A large box of donut holes sat on the table, freshly purchased and ready for consuming. The table itself was within view of the TV area where Steve was sitting, and so far this late morning he had seen Bruce, Sam and Thor help themselves to the pastry.
Steve knew his teammates long enough to have a decent idea of the dent they’d make in the box throughout the morning. Hence, he wasn’t concerned much when Clint went up to the table and said, “Oooh,” before grabbing a fistful for himself. There was plenty more left.
However, it was at this exact point that Tony showed up, wearing slacks and a dress shirt with the cuffs unbuttoned. He was clearly on his way out of the building, and was only there to fill his thermos with readily-brewed coffee. But he spotted Clint munching away and detoured, a neat spin on his heel like the dancer Steve sometimes thought Tony must’ve been in another life, and sent his fingers diving into the box.
There were two people than Steve in the TV area – Sam, who still had sugar on his lower lip, and Natasha, who’d refused to partake for reasons known only to her. Steve was vaguely aware of their watching him, but paid it no mind, because Tony scorfed down the donut hole, double-taked in surprise, and grabbed a handful to chase that one down.
They weren’t great donut holes. Steve knew some fantastic bakeries in the city, and no doubt Tony knew even fancier ones. But the thing about Tony was that his palate wasn’t always into fancy, so these donut holes were somewhat overbaked and had too much sugar. Steve had made an educated guess, bought the box, and now wrought the rewards.
“Wow, these are great,” Tony said, and Steve would have puffed his chest out like a peacock if Tony didn’t follow that up with, “Thanks, Clint.”
With that closing remark, Tony trotted out of the common area, leaving Steve sitting stock still and Clint licking sugar off his fingers.
“Oh hey.” Clint belatedly straightened up, but Tony had long disappeared down the stairwell. “They’re not from… ah.”
Steve decided that he wasn’t disappointed. He’d wanted to get Tony something that he’d like, and he’d liked it, so by all accounts that was a success. Steve’s near-spontaneous decision had paid off, and Tony had gotten something solid in his stomach before being whisked away on what was likely to by another long, grueling day with SI business.
“Good try, though,” Sam said, prompting Natasha to smack him lightly on the arm.
“It’s not a points system,” Steve said firmly, and just as firmly ignored the look that Sam and Natasha gave each other. He was not in a rush, and there’d be other chances. “And yes, Clint, you can finish the box.”
“Great,” Clint said, sweeping the box into his arms.
If you asked Natasha, she’d say that it had been a long time coming. But Steve disagreed – his fondness for Tony as a friend and teammate developed not that differently from how he felt about the others, with the only real exception being their rocky start.
It was only recently that appreciation started to become appreciation, and through accumulated moments – none of them enough on their own, but only in their piling up. Tony’s courage, stubbornness, humor, and kindness that he rarely ever let anyone see directly; all of it contributed, and all of it read different the closer that he let his friends see him.
In Steve’s case, all knew was that a couple of days ago Tony stormed into the common area, red-faced and almost frothing at the mouth about industry contacts being making life difficult because of Tony’s Avengers connections, and the thought sprouted neatly in Steve’s head: he hated seeing Tony so unhappy.
The thought twisted and took root, and became: Steve wanted Tony to be happy as much as possible. Steve wanted to make Tony happy. Steve wanted to make Tony’s life easier, because he already did so much and gave so much.
Steve wanted Tony to smile – that genuine smile of his, which had been rare and difficult to pull out of him in the earlier days, though it’s gotten easier since. Steve also wanted… other things. Things that, he realized, would make not only Tony happy, but Steve happy, too.
This realization was only a surprise in the sense that Steve found himself unprepared the next steps that he needed to take. The rest of the team claimed various levels of having known Steve’s intentions for ages (that Steve didn’t believe because said intentions were recent) and support (that Steve did believe and very much appreciated). But taking their advice and deliberately planning to woo Tony felt doomed before it started, because Tony could smell artifice a mile away, and Steve didn’t want to chance it.
It was best that Steve take it a step at a time, and follow his initial instinct, i.e. to make Tony’s life easier. This was especially important now, because his industry contract difficulties were heading towards a potential class action lawsuit.
It was from there that the donut holes started appearing in the morning. Coffee was always available around the clock. Proper packed meals were available in the fridge reheating. None of the Avengers would bother Tony with their gear demands unless he asked to see them. Team commitments were moved or excuses given to cover Tony whenever needed. Things like that.
Relatively small gestures, but useful, Steve hoped.
The day after the donut holes was a Thursday, and the day of the team’s fortnightly semi-formal catch-up. All in-house teammates were to attend if they could, of course, but external allies and occasional members were sometimes brought in by invitation.
Steve had already told FRIDAY the day before that Tony wasn’t expected to join, so he was surprised when he went up to the conference room floor and saw Tony there chatting with Maria Hill.
Maria’s presence was unremarkable; she and Steve usually went to the room early to set things up and review the agenda of the day. Tony, though, seemed to be there for a purpose of his own, for his whole body held that same line of tension it’d had for the past couple of days. Steve stayed at the edge of the corridor, unnoticed, as the conversation continued.
“You can write that down,” Tony was saying. “Make sure they’ve got Peter covered.”
“I’ll remember,” Maria replied.
“It’d make me feel better if you wrote it down?”
“I have an excellent memory. It’s all right, you can go.”
“Okay.” Tony shook his head, acquiescing for the moment despite his instinct to keep pushing. “Oh, and I wanted to ask, I double-checked my inbox this morning but it’s – well, yes, I just noticed – it’s pretty empty-ish, and has been for the past few days. Is something going on?”
“Oh, there’s nothing to be worried about. Everything non-critical has been put on the backlog, and everything actually critical funneled down to Bruce, Hope or R&D. Just for now, until your SI crisis calms down, of course.”
“Huh.” Tony’s shoulders relaxed, and the slump of relief was visible across the room. “That’s – wow, that’s great, I really appreciate it.” Steve startled, and though he wasn’t the sort of person to chase credit, this wasn’t right. He set his shoulders back and readied to step into the room as Tony continued, “Not that I need you to be my PA, of course.”
“I am not your PA in the slightest,” Maria said dryly, though she was smiling. “But actually, arranging all of that was not my—”
“Steve!” Tony said, head snapping around at Steve’s entrance. He bounced up onto his feet and started walking towards Steve, saying, “There you are. Anyway, I already updated Hill, but you need to keep an eye out for Peter, because you know he takes it personally whenever I’m not around for these get-togethers, okay? Good.” He smacked Steve’s upper arm and moved past him.
“Wait, Tony—” Steve turned to follow Tony back down the corridor, his steps quickened to match Tony’s. “Tony, there’s—”
“I’m already late,” Tony said. “Heads are going to roll and I’d rather they not be mine, though who knows if I can still pull off fashionably late these days.”
Steve’s annoyance faded like mist in the sunlight. “All your entrances are fantastic, late or not.”
Tony grinned back at him, a beautiful flash of teeth that was capped off with a wink as he slipped his shades on. “I’m gonna hold you to that the next time I lose track of time, bud. Hey, go back to your thing, I’ve gotta run up to the roof.”
“Right.” Steve brought his brisk steps to a stop, and could only watch as Tony’s sped up, all the way the stairwell.
He stood there for a few more seconds than was strictly necessary, feeling bereft and sheepish.
There would be other opportunities, he told himself.
A few more days passed and it had officially been a week since Tony got swallowed up by the SI crisis. Tony was barely around the compound, and when he was at the compound he was either having video calls or digging deep into archives for things only he knew and understood.
Steve knew that Tony was doing his best, but doing his best wasn’t the same as having a handle on matters. Steve’d asked Bruce, who didn’t know much about the inner workings of SI, and Natasha, whom Tony didn’t entirely trust to talk to about business because she was also friends with Pepper and that was a recipe for a telephone-game disaster.
Late one night, Steve returned to the compound after a benefit dinner and saw that one room on Tony’s floor was lit. Tony being in his workshop at all manner of hours was typical, but not so much his corner office.
If it were a few days earlier, Steve wouldn’t have considered doing this. But a week was a worrying stretch of time, and Steve had a long day of his own, whereby his own exhaustion made him even more aware of what Tony must be going through.
Steve only detoured to his room long enough to leave his suit jacket, and then took the stairs up to Tony’s floor. He knocked on the office door, and entered at Tony’s terse, “Yeah?”
Tony’s office was usually immaculate and tidy because it mostly just for show. Today, files and papers were strewn across various tables, and Tony was sitting on a low shelf by the wall, his feet propped on the seat of the ergonomic chair in front of him.
“Still busy, huh?” Steve said.
“I tend to prefer it when I get to choose the kind of busy I get lost in.” There was good humor in the words, but it was a thin layer atop frustration. Tony was still in a dress shirt, though the sleeves were rolled up, there must have been another meeting recently. “Did you need something?”
“No, just checking in.” Steve noted a pair of empty plates stacked on one of the shelves, and was at least relived that he was eating. “Is there really nothing we can do to help?”
“Seriously, the whole trouble is because of the Avengers connection. That’s the liability, as opposed to the SI…” Tony waved a hand in the air. “Doesn’t matter. We’ve got the strategy hammered out, so it’s just getting all the ducks lined up in a row.”
“It’s still taking longer than expected, though, isn’t it?”
Tony’s brow snapped together. “I’ve got it covered.”
“I know, of course you do,” Steve said quickly, “it’s just as, as – it’s gone on longer than even you expected it to, and I don’t think you’ve really talked to anyone in the team about it when you should be able—”
“Hey, this isn’t Ultron,” Tony said defensively. “I’m not keeping anything from you guys. You know very well it’s because it’d be putting crosshairs on the team if I got you directly involved.”
“Yes, I’m aware, but I don’t mean you have to talk about the case. You’ve been pulling these long hours—”
“I always pull long hours.”
“That’s different. That’s tangible work—”
“Oh my god,” Tony said, in a tone that made Steve realize he’d made another mistake. “Geez, Steve, just say that you need your engineer back! I get it, there’s the backlog, but give me a break. I don’t always slack off for the fun of it – I need to handle this, and I need you to respect me.”
Steve snapped his jaw shut. He blinked a few times, his face burning, while Tony glared at him through exhausted, bloodshot eyes.
Tony was incredibly stressed. Steve underestimated how much, just as he underestimated how critical this lawsuit must be. Maybe not to the Avengers, specifically, but for Tony, and the SI work he’d spent years trying to shift in new directions.
Steve nodded and stood up for the day. He should probably say good night, but his throat was clogged and his mouth untrustworthy.
Steve got a hand on the doorknob when Tony said, his voice at a lower volume, “Hey, I’m sorry, that was – that was uncool.” Steve glanced back, and Tony was pushing a hand through his messy hair. “Just drop me an email, okay? About whatever it is that you need. I won’t be able to get to it quickly, but, yeah.”
“Will do,” Steve managed to say. “And of course I respect you, Tony.”
“Yeah,” Tony said, sudden disquiet in the way his eyes flickered away from Steve and back. “Yeah, I—I know.”
Steve closed the door quietly behind him as he left.
By the next morning, Steve had figured out what he did wrong, besides the obvious of butting in where he wasn’t wanted. The fact was, though his relationship with Tony was much improved over what it once was, Steve wasn’t someone Tony could completely relax with. Steve was the team leader, and that colored all the interactions he had with everyone in said team, albeit some more than others.
Of course Tony would think Steve was voicing his concern as leader of the Avengers, with an eye on getting things back to normal. Of course Steve’s presence would make Tony more stressed instead of less, because of the sheer expectation that Steve carries around with him, not that he means to do so on purpose. Steve isn’t someone Tony would confide in, not if he wasn’t already doing so with Bruce, Natasha, or any of the others.
But that didn’t mean that all was lost, or that Steve was giving up. It just meant that he had to keep at it with his prospects adjusted. He needed to prove to Tony that he didn’t view him as a teammate above all else, though how Steve was going to do that, he wasn’t so sure.
What he was sure about, however, was that everything else he was doing had to continue.
This was why this morning he went out on his motorbike, and returned to the compound with a bag of tarts. These were slightly too sweet and the base too dense, but Steve felt with reasonable confidence that Tony would like these.
Steve put the box on the kitchen counter, at the usual spot. He adjusted its position, moving it closer to the edge, then back to the wall, then back to the edge. He realized that the sticker was still on the lid, so he quickly worked on peeling it off.
He heard the approaching footsteps, but assumed they belonged to Bruce, Clint or maybe Sam – all reasonable guesses for this time of morning. He definitely did not expect Tony’s voice just behind him, “What’s that?”
Steve jumped, maybe a foot in the air. He could’ve combusted from embarrassment, but then he’d miss Tony’s quiet huff of laughter. When Steve turned, Tony seemed very pleased with himself for having successfully surprised Steve.
“Tarts,” Steve said. He moved aside so Tony could sample said tarts, and took the opportunity to observe Tony carefully. He wasn’t in yesterday’s clothes, so that was good, but it was clear that he still hadn’t had enough sleep yet.
But Steve swallowed his concern, and remained silent as Tony bit into one of the tarts. His expression was a journey all its own – curiosity, thoughtfulness, and then raised eyebrows of surprised pleasure.
“Not bad.” Tony popped the rest into his mouth, and swallowed after a quick chew. “Very not bad.”
Steve couldn’t stop the smile that spread across his face. How could he? Tony liked something that Steve had gotten for him. Sure, Tony didn’t like it a lot, but he liked it enough to take another one, and this time he even knew that Steve was the one who bought them in the first place. See, Steve could do some things right.
When Tony raised his eyes to Steve’s face, he froze, his mouth halfway to biting down another tart.
Steve tried to modulate his smile, but wasn’t very successful at it. Anyway, why did it matter whether he was obvious or not? He wasn’t ashamed by how he felt about Tony; his only intention was to ease Tony into the idea.
He watched, enraptured, as Tony’s eyes moved from Steve, to the box, and back. Was Tony remembering the other baked goods that had been showing up recently?
Just then voices approached from down the hallway, and Steve’s stomach swooped uncertainly, half in relief and half in disappointment.
“…surely those assumptions are long gone by now,” Thor was saying.
“I just don’t think that matters,” Bruce said.
Thor was walking with him, though as soon as he saw Steve and Tony standing there, he immediately dropped an arm over Bruce’s shoulder and neatly turned both of them in a U-turn back down the hallway.
“Wait,” Bruce protested, though Thor’s arm tightened around him, “I wanted coffee.”
Thor’s reply was muted, or maybe that was just the beating of Steve’s heart that drowned him out.
Steve dragged his gaze from the two figures disappearing down the hallway, back to Tony.
Tony was also watching Thor and Bruce’s exit, but it came with a confused scowl, which slowly became a terrifying scowl for the gears that were clearly whirling behind his eyes. At a swivel of his head, that scowl landed on Steve’s face, and Steve set his feet flat on the floor, willing himself to be brave no matter what Tony said next.
“You didn’t send an email,” Tony said.
Steve started. “About?”
“I told you to send me an email. Yesterday. About the work you needed.”
“Oh.” Steve had the list in his head, of course, and plucked an item near the top. “The gauntlets have been shorting out lately, mostly because of those cold weather mission we had a few weeks ago. It’s not critical, of course, but I’m worried about tag-team maneuvers with Thor, and even Natasha.”
Tony nodded. “Did you pull that out of your ass?”
“No,” Steve said, affronted. “It’s a real problem.”
“But that’s not what you came by yesterday to ask for.” Tony scratched underneath his chin, in a motion that could be considered self-conscious if it were anyone but Tony doing it. “After battling enemies all day, it kinda makes me feel like I’m being red-flagged, even when I’m not.”
“You don’t need to explain, Tony. I understand.”
“Sure I do. I mean, just look at you. You’re standing at attention like you’re waiting toe be smacked with detention slip. Or worse, like some poor school kid whose massive crush just said hi to them.”
“Oh, that’s not good,” Steve said without thinking. “School crushes never ended well for me.”
“You can’t get beat up now, though.”
“Actually, the fella I’m into now has the gear to do it. Beat me up, that is. If he wanted.”
Steve felt the blush rise up the back of his neck before he can do anything about it. Tony was still studying him, the tart he was working on now reduced to crumbs, and his expression was thoughtful. He must know now, right? He must see it, and heard it, because Steve damn near spelled it all out.
It was hard to tell if Tony’s steady gaze was good or bad. At least he wasn’t laughing at Steve, because that would’ve been actually embarrassing.
“Okay,” Steve said. He barely sounded shaky at all.
Steve pushed himself away from the counter, and made it two steps away before Tony said, “Is that it?”
“Is what it?” Steve said, turning back.
“Is that all you’re gonna say?” Tony said. “You’re not going to ask me out?”
“Why? So you can shoot me down?”
“Why are you assuming that I’d shoot you down?”
“Because you’re really busy right now,” Steve said easily, though hope seized his chest in what felt like the beginnings of an asthma attack.
Tony brought a hand up, pushing a wayward forelock out of his eyes. He still seemed to be processing, and was maybe stalling for time while he did. Even so, Steve could only think: gorgeous, followed by the more reasonable: this is going far better than I thought it would.
“I wasn’t even kidding about your… geez, Steve.” Tony took the three steps forward to plant himself in front of Steve and patted his shoulders. “You’re really freaking tense, I feel like I’m getting lockjaw just looking at you.”
“I can’t help it,” Steve said. Tony was still touching him, and had moved from patting his shoulders to his arms, moving downward to where Tony’s palms touched bare skin, causing Steve to flinch and tense up further. “Tony, come on,” Steve said quietly.
Tony blinked, as though only just then realized what he was doing, and better yet, what he was doing to Steve specifically. He stopped, though at the point where his hands rested lightly over Steve’s wrists. He moved his thumbs, almost experimentally over the pulse points there, and slowly looked up at Steve’s face.
This was probably the part where Steve should say something charming to knock Tony’s socks off. But he couldn’t for the life of him figure out how to say that he liked Tony without sounding childish and desperate.
Tony broke the silence first. “I, uh…” He swallowed, as though he, too, wasn’t sure where to take it from here. But his eyes did drift downwards to Steve’s mouth, and that was – that was something, wasn’t it?
Steve took the chance. He darted forward, remembering to keep his eyes open at first so he didn’t knock Tony’s nose, and kissed him.
It was a press of lips against lips. Steve felt a touch underneath his chin – two of Tony’s fingers, pushing gently to fix the angle, and – oh. Yeah, that was much better.
Tony’s mouth set warm pressure against Steve’s lips, with the faint tickle of facial hair against Steve’s upper lip. The taste of lemony tart overlaid the taste of Tony himself, but only at first, until Tony parted his lips to let Steve in.
They kissed, and it was gentler than Steve thought it would be. Steve knew that Tony could be gentle, of course, but he’d only ever been so with other people – Rhodey, of course, and Natasha and Bruce. The realization almost distracted Steve, until Tony pressed forward, tongue sweeping into Steve’s mouth.
Then Tony drew back. Steve swayed forward, and then rocked back on his heels, somewhat thrown by the end of the kiss.
“I have to be somewhere in an hour,” Tony said sheepishly. “Less than hour by now. But this – put a pin in this, okay? I want to come back to this. Are you listening, Steve?”
“Yes?” Steve said uncertainly.
Tony tightened his grip around Steve’s wrists. “Are you listening?”
“Are you really listening? Because I don’t think you are.”
Steve blinked and made his eyes focus on Tony’s face. Tony was acknowledging what Steve was putting on the table, and it was important that Steve acknowledge that and take it seriously, and especially not let his brain second-guess what had happened here just because Tony had to leave immediately after being kissed by him.
“I’m listening,” Steve said firmly.
“Good.” Tony kissed him again, firmly, as though planting a bookmark on Steve’s mouth. “I’ll message you when I have an idea what time I’ll be coming back.”
“There’s no rush—”
“I’ll message you.” Tony backed up and grabbed the box of tarts from the counter. He pointed at Steve, a warning in the length of his forefinger. “I got more incentive to finish this up quickly now, and I want to know everything you’ve been up to.”
“There hasn’t been—”
“Later, Steve,” Tony took off in a jog down the hallway, and Steve heard him call out, “You can get your coffee!”
Steve felt somewhat light-headed, and let his feet take him over to the TV area to sit down on the couch.
There he stayed, until Thor and Bruce, and then later Sam, Clint and Natasha, joined him. Someone switched on the TV, snacks and/or late breakfasts were had, and the usual chatter settled all around him, up until Steve shook himself back into the present and said, “I think that worked.”
“Say what?” Sam said.
“Pretty sure I have a date with Tony,” Steve said.
“’Pretty sure’ isn’t ‘absolutely sure’,” Natasha said.
Thor huffed. “You are doubting the Captain?”
“I’m sure.” It wouldn’t be a ‘proper’ date, which was likely to not be possible until Tony settled the SI matter and could stop running himself ragged, but the intention was there, and Tony meant it. Steve nodded to himself, and Natasha’s responding slow grin matched those of others who were sitting there with them.
Steve realized that he was smiling, too. “Yes, I’m sure.”