“You’re picturing Tony in that outfit, aren’t you?” Clint sounds smug.
Heat curls up Steve’s neck and into his ears. “Yes,” he admits, strangled. He and the rest of the Avengers—minus Tony—are in the front row at the 2014 Stark Expo welcome event in a specially roped off area just for them.
Natasha smirks. “Oh, he has his own Ironette costume, take my word for it. Play your cards right, Cap.”
“I didn’t need to know that,” Bruce says from Steve’s left. Steve has no response because he’s pretty sure his brain is dribbling out of his ears.
Tony had invited them to the Stark Expo under the guise of all of them needing a vacation, but he’s been working night and day for months to prepare for the Expo and Steve knows he’s proud of what’s being presented. A few years ago they'd have all assumed—except maybe Natasha—that Tony genuinely didn't care what they think about his work, but these days they know better.
So they're here with him in Los Angeles to show their support.
On stage, the Ironettes swivel their hips as one and Steve pictures Tony doing the same in those tiny, shiny shorts. His ears go blisteringly hot.
His crush is getting seriously out of control.
When Tony's welcome ends, they make their way through the crowd to the back of house to meet up with him for dinner. Tony's brief speech had been electrifying and the audience fills the arena with an infectious buzz as they trickle out to join the opening night party.
“You know, I got pretty good at this flashy stuff during the USO tours, but I was never anything like Tony.”
“You find him dazzling, we know,” Thor says, with only a hint of exasperation. Steve's only a little embarrassed. Tony's incredible. He's not ashamed to let people know he thinks so. Even if his friends are maybe a little sick of hearing it.
The security guard at the curtain checks each of their IDs carefully before allowing them back.
Behind the curtain, it's like seeing Fury at the grocery store. All the polish and glamour is replaced with severe practical scaffolding and wires everywhere you look. Strange and not meant to be seen.
Bruce's shoulders relax a little now they're out of the crush of the massive crowd.
Steve spots Tony on the far side of the stage by a stack of black equipment cases. There's a man with sandy blond hair holding Tony by the neck with both hands as he kisses his cheeks and that seems normal enough until Tony plants his hands on the other man's chest and shoves him backward. Tony's face is twisted with anger.
“SECURITY!” he shouts and Steve breaks into a run.
He flies across the space, but security gets to the blond before he can, so he redirects and skids to a stop in front of Tony instead. He reaches out, then stops before actually touching Tony. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, fine,” Tony says breezily, letting his elbow press into Steve's open hand. “I'm good. I just hate that guy.” With permission to touch, Steve isn't shy about checking to make sure Tony's really okay. His neck is a little red. Apparently, the other man had a good grip on him. Steve huffs, aggravated.
“Have a good time tonight, Anthony!” the blond calls in a nasally voice as Tony's security drag him out of the room. Steve glares after him.
“Goodbye, Justin! See you never!” Tony retorts.
“What the hell was he doing here?” Natasha demands as she and the others catch up.
Tony sighs. “Being a pain in my ass.”
“You know him too?” Steve says.
“We've met.” Natasha's mouth pulls into a wry line.
“Kinda grabby, huh?” Clint says.
“Yeah,” Tony agrees, rubbing his jaw. “Not usually a kisser, but it's been awhile.” He gives a full body shudder and shakes himself. “God, that guy. Can't believe he got in here. Anyway.” He swipes his hands downward. “Time for dinner, right?”
“Aye,” Thor says, “now we feast!”
Steve takes the lead, keeping an eye out for anyone headed their direction and Tony falls back to walk with Natasha, the two of them talking in low voices.
“Wasn't he in jail?” Tony's muttering, annoyance thick in his voice. He goes with it easily when Natasha gently pushes his chin to the side, peering at his neck. “I feel like I need a shower.”
“He was. Released for good behavior.”
“Good be—you're shitting me.”
“I wish I was.”
They're ushered through a back hallway in the building and step out into the cool Los Angeles evening air to find their limo and Happy waiting for them.
“Hi, Boss,” Happy greets, cheerfully. “Everybody.”
“Hi, Happy,” they reply in a disjointed chorus. They pile into the limo. Steve's mildly embarrassed by the way everyone leaves him a space next to Tony, but he's also grateful. He loves being in Tony's orbit.
“Your presentation was great, Tony. You're something else on stage.”
Tony smiles at him and then tips his head to the side, letting his cheek rest on Steve's shoulder. Warmth flushes through Steve's belly. “Thanks, Steve. Glad you think so.”
“I don't know how you do it.”
Tony huffs a laugh. “Practice. Lots and lots of practice. I used to be able to do stuff like that wasted, too.” He trails off thoughtfully.
Steve turns his head, trying to inhale the warm, metallic scent of Tony without being obvious about it, but he catches Bruce's eyes over Tony's head and feels his face go hot. He doesn’t have long to be embarrassed though. They’re only crossing a street to get to their hotel across from the convention center and they’ve already arrived.
Everyone piles back out of the limo and then into the garage elevator. Their dinner reservation is at a restaurant on one of the upper floors.
Tony starts to act strange not long after they’re escorted to the rooftop patio. Steve makes a joke, something dumb about LA versus New York, and Tony giggles like Steve's said something actually funny. He leans into Steve's shoulder, the way he used to when he still got drunk regularly. Steve has mixed feelings about it. He doesn’t like it when Tony drinks, but he misses how physically affectionate Tony had been when he drank.
“Tony, have you had a drink?” Steve asks.
Tony pulls his head back, frowning, and his hand comes off of Steve’s arm. “No,” he says sharply. “I’m sober.”
“Okay,” Steve says. He believes him. “You’re handsy tonight, that’s all.”
Slower than usual, Tony blinks. “Am I?” He looks down at his hands, then draws back further, the anger on his face turning to worry. “Is it bothering you?”
Steve catches his arm before he can back away too far. “No. Tony, it’s fine. Just something I noticed that’s all.” He glances down at his hand on Tony’s arm. The warmth of Tony’s skin feels… His hand flexes.
Tony looks up at him, his eyes seeming bigger than usual, gleaming in the patio lights. His eyelashes are so beautiful.
Tony shifts, and it’s like Steve can feel it through his whole body, even though they’re only touching at the one spot.
“Hey, you guys gonna dish up or what?” Clint says, waggling a silver kettle with a narrow spout. Tony raises an eyebrow at Clint, making no move to take it, so Steve does.
Clint is apparently the most familiar with how to eat this food, so Steve watches him to see what's next. Clint has another kettle and he's pouring a golden yellow liquid into a glass bottle Thor is holding out. It has a long narrow neck and a wide, round base that makes Steve think of the volumetric beakers in Bruce's lab. There's one in front of each of their plates. Natasha, on his right, holds out hers first, so Steve fills it, careful to touch the spout to the tiny opening of the bottle. He fills it to the top, same as Clint's doing, feeling Nat's hand on his lower back. Everyone's a little handsy tonight, apparently. He moves to fill Tony's next and Clint catches hold of the kettle, pushing it back.
“Not for him. You want tea or coffee, Tony?”
“Why'd I ask?” Clint says with a grin and raises his hand, pointing at Tony's place. “Can we get a coffee for this guy?”
The waiter nods and whisks away the little glass bottle, disappearing back inside.
Steve pauses, realizing the drink must be alcoholic. He glances around the table. “Hey, this is okay with you, Tony?”
“Huh? Oh, sure. This stuff isn't really my thing. Too sweet. Go on. Enjoy.”
Reassured that they're not making things unnecessarily difficult on Tony, Steve pours some for himself.
The waiter returns with Tony’s coffee and a companion, who carries a massive round silver tray covered in piles of bright colored food. Behind him is another guy with six plates carefully balanced on both arms. Those have rolls of something thin and brown. Up close, it kind of reminds Steve of a crepe.
The big platter is set down in the middle of the table and Clint and Tony immediately dive in, tearing off chunks of the thin brown sheets and pinching a bit of whatever’s closest to pop in their mouths.
Tony groans and it feels like Steve’s hair stands on end. “That’s good. It’s been years, oh my god.”
Clint reaches across the table to feed his second bite to Natasha.
Steve wants to do that, to feed something into Tony's mouth, and he flushes hot at the thought. Instead, he digs in, copying Clint and Tony and pinching some of the food between a scrap of the brown sheet from his own plate and popping the whole thing in his mouth. The flavor is intense, completely taking over his tongue, followed by the tangy flavor of the pancake-like stuff. It's unlike anything Steve's ever eaten, despite some of the familiar flavors.
Tony presses his knee into Steve's thigh, leaning close. He's smiling. “What do you think?”
“It's—wow. Intense. Good.”
Tony grins, eyes crinkling. “It is, isn't it?”
“You've had it before?”
“Years ago. We were doing a business deal in Ethiopia. Clint's obviously had more experience,” he says, raising his voice to carry across the table.
Clint swallows a mouthful and shrugs. “I lived in Ethiopia for like, two years.”
“I'm pretty sure that's still classified,” Nat says mildly.
“Everyone at this table is classified,” Clint points out.
“Hear hear,” Tony says, lifting his glass and everyone laughs, but they all lift their glasses too.
After swallowing some of the sweet yellow drink, Steve says, “You know, someday it'd be nice to go somewhere just to, y'know. Go. Instead of going for a fight.”
“You don't even go to the grocery store without going for a fight,” Nat drawls and Steve rolls his eyes at her.
Clint hoots. “'I'll pick up a couple brawls on my way home, maybe a tussle.'”
Thor grins. “Our Steve is always ready.”
“Har har,” Steve says dryly.
Tony nudges Steve's elbow. “I'll take you anywhere you want to go, you know that, don't you, Cap? Seriously. Anywhere. You name the place, you name the time.” Tony puts a hand on his thigh and Steve feels it all the way down to his toes, up into his scalp. The palm of Tony's hand is hot, radiating through Steve's pants, feeling like a small sun against his leg. Steve's tongue suddenly feels too big for his mouth.
Tony licks his lips, sweat glittering at his hairline. He blinks and then his eyes pinch slightly at the corners. “I...feel strange.”
Steve frowns and turns in his seat to face Tony more fully. “You are flushed.” He cups a hand around Tony's shoulder and a juddering gasp slips from Tony's mouth, his eyes going even darker. He licks his lips again and Steve's stomach flutters.
“Sorry,” Tony mumbles, hand tightening a little around Steve's thigh, “'m touching you again.”
“I'm touching you, too,” Steve points out. Part of him recognizes that his hand has moved from Tony's shoulder to his neck and that that's...an awful lot closer than he usually gets, but he can't make himself let go.
“Yeah,” Tony murmurs, eyelids falling to half mast. “Feels good.” Then he shudders suddenly and, grimacing, scoots away from Steve on the bench.
It hurts, twisting in Steve's gut more powerfully than it should.
“Shit,” Tony says, stretching his face. “Shit, Steve, I think you're right.”
“Right about what?” Steve asks, his stomach falling unpleasantly when his hand disconnects from Tony's neck.
“I think I'm drunk. Well, not drunk—drugged. I think someone dosed me with something.”
Natasha presses up against Steve from behind to look around his shoulder and the ugly feeling in Steve's stomach recedes. “Dosed you with something?”
“I don't feel right,” Tony says again and the hand that's been burning steadily against Steve's thigh for the better part of the last few minutes pulls away. Tony groans, but Steve has a hard time focusing on that because his leg feels cold and aching in its wake. Tony puts his hand back and it's like dipping his leg into a Jacuzzi—hot and instantly soothing.
“Shit,” Tony says. “Yeah, definitely dosed me with something.”
Natasha pushes to her feet and moves behind Steve, one of her hands staying on his shoulder even as she cups Tony's chin, tilting his face upward. “What kind of something?”
Tony leans into her touch. “Feel kinda drunk. Kinda not. Touching feels really good. Hurts when I stop touching Steve.”
“Hurts, huh?” Nat says. Her mouth twists with displeasure. “Sounds like a disinhibitor with some kind of tactile response.”
“That sounds like spy for 'sex pollen'.”
Natasha shrugs one shoulder. “If you want to be a huge nerd about it.”
Tony sticks his tongue out at her.
“Maybe we should go back to the hotel,” Bruce says.
Nodding, Tony says, “Yeah. Let's do that. JARVIS can do a scan and see what's up.”
They gather their things and Steve takes care of the bill. Thankfully, they don't have far to go—they're staying just a few floors up. The staff is obviously confused by their early departure from their dinner, but they don't ask any questions. Natasha plasters herself to Tony's side as they trek up to his room. Steve feels like he did after the plane crash, cold and aching everywhere, but he grits his teeth and pushes through it.
Back in Tony's room, everyone spreads out. Thor makes himself at home on the settee in the lounge while Tony and Natasha move over to where Tony's luggage is sitting on a rack at the foot of his bed. Steve wants to follow them, but he crosses his arms tightly over his chest and mashes down the urge. Clint hops up on the desk where he can watch everyone and Bruce follows behind all of them, his eyes moving carefully around the room.
“JARVIS,” Tony says, “body scan.”
“Scanning, sir,” JARVIS acknowledges.
Steve puts his back to the wall, trying to keep himself still. Everyone is quiet while JARVIS runs the scan. After the light passes over Tony's body, he reaches out and puts his thumb against the keypad. A second later he draws back, sucking his thumb into his mouth.
“Scan complete,” JARVIS says. “Sir’s heart rate and respiration are slightly elevated. UV scan indicates areas with an unusual powder substance, mainly concentrated on the face and hands. Blood analysis shows elevated dopamine levels.”
“What if you stop touching?” Bruce asks.
Tony grimaces and Natasha's expression goes a little flatter, but they separate and JARVIS repeats the process while they huddle there unhappily.
“Your heart and respiration rates have accelerated significantly,” he reports. “Dopamine levels have plummeted.”
“Yeah, not feeling great,” Tony mutters. “Nat?”
Steve bites his cheek. He aches all over, the cold still clinging to his bones.
Natasha reaches out and takes Tony's hand and Tony sags, stepping toward her. She strokes his face. “That wasn't so bad.”
Tony laughs, but the sound is a little wet. Steve's stomach clenches and he sways forward before he gets himself back under control.
His lapse doesn't go unnoticed.
“Are you also affected?” Thor asks and every eye in the room turns toward Steve.
Steve flushes. “I'm fine.”
Bruce raises an eyebrow. “That's not what he asked.”
“Oh my god, of course you're not fine. You're the first one who touched me after Hammer grabbed me!”
“You think that's when it happened?” Nat says.
“JARVIS said there was a powder on my face and hands. I bet it got on me after he put his scummy face all over mine and then I rubbed it and voila.”
“I touched your face after that,” Natasha realizes aloud. “I think you're right.”
“I'm always right. Steve, get over here,” he says imperiously. “You've gotta feel like shit.”
“I...” Steve doesn't move, feeling the weight of everyone's eyes and, worse, the weight of the idea of touching Tony the way Natasha is now, her fingers stroking the hair at the back of his neck, and… His heart speeds up, juddering in his chest.
“Steve. Come on.” Tony holds out a hand and Steve stares at it.
“I don't...think that's a good idea,” he finally manages to get out.
Steve looks at Nat, feeling panic crawl up the back of his neck. She regards him for a moment and then says, “Thor. You'll sit with him, won't you?”
“Of course, anything you require,” Thor says.
Tony's face folds slowly, hurt buckling his mouth.
Steve's gut twists painfully. “It's not like that—”
Tony shrugs one shoulder. “It's fine, it's whatever, I'm not gonna twist your arm.”
Thor puts a hand on the back of Steve's neck, cupping it, his thumb stroking the tendon in Steve's neck and the relief, the instant flood of it, nearly takes his legs out from under him.
“Don't do that,” he hears Natasha murmur and Steve looks up to see Tony with his head bowed, hands in his hair.
His voice is low, but Steve can still hear when he mutters, “He doesn't even want to get close to me when it hurts.”
“Of course I do!” Steve blurts and then goes stock still, mouth still open. Tony and Natasha's gazes turn toward him.
“Rude,” Tony mutters, but he just looks tired.
Steve can't stand that look on his face and the words just keep coming. “I can't—not, not when I'm like this, Tony. It takes all I've got to stop myself on a normal day. I can't do it with this in my system.”
“Stop yourself—stop yourself from what?” But before anyone can answer, his expression transforms, oh shit, so clear on his face it may as well be written across his forehead.
Steve covers his face, shoulders hunching. “This is not how I wanted you to find out,” he says stiffly.
“Oh my god, this is need to know information,” Tony exclaims. “And all of you knew, didn't you!”
“We were sworn to secrecy,” Bruce says mildly, and Steve winces.
“Oh my god! Okay. Okay, fine, this is fine. That's...hey, look at me.”
Steve can't resist the order in Tony's voice, so he raises his eyes.
Tony points a finger at him. “We are going to talk about this later. Extensively.” His eyes are dark again, intense, and Steve swallows, a hot stone settling in his stomach. He nods. “But right now, we're gonna cuddle over here and you guys are gonna cuddle over there and we're going to watch a movie and wait this out.”
Clint holds out his hands to Bruce. “Snuggle buddies?”
“Hulk likes being the little spoon,” Bruce replies, very seriously. The tension is gone, broken as easy as that.
As they get settled in to watch the movie, Steve glances over and catches Tony's eye again. Tony gives him a tiny smile and Steve's stomach flips. He wriggles deeper under Thor's arm, the warmth and weight of it washing through him in vibrating waves of contentment and he sees Tony frown. Nat pinches Tony's leg.
Steve breaks into a grin, too buoyed by Tony's attention and the substance to even think of smothering it.
He's going to play his cards very right.