Stepping With Time
Thank you @ishipallthings for entertaining my discussion about this fic. I hope you folks have fun :D
It was probably an expected question but Steve was mildly surprised that Tony Stark had been the first one to ask it.
“What do you mean?” he asked, trying to buy some time to form a more reasonable answer than the one he had in mind.
“What would you like to learn?” Tony repeated, loosening his tie and getting more comfortable on the couch, shooting a lazily amused glance at Steve, “Like Wilson said, you’ve got time to learn and do all that you’d like now. So, what would you like to learn, Cap?”
Steve took a sip of his smoothie and bit back a grimace at the strong taste, shrugging a little at Tony’s curiosity.
“Not sure,” he replied, placing the travel cup back on the coffee table, “Some new martial art, maybe. Natasha said something about classes opening up in a dojo nearby. It would be good to pick up some new techniques.”
He looked at Tony when the silence stretched and found the man eyeing him with a mildly disappointed look, something that didn’t sit right with Steve.
“What?” he asked, probably a bit more brusque than the look deserved but Tony simply shook his head.
“Nothing,” Tony said before making a face, “You know what, no, not nothing. Just - I guess I thought different.”
“I’m not supposed to like martial arts now?”
“Everybody likes martial arts, don’t be stupid,” Tony waved a dismissive hand, “But it’s not something you seem to have been waiting to learn for a while. It’s more of a -” Tony searched for the word before snapping his fingers, “- a necessity, yes. Not a choice. It’s what we need for the job. Sure, you may like it but - you do know that you have the opportunity to learn anything now, right? That’s not a luxury you have always. Thought you’d pick something you wanted not thought you needed, that’s all.”
“There’s nothing wrong with being prepared,” Steve argued, “This job doesn’t take breaks.”
“Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t either,” Tony shot back, unbuttoning his cuffs, rolling his sleeves to show the contrast of olive skin against the pristine white shirt, “Trust me, when your work becomes your life, it kind of gets stagnant.”
“How many hours were you in the workshop again?” Steve challenged and Tony grinned, a flash of even teeth.
“You think all I do is work on SI or Avengers tech down there?” he laughed, “Cap, there’s more life down there than up here. You should come and have a look sometime.”
“You’ll just try to sneak in my shield,” Steve deflected and Tony rolled his eyes but relented.
“Alright, your call, Rogers,” he said and made to get up, “Have fun with krav maga or something then.”
It should have ended with that. It was a miracle when Tony Stark dropped a topic and he had, by the looks of it, so it should have ended there. But Steve watched him get up and stretch, a tired comfort of being home. He had seen Tony in different forms by now, especially after shifting to the Tower with Clint and Natasha, Sam dropping in often; rarely though did he think he actually saw more than the man Tony thought he wanted to see. It was a formal sketch mostly and Steve felt curious about the moments when Tony let the formality drop. He tried to hold on to those moments and find out more, see what made Tony tick.
Maybe it was that curiosity that pushed him to the impulse.
“Dancing,” Steve said abruptly and watched Tony pause, look down at him with a slight frown, “I’ve never - learned to dance.”
“But you like it?” Tony asked, not mocking or teasing or the other million things Steve would have expected from him.
“I don’t know,” Steve admitted, looking away at the couch for a second, “I think so. We used to go out to try back before the war but - it was either my health or my date or just me not knowing.”
Tony hummed a bit but didn’t comment, letting the silence lay till Steve decided how the conversation went.
“I figure that now, with my better coordination,” Steve shot him a wry smile, parts of it self-aware, “I’ll do better. Just need the right opportunity to dance, I suppose.”
“What, impromptu choreography?” Tony snorted and Steve clenched his jaw, wondering why he tried but Tony’s expression cleared and he sat back down.
“No, no, I’m not - judging you,” he clarified, “It’s something everybody thinks. You know, you’ll find the right partner and then magically transform into Fred Astaire. It’s a nice dream.”
“You don’t agree,” Steve supplied dryly and Tony smiled a bit.
“You never really fought before getting the serum, right?” he asked, picking up Steve’s smoothie to take a sip, “You would have imagined that you’d fight one way but you had to adjust, had to practice to find your real form. It’s the same with anything. You can’t jump into anything without testing. Dancing isn’t that different. Ugh, this tastes horrible.”
“Compliments to the chef,” Steve replied and Tony snorted with a grin.
“I did ask you which fruits you wanted,” he justified himself.
“So you’re saying,” Steve leaned back and eyed Tony, “that I should - learn dancing.”
“I’m saying you should learn what you want to learn,” Tony shrugged, putting the smoothie back down.
Steve considered it momentarily. He hadn’t thought about it much, not after his missed date with Peggy. It wasn’t something that he had found time to think about either.
“I,” he stalled for a moment, “I’ll see if I can find something discreet maybe.”
Tony nodded and fiddled with his phone for a minute before speaking up.
“Or I could teach you”
“What?” Steve blinked and Tony looked up from his phone.
“You want something discreet and honestly, I’m not sure there’s any person who’ll dance with you and not tweet to the entire world,” he quirked a small grin, “If you want, I could teach you instead.”
Steve had watched enough of Tony’s old footage and videos to know that he was a good dancer. It was probably a necessity for him, Steve thought absently.
“You’re usually busy,” Steve pointed out, wondering what madness he was entering.
“And you’re usually complaining about me being busy,” Tony shot back and a thoughtful expression came over, “Huh. That could work.”
“What could work?”
“You want me to start sparring with you, right?” Tony asked, leaning forward with a sharply excited expression, “It’s been what, 40 times now that you’ve hinted at it.”
“It’ll do you good,” Steve maintained exasperatedly.
“Yeah, okay,” Tony nodded, “How about this? I’ll come to spar with you and learn your fighting and you learn to dance with me. It’ll be a deal.”
Steve opened his mouth to contradict but paused. He did want Tony to spar and the man had been reticent about it for a while. He had made a slew of excuses and Steve had begun to think that he didn’t want Steve to try. But he was offering now, a clear offer and deal. For all that they were awkward and unsure about each other, this was the first outright attempt to have a longer interaction.
Tony looked excited and enthusiastic, a wild gleam in his eyes, and Steve made a decision.
“Alright, we have a deal.”
Steve figured that the worst outcome would be just a couple of laughs.
He was wrong. Steve stared at Tony and wondered how wrong he could have been.
“You want me to..show you my moves,” he repeated.
“Now that we’ve established that your hearing is impeccable, how about we get on with it?” Tony nodded and winced when his shoulder twinged, “I think you woke up muscles that didn’t even exist in me before, shit.”
“I told you to stretch better,” Steve reminded but kept standing, “There’s no music here.”
“We’ll get to it, but first I need to see what you’re comfortable with,” Tony explained and walked back to lean against the arm of a chair, “Come on, I’ll even hum for you. Just footwork. Show me the rhythm you like.”
“If you laugh then we’re sparring again,” Steve warned and sighed when Tony did a Scout’s promise sign, “This is ridiculous.”
“It’s only ridiculous if you want it to be,” Tony shook his head, “Listen, just - try with your eyes closed. I’ll hum and you make your count with your eyes closed.”
“That’s even more ridiculous,” Steve muttered but did close his eyes before Tony came up with a weirder idea. He breathed in and waited for the hum.
Tony had a good baritone, Steve thought inanely when he heard the simple hum begin and take flow. It had beats of its own, pauses and inflictions to help get a grasp of the rhythm. Steve breathed out and let his feet tap, shuffling them in place. With his eyes closed, Steve could ignore that he was being watched, that he was being taught, and he let his body adapt to it.
He was into his fourth step in when he felt a hand on his shoulder and another grasping his right hand, smoothly pulling it up to position.
Tony didn’t stop humming and Steve felt stiff but Tony didn’t lead. He didn’t make steps or choreograph a routine. He simply let Steve move to his own rhythm and followed him. The humming went a bit higher and Tony began tapping a finger of the hand holding Steve’s right hand to the beat, a casual rhythm against Steve’s knuckle.
Steve opened his eyes when the humming faded out and saw Tony grinning, but not smug; a strange knowing tinge to it.
“Not bad, Rogers,” Tony commented and moved back, releasing Steve’s hand, “Alright, it seems like you’ve got a ear for beats.”
“That’s what you were testing?” Steve asked, resisting the urge to wipe his hands on his pants. They were warm, a warmth he didn’t understand.
“You were partially deaf before the serum, right?” Tony shrugged and Steve stilled, something Tony noted, “What? I read.”
“I know, just - I didn’t think you paid attention,” Steve said and Tony raised an eyebrow but let it go.
“Alright then, now that we know your natural rhythm, time to start at the basics,” Tony clapped his hands and moved forward, into Steve’s space, “Now place your hand on my waist.”
Steve swallowed and gave Tony a look but the genius simply rolled his eyes.
“Don’t worry, I won’t bite,” he informed and picked up Steve’s hand, placing it around his own shoulder, before taking the other hand in position, “Great. Now, we begin on the simple box step. I’ll give the counts and you’ll follow. Once we get a hang of that, you’ll lead and I’ll follow. Okay? Okay, let’s start.”
Steve focused on not holding Tony too tight or falling over his feet but breathed out and moved. Tony didn’t give up or taunt, didn’t call him out on things that weren’t that moment, and Steve let himself be led. They moved around in boxes, the futurist leading a man out of time forward and backward, and Steve found himself counting the beats and not the moments ticking by.
If his mind wandered to a forgotten ball room, then that was between him and his memory. Steve turned and danced, wondering when they could spar again.
The workshop didn’t scare Steve, not with the things he had already seen in the past and future, but it definitely was intimidating when he entered it for the first time.
“Are you sure we can’t do this in the penthouse again?” he asked as he eyed the large expanse of concrete flooring and mechanical maze.
“No,” Tony replied, not bothering with an explanation but put his wrench down and pulled out a rag to wipe his hands, “Don’t worry, nothing will leap at you.”
A bot with a single claw beeped and rolled past Steve, claw clicking around a broom.
“Except for him, he might,” Tony sighed and whistled, “Hey, Dummy, stop lazing around. What’d I tell you? Cap and I need the place without disturbance for a while, so stay in your station. Come on, get back.”
“He understands you,” Steve observed with a sense of mild awe as he saw the bot rolling over to his station.
“Yeah, he doesn’t follow often but yeah, he understands pretty well,” Tony nodded and came forward, “So, second lesson, ready?”
Steve nodded and noted the bruise on Tony’s upper arm from their earlier spar. It had probably been a bad decision to spar with the current mood but Tony had been there and Steve had needed a distraction. The thoughts of Sam’s latest report on Bucky’s sighting had been a constant thrum in his head and Steve had let it get to him.
“Are you,” Steve knew that asking Tony about the injury specifically would never get him an answer, “sure about this? You seem busy.”
“You were busy before the sparring too, doesn’t matter,” Tony brushed it off and Steve could see the edge to his eyes but kept quiet.
They came together in position but Steve was surprised when Tony’s hand fell onto his waist and his own hand was shifted to Tony’s shoulder, right above the injury.
“Let me,” Tony said quietly before commanding JARVIS to put on a simple instrumental tune.
Tony led and Steve felt the warm skin bemeath his palm grab his focus, making sure to not let himself touch the bruise. It felt hot to touch, he knew it, and he felt the guilt chew away at him as he moved his feet around Tony’s.
They were advancing from short boxes to a larger area now, spreading their feet wider over the ground, and Steve connected the movements to the music slowly.
“And one two three, one two three, next turn we’ll shift, you’ll lead I’ll follow,” Tony said and they finished the final box before Tony picked his hand from Steve’s shoulder to his waist, automatically prompting Steve to shift his grip too.
Steve stepped on Tony’s toes and moved to step back but Tony moved with the flow. Steve looked up at him and found the man staring at Steve’s neck instead of his face.
“Did it hurt?” he asked and Tony looked up.
“Did what hurt?” Tony asked back and Steve felt a million hints in that question. There were too many wounds in space and maybe they all hurt.
“It’s fine,” Tony said after a pause and Steve snapped his eyes back to him, “Bruises heal. You try to hurry them and they just get hidden. You gotta give them time. Let them breathe. Keep the beat in the turn now, slow.”
Steve turned them around, feeling his fingers flex on Tony’s waist.
“You should ice it,” he said as he did his best to guide Tony through a round, wondering what they were speaking in circles, “It’ll hurt more otherwise.”
“Ice isn’t always the answer, Cap,” Tony said on an exhale, a finger tapping the beat on Steve’s shoulder, “And you learn a lot from the hurt. Like how to fight better the next time, maybe.”
Steve nodded slowly and rested his cheek against Tony’s temple.
“Dummy is staring at us,” he whispered and Tony paused before huffing a laugh.
“Congrats, somebody finds you interesting,” he laughed and Steve smiled against his hair, feeling the thrum settle in his head as the music flowed on.
Steve had fallen for a right hook once, an irony Bucky had reminded him with a smirk when Steve’s eyes strayed to Peggy in a crowded bar. He had fallen for her fist, her strength and defiance. Bucky had said that it was Steve’s thirst for fights that made him so. Bucky had fallen for Peggy’s waist and red dress hugging it. Steve had kissed her red lips and Bucky had fallen to a red death. Neither of them had lived to fight with her or wrap an arm around her waist.
“That was an unnecessary move,” Tony said, a trickle of blood down his forehead and fire in his eyes. The fight had been brutal, a Hydra base that had anticipated them. Clint and Natasha were filing their reports while Thor was with Bruce, keeping him in control in the Hulk room. Steve and Tony were sitting in their own blood on pristine leatger chairs, facing each other and ready to snap.
Steve wondered what Tony’s anger would taste like on the thin lips.
“We had to shut it down. I had the plan intact,” Steve replied, his own bruised cheekbone twinging with the strain.
“A plan that I told you was stupid,” Tony said sharply, always the counter-point, always the iron to Steve’s will, “I had the numbers. I told you we’d find a better way.”
“We couldn’t wait. They would have erased all evidence,” Steve bit out, missed victories and bleeding failures cracking into his hands.
Tony let his hand fall onto the table, a sharp sound of frustration that echoed throughout the room.
“You know, you can’t lead like this,” he said, his own guilt and fears morphing into anger, “You’ll get killed one day.”
Steve inhaled and tried, tried to not escalate it into a fight.
“You’re safe above in your armour, aren’t you?”
It was ugly and angry and terrifying but it was out there in the open. The fight in the room was beautiful in its horror and they tore into each other, a Helicarrier put to shame. The table’s crack echoed in the room even as Steve watched Tony storm out of it, adrenaline seeping out with him.
Steve was banned from the gym and he locked himself in his floor.
“You’re late,” Tony said as he entered the floor in the evening, sunset drowning the city outside.
“Is knocking or asking for permission a thing at all?” Steve asked without looking back but he bowed his head, feeling grateful for the intrusion. It was dark outside and Tony walkes around the living room couch, standing in front of Steve like a blazing light.
“You know me,” he replied and held out a hand. Steve looked up, wearily staring at Tony’s face that was now clean of dirt and blood.
“Our lesson, we have a schedule, Steve,” Tony wiggled his fingers, his chin set to a stubborn tilt.
“We didn’t spar,” Steve reminded even as he eyed Tony’s hand longingly. This man was his bane and his ache and everything that he didn’t know he deserved, and he kept coming back even when Steve didn’t really call him. It felt humbling, kind and demanding, and Steve wanted to hold on and cling.
“We fought,” Tony corrected and cracked a small smile, “You really want to spar right now?”
Steve breathed in and took Tony’s hand, rising up to face him.
“You don’t have to do this,” he said even as his hand found Tony’s waist and Tony’s hand clasped his own in familiarity.
“Stop running away from this, Cap,” Tony rolled his eyes, fond expression in whiskey brown, “You know you can’t escape me.”
Steve rested his chin above Tony’s head and knew he had fallen with another right hook to his heart. He was always destined for falling for the fighting hands and bloody lips.
Tony followed him and Steve wanted to drag him into his heart.
The gala was an excuse for glamorous torture. Steve had once drawn himself as a dancing monkey but as he stayed aware of the eyes watching Tony drag him onto the dancefloor, he felt like the literal one.
“Relax,” Tony whispered against his ear and Steve leaned in, “It’s just me. We’ve practiced, you got this.”
Tony was beauty in its raw and Steve’s heart ached when he smiled up at him, all masks and mystery and magnetism.
Steve tried to pull back the words even as he pulled Tony around on the dancefloor but Tony held his gaze through his lashes and Steve breathed out.
He loved this man.
“I love you”
Tony froze for a second but they didn’t falter. He was too trained to falter. The dance went on and Steve felt his ears roar as it sunk in that he had dropped a bomb.
“Come with me,” Tony commanded quietly when the dance ended and subtly pulled Steve away, leading him to a library in the mansion.
The door was locked with a flick of Tony’s wrist and he finally turned to look at Steve.
“What was that?”
“Are you - what was that, a slip if the tongue?” Tony asked, body taut as he held Steve’s gaze.
Lies were easy. Lies were a shadow of Steve’s life and he knew them intimately. He knew to spin them when needed.
He was tired of lying.
“I meant it,” he said quietly, breathing out, “I probably could have said it better but - I do love you, Tony.”
Tony stared at him, a myriad range of emotions flitting through his face. Silence clouded the library, a thousand books of the past watching as the present lay empty in front of them. Finally, Tony let out a exhale through his teeth and sagged.
“You can’t flip switches so soon,” he said, breathing in deep and letting out, “A few weeks ago you weren’t comfortable even talking to me without a solid reason. A few days ago you and I fought so hard that it escalated to blows.”
“That doesn’t mean I don’t love you,” Steve insisted. His heart was thudding behind his ribs but he kept his voice calm, pleading, open.
“Maybe but it does mean that I don’t have reason to understand or believe this,” Tony sighed, running a hand over his face, “You can’t just drop it on me saying you love me when I haven’t felt that at all. I haven’t felt that you’ve been anywhere close to *loving* me, Steve. Friendship, sure, maybe. But love? People you love need to be able to see that and I - I haven’t seen it. So, forgive me for being sceptical but I can’t just accept this as it is.”
Steve had faced and borne a dozen punches to his gut but this was a supernova of shattering. He stared at Tony and felt a chasm across them, uncertain and hurt.
“I,” Steve breathed in and exhaled slowly, clenching his hands to keep his voice stable, “I’m sorry. I’ll just - I’ll leave now. This won’t become a problem.”
“Wait,” Tony stopped him and Steve didn’t want to look up, didn’t want to see rejection morph into pity but he had always been helpless in the face of his own heart. He looked up at Tony and found a pained expression in his face before the man swallowed and spoke again.
“I’m not saying it’s a problem,” he said slowly, finding words out of a jumble, “I don’t know what this is.”
“I understand, Tony, I -”
“I want to know how you love me,” Tony cut in and Steve fell silent. The brunet took a step forward, awkward and stilted like it never was when they danced. “I’ve seen you when you are friends with people. With - me, too. But,” he waved a hand vaguely, “I don’t know the signs of you being in love.”
“Do people have those?” Steve asked and Tony laughed with a bitter tinge.
“Yeah, trust me, I’d know,” he shook his head and refocused on Steve, “I work with proof, Steve. I always do. Moments, reactions, looks - these are signs I know. I don’t- I don’t know what your signs are.”
“You don’t believe me,” Steve surmised but Tony shook his head again.
“I don’t have any data to build belief yet,” he said and took another step forward, “I’m not saying you don’t love me or that I don’t want that too but, I want to see how that works. How we work, how you work with this new development.”
“I can’t believe I’m saying this but,” Tony stopped inches away from Steve and smiled a little, wry but real, “let’s start again, okay? We skipped a lot of steps here apparently, because there’s so much to do, so much to know and share before you know love, Steve. There’s no rush to it, there’s no time limit or record to set.”
“I waited too long once,” Steve confessed, hope warring with longing and Tony must have read it, now that he knew to look for something he must have seen something because his gaze softened.
“Don’t anticipate a crash before we even fly, Cap,” he whispered and Steve forced his eyes to stay open, to hold the words he was hearing and sight he was getting, “We have our own world now. Let’s explore it first before we dive?”
Steve let his eyes roam over Tony’s face and let his head drop, forehead touching Tony’s.
“Slow?” he asked and Tony chuckled a little, the tension seeping out as his hand found Steve’s shoulder, curling closer than the way a friend’s would.
“Let me teach you,” he whispered and Steve let himself fly instead of falling, let himself hope instead of rushing.
He had gotten used to falling too soon but Tony was good with parachutes and flying.
“It’s a deal” he agreed and found something new to learn.
Dancing during date-nights was a luxury, a gift. They didn’t have time for it always and their dates were usually after a long day or a meeting or a fight. They were mostly seeped in exhaustion but over the five months they had been dating, Steve knew that every exhausting evening was worth the time. Tony would forget to do the dishes or file his reports or call after trips but he never forgot date nights and Steve had understood why this was so much better than a rushed kiss and longing for a missed dance. This was learning and practice, a test and trial and result oriented routine that brought a calm with it. It was a climb and the starry night that came every day, a surety that built over time and Steve had stopped expecting rejection over its continuity.
“Something special?” he asked as Tony offered him a hand, knowing the warmth of that hand even before he took it.
“It’s a good day,” Tony smiled and Steve found his place in Tony’s waist, the space he had learnt over lessons and leisure.
“That’s good,” he said against Tony’s hair and led him to the sway of the music.
“I feel like learning something,” Tony spoke after a while and Steve stroked a hand down his back.
“Hmm? What would you like to learn?” Steve asked with his eyes closed and Tony rested his head against Steve’s chest.
“Teach me to love”
Steve smiled and held Tony against his heart.