It was born out of a genuine desire to help, but as with many things in his life, Tony soon finds that the situation is rapidly spiraling out of his control.
It all started because Steve had looked so goddamn sad all the time. The guy seemed to have the tendency to turn every single negative emotion inwards and Tony just couldn’t stand seeing him wound up so tight anymore, like if someone were to poke him in the wrong way he would just snap one day.
So maybe when Steve was seated at the dining table one day, shoulders hunched in on himself and a grim expression on his face, Tony’s resolve to just leave the man alone finally broke and he asked, between sips of his fifth cup of coffee of the day:
Blue eyes turned his way, ever wary and apprehensive.
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but—” Tony set his MIT mug down on the counter and took a fortifying breath. “Do you want a hug?”
Steve blinked a few times. To be fair, it was sort of a non-sequitur.
The perplexed expression taking over Steve’s features made Tony kick himself internally, because of course Steve was going to be weirded out—Tony wasn’t even sure if they were friends.
Tony swallowed with difficulty, deciding to power through for the moment despite his better judgment, “When I was little, my mom used to give me hugs when I had a bad day. I learned to ask for them from my mom from time to time, growing up, and then from Rhodey during college, and then Pepper sometimes, and I just thought— You know what, never mind, pretend I never said anything, this was stupid—”
“I—” Steve blurted out. Tony paused.
Steve was quiet for a few moments. The lines of his face crumpled up in an awful grimace, looking like it physically hurt him to speak as he gritted out, “I would like one. If you don’t mind.”
Tony blinked three times in rapid succession. Then he shuffled over awkwardly to where Steve was sitting.
“So, like, do you want to stand up or do I just lean down? Uh, which one would you prefer? Or—”
Steve took the choice entirely out of his hands when he stood up, tall body towering over Tony. He then proceeded to wrap his arms around Tony tentatively, like he wasn't sure how Tony would fit in his embrace.
Their bodies pressed up flush against one another, the dips and curves lining up perfectly. With his arms curled around Steve, Tony tightened his hold around Steve’s midriff just a little bit, the way Tony liked it when he was stressed out, physical touch grounding him in the moment and reminding him to focus on the present.
By the pleased and almost involuntary sigh Steve let out, he seemed to appreciate it, too. The cold tip of Steve’s nose brushed against the skin of his exposed collarbone as Steve curled even closer into him.
They stayed like that for a few heartbeats, soaking up each other’s warmth. Tony could even feel himself relaxing, the tension ebbing away from his muscles. Maybe he had needed the hug just as much as Steve did.
When Steve eventually pulled back to release him, he looked better. Not like he had been relieved of all of his burdens, but looking less like he was going to cave in due to the weight of the world. The line of his shoulders was less taut, like he had acquired the strength to push through at least another day.
“Thank you, Tony,” Steve said, voice all low, rough, and unmistakably earnest, blue eyes looking down at Tony in wonder. He looked like he was looking at Tony in an entirely new light and Tony was a little bit terrified to find out just exactly what kind of light that was.
After all, they had gotten off on the wrong foot, meeting under less than ideal circumstances with tensions running high.
“Steve,” Steve corrected gently with a kind smile, “please call me Steve.”
“Anytime, Steve,” he said, and found that he genuinely meant it.
Steve seemed to think that Tony had meant it, too, because after that one fateful hug, Steve sought him out for more. He became surprisingly liberal with physical affection when it came to Tony, going to him for not only more hugs but also other kinds of physical touch: claps on the back, shoulder squeezes, and in one memorable incident that Tony remembers with way too much fondness and startling clarity—hand-holding.
Well, sort of. Steve had been watching TV in the common area on one chilly evening and his face lit up the second he saw Tony walking in.
“What are you watching?” Tony asked, taking the empty seat beside him on the couch.
Steve glanced back at the TV screen. Tony took in the sight of Steve, clad in a cozy-looking brown wool sweater and a pair of grey sweatpants, his long limbs lax and back sinking into the couch. His eyes lingered on Steve’s easy smile. He seemed more relaxed, no longer looking like he had a stormy cloud looming above his head all the time. Tony thought that maybe Steve was starting to become more accustomed to the twenty-first century.
Privately, he also liked to think that maybe he had helped in some way to make Steve feel more at home at the Tower.
“I’m not sure, actually. Some animated movie.” Steve shrugged, watching the TV absentmindedly, the colorful lights from the screen reflected in his bright blue eyes.
As he spoke, he rubbed his hands together continuously, skin glistening under the lights. It was then that Tony detected a pleasant and sweet smell in the air.
“What’s that?” Tony asked, nodding at Steve’s hands.
Steve’s smile widened at the question. He leaned forward and picked up a small tube that was sitting on top of the coffee table, handing it to Tony.
“Hand cream,” he said. “Vanilla and cinnamon-scented. Bruce finds it soothing and he recommended it to me.”
“Huh.” Tony smiled, inspecting the tube of cream in his hand.
“You want some?”
“Here, I’ll apply it for you.” Steve snatched the tube out of his hands and turned sideways to face him on the couch. “Give me your hand.”
Tony did so obediently and watched as Steve squirted a generous amount of cream onto the palm of his hand. Steve began rubbing the dollop of cream around with both of his hands, spreading it all over the skin of Tony’s calloused palm—rendered sandpaper-rough from all his engineering work. He also made sure to apply the cream to Tony’s fingers, as well as the back of his palm and down to his wrist.
All the while, Tony found it oddly difficult to breathe, heart fluttering with Steve’s every touch. When he was finished with the one hand, Steve asked for the other. Dazed, Tony gave it to him.
He continued to rub cream into Tony’s hand, pouring his full attention into the simple task, making sure the cream was spread all the way to the spaces between his fingers. At one point, he paused, frowning down at a spot on Tony’s hand. Tony swallowed, nervous for some reason he couldn’t pinpoint.
“What?” Tony asked.
Steve tilted Tony’s hand wordlessly, showing him a bit of discoloration located on the webbing of his hand, between his point finger and thumb.
“Soldering iron,” Tony explained, voice tight and breathless. Steve nodded silently, but his eyes lingered on the scar for a few moments. He gently pressed on the healed burn mark with the pad of his thumb before caressing it in multiple strokes, like if he did it enough times the mark would eventually disappear.
“Sorry. I know my hands aren’t exactly the softest, what with all the work I do in the workshop.” Tony flexed his fingers, feeling more than a little bit self-conscious under Steve’s scrutiny.
Steve maneuvered Tony’s hand so that it was stacked atop his own, palm facing up.
“Not soft, no.” Steve shook his head, agreeing with Tony. Using the index finger of his other hand, he began to trace the lines of Tony’s palm.
Then his lips curved up into a soft smile, eyes following the movements of his own finger across Tony’s hand.
“But really pretty,” he whispered, voice hushed. Steve looked at him then, warm blue eyes holding his gaze steadily. “I think your hands are beautiful, Tony.”
Tony distinctly remembers the way he floundered for a few painful seconds, struggling to come up with a coherent reply, before eventually choking out a feeble “thanks”.
That moment lingered in his mind for days afterward, and Tony started to find himself unable to stop his own mind from wandering toward thoughts of Steve on a daily basis, like the man himself had moved in permanently and taken up residence in Tony’s head.
When Tony’s heart couldn’t stop doing somersaults in his chest after Steve had ambushed him with a random hug one morning as the man made his way to the elevator for his run, Tony decided that all of this had to stop.
That is how he finds himself standing in front of Steve’s bedroom, trying to build up the courage to knock on Steve’s door to tell him that he has to start going to someone else for his fix of physical comfort, because Tony just can’t offer it to him anymore without feeling increasingly like he is taking advantage of Steve, greedily savoring every touch that Steve has been innocently giving him.
It doesn’t take a genius to understand that what Steve needs is physical touch in general for the sake of comfort, and not necessarily from Tony in particular. Steve just seeks him out because Tony is the one person that has given him explicit permission to do so, the one that has offered him physical affection in the first place.
Tony inhales deeply to calm his nerves and squeezes his eyes shut. His raised fist is about to rap on the door when said door opens abruptly from the inside. Tony takes a few steps back in surprise. Steve blinks at the sight of Tony, equally as taken aback.
“Tony? What are you doing here?”
“I just— I— Um. That is, I was, uh—”
Tony stills when Steve gathers him into his arms, pulling him close. Steve buries his face in the crook of Tony’s neck, breathing him in before sighing in relief.
“What great timing. I’m having a terrible day. I was just about to go and find you,” Steve confesses, voice muffled, nose and lips brushing against the delicate skin just above Tony’s collarbone. That combined with the tickling sensation of his warm breath has Tony holding his breath and clenching his jaw to fight an inappropriate shiver from running down his spine.
Tony’s heart is racing in his chest, blood is rushing in his ears, and he can definitely feel his palms starting to get clammy with sweat.
“Actually, Steve,” Tony squeaks, “I need you to let me go.”
Steve tenses almost immediately around him, muscles locking tight. Slowly, he releases Tony. When Tony pulls back, he gets a clear look at the evident confusion and concern playing out on Steve’s face.
“I’m sorry, did I hurt you somewhere?” Steve’s eyes travel down Tony’s body, looking for signs of injury.
“No,” Tony says as he shakes his head with a shaky exhale, “it’s nothing like that.”
Steve’s eyebrows draw even closer together. “What’s wrong?”
“I… don’t think I can do this anymore.”
Steve continues to stare at him, eyes unblinking.
“The hugs,” Tony clarifies, the two words leaving his mouth in a rush.
Steve blinks, processing the information. His mouth opens and closes quietly, like he doesn’t know what to say.
“Oh,” Steve breathes. Tony thinks he catches a flash of hurt in Steve’s eyes.
Concern immediately floods back into his eyes. “I’m sorry, Tony. Did I make you uncomfortable? In any way, at all?”
You made me too comfortable, Tony thinks.
“No. Uh, it’s not you, it’s me,” he says, and then winces at his choice of words. He averts his gaze, looking at Steve’s chest instead. The weight of Steve’s blue eyes has started to become too much to handle. “I… Uh. It’s just that. I’ve started. Developing feelings. For you.”
After a few seconds of silence, he chances a look up at Steve and finds the man staring at him with an intense look on his face.
Tony quickly drops his eyes back to Steve’s chest. To his horror, he begins to ramble, “Non-friendly feelings for you. I mean, not non-friendly in the sense that I dislike you, because I like you. It’s, uh. More in the sense that I like you... too much. I have feelings. Of the— The non-platonic kind. And, uh, yeah. There. Sorry. I really didn’t want to make things awkward between us.”
Steve continues to say nothing.
Steve chuckles. Tony’s head snaps up. Upon catching Tony’s eyes, Steve bites back a grin.
“What— Are you laughing at me? Is this funny to you?” Tony asks, quickly crossing the line from nervous and embarrassed to offended. Tony is putting himself in a vulnerable position for the sake of their friendship, okay? He is trying to do the right thing here. He expected a polite and painful rejection, but laughter?
“No, no,” Steve says in between chuckles that manage to slip out despite his best efforts, “please don’t be mad. I just—”
“What?” Tony interrupts, unimpressed.
“I’ve, uh… The truth is, I’ve been finding excuses to touch you for months now,” Steve admits sheepishly, cheeks tinged a soft pink. His gaze drops down to the floor. “At first, I really did look forward to your hugs because they brought me comfort. They calmed me down, made me feel better. But then you kept being so sweet and kind, always checking in on me, making sure I’m okay, even when you don’t have to. And you’re so funny, Tony. You make me laugh even on my worst days, when it seems impossible to, and I just…”
The words trail off and Steve shrugs before meeting Tony’s eyes bashfully.
“After a while, you just made it impossible for me not to fall for you.”
Tony blinks, heart in his throat. It doesn’t feel real, hearing that he can affect someone else in the way Steve just described.
Steve swallows, stepping closer to Tony. Carefully, he cradles Tony’s cheeks in his hands.
“You make me really happy, Tony.” Steve looks down at him, sincerity gleaming in his azure eyes. “And I’d be over the moon if you’d be willing to give me the chance to try to make you as happy as you’ve made me.”
Tony’s throat clicks. When he remembers to breathe again, he replies:
“I’d— Love to,” Tony whispers, low voice fraught with emotion. “I’d really like that.”
When Steve’s lips melt sweetly against his, Tony feels him smile into the kiss, the first of a thousand more to come.