Even though they’ve been living in the same building for nigh on a year now, it’s not all that uncommon for Steve to go for days or even weeks without seeing Tony. For all that the team stays in regular contact for emails and messages, their non-Avengers mission schedules simply don’t overlap that much.
That said, the time they do spend together has been enough for Steve to starting thinking of himself as a (comparative) expert at knowing if Tony is around. And that’s without asking for JARVIS for help.
Of course, figuring out whether Tony is in the building in general can be tricky, but Steve’s gathered enough tells to get a decent idea of it: be it general noises heard from the lab floors, certain patterns in elevator usage, and the amount of air traffic around the Tower, that kind of thing.
Figuring out if Tony is in the immediate vicinity, however, is ridiculously easy. It doesn’t even have much to do with how his voice travels. As distinct as Tony’s voice is (which it is, very much so), the man has a way of filling the room with his presence, which isn’t necessarily tied to how loud he can be. It’s come to a point that Steve can sense Tony’s approach without consciously knowing how he’s done it – he just has, and knows that he’s there. Clint likes to joke that Steve has a subconscious Tony-dar for storm warning purposes, i.e. incoming argument, batten the hatches!
It could be something like that. Or it could be something else.
Right at this moment, Steve knows that Tony is in the building, and has been so since the Avengers’ return from their most recent Hydra base raid two days ago. Steve hasn’t actually seen Tony since said return– after Tony landed in the Iron Man suit and immediately absconded to his personal floor, taking his newfound Hydra-caused condition with him. Tony was excused from attending the team debrief in person; it was enough for him to do it remotely, from the safety of his workshop two floors up.
Steve hasn’t seen Tony these two days, and doesn’t expect to see Tony at all for the near future until his problem are resolved. As far as Steve knows, via Bruce and JARVIS, they’re still working on it, so Tony’s still keeping a safe distance from everyone. (Except Bruce, of course.)
All of this is why, in the late morning when Steve’s pushing furniture around the TV area, he’s startled to see Tony – Tony! – trotting down the metal stairs from a mezzanine two levels up.
Again, Steve’s not sure why he turned to look up when he did. There may have been the noise of Tony’s footsteps, but the tower’s hardly a library and Tony’s not yet close enough for his gait to have announced himself. Whatever it is, Steve does look up, is surprised, and after ignoring the way his heart skips a beat, quickly calls out to warn him:
“Tony, I’m down here,” he says.
“Yeah, I see you,” Tony says without slowing down. “We got it narrowed down, the range is about 20 feet.”
“Oh. Got it.” They’ve never actually tested who’s better at eyeballing distance: is it the man who draws schematics in his brain or the man who throws a vibranium shield at mathematically precise angles? Either way, 20 feet is pretty easy to estimate, and Steve does a quick check of the route Tony will take – down another flight of stairs over to the kitchen – and is satisfied that he’ll be well out of the minimum safe distance.
“Yeah, 20-ish feet makes sense, doesn’t it?” Tony takes the last step off the stairs with a hop that has him landing on both feet. “While it might’ve been useful for Hydra’s human radio antennae to listen in to all and sundry, sorting through the noise would take way too much effort.”
“Or cause brain damage,” Steve reminds him, referring to the files they’d taken from the base.
“Yeah, that’s un-fun. Better to have it work within a controlled radius – it’s precise and neat, though still pain in my fucking ass.” Tony squints at something one level above him that Steve can’t see. “You might want to tell Clint that I’m… no, wait, he’s leaving. I won’t hold it against the man, but his thing about commercial jingles is a tad more intense than I think God meant it to be.”
“That’s not a privacy violation! We all know he hums ‘em under his breath. It’s just louder in his actual head.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Tony puts his hands together in an exaggerated apology, which only lightly masks the real apology underneath. Steve’s pretty sure that Tony can be curious about what other people are thinking – he’s human, after all – but any curiosity is firmly trumped by discomfort, as evidenced by his enforcing a stricter quarantine on himself than anything anyone else on team would’ve asked for. In fact, Natasha volunteered to help Tony and Bruce out with their testing of Tony’s abilities, what with her years of training against mental and chemical probing, but Tony demurred on the offer.
(“He’s afraid,” Natasha told Steve. “Probably because he can imagine what it feels like to be vulnerable like that, your thoughts laid open for others to pick through.”
“Or maybe he just doesn’t want the responsibility of knowing what he has no right to know,” Steve replied. “That’s scary, too.”)
Hydra aren’t the only ones who’d done research into the phenomenon of telepathy. SHIELD did their share, too, though they didn’t get into it deeply enough to be able induce the ability in regular people, let alone have anything on-hand to undo whatever it is that’s happened to Tony.
As far as they can tell, the old Hydra base they raided had an experimental dish built into an entire floor, with the function of stimulating certain parts of the brain of a subject to trigger telepathic ability. It didn’t work – or, at least, it didn’t work properly for their living subjects back in the day – but something about the Iron Man suit’s conductivity kicked the device into perfect working order and voila! Tony could hear people’s thoughts.
Tony was understandably cranky when he realized what was up – apparently Thor’s thoughts were loud and Clint’s gave him a migraine – and flew back to the Tower separately from the Quinjet before sequestering himself entirely. He’s been up there ever since, save for a few breaks – such as now, when he’s come down from the workshop to turn a judgmental nose at Steve.
“The hell are you doing,” Tony says.
“Just some rearranging.” Steve turns back to the furniture. He’d wanted the solo chair on the other side of the couch so be closer to the windows, and was thinking of adding another small table to put drinks on, as long as it matches the main coffee table. “How’s it going upstairs?”
“We’re working on something.” Tony’s in the pantry now, getting coffee. There’s plenty of coffee upstairs, but Steve can’t blame him for wanting to stretch his feet. “Bruce just went down to medical to clear a few things before we stick anything into my brain. That guy worries too much.”
“Someone has to.”
“Ha,” Tony scoffs. The telepathy problem clearly isn’t dragging him down too much, thank goodness. His eyes are clear and his spirits upbeat, and at most he’s understandably frustrated at his limited movement. Steve spares an extra second or two to take Tony in – messy hair, band shirt, his goatee just slightly less than impeccable, not that it makes him any less a sight for sore eyes.
Tony looks up from where he’s dumping sugar into his mug. He’s scowling faintly as his eyes meet Steve’s, but then he shakes his head and continues, “You should try saying say that when you’re listening in to other people’s brains. My noggin’ is noisy enough on its own; I do not need extra channels playing in there without a volume control. Would probably drive even someone like you mad.”
“Didn’t say it wouldn’t,” Steve says. “But isn’t it quiet up there? You’ve only got Bruce with you.”
Tony grins. “You think Bruce’s brain is quiet? Really?”
“Maybe ‘quiet’ is the wrong word. ‘Easier’? Since the two of you speak a common language.” Steve keeps his voice in a light tease that has Tony snorting in response.
Tony figured out pretty much immediately that he could only hear the thoughts of people physically closest to him, with the vividity and loudness of the thoughts dropping off almost exponentially as distance increased. The earliest estimate of an active range was between 40 to 50 feet, so they’d cleared out the floors immediately above and below Tony’s labs and personal quarters.
Further testing has apparently narrowed it down to 20 feet, which means Tony might be up for hanging out with people again, not that it makes that much of difference to Steve personally. He only gets to sit that close to Tony when they’re at the same table for meals or meetings, or if there’s a musical chairs scenario in the TV area where the other seats have been taken. Not that Steve minds, really – he’d always prefer Tony to be comfortable, and obviously Steve’s farther down the rung than Natasha and Thor, let alone Bruce.
“What?” Tony says.
“Common language with Bruce,” Steve says. “Science, brains, neurons, more science. How many papers do you think you’ll get out of this one?”
“Heh, I’ll have you know that – wait.” Tony frowns, and his eyes travel the empty space between them, as though measuring it. It’s definitely more than 20 feet, though Steve takes a few steps away, just in case.
“Did you hear something?” Steve says.
“Not really,” Tony says slowly, and Steve relaxes. “I mean, I can’t hear anything now, and it’s pretty damn clear that we’ve got… I mean, we didn’t just fuck around all Marco Polo – we did measurements and everything. It’s 20 feet, in any direction.”
“I’m well in the clear, then,” Steve points out. “There’s leftovers in the fridge if you want.”
“Thanks.” Tony sighs. “No, wait, I’ve got to finish the pizza upstairs or Bruce will throw a hissy fit. Anyway, one Helen gives the go-ahead we’ll start fiddling around in earnest, and everyone in the team will be kept in the loop in case – I don’t know – we accidentally boost these telepathy powers instead of nulling them.”
“Thanks,” Steve says dryly, “that would be good to know.”
Tony takes his coffee haul with him back up the same stairs. Steve’s still adjusting the position of the coffee table, but he allows himself another quick glance sideways just as Tony’s turning on the steps and there’s a dead-in-sights view of exactly how tight Tony’s pants are today. Which, to be fair, they are almost always tight, but it’s always worth noting how differing textures flatter both his ass and that captivating dip on his lower back that seems just the right size for Steve’s hands to rest on.
There’s a hiss, and then Tony’s turning back around, one hand flapping in the air where he’d spilled coffee on it.
“Geez, Tony, what—”
“Were you just…” Tony trails off, as though confused at what he was about to say. “Did you just check me out?”
Steve’s spine straightens. He looks at the distance between them, wondering if he’d spontaneously lost the ability to estimate distance within the past five minutes.
“Did you hear something?” Steve says. “You did say the range was 20 feet, right.”
“Yes, it is, but…” Tony descends the staircase, which in effect reduces instead of increases the distance between them, albeit by a mere handful of feet. “There’s no one else here.”
“Well, Clint was just—”
“It was your voice,” Tony insists, though he sounds more perplexed than accusatory. As if he himself doesn’t believe that he heard what he did, and wants to figure out what’s going on so it’ll stop being obvious nonsense. “Your hands? Something about your hands on my back?”
Steve could lie. He wouldn’t be very convincing, but according to Natasha, his specific brand of awkwardness accounts for a lot. But even so, he doesn’t want to lie to Tony, which would stink more of cowardice than anything else. If Steve were better in the execution rather than the planning, he’d deploy a deflecting joke at this point – the kind that Tony uses often enough – because who wouldn’t check out Tony Stark, right? Even Steve Rogers does it, and isn’t that funny? They could laugh about it.
“That’s a lot of noise,” Tony says, bewildered. “But it’s not… Is that you?”
“Twenty feet, you said,” Steve says.
“It is! It is, we tested it back and forth and backwards and sideways, and it’s not like I hear everything that’s coming from you, it’s just the thoughts that are…” Tony’s face clears. “Oh, it’s the thoughts about me. It’s when you’re thinking of me that the thoughts are loud. Maybe they even break the 20 feet range because it’s – I suppose that makes sense, in terms of a receiver being more attuned to a certain wavelength, except in this case the wavelength is literally the person doing the receiving.” Tony blinks. “It’s like a flare-up.”
“Flare-up – hot, or like a pulse. When you think of me.” Tony frowns again, back to being confused. “You’re thinking about me? Why are you…” His eyes widen, as though suddenly remembering what he’s talking about and what’s actually going on. Telepathy and mindreading, though accidental, is still the name of the game, and it’s Steve who’s currently in Tony’s sights.
It’s Steve’s head that Tony’s peeking into.
Steve suddenly feels… tired. He is tired and ancient, in the way that he knows he really is but sometimes gets to pretend that he isn’t. The violation of his thoughts isn’t Tony’s fault at all – the guy’s just confused and got carried away for a second there due to the sheer bizarreness of it all – but the end result is still the same.
Steve hopes Tony won’t laugh at him. Realistically, he won’t, because that’s not who Tony is, but dread makes Steve’s feet feel like lead. He reminds himself that any lighthearted comment Tony makes at this point won’t be at Steve’s expense, because they’re beyond that kind of unkindness now; those early days of mutual sniping well behind them as they found a form of friendship and teamwork that suits them both. Hence, any joke Tony makes will be for his own sake, because that’s just how Tony disentangles himself from uncomfortable situations, and it of course counts as uncomfortable to learn that Steve finds him attractive.
It’s uncomfortable to learn that Steve likes him. That Steve looks forward to the non-mission moments they have in the tower, especially when Tony’s guard is down and Steve can coax a genuine laugh out of him. That Steve has a regret or two about how they first met, and how he’d ruined the chances given to him on a silver platter because he hadn’t appreciated at the time.
Tony won’t mock him for any it. He might feel sorry for him, but Steve would be fine with that, too.
“What the hell is this?” Tony has that face, the one he makes when the problem in front of him is so massive that he doesn’t know where to start picking at it. “I can’t possibly be hearing this right. I mean, something must’ve gone wonky and it’s getting lost in translation. Because that’s would be – obviously, it’s not…” His gaze stays on Steve’s face, searching.
“It’s fine,” Steve says wearily. “You should head back up.”
“It’s fine?” Tony echoes. “But it’s wrong, isn’t it? I mean, this clearly means that my brain’s deteriorating now, and it changes the next steps, we’re going to have to—”
“Tony. Your brain’s fine, aside from the newfound telepathy.”
Tony shakes his head, a quick staccato jerk from one side to the other. “It can’t be. I mean, you don’t – you wouldn’t.”
Steve’s seen Tony be brilliant and kind, and brave and generous, though he spackles bluster on top to pretend that he’s more noise than substance. He always pushes himself to the limits that he’s never demanded of others, and any frustration he spits out at the world is always sent back at himself tenfold in order to remind himself to do better. He’s a spinner of tales in order to inspire others, and includes himself in that superhero mythology even though he’s never been truly comfortable in it, having decided that his discomfort is a small price to pay for keeping the world safe.
Tony looks out for his teammates – not merely in the big ways, but in smaller ways, too, many of them near invisible. Favorite snacks are always available, hobby supplies always in stock, privacy options on their floors varied and flexible. Sure, Tony can be careless and forgetful, but he’s trying to fill those gaps, by using the tools he’s created to keep him accountable.
Tony cares so much, and though sometimes he fears that it makes him vulnerable, he’s more afraid of what he would’ve become if he didn’t. He’s trying so hard to trust others even though it goes against everything he’s lived through, because hope and optimism come from the same depth of that damned big heart of his.
“Uh,” Tony says.
“That’s how I see you, yes,” Steve says. “But it won’t be a problem. It hasn’t been a problem and it won’t be a problem. Have I ever behaved inappropriately?”
“You do know how weird it is that you’re asking me that, instead of something coming at me for the other way round? Wait, no.” Horror drags Tony’s face into a grimace. “Oh shit. Steve, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have—”
“As far as you knew, it was 20 feet. It’s fine.”
“No, it’s not fine, it’s—”
“It’s fine,” Steve insists, because it’s true. He would’ve preferred for Tony to not know at all, but it’s not as though Steve is disgusted at how he feels. The secret’s kept him a warm, like a treasure all his own to hold on to, and he won’t change that for anything.
“I’ll fix this,” Tony says, nodding at nothing in particular, his scowl turning into one of determination. “I’ll – I’ll do something, just give me a… Okay, right.” He rushes up the stairs, taking two steps of the time in the way of a man who’s chasing instead of being chased.
Steve watches him go, and then sits down in the chair of his choice, which is closest to the window. He feels calm – at least, calmer than the mess he thought he’d be if he’d ever accidentally let it slip. Instead of embarrassment, there’s just resignation. The worst has come to pass, and honestly Steve’s more concerned about Tony’s sense of guilt spiraling out unnecessarily.
“Hey,” Natasha says.
Steve barely heard her approach, but there she is, standing by his chair. “Hi.”
“Delivery for you.” Natasha squeezes into the chair without so much as a by-your-leave, and throws her arms around Steve for a firm, though utterly unexpected hug. Steve takes it with a slightly awkward pat on Natasha’s shoulder – he doesn’t mind the hug, but has no idea where it’s come from.
“All right,” Steve says. “Did I miss something?”
“Oh, Tony told me to give that to you.”
“Yep.” Natasha rises out of Steve’s chair and flops onto the couch that’s right next to it. “Gave me a call, said that I had to ‘give Steve a hug right now, stat, it’s life or death, Romanoff, I’m not kidding’. So. There it is.”
Warmth fills Steve’s chest. Despite the awkwardness of the moment, Tony still worries. “Thank you for rising to the occasion, then.”
“Sure, yeah, you can call it that,” Natasha says.
It takes another 24 hours for the science team rise to the occasion. Tony, Bruce and Helen put their heads together to bring Tony’s head back to its normal non-telepathic capabilities, mostly via reverse-engineering the Hydra tech, with a dash of Bruce’s radiation treatment experience and Helen’s bioengineering improvisation. Steve follows the whole procedure remotely, via message check-ins and then a video feed of the lab, during which Tony gets strapped in to a chair and promises to do his best not to go Charlie McGee on everybody if the procedure goes wrong.
It’s another 8 hours – a significant chunk of which involves Tony’s catching up on some sleep – before Steve gets to see Tony in person again.
Honestly, Steve fully expected that Tony would only come down for the next team catch-up with Maria. It would be neutral setting where everyone would be present, and for that there’d be a minimal chance for awkward silences in general.
Steve’s not at all expecting for Tony to come down while he’s finishing up breakfast.
First of all, it’s not even nine o’clock, and Tony’s presence would usually be due to his having an all-nighter, which Steve knows for a fact he hasn’t. Secondly, Thor and Clint were just here having breakfast as well, though they’d left what feels like not more than five minutes ago – Tony could’ve easily avoided being alone in the same room with Steve, with JARVIS’s help.
Thirdly, Tony looks… good. Not dressed up for an outing, but in a light grey button-down with the shirtsleeves rolled up past his solid forearms, the collar open to a curious patch of bare skin. His hair’s neater than it was the last time Steve saw him, maybe a fuller up top. He looks freshly dressed and pressed and alert, and Steve suppresses the strangest urge to look around in case there are cameras in the building.
“Nutmeg.” Tony makes a face as he joins Steve at the island, taking the stool next to his. “What’s that you’ve added today, kiwi?”
“Thor brought some back yesterday,” Steve says slowly, unsure where this is going. Tony does a little shimmy on the stool, as though making himself comfortable. He certainly seems relaxed, and has none of the usual tells of when he’s forcing himself to tolerate a situation that will soon be over. “How are you feeling?”
“Peace and quiet.” Tony exhales, loud and dramatic. “Which means I can actually enjoy music again, thank god. Headaches gone, too, though Helen said I should avoid coffee for a bit. Pfft, right.”
“There’s a fresh brew,” Steve says, inclining his head to the counter.
“Yep, I see it. Anyway.” Tony purses his lips together, and Steve braces himself. “I can’t hear people’s thoughts anymore. Not even a whisper, nothing.”
“I got that, yes.”
“Which means,” Tony continues, “that if I want to know something, I have to ask. Out loud, even. It’s old-school, sure, but what can you do. Anyway do you want to have dinner with me or something?”
Steve regrets that his bowl is empty, since it no longer gives him something to do with his hands. “Tony.”
“Because I want to know all about you, as much as you want to share with me. Can’t dig that out of your brain by accident anymore, right? It turns out that I’ve been missing a lot and, frankly, I’m finding that kinda offensive. How about it?”
It still surprises Steve how strongly Tony can get reactions out of him. They’re not always outward reactions (the kind that end up with yelling and/or declarative statements), oftentimes they’re inward, where Tony is able to yank Steve’s mood up or down or sideways with the slightest of words of gestures. An internal rollercoaster, unseen to all but himself, and existing only because he’s become so attuned to Tony’s general Tony-ness.
Steve’s on one right now, the seat rickety and the floor threatening to fall out from under his feet. But what makes it extra dangerous is that Tony sees it now, his eyes opened to the way that Steve holds himself still and steady.
“Thursday?” Tony suggests. His eyes hold Steve’s, almost daring him to look away, which he can’t. It’s so startling to see Tony like this, when Steve’s used to deflection and irreverence. Tony even shifts closer, what the hell, his elbow bumping against Steve’s and staying there, as though Tony’s personal space bubble has never been a thing the whole time that they’ve known each other. “Good food, some music, maybe a little dancing if that’s your thing. I don’t know, I need more intel, really.”
“It’s… it’s not…”
Tony tilts his head, so openly curious that Steve’s stomach feels like it’s jumped into his throat. Tony can’t read minds anymore, but Steve’s more terrified now than he was the day before yesterday. “Why’re you like this?”
“What could you possibly want to know about me?” Steve says. “I’m not interesting.”
Tony smiles slowly, as if he’s just won a goddamned prize. Steve has no idea what’s happening, or how in the hell he got Tony’s eyes to glitter like that, or if it really is about Steve at all. Tony leans in a little more, his arm a warm press all up Steve’s forearm to his shoulder, and Steve thinks he might spontaneously combust—
Which is when Tony kisses him on the cheek. Soft, chaste, sweet. His lips are soft, with only the lightest hint of the goatee around it. Steve responds the only way he can, which is to make a sound like he’s dying.
Tony’s grinning when he pulls back. “Give me Thursday. Could be nothing, but could be something. One dinner, that’s all for now. Well, if you can’t do Thursday then there’s Friday, but it can be a crapshoot with the SI usual, you know how it is. I mean, don’t you want to know more about me?”
“Always,” Steve blurts out before he can stop himself.
Tony laughs, the sound as always immediately warming Steve down to his toes. “Then dinner, yeah? We’ll just start with the one. Ask me anything you want to know. Within reason, of course.”
“Of course.” It takes a beat for what Tony’s saying to sink really sink in. It’s an immeasurable gift, and one that Tony doesn’t offer casually. Steve feels himself slowly relax, coaxed into it as it were by Tony’s easy smile. suit. Tony’s thought about this, Tony’s here because he wants to be, Tony isn’t uncomfortable knowing what he does about Steve. “Okay,” Steve hears himself say. “Thursday.”
“Fantastic.” Tony rises to his feet and pats Steve on the shoulder. At least, it started out as a pat on the shoulder, but the touch lingers, with Tony’s hand moving in a slow glide down Steve’s arm, as though he’s realized that he has permission to do it – which he does – and because he wants to. “I’ll arrange the dinner, but ball’s in your court on the other one.”
Steve blinks dazedly at him. “Other one what?”
“I kissed you first,” Tony reminds him, still grinning. “So the next one’s gotta come from you.”
“Oh.” A goal. Something to focus on. Steve can work with that. He feels himself sit up straighter, the noise in his head settling down. “Okay. Yes, I can do that.”
Tony nods, pleased with himself. “Glad to hear it.”