The third time, the world almost exploded.
At least, Tony's almost did.
It was after a battle. A long one, a hard one, one that left a whole block leveled and a cloud of smoke sky-high hanging over New York City. Doom had created the next big machine thinking it would be the one to finally do them in.
The scary thing was how close it had come.
But it hadn't. They'd taken down the small army of Doombots and what Tony had dubbed the Mega-Doombot-From-Hell v.143, people had cheered, and they all breathed a sigh of relief.
Only for it to catch in their collective heaving chests as they realized they were one Avenger short. Steve was nowhere to be found, not Star or colored stripe of him. Naturally, Tony had panicked. He'd stayed calm, but he'd panicked.
It was kind of one of those things you just had to see.
There was no telling how many piles of rubble they'd turned over, thinking Steve might've gotten trapped under one when everything was falling. They were all calling for him, searching for him.
Finally, after what felt like the longest five minutes of Tony's life, Thor caught a flash of blue through a haze of concrete dust by a hole in the building. And when Steve emerged from it, scuffed up and filthy, but alive, Tony, could've kissed him.
Actually…he did. Kiss him, that is. He ran up to him, grabbed his dust- and blood- and soot-smeared face and laid one on him. Months of pent-up affection and frustration poured into the contact in equal force, and Tony knew in that moment that this time, he had gone too far.
Still, the right hook was…unexpected.
Not just to Tony, either. As Steve stormed off with, if not all, then at least most of his usual poise, every other Avenger watched in stunned silence.
Well, every Avenger except Hawkeye. Clint, for one, was shooting Tony a look of "I told you so" so hard it was a wonder it wasn't audible. Kindly, not a one of them said a word as they cleared the scene.
That had been three hours ago. In those three hours, Tony had cleaned up, fixed his suit, made sure his suit was fixed, and just generally done everything he could think of not to think of Steve.
He knew he shouldn't have done what he did. It wasn't that he regretted it – Tony Stark didn't believe in regret – he just probably could've done something differently. Better. He'd let his heart get ahead of his mind, and he'd done something that even he would admit was inappropriate.
Admittedly, it wasn't going very well, this whole "not thinking of Steve" thing. Especially with his split lip. Every time he got a taste of copper on his tongue, it was a reminder, not just of what the fist had felt like, but the lips before it. It was a reminder of how it had felt, finally kissing Steve Rogers. Firm lips, warm, salty from the sweat but otherwise tasting of something so uniquely Steve that he couldn't hope to describe it.
See? Not going so great.
Scowling, Tony tried to turn his attention back to the task at hand: dissecting Doom's new toy. Normally, he went at this kind of thing with all the enthusiasm of a middle schooler cutting into his first fetal pig, but…
Well, he was having trouble getting excited over anything, as it were.
He'd just finished taking apart the last of the outer casings when he felt a strange tickle on the back of his neck. It was the same feeling he got when someone was watching.
Instinctively, he turned around, and to his wrench-dropping surprise, found himself looking at the last person he'd expected to see.
Steve was leaning against the door to his workshop, arms crossed in another one of those plaid abominations he called shirts. His eyes were fixed straight on Tony, even when Tony caught him staring, and though his shoulders sank a little and his gaze flicked downwards briefly, he didn't really move.
For the longest moment, blue matched brown, and neither man blinked.
Finally, though, Steve seemed to come to a decision. Pushing off the wall, he closed a little bit of the distance between them with steps trying so hard to be casual it was almost uncomfortable to watch.
"Is the lip okay?" he said. Again, trying to be casual.
Tony ran his tongue over the inside of his lip. "That depends," he said thoughtfully. "Are you going to feel guilty if I say no?"
"Honestly?" It should have been ridiculous, a grown man (and a soldier at that) looking anything like a kicked puppy, but…well, that just about summed it up. "Yes."
"Well then," Tony said, leaning back in his chair and donning one of his most winning grins. It still didn't come close to the white-toothed, aw-shucks grin Steve had in his arsenal, but it served its purpose. "Yes."
Clearly, that wasn't the answer Steve was expecting. He looked surprised for a second, but quickly recovered with suspicion in the second act. "Are you just saying that so I don't feel guilty?"
What? There was no sense lying to the guy.
Besides, it actually got a bit of a chuckle out of him. Put him at ease a little, and he actually made it all the way around the table, coming to sit on the edge of it in front of Tony. His legs were long enough that his feet stayed flat on the ground, and Tony scooted his stool back to give him room.
"I'm sorry," Steve said.
Tony must have looked as confused as he felt, because Steve felt the need to elaborate.
"For punching you, I mean. I shouldn't…I shouldn't have hit you like that. I just..." He trailed off, shrugging like he couldn't think of anything else to say.
Blinking, Tony tried to process what Steve had said. He had just apologized. Steve had just apologized to him.
"All things considered," he said when he finally found his words again, "I think Legolas was right."
Tony could almost hear the whistle as what he said flew straight over Steve's head.
"I deserved it," he said by way of explanation. "Got a great right hook on you, by the way." To emphasize his point, he felt around his swollen lip. It was still bleeding a little, mostly because he couldn't seem to stop chewing on it.
"I kissed you." Because for some reason, Tony felt that needed to be said. "I think you're entitled to a little overreaction."
A flush rose to Steve's cheeks, and as if he hadn't been uncomfortable enough before…he looked a lot like a teenager trying to work up the guts to ask his crush to the dance.
But Tony held up a hand. "Listen, Steve, if you just came here to apologize—"
Though not quite a right hook, the pair of lips that crashed into his own were just as unexpected. Awkward, desperate, and entirely too short, the kiss lasted all of about half a second before Steve pulled back.
Things were silent for a moment, Steve gauging Tony's reaction and Tony…well, Tony was kind of trying to figure out his reaction, too. Had Steve just—was that a—had they-?
"I can honestly say I did not see that coming."
Steve narrowed his eyes. "If you're not going to be serious…" Steve turned to leave.
"No," Tony said quickly, practically jumping out of his stool and turning Steve back around. "No. I'm serious. Serious as a heart attack, I swear to gods." Because considering he personally knew two, the plurality was only fair. "I just…wasn't expecting that, what with the whole 'I kissed you, you decked me' thing."
"I said I was sorry." Cue kicked puppy round 2, and Tony wondered idly if it would be morally questionable to harness the power of that expression and turn it against their enemies. Even the most heartless of those bastards wouldn't stand a chance.
He waved his hand dismissively. "Like it never happened," he said. "Except, you know, it did. And I meant it, when I kissed you. And I'm thinking you meant it just now when you kissed me." The thought of it made his heart beat a little faster. "That said, I'm thinking you also meant it when you punched me, and not that I hold it against you, but I'd kind of like to know why. My ego demands an explanation for all the shut downs and cold shoulders."
Tony shrugged. "I could've said my concern for you. Both are true, I just figured you'd have an easier time getting your head around the ego explanation."
Steve seemed to consider the point, and apparently found it sound.
"So, let's hear it," Tony said. "What makes me enemy number one every time I try to get close to you?"
"You're not the enemy," Steve said quickly.
"So you bust the lips of all your love interests? It's no wonder you're so popular with the ladies."
Vaguely, Tony was aware that he was being more harsh than he meant to be, but he couldn't help it. He wanted to know why. He had to know why.
Steve averted his eyes. "That's not it."
"Then what is?" Tony said, closing in on Steve until he could feel the rise and fall of his chest with each heated breath. They were both dangerously close to losing their tempers, and if they did, things would go south and fast.
The problem was, there was nothing they could do to stop it.
The fires were already burning; the only thing Tony could do was ride the heat and let it build. "What is it that makes you so afraid of me? Of this? Why can't you see that it's okay?"
"Because it's not!"
Both of their eyes widened as Steve finally snapped. Tony had done it, he realized; he'd finally broken through.
Steve wasn't quite so pleased. He seemed to shrink into himself even further, and the most miserable look Tony had ever seen fell over his young face. "I mean…it wasn't. Where I'm from, this—" Steve gestured between them, the franticness of his movements betraying his frayed nerves, "—this wasn't normal. It wasn't right. It didn't matter if you were in Nazi Germany or Brooklyn, New York…I can't even remember the number of times I read in the newspaper…beatings, lynchings, shootings…anything they could do. There was so much hate, and I…"
Suddenly, it all made sense. The longing, the hiding…Tony had been right: Steve had wanted this. He'd just been too afraid. He was a man out of his time, and old habits, old lessons…they really did die hard.
A wave of guilt hit Tony so strongly it physically hurt. He hadn't even thought…sure, he'd thrown it back in Steve's face a few times, but he hadn't really thought…he hadn't really considered what it was like for Steve, trying to fight through years of ingrained prejudice.
That threw Steve.
Tony nodded a confirmation. "Shit."
"I don't get it."
"Neither did I. Thus, shit."
"Is that your way of saying 'okay'?"
"More like…my way of saying sorry."
Steve couldn't have looked more surprised if Nick Fury himself had jumped out in drag and started line dancing. "Did you just say sorry?"
"No," Tony said. "I just said 'shit.' There's a difference." And with a small smirk, he leaned in and stole another kiss from Steve. Slow, warm, passionate…it was real. It was heartfelt. This time, When Tony leaned back, it wasn't to the crack of a fist or the slack-jawed gape of a confused Captain, rather the happiest pair of blue eyes he'd ever seen.
Just looking at him, he couldn't help smiling as he said, "Now, I've said sorry."
Hands on Steve's hips, he pulled the man closer and stole his lips. The last kiss said "I'm sorry"; this one…
It said "I love you."
The third time, the world almost exploded.
At least, Tony's lab almost did.
But sometimes…that's the only way lines are redrawn.