Tony was having flashbacks—not the Afghanistan flashbacks, or even the alien invasion wormhole flashbacks where all the air was sucked from his lungs and he was falling, falling, falling through the nothingness of space (though the feeling was similar), but the 'I love you' flashbacks. Those cold but vivid memories of being five years old and telling his father 'I love you, dad' and being met with drunken silence; fourteen and whispering it between stolen kisses to his first real girlfriend before they were separated forever; in college and still in love even as he watched his latest 'one' steal Stark industries' research out from under him and dump him the second she had what she needed; biting his tongue to keep from yelling 'I love you' as Pepper walked away for the last time, her heels tapping on the floor of his workshop, soon just an echo in the distance.
For all his insistence that he was better off alone and a long string of one night stands were all he needed to get by, when Tony fell, he fell hard, and he "fell" far more often than he would have liked. Affection was all too rare in his life—not the affection of a few stolen moments between the sheets, but true, genuine affection—the kind that saw daylight, and shared fries in Central Park, and watched stupid movies together at 2am.
After Pepper, Tony had given up trying.
And yet here he was, six months into a sort-of relationship with Steve—the last person on Earth he ever would have expected to put up with him in a relationship, and perhaps the only person who actually could. Steve stood in front of him, all worried eyes and earnest expression, waiting, after having just said the three words Tony never really expected to ever hear again: I love you.
"Tony?" he said tentatively.
Tony blinked. "Just give me a minute," he managed.
Steve nodded and resumed stirring whatever it was he was cooking on the stove. And that—that right there—was the problem. They hadn't even been doing anything romantic; caught up in a night on the town, music playing and their bodies pressed together on the dance floor, and sure, an 'I love you' might just slip out—Tony could handle that. He was no stranger to word vomit, and it might hurt, but he could have let it go, could have pushed it to the back of his mind and pretended it didn't exist with all the other dreams he'd given up on, all the things he wanted that he could never have.
Steve, for all his warm smiles and talks of the future, had always been firmly slotted in that category. When it came to things he couldn't have, Steve was number one, the big shining trophy that he could pretend didn't exist all he wanted when he was alone, but that was quite impossible to ignore when they lived in the same building—even harder when Steve started spending more and more time down in Tony's lab. And that was unexplainable variable number two: the mass amounts of "them" time.
Even when they were dating, Pepper had never come down to his workshop. Though she breached his not-so-secret secret space for situations she deemed important or dire enough (like that month he'd missed every board meeting in a row), she'd always complained that it was too much of a 'man cave,' too loud and too messy, and even if she had liked it, she never had the time. She liked to do her work in her office, and there was always work to do.
Steve, too, had his own projects to finish, but whether it be paperwork for the Avengers or a sketchpad thrown over his lap, he tended, more often than not, to do it in the workshop. Never interrupting, never demanding conversation until Tony initiated it (which was usually when his coffee ran out or he lost his gusto on a project), Steve could sit for hours, drawing silently and playing with Dum-E and the other bots. When Tony left the workshop, Steve was there too—the two exploring the city to help familiarize Steve with the twenty first century; the two arguing out on the field, the two sharing fries in Central Park and watching stupid movies at 2am when neither of them could sleep.
Of course, Tony wanted it to be love, but unless it was for sale, Tony rarely got what he wanted. So he'd pushed that idea away, and even when they'd started sleeping together, he'd convinced himself they were simply friends with benefits, that even super soldiers got lonely and horny, and the kisses were just an added bonus (a bonus that he'd trade his kidney, his soul, and his firstborn son not to lose). And if Steve didn't leave after sex, if he pulled Tony tight against his chest and fell asleep with his arms draped around Tony's body, well, then he told himself Steve was just a very affectionate fuck-buddy. And if three months went by and Tony couldn't remember a single moment not spent in the super soldier's company, if four months hit and the papers were reporting that they were dating and no one corrected them, five months and Steve never slept in his own bed anymore, well Tony never put it together and thought: hey, six months, that'll be it, that'll make it real, that'll be 'I love you.'
That morning, for one thing, had not been romantic. There had been no dancing, no music, no magic in the air (at least, he hoped not; they hadn't seen Loki in weeks, and a love potion would really be an all time low for the trickster). Their morning had included nothing more significant than making breakfast—Steve standing over the oven, and Tony sitting at the bar, moaning into a fresh cup of coffee with adoring enthusiasm. Steve had laughed and said it, just like that, three little worlds plucked out of the blue, no context, no explanation, no sufficient data to explain: "I love you."
It wasn't like Tony didn't want it to be true, wasn't as though he hadn't been dreaming for it, hoping for it since the first time he'd realized his own feelings for the man. From the second Steve became more than Captain America, more than just his friend, Tony had been weighing those three little words on his tongue for every moment they were together, wondering, hoping, wishing they could mean something this time when they never had before. 'I love you's, Tony had learned, came and went, and his heart had taken far too much abuse to watch it go again.
"What do you mean?" he asked finally.
Steve eyed him skeptically over the top of his spatula. "What do I mean by 'I love you'? Well, love comes form a latin word meaning to be pleasing, so I guess it means your presence in my life pleases me, and I'd like to keep it that way."
Steve might have the rest of the world fooled into thinking he was an All-American saint, but all Tony ever got was sass.
"I mean," Tony said, "What do you define love as, Captain Know It All. Do you love living in my rent free tower? Do you love that I'm the best sex you'll ever have—"
"Tony—" Steve began in a rather reprimanding tone.
Tony pressed on. "Don't deny it. Do you—"
Steve cut him off. "I wasn't going to. The sex is fantastic. I have enough backpay to pay you rent doubled, if that's what you want. Tony, I love you. Just you. Not your money, not your tower, and while I'm a very big of your body and I don't really want the sex to stop any time soon, I'd happily go without it for the rest of my life just to wake up next to you every morning."
He dropped the spatula on the counter and turned off the stove, letting the eggs go cold—a rare occurrence for any of their breakfasts. Stepping forward, Steve cupped Tony's face in his hands, his touch unbearably tender. "I love you. And you don't have to say it back. I didn't say it to freak you out or to push you into a corner. You can say it when you're ready, and if you never are, then that's a bridge we'll cross when we get to it. I said it because you deserve to know. I said it because I'm not going anywhere, and I'm not changing my mind. So what do I define love as?" Steve shrugged and pressed a soft kiss to Tony's cheek. "I define it as that way you wrinkle up your nose when a project isn't going right, or the way you fall asleep on top of your desk and still look surprised when you wake up in bed, or the way you treat a cup of coffee like an orgasm."
Tony snorted. "I love when you talk dirty." He didn't mention the funny things his heart was doing, like it was beating overtime and swelling in his chest, too warm, too right.
"Tony." Steve rolled his eyes then smiled anyway. "You okay?"
"Okay?" Tony raised an eyebrow. "What, did you think I was going to freak out or something?"
"You did freak out," Steve pointed out.
"That was not freaking out! That was…thinking."
"Whatever you say, sweetheart."
This time, Steve kissed him full on the mouth, and Tony melted into the sensation, his lips parting to welcome that first touch of Steve's tongue.
"I love you too, you know," Tony said when, breathless, they both pulled away.
Steve smiled. "I know."