. There was a bottle of Jack Daniels under his desk just for occasions like this, after all. It’d be fine. The whiskey would wash down the gut-wrenching rejection and breakdown of his relationship with Steve. “Sure,” he said tightly, “I'll be right up.”

Steve hummed, said a soft “thank you”, and then promptly hung up the phone. Immediately after the line went dead, Tony cursed, getting unsteadily to his feet. For every step forward, it felt like there were weights on his feet, and as he got into the elevator, he felt somewhat as if he were in the waiting chambers for his execution; that small little room they kept you in, where you could hear the world chanting outside and the shackles clanked heavily around your bound wrists. No escape. All he could see when he looked straight ahead was his own anxious face, reflected back by all the gaudy fucking chrome. He was definitely redecorating. This shit was ridiculous. 

Oh God, he didn’t want Steve to hate him. He really, really didn’t want Steve to hate him. Please. Anything but that.

The elevator doors opened, and this time, the little Ping resonated at the same time as he heard his own funeral bell toll. He spotted Steve at the kitchen table, head drooped low, fiddling with his hands, and as soon as the other man turned and looked over at him, Tony just knew he was doomed. This wouldn’t go well. Not when Steve was already looking like that. 

“Hey,” Steve said softly, “how are you?”

Tony took a stiff step forward. “Great,” was his response, voice horribly forced, and it was only now that he was here that he realised how little he actually wanted to have this conversation. He could go back to just loving Steve and keeping him close at the same time. Excruciating, yes, but not half as bad as this. “You wanted to talk?”

Yell at me. Be horrible to me. Call me shitty. Please, just don’t look so sad .

Steve shuffled, but he nodded once and then looked over at Tony, taking in another small breath as if to steady himself. Tony waited on the other side of the room for whatever Steve was about to say, and mentally prepared his own speech at the same time. 

“I just want to start with-- I just wanted…” Steve’s words fumbled out of his own mouth like he had no control over them, throat working rapidly whilst his hands squeezed one another white at the table. “I wanted you to know that I’m just so sorry, Tony.”

That...what?

Steve swallowed, unaware of Tony’s mental blue-screen as he sat straighter and faced Tony on his seat. His face was drawn, too pale, like he hadn’t been sleeping right. A little bit of hair stuck out over his ear. He did that when he was stressed; tugged at his hair with his hands, messed with it, scrunched it up. Tony had noticed that. 

Steve looked like he was struggling with something, glancing quickly at Tony and then looking away again just as fast. His expression was pained as he eventually seemed to find his words. “Listen. I know I’m enhanced,” he confessed the statement as if it were a sin, hands going up in a show of peace, “and I know… I know that that can be intimidating. I control it as best I can. I don’t… show it, as much as I could, around people, because I’m aware that if they realised how much I could do, they’d get… you know. They might get uncomfortable.” 

Steve looked down at his own hands and did what almost looked to be a scowl. As if he was ashamed. Tony had no idea what angle he was coming from here, but he was stuck to the spot, listening as Steve carried on. “And I thought… I know this isn’t an excuse, my timing for everything was fucking shitty and it doesn’t change the way I made you feel, but I just thought that-- that seeing as I was settling in around here, becoming good friends with you, that I could -- you know -- just sort of show it a little more. Be myself. So I… you know, I did the whole thing with smelling Bruce’s curry from two floors up and, and the weirdly good hearing, and how I told you when I saw Natasha at that meeting in one of the skyscrapers built next to ours a few weeks ago rather than just keeping it to myself.” He shrugged, clenching his jaw tight. “It was cruel of me to not ask first. I just-- I assumed, and I shouldn’t have, and then with all of that fresh in your mind I then go and make it blatantly fucking obvious that I’m into you, and now you’re… you’re all--”

“Steve, what the fuck are you talking about?” Tony could hardly even believe his ears-- was Steve having an episode? Of course Tony knew he was enhanced; it was pretty fucking impossible to miss. And yeah, okay, finding out that Steve could do all of that was a surprise- Tony had known he was enhanced, obviously, but he'd never really thought about what that entailed, or what those enhancements could be used for. But whereas Tony was pretty damn impressed by all of it, it seemed Steve felt guilty that he had the ability to do that. Tony was baffled.

“I know you’re scared of me, Tony.”

That managed to make Tony's brain grind to a halt completely, and he felt his face scrunch up. This was all just so, so far away from how he’d expected this conversation to go. “I’m not goddamn scared of you.”

“Your heart speeds up when I’m around you.” Steve looked absolutely goddamn miserable when he said that, staring up at Tony as if nothing in his life was ever going to go right again. “I can hear it. It was… I'd noticed it before, and I thought it was just a coincidence, but then I started to listen in, and it was-- it was every time. And then after that night in the kitchen, when I acted like a fuckin’ idiot and tried to… and made my feelings clear, it all got even worse. You don’t even look at me anymore. You leave when I come into a room, and when you see me, I can just hear your heart skyrocket, see your pupils dilate. Christ , Tony, I watched soldiers react like that when they thought they were going to die .” He breathed out shakily and leaned forward, holding his head in his hands. “It was only afterward that I realised how fucking stupid I’d been, trying to hit on you right after I’d let you know exactly how much I'm capable of. But Tony, I need--”

“Steve, I--”

“--I need you to know, okay, I would never, ever hurt you.” Steve’s palms went flat against one another, and Tony just watched, stricken, as Steve bit his lips and looked up at Tony with sheer damn desperation in his eyes. “If I ever made you think that, even for a second , or if you felt like I was pressuring you to do something you didn’t want to do, then I am-- I’m so fucking sorry. I wouldn’t… I just wouldn’t. And I know that it’s not necessarily what I would do, but what I could do that scares people, but I need you to know, okay, whatever my feelings are for you, I won’t ever do anything--”

“I’m in love with you.” The words had left Tony’s mouth before he could stop them, and he could only watch on in detached curiosity as Steve’s spew of senseless apologies ceased in his throat, grinding to a half with a little ‘oh’ sound. His eyes went wide, and he stilled in his seat as he looked at Tony.

“What,” he said dumbly, “are… what?”

“That’s why my heartbeat was speeding up.” Tony swallowed and stepped forward, because if he was doing this, then he may as well do it fucking right. He was the one who had been letting Steve sit and stew in all these untrue ideas about himself, about what Tony thought of him, and now the last thing on Earth Tony cared about was his own fucking feelings. He would do whatever he needed to to make Steve stop thinking that. “That’s why my pupils were dilating. I saw you, and a switch in me would just flick on, and I’d get all… Christ, I'd just get all fucking flustered, okay?”

Steve was watching him blankly, mouth slowly opening wider as Tony spoke. It seemed as if he couldn’t believe it at all, which was a trip in itself, because he was convinced that Steve had been onto him about the whole thing from the very beginning. 

But no. Instead, Steve had thought Tony was scared of him. Christ.

“You can really hear my heartbeat?” He asked when the silence became too stifling.

For a moment, it seemed Steve wasn’t even going to respond, and instead just stare at him, but then he came back to life with a small cough. “Uh. Yeah. I can hear a lot of stuff, actually.”

“Like those guys on the other side of the room when they were talking in the crowded cafeteria.”

“Yeah.”

“Can you hear through the walls?”

Steve shrugged. “Some. You soundproofed a few floors though, and I can’t listen through them.” His eyes widened and he threw up his hands again. “Not that I purposefully listen through walls, oh God, I just… I can’t help it, I can just hear people talking sometimes and my brain automatically tunes in, I promise I--”

“Steve.” Tony lurched forward on unsteady feet, hands outstretched. He had no idea what he was going to do with them until the moment he settled them on Steve’s shoulders, gripping tight. He needed Steve to know this. “I am not worried about that. Nothing of the sort has ever even crossed my mind. I am not afraid of you, I am not worried about how much you are capable of, because what you are capable of is something amazing , and I’m so glad that you felt comfortable enough to start sharing that with me.”

Steve looked up at him, and there was a vulnerability there, a sense of fear. “Not even a little bit?” He asked, and Tony’s stomach felt like it had a lead weight inside of it, because Steve genuinely seemed to have gotten it into his head that he was something to be afraid of, and that was Tony’s stupid stupid fault. 

“Steve. You won’t even let us kill any of the spiders in the house. You get them in a glass and you take them into the elevator, right down to the ground level before letting them go. You care so much it’s insane. And yeah, maybe if you marched around everywhere punching through steel and being overly aggressive all the time, I’d be more wary, but you don’t. You take active steps to make people more comfortable around you. You smile and you talk softly and you call people Ma’am even though I know you hate them, and I’m so sorry that I made you think that I was freaked out by anything you did. Because I wasn’t.”

“Then why did you… why were you acting so strangely?”

Oh, and wasn’t that the fucking question? Because he was emotionally constipated? Because he was a piece of shit who had no idea how to process emotions correctly? Hell, he was barely even doing it now. Somewhere in the back of his mind, the words ‘Steve has feelings for you’ were looping around and around and around, but he was simply refusing to acknowledge that part, otherwise he knew this entire conversation would collapse. He was scared to bring it up, in case Steve took it away from him. In case it wasn’t real. 

Tony bit his lip, hands sliding away from Steve’s shoulders. But Steve caught them before Tony could move too far, holding them softly but keeping him close. “Tony,” he said again, sounding a little desperate. He adored the way Steve said his name. The soft drawling ‘o’ sound that told of an accent long since buried away, then the lift in pitch when he moved on to the last syllable. It made Tony feel like his name meant something when it was in Steve’s mouth, rather than just being like any other collection of sounds that defined people. 

“I love you,” Tony repeated, shutting his eyes, because again, he was too scared to see the rejection on Steve’s face, “I love you, and I realised I loved you when you told me about what you said to those guys that night, and it was fucking… it was overwhelming, Steve. I can’t do this. I don’t know how, and I didn’t want to ruin one of the best friendships I had, so I thought if I pulled away, it would all stop. That I’d be able to go back.” When he opened his eyes and looked down at Steve’s wide eyes, his pale hands cupping over Tony’s and the way he looked so tantalisingly close to being hopeful, Tony realised it: 

“I can’t go back. I can’t just un-fall for you. It’s… it’s you , Steve. How could I possibly forget everything that makes me love you?”

There was a short pause where neither of them moved; Tony rooted to the spot in terror at his own admittance, Steve just trying to process it all. Then, with a fumbled grace, Steve stood up from the chair. His chest bumped Tony’s, all those inches of height suddenly looming on him, changing the angle so that Tony was the one looking up now. He could still feel Steve’s fingers curled around his own, and when Steve glanced down briefly toward them, his nose brushed Tony’s. 

“Your heartbeat is going crazy right now,” he whispered, his whole body rocking forward just a touch as he said it.

Tony nodded. “Well, I did just pour my heart out to you. I don’t normally do that stuff. Ever. So.”

“I love you too, you know that, right?”

Tony swallowed. He was certain that he was gonna wake up, any minute now. “Well, in hindsight-- you know, there may have possibly been some evidence to suggest--”

Steve kissed him, then. Just leaned down, closed off that agonizing space between them and kissed him softly. His lips were warm and his nose slotted into exactly the right place, and he could tell that Steve was kind of terrified, but even in its nervousness, it still managed to be perfect. 

Steve pulled away slightly after a second or two, looking down at Tony and swallowing. “Was that-- is this okay?”

He thought Steve was joking with him until he saw the look on the other man’s face, the traces of worry that still lingered. Like Tony was just-- just saying this without meaning it, kissing him for the hell of it. It was 21 years of being skinny and sickly and thinking he was never good enough for anyone, and then 6 years of being so tall and strong that no one would even touch him unless it was to kill him. 

Tony moved his hands up to Steve’s neck, thumbs stroking lightly across his jaw. He felt like he was floating an inch off the ground Like his body was buzzing with the high of something he’d taken. But he knew that he was sober. All of this was Steve. The world moved so fast that Tony had been sure their entire friendship was over not even ten minutes ago, and now he was here, holding Steve’s face in his hands, and he could smell the detergent Steve used on his clothes and the apple-shampoo he put in his hair, and Tony realised that if he didn’t screw this up, he was going to be able to bring to life every dream he’d ever had about the other man. He’d be able to run his hands through Steve’s hair and sit in his lap during movies and possibly other times, and he’d be able to rub Steve’s shoulders when his day got too long. They would be able to kiss at the table and make everyone roll their eyes, and go to sleep together and wake up together and just love one another, no complications, no unrequited feelings. Just love.

He wasn’t sure if there was even a way to accurately describe quite how that made him feel- there just weren’t enough words in the universe. But he didn’t need to say it, after all. Not when he could show it.

Tony leaned up and pushed their mouths together again, feeling like every single nerve-ending in his body was on fire, but in such a delicious way that he couldn’t help but sigh, feeling Steve’s mouth open for him, feeling himself falling forward into Steve’s waiting arms that were strong enough to hold him without even the slightest of difficulty. The thought of being afraid of that was absurd. Steve wasn’t an attacker; at his very core, if you stripped him of everything else, he was a protector, and he had been since way before the serum had amplified that. 

Plus, if he was going to be superficial about it, those arms could definitely hold him up against the wall and allow Steve to have his wicked way with him, and that was more than enough of a reason for Tony to love how strong he was. 

Like he was reading Tony’s thoughts, Steve’s arms wrapped around his waist, pressing him in close as the kiss grew deeper and then tilting his head to find the perfect angle as he pushed. Then, seemingly gaining confidence with each second, his tongue slid gently over Tony’s bottom lip while his hand dropped lower toward the small of his back, fingers just teasing above the seam of his sweatpants, and Jesus Christ, Tony took it back, the man was dangerous .

Tony breathed out shakily, trying to stop himself from making a noise. “Who taught you to kiss, Captain?” He asked with a small smile, the words messy and slurred as they were blocked by Steve’s mouth, absorbed into his lips. 

Steve huffed in response, cheeks flushed pink and chest heaving. He was looking down at Tony like he was the best thing that had happened in Steve’s life. “Well, if I’m being honest, I spent a lot of time imagining this. So I’m just putting theory into practise now.”

Oh . Tony shivered, feeling Steve’s hands on his waist as they guided him over to the counter and then lifted him up, placing him on the surface with a small, nervous smile. Tony’s hands held onto the fabric of Steve’s shirt, keeping him close, opening his legs so Steve could get as close as possible. “Were you really trying to make a move on me that night?” He asked, cocking his head. 

Steve chuckled softly and dropped his forehead into Tony’s shoulder with embarrassment. “I said that you were the best person I know while I was holding your hand. There wasn’t really much more I could do whilst remaining subtle, you know.”

“You could have just said, ‘hey Tony, I want to stick my tongue down your throat’, and then none of this would have had to happen.”

Steve frowned. “That would have been misleading. And crass. I wanted… I wanted to be a gentleman about it.” His cheeks went even pinker at that as he shrugged and looked away, and Tony couldn’t help but laugh, snaking his hand up to Steve’s cheek and then turning him to face forwards again. He leaned up and kissed him again, soft once more. 

“You are the most amazing person I know,” Tony admitted, “and I’m sorry that I didn’t get the message. I’m sorry that I acted like a dick and made you worry. But I love you, and I love everything you say and do and feel, and you could have been as crass as you want and that wouldn’t have changed.”

Steve’s mouth parted in a smile, and Tony took the opportunity to dive forward again, lick into his mouth and just feel him, hands wrapped around those expansive shoulders, knees pressed into Steve’s hips. He wondered whether Steve was listening to his heartbeat right now, hearing the way it was fluttering rapidly in his chest. Later, he was probably going to become embarrassed about the fact that Steve was now aware of every single instance in which Tony had spotted him and then promptly lost his shit, but honestly, it was hard to complain about it when it was part of the reason why he was currently making out with the guy in the communal kitchen. Anyway, it seemed Steve was a little preoccupied to be listening in on his pulse-rate just then; he kept making small, low noises in the back of his throat that Tony felt right in his bones. After a long period of deep kisses, Steve leaned forward again, Tony’s head thumping lightly into the wall as Steve nudged his chin upward then pressed sharp teeth against his throat, hands settling around Tony’s thighs while he started to work a hickey into the delicate skin of Tony’s neck. Tony bit his lip, glancing downward at Steve’s grip on his legs, and how the span of them was big enough to pretty much curl around the whole circumference of his thigh. That was so, so ridiculously hot. Tony was definitely going to die once they made it to the bedroom, and he was also definitely looking forward to that. 

They kissed and they kissed and they kissed, letting everything else melt away as it gradually grew deeper and more desperate. All Tony could think and feel was Steve, his hands around his thighs, pulling him so their bodies aligned in just the right way that sent them both gasping for breath, and it was only when Steve went still and pushed down gently on Tony’s legs that Tony realised they’d both been grinding up against one another. In the communal kitchen. How mature of them.

“We should go somewhere else,” Steve mumbled with a smile, which had been a pretty permanent feature on his face since they’d started making out, “we could… I mean, I don’t know, we could go… we could--”

“Wherever it is, yes,” Tony said hurriedly, patting him on the chest and then pushing a hand through his hair. His pants were getting stupidly uncomfortable, and all that was running through his mind now was finding out how to get Steve’s pants off and then finding out how to get Steve off. “But only if I get to stay in your arms and grind on you the whole way up.”

“How would you--” Steve paused, and then raised an eyebrow, “you want me to just carry you all the way up to my room?”

“Well, those muscles aren’t just there for show, sweet-cheeks.” Tony patted him on the chest again and smiled, feeling all bubbly in his chest. Steve was turning him into a fucking idiot, and he didn’t even care. “And what better way to show you how utterly unafraid of you I am then by grinding shamelessly on you while you try and carry me up the stairs without falling over? Think of it as a trust-building exercise."

Steve looked at him for a second, his eyes so full of wonder as he leaned down and brushed his mouth against Tony’s again. “You really don’t find it scary at all, do you?” He asked. “You think it’s hot .”

Well, duh. “Is the Pope Cathol-- whoah , fuck, Steve,” Tony grabbed onto the set of broad shoulders in surprise as Steve lifted him from the counter with a single arm and wandered off easily, not even the tiniest sign of exertion on his face. He was grinning ear to ear, loose and relaxed, and it was such a nice change from the subdued, hunched way he’d been sitting earlier. This was Steve just being Steve, and it was wonderful

“I love you,” Tony said, running his hand through Steve’s hair and then leaning down to kiss him, “now trot on, noble steed.”

“I’ll drop you if you say that again.”

“Well, then I won’t have sex with you.” 

Steve paused, thinking it over. “I am quite noble, aren’t I,” he conceded, and Tony laughed into the next kiss they shared, shutting his eyes and letting Steve take him up to his room, lay him out on his bed, unbutton his shirt and slowly slip it off his shoulders with a touch that felt as if it were leaving behind little trails of electricity. Tony just watched him work, thinking about the future, about what this meant for them, the team, the world. He had a lot of questions. But they were hazy, shoved into the back of his mind in favour of focusing on this right here, right now. Steve. Everything else could undoubtedly come later. They had time.

“Tony,” Steve gasped, pressing the name into Tony’s neck as he mouthed messily across the sensitive skin there, “Tony, Tony, Tony--”

Tony didn’t like to pick favourites, and everyone had their strong-suits, but honestly?

Best sex of his life. 

Later, while they lay there together in Steve’s bed and Tony trailed a finger up and down his collar-bone, the questions came back briefly. What did this mean? Where were they going? Was this all just an elaborate scheme or long-con or joke, or was Steve going to suddenly change his mind? What if Tony had been really bad in bed (unlikely, but he had to humour the idea just in case) and now Steve was so disappointed that he was never going to speak to Tony ever again?

With a small grunt, Steve snuck his hand under Tony’s hips and pulled him close, throwing an arm easily over his midsection. He was sleepy, that much was obvious, and he rested his forehead atop Tony’s hair, pressing an absent kiss against the first spot he could find. 

“I can hear you thinking,” he mumbled, “stop it. I love you. This was perfect. Go to fucking sleep.”

“You know, this is going to sound ridiculous, and so I’d like you to keep in mind that I am in fact one of the smartest men on the planet, but-- can you actually hear me thinking?”

Steve stilled, and then sat up a little, resting on his elbow so he could give Tony his special ‘are you fucking kidding me’ look. “I can’t even tell if you’re being serious or not.”

I can’t tell if you’re being serious!”

“Why would I-- what would a thought even sound like, Tony?” Steve tried to look exasperated, but his laughter gave him away and he just shook his head, slumping back into the bed with a huff. Tony rolled into his side, tucking himself into the meat of Steve’s shoulder and frowning as he thought the question over. 

But right as he was about to give his best definition, Steve rolled on top of him and then kissed him silent, which Tony could allow on the grounds that he still couldn’t really get over the fact that Steve Was Kissing Him. 

“Sleep,” Steve said when he broke away, “it’s for the best.”

“But what if I don’t want to sleep yet? What if I have more pressing questions that need to be answered, Steve? You can’t just prevent a scientist from exploring science. It’s morally--”

“Go to sleep now and I’ll blow you when you wake up.”

Tony’s mouth clamped shut. He didn’t need telling twice. “Night night, love you!” He said, before shutting his eyes and tucking himself back up into Steve’s side. 

Steve laughed quietly, turning onto his side and laying his arm over Tony’s waist. A small little kiss was pressed onto his nose, which Tony would have commented on, had he not been doing his best to sleep soundly.

“I love you too,” Steve whispered, and funnily enough, Tony didn’t even feel the need to doubt that one.