Work Header

Leaping to Conclusions

Work Text:

"Can I ask you a question, Tony?"

The end credits of Junkyard Wars scroll across the screen, and Tony's not really paying attention to what Steve is saying. His gaze and his thoughts are still fixed on the TV show, and he's entertaining half-formed fantasies of calling Reed and T'Challa up and seeing if the producers will let them play or if that would be unfair to the other contestants.

"Sure, yeah," Tony mumbles, lost in a daydream of building a trebuchet. "Anything."

Steve reaches out, picks up the remote from the coffee table, and turns the television off. That's when Tony realizes that this is something serious. Whatever this is, Steve wants his full attention. The fantasy is gone in an instant, evaporated away, temperature and pressure rising, past the triple point. He really ought to stop thinking in chemistry metaphors.

Up until about five seconds ago, Tony was having a good day. A great day, even. It's a lazy Saturday afternoon, and for once Tony has neither supervillains to fight nor Stark Industries business to attend to. The rest of the team has found other things to do: Jan's off at her new Maori class; Peter's holed up in a darkroom somewhere; Luke and Ororo are doing their Avengers-mandated community service, off talking with children about safety; Clint is shooting things; Tigra is getting her fur groomed; and Tony has no clue where Logan is, but it's probably a fifty-fifty chance of either Canada or Madripoor.

So right now it's just him and Steve hanging around the tower, and while Tony likes all the Avengers, sure, he... well, he likes Steve the most. He likes spending time with Steve. He likes everything about Steve, really, from his utterly amazing performance as a teammate to his fondness for pulp sci-fi to the way he smiles, warm and a little goofy, his face lighting up and his eyes crinkling, when Tony does something that makes him happy.

Unfortunately, Steve's not smiling now.

Steve, in fact, has turned halfway around, his body angled toward Tony where he sits a few feet away, on the other end of the couch. He rubs his hands on his thighs; he knots and unknots his fingers. His gaze darts around the room and doesn't settle on Tony. His tongue flicks out of his mouth and licks his lips.

He's... he's nervous.

The thing about Steve is that Steve isn't nervous. Steve is an Avenger. Steve is Captain America. Steve doesn't do nervous. Steve has been at his side, defending the Earth from Ultron, Galactus, and Kang the Conqueror, and he hasn't so much as blinked.

And Steve's still not looking at him.

"Really," Tony says, adding a smile, as reassuring as he can make it. He kind of wants to pat Steve's hand, but he's not sure Steve will like that, or if it's too intimate. It's a careful sort of waiting game he plays with himself. Nothing too sudden, nothing too bold, not until he's sure Steve feels the same way. He can't possibly chance ruining their friendship. "Anything. Ask away."

It occurs to him, belatedly, that maybe Steve is nervous because, whatever this is, he knows Tony's not going to want to hear it. Maybe he wants to talk about kicking one of the other Avengers off the team. Hell, maybe he wants to talk about kicking Tony off the team.

No, Tony tells himself, firmly. He's been trying to get better at identifying negative thought patterns ever since that time the Avengers fought the Hate-Monger and treated themselves to several sessions of therapy afterwards. He's being ridiculous and irrational. Steve loves working with him. Steve says so, frequently. Besides, Steve doesn't look grim, or sad, or regretful, or anything else in that vein. He just looks a little bit nervous, that's all. So it can't be bad.

That doesn't mean Tony has any clue what's going on.

Steve swallows hard, and he laughs a tiny, self-deprecating laugh. "I know, I know," he says, under his breath. "Out with it already. I can say this." He ducks his head. A lock of hair falls across his forehead, and Tony resists the impulse to push it back for him.

"You've got this, Winghead." Tony nods encouragingly and gives him another smile. "It's just me, remember? Your pal, Iron Man. Whatever it is, I'm not going to judge you."

There's a flash of hope in Steve's eyes that makes Tony ache right down to his bones. He feels it in his chest, caught beneath his ribs, that need to make Steve happy, to make him be okay. And then Steve's jaw tightens, the way he does when he's getting ready to do something big and important, and he clears his throat.

"Uh," Steve says, and then he finds his voice. "I just wanted to know. You-- you date men sometimes, right? I mean, you've dated men?"

Every thought in Tony's head just slides right out of his mind, like the bridge he was standing on has suddenly lifted to make way for boats beneath, and everything he thought was stable is now rolling away, the steady ground beneath him tipped up. An upheaval.

"Yes?" Tony says. He doesn't mean for it to sound like a question. His voice is too high. "Yes," he says again. It echoes inside his head. His mouth feels clumsy. His palms are sweating. "I mean, yeah. I have. Not in a while, but-- yeah."

Good one, Stark. Real smooth.

To be fair, this conversation has always been a lot easier in his head.

He's imagined this conversation so many times. He's played out so many scenarios, so many variations, so many branching paths. When he's had a bad day at work, or when the Avengers' foes hit a little too hard, he thinks but I still have Steve, and he lets himself dream up a little fantasy where his love is requited, where Steve will be there for him, where they'll be there for each other in every way, a commitment beyond friendship.

This isn't usually the version he imagines, though. In his head it's almost always him making the first move. He knows Steve has never been with a guy, so he's always thought he would have to be a little more forward, to put out an unambiguous offer and let Steve decide, to smile and hold out his hand and say if you're ever interested in more. The best of the fantasies, of course, are the ones where neither of them has to say anything, where they look at each other and they just know, the same way Tony knows where Steve is in battle, where he's going to move, before he even says. In those fantasies, they step closer and closer and their lips meet. Music swells. Happiness forever. Tony, eternally cynical, ought to hate a fantasy like that -- but somehow when Steve is there, in his mind, even the slightest hint of pessimism is blunted. Steve's presence is magic, somehow, even if Steve's not really there.

But Steve is here now. Fidgeting.

It makes sense that Steve is nervous. Steve is straight -- or thought he was straight -- or something. Steve is clearly not really straight, anyway. Tony's hopes and dreams were right all along. And this is a new experience for Steve, asking Tony out. It's not like being Captain America gives him a leg up when it comes to asking a guy out. It's nerve-racking for everyone. Tony's been there. Even as he tries to remember how to breathe through the terrified excitement, something in his chest is warm, fuzzy with sympathy.

He wants to tell Steve that he knows it's hard to say, that coming out is hard to do, that it gets easier. That the more practice he has telling people he's queer, asking men out, the less afraid he'll be. But Tony also doesn't really want Steve to ask anyone else out after him, so that's not really advice he wants to give. He's not as noble as he should be.

He remembers to smile.

Slow down, he tells himself. He knows he likes to go fast. He knows he has terrible impulse control. That's not what Steve needs. They're taking this conversation at Steve's pace. Tony's not going to mess this up for him.

Steve smiles back -- good, Tony tells himself, that's good, an excellent sign -- and runs his hand through his hair, shoving it back until it sticks up. "That's-- that's great," Steve says. He's practically stammering. God, he's so nervous. Tony wants to gather him up and tell him there's nothing to be afraid of. It's okay. He's here for him. Steve coughs again. "So I was wondering," he continues, "since I've never dated a man before, if you had any tips? About dating another fella? You know, how a date goes. Things like that."

Okay. He recognizes this now. Sometimes in Tony's head, the conversation -- or really, The Conversation, because it deserves capital letters -- goes like this after all. This version is familiar too, now that he's figured out which one it is. They're all familiar, really. He's thought through all the possibilities. He's a futurist. He has it all worked out.

Tony understands what's going on. This is the version of The Conversation where Steve is coy. Well, as coy as Steve is capable of being -- which is, frankly, not much, but it's endearing to watch him try. Steve is dropping hints. Suggesting, in his own sweetly unsubtle way, that they should be together. Steve's coming at it sideways, and with a few more questions Tony can tease out what Steve actually means, and then Tony's dreams -- as unbelievable as this possibility seems -- can finally come true.

He knows what to do now. Be patient, he reminds himself. Take it slow. He's waited this long. He can wait a little longer. This is the way Steve wants to play it. Tony needs to pretend he doesn't know.

"Well," Tony says. The word echoes when he says it. He feels dizzy with the possibility, with the knowledge of what's about to happen. "In my experience, it's not so much about dating guys in general, as it is about dating a particular person. So what you want to do, really, is ask yourself what you know about this guy as an individual, what he'd like to do, based on what you know about him. It's not actually that different from dating a woman."

Just because he has ulterior motives doesn't mean he can't at least try to give Steve decent advice. He wipes his palms on his pants and smiles his brightest smile.

"Oh," Steve says. The sound is small, surprised, like he actually hasn't thought of that, and Tony congratulates himself on being thoughtful. "That makes sense."

Time to push. Well, to press. More like a gentle nudge.

"I mean," Tony adds, "I could help you more if I knew more about this mystery guy of yours." He smiles again, careful, easy. No frightening Steve away now, no, sir. "If you tell me more about him, I could be more specific. Make some suggestions."

"Gosh," Steve says, with that aw-shucks earnestness he's perfected. Tony thinks he's the only man ever born who can say gosh like he means it. "You'd do that for me?"

And Steve just lights right up. Like he didn't think Tony would offer to aid him at all. Like he never expected Tony to be taking this news this well, or to be this helpful -- which is a little weird, because Steve has to know what they're doing here. This is Steve's idea.

Tony smiles again. "Absolutely."

Steve laughs another nervous little laugh and runs his hand through his hair again. He's biting his lip. He really is fretting about this. "Okay." Steve exhales. "Okay. I guess maybe I ought to start from the beginning, huh?"

"Always a good place to start," Tony agrees.

When he imagines this version of The Conversation, he always likes this part. This is the part where Steve, eyes wide, looks at him in a way that's somehow serious and fond. He says ever since I woke up in the future, there's this one fella I've become really close to, one of my best friends. This is the part where Steve's mouth curves in a smile, in pleased reminiscence, as he watches him.

So it's kind of a surprise when Steve squints at him, tilts his head, and gestures with a chop of his palm, like a mathematician setting out a starting postulate. "You remember how last month you had that conference in California?" Steve asks.

Tony blinks back, confused, because that isn't how this goes at all. "Yes?" he says, full of uncertainty.

It had been a pretty good trip; the engineering conference at Caltech and then the tech expo in LA had spanned two weeks together, and Tony took a third week off at Pepper's urging, because, hell, he deserved a vacation once in a while, didn't he? He'd spent most of the vacation wishing Steve were with him, but he knew someone had to hold down the fort.

"And while you were gone," Steve continues, "Jan went on that trip to New Zealand, and Ororo and Tigra went with her?"

"Right," Tony says, still more than a little bewildered. The team had definitely worked all that out when they were coordinating leave schedules; they'd decided it would be all right, since Steve, Peter, Luke, and Clint were still around, and in a real emergency the out-of-town Avengers could all hurry back.

He has no idea what any of this has to do with Steve's feelings for him. Maybe Steve had some kind of epiphany while Tony was away. Absence makes the heart discover previously-repressed homoerotic urges, or however the saying goes.

"So," Steve says, "it was me and the rest of the guys, and all was going reasonably well, until--" He pauses, and there's a familiar reticence in his eyes. "I mean, I don't want to blame Clint, exactly. It was an honest mistake."

There's an unpleasant creeping sensation slithering up Tony's spine, like the time the Avengers fought that giant squid, only more metaphorical. There hadn't been any mission reports filed for the weeks while he was gone -- meaning the team hadn't fought anyone -- but it's beginning to occur to him now that this didn't mean other things couldn't have gone wrong.

"What happened?" Tony asks. How the hell is this related to your love life? he doesn't ask.

Steve holds up his hands like he wants to ward off blame on Clint's behalf. "As I understand it, he was being honored by some kind of Archer Awards, and he needed a date for the ceremony. He said he'd been meaning to ask Tigra, but then, of course, she wasn't there. So he decided internet dating was his best shot. A site called Lover's Leap."

Steve's making a face Tony can't quite identify. Steve's cheeks are flushed, and Tony isn't quite sure why. Steve often gets a little shy talking about anyone's dating habits. That's probably it.

Tony frowns. That last detail is a little strange, now that he thinks about it. "I've never heard of that site." It must be new.

The blush grows deeper. "Neither had any of us, at the time." Steve bites his lip, and the smile he gives Tony now is an apologetic one. "Anyway. So Clint might have gotten impatient filling out the dating site profile--" or bored, Tony translates-- "and he decided to save time by, uh, uploading his personnel data. From his identicard."

Oh, no. Tony can see exactly how this went wrong. He scrapes his hand over his face and prays the fervent prayer of the sysadmin: save me from end users. "Exactly how much of his classified Avengers data did he upload?"

Sheepish, Steve glances away, hangs his head, goes redder. "Uh. All of it. Tower access codes. Everything." He pauses. "And, uh, not just his own data. Everyone's files."

What a mess. Geez. "All this happened while I was gone, and you didn't think I'd want to know?"

"I thought we could fix it," Steve says, only a little defensively. "We did fix it. Only it got a little more, um, complicated, by the end."

Tony's beginning to be suspicious of adjectives. "What do you mean, complicated?"

"Uh," Steve says, and he looks away again, and by now he's practically tomato-red. "When Clint uploaded all our data, it... set us all up on the dating site, him and me and Peter and Luke and Logan, as... interested in romance." The poor guy looks mortified. Tony doesn't blame him. "So, of course, the first the rest of us hear of it is the next day, when a bunch of women show up at the door -- because they have the access codes -- for the dates they think they're having with all of us."

Steve's mouth is quivering in an interesting combination of misery and suppressed laughter. It is kind of funny, Tony supposes. It would be funnier if Clint hadn't given a dating site all their access codes, though.

"Then what?"

"It turned out," Steve says, continuing valiantly onward, "that the only way to get the data off the site was to visit the Lover's Leap offices. In person." He pauses, and there's something bright and excited in his eyes, kindling a sympathetic fervor within Tony. Soon, soon, Steve's going to get to the real point. "And you'll never guess who the owner of Lover's Leap was."

He can't guess. He can't really think. It's hard to think about anything other than the fact that Steve likes guys, and that very shortly in this convoluted conversation Steve's going to be telling Tony what he's been waiting to hear.

No, wait, he can guess. Lover's Leap. Lover's Leap. Goddammit.

"Batroc," Tony says, flatly. He shouldn't even be surprised at this point, and yet somehow he still is. "Batroc the Leaper runs a dating service."

Weirdly, Steve is actually smiling. And even weirder, it's one of his nice smiles. A little awkward, all eager and earnest. "Yep."

Tony is so preoccupied trying to come up with any reason why that would make Steve smile that it takes him a full five seconds to think of the further implications of that. "You're telling me that Clint handed over all our classified data to Batroc the Leaper because he wanted a date."

Steve scratches the back of his head. He's still smiling that weird smile, even though his embarrassed gaze has once again drifted from Tony's face. "Uh. Yeah."

Tony wants to bang his head against the nearest hard surface. "Great."

"We fixed it, though," Steve says, like that's supposed to make it better. "We eventually made a deal with Batroc. He said he'd delete the data, but the dates had already been arranged, so we all... went on a bunch of dates."

Steve's mouth is crooked and his face is bright red. Okay, Tony admits, he can see the humor here. That is kind of a funny situation, in retrospect, and the data thing seems to have turned out okay. No harm done.

"You went on dates?" he asks. "With women?"

Steve nods. "Four of them. I had to, really. They weren't-- I mean, they weren't what I wanted, but they weren't that bad."

Maybe this is where The Conversation gets back on track. The dates made Steve realize what he was missing. That he'd rather be dating someone like Tony.

"That's good," Tony says, a little vaguely, still trying to figure out what's going on here. "I'm glad it went okay."

Steve nods. "And afterwards we got all the Avengers data off the Lover's Leap servers, so it all worked out in the end."

Okay, now Tony really has to just flat-out ask how this is related to Steve wanting to date guys, because this isn't making any sense. "And you're asking me about dating men because...?"

Steve's hair is a mess now, sticking up every which way as he runs his fingers through it again. Tony wants to grab his hand and tell him it's okay. "I got to thinking on those dates," he says, like he's practiced this, and, yes, yes, this is how The Conversation goes. They've got this. "Maybe they weren't who I wanted to be dating, those women, but it didn't seem like a bad idea, putting myself out there on the market. Seeing who was out there, you know? So when everyone else deleted their profiles, I left mine up."

What the hell?

This isn't-- this isn't--

It wasn't supposed to go like this.

Steve wants actual dating advice. About dating a man. Who isn't Tony. Because he doesn't want Tony.

It's one of those record-scratch moments. Everything in Tony's brain comes crashing to a halt. He can't-- he didn't-- he never planned for this. Steve was supposed to want him. God, that sounds so arrogant. But it never occurred to him that Steve wouldn't think about him. He was supposed to be there for Steve. Steve was supposed to realize, slowly, gradually, perfectly, that he had feelings for Tony. If Steve ever wanted a man, it was supposed to be him.

It's not fair, he wants to say, and that's terrible and selfish and unkind, but it's all he can think.

His pulse pounds loudly in his ears. The world wobbles and tilts around him, goes gray, tilts the other way. He wonders if he's going to be sick.

Steve looks down, opens his belt pouch, gets out his phone. He's not looking at Tony, which is good, because that means Tony has a few precious seconds to compose himself. He shoves it all down, pushes it all away, as far as it can go. He imagines himself putting the suit on, an emotionless metal face.

He imagines being happy for Steve. He should be happy for Steve. Steve is his friend. He wants Steve to be happy.

He breathes in and out. He gets himself under control. He knows how to do that. His face, thank God, feels like it's back to something approaching normal by the time Steve is done bringing up whatever it is he wants him to see. Steve passes him his phone, and what Tony sees there makes the situation a thousand times worse.

The screen is showing a private conversation -- a pair of messages sent this morning -- on what is presumably the Lover's Leap app, with Steve's picture on the right, and a man in an all-too-familiar orange and purple costume on the left:

Batroc: Mon cher capitaine! I was wondering if perhaps you would do me the honneur of meeting me cet après-midi au Central Park? Je serai prêt à four o'clock, if you are interested in un rendez-vous?

Below that there's the reply:

Steve: Sure! Sounds great!

The first thing Tony thinks, God help him, is Good lord, Batroc types just like he talks. And the second thing Tony thinks, after he absorbs the messages' actual content, is Oh my God, Steve agreed to a date with Batroc the Leaper.

It takes every ounce of willpower in Tony not to react. He pictures himself throwing Steve's phone out the window and watching it plummet sixty stories down. He wouldn't really do it. But he wants to stop this. And he knows he can't. Steve already told Batroc yes, anyway. This is already going to happen, three hours from now.

God. Steve wants to date Batroc.

If it were just that Steve didn't want to date him, Tony could have accepted it. Just because he's in love with Steve doesn't mean Steve has to love him back, no matter how much he wants it to be true. Even if Steve likes guys, that doesn't mean that Tony is his type.

But Steve is choosing Batroc, and that's what Tony really doesn't understand. Batroc's allegiance is mercenary, in the truest sense of the word; the only reason he hasn't attacked the Avengers recently is that no one's paid him to. And if what Steve is saying is right, Batroc literally just blackmailed half the team -- including Steve -- into going on dates arranged by his company. It's not like dating a full-on supervillain, no -- but it's sure as hell not what Tony would have expected from someone with an unerring moral compass like Steve has.

"I know what you're thinking," Steve says, and Tony bites down hard on no, you don't, because if you knew I wanted it to be me instead, you'd never have asked me this -- and then he registers the tone of Steve's voice. Soft. Hesitant. Steve is afraid he's thinking... well, probably most of what he's thinking.

Tony looks up. Deprived of fiddling with his smartphone, Steve is digging his fingertips into the edge of the sofa. His mouth is a thin line, and his eyes a winter-blue in a face much paler than it should be. God, Steve.

Sure, maybe Steve doesn't care about Tony the way Tony wants him to. But he cares enough that Tony's opinion means a lot to him, and Tony is obviously the first person he's told about any of this. And Tony owes it to Steve to be supportive. That's what Steve needs from him.

"I know it's crazy," Steve continues, and, God, is he shaking? "I know we all know what Batroc's like. I know you're probably wondering what I'm thinking. I keep wondering what I'm thinking. But I just-- I wanted to try something new. I wanted to live a little. And if it doesn't work out, then it doesn't work out." He takes a shuddering breath. "But I was hoping that you could trust me on this one, and maybe give me some advice?"

Even though Steve's still in uniform, Tony thinks that this is the least like Captain America he's ever seen him. He's hunched over, practically folded in on himself; he smiles a tiny, anxious smile.

It's for Steve. He can do this for Steve.

He imagines his heart, his poor ruined heart, is breaking. The cardioverter Yinsen made for him has been taxed beyond endurance. He can picture it, a sad and grotesque mingling of man and machine in his chest, ticking to a halt.

He pushes the phone back into Steve's hands and makes himself smile. He has to make this the best disguise ever. The most secret of any secret identity. Steve can't know.

He makes himself smile. He pretends he's happy. He pretends he believes it.

"Okay," he says. "What do you want to know about dating guys? I'm here for you."

Steve turns his phone over and over in his huge hands. "Uh. This is going to sound stupid, but... it really is a date, right? You saw the messages. It sounds like a date to you, right? He didn't exactly say date. Except in French, sort of."

Ah, yes, that problem. The perennial is this a date or just coffee problem. Tony is familiar with that one.

"Well," Tony says. "It's on a dating app, so I think that's a pretty good sign."

"Yeah." Steve is frowning, though. "But, well, it is Batroc, and it could be a fight, and I don't want to show up for a date if it turns out that it's a fight."

Okay, Tony has to admit that is this a date or just a fight is not a problem he's ever had, but he supposes this is what happens when you agree to date villains.

He wants to tell Steve that Steve wouldn't have this problem if he were dating him.

"I do see the problem," Tony agrees.

Steve smiles that sheepish smile again. "So I can't even figure that part out," he says, sounding ashamed. "I mean, what do you wear to a date that might be a fight?"

Tony thinks this is a problem that only an Avenger could have.

"Your uniform?" he suggests. "With your shield?"

Steve glances down at himself and then back up; there's something self-conscious in his gaze. "Are you sure? I mean, I see how it would help if there's a fight, but it's not really fancy enough for a date, is it?"

"Doesn't look to me like he's taking you anywhere with a dress code," Tony says. "It's just the park. That's more than dressy enough for the park." The smile Tony gives Steve is deliberately unconcerned, trying to put him at ease. If Tony can pretend to be relaxed, maybe Steve will calm down.

"That makes sense," Steve says, but he doesn't look completely mollified. In fact, he's practically vibrating with nerves. "But do you really think it's, you know, nice? Do you think it makes me look, um, nice enough? Do you think he'll like it?"

Oh, God. Steve wants to know if he looks good in his uniform. For Batroc. Tony's certain that if his heart hadn't already broken, it would have broken at those words.

"Sure," Tony says, hollowly. "You always look handsome -- I mean, uh, I'm sure he'll think you look very nice in your uniform."

And, thank God, Steve smiles. At least one of them is happy.

"You really mean that? You think so?"

"Of course I do," Tony says. "Would I lie to you?"

Only about everything important.

"Thanks, Shellhead!" Steve says, beaming at him, and God, he's beautiful, and he can never be Tony's. "I knew I could count on you!" He pauses. "Do you, uh-- do you have any other tips for dating guys?"

Tony pastes another smile on his face. "Oh, you know, there's no secret to it, really. It's like dating anyone. Just be yourself."

"Be myself," Steve repeats, like the age-old advice is somehow entirely new to him. His jaw tightens. He looks like Tony's just been giving him orders on the battlefield, rather than dating advice. "Okay. I can do that."

And then he stands up, a little unsteadily, but he finds his feet soon enough.

On an ordinary weekend, they'd be watching another episode of Junkyard Wars together. They'd laugh and chatter and critique the contestants' designs. They'd order pizza, maybe. Steve's hand would brush his as Tony passed him a slice of pepperoni. And maybe, someday, Tony would have the courage to reach out, to hold his hand a little longer.

He's missed his chance.

"Getting ready for your date, huh?" Tony asks, as brightly as he can.

He's glad Steve is leaving the room. He can't pretend to be happy for him for too much longer.

Already moving toward the doorway, Steve grins at him, and Tony's stomach twists. "Yep," Steve says. "I figure I should shower first. Thanks for all the help."

"Anytime," Tony says. He thinks this is what he would sound like if he were happy for him. "Have a good time!"

Lies. All lies.

Steve grins one more time, and heads out into the hallway.

"And brush your teeth!" Tony yells after him, and then he thinks about Steve kissing Batroc, and he wants to cry.

Steve's joyous laughter in response echoes down the hallway.

Tony thought that Steve telling him he was going on a date with Batroc was the worst it could get -- but now that Steve is actually on a date with Batroc, Tony has discovered that he can feel even lower than he ever imagined was possible.

Tony's stomach twisted itself into knots while he waited the inordinately long time Steve was taking to get ready. He planned a dozen more futures, like the one where he burst into Steve's room while he was getting ready and told Steve not to go because he loved him, and Steve realized he'd been wrong this whole time.

Even Tony wasn't going to be that selfish. He couldn't be. But he wanted to be.

He picked up his laptop and tried to pretend he was working. No luck. Code blurred before his eyes.

Eventually Steve came back up, hair still damp from the shower, in his clean spare uniform, boots and shield polished. He smelled like aftershave and he was smiling.

"Good luck," Tony told him, and his heart shredded itself into pieces.

And then Steve went, and now Tony's here alone, and Steve is off meeting Batroc. And since Steve hasn't called in on his identicard to inform the Avengers that Batroc is actually attacking him, Tony can only conclude that it's a date after all.

Tony watches the second hand tick away on the clock. With every passing minute, his one remaining hope diminishes further, the hope that is so terrible that he can barely entertain it: the thought that maybe Steve isn't having a good time with Batroc.

He should want Steve to be happy. It's not like he's only Steve's friend because he wants to get into Steve's pants. That would be vile. Reprehensible. He's not that kind of man, but the jealousy seeping through his veins is making him feel a hell of a lot like he could be, and he's making himself sick with the thought of it. What if he's been using Steve all along and he never knew until now?

It's all making him sick, really.

He can't stop thinking about it. What are Steve and Batroc doing? It's only a first date; they're probably getting to know each other better.

What is there to know? the back of Tony's mind asks. He's a villain.

He's someone Steve wants to be with, Tony tells himself, but that doesn't make him feel any better.

What are they doing, the two of them? He wishes he could stop trying to imagine it. They're probably strolling through the park. Tony pictures Steve and Batroc, perched on the grass, sharing a meal, the way Tony always does with Steve, a pleasant afternoon in the park. A fist clenches around Tony's heart and he hears himself make a distressed noise in the empty room. It's ridiculous to think of it as Their Thing, his and Steve's, because this is a thing normal people do on dates, because there is no Them and so they can't have a Thing. It can't be taking anything away from Tony because Steve was never Tony's in the first place.

Tony used to dream about Steve kissing him. Just kissing him. Dreaming of anything more seemed impossible, even in fantasies. Sometimes he dreamed about sweeping Steve up in his arms, introducing him properly to kissing, taking Steve's breath away with every trick he knew, knowing that every moment in his life had been leading up to this. Sometimes, when he had a hard day, he dreamed the reverse: Steve would draw him close, would press kisses to his mouth, would let him know with all his presence, all his certainty, that he would be there for him forever. And sometimes, he just dreamed about casual kisses, kissing Steve because he was there, because they could, because they loved each other.

And now Steve's probably kissing Batroc.

And there's not anything Tony can do about it.

It's not him. It can never be him.

He stands up. He paces the room, doorway to window; he pauses and looks out the floor-to-ceiling window. He realizes he's staring in the direction of Central Park.

The tower doesn't feel like quite so much of a refuge anymore.

If he stays here he's going to drive himself insane.

It's Saturday. He has absolutely no call to go into the office, but at least if he does he can find something to occupy his mind with. He won't be sitting here thinking about Steve and a second-rate villain, sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G.

Maybe Steve doesn't kiss on the first date, he tells himself, hope rising within him.

That doesn't matter. Steve still doesn't want him.

Sighing, Tony heads to the door, grabs his coat off the coat rack, texts Happy to ask him to bring the car around.

If he's lucky he can stay at work long enough that he won't have to be at the tower when Steve gets back from his date. That way maybe he can pretend it's not happening.

Tony gets absolutely nothing done at Stark International. The change of scenery doesn't do him any good, and he rapidly discovers that he's not in a state where he should be working on anything; the design specs for the new line of processors he's supposed to be creating all look like so much Greek to him, and he has multiple PhDs.

He just can't stop thinking about Steve and Batroc.

At least on a Saturday afternoon there's no one else around the office. He'd hate to have to explain this to anyone.

He's not working, but he has plenty of time to kill; he just doesn't want to be back before Steve gets home. It'll be easier to avoid Steve if everyone has already retreated to their rooms for the night.

He spins in his chair and stares at the ceiling. He orders and eats one slice of tasteless pizza before abandoning it. It feels like nothing in his life is worth bothering with, anymore. Intellectually he knows that it isn't true, that he has a lot of people who care about him, that this is just another way that his brain tries to sabotage him. He's finding it hard to take solace in reason. Logic is no comfort when Steve doesn't love him. Feelings always get him in the end. He's a futurist and right now it looks like the future is a yawning pit of despair. It's hard to be anything remotely positive in the face of that.

But he can deal with it. He always has so far. Nobody's actually dying. He's had worse.

This is going to make Steve happy, he reminds himself.

This had better make Steve happy, or he'll track down Batroc himself and explain to him that he needs to do right by Steve. Or else.

He waits another hour, then two. Until Steve definitely should be back. Until the Avengers have all eaten dinner. Tony doesn't need to be there for team dinner. He can just picture how it would go: half an hour of pretending to smile, of attempting to eat so that no one asks him why he isn't hungry, of trying to make normal conversation about anything other than the fact that this is now one of the worst days of his romantic life. Yeah, no.

When he judges that the coast should be clear, he heads back. He makes it to the tower, up past the common floor, to his room, where he shuts the door and collapses face-down on the bed in miserable relief. He's safe.

There's a knock on the door.

He pushes himself back up, opens the door and -- of course -- it's Steve. Of course Steve wants to tell him all about his date. Who would Steve want to tell if not his best friend, Tony? Steve clearly waited up for him to get back from the office and came over to his room just to talk to him, because that's what they do. That's what they do about everything else in their lives.

Tony realizes that he really should have expected this.

Steve is beaming at him.

Even as Tony's dreams slide farther and farther away, he somehow finds the strength within himself to put an answering smile on his face. "Hey," Tony says. He's proud of how normal he sounds. "How did it go?"

Tony realizes he's allowed the usual amount of space around himself when he opens the door, enough space for Steve to slip inside, even as Steve does so. Steve has long since stopped asking for permission to do that. It's not any kind of presumption, it shouldn't be, because up until now Tony has always wanted him here. (He still does. That's a problem.)

Steve runs his hand through his hair again. His face is flushed, his smile bright. "Well, it was a real date," he says.

He's happy, Tony tells himself. Look at him. He's happy. You should want this for him. If you really cared about his feelings you'd want this for him.

"Oh?" Tony asks, even though he definitely doesn't want any of the details. They're just more information to torture himself with. But it would be weird if he didn't ask. Steve would notice. "Not a fight?"

"Not a fight!" Steve agrees. His eyes sparkle with laughter. He's gorgeous. "Well, it was sort of a fight. In a good way."

Tony is required to ask, he supposes. "What do you mean?"

"You know," Steve says, although Tony doesn't know. "We went on a walk through the park. Talked a bit. Then we decided that it would be fun if we practiced some fighting, so we found a patch of grass that wasn't spoken for and we, uh, went at it for a bit. Georges is very accomplished at savate, you know."

"Georges?" Tony quotes the name back the same way Steve said it, with his best French accent. Someone is grinding a boot into his breastbone. It's probably not the cardioverter actually failing, but God, he feels miserable.

"He does have a first name," Steve says, mildly. Like he thinks the problem is that Tony didn't know it, rather than that Tony objects to Steve and Batroc being on a first-name basis.

"Oh." Tony's voice sounds weak. He hopes Steve doesn't notice.

But luckily -- both luckily and terribly -- Steve's smile is back again, present and irrepressible.

"It was a lot of fun," Steve adds, as cheerfully as Tony has ever heard him. "I picked up a few moves from him. Savate's not really something I have a lot of experience with, so I was glad to have the practice. I think Georges was too. He seemed like he was having fun, at least."

Tony can't help the sadness that wells up in him then. No wonder Steve's never wanted him. Of course Steve wants someone he has a lot in common with. Shared interests. One of his fellow barehanded fighters. He wants someone he can hang out with and spar with. Of course he does. That's what Steve does for fun.

It's not like Tony doesn't spar with Steve. The jealous thought bubbles to the surface of his mind. Steve's made hand-to-hand combat a mandatory part of Avengers training. Tony thinks back guiltily on all the sessions he begged off because he was busy working on something else. Maybe, maybe if he'd told Steve yes more often, Steve would have wanted him. He should have picked sparring over basketball.

But he already knows that wouldn't have helped. Even if Tony trained every single day, there's no way he'd be the equal of Batroc. Stupid Batroc and his stupidly athletic form and his stupidly muscular thighs. Stupid Batroc, world-class champion of savate. Tony knows he's certainly not out of shape, but he's no Batroc. He can't hope to compete with that. And if that's what Steve wants in a man, obviously he's going to go for Batroc. It's not even a question.

"I'm glad you had a good time," Tony says. He's good at lying. He can make himself sound happy.

Steve's still smiling. Steve doesn't notice.

Tony's just inadequate. That's all there is. He's known this about himself ever since his father walked out on him and his mother as a child, and later when his father came back and liked Iron Man better than him. Of course Tony's not going to be good enough for Steve either. He should have remembered this. He shouldn't have tried to get above himself.

"I did!" Steve says. "I really, really did."

"So," Tony asks, as casually as possible, "are you going to see him again?"

He's only asking because someone who was really Steve's friend, someone who Tony is pretending to be, would care about Steve's love life as just one facet of Steve's life. It's not that he's asking because he doesn't know the answer already. It's obvious from the eagerness in Steve's face.

Steve just smiles and nods and says, "Yeah. We made plans for a week from today. We're going to go out for lunch, I think. Maybe brunch. We haven't decided yet."

Tony consoles himself with the thought that it can't have been that great if they're waiting an entire week to see each other, but that thought only lasts until Steve opens his mouth again.

"I wish it weren't so long," Steve adds, almost wistfully, "but it's the only time our schedules worked out."

"That's too bad," Tony says, and he hopes he sounds like he means it.

"Yeah," Steve agrees.

There's a pause, then, a pause where Tony ought to say something and doesn't. One second, two seconds. Time slows down, stretches into eternity. Steve rubs the back of the neck, and he's looking around the room, looking at everywhere that isn't Tony, and he scuffs his toe against the carpeting.

The worst thing is that Steve is still so goddamn beautiful. He has the cowl of his uniform pulled back, and his hair is mussed in the exact way that has always made Tony want to run his fingers through it and smooth it down. His eyes are sparkling. He looks the way he does after he's had a good workout, a good sparring session, all loose-limbed and easy... but now tensing up again. The smile is fading from his face. This is what Tony is doing to him.

Tony's mouth is drier and drier, and he still can't think of anything to say, as the pause moves beyond awkward and into excruciating.

This doesn't happen to him. This doesn't happen to him and Steve. They're friends. No matter what, they always have things to talk about -- and even if they don't, they can enjoy each other's company in silence. Tony's spent a lot of lazy afternoons with Steve and never said a word, probably as many afternoons as they've had working dinners where they spent an hour and a half excitedly talking over each other because they had too many great ideas for human language to handle all at once.

And now Tony has nothing to say. Nothing that Steve wants to hear, anyway.

"Uh," Steve says. "So I just-- I just wanted to check in and thank you for all your advice, and I'll see you at the team meeting tomorrow?"

"Of course," Tony says. It sounds stilted. Forced. "And you're very welcome, by the way."

He thinks viciously, bitterly, that he should have given Steve terrible dating tips.

Steve smiles once more. He shifts his weight but he doesn't quite move to leave, not yet. "And, uh, I wanted to thank you for... being okay with the, uh." His vague gesture encompasses his whole body. "The whole bisexual thing. I know it was probably unexpected. Maybe a lot to get used to."

That wasn't the part that was unexpected, Tony thinks, and he breathes out hard. He smiles again.

"It's absolutely not a problem," he says. "I'm queer too, remember? You're not the only one on the team."

Steve's smile is a weak, almost anxious twitch of his lips. "That was why I wanted to tell you first."

No, Tony doesn't say, you told Batroc the Leaper first.

"Thank you," Tony says, because he has to say something and he can't say did you kiss him?

Steve was supposed to kiss him. Tony. He was supposed to be first, if Steve ever kissed a guy. Which is stupid, because of course Steve has kissed people, but he hasn't-- he hasn't-- it was supposed to be Tony.

Tony needs to get used to disappointment. He thought he already had. He was wrong.

Steve's finally edging toward the door. Tony both wants him out of here and wants him never to leave.

"Okay," Steve says, with a smile, with his hand raised. "Night, Tony. Sleep tight."

Ha. As if.

The best thing about this Avengers meeting, Tony thinks, as he heads into the briefing room, is that he's suited up and no one has to see his face. Sure, it means he doesn't get to eat any of the doughnuts Ororo brought, but he can do without cleaning powdered sugar out of the finger joints of his gauntlets -- but on the whole he's going to count it a win, because that means that he can be in Steve's presence without having to worry about his expression giving it all away when he thinks about Steve and Batroc.

The funny thing is that it's thirty seconds past ten, by the clock in the armor's HUD, and Captain Punctual is nowhere to be seen.

He's not the only one; Logan is still... wherever he goes when he's not here, and Luke had said that he and Danny and Misty had some punching to do and so he probably wasn't going to make it, but everyone else Tony expected is here. The team roster of the Avengers these days is really more a loose suggestion than codified law, but here Tony is, next to the empty chair at the head of the table. Next to him is Jan; next to her, Peter; and across the table, there's Ororo, Clint, and Tigra. Just like usual, except without Steve.

Clint slurps his cheap McDonald's coffee loudly and raises his other hand high. There's powdered sugar on his chin. "If Cap doesn't show up in five minutes, I call being team chair next."

"That's not how it works," Jan says.

Tony eyes Clint's coffee with envy. He could have gotten himself a cup from the machine in the workshop, but... yeah, no, not with the faceplate. He sighs.

"I read the team rules," Tigra puts in, brightly. Tony loves the newbies; they're always so enthusiastic. "It's Ororo's turn full-time if Cap resigns, anyway."

Ororo, the team co-leader, graciously inclines her head.

There's a rapid pounding of footsteps down the hall -- someone's in a hurry -- and then Steve ducks in, breathing hard, a Starbucks cup in each hand.

"Sorry," Steve pants. "Sorry, I-- there was a line at the coffeeshop. You know how it is."

He sets down the cup in his left hand -- black coffee -- at his own place, sits down, and then puts the other cup down. This one's a huge iced coffee drink of some kind, topped with an amount of whipped cream that most people would consider excessive. The green straw sticks into the caramel-topped cream at a jaunty angle. Tony's mouth waters. It's exactly the kind of thing he would have ordered. He's never seen Steve drink anything like it, and Steve already has his regular coffee, but Tony supposes that sometimes Steve's enhanced metabolism places additional demands on him. He probably needs the calories.

Steve pushes the cup toward him.

Steve... brought him coffee?

Confused, Tony stares at it. Steve's not supposed to bring him coffee. Sure, maybe Steve's brought him a mug occasionally when he's been working, or spotted him a cup or two when they were out and about and he didn't have his wallet in his armor, but Steve's never done this. He's never gone to all the trouble to bring him something fancy. This can't be for him.

"Did I not get it right?" Steve's squinting at him. "Iced venti white chocolate mocha, three shots of espresso, two-percent milk, two pumps of hazelnut syrup, caramel drizzle, extra whipped cream. That's you, right?"

Tony can't stop staring at it. That's his drink order, all right. His very own ridiculously complex, disgustingly sweet order that he falls back on when the only choice is Starbucks. His very own order that apparently Steve, at some point, memorized. His very own order that Steve decided to surprise him with. Why would Steve do this for him?

"I mean," Steve says, faltering, "I figured that with the, you know, the helmet, the armor, for the official meeting--" he waves his hand in the direction of Tony's face-- "you'd want something with a straw, so I got it iced. Is it not okay? Had you wanted it hot?"

"No," Tony blurts out. "This-- this is great. This-- this is exactly-- exactly perfect." He's stuttering. "Thank you." He cups the drink gingerly between his gauntleted palms and draws it closer.

Steve's beaming at him, and Tony has no idea what the hell is going on here.

It's things like this -- little moments like this, where Steve goes the extra mile just for him -- that once made Tony think maybe he and Steve could have had something, except he knows now that Steve isn't interested, because Steve has made it clear that his type, in men, is not Tony. Because Steve's seeing someone else. He's taken. By Batroc.

Not that Tony's going to bring any of that up in the middle of a team meeting.

Clint wrinkles his nose at Tony's iced mocha. "Are you seriously going to put that in your mouth, Tony?"

"I've seen what you eat," Tigra says to Clint. Her tail snaps in the air, affronted. "I don't think you should be judging anyone."

Jan just looks concerned, leaning toward him. "Three shots of espresso? Don't you have a heart condition?"

Pauldrons creaking, Tony shrugs at her. "You know what they say: live fast, die young, leave a highly-caffeinated corpse," he drawls, and then he wedges the straw into his face mask and savors the hit of sugar and caffeine. Mmm. Delicious. It almost makes up for not understanding at all why Steve did this. Tony's done nothing to deserve Steve being this nice to him.

He's not the one Steve should be buying presents for. Batroc is. The thought makes even this gift bittersweet. Unlike the coffee itself, which is definitely a sugar bomb.

"Hey," Peter says, "did you bring enough for the rest of us, Cap?"

Steve's expression is pained. "I. Um."

Yeah, Steve doesn't like being Captain Unfair at all. Even when it's clearly an accident. An oversight.

Tony sort of wonders what Steve would think if he knew what Tony thought about the fairness of him dating Batroc.

"I will bring coffee for all, next week," Ororo says, smoothly. "Single-origin coffee from a farm near Nyeri, in the highlands of Kenya." She doesn't say what she thinks of Starbucks, but then, she doesn't have to.

Relief flashes into Steve's eyes. "Thank you, Ororo. That's very kind of you." He clears his throat, sips his coffee, sits up straighter. "Right. Let's begin. Since, as you all know, we've had no major missions recently, this should be brief."

Thank God, Tony thinks, I'll be out of his company soon and then, tangled up in the awful paradox of love and jealousy, but I like his company. He cuts the mics; no one hears his sigh of distress except him.

Brisk, businesslike, Steve glances around the room. "First item on the agenda: there are a few mission reports still outstanding." His gaze settles on Clint.

"Outstanding in the bad way," Peter says, with a snicker, under his breath. "Not, like, the wow, your report was really outstanding way. The you didn't finish your homework way."

Steve tips his head to the side in weary acknowledgment even as Clint himself starts snickering along.

"That's you, Hawkeye," Steve says. "I'm still waiting on your official report about the Lover's Leap... incident."

Tony's stomach flip-flops, because now there's nothing to think about except Steve and Batroc. He wonders if Steve's going to bring it up right now, just tell the entire team. Maybe Steve would consider it somehow relevant to the Avengers. A disclosure of a conflict of interest. Update on a sometime-villain. An addendum to his own mission report.

If Steve tells the team about Batroc, that means Steve is serious about him. That it's not some kind of passing fancy.

Tony waits, but Steve says nothing.

"Aww, fine," Clint says. "I'll have it by tomorrow."

"See that you do," Steve says. "Okay, next on the agenda: rumors. Sightings. Anyone got some? Any villains we know making waves?"

Once again, Steve fails to offer Batroc's name. Or mention the dating.

He probably doesn't think it's relevant. It can't be that it's not serious. Tony already knows Steve is going out with the guy again next week. Six days. Not that he's counting, or anything.

"You mean other than the part where Wolverine's in Japan kicking the Hand's butts?" Tigra asks, and, okay, yeah, that does explain where Logan is. At least he told someone where he was going before he left.

Steve nods. "Other than that."

Okay, so Steve already knew too. Tony's been very distracted these days, obviously.

Ororo raises her hand.

"Yes, Storm?"

"I was at the Baxter Building a few days ago," she begins, "and Reed and Sue mentioned to me that there had been, as they phrased it, unusual activity in the vicinity of Monster Isle. Although they couldn't be more specific, they said they would be unsurprised if we were vexed by monsters in the near future."

Great. Monsters. Well, at least they're not imminent monsters. And Monster Isle's actually near Japan, so maybe the monsters will do them a favor and not come all the way out here just to attack New York. On the other hand, they're not usually that lucky. And even if the monsters confine themselves to Japan, Tokyo will probably end up asking for the Avengers' assistance anyway. Googam and Giganto are never a good time for anyone.

"All right," Steve says. "I'll make a note of it. Anyone else?" He pauses. "Okay, moving on. Third and last item of business."

"You weren't kidding about this being brief," Clint says. He's swiveling back and forth in his chair, fidgeting with boredom.

"Team-mandated community service," Steve says, crisply, as Clint rolls his eyes. "If you haven't done your hours for the month yet -- and you know who you are," he says, glancing significantly at Clint once again, "or if you did your hours already and you'd like to bank hours for next month, please get in touch with me. There are opportunities available. The children's librarian at NYPL is looking for Avengers for storytime, weekday mornings. If you have enhanced strength or other similar abilities, Robin Chapel at Damage Control is also looking for volunteers to help clean up that last fight out in Queens."

"On it," Peter says, and Steve looks pleased. Figures. Queens pride, huh?

"Great." Steve pushes his chair back. "Unless anyone else has anything to add, I'll see you all next week, with Storm's coffee. Right, Ororo?"

Ororo smiles again.

So much for Robert's Rules of Order; they're all out of the room before anyone makes a formal adjournment. They're all gone, except Steve, that is, who is getting slowly to his feet. He tilts his head at Tony. No, at Tony's coffee.

"Did you not like it?" Steve asks, and that's when Tony realizes he hasn't had hardly any at all. Geez. He's probably offended Steve. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to get you something you didn't like."

Tony glances down guiltily at the mocha. "No, no, it's great! Thank you so much!" he says, as quickly as he can. He rises to his feet, picking up the cup as he goes, taking another sip, setting it back down. "I was just wondering what the special occasion was."

Steve frowns. "Hmm?"

God, he's gone and made it weird now, hasn't he? He's drawn attention to it. Steve clearly didn't think there was anything special about it.

"I mean," Tony says, glad that Steve can't see his awkward face, "it's just that you've never done that before. Brought me one of these fancy Starbucks drinks. I mean, I didn't even know you knew my order. Though now that I think about it, you've got that eidetic memory, so of course you know my order because we've been to Starbucks together before. Right. Yeah."

He's babbling. Stop talking, Stark, he tells himself. You sound like an idiot. The self-talk is less effective than it used to be, because the motivation used to be that he, pathetically, wanted Steve to like him. To respect and admire him. To love him. And, well, there's no chance of that now, is there?

But Steve's still frowning. "You always get me things all the time, but it has to be a special occasion for me to get you a mocha?"

I always get you things because I have a crush on you is a sentence that Tony cannot utter, and not just because of the crush. It makes him sound like the worst kind of sleazeball, forever picking up the check in the hope that Steve might put out. That's not what it was. That was never what it was. But that's what it sounds like when he thinks about it. That just makes him feel even more terrible. His throat tightens. He's not in any mood to actually drink the mocha now.

"No," Tony says, and it's all coming out wrong. It's never been this hard to talk to Steve before, and he hates it. "It doesn't have to be. I just-- I was wondering if there was a reason. That was all."

"I didn't mean to surprise you." Steve almost sounds hurt, his voice low and abashed, and then Tony does remember all the times Steve's done things for him, bought him lunch, brought him random things that Steve thought he'd like, pencils and magnets and bookmarks, and Tony realizes with a stab of guilt that Steve actually feels unappreciated, and he has no idea what to say about that. But it's too late; Steve's moving on. Forgiven. Forgotten. "I just-- it was really nice of you to give me all that advice the other day, about Georges, and I wanted to thank you, and I was out getting myself coffee and I thought it would be a nice thing to do. That you might like some too."

Oh. Steve's grateful for the dating advice. That's what it is.

Steve's smiling a little now. He wasn't before, but he is now. He's probably thinking about Batroc.

Tony's glad he has the helmet on, because he's miserable now.

"It's really no big deal," Tony says, which makes it sound like never get me anything again ever because I'm an ungrateful bastard, but he's positive that the truth won't improve matters. "The advice, I mean. You're my friend. You don't need to go out of your way to thank me or anything."

"Oh," Steve says. He's blinking rapidly, startled. "Okay."

Maybe it'll be better when they're not talking about Batroc, Tony tells himself. Maybe then he can have his friend back. Maybe they can be the way they used to be.

Maybe you can never get it back and he was only your friend because you wanted him, Tony's mind whispers.

He can't be here. He can't talk to Steve, even with the armor on. Not like this.

"I, uh." Tony chucks a thumb behind him, at the open doorway. "I should--"

"Right," Steve says. His mouth is a wavering line. "Okay. Don't let me keep you."

After Tony backs out of the room, he realizes he left the mocha on the table. Yeah, Steve's not going to appreciate that, either.

At least Batroc can make him happy, he thinks. It's sure better than what Tony's doing.

The weird thing is, he apparently can still talk to Steve after that. Or at least, Steve can talk to him.

Despite the persistent voice in the back of Tony's head telling him how much easier this would all be if he just hid in his room or his workshop and never had a conversation with Steve again, he decides to man up and join the rest of the team for Sunday dinner. It would be really strange if he didn't, after all, and then the team might start speculating -- and the thought of the rest of the Avengers somehow figuring out why he doesn't want to be there is second only to Steve himself finding out, in terms of the sheer mortification potential. So he's going. Unarmored. Grow a backbone, he tells himself. You can do this. It's not the best pep talk, but it gets him out the door and up the stairs.

Jan, Tigra, and Luke are already at the table by the time Tony gets there, and when he makes his hellos and takes his usual seat is when Steve comes in. Tony tenses up despite himself, takes a shaking breath--

And Steve smiles, as easy as anything, and slides into the seat next to Tony. "Hey, Shellhead," he says, still grinning, like nothing's wrong, like nothing could ever be wrong with the two of them, like they're still the very best of best friends and no one else has a claim on Steve's affections. "How's it going?"

"Uh." Tony is the pinnacle of articulatory brilliance. Okay, no, he's confused and sad and a little panicky. "Fine?"

"Good," Steve says. "Did you get everything done that you needed to do? Was it that suit repair that you were telling me about?"

Friday evening -- before Tony's life was ruined -- he'd been telling Steve about some modifications he'd wanted to make to the boot jets to improve stability, and apparently Steve had actually been paying attention. And apparently he actually cared. And he sounds like he still cares exactly the same amount. Except he shouldn't, because this doesn't make any sense, because Steve has Batroc.

"No," Tony says, bewildered. "I didn't. I was planning on working on the boots on Monday, if I have any free time after the SI board meeting."

"I hope you do," Steve says, with a smile, with absolute sincerity, like they're still best friends. And then he looks a little further down the length of the table, away from Tony, and raises his eyebrows. "Would you mind passing me those dinner rolls?"

"No problem," Tony says. He has no idea what's going on. He leans over and snags the braided edge of the wicker basket, passes it down the table, and then, after some thought, grabs the butter. Steve always wants butter. He'll never admit it but he's kind of finicky about it. Tony blames the Great Depression.

"Thanks, Shellhead," Steve says, as he slices a roll open and butters it generously. "You're the best."

The rest of the dinner goes just like that. Just like old times. The Avengers are laughing and joking and everything is normal. Everything is exactly the way it should be. By the time dessert rolls around Tony is beginning to think that the little hiccup in his and Steve's ability to communicate earlier was just that: a hiccup. An aberration. A momentary glitch. Maybe now their relationship has been thoroughly debugged, to continue with the computing metaphors, and everything is going to be okay.

They all polish off Jarvis' superb chocolate cake -- not that there was any question of that -- and Tony is now thoroughly relaxed. It's going to be okay, he tells himself. Everything is all right now. He and Steve can still talk just they used to, somehow.

And the even weirder thing is that it's not a fluke: the rest of the week is normal, too. Tony goes to SI, gets his work done, tinkers with the armor, and whenever he's back home at the tower with the Avengers, everything is... fine. The rest of the team is perfectly normal, of course, and his friendship with Steve is exactly like it always was. They spent most of Monday evening in the common area working on reports together and it's not weird or awkward. Tuesday night, Tony has a charity event at the Met, and Steve stays up past his bedtime to ask him how it is. On Wednesday, Logan gets back from Japan, and Steve puts on his old-time radio shows, and Tony sits there and listens to them with him while Logan drinks, mocks the shows, and pretends like he's not just as interested. Thursday is when weird things always happen -- really, Tony ought to run some kind of statistical analysis on that -- and the Avengers end up punching MODOC. Again. It's mostly Luke punching MODOC this time, which is fine by Tony, because Tony is heartily sick of MODOC by now. Steve is proud of all of them, of course, because he's Steve and that's who he is.

Then comes Friday. Everything is perfectly fine, all day, and then it's dinner, and then it's after dinner. He and Steve are clearing the table, just the two of them, because Tony likes to give Jarvis the night off whenever possible and Tony doesn't ever want to be so full of himself that he can't wash dishes. So Steve's rinsing the dishes and Tony's loading the dishwasher and Steve passes him a plate and says, "Would it bother you if Georges came to pick me up tomorrow?"

Tony nearly drops the plate, shocked, as everything within him sinks. He doesn't know why he's shocked. He shouldn't be. He knew this was coming, didn't he?

Just like that, Tony's good mood evaporates. He thought everything was better. He thought they were doing better. He thought he was better. But apparently it was just because, when they weren't talking about Batroc, Tony could pretend Steve wasn't dating him. But he can't keep pretending. There's something awful and sickening inside him, something jealous and dark and denied and longing.

Luckily, Steve's not even looking at him; he's still washing dishes. Of course he is. It's a casual conversation. Not a big deal. It's just that Tony is an idiot who can't get over his own stupid useless feelings.

"Why do you ask?" Tony says, managing to put the plate in the rack without breaking it. He thinks that's a normal question that normal people ask. He makes his voice and his face carefully neutral.

Steve does pause then, and he glances over at Tony. "Well, it is your house," he says. His voice sounds a little tight. Self-conscious, maybe. His cheeks are flushed. "And it's up to you to say who you want in your home. And I know Georges... hasn't always been on the right side of the law."

Oh, right. The objections that a normal person would have. While Tony isn't thrilled that Steve has decided to lay his affections at the feet of someone so mercenary, he knows that mostly he's just mad that it's not him. Which isn't any reason not to let Batroc come pick Steve up. It would be petty and wrong to do otherwise.

"Mi casa es su casa, Cap." Tony shrugs a hopefully-nonchalant shrug. "Knock yourself out. I'll get him a code for the elevator."

"Uh," Steve says. "Actually."

That's when Tony remembers how this whole fiasco got started. Clint uploaded the team's data to Batroc's site. "Oh, God, don't tell me he still has all our codes."

"Uh," Steve says again.

Tony sighs. "Okay. I got it. I'll change our codes and then get him a code of his own. Just so the access records will match up to the right people."

Steve smiles at him; a sharp pain throbs in Tony's chest. "Thanks so much. That would be great."

"It's really no problem," Tony says. He thinks he's getting good at lying. He's getting a lot of practice, anyway.

"Still," Steve says, with another smile, "thank you."

Steve's smiles are so very pretty. None of this is fair.

Silence looms between them, again. If Tony doesn't want Steve to figure out that this only happens when they talk about Batroc, he'd better say something. Something normal and supportive and friendly. A real friend would want to know where they were going, Tony thinks. He clears his throat. "So where is he taking you? You said you were going out for lunch, right?"

Shrugging, Steve passes him another plate. "He didn't say. It's a surprise, I guess." He's frowning, a line creasing his brow. "He did say it was informal dress, though, and I don't-- I mean, you must know what he's talking about, right? Is that the same as casual?"

God, he loves Steve, but Steve isn't very good at determining what he can wear for any event where he can't just show up in uniform.

Tony is a terrible person and very briefly considers lying about this. But he can't. "Nope," he says. "That's a different thing. Informal is business wear. A nice suit, a collared shirt, a nice tie. Not a tux, not black-tie, just a regular suit." He squints. "You do own a suit, right?"

He can't remember the last time he saw Steve in a business suit -- maybe never? -- but he feels like, as a friend, particularly as a friend with a fair amount of disposable income, he would have made sure Steve owned one.

Steve brightens. "Oh, yes. You don't remember? My birthday, two years ago, you made me an appointment with your tailor and I got three different suits. It was very nice of you. You insisted I needed several."

Oh, right, that had been that Avengers charity event. God, Steve had looked great in a tux. He wasn't sure he'd ever seen the rest.

"Well," Tony says. "Good. I'm glad. Anyway, you should wear that. What color is it? I can loan you a tie if you need one."

It's what a friend would say, he tells himself. He's helping.

"You said I should get blue," Steve says, "so I did. And, remember, you got me a tie? Also blue."

Tony remembers thinking that it would set off Steve's eyes. He kind of hates himself.

"That sounds great," Tony says. "I'm sure he'll love it."

Through sheer, terrible coincidence, the entire team -- minus Steve -- is in the common area on Saturday afternoon when the security notification that Tony has been dreading flashes across the tower's computer screens. Five minutes early.

Tony wishes he'd thought to wear the armor. Too late now.

ACCESS REQUESTED TO AVENGERS FLOORS, the screen blares, and the main elevator helpfully lights up on the schematic. The code Tony gave Steve requires initial approval -- from Tony -- on first use, to avoid any potential shenanigans. Tony discreetly brings up the elevator security cam on his own laptop, gets a blurry black-and-white glimpse of most of Batroc's face through a fisheye lens. Batroc looks like he's alone in there; he hasn't brought an entire Brigade of second-rate villains, so this is, at least, a sincere date rather than a very elaborate attempt to start a fight.

Tony sighs and approves the visitor.

Luke puts his head up and squints as the APPROVED message flashes on all available screens. "We're all here, so what's up with that? Anyone order pizza or something?"

His question is met with shrugs, with everyone else in the room shaking their heads.

That's when Tony realizes that the entire rest of the team has no idea what's going on. Steve's in his room getting ready. Steve didn't tell them Batroc was coming. To the best of Tony's knowledge, no one except Tony knows that Steve is dating Batroc. No one else even knows that Steve is queer.

This is going to be a mess, Tony thinks, and that's when the elevator dings and the doors slide open.

Batroc steps out, and... well, he's dressed for something, that's for sure. Calling it informal wear would be stretching the definition, though. He's wearing what looks like a purple velour leisure suit, orange shirt, and purple tie, in the exact colors of his costume. He's slicked his hair back; it looks like he's waxed his mustache and trimmed his beard. And he's holding a respectable, if small, bouquet of flowers. Mostly roses. He glances around the common area, clearly hoping that one of the Avengers here is Steve.

Naturally, the Avengers' reaction to Batroc's presence is both immediate and completely predictable. Luke is on his feet in an instant. Ororo's eyes go white and lightning crackles around her. Logan's claws are out. Clint nocks an arrow. Tigra looks about ready to pounce. Jan can't do much at this size, but she raises her fists. Peter's got his hands tilted back, wrists poised to web Batroc.

Tony wishes this were what they were doing. It was so much better back when Batroc was just their enemy.

God, he hates the sight of him. His skin is crawling.

"Bonjour, mes amis," Batroc says. He sounds calm enough -- it takes more than this to rattle him, clearly -- but his voice is slow, and he's glancing warily around the room. "Is there perhaps un petit problème?"

"I'll say there is, bub," Logan snarls. His claws gleam. "What the hell are you doing here?"

Batroc's ridiculous mustache quivers as his face screws up, as he looks at all the Avengers again in turn, like he can't believe they don't know. "I am here to -- how do you say? -- déjeuner avec le capitaine? Lunch? Yes. I am here to take le capitaine out to lunch." He pauses. "He did not say that we were dating?"

The Avengers stare at him in stunned silence.

"Is this some kind of joke?" Logan asks. "You? Dating Cap?"

Tony also wishes Logan were right about this one.

Batroc presses the hand that isn't holding the flowers to his chest; he is the picture of affronted scorn. "Moi? Batroc the Leaper never jokes, mon vieux!"

The room is so quiet that one could hear the proverbial pin drop. Tony can definitely hear Ororo's lightning crackle.

Tony clears his throat. He reminds himself to use codenames in Batroc's presence. "Hey, Spidey," he says, and the entire room -- except Peter, go figure -- turns to stare at him. "Maybe you could swing downstairs and tell Cap his date's here?"

Peter doesn't move. He's masked, of course, but Tony's pretty sure he's still staring at Batroc.

Tony prompts him again. "Spidey?"

"Uh," Peter says, at least three seconds later. "Right. Yeah. Going." He's not swinging at combat speeds, but he's out of the room reasonably quickly, moving behind Tony to get to the doorway to the stairwell, and Tony hears his feet on the stairs that lead down to the Avengers' quarters.

No one says anything.

And then Batroc smiles a very gracious smile and starts edging away from the elevator. He's looking... at Tony? And he's still smiling. He shifts the bouquet to his other hand and holds out his hand.

Feeling like he's in a dream, Tony pushes himself to his feet and comes around the table.

"And you must be the célèbre Tony Stark, oui?" Batroc asks.

Tony tilts his head and stares at Batroc, confused. "We've met before," he says. "I'm pretty sure you've kicked me in the head, actually." Tony suspects that probably describes a lot of people Batroc has met.

This doesn't faze Batroc any; he's still smiling. "Ah," Batroc says. "But you are L'Homme de Fer, n'est-ce pas? You wear always l'armure? I think perhaps we have never met face-to-face, as ordinary men. So I greet you."

Tony glances down. Batroc is still gamely holding out his hand.

What the hell. Tony shakes his hand. "Pleased to meet you. Call me Tony." He makes the handshake as brief as possible.

"Enchanté," Batroc says.

"Likewise," Tony lies.

He eyes Batroc up and down. Batroc's not really his type -- when Tony goes for guys, they tend to be... well, exactly like Steve -- but he can definitely see why Batroc is someone's type. He's a little shorter than Tony is, maybe a little stockier, but it's clearly all muscle, and even with his hideous suit Tony can tell that he's built. It makes sense that Steve would want a guy like that, with a body like that. A fighter.

He tries to tell himself that he doesn't know what Steve sees in the guy, but he does. How can Tony and his broken heart and chest full of scars match up to that?

"You may call me Georges, if you like," Batroc adds, and Tony would certainly not like. "I have heard so much about you from le capitaine. It is un plaisir to finally meet you."

Huh. Tony wouldn't have thought Steve had talked much about him to Batroc, but he supposes that work is a natural topic of conversation on a date. Steve probably talked about the Avengers. He wonders if Batroc is lying, if Batroc was bored, if Batroc was just nodding and smiling along.

Tony's never really understood, before now, the stereotype of a person's friends or relations pulling their date aside and telling them that they better be careful. It always seemed to him like the worst kind of jealousy and possessiveness, but clearly this experience is bringing out all the awfulness in Tony. He wants to pin Batroc to the wall by his throat and tell him that he needs to make Steve happy.

Instead, Tony sticks his hands in his pockets and smiles his best smile. "Taking Cap out to lunch, huh?" he asks, because his mother raised him right and if Steve's going to be bringing Batroc around Tony might as well at least try to be polite to him. "Where are you two going? Let me guess... something French?"

Batroc recoils in horror, as if Tony has just brazenly spat upon him. "Mais non!" he says. "I would never! You Americans, you can never cook properly la cuisine française. Someday I will cook for le capitaine the recipes of ma mère that I learned myself as a child, in Marseille." He harrumphs. "That, mon ami, that is the real French cooking."

"Oh," Tony says. Okay. He was trying to be nice, but apparently Batroc has too much pride. Fine. He can try again to say something appropriate. Not that he can compete with home-cooked meals, either. He's trying not to think about that. "So... not French food for lunch, then?"

"Non," Batroc agrees. "Italian." He waves a hand, lazily, like the food of Tony's people doesn't even matter. "We will go to Il Molino."

The remaining pieces of Tony's heart are now being ruthlessly hammered into even tinier shards, and it's through sheer force of will that Tony doesn't start sobbing or possibly punching Batroc in the face.

That was Tony's plan. That was Tony's special idea for where to take Steve on a date. Oh, it didn't have to be Il Molino specifically -- though he could certainly afford it -- because he had a list of restaurants picked out. Tony's never been the greatest cook in the world, so he can't make for Steve what his mother made for him -- but he could have ordered it and told him about it, and he's sure Steve would have been interested. Steve would have cared. Except he wouldn't have, because he doesn't care, because he doesn't want Tony. So instead Steve is going out for Tony's special meal with Batroc, who clearly picked Italian by throwing a dart at a board because anything that isn't his precious French food will do. It's meaningless. It's ruined.

Tony just isn't going to think about where Batroc is getting the money to pay for this date from, because Il Molino isn't cheap. He wonders if Steve's thinking about it too. Steve must have decided it didn't bother him, otherwise he wouldn't be here. Not that he's here yet.

Steve's sure taking a while to come up the stairs. Tony entertains the brief but fervent hope that he's decided to cancel, to break up with him.

Tony's smile is probably more like a grimace. "Excellent choice," he says. "I recommend the seafood risotto." That was what he had been planning to order, to tell Steve about his cherished memory of his mother showing him exactly how to cook risotto. What does it matter if he gives up his dream? It's never happening.

There's a noise behind him, and Tony turns around to see Steve at the top of the stairs, with Peter behind him. And Steve-- God, Steve looks good. The navy-blue three-piece suit is expensive, perfectly tailored to flatter Steve's figure, not that his figure really needed the help. And the tie does indeed make Steve's eyes sparkle. He's gorgeous. He's breathtaking. And he's smiling, wide and a little nervous. He's looking in Tony's direction, because of course Batroc is standing next to him. It's not Tony he's looking for.

Tony lets himself pretend, for half a second, that this is for him.

"Mon cher capitaine!" Batroc exclaims. He rushes toward Steve and kisses him in greeting on each cheek. Tony tells himself sternly that it's not real kissing, it's just Batroc being French, but that doesn't stop his heart from crumpling even further. He knows they probably have kissed. Or they will. It's not like Tony can do anything about it. "Oh, you are so handsome!"

"Why, thank you," Steve says, and Tony can see his cheeks flushing. "You look real swell, yourself."

Batroc holds out the flowers. "Here. Un petit cadeau pour toi. A gift. I have brought you des fleurs."

"That's so sweet!" Steve is cradling the flowers gently in his huge hands. "Here, let me just get a vase for them--"

The entire team continues to stare as Steve gets a vase out of the cabinet, fills it with water, sets the flowers in. No one says anything. Logan's mouth is hanging open.

Tony thinks they're all probably still in shock. He doesn't blame them.

"Well," Steve says, when he's done. He's starting to look a little awkward. He's fidgeting. "I guess we should go? I mean, I don't want to be late."

"Bien sûr," Batroc agrees. "Let us go!"

Steve waves, a tiny little gesture, to the assembled team. "I'll see you all later, then."

"Have fun," Tony manages to say. He hopes he's still smiling.

Steve and Batroc walk side-by-side back to the elevator, then step inside. Steve is first, and when Batroc follows him he puts one hand in the middle of Steve's back, possessively, as the elevator doors close.

That one motion is what underscores to Tony that this is real. That this isn't just some elaborate invention or flight of fancy. This is real, and Steve and Batroc are going on a date, and they're-- they're touching. They're interested in each other.

Tony's vision is swimming with tears. His throat tightens. He isn't going to cry. God, he can't cry here, in public, in front of the team. He tries to force all the feelings back but it's just too much. He hears a horrible wheezing noise come out of his own mouth.

"Wow," Tigra says, from somewhere behind him. "Cap dates guys." It sounds like she's somewhere else, a long way away.

"Cap dates Batroc," Logan says, his voice oozing disapproval. It sounds like he's a long way away too; everyone sounds like they're at the other end of a tunnel. Tony's hands are tingling.

"Tony," Jan asks. "Tony, are you okay?"

Peter is peering at him in what is probably concern, but it's hard to tell with the mask on.

Tony tries to take a breath. "Fine," he says, or thinks he says; it comes out raw and choked.

"You look like you just saw someone die," Clint observes, with his usual tact.

"I," Tony forces out. "I'm fine, I-- I'm really--"

And then he just loses it. He can feel the tears dripping down his face, and here he is, crying in front of his whole damn team because Steve doesn't love him, God, how pathetic is he?

He blinks and there's a blur of pink in front of him. Jan. She reaches up and puts a hand on his shoulder, then pulls him into a brief hug. With her other hand, she offers him a tissue. "Shh. It's okay, Tony."

He tries to wipe his disgusting face off, only to find that when he blinks again, Jan is leading him toward the stairs.

"Come on," Jan says. "We're going to my room. I can help you."

Tony's sight warps and ripples as he squints at her. "How are you going to help?"

He's pretty sure murder is still illegal even if it's Batroc. And at any rate he doesn't want Batroc dead. Just out of Steve's life. And Steve in love with Tony instead. That's not so much to ask, is it?

She pats him on the shoulder again. "You'll see."

Jan presses a pint of New York Super Fudge Chunk and a spoon into Tony's numb hands. She takes him by the shoulders, maneuvers him to the other end of her bed, and pushes him until he sits down. She's her normal size right now, hardly Giant-Girl, but it's still easier than it should be. Tony practically collapses, weak in the knees.

Tony stares down at the ice cream in his hands. He feels like his limbs belong to someone else. He's really not hungry. There are still tears drying on his face, soaking into his beard.

"Am I supposed to eat my feelings?" Tony asks. "Is that how this works?"

"You like ice cream," Jan says. "You deserve ice cream. So you're going to sit here and eat some ice cream and we're going to talk about Steve." When Tony looks up, Jan is smiling encouragingly. There's no way Tony can do this. He's going to start crying again.

Tony takes the lid off the ice cream and picks his way carefully through the next sentence he says. "That's very kind of you, Jan, but I'm not sure talking about Steve is the best idea for me right now."

"And if you don't talk about him, what are you going to do? Just shut yourself up and try to pretend you don't feel anything?" Jan's eyes are wide. Earnest. Pitying. "Come on, Tony, that's no way to live."

Tony stabs his spoon viciously into the ice cream. "It's just," he says. "It's not fair. And it's stupid to complain about it, because life isn't fair. I know that. I know the world never promised me my very own Captain America." His voice cracks halfway through the name. "I just-- I just always thought that if Steve wanted a guy, it would be me. I guess I just... kind of assumed I didn't need to say it. That there was no pressure. That I'd always have a chance."

God, that sounds stupid. It even sounds worse out loud than it did in his head, because now Jan knows. She knows how awful and arrogant he is.

It's not like you can call dibs on people. But it feels like, until this week, he didn't really know that.

Jan leans over and pats his hand. "Oh, Tony."

"I know Batroc asked him out and I never did," Tony says, miserably. "I was waiting. I was afraid to ask. I wanted to be absolutely sure, you know? It could have all been wishful thinking. I didn't even know for certain if Steve was into guys. And, well, now we all know." He laughs, a harsh sound. "He is, but he's not into me."

"You don't know that," Jan says, which is nice, but it's the exact opposite of what he needs to hear. He doesn't need this false hope.

"You know what the worst part is?" Tony doesn't give Jan time to answer. "It's that, if I'd known, I could have tried. If I'd known what Steve wanted was style and elegance, I could have given him that. It's not like I can't do that. I know how to be that guy, if that's what he wants. That's in my skill set. That's my damn job, Jan. I could have been suave and charming. I could have brought him flowers. Put my best suit on. Taken him out for lunch at whatever expensive and exclusive restaurant his heart desires. Hell, it's not like I don't know French!" he adds, even as he knows that that really isn't the point. He stabs his spoon into his ice cream again and abandons it there. "He wants continental sophistication? I could have flown him to France for lunch, like that." He snaps his fingers. "For God's sake, I can probably afford to buy at least half of Paris personally."

He hates all the words coming out of his mouth. He knows he's rich, sure, but he doesn't want to be some grotesque parody of a billionaire, throwing his money around, trying to buy affection. That's not what he's ever wanted any of his relationships -- romantic or not -- to be about, and it's sure as hell not anything that Steve values. He does know that much about Steve. But he can't stop talking.

"I bet you Batroc's going to take Steve to Paris," Tony says, despondent. "He's going to-- he's going to propose to him on top of the goddamn Eiffel Tower. Très romantique. You know that's exactly what he's going to do. And then probably a summer wedding."

"Tony." Jan's voice quivers like she's trying very hard not to tell him just how ridiculous he's being.


"I don't think you have to plan their wedding already," Jan says. While she talks, she starts digging into her own ice cream. Cherry Garcia. "You're jumping the gun a little, aren't you? I mean, it's only their first date."

"Second date." Tony hears the bitterness seeping into his own voice as he corrects her. "They went on a date last week. Steve-- he came out to me, because Batroc had asked him out and he wanted to know what to do. He asked me for dating tips. Stopped by my room afterwards to tell me he had a wonderful time with Batroc." He can feel his voice thicken with tears again. Great. "I mean, who would he want to tell if not me, right? I'm his best friend! Obviously I want him to be-- I want him to be happy--"

And, yep, there he goes. Crying again.

Jan puts her ice cream down, and in another second she's dragging him into a hug. "Hey," she says, quietly. "I know it's rough. But it's going to be okay. It's not the end of the world."

Tony shuts his eyes. "I love him."

It's so strange to say it out loud, to finally admit to it, when he's spent so long saying it only in the privacy of his own mind. It's not like he's ever going to say it to Steve.

"I know." Jan's arms tighten. "I know you do."

He sighs. "What am I supposed to do, Jan?"

"It's not forever," she says, letting him go. She sounds calm. Reasonable. And then her voice lightens, like she's inviting him to join her in being petty about Batroc. "I mean, come on, Batroc the Leaper? Steve can't seriously want to date him. Did you see what he was wearing?"

Of course Jan would be offended by Batroc's sense of fashion. Tony feels brighter, for a split second, but then he considers the fact that Steve probably doesn't care what Batroc wears. "Yeah," Tony says, "but I've also seen what Steve likes to wear. He's not exactly the height of style. I don't think it's a deal-breaker for him."

"Okay," Jan says, promptly, like she was expecting this, "but then did you see his mustache?"

She's got him; Tony can't help but laugh at that. At least if he's going to be terrible and petty Jan will be right there with him. That's why she's the best Avenger.

"It was more awful than usual, that's for sure." Tony smooths his hand reflexively over his beard. "And trust me, I know something about facial hair."

There's an oddly calculating look in Jan's eye, a devilish sparkle, but she says nothing. She just smiles and has another spoonful of ice cream.

He has to ask. "Okay, give. What's that look supposed to mean?"

"You know," Jan begins, squinting at him with an air of deep thought. "You and Batroc aren't entirely dissimilar. Physically, I mean."

Tony's squint in return is much more disapproving. "You're gonna tell me that after you insult his face and his clothes? Gee, thanks."

"No, I didn't mean it like that," Jan says. "I think-- I think there's a pretty good chance Steve has a type."

His breath catches in his chest, and he isn't sure if the feeling trying to fight its way out of him is hope or misery. "Oh, yeah," Tony says, and he can hear the snideness and jealousy in his voice, "because I'm totally a master of savate."

"Tony," Jan says, eternally patient. "Look me in the eye and tell me that you seriously believe Steve will only date a man who's a champion in unarmed combat." She pauses, while Tony, suitably chastened, spoons another bite of ice cream out of the carton. "Yeah. I didn't think so. I really do think he has a type, and you're it."

"For that to be true," Tony says, because he's an engineer and he's going to reason it all out if it kills him, "he'd have to like me."

Jan lays her hand on Tony's knee. "The entire world knows that the two of you are best friends. He likes you, okay?"

"Not enough." Tony bites his lip. "Not like that, not like I want him to. I'm-- I'm not what he wants, Jan. He-- he didn't ask me."

"He's human too. You were afraid to ask him, you said. He was probably afraid too. It sounds to me like he didn't ask anyone. He didn't do the asking." Jan points at him with her spoon. "It sounds to me like he went with the guy who asked him, honestly. That could have been you. It's just that it happened to be Batroc."

"So I missed out," Tony concludes, glumly.

"It's a fling," Jan says. God, she's an optimist. "It's a fling. It has to be. There's no way Steve is going to be in a serious, long-term relationship with Batroc. He's getting something he needs right now. He's having some fun. He's getting it all out of his system. And they're going to break up, and then you can ask Steve out. Then he'll be ready for you. How's that for a plan?"

Tony takes a shaking breath. "You really think I'm good enough for Steve?"

"I think you're perfect for Steve," Jan says instantly. "And I think Steve knows it, too. Besides, your eyes are way prettier than Batroc's." She pats his hand again. "Now eat up. Ice cream heals all wounds."

"I thought that was time."

"Nope," Jan says. "Definitely ice cream."

Tony feels himself smiling.

Half a pint of Ben & Jerry's is not one of Tony's better meal planning decisions, but by the time he leaves Jan's room he feels a whole lot more like a functioning human being, even if his stomach disagrees with him about that. Jan had really helped him out.

He's not quite up to dealing with the rest of the team yet, so he heads down to the basement and spends a good couple hours with a welding torch while beginning to think that maybe there's some hope in the universe after all. Jan wouldn't lie to him. He just needs to breathe. Relax. It will pass. And in the meantime he can just... try to be happy for Steve.

He finishes the rebuild of the boot jets, and, mood significantly improved, decides that it's worth braving the common area of the Avengers' floors after all, although he's going to need his tablet from his room first. The paperwork never ends. That's no problem, he thinks. The elevator lets him out, he ducks into his room, grabs his StarkPad, ducks back out, shuts the door behind him, and--

The elevator opens again, and Steve steps out.

It was a mistake to think that he could cope with this.

Steve is smiling, broad and a little dazed; it's clear that he's not paying any attention at all to the world around him. Tony knows that look. Tony enjoys making his partners look exactly like that. Steve's hair is mussed, the lapels of his coat are ever so slightly askew, his lips are dark and half-parted, and he's pale enough that the reddish tinge of beard burn is absolutely visible.

Steve was definitely making out with Batroc in the very recent past. Probably in the tower lobby before bidding him farewell. Tony is trying not to picture it, but of course he can't avoid it now, thinking about them wrapped around each other. An awful vicious jealousy twists within him, sickens him, rots him from the inside out.

Because his brain isn't done torturing him, he wonders how Steve kisses. He wonders if Steve is strong, commanding, a take-charge kind of guy, or if he's soft and gentle. If his huge hands delicately cupped Batroc's face, if they roved all over his body.

That's when Steve finally notices him.

"Tony!" Steve says. His gaze is a little sharper, but his smile is too wide, and there's a husky note in his voice that's going to haunt Tony's dreams for possibly the entire rest of his terrible life.

It's too late for Tony to run away now.

Steve's room, which he was probably heading to, is next to Tony's, and so of course Steve comes to a halt a few feet away from him. At least they're alone.

"Hey," Tony says. He's getting really good at forced smiles. He hopes he is, at least. "Good date?"

Steve's nod is instant and eager and enthusiastic and it feels like he's punched Tony right under the ribs. "Oh, yeah," Steve says. His mouth is wet. Jesus, he's licking his lips. Tony is going to die of misery, right here. "It was a good date. The, uh. The food was nice."

"Yeah?" Tony asks, just like a normal human person with normal feelings would say it. "What did you have for lunch?"

"Oh, um," Steve says. "Nothing that fancy, really. Seafood risotto. It was pretty good."

Yeah, okay, he can just stomp on Tony's heart some more. It's fine. Tony will be fine. He doesn't need happiness. He can live without it.

"That's good," Tony says. He imagines seeing this conversation as a script, dialogue on a page. He wonders how he'd be instructed to deliver the line. There's probably a close-up of him, so that even the most minute signs of his agony are made plain for the audience and yet remain invisible to Steve.

Steve is still smiling. "Thanks so much again for all your help, with the clothing and everything," he says. "You're a real pal. And I-- I was happy to see you getting along with Georges, when he came to pick me up." His brow furrows. "You don't think-- I mean, I know we've all had our differences, but you don't mind him that much, do you? Me dating him, I mean?"

There's something eager and yearning in Steve's eyes. Steve wants his approval.


The one thing Steve absolutely doesn't want is the whole truth. Tony already knows that much. And Steve's not going to want to hear that Tony minds, so Tony can't tell him that. But if Tony goes for a flat-out lie and tells him that he doesn't mind at all, Steve is definitely going to call him on it.

He has to say something. His sweaty hands slip on the StarkPad he's holding, smear fingerprints on the blackened glass of the display.

Tony swallows hard. "I can't say that it wasn't a lot to take in at first. But he makes you happy, Steve. And that's what's important to me." And that is the truth -- as much of it as Tony can part with. "I can see why you like him." That too is also true. "He's nicer than I was expecting. I'm glad you've found someone who makes you happy."

I just wish it were me.

Steve's smile now is a little twitch of his lips. Tony has passed the test. "Me too," he says, and there's a flicker of something in his eyes that Tony can't quite read. He's probably still thinking about Batroc. But he looks almost sad. That can't be right.

"So," Tony says. "Going on another date with him next weekend?"

The sparkle is back in Steve's eyes. Tony must have imagined the lack of it. "I think it's going to be Tuesday, actually," he says. "We're both free -- hopefully, you know, barring any surprise alien invasion -- and, well, we just couldn't wait. It's my turn to pick. I'll have to come up with something. Do you think you could help me...?"

Tony wants to cry again. "Absolutely."

Oh, God. It's going to be their third date. Does Steve know about the third-date rule? Is Tony going to have to design a seduction? Is Steve planning to bring Batroc back here? Steve's room is next to his. He imagines being next door, one wall away, listening to the headboard thump against the wall, hearing Steve's breathy whimpers and ecstatic moans. He wonders if he's going to be sick.

"Thank you so much!" Steve says. "You're a lifesaver! I'd never have been able to do this without you." He claps Tony on the shoulder, and Tony tries not to shiver. Steve isn't his. Steve is never going to touch him.

Tony wishes he'd never helped him.

"No problem," Tony says, using all the energy he has in him for one more smile. "I'm always here for you. Whatever you need."

After retreating into his room -- because, really, he can't take this -- Tony manages to time his necessary visits upstairs to the common area in such a way as to avoid Steve. In fact, he successfully avoids Steve until the weekly Avengers meeting, the next morning. He thinks it's probably a bad sign, from the perspective of team cohesion at the very least, if he's going out of his way to avoid his team leader. The terrible clenching feeling in his chest when he steps into the room and sees Steve already there at the head of the table is definitely a bad sign.

At least it's probably not a heart attack. He's about ninety-five percent certain the cardioverter is still working.

Steve hasn't brought him coffee; Ororo, as promised, brought everyone coffee. Tigra brought the doughnuts this week. Tony's not getting out of his mask to eat or drink, so, yeah, he won't be partaking in any of it.

The meeting itself is a perfectly ordinary Avengers meeting -- Ororo once again mentions Monster Isle, and, okay, Tony is definitely going to have to be on the lookout for monster reports -- save for the fact that no one mentions the metaphorical monster. The giant Batroc-shaped elephant in the room. They all know now. Tony supposes no one is courageous enough to bring it up to Steve. Steve probably doesn't consider it a problem. Eventually someone is going to have to talk about the fact that Steve is dating a villain, and they need to establish exactly where Batroc's loyalties lie, but that day is clearly not going to be today.

Tony gets through the meeting making the minimum possible number of comments and is once again grateful that no one can see his face with the mask down. When Steve calls for adjournment Tony mutes the speakers and sighs in relief, as he's about ten seconds away from being out of Steve's presence. He shouldn't be happy about that. He doesn't want to be happy about that. The feeling he's looking forward to isn't happiness so much as a slight lessening of his now-omnipresent general misery.

He's on his feet, behind the crowd of slow-moving, chattering Avengers, waiting to get out the door, when he half-hears and half-feels the metallic thud of someone tapping him on the shoulder.

He turns around. The only other person in the room is Steve. Of course. Of course the universe hates him.

At least with the helmet on he doesn't have to smile. He at least has to try to sound happy, though; that much will carry through the filters, and Steve knows him well enough to tell.

"Hey, Winghead," Tony says, pitching his voice in a timbre that is hopefully cheerful. "What's up? What can I do for you?"

Steve squints a little at Tony's words, like he isn't here for a favor and wasn't expecting to think of it in those terms. "It's not really anything like that," Steve says. His gaze drifts to the open doughnut box on the table. There are still a few doughnuts left. Tony's not worried; someone will polish them off eventually. "I was just thinking, well, I didn't see you eating, and you didn't have any coffee, and I'm still hungry, and maybe you'd like to get out of that armor and go get breakfast?"

If things between the two of them were normal, Tony would absolutely have answered in the affirmative. He's starving, and he always likes spending time with Steve. But nothing is normal anymore, and Steve's going to want to spend the meal talking about Batroc, and Tony can't. Tony can't do it.

It's going to be their third date, Steve and Batroc. Christ. Steve is probably nervous. He's clearly never been with a guy before. Tony pictures himself giving Steve gay sex tips and he wants to die inside. Yeah, sure, let me tell you about all the ways I have ever wanted you to touch me, Cap. There's no way that's going to happen, and, okay, it makes Tony a terrible friend, but he can't. He just can't.

Clearly he was only ever Steve's friend because he wanted to do him. What a terrible thing to discover about himself.

Tony's blinking back tears. At least Steve can't see him. The eyeslits are too bright. He is impassive. Emotionless. On the outside, anyway.

"Thanks," Tony forces out, "but I'm not really very hungry, and I've got a lot of work to do today. Very busy." He waves his hand in the air, indicating the size of his entirely fictional pile of paperwork. "Maybe some other time?"

He steps back, intending to leave, but Steve takes a step forward, flanking him, staying in his space.

"How about tomorrow?"

Tony can feel his own face screw up in confusion under the mask. Okay, so Steve is determined. Tony would expect nothing less of Captain America. But why the hell does Steve want to go eat with him when he has Batroc? It doesn't make any sense. And the answer is still no.

Tony keeps his voice light. "Monday morning? Sorry, Cap. Can't do breakfast. I gotta get to work early. SI needs me."

"It doesn't have to be morning," Steve counters. "I just-- I--" He stops and sighs; he tugs the cowl back and runs his fingers through his hair. Tony wonders what his problem is. "I just feel like I haven't really seen much of you lately, is all. We could go to the movies?" There's a glimmer of eagerness in his eyes, a bright spark of life. "The new Rawhide Kid movie is out. You know, the one with Johnny Storm, the sequel? It got good reviews in the paper, and I know how much you liked the last one. Maybe we could go, if you're not busy?"

The mix of anxiety, elation and disappointment weighs heavily within Tony, a nearly nauseating slurry. The butterflies in his stomach have now been caught, killed, and pinned for display. He'd been looking forward to seeing that one -- probably with Steve -- but he sure as hell isn't now. And this doesn't make any sense. Why in the world does Steve want to go to the movies with him? Isn't that what his boyfriend is for? For God's sake, he's supposed to be taking Batroc on a date. It should be Batroc he's asking. Does Tony have to do everything around here?

Regardless of how Tony feels about the offer, he knows there's no point. If he goes out with Steve, all he's going to do is think about Batroc. Even Tony doesn't want to torture himself that much.

"Sorry, I think I'm still going to be busy," Tony lies. He has to be imagining Steve's face falling, ever so slightly. This isn't rejection, he tells himself. Steve has someone who isn't him. "But, hey, you know what? You should ask Batroc to go with you. That's what you could do for your date on Tuesday."

Steve's mouth twists. "Really? But I-- but you-- but me and you, Tony, we always-- and I don't know if Georges even likes Westerns. You think he'd have a good time?"

"I'm sure he'll love it," Tony assures him. "Who wouldn't love going out to the movies with you? You can hold his hand and everything."

Not that Tony's spent years fantasizing about that.

"I guess I can ask him," Steve says, but he doesn't really sound convinced.

"He'll definitely love it," Tony says. "And afterwards you can take him to that diner you like. Get burgers."

It also happens to be the diner Tony likes to go to with Steve for burgers, but, hey, who's counting, right? It's not like Tony's ever going to be able to go there with Steve again without thinking about this, so he might as well give it up. It can be Steve and Batroc's place now.

Steve will be happy, he reminds himself. He wants Steve to be happy.

He's doing his duty by Steve, as his friend. This is the advice Steve asked for. His obligation is now fulfilled. He can arrange his schedule so he doesn't have to see Steve again until after the date, and maybe then he can avoid thinking about what the two of them are going to do together after the date.

"I can do that," Steve says. "So I guess, uh, I'll see you around later, huh?"

"Definitely," Tony says, which is also a complete lie.

Steve gives him an uncertain smile. He's probably still nervous about the date.

Tony takes this as his cue to leave. He strides out, turns the corner and, when Steve can't see him, leans against the wall and exhales hard.

God, he can't do this. But it's not like he has any other choice.

Tony makes it through the remainder of Sunday and all of Monday without seeing Steve at all. A triumph.

Of course, the actual days are a disaster for thinking about anything other than Steve. He manages to keep it together for his Avengers community service hours on Sunday -- this time, Iron Man is paying a children's hospital a visit -- right up until one of the children asks him where his friend Captain America is.


It's not that Tony and Steve always make these rounds as a team, but -- okay, yeah, maybe they do. Tony inhales hard and pats the kid on the shoulder as gently as he can.

"Cap couldn't come today," Tony says. He hadn't asked Steve what he was doing instead. He doesn't know what Steve's doing instead. That would have involved talking to him. "I'm sorry. He's... he's, uh. He's really busy saving the world right now. But I'm sure he'll be here soon, okay?"

God, he feels like dirt.

Tears well up in the boy's eyes. "But-- but-- he's my favorite."

Mine too, buddy, Tony wants to say. Mine too.

Monday, he's back at SI, but the day is lousy enough that he might as well have just called in sick and stayed in bed. In the morning he has an R&D meeting about the chip that, well, he's supposed to be designing, but has made zero progress on thanks to his newfound inability to do any useful work whatsoever.

He doesn't bother coming back to the tower for dinner; he'd just have to see Steve. Instead he sits in his lonely lab with his half-finished, overdue design, waiting for a spark of genius that's just not coming to him. There is no eureka moment here. He can feel the uselessness clawing at him, dragging him down into the pit that is his soul, that is everything within him that he tries not to think about.

Any other day, he'd do something to try to shake himself out of this rut.

He reminds himself that Steve actually had invited him to a movie tonight. He watches the seconds sweep by on the clock, then the minutes, and he taunts himself with the idea that it's not too late to change his mind. He could still see Steve if he wanted to. Except he can't, because that would make everything worse.

He heads home late, well after Steve has gone to bed, so there's no chance of seeing him. He doesn't run into anyone in the hall. He lies awake for a long time.

Then there's Tuesday.

He preemptively reschedules all his meetings at SI -- there's not even going to be any point in trying, he already knows -- and decides that today would be an excellent day to work on a rebuild of the rest of the armor. Sure, it does keep him in the building that Steve lives in, but if he shuts himself in the workshop he won't even have to face anybody at all, much less Steve. It's his sanctuary. It's the safest space he's got. It's the only place he can think of where he might be able to be something approaching sane and functional -- and if he can't manage that, well, at least he'll be alone.

He orders the tower security systems to lock the floor and he breathes out in something that isn't exactly relief.

He has enough sense left not to try modifying his current suit in the state he's in. If he's called into battle, he wants to have a suit available that is already tested and reliable, and it won't be much use to him if the Super-Adaptoid comes back and his best suit is in pieces on the floor.

God, his brain is in pieces on the floor. His heart is-- okay, no, time to abandon the metaphor.

Luckily, he has a prototype that's about fifty percent functional, so he can get to tinkering already and not have to waste the morning waiting for the fabrication units to do all the work. He grabs his tools, spreads the new suit out across his workbench, and for a blessed few hours he thinks of nothing but repulsors.

By the afternoon, he realized he's missed lunch, and he absentmindedly shoves tasteless leftover pizza from the fridge in his mouth so he doesn't have to go upstairs. He's really stopped caring about food lately. It doesn't matter.

Eventually he ends up with a suit that's flightworthy, and it's time for his favorite part: the flight tests. Even the misery of his life lately can't cancel out that joy. He climbs into the new suit, locks everything down tight, brings the HUD online, and then hits the skies.

It's a beautiful day in New York. The sun shines bright in the cloudless sky, glinting off the planes and angles of Avengers Tower. Tony darts between skyscrapers, spiraling up around them, hovering and waving at bored office workers. He swoops low, as crowds gather, as people tilt their heads back and point at him and smile.

Tony can feel himself smiling too, behind the mask. This is his favorite part. This makes it all worth it. Oh, he likes his company, and he loves being an Avenger, making a difference in the world, helping people -- but there's nothing, nothing in the world like flying.

He's just not going to think about all the times he's carried Steve.

He's high enough now that the city looks like some kind of model, sprawling buildings, glittering glass, the river shining below, the bridges spidering across. He'll never get sick of this view. He flings his arms wide and lets the wind carry him, and it's perfect.

He wishes he could just stay aloft forever. Unfortunately, it's time to be a responsible engineer; he has enough telemetry from the suit by now that he can review the power expenditure and repulsor efficiency, and it's time to get back to the workshop, start crunching the numbers, and see what else he can improve on.

His sigh echoes within the helmet as he plots a course home and rockets back down. Soon the tower is in sight, and his workshop is just as he left it. It seems so empty without Steve.

He can't let himself contemplate that.

It occurs to him, as he peels the suit off, as he lets the data analysis begin to run while he stuffs his face with more tasteless pizza, that it's dinner time.

And then the thought he's been trying not to think occurs to him: Steve and Batroc are on their third date. Right now.

He's been to enough movies with Steve -- at the exact theater Steve is probably taking Batroc to, even -- that he has no problem imagining what it's like; his own memory, held hostage to his miserable fantasies, has no problem filling in the scene with his very own cherished details. Steve -- who has a bigger sweet tooth than most people -- has bought them popcorn, candy, soda, and they're laughing and heading into the theater, getting comfortable. The lights go down and they settle back into their seats. Steve's always excited, every time, and watches, enraptured, as the screen fills with a Wild West desert. And then, of course, Batroc's arm slides over Steve's shoulders. Steve's hand slides into Batroc's grasp. They're easy. They're relaxed. Steve is happy.

Tony glances at the clock. Actually, it's later than he thought. He doesn't know what showing they went to. The movie might be over. They could already be at dinner now.

Sadly, he can picture that too. He and Steve have been to that diner so many times that he can practically feel himself sliding into the booth opposite Steve, ordering without bothering to look at the menu, sipping his water and setting it down on the chipped Formica table while waiting for their burgers -- Swiss and mushrooms on his, double bacon cheddar for Steve. Except it's not him there with Steve, it's Batroc. They're probably laughing and smiling. Tony pictures the two of them with their heads bent, sharing a milkshake, like every dating cliché. He pictures them playing footsie under the table, Steve delicately rubbing his foot against Batroc's calf. He knows that Steve can be so gentle when he wants to be, so delicate. That's how he would be. Tony's sure of it.

It should be him. It's never going to be him.

He sighs, grabs a keyboard, swings the closest monitor to face him, and pulls up the telemetry for the armor prototype. He can do this. He can function. He can think about numbers.

It actually works, for a bit -- he has a thorny problem with the efficiency of the palm repulsors, and by the time he's solved it the old-fashioned way, with a screwdriver and a soldering iron, he realizes he hasn't thought about Steve for a good couple of hours. Of course, now he's thinking about Steve again.

It's late. A glance at the clock shows that it's past midnight, and a quick check of the security systems informs him that Steve's identicard isn't in the building. The movie has to be over. Dinner has to be over. And Steve's not home yet.

And now, now is the moment that Tony's hideous imagination has been priming him for all night. All week, really. The curse of his too-quick mind: he just can't stop thinking. At the diner, Steve and Batroc split the check; Steve wouldn't want Batroc to feel obligated to him, after all. And then Batroc leans in and asks if Steve wants to rentrer chez moi, or however he puts it. Definitely something French. Classy. Seductive, but plausibly deniable. Maybe coffee, maybe dessert. Steve says yes.

Tony can't quite picture where Batroc should live. His mind settles on a studio, a converted loft, an industrial space where the landlord turns a blind eye to supervillains as long as the rent gets paid on time. They walk up the stairs together, Steve close on Batroc's heels. They're still smiling, laughing at some private joke. They have private jokes now. The key rattles in the lock; the door swings open. Batroc apologizes for the state of the place. It's not as nice as the tower, surely. Steve tells him it's fine.

Batroc asks Steve if he wants coffee and, of course, Steve steps into Batroc's arms. They're kissing.

Tony pushes the heels of his hands against his closed eyelids, but that doesn't make the images leave his brain.

In Tony's mind, Steve and Batroc are pressed against each other. Batroc, ever the seducer, takes the lead. Steve lets him. Tony can imagine Steve yielding, the way he does when they spar, on the rare occasions when Tony wins; he knows the feeling of Steve's body loose and languid under his, the flash of something in Steve's eyes that looks like contentment. Steve would yield to Batroc.

Tony hears himself whimper in dismay. His stomach roils.

If this is what Steve wants, he should be happy for him.

He gets up, paces the length of the workshop restlessly, wall to wall. He ponders enfolding himself in armor, hidden, safe, but the problem is his mind and no matter where he goes he's going to be locked in with it.

Then the workshop door opens.

Out of the corner of his eye Tony catches a glimpse of a familiar shape, golden hair, a smile -- and then he realizes that Steve has always had the door codes.

Steve has a suit jacket slung over his shoulder. His sleeves are rolled up. Tony keeps his gaze on Steve's face. He tries to stop being so damn observant. He doesn't want to know whether the buttons on Steve's shirt are done up wrong, whether his pants are wrinkled, whether there are bruises at his throat. He doesn't want to learn something he can never unlearn.

Even so, his mind is already calculating. Sure, Steve didn't stay all night, but it's past midnight. Plenty of time for them to have gotten up to something and then for Steve to have excused himself to get home.

"There you are," Steve says, with another smile. "You weren't in your room, and you weren't in the common room. I should have tried here first, huh?"

This is what he gets for being Steve's friend. Steve always wants to find him.

"You know me. Always burning the midnight oil." Tony tries on a grin. "How was it?"

"Good," Steve says brightly, instantly. "I liked the movie. I think Georges liked the diner? Afterwards we went back to his place. He'd made madeleines. Family recipe."

Did you sleep with him? Tony wants to ask.

"You know," Steve says, "you'd have liked the movie."

This is just cruel. He knows Steve's not meaning to be cruel, but-- "I think I'd have been a third wheel, really," Tony says, and that's the best he can manage.

There's color in Steve's cheeks now. "Oh!" he says softly. "I didn't mean-- I just--"

"I know what you meant," Tony assures him. "It's okay. Thank you."

After a few moments of silence, moments that once again stretch on too long, Steve frowns at him. His eyes darken; his face tightens. "Are you all right there, Tony? You look a little... I don't know. Off."

Oh, God.

"I'm fine," Tony lies. He makes a show of yawning. "I'm just... a bit tired. Really busy lately, you know? A lot of work."

"Oh," Steve says. The sound is immediate and apologetic. "And here I am, bothering you! I'm really sorry. I just wanted to-- well, I'll see you later."

"Right." Tony makes the lie especially decisive, and he turns to his computer, like he's busy.

When he looks up a few seconds later, Steve is already gone.

What with Tony's absence the previous day, work the next day is legitimately a disaster. He's had to reschedule all his meetings, not to mention the fact that they really are late on the processor he's supposed to be designing. The processor he would have been designing if not for the fact that all he can think about is Steve. Steve and Batroc.

Still, by the time he stumbles back to the tower after the rest of the team has long since gone to bed, some part of him feels sad to have missed Steve, even though he knows he's intentionally been trying to avoid Steve. And he does miss Steve. But he knows it's better this way. Sure, he hates not seeing Steve, but at this point he probably hates seeing him even more. He's just doing what's best for himself. He's thinking of his heart.

He is given the opportunity to remember this when, the next morning, Steve catches up with him in the kitchen as Tony's already most of the way out the door, trying to get through his first cup of coffee as fast as he can.

"Tony!" Steve says, brightly. He's back from his run already, and he's even showered; his damp hair stands up in endearing spikes of darkened gold. His too-tight t-shirt clings to his body. "Hey! Good timing!"

Avoiding Steve would be so much easier if Steve weren't actively looking for him.

He's fixed Steve's gear enough that he knows Steve's body the way an engineer does, in numbers, in sizes, in tolerances -- all the ways to gauge fit. He knows which parts of the armor are leather, are metal, are Kevlar. Tony wants to run his hands over Steve's shoulders, down his side, and learn his body in more intimate ways. He wants to know what touch will make him smile or sigh or gasp. He can't think about that. Steve isn't his. Of course, Steve wasn't his before, either -- it's just that it's taken this long to really sink in.

Tony smiles and tries not to trace the path of the water droplet beading on the side of Steve's neck, trickling down to land on the collar of Steve's shirt. He tries not to admire the fit of Steve's shirt. He clears his throat. "What can I do for you, Cap?"

He hopes to God it's not more dating advice. Knowing his luck, it probably is.

Steve flashes him a grin that leaves him breathless. At some point in his life Tony really should have tried to learn to resist this. "Well," he says. "It's not so much about what you can do for me, as what you can do for yourself." He frowns contemplatively, then spreads his arms wide. There's that familiar earnest cast to his features. It ought to look corny -- it would on anyone else -- but on Steve it's always been perfect and sincere. "But, really, it will benefit more than just you. Ultimately it will benefit the world."

It sounds like a speech. Tony takes this opportunity to riff on it. "'Ask not what you can do for yourself, ask what you can do for your country?'"

Despite having spent JFK's inauguration in an iceberg, Steve gets the reference and smiles wider. Tony half-wishes that he and Steve didn't get along so well. This would all be so much easier if they were only ordinary teammates, not friends, not-- whatever they are that Tony feels and Steve clearly doesn't.

He likes Steve. He really, honestly, likes him. And that just makes it hurt more.

"Something like that," Steve says, still grinning. "Your country wants you to spar with me, Shellhead."

A burst of adrenaline rushes through Tony, waking him up more than the coffee did. Fight or flight. His limbs tighten. He needs to get out of here. Steve just keeps suggesting all these activities that require the two of them being close to each other, and he just-- he just can't.

It doesn't help that so many of his fantasies once involved a training session turning into something more. It's not like the setting doesn't present a host of opportunities. Steve is always inside Tony's guard, coming in close. His hands rove over Tony's body as he corrects his stance, touching him ever so lightly. And then there are those moments when Steve pins him to the mat -- or rarely, the other way around -- and Steve grins at him, bright-eyed. It's all too easy to imagine Steve leaning in, or-- or letting Tony hold him down, not fighting it, his body relaxing, welcoming Tony--

Ruthlessly, Tony cuts off that train of thought.

Why does Steve want to spar with him, anyway, when he could be sparring with Batroc? Tony's no slouch, sure, but obviously Steve would have a much better experience with his boyfriend. Batroc is probably just not available. That's why Steve's asking him. That has to be all it is.

Some unworthy part of Tony considers the idea that Batroc is unavailable to spar with Steve because Batroc is out committing crimes. Work for the highest bidder. Petty theft. Stealing weapons from SHIELD. Hijacking ocean liners. Removing those little "do not remove" tags from mattresses.

No, he's being unfair. Unfair and ridiculous and he needs to stop. Sure, Batroc is a mercenary, but he's turned over a new leaf, surely? Steve wouldn't be dating him if he thought Batroc were seriously on the side of evil. Tony has to trust Steve's judgment at least that much.

Of course, Steve's dating Batroc in the first place, so perhaps his once-impeccable judgment is now a little bit suspect.

Steve's still looking at him, waiting for an answer. He's starting to look almost concerned. His brows draw together, and he opens his mouth like he's about ready to prompt Tony.

"I--" Tony tries to say, and, God, he's fumbling for words, God, Steve is going to notice something now. "I-- I can't right now, Cap. Very busy."

It's not even a lie, this time. He actually is busy.

And Steve's face just... falls. A flash of pain clouds his eyes like a lightning strike in a thunderstorm. His throat works, and he glances away, his expression downcast.

What the hell? Steve can't possibly miss him.

"Oh," Steve says, a tiny little sound. "Okay. Right. Maybe later?"

Tony resists the impulse to promise to make time in his schedule for Steve to throw him around the Avengers' gym. That's not going to help him get over Steve. That's just going to torment him. Steve's just seeking him out when Batroc's not there. Tony doesn't need to subject himself to this.

He takes a gulp of his coffee, draining the mug; he is a portrait of a man in a hurry. "Maybe," he says, and Steve still looks like a kicked puppy so Tony knows he has to say something more. "I have to get to work, but maybe we can talk later?"

There, that's noncommittal enough -- and, in fact, doesn't even involve actually promising to talk to Steve -- and Steve looks a little less sad, so Tony counts it as a win as he hurriedly rinses out his cup and then dashes to the elevator.

He wonders what that was all about. He reminds himself that he's not going to know. He's just going to stay away from Steve until it all blows over.

You can't stay away from him for the rest of your life, his mind whispers. He ignores it.

This can't last forever. This is a short-term plan. He can always reevaluate later. For now, Steve is happy with Batroc and that's obviously the way it is. Tony needs to learn to accept that.

He's working on it. He is.

He shuts his eyes and tips his head back against the elevator. The week just keeps getting worse and worse.

Miraculously, Tony has actually caught up on his work by the end of the day, has made some inroads into the new chip architecture, and even gets to leave work at approximately the time that a normal person would. It would be his lucky day, if not for the fact that he's not feeling particularly blessed by the universe lately.

This is underscored by the fact that, when Tony gets home, he finds Batroc sitting there on one of the couches in the common area.

Tony's first thought, born entirely of startled jealousy is: What's he doing sitting here like he belongs here?

But when Tony comes out into the common area proper and gets a better view, he sees that that's not really the case at all. Batroc is sitting on the edge of the couch, warily, poised to run, looking around like he expects one of the Avengers to show up at any minute and tell him to get out.

There are no other Avengers around -- a little strange, considering the time of day -- but it's clear that Steve is planning on coming back at any moment. The coffee table, next to where Batroc is sitting, is home to what is definitely Steve's mug of Postum -- because no one else on the team is nostalgic for a World War II coffee substitute -- as well as what looks like a half-finished game of Uno, two players' hands face-down on the table.

Tony supposes it's up to him to be polite.

"Hey!" Tony calls out, and Batroc turns around. "Didn't expect to see you here. How's it going?"

Batroc's smile in return is nervous, but probably sincere. "Monsieur Stark!" he says. "Ça va bien, merci. I wish to thank you for letting me visit your home. It is très beau. I understand that it is un peu difficile to welcome someone such as myself."

"Oh, it's no problem at all." If his hands weren't full of papers he'd be crossing his fingers behind his back. "Any friend of Steve's," he says, and he can't make himself finish the sentence. He hopes Batroc won't notice the omission.

Steve didn't even ask, some betrayed part of his mind wants to howl. But he knows that's not true. Steve did ask, and Tony okayed this by giving Batroc his own access codes. And of course Steve is going to want to bring someone he's dating home with him. That's only natural. But just because it's unreasonable for Tony to expect Steve to check with him so he can mentally prepare for this doesn't mean he's not still feeling unpleasantly surprised.

He entertains a brief, terrible fantasy, of Steve asking if Batroc can visit, of himself telling Steve no.

Batroc, still halfway turned around on the couch, is studying him. It's hard to make out most of his expression with the half-mask of his garish costume obscuring his features, of course, but he looks contemplative. He rubs his thumb across his terrible beard and frowns.

How could Jan even think of telling him they look alike? That beard is truly outrageous.

"I hear much about you from le capitaine," Batroc says. He'd told Tony this before; Tony doesn't see where he's going at all. "He says that to him you are un bon ami, yes?" He nods, a little satisfied Gallic jerk of his chin. "Me, I am very happy that he has such a good friend, a friend à qui il fait confiance -- how do you say, trust? Oui. He trusts you." The nod is firmer. "And I know that to you les Vengeurs are... très importants. So for you it is a concern that I treat him well. And me? You do not trust me. Not with him." He shrugs his shoulders, diffident. "I understand this. I have not been the best of men."

Wrong-footed, Tony just stands there. He could have gotten through this conversation, barely, if it had just been full of the usual polite statements: hi, how are you, nice weather we're having. He is in no way prepared to talk to Batroc about any of his feelings.

"Batroc," Tony says, helplessly, and when Batroc blinks at him he remembers that Batroc wanted him to call him Georges. "I mean, uh, Georges, I-- I--"

He has no idea what he's going to say. Now would be a great time for Giganto to come from Monster Isle and attack the tower. Then he wouldn't have to finish the sentence. Does Batroc want him to lie and say he trusts him? Is that what he's supposed to say?

Batroc's shoulders move in another shrug, and his mask lifts too, like underneath it he's raising his eyebrows. "You do not offend me. As I say, I understand." His eyes widen; there's something unexpectedly earnest in his gaze, imploring. He extends his hands, palms up, in supplication. "But I promise, mon ami, there is no trick. There is no trap. I only wish him to be happy. Heureux." He drops his hands, lowers his voice, and his smile is somehow gentle, far more gentle than Tony would have thought him capable of. "And I think... I think we are not so different, you and I. I think you understand what it is to wish that for him, non?"

Oh, God. He knows.

Terror chills Tony, right down to the bone, stops him where he stands. Cold sweat runs down the back of his neck. His poor beleaguered heart frantically batters his ribcage.

How does Batroc know? How the hell does Batroc know? This is only the second time he's met Batroc when Batroc hasn't been trying to kick him in the head. How is he so obvious that even Batroc knows? Steve doesn't even know! How is this possible?

An even worse thought occurs to Tony: what if Batroc has already told Steve? He pictures them, on one of their dates, Batroc idly mentioning Tony's hopeless, pathetic passion, the both of them laughing and laughing--

"Please don't tell him," Tony blurts out.

Some strategist he is. He shouldn't have confirmed it, for God's sake. Now Batroc actually knows and he's not just guessing. Now, now he could run off and tell Steve. Tony already has nothing left. Now he'll have less than nothing. He can't think. He can't do anything but stand here. Deer in the headlights. Deer in the Annihilation Wave.

Batroc's gaze softens. "Non, non!" The reply is instant and obviously heartfelt. "I did not intend for you to think-- I have worried you. Je suis désolé. Your secrets, they are yours. I shall not tell him. I only meant for you to know that I care about him, as you do."

You can't, Tony wants to say, and the terrible sad anger crackles under his skin like an overloaded circuit. You can't feel what I feel for him because I've loved him for years and you-- you can't feel that way about him. It isn't possible.

But it doesn't matter. He breathes out, hard. Steve isn't some prize awarded to whoever loves him the most. It doesn't work like that.

And then Steve steps in from the kitchen. He's wearing an apron and holding a wooden spoon in one hand and a glass bowl of what looks like melted chocolate in the other hand. He takes in the scene before him and his eyes light up.

Tony hopes to God that Steve didn't overhear any part of this conversation.

He can't have. He's still smiling, and he wouldn't be if he knew, because obviously he doesn't want Tony. If he did, he wouldn't be dating Batroc.

"Tony!" Steve says, with a grin. "I thought I heard you coming in. How are you?"

He looks... he looks so happy. Tony can't remember the last time he saw Steve look like this, bright and carefree.

It's because of Batroc. Tony knows that, and yet he feels an answering spark of warmth kindle within him, even through the fear that churns inside him, the thought of being so close to having all his secrets exposed.

"I'm doing fine." It's the best he can manage. "You?"

"Oh, I'm great," Steve returns, and Tony just bets he is. He tilts the bowl in Tony's direction. "Georges impressed me with cookies, and I'm returning the favor with brownies." He smiles. "We're just playing Uno, and, uh, I guess everyone else had things to do."

Tony can translate that well enough: nobody else wanted to hang out with Batroc. He could almost feel sorry for the guy. And then, to his horror, he realizes he actually can feel sorry for the guy. Now even his own emotions are betraying him. But if Batroc really does just want Steve to be happy -- if he's telling the truth -- well, Tony can't find it within himself to hate him for that. Batroc was right. Tony's been there.

"I am looking forward to these brownies," Batroc says, like he just wants to reassure Steve, and God, maybe he does. Maybe he really means it.

Steve waves his spoon in Tony's direction. "Say, did you want to hang out with us?" he asks. "You can join in on the next round of Uno, and I know you always like brownies, Shellhead."

Tony absolutely cannot. He cannot possibly sit here and socialize with Steve and Batroc, like everything's okay. Steve is in love with Batroc and Tony is in love with Steve and, oh God, Batroc knows, and none of what Tony feels matters because it's over and Batroc has won. He can't just smile and play card games and eat brownies and pretend that everything is normal. He can't handle this. He needs to get out of here.

"No, that's okay." Tony hopes he sounds reasonable. Diplomatic. "I wouldn't want to intrude."

Steve spreads his arms wide. "Who's intruding? It's your home and you're my friend and, besides, if Georges doesn't like them, I can't eat an entire pan of brownies by myself."

"Liar," Tony retorts, even though he meant not to get drawn in. "I have seen you eat an entire pan of brownies by yourself. You did that last month."

Steve chuckles. "Okay, but I shouldn't eat an entire pan of brownies by myself, how about that?" His grin is a flash of teeth that should be disarming, but there's no way Tony is letting his guard down now. "Seriously, Tony, you're absolutely welcome."

He knows what Steve wants. Steve wants him to be okay with this. Steve wants him to accept Batroc. This is Steve's way of trying to get them comfortable with each other. But Steve has nowhere near all of the data.

Tony glances over at Batroc, and he knows that Batroc knows exactly what he's thinking, exactly what he's going to say, and exactly why he's going to say it. Batroc doesn't say a word.

Tony pastes his best apologetic smile on his face. "Thanks, but it's been a long day. I'm just going to turn in now, I think. See you tomorrow." He nods at Batroc. "Nice seeing you again."

Boy, does he resent having to say that.

"Okay," Steve echoes, and Tony tells himself he must just be imagining the disappointment in his voice. "See you then."

Because Tony makes the best decisions, he manages to avoid Steve for the rest of the evening -- Batroc leaves relatively early and Tony is just miserable enough to check the security systems to confirm it -- and continues avoiding him the next morning and, of course, the workday. He gets through work somehow.

On his way home that evening, Tony enters the tower's elevator, its sole occupant, from the underground garage. And of course, one floor up when the elevator dings and the doors open onto the lobby, Steve is there. Great.

"Fancy meeting you here," Steve says, with a smile.

Time to cover it all with a witty retort. "I know," Tony says, trying to infuse the words with his usual ease. "It's such a surprise. You'd never expect to see me here in a building with my name on the side of it."

He glances past Steve and out at the rest of the lobby. Steve is the only person around, which is both good, because at least they're alone, and bad, because oh God they're alone.

Tony ponders being trapped with Steve in an elevator. He's pretty sure that used to be one of his fantasies.

Steve smiles again, steps in next to him, and maintains a decorous distance -- or at least, as decorous as possible in the small space. Tony could reach out and touch him so very easily. Steve peers at the panel and doesn't hit any of the buttons; they're both going all the way up to the team floor.

The elevator rises, and Steve tips his head to the side. "Everything going okay?"

"Fine," Tony lies. This is going to be the longest elevator ride ever. He wants to look anywhere but at Steve's face. He also wants to look at Steve's face. He compromises with a quick glance. Steve's still half-smiling. Of course he's happy.

"Glad to hear it." Steve rocks back and forth on his feet. "Oh, in case you were wondering, Clint finally got his community service hours done. The librarian said the kids loved him."

Tony hopes Clint didn't let the kids play with the arrows this time. "Good for him." And then he remembers another kid, the little boy at the hospital who'd asked for Steve. "That reminds me -- when you weren't at the hospital last week, one of the kids was asking after you. He said you were his favorite. I had to disappoint him."

You're my favorite is what Tony wishes he could say. Once, he might even have said it, back when he used to test the waters with signs of his affection, with gentle flirtation. It's not welcome now.

"Okay," Steve says, instantly, because he is obviously the best person in the entire world. "I'll give the hospital a call in the morning. No problem. I can swing by." He hesitates. "I mean, I know you're awfully busy lately, but if you want to come with me...?"

Well, now Tony knows for sure that he actually is the worst person in the world. And the thing is, he would go, but this time there actually is a board meeting he can't move. They've got the quarterly earnings to go over. "I wish I could," Tony says, and this time he honestly means it, because it's for the kids, "but tomorrow morning really, really won't work for me."

Steve's sigh is so quiet that Tony might be imagining it. "I figured," he says, and he sounds almost disconsolate. He can't miss Tony that much, Tony tells himself. Not when he's got Batroc. "I just thought I'd ask." He pauses. "But you're not busy right now, are you?"

As the elevator keeps going up, Tony considers the benefits of lying. He hates that this is what he's become. Maybe thinking of sick kids has put him in a mood to be unexpectedly honest, but he doesn't have anything to do tonight and it's not like Batroc's up there waiting -- Tony did check the access logs before he left work -- so Steve can't ambush him with socializing with his boyfriend. Steve probably wants some kind of team-related favor, anyway. Maybe he wants Tony to polish his shield. Tony would be happy to do that. Not even in the euphemistic sense. Okay, also in the euphemistic sense.

"Nope," Tony says. He articulates the last sound in a way he doesn't usually let himself do; it took him a while to get around to putting a pop filter on the suit mics and he learned to work around it. "Free all evening."

"Then," Steve says, turning to him with a brilliant smile, "how about sparring with me, huh? Right now. Just the two of us."

This is when Tony realizes he's walked straight into Steve's trap. No one ever suspects Captain America of being as cunning as he is. Oh, God. "Steve," Tony begins. He doesn't know how he's going to get out of it but he has to come up with something. "It's nice of you to think of me, but--"

"This isn't just me being nice, Tony." Steve's voice is unexpectedly louder, more powerful, ringing out. Uh-oh. That's his Captain America voice, is what that is. "Sparring is an important part of maintaining combat readiness as an Avenger. You need to train."

He has a point. Tony shouldn't just blow this off. This is for the team. And however he feels about Steve -- and however Steve feels about him -- isn't important in the face of that. The Avengers are more important than his feelings.

"Look," Steve says, and his voice softens, dropping those strident tones, "I'll admit that I don't understand what's gotten into you lately about training, but it really is something you should make time for, Shellhead." His smile is coaxing, encouraging. "I promise I won't go too hard on you, all right? How about that?"

Yeah, okay, Tony really has to now. He supposes there's no way around it.

"Okay, fine," Tony says. "I can be ready whenever you are. Hit me."

The corner of Steve's mouth twitches and his eyes sparkle. "Not until you're wearing proper protective gear," he replies, almost primly. His voice quivers with suppressed laughter.

Tony feels his mouth curve into a smile. Maybe they can be friends again. Maybe this isn't going to be so bad.

With one last pull on the laces, Steve tightens Tony's remaining glove until it fits perfectly, then knots the laces. He slides a finger just under the edge of the glove, checking the fit. His fingertips are warm against Tony's skin as he arranges everything just right. He tapes the laces down. He pats Tony's wrist when he's done, the way he always does, and then he heads to the far corner of the ring where his gear is sitting so he can start wrapping his hands. His gloves are all Velcro, so he can do them up by himself. Lucky him.

Tony shivers and imagines he can still feel the press of Steve's fingers on his skin. He's already regretting his life and his choices. He bites down harder on his mouthguard and tries not to think about it.

Steve may not know why Tony doesn't want to spend a lot of time with him lately -- and Tony hopes to God that Steve never figures it out -- but Tony's pretty sure that Steve's suggestion of boxing, rather than any other martial art, was supposed to make Tony feel more kindly disposed toward sparring with him, because Steve knows that Tony often boxes with Happy. Steve probably wanted to give him something he was good at, something he could feel confident about, something that would make him want to come back.

If only it were that simple.

So Tony's standing here, having traded his business suit in for an old Stark International t-shirt and a pair of gym shorts. Steve, ever-conscious of safety, always insists on full protective gear for both of them; Tony raises his arm awkwardly and rubs the back of his hand on his padded forehead as he watches Steve finish his own wrapping, double-check the chin strap of his headgear, put his mouthguard in, and start to slide his gloves on. Tony's seen Steve be combat-ready in under thirty seconds when his foe is an actual supervillain, but he knows that when Steve has the time to spare, he likes to make a ritual of it. Steve's looking forward to this.

Tony's not looking forward to this.

He was actually feeling sort of okay about it until they got down to the -- thankfully unoccupied -- Avengers gym level, when Steve smiled at him and started to get out the gloves. Then it all hit him. Metaphorically speaking.

Steve promised to go easy on him. Unfortunately, Steve's easy isn't like anyone else's easy. The super-soldier serum runs through Steve's veins, and so Steve's easy consists of Steve curbing his strength to something that approximates that of a baseline human -- albeit not very successfully. He tries to pull all his punches, but being on the other end of even a pulled punch from Steve is like stepping into the ring with Muhammad Ali. Steve can't hold back any more than that and still fight.

What's more, Tony is absolutely positive that this concession is a sop to him, to get him in the ring at all. And that's what really hurts. It would sting at the best of times, the fact that Steve thinks he's weak enough that he should be given this. Because, of course, Steve doesn't always hold back like this; if it's Avengers training, he usually insists Tony needs the practice against superhuman opponents, so over the years he's taught Tony a lot of strategies for going up against someone stronger and faster than he is. And it's helped. But today Tony isn't good enough for that anymore. Today Tony is weak and needy. Unworthy of being treated as a serious opponent.

And what hurts the most is that Steve has Batroc. Steve didn't have to say it. Hell, Steve's such a good guy that maybe he isn't even thinking it. But Steve's dating a fighter at the top of his game who loves nothing more than a good bout. And going easy on Tony is just proof that Tony... isn't necessary. Steve doesn't want him. Steve doesn't need him. Tony can't give him the same thing that Batroc does. Tony can't give him anything that Batroc does, and so it's crystal-clear that now Steve isn't even going to try. Tony's sure that Steve would never think of going easy on Batroc, but he obviously does when it was Tony. Batroc's a baseline human too, so Tony has no excuses. He's just not up to snuff. It's just one more reason Tony should have seen the truth: he never really had a chance at all.

As Tony watches, Steve turns around and lifts his head. He's not quite in a boxing stance yet, but he raises both his arms and makes a broad beckoning gesture toward himself, the most he can manage with the gloves on.

"Whenever you're ready." Steve's speech is distorted through the mouthguard, but still intelligible.

At least it's not like there's going to be much in the way of conversation. Tony won't have to lie or pretend to look happy or try to come up with excuses. All he has to do is not get hit and then punch back. It's simple. Refreshing, almost, when the rest of his life is so complicated. He's beginning to see why Steve likes coping with his feelings by hitting something.

Tony nods and lifts his hands. He doesn't have to smile. He can't do much more than grimace, anyway. All he has to do is tuck his chin down, bring his feet diagonal, pull his dominant hand back. He's good to go.

He can see Steve's gaze, alert and focused on him, pale eyes just barely visible over the top of his gloves. Steve holds his gaze for a few more seconds, and then he steps in.

And that's when Tony knows that it's going to be a disaster.

See, the thing is, Tony knows how to fight with Steve. They may not box all that much when they train together, but they do spar in various styles -- and, of course, they fight together as Avengers. Being in combat at Steve's side is literally a survival skill for Tony. And one of the things that has always made Steve special to Tony is that they fit. They'd clicked. From day one. Like none of the Avengers ever have, like no one else Tony has ever fought with or against. There's some -- well, Tony hates to say magic -- bond between them that Tony has never found with anyone else, before or since. In combat he always knows what Steve is going to do, where Steve is going to be. He can read his intentions from the barest glance, from the most minute shift of his weight, as if they were written in a book; he just knows them, knows them at a level deeper even than conscious thought. They're perfect together.

Sparring with Steve is a little different than fighting a supervillain with Steve, of course. He knows he'll never be as strong or as fast as Steve, but somehow even with Steve on the other side it just works. It feels like dancing with the best partner in the world. With every step, with every punch, with every counter, he knows that they're both exactly where they're supposed to be.

That's not how it feels now.

Steve comes in slow, even slower than Tony was expecting after Steve had said he was going easy, and he throws a pair of jabs when he's not even anywhere near in range, like they're shadowboxing instead of actually sparring. They're ridiculously light punches. Tony probably wouldn't feel more than a tap if they actually connected. It's like Steve wants to make a big deal of showing him where he is, of showing him what his reach is like, as if Tony doesn't know him well enough to gauge this. As if he thinks Tony is a beginner. As if -- though he might not even know he's doing it -- he's comparing him to Batroc.

Tony goes hot all over, miserable, ashamed, and he moves in anyway.

When Tony steps closer, that's when he feels it. They're out of sync. It feels wrong, wrong in the same intensity as it used to feel right. The absolute nadir. The negative end of the scale, the readings bottoming out. It scrapes across Tony's skin like a physical sensation, crawling and prickling; it makes his nerves jangle. It's nails on a chalkboard. It's his perfect dance partner stepping on his foot, then dipping him low and dropping him on the parquet floor.

They've lost it. They've lost it, that magic they always had, and Tony has no idea what Steve is going to do next.

The answer, as Tony quickly finds out, is more jabs. Steve's not trying anything fancy, and that just makes Tony feel worse. Not that he could have handled Steve no-holds-barred, either. So either way it's awful. Catch-22. Tony jabs back, and Steve blocks him handily, of course. He wonders if Steve feels like this too, if Steve notices something's wrong.

He remembers how happy Steve looked, telling him about his date with Batroc in the park, about how they'd sparred together. Steve's besotted smile floats through Tony's mind and it makes something ugly twist in his chest.

Steve probably enjoyed that so much more, fighting with Batroc. Steve probably--

"Hey!" The sound Steve makes is mostly a grunt, and Tony hastily snaps to attention and brings his fists up again. "Chin down, eyes on me!"

And, yep, that's more shame, setting fire to Tony's skin in a bloom of terrible heat. He's not sure he remembers how to feel anything else anymore. He hopes he's wearing too much gear for Steve to be able to see it on his face. Tony shouldn't be any kind of novice. For God's sake, he's an Avenger!

He can do this. Keep it together, Stark. He's got to be able to do this.

Steve goes for a classic one-two punch, following up the next jab with a right cross, but Tony bobs and weaves and gets himself out of the way of both punches just in time. He's off-balance and he nearly trips over his own feet. He knows his footwork isn't usually this bad.

They trade jabs; they parry. Tony's pretty sure Steve is just parrying for the sake of form alone because he can absolutely take everything Tony can throw at him. It's humiliating and wrong. It's all wrong.

His fist vertical, Steve swings in low with a body blow, his dangerous left hook. Tony's seen him flatten Ultron's sentries with that one. In deference to Tony's many chest injuries -- or so Tony supposes -- Steve tries to keep it light, but he's still too fast, because they're not calibrated for this, because neither of them match each other anymore. Even though he sees it coming, Tony is too slow, and all he can do is brace and try to tighten up as Steve's fist slips in under his hands, connecting just under his ribs and taking his breath away.

The air goes out of Tony in a rush.

Maybe Steve's not going that easy on him after all, Tony thinks, as he struggles for another breath, as the sharp shock of pain rattles him. Or maybe Tony's just forgotten exactly how much he isn't in Steve's league.

But Steve doesn't press his advantage. "You okay there?" he calls out.

It's even more humiliating. Steve thinks he needs to stop, like Tony's some kind of amateur, and not a guy who beat MODOC into a pulp two weeks ago. Of course, he was in the suit then.

He supposes this is what Steve really thinks of him.

"Fine," Tony says. It isn't.

He's expecting Steve to stay a little further back still, to keep jabbing, but Steve surprises him by closing with him. It's another move Tony wasn't anticipating. It's not supposed to be like this. Tony just barely sees Steve going for an uppercut, and he has just enough time to counter. With his hand low, Steve's exposed, and Tony can get in there with a hook of his own, past Steve's guard.

He doesn't hit Steve very hard at all -- at least, not relative to what Steve can handle -- both because they're just sparring and because, frankly, without the armor he's probably not physically capable of hitting Steve with any amount of force that Steve would register as actually hard. But, weirdly, Steve sure staggers back like he does, moving with the blow. Steve looks up at him, and his eyes are bright. The expression he's trying to form, through the mouthguard, might even be a smile.

"Nice one!" Steve says.

That's when Tony realizes Steve is playing it up for him. To make him feel better.

There was a nature documentary Tony saw once on TV. Big cats. A mother and her cub. To teach the cub how to hunt, she'd pretend not to notice as the cub sneaked up behind her, and then when the cub pounced she'd leap in the air, ridiculous and exaggerated, to praise her offspring. That's what this is. Condescension. Infantilization. Oh, he's sure Steve's not doing it on purpose. But that's exactly how it feels.

And he just knows that Steve never did this to Batroc.

Tony's mind rapidly slides down a spiral of more shame, more humiliation, and a dark, impotent rage. It's a good thing he's already in the ring because the only thing he wants to do is punch something. Hard. His body is tight, quivering with tension. He marvels that Steve can't see the anger in him.

His form rapidly becomes a disgrace, and all he can do is lunge at Steve, throwing punches that barely connect and mostly serve to exhaust him. He can't think. He just wants to hit something. He pivots as Steve circles around him. He's sure he's leaving himself open. He knows, distantly, that he should do something about that. Steve's probably going to take advantage of that at any second, but he has no idea how. His vision blurs. He feels like he's looking through Steve. He feels like he's not really here. He turns, he steps, and he--

He doesn't see it coming.

One second he's standing there, and the next second -- he's not where he thought he was. He stumbles backwards and something in his face shatters with the blow, a sickening crunch that he can feel inside his skull as his vision darkens. He doesn't remember how to fall. He doesn't remember how to land. He's not even conscious of falling. He was upright, and now he's on his back, stunned. There's something wet all over his face and he can't breathe, he can't breathe, and there's blood filling his mouth, sliding down the back of his throat, thick and hot and metallic. He's choking on it.

"Oh, hell," Steve says. It sounds like he's very far away.

There's a blur at the edge of his vision, and then Steve's face, white with tension, comes into view. Steve's gloved hands are on his shoulders, and even though he doesn't have a lot of dexterity he gets an arm under him and lifts him up to sitting and, oh, hey, that's an improvement. Tony's face is still throbbing, but more of the blood is dripping out his nose and down his chin and he can almost take a full breath, albeit through his half-blocked mouth. He can't quite remember why he's wearing a mouthguard. Everything is slow and foggy.

He glances down at himself and wishes he hadn't, because, Christ, it looks like he murdered someone. Dark blood is staining his shirt, is splattered all over the ring in a spray of droplets. It's smeared on Steve's gloves.

"Look at me, Tony." Steve taps the side of Tony's head very lightly and articulates the words as clearly as possible through the mouthguard. Even though his face is still too pale, his hand on Tony's shoulders is strong. His gaze is unflinching. He's an Avenger and he's not going to panic. "Breathing?"

Tony meets Steve's eyes and nods, exhaling in a hiss to illustrate. He's not breathing very well and there's still blood sliding down his throat, but he's not going to die.

"Okay," Steve says, still articulating carefully. His hand is pressed against Tony's head for a fraction of a second longer and then he drops it. "Stay right there. I'm coming back."

Steve rises to his feet and then Tony can't see what he's doing, but he hears him walking away, hears the ripping-Velcro sound of him getting his gloves off in a hurry. He stares down numbly at his own gloves, still laced tight and taped down.

He's not sure how long Steve's gone. His face hurts.

Steve's bare hands set a bottle of water, an icepack, and a pile of towels next to him, and then Steve's sitting at his side. One of his hands splays across Tony's back, warm and comforting, and the fingers of his other hand press softly on Tony's lips, which is everything Tony has ever wanted in an entirely different context.

"Open your mouth for me," Steve says. He's talking normally now. It's almost his Cap voice. Calm. Cool. In control of the situation. Something inside Tony is wired to respond to that. Despite the pain, he can feel himself relax. Steve has him.

Tony drops his jaw and lets Steve tug the mouthguard out. He immediately feels terrible about it because along with the mouthguard he's spitting a disgusting mess of blood and saliva onto Steve's palm, but Steve doesn't seem to care. He should. He didn't sign up for this. He was just trying to train and Tony ruined it for him.

"I'm sorry," Tony tries to say. He spits more blood and the words come out of him too thick, distorted. I'b sorry. He realizes, distantly, that his nose is probably broken.

Steve's hand on his back moves in little calming circles, and Tony thinks it's probably the nicest thing he's ever felt. "Shh," Steve says. "Head down. Let it all drain forward and out. You don't want to swallow all that blood, or you'll be sick."

"I think I broke my nose," Tony says. I thigk I broke by node.

Steve sighs heavily. "Yeah, I think you did too, Shellhead." He sighs again. "I mean, I think I broke your nose. I'm so sorry. You were looking right at me so I thought you saw it coming, and I thought you'd go the other way. I thought I was just going to clip the side of your head but you turned your whole face into it. I misjudged. I'm so, so sorry."

It's never been like this. Steve's never guessed wrong before about him in a fight. Tony tries not to think about how everything is different now. They've lost what they had.

"Not a big deal."

More blood is dripping down Tony's face and soaking into his beard. He's a mess. It really hurts.

He can feel Steve's body tense all over where he's touching him. "It kind of is," Steve says, and there's something horribly sad in Steve's voice. And that's just wrong, because Steve shouldn't be sad. He didn't do anything wrong. They were sparring. Accidents happen. It was Tony's fault, anyway, for being distracted.

"No, it's not," Tony insists. "I mean it. It was an accident. It's not your fault. I should have been better. And I'm a professional superhero. You think this is the first time I've ever broken a bone?"

He expects Steve to be calm, be every inch an Avenger, but when he looks up, that's not what he sees at all. Steve-- wow, Steve looks wretched. His mouth is a pinched, thin line, his face is gray, and there's a grim tightness to the set of his jaw. Tony's blood is all over his hand. Tony's blood smeared on his clothes. Surely Steve resents the repulsive mess Tony is making of him.

At least the bleeding is slowing.

"It's the first time I've ever broken one of your bones, so I think maybe you can see why I might be upset," Steve says, and that seems to be all the calmness he can hold onto, because now he's raising his voice in concern. "For God's sake, Tony, I-- I have peak-human strength! I could have seriously injured you! We're lucky it wasn't worse!"

He bets Batroc wouldn't have been this stupid. Batroc would have been paying attention.

When Steve breathes out, his body shakes against Tony's. And when he speaks, his voice sounds calmer. Under control. "Sorry," he says again. "Sorry. I just-- okay. Let's try to get some of this cleaned up, okay?"

He unbuckles Tony's headgear, pulls it off, tosses it behind him. He reaches for a towel, dampens it, tries to wipe up the worst of the blood from Tony's face. Tony looks down at his gloved hands and wants to say get me out of these gloves and I can take care of myself but he can't make the words pass his lips.

Steve's other hand is still on his back and Tony can't help but lean in a little. He shouldn't need this. Steve probably thinks he's so weak. But Steve's taking care of him and it makes Tony feel... nice. Happy. Loved.

But Steve doesn't love him.

Steve wouldn't have done this for Batroc, he thinks, as Steve deftly swaps the bloodied towel for the icepack, putting firm pressure against his face as the bleeding finally starts to stop. The coolness is wonderful and Tony nearly wants to cry with how good it feels, but he knows he can't let himself have this. He can't let himself need this.

Steve wouldn't have broken Batroc's nose in the first place, because Batroc would have been good enough to avoid getting hit. And even if Steve had somehow injured Batroc, he wouldn't have stopped the fight to fuss over him like this. Steve obviously feels Tony's not worthy of the respect due a serious opponent. All Tony is is a waste of space. A burden.

He needs to not be here. Not just right now -- although obviously that would be a good idea -- but he needs to be gone. As far away from Steve as possible. Steve is Batroc's, and it's high time that Tony accepted that. And the kindest thing to do, the best way to make it easy on everyone, is for him to get out of the way.

Oblivious to Tony's thoughts, Steve undoes the tape on Tony's gloves, picks out the knots of the laces for him, loosens the gloves, and slides them off. And then Steve cups Tony's chin in his hand and turns his face toward him.

Tony used to imagine that at a moment like this, Steve would kiss him.

It's okay, he tells himself. It's not going to happen, and that's okay. The thought now feels almost peaceful. Steve belongs with Batroc. Tony understands now. He actually can't compete with Batroc. Everything is clear, clearer than it's ever been.

Steve squints at his face. "I don't think you're going to need your nose reset," he says, "but it's a little hard to tell with the swelling." The pressure of his other arm, that still rests against Tony's back, starts to nudge him upward. "Come on, let's get you upstairs to the infirmary. I can get you bandaged up--"

Nope. That's not happening.

Faster than Steve is moving, probably faster than Steve is expecting him to move, Tony is on his feet. He's a little unsteady, but he's upright.

"I've got this," Tony says. "You don't need to help me."

Steve's head snaps up. Something oddly sad flickers in his eyes and then dims. "But--"

"I've got this," Tony repeats. "I've got a mirror, and I can handle gauze and tape as well as the next Avenger. I know how to dose my own anti-inflammatories. And if it's still not right in a couple days I'll go to an actual ENT."


"I'm going to be fine," Tony says. "Don't worry."

He ducks under the ropes and leaves before Steve can say anything else. Steve's got Batroc, anyway. Steve's not going to miss him.

In the middle of the night, Tony gets up to take more ibuprofen and reapply an icepack. It's while he's knocking back the Advil that the thought occurs to him with perfect clarity. He knows exactly what he has to do. Steve and Batroc are here, in New York, so he needs to not be in New York. It's the most courteous thing to do, the easiest way for him not to interfere. It's that simple.

While anyone else with Tony's resources might simply have scheduled an impromptu vacation, Tony can't take that much of a break. He has a business to run, after all. He'd been thinking recently about factory inspections for SI, checking out some of the new plants, personally making sure that safety and working conditions were up to his standards. Tony cares an awful lot about his employees and he knows they'll appreciate it. He turns the idea over in his mind. Yeah, that sounds great. It'll be a kind of world tour, really. He won't run into Steve or Batroc if he is, literally, in a foreign country.

He'll make sure not to go to France though. Just in case.

The relief that flows through Tony is almost as good as painkillers. He feels good about this. He hasn't really felt good in weeks, not since Steve's whole thing with Batroc started. That just means it's the right decision, doesn't it?

Still pressing an icepack to his face, he opens up his laptop, logs into the Avengers system, and gives himself a leave of absence from the team. Then he pecks out an email to Pepper with his one free hand, sketching out a week-long itinerary and asking her to get his jet ready as soon as possible. The board meeting can wait. No, even better -- he can dial in on the plane.

He'll leave tomorrow. It will be perfect.

At thirty thousand feet, the sky is bright and all the clouds are below him every time he looks out the airplane window. Tony's done with the board meeting and halfway across the Atlantic with piles of factory reports spread out around him when his phone vibrates and then lights up with a picture of Steve dressed as Zorro, bent over, his hat held behind his back and his head submerged underwater as he bobs for apples. (It had been a very entertaining Halloween party that year.)

His stomach lurches and he lets the call go to voicemail.

The instant the message shows up, Tony grabs his phone and checks it.

"Hey, Tony," Steve says. He sounds a little tense, maybe. Concerned. Worried. "It's Steve. I was just calling because I checked the team roster and saw you went inactive, and you're not in your room and I was just... hoping you were doing okay. Is your nose any worse? If you need to go to a doctor, I can go with you if it'll help. Anyway, call me back when you get this, all right?"

Tony's thumb hovers over the call button, but he can't make himself press it.

He doesn't need to call Steve back. He doesn't. Any minute now, it will occur to Steve to check Tony's location on his identicard, and then maybe he'll think to call SI and they can tell him that Tony's gone for the week. Tony doesn't need to be involved in this process at all. If Steve really needed him, if the Avengers needed him, they'd be using his identicard, not his cell phone. So that means this isn't urgent and that Tony should stay out of it.

It's the right decision. He knew it was going to be hard, but it's the right thing to do. Eventually Steve will stop needlessly fretting over him and remember that he has Batroc, and Steve will stop calling. Tony can be strong. Tony can do this.

Tony nods to himself, firm and decisive, and puts his phone away.

His phone rings again as they start the descent to London. It's still Steve. He doesn't pick up this time either, but practically as soon as the plane touches down he brings up the voicemail.

"Hi." Steve's voice now sounds oddly subdued. "I just called Stark International and they said you were on a business trip all week. So I, uh, I suppose you must be feeling better? I-- I hope you have a good trip." The pause now seems almost somber. He thinks he hears Steve sigh. "I guess you don't need to call me back after all. Take care, Shellhead."

There, Tony tells himself. Steve's fine, see? Steve obviously doesn't need him. Everything's going to be okay.

It's not a bad trip, all things considered.

His nose is healing nicely, it doesn't even need to be reset, and after a few days he can take off the bandage. There's always concealer available for the worst of the bruises, and it helps that the people he meets are all aware these days that his other job involves him being punched in the face. No one even asks who did it. He's really glad he got rid of the whole secret identity thing.

His schedule for the week is jam-packed, just the way he likes it. Meetings and tours and more meetings. He eats when he can squeeze a meal in. The most uninterrupted sleep he gets is when he nods off over his presentation notes in the middle of the flight from Tokyo to San Francisco. He smiles, he shakes hands, he remembers people's names and their husbands' names and their pets' names. The plant managers in Manchester, Dresden, Shenzhen, Osaka and -- when he finally gets to California -- Milpitas all get raises.

Tony is almost too busy to think. That's entirely by design. It's better this way.

He still catches himself thinking about Steve, in his rare moments of downtime. Of course he does. In an airport in Germany he nearly buys Steve a box of assorted chocolates. He actually has the box in his hand before he realizes what he's doing. It's not unusual for him to bring Steve presents from his business trips. It's not even unusual for him to bring Steve chocolate; Steve's fond of it, and so it's always been easy for Tony to indulge him. It hasn't been a big deal before. But now that Steve is with Batroc, it's kind of a loaded gift, isn't it? It's the kind of thing you'd get your significant other. Maybe it was okay when they were both single, but it clearly has too many overtones now. It would be weird, and more than anything Tony doesn't want to make things weird between them. So, as much as Steve would appreciate it, Tony's just going to have to pass this one by.

Steve doesn't call for the rest of the week. None of the Avengers call.

It's okay. Tony's doing fine. Steve must be doing fine. Someone would have told him if he weren't.

He imagines Steve and Batroc out to dinner again, laughing, leaning close. In his imagination, Steve is happy. He hopes Steve is happy.

At the end of the week, Tony is exhausted, but as his last flight rises, heading back to New York, he thinks he's found some measure of peace. This is what his life is like now. It's time to go home.

Dragging his suitcase behind him, Tony steps out of the elevator and into the common area of the tower. It's just after noon and, surprisingly, the whole team has made it home for lunch. Ororo, Logan, Clint, and Jan are gathered around the table. He can hear Luke and Tigra's voices from the kitchen. Peter is hanging from the ceiling. And Steve's sitting on the couch. With Batroc.

Oh. He ought to have expected this.

Of course Steve wants to keep having Batroc over. Tony takes a steadying breath. The smile comes to his face more easily this time. This is how things are going to be around here. He's getting used to it. The sting of sadness and regret is, he thinks, a little more distant. Steve and Batroc are talking animatedly, and Steve's grinning. Steve is happy. This is what Tony wants for him.

Peter is the first to see him. "Hey, Tin Man, welcome back!" he calls out. He lifts a hand from his web line and waves vigorously.

As one, the rest of the room turns around. Jan is smiling, and, weirdly, Clint gives him a thumbs-up -- Tony's not sure what that's about -- and Steve spins halfway around the couch and pushes himself halfway up, like he's about to leap over the back of the couch. His smile is even more broad now. He seems brighter. Happier. But the look in his eyes is odd, eagerness and anxiety mixed together. Well, Tony did kind of leave him hanging.

"Tony!" Steve says, and Tony briefly feels a little guilty for not returning either of Steve's calls, but it looks like Steve's been doing just fine without him. After all, Batroc is sitting next to him. What more could he want? "How's it going?"

Tony discards good to see you again and I missed you from his list of possible responses. They would have been fine before, but Steve's taken now. Batroc is right here.

"Oh, you know," Tony says, as nonchalantly as possible. "The usual. Doing well. Had a good trip."

"And you--" Steve motions vaguely to his own face-- "you-- you're feeling okay, right?"

Tony still doesn't understand why Steve's so concerned. It was just a broken nose. "I'm great," he says. "Healing fine."

"Glad to hear it." With anyone else it might be a polite phrase, but Steve sounds genuinely relieved.

Behind Steve, even Batroc is smiling at him, a little twitch of his lips under his outrageous mustache. "Content de vous revoir, mon ami," he says.

Tony is doing this. Batroc is who Steve has picked. Tony can be his most polite self. Batroc's not that bad. He clearly has Steve's best interests at heart, and that's what Tony wants for him. "You too," Tony returns.

Batroc nods approvingly. This isn't so bad. Tony can get used to this.

Jan's out of her chair, across the room, and she sweeps him up in a hug. "I'm really glad you're back," she murmurs as she stands on her tiptoes. "We've all missed you."

But when Jan steps away, she aims a glare at... Steve? Her mouth twists, her brow furrows, and she sets her hands on her hips. Okay, Tony's obviously missed something since he's been gone. He wonders what it is. There haven't been any supervillains; he did check.

Oh, well, whatever it is, someone will fill him in eventually.

Steve, the unlucky recipient of Jan's mysterious ire, stands up and clears his throat. His gaze roves wildly around the room, and his hands knot together. God, he looks nervous. Tony hopes Steve's not feeling weird about being friends with him now. He's better. He's going to try as hard as he can. Steve's friendship is important to him. It's just that Batroc is more important to Steve is. Tony can be okay with that. He can learn.

With another cough, Steve finally looks up and meets his eyes. "Tony?" he asks. His throat sounds dry; his voice cracks in the middle of Tony's name. "Do you think-- do you think I could talk to you?" He pauses. "In-- in private?"

It's probably some kind of official Avengers business. That's probably what Jan was reminding him about. There's probably something he needs to ask Tony. It makes sense. He was gone for a week for SI; now he's behind on his administrative and engineering duties for the team.

"Sure," Tony says. He's proud of how easily he says it. It almost doesn't hurt to think about being alone with Steve. "Sure, no problem." He tugs on the handle of his suitcase. "Let me just go drop this off in my room, and I'll be right with--"

The lights flash red.

Everyone reaches for their identicards simultaneously, looking for details on the alert. It's Ororo who has hers in hand first.

"Fin Fang Foom," she says, cool and precise. "East River waterfront."

Tony swears under his breath. Apparently when Ororo had mentioned increased activity from Monster Isle at that team meeting a few weeks ago, she hadn't been kidding. It looks like the Avengers' least favorite giant dragon has decided to pay them a visit.

Steve pulls himself up straighter. Tony can practically see the mantle of Captain America descending upon him, all that commanding authority. "Right," Steve says. "Avengers, suit up and get upstairs to the Quinjet. Wheels up in five." And then he stops, and he stares at Batroc. He shifts his weight and that aura of power starts to slip away. "Um."

This is awkward. Tony pictures Steve kicking Batroc out of the tower while the Avengers run off to fight Fin Fang Foom. From the pained look on Steve's face, it doesn't seem like something Steve's looking forward to doing. But it's not like they can just bring Batroc with them and leave him in the Quinjet--

Wait. He has a better idea.

He steps forward. He smiles.

"Hey, Georges," Tony drawls. "You want to be an Avenger?"

Batroc stares at him. The entire rest of the team stares at him.

"This is a joke, oui?" Batroc blinks owlishly. "You Americans, this is how you tell a joke? Ce n'est pas drôle."

"Cross my heart and hope to die," Tony says, as solemnly as possible. "I'm dead serious. We can use all the help we can get." He glances around the room to gauge the impact of his suggestion. No one is objecting. Steve is licking his lips, like he wants to say something, but he can't seem to find actual words. Tony smiles wider. "I can get you the brochure when we get back, but we have a very competitive pay scale. Full medical and dental."

Batroc is looking around the room like he's trying to figure out where the hidden cameras are, like any minute someone will jump out and tell him it's all fake. Finally, he nods. "It would be un honneur."

Tony extends his hand. Batroc shakes it.

This is the right thing to do. Acceptance.

No one else has said anything. Steve looks even more shocked, his face somehow even paler. Tony wonders if Steve thought he was never capable of this.

"Welcome to the team," Tony says. "We'll sign all the paperwork afterwards, if that's okay. We're in a bit of a hurry." He hopes he sounds encouraging. "I have to go suit up now, if you'll excuse me."

Batroc nods again. He seems shaken.

"Okay," Steve says. It doesn't have his usual ringing tone, and he looks a rattled. "Now everyone really needs to get moving." He looks at Tony again like he really wants to say something else, like he's trying to spell out a message with the sheer intensity of his gaze. Tony has no idea what he's trying to say. "Iron Man, while you're suiting up, if you could grab the spare comms for Batroc while you're down there...?"

Tony nods. "Can do, Cap," he says, and he abandons his suitcase and heads back for the elevator.

He has absolutely no idea what's going on with Steve today, but they can deal with it after they kick Fin Fang Foom all the way back to Monster Isle. It can wait.

The only good thing about fighting Fin Fang Foom is that a fifty-foot-tall dragon monster isn't exactly hard to miss. He's on the shoreline, standing tall on the grass, still dripping wet from the river, like he came straight out of a Godzilla movie. He flaps his huge wings, and the ground below them is shadowed and dark. As Tony guides the Quinjet into an easy landing a few hundred feet away, Fin Fang Foom drops his jaw to expose pointed fangs, and he roars.

And then of course there's the purple pants. Yep. That's definitely Fin Fang Foom.

The team piles out of the Quinjet as soon as the ramp hits the dirt. Steve's first out, and Tony is last out -- but he stops dead so as not to crash into Batroc, who has come to a complete halt at the end of the ramp. Batroc's head is tipped up, up and up, and he's staring in something that might be awe and something that might be horror.

"Sacrebleu!" Batroc breathes.

Tony comes up alongside him. "Never fought a dragon before, huh?"

Batroc shakes his head. "Non."

It occurs to Tony that, for all Batroc's experience in villainy, Batroc is a first-time superhero, and this is a hell of a first mission. He's definitely not used to the scale of the threats that the Avengers routinely face. No wonder he finds it daunting. Tony doesn't blame him.

Gently, mindful of the strength of his armor, Tony pats Batroc on the shoulder. "It's gonna be okay, pal. I'm not gonna let anything happen to you."

Steve would kill him if Tony let his boyfriend get hurt, and there's no way Tony wants that. And even if Steve wouldn't actually kill him, Steve would be sad about Batroc being hurt, and Tony definitely doesn't want that. Also generally Tony just isn't in favor of people being hurt. Besides, Batroc's one of them now. He owes it to his brand-new fellow Avenger to keep him safe.

The civilian first responders have thoughtfully set up a perimeter already. Tony sees EMTs, police, and firefighters on the other side of the barrier. Good. Maybe no one will get hurt. Maybe this one is going to be easy.

The team starts fanning out, taking up familiar positions as Steve's voice crackles in Tony's comms.

"All right, people," Steve says. Tony can see Steve far ahead of him, shield raised, other hand pressed to his earpiece as he circles around. "The goal is confinement and containment. Giant-Girl, if you've ever wanted to go toe-to-toe with a dragon, now's your big break."

Jan laughs over the comms. "How did you know, Cap?"

She starts to grow, bigger and bigger and bigger. Her pink uniform gleams in the sun, and she's taller and then taller still. Tony's not sure if she can reach Fin Fang Foom's height, but he supposes they're all about to find out. He can see Steve's plan now: Jan, as big as she can get, the star of a human vs. dragon slugfest. It's a good idea, but Tony's pretty sure Steve has a backup plan in mind. Tony loves Jan -- they all do -- but she herself would also be the first to admit that she's not the best of the Avengers' hand-to-hand fighters. You don't usually need to be the greatest if you can be fifty feet tall, because in most cases you can beat your opponent by virtue of your overwhelming size alone -- but this is one of the times where it would really, really help to also be more skilled.

That's why Tony's not surprised when he hears his name next. "Storm and Iron Man," Steve orders. "You're Giant-Girl's aerial backup. Get up there, stay up there, and do everything you can to get a few good hits in."

"Acknowledged, Captain," Ororo says, and Tony watches her hold her arms out, imperiously, and let the whirlwinds bear her upward. She's up to Jan's head in about ten seconds. Jan is nearly Fin Fang Foom's height.

It's Tony's turn, he supposes. "Aye-aye, Cap," he says. He jumps, kicks the boot jets on, and then he's spiraling high above the battlefield. The rebuilt boot jets are working like a charm. He and Ororo take matching positions on opposite sides of Fin Fang Foom, high enough that he can't reach either of them with an overhand swipe. He waves, and Ororo nods regally back at him.

"Spider-Man," Steve adds. "If you can take a swing at him, feel free."

As Tony stares down at the Avengers arraying themselves around Fin Fang Foom, he sees why Steve used the word if in his order to Peter. There is one other good thing about being here on the waterfront, and that's the fact that there's a lot of open space and not quite so many skyscrapers.

"Heh," Peter says. "You said swing."

The lack of buildings is going to make the task of minimizing civilian casualties and property damage a lot easier, but as far as the Avengers' available tactics go it's also a bit of a double-edged sword. Peter's one of the heaviest of their heavy-hitters, but he works best when he's got something to swing from, and that's not exactly happening here on flat ground.

"Spider-Man," Steve says, in the long-suffering tone he usually saves for Clint. "Please."

Similarly, Clint is also much more effective if they can get him a perch somewhere high to shoot from. That's also not happening.

They can only work with what they have. They'll be fine. They're the Avengers, after all.

"Everybody else on the ground, with me," Steve orders. "Spread out. If you have an opening, take it, but you all know your own limits. Don't get reckless, don't get rash, stay out of range unless you're sure he won't retaliate and close with you. Remember, he's bigger than all of us."

Clint snickers. "Except Giant-Girl."

Tony sees Steve, far below him, tip his head to the side in acknowledgment. "Except Giant-Girl, yes."

Jan takes one huge step forward -- Tigra hastily scurries out of her way -- and raises her massive pink-gloved fists. "Hey, there," she says. Because she's Jan, she can't help but sound a little cheerful about it. Friendly. She's always approachable. "We've come to take you back to Monster Isle. How about we do this the easy way, and you come with us peacefully?"

"NO!" Fin Fang Foom roars.

Well, it was worth a try. It's always worth a try. Tony sighs and brings his repulsors online. Targeting solutions shine on his HUD. He doesn't take the shot, though. Avengers don't start fights. He hovers and waits, his hands held out. On Fin Fang Foom's other side, lightning is crackling around Ororo. She's ready too.

Fin Fang Foom snarls at Jan and swings out with one gigantic fist. Jan blocks him handily and punches back, and, okay, it doesn't seem to do much, but it's early days yet. It's a good start. They can wear him down.

And then Fin Fang Foom opens his mouth and breathes something smoky on Jan. Tony can't quite see what it is, but it must be something, because Jan leaps backwards and cries out, loudly enough that they can probably hear her in Brooklyn. She's clutching her arm, and when Tony swoops around for a better view, the sleeve of her uniform is ragged up to her elbow and the skin underneath is an angry red.

"Giant-Girl, report!" That's Steve. "What's your condition?"

"I'm okay." Jan's panting harshly, but she's quick to reassure the team. "I'm okay. It's acid. But I'm fine."

Well, Fin Fang Foom has clearly learned some new tricks. Tony would definitely have remembered that one.

"Pull back!" Steve orders. "You're not wearing any kind of protection from acid, Giant-Girl. You can't be our front line. Let the rest of us soften him up for you first."

It's not that the rest of them are wearing any acid protection either. Tony's not even sure how well his own armor will hold up. Steve's shield might withstand acid, and Luke's skin is invulnerable. That's what they have going for them. But Tony and Ororo are both faster in the air than Jan is on the ground, anyway, and they'll just have to cover for her. Maybe Jan can get in a few good hits from behind while the two of them distract him. That's all they can do. It has to be enough.

"Acknowledged," Jan says. She takes a few steps back, looking over her shoulder, mindful of her feet.

Steve, rather optimistically, flings his shield at Fin Fang Foom. Tony watches it spinning below him, a patriotic blur. It hits Fin Fang Foom in the knee and rebounds, with no discernible reaction on Fin Fang Foom's part. Great.

"Hey, Cage!" Logan yells, apparently having decided that comms are for other people. "Can I get a fastball special?"

Luke grumbles over the comms -- something about how if Logan misses Colossus that much he should just rejoin the X-Men already -- but as Tony watches, Luke hefts Logan one-handed and pitches him in the direction of Fin Fang Foom. He uncurls as he flies, claws extended and gleaming. Tony remembers that Steve had tried to institute a no stabbing living things rule for Logan once, but clearly in this case Steve is willing to suspend it.

Logan's claws sink into Fin Fang Foom at mid-thigh, and, okay, that gets a reaction, at least. Fin Fang Foom roars again, then reaches down with one huge hand and plucks him out like he's an annoying insect. And then he throws him. Hard. And, okay, sure Logan can survive pretty much anything, but it's not a landing that would have been pleasant. Jan manages to catch him in her palm, and she bends to set him down. Whew. At least everyone's okay. And maybe Logan will have another chance, if Tony and Ororo can create an opening for him.

Fin Fang Foom is distracted, his clawed hand pressed to the wound on his thigh, his huge head swiveling down like he can't figure out how a puny human managed to injure him. And that means it's Tony's turn.

He eschews calling his shot. There's no need for witty banter. He just holds his hands out and dives down in a spiral, an attack run that will take him in a full circle. Repulsor rays stream from his palms at the highest possible power and it's not enough. They hit Fin Fang Foom's shoulder, but if that damn dragon feels anything, he doesn't react. Tony grits his teeth and turns up the gain, cutting power from the maneuvering thrusters to push the repulsors past the limit. He designed the suit. He knows the tolerances better than anyone. This will work.

Satisfyingly, Fin Fang Foom finally notices him now. He roars again and Tony can see his repulsor rays raising dark scorch marks on Fin Fang Foom's scaly hide.

And then, of course, Fin Fang Foom snaps his head up and opens his mouth and Tony knows what's happening, Tony can see what's about to happen, but all the free power in his suit is in his repulsors, not his boot jets. He's cornering too slowly, oh God--

Fin Fang Foom drops his jaw and breathes out a fine mist of acid. Tony twists in midair and nearly gets himself out of the way, but nearly isn't good enough. His right foot is caught in the edge of the acid spray, the HUD flashes PROPULSION SYSTEM ERROR, and half a second later the right boot jet fails entirely as the boot sizzles and begins to melt away.

Tony goes into a spin. The ground and the sky blur together.

His perfectly-executed attack run is now really more of a death spiral.

"Tony!" Steve's voice is hoarse over the comms.

Tony pushes all the power that was into the repulsors into thrusters and stabilization, and he snaps up and out of the spiral. Landing with a broken boot jet is an ungainly, ungraceful affair that causes him to wobble down and skid hard across ten feet of dirt before managing to right himself with his palm repulsors. But at least he's down. Any landing you can walk away from, as they say.

"I'm all right," Tony reports, prior to actually checking if he is in fact all right, but that's The Tony Stark Way. The HUD isn't reporting a suit breach, though, so that's a good sign. When he glances down at himself the paint is entirely gone from most of his right leg, and the metal of his boot is alarmingly pitted, but it seems to have held. "The acid didn't eat all the way through the armor. But I'm grounded, so your aerial force is down by one. Sorry."

"Nothing to apologize for." Steve's reply is prompt. Tony isn't really sure where he is; he can't see him from here. Probably somewhere on Fin Fang Foom's other side. "I'm just glad you're okay, Shellhead." There's a noise that might be a sigh of relief.

"I'll let you know if I'm not." Tony checks his repulsors again. At least those are still functional. "I can still shoot from the ground, by the way, if you want."

"Be my guest," Steve says. He sounds sort of like he's smiling.

Since he has to run around on the ground, he's a lot slower now. Tony is just going to wait for a decent opening. So he pulls back and watches the fight around him. Ororo is having a lot of success with wind and lightning, as is Logan, every time Luke throws him into the fray. Clint manages to fire a few explosive arrows that are more distracting than damaging, but the progress is encouraging, and the distraction is enough for Jan to get in a couple of sucker punches to the back of Fin Fang Foom's head. It's fighting dirty, but Tony will take it. Even Tigra darts in and rakes her claws across Fin Fang Foom's scaly ankle.

And then Tony sees Batroc. Batroc's been staying toward the back of the Avengers and hasn't gotten any hits in; when Tony thinks about it, that kind of figures, because Batroc's not strong enough for his strength to be immediately useful in and of itself, and he's probably trying to judge what Fin Fang Foom is capable of before he gets into the leaping.

But the natural motion of the fight has taken Fin Fang Foom closer to where Batroc is standing, as the Avengers keep forcing Fin Fang Foom to move. Batroc's not too far away from Tony, and neither of them are too far away from Fin Fang Foom. Batroc is so close that Fin Fang Foom's lashing tail is actually behind him.

And Batroc-- he's turned around to watch Fin Fang Foom's tail. Which means he has his back to Fin Fang Foom.

It's a mistake Tony wouldn't expect of an Avenger -- you don't put your back to your enemy -- but given that Batroc has probably previously only fought humans, he's probably finding it hard to process that his enemy is one single giant creature. It's understandable. It's wrong, but it's understandable.

Fin Fang Foom raises his leg to step back, and Batroc still hasn't turned around.

Batroc is completely unaware of Fin Fang Foom's huge clawed foot in the air above him, descending on him from behind. Tony's blood runs cold. Batroc has no idea what's coming.

In seconds, Batroc is going to be crushed.

There's only one thing for Tony to do.

Steve loves Batroc. Tony has to save Batroc. This is for Steve.

Steve won't miss him. After all, Steve will have Batroc.

"Batroc!" Tony yells. "Look out!"

And Batroc looks up at him, of course, not the massive limb about to land on him. So Tony does the only thing he can do. He runs, throws himself forward, and knocks Batroc out of the way.

He collides hard with Batroc. He has an instant to take in Batroc's startled wide-eyed glance and his sharp grunt at the impact, and then Batroc is tumbling out of the way, and good, good, he's going to be safe, Tony did it, Tony did it right--

Fin Fang Foom's huge foot lands on Tony.

It's like a tree falling. Tony's on his back, pinned to the ground by the unbearable weight across his torso. Fin Fang Foom's claws are probably acidic, he thinks, as he can hear the chestplate of his armor start to sizzle. There's a terrible creaking noise of metal under stress, there's the broken-glass cracking sound of the unibeam housing on his chest as it begins to fracture, and then the HUD goes black as all the bracing in the chestplate gives way at once.

He's being crushed alive by his own armor. Plates flex, bend inward, cut into his flesh, and keep pushing into him as Fin Fang Foom steps down harder. He can feel his ribs breaking, and there's nothing he can do. His skin is slick with blood, and his shoulders are stinging, burning like he's being flayed alive. That's probably the acid. Fin Fang Foom shifts his weight to the side, his claws coming down higher on Tony's body, and something in Tony's arm makes a sickening crunch. The pain is indescribable. He feels like he's surrounded in flame, being eaten alive by a fire crawling under his skin. He can't move.

He thought he knew what pain was before now. He thought he had suffered. He realizes now that he was wrong. He always knew he was never going to die peacefully. And then the pain escalates. He hangs there, in eternity. There's nothing but pain in the darkness.

Tony hears a noise like a wounded animal, the harsh and wordless groan of someone who can't draw breath enough even to scream. The noise echoes in his helmet, and he realizes that it's him.

It won't be long now.

Then there's another wounded-animal noise, this one deeper and farther away. Not him. Through the darkened eyeslits of his helmet, Tony can make out something that might be lightning. A flash of red, white, and blue, and a ringing sound. It's hard to focus.

The worst of the pressure lifts, and Fin Fang Foom must have moved his foot, but Tony is still trapped in the armor, being murdered by his own wonderful invention. When he tries to breathe, a thousand knives slide into him. He can feel blood bubbling from his lips.

He thinks he hears footsteps. Someone is running toward him. Someone is saying something -- shouting something -- but the words are too distorted to make out. It might be Tony's name.

There's a light pressure at his side, the scraping of twisted metal against itself, the thunk of one of the emergency catches releasing. And then Tony knows for certain that it's Steve at his side, because Steve has the emergency releases on his suit memorized.

"Oh, God, Tony," Steve says. His voice is thick. Distorted. The words are hoarse.

He can feel the pressure of Steve's hands on his broken armor as Steve's hands rove over his chest, frantically, like he's too panicked to find the rest of the release catches. His brilliant tactician's mind has somehow quit on him. Steve's fingers, shaking against the metal, flip the latches at his chin and then Tony's helmet is ripped off his head and he's blinking into the blue sky.

Steve is kneeling at his side, his face haloed by the sunlight above him. His skin is like bleached bone, and Tony can see the whites of his wide, wide eyes. He reaches out a shaking hand toward Tony's face, like he wants to touch him but doesn't think he should.

"It's okay," Tony breathes. It's hard to talk. "Not-- not a big deal." He's pretty sure he said that when Steve broke his nose, too.

Steve's mouth twitches. "I think this one's a big deal, Tony. But it's going to be okay." There's something frightened in his voice, a high anxious note, like he's desperately trying to keep control of himself for Tony's sake. "It's going to be all right. Just keep breathing for me, okay? That's all you have to do. Just one thing. The doctors are coming. Just hold on."

His hands are still sliding over the armor like he can't find the rest of the clasps.

"Can't-- can't breathe," Tony rasps out.

Tony's words make Steve's eyes go wider, and his fingers scrabbling across Tony's armor are even more frantic, shaking now.

Steve finally finds the other set of catches, unlatches them, and then lifts the entire chestplate away in a screech of metal. He looks down at Tony and somehow his face is even whiter. The hollows of his face look like bruises. There are tears in his eyes.

"Oh my God," Steve says. He raises his voice. "Medic! I-- I need a medic! Someone get us a medic! Please! Hurry! Oh no. Oh, no, no, no, Tony, please, no."

Tony can't see himself, but he can imagine what he looks like, because he can feel it. There are acid burns on his shoulder, the undersuit eaten through, scored open. The rest of the undersuit is probably ripped where it was caught on the armor, soaked dark with blood. Through the rents in the suit, Steve can probably see every bruise, everywhere the armor pierced him, every terrible broken bone, his body pulverized. Steve knows he's not surviving this.

Somewhere far away, Fin Fang Foom is roaring.

Tony licks his lips. They taste like blood. "Is-- is Batroc okay?"

Tears stream down Steve's face. "He's fine."

"Good," Tony murmurs. "I-- I saved him."

He did it. And even though Steve should be with Batroc, Steve is here at his side. He gets to look at Steve just once more. There's motion out of the corner of his eye, Steve's hand moving. He thinks Steve is holding his hand. He can't really tell, because he's wearing gauntlets and also it's the arm that Fin Fang Foom stepped on. But he appreciates the thought.

Steve is crying harder. He's sobbing now. His eyes are glassy and tears are dripping from his chin. This isn't what was supposed to happen at all. Steve wasn't supposed to be sad. Tony doesn't want this.

"Hey," Tony whispers. "You're crying." With all the strength in him, he lifts his one good arm -- God, why is it so heavy? -- and reaches toward Steve's face, trying to wipe the tears away.

But Steve catches his arm in his other hand and slowly lowers it. "Don't move," Steve says, insistent, urgent. Like that's going to make a difference. "Save your strength."

"Don't cry." Tony's mouth shapes the words but he doesn't have the energy to give them voice. "It's all right."

More tears fall from Steve's eyes, and then Tony feels something press against his face. Steve's hand. He's still wearing gloves, but it feels nice against his skin. It's selfish, but Tony's glad that Steve's here, glad that the last thing he's going to know is Steve at his side. He can almost believe Steve loves him.

He's tired. God, he's so tired. His eyes are sliding shut.

"Tony," Steve says, urgently. Something hot and wet drips onto Tony's face. Steve's still crying. "Oh, Tony, please, God, no. Just stay with me."

But he can't. He knows he can't. This is it.

He closes his eyes and there's nothing.

Consciousness comes slowly to Tony. Rhythmic beeps wend their way into the fragments of dreams that drift through his mind. Everything is hazy. His perceptions refocus, glimmers of clarity in the fog, and he realizes those are noises. The fabric of the sheets beneath him -- he can feel it. He's alive.

There's the itchy pressure of tape and electrodes against his skin, the uncomfortable pressure of an IV on the back of his hand. There's a heavy weight on one of his arms. He can't move it. Tony regards this last fact about the world with mild distress. He didn't think that was the arm that was broken. He remembers breaking his arm. His memory comes back to him like he's being handed puzzle pieces from an envelope, one at a time. He remembers Fin Fang Foom. He remembers Steve, kneeling over him and sobbing. He thinks maybe he should have feelings about that. It sounds like something he should have feelings about. He doesn't seem to be feeling much of anything. His thoughts run in loopy circles.

Tony opens his eyes. He's in a hospital room he doesn't recognize. It's not the infirmary at the tower. He supposes he's exceeded the Avengers' ability to deal with traumatic injury. The thought should probably concern him, but everything in his brain is a little foggy. He knows he's heavily drugged.

His body doesn't really look like his body anymore. He can't see most of himself under the blanket, but he looks like a repository for bandages and tubes and needles and wires rather than anything human. The skin he can see is covered with bruises and stitches. He feels a little like Frankenstein's monster. He can't feel any of it. Thank God for painkillers.

He does see why he can't move his arm, and that's because Steve is holding it tight. Steve's asleep. There's a chair pulled up to the middle of the bed, and Steve has both of his hands wrapped around Tony's arm, clutching him desperately even in his sleep, like this is all of Tony that he's allowed to touch, like this is all he can ever have and he'd better take it while he still has the chance. It doesn't really make any sense that Steve would think that, but Tony lets himself appreciate the thought anyway. Steve's head is pillowed on the back of Tony's hand and his forehead bumps Tony's blanketed hip. His face is puffy like he's been crying. At some point he changed into civilian clothing, but that's clearly the only concession Steve has made to normal human behavior. It looks like he hasn't shaved in several days. His facial hair situation has progressed past five o'clock shadow into the realm of an actual beard. Steve looks terrible with a beard.

Tony wonders how long he's been unconscious.

Tony wonders why Steve is still here.

"Steve," Tony says, or tries to say; it doesn't really come out intelligibly. His voice sounds like gears grinding.

But of course Steve hears him. At first Steve startles and his fingers dig harder into the muscle just above Tony's elbow and his body curves protectively over Tony's, as if somehow his sleeping desire is to keep Tony safe from harm. Then he comes awake a little more; his eyes flare open, that achingly familiar pale blue, now bloodshot, and he blinks and blinks until his gaze finally meets Tony's.

Steve smiles, and it's the most beautiful thing Tony has ever seen. Tony probably shouldn't think things like that about Steve anymore.

"Tony," Steve breathes. "Oh, thank God."

Tony's mouth sluggishly arranges itself into something that he hopes looks like a smile. "Fancy meeting you here," he tries to say. It sounds more like actual words this time.

Steve frees a hand and pushes himself up to sitting. His other hand slides down Tony's arm in a wave of warmth, and Tony is just high enough on painkillers to let himself luxuriate in the feeling. When Steve's hand reaches Tony's, he grabs it tight, and then -- even better -- he puts his other hand underneath Tony's, enfolding him in his grasp. It's like being wrapped up in the world's best blanket. Steve's gaze is soft. Almost tender. Tony can feel himself smiling back.

Steve is still gazing into his eyes, and then he looks down at their joined hands as if he's only now realized what he's done. Hastily, he tugs his hands away from Tony's, and Tony is cold again.

Tony knows he shouldn't get used to this affectionate behavior. Steve's not for him. Steve's just worried because a dragon stomped on him. But Tony wishes he could tell him that he doesn't want him to stop touching him. He knows it's not appropriate. But that doesn't mean he doesn't want to say it.

Metal scrapes against linoleum as Steve scoots his chair closer to Tony's head. He smooths his hands over his thighs and flexes his fingers. Tony tries not to imagine that this means Steve wants to hold his hand again. Clearly Steve doesn't. Steve is Batroc's. Tony knows that.

Steve clears his throat. "You've been out for four days." He blinks rapidly; when he speaks again his voice is tight. "I-- we-- we weren't sure you were going to make it, at the beginning, but then they got you stabilized. You're at Bellevue, by the way. They were the closest trauma center." His voice cracks again. "You broke more bones than I even want to think about, the internal bleeding was terrifying, and you're going to be in here a good long time before they even think about letting you go home, but the doctors, they told me you're going to be all right. How's that for good news, huh?" He smiles a gentle smile. "I'm really glad you're back in the land of the living, Shellhead."

Tony tries to nod. He mostly succeeds in lolling his head. "Fin Fang Foom?"

"All taken care of," Steve assures him. "Back on Monster Isle as of yesterday. Jan and Ororo managed to knock him off-balance enough that Peter could web him up, and after that SHIELD could tranquilize him and transport him. No need to worry. No property damage, and no casualties except, well, you. Jan's got a couple minor acid burns, but that's it. Everyone's okay."

Okay. Tony manages to process this. The words finally sink into his brain. Everything is okay. He's going to be okay. The team is okay.

And now that Steve has seen that Tony is okay, it has to be time for Steve to leave. It was nice of Steve to wait around for him to wake up, but surely Steve has other places he'd rather be. Other people he'd rather be with. Not that Tony wants Steve to leave -- if it were up to him, Steve would stay with him forever -- but obviously Steve would rather be with his boyfriend than his teammate.

"Well, that's good. Thanks for the update." Tony makes himself smile. God, he doesn't want Steve to leave him here alone. He hates hospitals. He especially hates being in hospitals by himself. And even if Steve's never going to be more than a friend, he would really like a friend at his side. But Steve's needs are more important than Tony's pathetic desires. "I guess I should let you get going now, huh? I don't mean to keep you. You've probably got somewhere else you want to be."

Mouth half-open, Steve is blinking again, and then he squints at Tony in what looks like utter confusion, which is weird, because there's no way this is hard to understand. "Tony," Steve says. His voice is a little louder. "Do I look like a fella who has somewhere else he wants to be?" He gestures at himself, a wave of his hand that takes in his wrinkled clothes, his rumpled hair, his patchy beard. "Do I look like I've been anywhere but here since you went down? Do I look like I want to be anywhere but here?"

"No, but--"

"I mean," Steve says, glancing down, putting his hands in his lap, faltering. "If-- if you want me to go away, of course I'll--"

"No!" Tony blurts out, in a regrettable moment of unguarded and probably drug-induced emotional weakness. "I just meant, well, I always enjoy your company, but I just, you know... figured you'd rather go be with someone else now that you know I'm awake. I don't want to monopolize you."

There, that's a statement that is both true and does not let slip any of the feelings that Tony is definitely not telling Steve about ever. He congratulates himself.

He still doesn't understand why Steve hasn't left yet, though.

"Tony," Steve says, like he's trying very hard to sound calm and reasonable. "Do you think I drew the short straw? Lost the coin toss and had to take the Tony Stark Watch on behalf of the team? Do you think that's why I'm here?" He sighs. "Do you really think I don't want to be here? You're one of my best friends, Tony. You mean the world to me. Do you really think I don't like you?"

This-- this hurts. Which is pretty impressive when Tony is already lying in a hospital bed. You don't like me like I want you to like me, he doesn't say. Why is Steve putting him through this?

He tries to remind himself that Steve doesn't know he likes him. That Steve wouldn't realize how much this hurts to hear when it's so close to everything he wants and can't have.

"No, but--" is all Tony can get out again, before Steve interrupts him.

"Exactly where do you think I'd rather be?"

God, he's really going to make him say it. Tony swallows hard. "With Batroc," Tony says. "I mean, Georges. Obviously you want to be with him. I mean, you-- you're in love with him. I get that. Of course you want to spend time with him. And I want you to be happy, Steve, so I really think you should--"

Steve lays two fingers on Tony's bare arm and the words die in his throat. When Tony looks up, Steve's eyes are wide and serious. Tony doesn't understand what's going on.


"Georges and I," Steve says, quietly, "we broke up. Last week. You were on your business trip. That was what I was going to tell you when you got home, before the Avengers alert interrupted us."

Tony's first thought, which is extremely unworthy of him, is: you mean I got myself stomped on by a dragon for nothing? He's just going to blame the painkillers for that one. He's not sorry he saved Batroc's life.

His second thought, also extremely unworthy of him, is the most profound and pure swell of relief that he's ever felt in his entire life. Steve's not with Batroc anymore. Steve could-- they could-- but they won't, because Steve doesn't want him, because Steve knew he was queer all these years and Steve never asked him. And how can he possibly think of selfishly rejoicing in this. Steve's probably heartbroken! Steve's probably devastated! Steve's probably--

He looks at Steve.

Steve is regarding him in silence. There's an odd nervous tension in his gaze. His fingers, still pressed against Tony's arm, are trembling. Tony doesn't know what this is, but it sure isn't heartbreak.

How can this be true? How is this real? Why was Batroc still at the tower if the two of them were over?

"So you weren't together," Tony ventures, cautiously, and Steve nods. "You weren't together, but you were still... hanging out?"

Squinting, Steve nods. "You've never been friends with your exes before?" he asks, like he can't believe Tony would think this is unusual. Tony kind of hasn't been, but then, most of them have been evil. No one could have anticipated Madame Masque.

Tony shakes his head.

Steve shrugs. "He wanted to lend me an Edith Piaf CD. So he came over. That was why he was there."

"Oh." Tony can feel his lips round, shaping a soft sound of understanding. He realizes that there's something he ought to say. Something Steve probably expects him to say. "You seemed very happy together. He seemed like a nice guy. I'm sorry to hear that you two split up."

He means it, as much as he can mean it. He wants Steve to be happy.

He expects Steve to nod, to smile, to acknowledge all the sympathy that Tony can express. He doesn't get that.

Steve runs his free hand through his hair and glances around the room. "I-- oh, God, Tony, I thought this would be easier to say when I had more time to work up to it. Anyway, that-- that wasn't all I wanted to tell you before Fin Fang Foom interrupted us. There was... something else." His smile is small and rueful. Tony is confused. Steve's gaze darts wildly around the room, taking in all the charts and the monitors. "Uh. So after the break-up happened, I -- geez, I don't know to say this -- I-- I-- some of the Avengers, they decided it was a good time to... talk to me. About you."

Tony goes cold all over. The beeping of the monitors skyrockets. Dear God. The entire team knew how he felt about Steve, didn't they, and they-- and they-- did they tell him? Did they hand Steve his secret, just like that?

There's nothing else Steve can mean.

Steve knows. Steve knows everything.

"Steve," Tony rasps. He doesn't know what to say. What can he possibly say? He's despicable and he's been lusting after his teammate and best friend for years. "I-- I-- never meant to make you feel-- oh, God, I'm so sorry--"

He's stammering. He can't get a sentence out. He's ruined it all.

Steve's fingers tighten on his arm. "Tony, no!" He pauses. When he breathes out it's a shaky rush. Steve sounds about as tense as Tony feels. He doesn't look angry, but that's probably coming later. "I don't-- I didn't mean it like that." He exhales again. "I'm glad you saved Georges' life," he says. "Of course I am. But he's not more important to me than you are. It's you for me. It's always been you for me, Tony. I just... never thought I had a chance with you, not in a million years. And after Georges and I broke up, I was talking with Jan and Clint, and I might have mentioned how I felt... about you... and they might have suggested that if I talked to you I'd find that I-- I wasn't as unwelcome as I thought I was."

Steve pauses. He smiles. He licks his lips. He's looking at Tony like his entire heart is hanging in the balance of what Tony says next.

Steve wants him. Steve loves him.

This can't be happening.

"Really?" Tony whispers. His voice is hushed, awed. "Steve, you really--?"

"I really do." Steve's voice is solemn, fervent. "I really, really do." His breaths are still shaky.

"I've wanted you for so long," Tony murmurs, and the smile on Steve's face is like sunshine. It hits him like sunshine too, warming him all over, the first day of spring after a long winter. "My God, Steve, how could you ever think you didn't have a chance with me? You're-- you're--"

The only adjective that is coming to mind is perfect, but if he says that, he's pretty sure Steve will blame it on the painkillers.

Steve gestures at himself with his free hand, which is pretty goddamn funny, because Tony is positive Steve could give the Vitruvian Man a run for his money. But he knows Steve doesn't mean the serum because Steve never means the serum. Not about something like this.

"Me?" Steve says. "I'm-- I'm an old fogey. A dinosaur. I listen to radio dramas and collect Edgar Rice Burroughs novels. You design computers and collect sports cars. You're always looking toward the future. You're the kindest person I know, and the most brilliant. And, God, Tony, you're the most handsome man I've ever seen in my whole life. You could have anyone in the world if you smiled at them. Why would you pick me?"

That's flattering, especially given that Tony probably currently looks like some kind of human pincushion but-- "Are you kidding me?" Tony asks. "Why wouldn't I pick you? Just because I design computers doesn't mean I have to date an electrical engineer. I love your book collection and I love listening to your radio shows with you. I love going to the movies and the park with you. I love being an Avenger with you. I love your eyes. I love how when you're drawing something and you're really focused your tongue sticks out of your mouth. I love how you're so gentle with your hands. I just love you, okay?"

Tony replays the last five words in his head and considers the idea that thirty seconds into a relationship is probably too soon for this declaration.

"Uh," Tony says. "Maybe we could just chalk that last sentence up to all the drugs I'm on right now, if you want."

Steve is gazing at him, starry-eyed with wonder. "I love you too," he breathes.

Okay. Or not. They can go with this. That works too. That works just fine.

"Yeah?" Tony asks.

Steve nods. "Yeah."

Tony can feel himself smiling. "Good."

Steve slides his fingers down Tony's arm, grabs his hand again, and clutches him tight. It's heavenly. Steve's smiling down at him. Tony could get used to this.

"You want to know something?" Steve is gazing off into the distance. "I started to realize it wasn't going to work out, me and Georges, when I went to see the Rawhide Kid film with him. We were sitting down and the lights dimmed and I just thought, I wish I were with Tony. And I thought-- I thought I could get over you if I dated another man, but I realized I couldn't. Probably shouldn't have picked the fella who looked the most like you, either. That probably didn't help. But I realized that no matter who I picked, I wasn't going to forget about you, and it was just going to be unfair to Georges if I didn't own up... well, to myself, at least. I wanted to give him a couple more dates, but I knew I should let him know relatively soon that it wasn't going to last, even if I didn't tell him exactly why." He grimaces. "Also, he didn't like the film."

Tony laughs, which turns out to be a terrible mistake. Ow. "He-- ow, geez, ow-- he didn't?"

Steve's face wrinkles in disgust. "He was rooting for the fella in the black hat."

Tony successfully prevents himself from laughing this time. "You're right. That never would have worked out."

"I mean, he was a nice guy," Steve says, almost defiantly, like he thinks Tony is going to object to him having been with Batroc at all. "I'm not sorry I dated him. I had a good time with him. But he wasn't you."

He pats Tony's hand.

"I was so jealous," Tony admits. He knows it's terrible, but at the same time it's so freeing to finally be able to say it. "I was so, so, so jealous. Green with envy. Hulk-green, Steve, my God."

Steve's thumb strokes the back of Tony's hand in little calming circles. All Tony can think is this is how Steve touches me when he loves me. "I am sorry about that." His voice is more wistful, apologetic. "I didn't mean to-- to taunt you. I honestly thought you weren't interested. I thought if you'd wanted me, you would have said so."

"Not so much. I was waiting until I was sure. And then Batroc got there first." He sighs. "I know, envy is hardly the most flattering look. I was just-- I kept thinking how unfair it was. I kept thinking that if you were going to kiss a guy, it should have been me. I should have been the first. I know it's ridiculous."

"I did kiss him," Steve says, hesitantly. His face is starting to turn red. "But, uh, there's plenty of room available for... other firsts, if you're. Um. Interested in that." His tongue flicks out, licks his lips. "I would be. Interested. Very interested. Only if you wanted to, that is."

"Oh," Tony says. Three seconds later, his brain catches up to what Steve actually means. "Oh. That would be... amazing." He can feel his mouth stretching in a dreamy smile. God, he wants that. He wants-- God, he wants everything. The need is at more of a remove than usual, more of his excited mind than his excited body. That's probably the drugs. "Maybe not right this second, but... yes. I want to."

"Definitely not right this second." There's a snap of sternness in Steve's voice, like he honestly thinks Tony is going to try to fool around in the state he's in. And then his face softens into another beautiful smile. "Later, though. I'm looking forward to it."

He's so gorgeous. It's okay to think that. He's all Tony's now.

This is real. He can finally, finally let himself believe it. Steve loves him. Steve really, truly loves him.

"Maybe you could keep holding my hand?" Tony suggests.

Steve squeezes his fingers gently. "I can do that," he says.

Much as Tony never wants Steve to leave his side, there are certain practical considerations involved. It turns out that the magic words to make Steve go home long enough to change his clothes, groom himself, eat something, and get a few hours of sleep are I'll let you kiss me if you shower and shave first.

The rest of the Avengers came by shortly afterward, crowding into his room in one chattering herd; the first thing Jan said was congratulations on the new boyfriend. Steve must have run into them on the way out. (Logan's comment was congratulations on not being dead, bub.) They didn't stay long, not wanting to tire him out.

Tony misses them already. Not as much as he misses Steve, though.

So now it's just Tony and the occasional nurses on their rounds. He's starting to measure time by how long it takes until the button for the pain medication works again. It's working now. He's a little floaty. He thinks maybe he should have asked Steve to bring him a StarkPad from home. Netflix would be nice right about now.

There's a knock on the door. That's fast, for Steve. Tony supposes he's highly motivated.

He clears his throat. "Come on in."

And then Batroc's standing there, a bouquet of daisies tucked under his arm. "Bonsoir," Batroc says. "Comment ça va? I have brought des fleurs pour vous."

Tony blinks at him. It takes him a few seconds to recalibrate to Okay, This Isn't Steve.

No one else has brought him flowers yet. Tony is surprisingly touched.

"On peut se tutoyer?" he asks, because he's high enough on painkillers that admitting to Batroc that he knows a fair amount of French sounds like something reasonable and like something that will absolutely never backfire if Batroc turns villain. Okay, fine, so he's not thinking much about consequences. It's just that what he wanted to know isn't something he can really ask in English.

Tony is not a hundred percent clear on how close you have to be to someone to get to call them tu but he thinks that nearly getting crushed to death by a giant dragon monster for them should count for something.

Batroc's mustache twitches as he smiles. "Tu parles très bien le français."

"It's my secret superpower," Tony tells him. "You bringing all the boys flowers now, or just me and Steve?"

Batroc sets the vase on the side table. "To him I am no longer bringing flowers," he says, simply. "To you I bring des fleurs because you have saved my life, mon ami. Je te remercie for what you have done for me." His voice is full of gratitude and sincerity.

Tony's not really sure there's ever going to be a good way to say I thought I was doing it for Steve. He decides Batroc doesn't need to know that. "You don't need to thank me," Tony says. "I'm an Avenger. It's what we do."

Turning around, Batroc leans against the table. "I know that you did it pour le capitaine," he says. There's a half-smile on his face. "Because you love him, and because you thought that the man he loved, c'était moi. Me, I am not angry. I am happy to be alive, mon ami. We should all be comme toi, so moved by passion."

Well, this is awkward. "Georges," Tony begins.

Batroc clicks his tongue. "Do not apologize, Tony," he says, and Tony thinks that this is the first time Batroc has ever used his first name. "I am here to concede."

Tony blinks. "Concede?"

"I have spoken with le capitaine," Batroc says, with another half-smile. "He has told me much. We are honorable men, yes? This is your victory. The best man has won." He spreads his hands wide. "The captain, il t'aime."

Tony is smiling again, thinking about it. "Yeah. Yeah, he does."

"I knew I would lose him to you," Batroc says. He doesn't sound particularly sad about it. "I knew he loved you. About you, il parlait toujours. If we talked about a film or a book, he would tell me if you liked it. If we ate, he would say that you had fed him such a meal before. I think he spoke more of you than he did of himself. So I knew. He did not hide his love."

Tony opens his mouth and shuts it again.

Batroc holds up one finger. "Do not think me cruel, je t'en prie. I did not know if he knew he loved you. And at first I did not know if you loved him, because I had not met you properly. So I thought perhaps you did not." He frowns contemplatively. "I thought that le capitaine et moi, we would have more time together, but I knew also that his heart, it was yours." He shrugs. "Ça ne faisait rien. I am not the marrying kind. I did not mind knowing that we would come to an end. I only thought it would be not so soon."

Tony supposes that it really has only been a few weeks. It just feels like it's been the longest month of Tony's life.

"And then I met you," Batroc continues. "And I saw how you looked at him, and I said to myself, oh, that is un homme au cœur brisé. I saw that you loved him. And I knew then that I must treat him with the greatest kindness for you, for he would be yours. But I did not know when to let him go, because I did not know if he knew his own feelings for you, do you see? I did not wish to hurt him."

Tony considers this. "He-- when I talked to him, he made it sound like it was his idea to break up with you."

Batroc tilts his hand from side to side. "It was -- how do you say in English? -- it was mutual. But I knew when it needed to happen. He had called me. He was upset about you, because he had hurt you--" Batroc mimes punching-- "and he said that you were gone, and he did not know where you were. Il avait peur. He had great fear for you."

Oh. Tony hadn't even thought about how Steve might have felt when he just disappeared. He really should have bought Steve those chocolates.

"I knew then that I must leave him," Batroc says. "For even if he did not know he loved you, I knew that I should not keep him from you. It was clear that he did not wish to be parted from you, even as a friend. We went our separate ways the next day." He holds out his hand, palm flat. "So now he is yours. I wish you all the happiness I could not give him." He smiles.

"Uh," Tony says. Words seem inadequate. "Thank you."

Batroc inclines his head, a little half-bow. "And I wish to resign from the Avengers."

Tony was expecting this, but maybe not quite so soon. There's also not really a diplomatic way to ask if Batroc is planning to return to a life of crime. And even if there were, Tony probably shouldn't be asking it while immobile in a hospital bed. He's an easy target.

"Can I ask why?" Tony says, finally.

"I know you offered to make me an Avenger to please le capitaine," Batroc says. "You wished to please him, and there is no shame in that. But I am not like him. I am not like most of you. I am only a man, mon ami. I fight, but I have no superpowers. I am not accustomed to fighting monsters. Only men." He grimaces. "And it is because of me that you are in this state. If I had not been caught unaware, you would not be here. It is my own lapse. And that, to me it is shameful."

Oh. He thinks he's a bad Avenger. Because Tony got hurt.

"Hey, no!" Tony tries to raise his spirits. "It was a mistake. It was an accident. It was literally your first day on the job. If you stayed, we could train you--"

But Batroc shakes his head and raises his hand. "I think I am not clear. I do not wish to fight monsters. It is your calling, you Avengers. It is not mine."

"It's not always monsters," Tony counters.

"Even so." Batroc is smiling again. "There is that, and there is also the fact that I am not -- how do you say? -- a team player. I served in la Légion étrangère. I learned that I am not a man who takes well to orders. I do not think I will change. I am better off alone."

He sounds like he has his mind made up, all right. "What are you going to do?"

Batroc smiles like a shark and Tony realizes that he's left him a great opportunity for a villainous monologue. But then Batroc shrugs again. "I have learned to like life on the right side of the law lately," he says, pensively. "I think perhaps I have a taste for it. You need not fear me. Besides, I have a company to run, as you do. The lonely people of New York wait for me to help them find love now," he adds, and oh, yes, Tony had forgotten about that. His dating service. "And you may call me if you have need. If les Vengeurs need help. Or if you do, avec le capitaine."

Tony raises his eyebrows. "You know, I can't actually tell if you're propositioning me for a threesome."

Batroc gives a diffident shrug. "I would if I thought you would share, but... non. Only in friendship."

Oh. Friends. Tony wonders if this is how normal people make friends. He thinks he's never actually known what normal people are like. Whatever. It works for him.

"Well, I'm definitely not sharing Steve," Tony says, feeling himself tense up at the mere thought, "but I'll share my phone number, if you want."

He recites his number, which Batroc dutifully enters into his phone.


"No problem," Tony says, which is when he realizes he doesn't have his phone at all. "Hey, could you text Steve for me?"

"D'accord," Batroc agrees. "What shall I say?"

"Can you ask him to bring me my phone? And my StarkPad?"

"But of course," Batroc says, typing away. "It is un plaisir."

Tony doesn't think he could ever have anticipated this, but that's just fine with him. For all his planning, sometimes he doesn't see the good things coming. But it doesn't mean they're not here.

The banner in the middle of the common area, which reads WELCOME HOME, TONY!, is hanging from the ceiling, suspended by three web lines through holes punched in the top. The holes have the precise spacing of Logan's claws. The neat and angular handwriting is Ororo's. But the little red-and-gold Iron Man doodle, swooping out of the corner, trailing streaks of light -- well, obviously that's Steve's work.

It was a team effort. Of course it was.

They've decided to throw him a party.

And then Tony sees the rest of what they've done. He rounds the corner and the kitchen table is covered with food. There's a WELCOME HOME cake -- Jarvis' chocolate cake, again -- a covered container of what looks like some kind of pastry, the usual chips and dip, and... all of Tony's favorite Italian comfort food. Two trays of lasagna. Baked ziti. Eggplant parmigiana. And -- oh God -- someone made him his seafood risotto. How did they know?

"I might have massacred the risotto," Steve says from next to him, a sheepish preemptive apology. "Jarvis said it was your mother's recipe so I thought maybe you'd like it? I did my best."

Tony loves this man so much.

Steve was the one who accompanied Tony home from the hospital, of course, so he's at Tony's side as the rest of the team regards them from their usual seats on the couches -- or, you know, the ceiling. Everyone is smiling at them. At him.

Tony can't believe they went to all this trouble for him. He would have been excited to eat literally anything that wasn't hospital food, but they really pulled out all the stops.

"You didn't need to do this for me," Tony says, automatically.

"Oh, hush." Jan levers herself up out of her chair and comes to his other side. "Like we didn't all want to spoil you. Come get yourself a plate, Tony. We've been waiting for you."

"Except Clint," Peter volunteers. "He's been eating the garlic bread."

"One piece!"

Jan puts her hand carefully on Tony's arm, like she thinks she's going to break him with a touch, and she urges him toward the other end of the room. Steve locks his fingers with Tony's and tugs him forward. Tony gives into the inevitable and laughs and lets himself be moved.

Everyone else kindly lets him have first crack at the table of food, but because he's determined to have some of everything, the rest of the team is done filling their plates while Tony is still trying to pry open the plastic container of mysterious pastries. When he gets it open, he discovers it's filled with pain au chocolat.

"Georges brought those," Steve volunteers, over his shoulder. "He couldn't stay. Something about being paid to take down Stilt-Man."

Wow, he really has reformed. Tony pictures Batroc kicking Stilt-Man in the head. They ought to sell tickets to that one. "I'll have one later," Tony says, and he wrestles the lid back on.

By the time he gets everything he wants on his plate and turns back around, slower than he usually moves, the only empty seat in the room is on the big couch that the team leaders -- Steve and Ororo -- have claimed for themselves. Steve's in the middle, and he's grinning widely.

"Oh dear," Tony says, and he presses his free hand to his chest. "I suppose I'll just have to sit next to Captain America."

"How terrible," Steve agrees. His mouth quivers with suppressed laughter. "How will you cope?"

"It's brutal," Tony returns. He can almost laugh again, but he's not going to push his luck. "But I'll just have to do my best."

He maneuvers around the various chairs and picks his way across the room to Steve, who is nice enough to stand up, take Tony's plate for him and set it on the coffee table, and then help him carefully sit down, an arm around his shoulders. Steve leaves his arm there, his fingers gently stroking Tony's shoulder. It's like the Classic Date Move but with all intent and zero stealth.

"You're the least subtle human being I know," Tony says, and he leans into Steve's warmth. He'll get his plate in a second. He's just going to enjoy this first. He tips his head back against Steve's shoulder. Steve is the best pillow.

"Wasn't trying to be subtle," Steve murmurs, and Tony feels the press of Steve's lips against his temple. "Really more the opposite."

"Mmm." Tony hums approvingly. "Staking a claim?"

"Showin' off my fella," Steve corrects him, vowels broadening into that old, old accent he gets when he's relaxed. He's smiling a lazy, gorgeous smile. "Everyone else can get their own."

"This one's yours." Tony feels hesitant saying it, even though Steve has spent these past weeks telling him he loves him and, for God's sake, visiting him every single day in the hospital.

"Exactly," Steve says, firmly, right here in front of the entire Avengers team, and he kisses Tony's forehead again.

The last bit of doubt in Tony evaporates. He's here. He has Steve. Everything is going to be wonderful.

Steve stretches, picks up Tony's plate from the coffee table, and hands it to him. "Here. Try the risotto?"

Tony takes a bite.

It's perfect.