Steve was just coming back from his post-workout shower when he saw the painting.
It was in the Mansion living room, propped against the fireplace. There was an open crate and thick brown packing paper next to it, so it had clearly just arrived. He almost didn’t look at it - Pepper enjoyed expanding Tony’s art collection and it was hardly the first time some nearly-priceless work of art arrived unannounced. Although Pepper rarely left them lying around unprotected, not with Wolverine and Spider-Man living here.
He glanced over, just a quick look because Pepper had a phenomenal eye for these sort of things, and his heart froze in his chest.
It wasn’t like he remembered. The colors had faded somewhat and it was framed now - something ornate and gilded and not at all what he’d have chosen if he’d had the choice. But he hadn’t - he’d barely been able to pay the rent back then and everything left over had been for food and whatever medicine he’d thought would help.
And art supplies. A man had to have the essentials, no matter how cheap and scrounged together they might have been. Half-used pastels, broken pieces of charcoal, stubs of cast-away pencils. Other people’s junk but it had been enough to keep him fed in a way regular food couldn’t.
So he’d never framed his mother’s portrait, the one he had sketched as she died. He’d half-starved himself for a couple of weeks to save up for enough gesso to reuse a canvas from his short art school career and painted the whole thing almost without stopping. He’d come up for air almost three days later, exhausted, shaking from the coffee, and feeling strangely cathartic. Bucky had been there, watching him from the doorway, and he’d packed Steve off to bed without saying anything about the painting.
When he woke up, Steve couldn’t even bring himself to look at the portrait. He’d set it in the corner of his room to let the oils dry and - and it had probably still been there when he “died”.
He reached for it, ran his fingers over the frame. It was terrible, it really was - his mother would have made such a face if she’d seen her portrait in something like that - but it was clearly expensive. Wherever his mother’s portrait had ended up it had clearly moved up in the world from its place propped in the corner.
Tony. Of course.
Steve remembered a conversation from weeks ago, little more than idle chatter. Jan and Natasha had been flipping through his sketchbook - he didn’t always allow that, but this one didn’t have anything too personal in it yet, just a half dozen pages of landscapes and sketches of Dani Cage demolishing an ice cream sundae - and they’d been asking about his art, what he liked to paint. He had mentioned that he’d had hundreds of sketches and dozens of paintings that had been left behind when he’d gone to Europe. And he’d mentioned, with a decided sense of wistfulness, that he really only missed his mother’s portrait since he didn’t have any pictures of her anymore.
Tony had been there. And it was exactly the sort of thing Tony would do for a friend. To track down a painting no one had seen in most of a century because he thought it would make Steve happy.
Steve scrubbed his hands across his face, took a deep breath. He felt hot, his skin too tight on his body. God, it was exactly the sort of thing Tony would do and Steve had no idea what he’d done to deserve a friend like that in his life.
He could hear voices in the kitchen; Clint’s surly morning grumble, Tony’s caffeinated ramble, Natasha’s soft laughter.
He dragged in a deep breath, rubbed a hand over his eyes, and gave the frame one last lingering caress.
The kitchen was brightly lit, sunlight flooding in through the windows over the sink and through the huge french doors that led out into the gardens. It was one of Steve’s favorite rooms in the house, second only to his own room, which Tony had renovated extensively to turn into a studio-worthy space when Steve had moved in, and the living room where members of the team would gather for movies or drinks or video games. Steve had never had a big family, but sitting on the couch between Tony and Thor, listening to Clint and Peter call each other names while Jan and Carol shouted abuse at them and mocked their video game chops - that was nothing like he’d pictured having a family, but he loved it anyway.
And if having Tony pressed up against him for an evening was his own guilty pleasure, well.
Tony was leaning against the counter, cradling a steaming mug in both hands. He was wearing jeans and a black tank top, barefoot and hair tousled. He hadn’t been awake long. Clint was at the table, hunched over a bowl of brightly colored cereal and squinting blearily into the sunlight as he chewed with the grim determination of the thoroughly hung-over. Natasha was wearing her gym clothes and had her feet propped up on another chair, sipping tea out of a delicate china cup as she smirked at Clint.
“Morning,” Tony said cheerfully as Steve stepped into the room. He gave Steve a bright smile, as if just seeing Steve was enough to brighten his day. It made something go soft and fluttery in Steve’s stomach on the best of days. Today it made his heart clench in his chest.
“I saw the painting,” he said. “Did you do that?”
Tony ducked his head, his cheeks flushing pink. “Yeah. I remembered what you said and it wasn’t that hard to track down. I hope you don’t mind?”
“Mind?” His eyes felt hot. He had to blink a couple of times, shaking his head. “Mind, Tony? How did you ever find it?”
“It really wasn’t hard. Dad had-” Tony waved one hand in a vaguely circular pattern. “He collected stuff. You know.”
Steve knew. Howard Stark’s memorabilia collection was a little creepy, but Steve had never figured out if it was because it was Howard or if it was just that being the subject of a living memorial would have been creepy no matter who did it.
“Anyway,” Tony said, “he made a lot of contacts. And I asked around and sure enough, I found this guy whose father had left him a bunch of Cap memorabilia.” Tony shrugged, glancing up at Steve from beneath his eyelashes. “He was willing to part with it when he realized what it meant to you.”
“I can’t believe you’d do that,” Steve said. “I - Tony I know what some of my old junk costs. You must have spent a fortune for something like this.”
Tony shrugged. “I was happy to do it for you. Stuff like that should be yours anyway. It was personal. Anyway-”
“It was the least he could do for the love of his life,” Clint said through a mouthful of cereal. He rolled his eyes toward the ceiling. “Seriously, I told you he’d get it done as soon as he heard about it, didn’t I?”
“Clint,” Natasha said.
Tony froze, eyes wide as he lifted his head to stare at Steve.
Clint’s words hung in the air between them and Steve couldn’t hear anything else for a long minute beside the way his heartbeat started to echo in his own chest.
“I have to go,” Tony said. His face was pale, ashen, his fingers gripped his cup so hard his knuckles were turning white. He held himself almost statue still.
“Tony,” Steve said. He took a step further into the kitchen and Tony backed away, almost stumbling over his own feet in his hurry.
“I have to get started,” Tony said. He turned away and Steve felt suddenly cold. “I’m just, I’m going. It’s fine,” he said in a voice that made Steve’s heart clench.
“Tony,” Natasha said in a soft voice. She set her tea down on the table and swung her feet off the chair. “Clint only meant-”
“It’s fine,” Tony said loudly. “But I have to go. So. Just. Enjoy your painting, Steve.” He dragged in a deep breath and paused in the far doorway, the one that would lead to the dining room and the staircase to the second floor. “I really do just want you to have it back.” He wasn’t looking at Steve but the small, half-smile on his face was painfully fragile. And then he shook his head and disappeared through the door.
Steve looked over a the table, where Clint was staring at him, his face a mask of guilt and Natasha was looking after Tony with pursed lips. “What just happened here?”
“I’m sorry, Cap, I didn’t mean to rub his nose in it.” Clint dropped his spoon into the cereal bowl. “Crap. Why do you people let me talk?”
“Rub his nose in it?” Steve echoed. “What are you talking about?”
“Tony’s feelings,” Natasha said.
“His giant flaming man-crush,” Clint said. He stared at Steve, who stared back, both of them looking more confused by the second. “On you,” Clint clarified.
“On me?” Steve said.
Natasha and Clint exchanged a glance not unlike the ones he saw the team exchange when he didn’t recognize some piece of popular culture, or well-known historical event. It made him want to cringe and yell at them at the same time. “Spit it out. Our teammate just ran out of here like he was on fire. What does that have to do with me?”
“Tony’s been crazy in love with you for literally years,” Clint said. “Cap. You knew this, right? Everyone knew this.”
Steve stared at him. “No,” Steve denied automatically. “There’s no way. Tony isn’t - I would know.”
“Don’t you?” Natasha asked.
“Everyone,” Clint repeated. “Cap, we all thought you knew.”
“You thought I knew,” Steve said slowly. Something heavy settled in his stomach. “You all thought I knew Tony was in love with me and just - never said anything.”
“You thought I was sparing his feelings. Tony. Tony thought I was sparing his feelings. He thought I knew-”
“And I just had to go and rub his face in it,” Clint said. “Shit. Tell him if he wants to take a swing at me I’ll even let him get the suit on first.”
“Tell him yourself,” Natasha said. “Steve, you really didn’t know?”
Almost three years of friendship and teamwork, of living and fighting and playing together is running back through Steve’s mind, everything different through this new filter. It’s almost painfully obvious now that it’s been pointed out. The way Tony leans into him when they sit together, the way his eyes linger on Steve, the smile that lights his face up but holds a trace of sadness at the same time. Tony - beautiful, generous, kind Tony, who has built Steve weapons and uniforms, who has taken him out for burgers and challenged him to basketball - is in love with him. “How did I not know this?”
“Perhaps it’s harder to see it when you’re trying to keep the same secret,” Natasha said gently.
Clint’s eyes widened almost comically. “What? No. Wait.” He stared at Steve. “Really? Shit.” He shoved his bowl of cereal away so he could lay his head down on the table. “Oh my god. I owe Rhodey so much money.”
“I need to go talk to Tony,” Steve said. His head felt heavy, something was buzzing in his ears. Tony was in love with him. “You need to stop betting on your teammate’s love lives. Did you learn nothing from the Luke Cage thing?”
“How was I supposed to know threesomes were on the table?” Clint said. “Seriously, Cap, I’m sorry. I’ll tell Tony later, but… Don’t let him hit me with the suit on, okay?”
“No promises,” Steve said. Tony was - He grinned, a little, suddenly breathless. “But I’ll put in a good word for you since you got my head out of my ass.”
Tony was in love with him.
The dining room was empty, and the stairs beyond. Tony’d had more than enough time to get upstairs while Steve lingered in the kitchen. But his bedroom door was open and the room beyond it empty.
Steve hesitated in the hallway outside Tony’s room. Tony was upset, so he’d probably be heading for his workshop or - sometimes he liked to sit in the library in the east wing of the building, where his mother’s portrait hung over the fireplace.
Just like Steve’s mother’s portrait, sitting downstairs by the living room fireplace. Steve’s fingers itched a little, remembered the feel of the frame beneath his fingers. Tony was hurting. And maybe Steve was reading too much of his own feelings into the situation, but his feet started carrying him down the hall toward the library almost as soon as he had the thought.
He knocked on the door frame before he walked in because Tony didn’t like being startled when he was upset. “Hey.”
Tony was standing on the far side of the room. He’d been pacing back and forth in front of the fireplace, and he still had the coffee cup clenched in his hands.
He looked tired and unhappy and Steve’s heart ached at the hollow look in his eyes. “Tony-”
“I want to be alone,” Tony said, short and clipped.
“Look, Clint didn’t mean anything by it.” Steve held both hands out in front of him, kind of what can you do. “He was running his mouth, don’t be mad at him.”
Tony stared at him for a long moment, his chest rising and falling as he dragged in deep breath after breath as if he’d just run a marathon. “I’m not mad at Clint.”
“Good. Okay.” Steve wouldn’t have blamed him if he were, but you really couldn’t be surprised when Clint opened his mouth and there were a couple of feet in there. It was his secret superpower. “We should probably talk though.”
“No.” Tony shook his head once, abrupt. “I’d like you to leave.”
“Hey,” Steve said softly. He crossed the room, stuffing his hands in his pockets to resist the urge to reach out for Tony before they could talk this out. “I know you’re embarrassed, but-”
Tony moved so quickly, Steve almost didn’t realize it was happening. Tony whirled, his arm coming back and he threw the coffee mug across the room so hard it smashed against the wall with a crash, sending shards of ceramic and the remnants of Tony’s favorite Ethiopian blend flying.
Steve froze. The mug hadn’t been aimed at him, not even close, but Tony was obviously more upset that he had thought.
Tony jabbed a finger in Steve’s direction. “Get out.”
“No,” Steve said, shaking his head slowly. He held his hands up in front of him, pacifying, but didn’t try to get any closer than he already was. “Not until you talk to me.”
“Fuck. Off.” Tony bit the words off at the ends, his voice shaking with a lot more than just anger. Steve had seen Tony angry. This was worse. “Just leave me the fuck alone.”
“You know I’m not going to do that.”
Tony laughed. “I knew a lot of things, didn’t I? I knew you didn’t love me back but that was fine. I was fine. I knew being your friend was more than enough. I knew-” his voice broke and the hand he still held out was shaking. “I knew you weren’t just using me for my money or what I could do for you. I knew you weren’t just like everyone else.” He laughed again, breathless and angry. “God, some genius. I would’ve gotten it for you if you had just asked. I’d have-” his face crumpled and Steve felt his stomach lurch as he realized Tony was crying. “I’d have gotten you anything if it would have made you happy.”
Seriously, I told you he’d get it done as soon as he heard about it, didn’t I? Clint’s words echoed in Steve’s head, impossibly loud over the way his pulse was pounding in his ears. He’d been so focused on the first part of what Clint had said, so caught up in the realization that Tony might love him, that he’d never considered what the rest of it would sound like to Tony.
“Clint was talking to Natasha.” Steve’s tongue felt thick, he was half certain he slurred the words, almost tripping over them in his hurry to get them out. “I’d never. I would never use you like that, Tony. I swear to god, I didn’t talk about the painting to trick you into buying it for me. I didn’t even know it still existed. When I walked into the room and saw it there, it was a complete shock to me.”
Tony was frozen again, staring at Steve with the same ashen expression. Some ridiculous, irreverent part of Steve's brain thought that it couldn’t be good for a man with a heart condition to go that pale so fast.
“On my life,” Steve said. He felt like he was holding onto something that could slip away over a cliff he couldn’t even see. “On my mother’s grave. I would never do that to you.”
“Don’t.” Tony shook his head, a quick denial. “Don’t. Not - don’t say things you don’t mean.”
“I mean it,” Steve said. “And I’ll say it until you start believing me. I would never lie to you or manipulate you. I’d never abuse your feelings just to trick you into buying me something.” He risked taking a step closer to Tony, hands still held out before him. He felt like he was taming a spooked animal and he winced, forcing himself to lower his hands. “Tony, thank you so much for the painting. But I would literally have rather never seen it again that have you be hurt because of it.”
“She’s your mother,” Tony said.
“It’s a painting of my mother. You are one of the best friends I have ever had. Which one do you really think is more important to me? Some old canvas or a living, breathing man that I care about very much?”
Tony grimaced, turning away slightly. “Look, Steve-”
There as something in his voice that Steve couldn’t place, but suddenly knew he didn’t want to hear. Whatever Tony was about to say wasn’t something Steve wanted to hear. “I didn’t know you were in love with me. Not until today. I thought Clint was making fun of us at first. Mom and Dad. The old married couple of the team. I never had any idea.”
Tony stopped mid-word and turned back to stare at him, mouth open slightly, whatever word he’d been forming apparently lost. “You didn’t know.”
“No idea,” Steve repeated.
“I - Steve, everyone knows. Everyone.”
“So I have been informed.”
“Dead people know.”
“This is not the first time it has been pointed out that I’m kind of bad at emotional stuff.”
Tony gaped at him. “Logan noticed before you did.”
“That’s not fair, he can smell emotions. It’s how he always wins the betting pools.”
Tony pressed a hand against his mouth and turned away from Steve, taking deep breath.
Steve stilled, waited for Tony to pull himself together. They were a long way from okay, but the hard line of Tony’s shoulders was easing and his skin was slowly regaining its color.
“You didn’t know,” Tony said finally, his voice soft. “You didn’t know and you really didn’t want me to buy the painting for you.”
“Thank you so much,” Steve said, putting every ounce of feeling he could into those few words. “You can’t know how much it means to me to know you would do that for me.”
“I thought it would make you happy to see her again.” Tony closed his eyes. “There are sketches, in the crate. The paper’s old - it looks like a lot of it is newsprint and it’s delicate, so I left it for you.”
Steve’s heart clenched in his chest. The sketches were - the painting was imperfect. He’d done it so fast and never gone back to work on it again, so it was really just an impression of her. But the sketches - he’d done at least a dozen, all of them incredibly detailed. It wasn’t as good as a photo, but. “I want you to come look at them with me.”
“I think I’ve done enough for one day.” Tony sounded exhausted. He smiled, but it was wry and self-deprecating. “I’m really sorry, by the way.”
“You were hurt.” Steve refused to let himself think about how many times Tony had been used the same way. How many people had used his friendship to get something from him. “You’re allowed to be hurt when you think someone’s betrayed you.”
Tony grimaced. “I should have known you wouldn’t.”
Maybe. Steve won’t pretend he isn’t a little hurt, that he hated that Tony could have thought that of him, even for a few minutes. But it had sounded pretty bad, and Steve’s jumped to a bad conclusion once or twice himself. “I accept your apology. Come look at the sketches with me.” He took another step, then another, one hand held out. “I want you to see them. It would mean a lot to have you there with me when I see them again.”
Tony hesitated, rather obviously, and his body language was tentative. His shoulders were hunched and he didn’t quite look Steve in the eye as he reached out and took Steve’s offered hand. “It’s okay if the whole in love with you thing weirds you out a little. I can back off, if you want.”
Steve curled his fingers around Tony’s hand. “Come with me.”
Natasha and Clint were gone, their dishes washed and drying by the sink. The entire downstairs was empty and Steve suspected one or the other of his teammates had warned the rest of the team to clear out for a bit. He’d feel guilty about kicking them all out of the common area during breakfast but he was too grateful for the privacy.
The painting was right where he left it and he swallowed the same surge of emotion as he looked at it. He’d done it mostly in blues and whites and grays, colors he remembered from the dim hospital room and the sheets that hadn’t been white in a long time. “Her eyes were blue,” Steve said. He let go of Tony’s hand and crouched down to study the painting at eye level. “Toward the end she was… pale. Her hair, her skin. It was like the disease that was killing her was leaving her gray and fading. Her eyes were still blue, though. So I started there.”
“She looks like you.” Tony’s voice is hushed, reverent. “I always assumed you looked like your father.”
“Dad was black Irish. Tall and strapping, with a nasty temper, prone to quick judgments and stubborn as a mule.” Steve tipped his head back, offered Tony a rueful smile. “So no resemblance at all, right?”
Tony laughed, clasping Steve’s shoulder in one hand to offer him a quick squeeze. “Like I can talk.”
“I looked like her though. Especially back then. She was short and thin like a bird. Her hair was curlier than mine but mostly the same shade.” Steve traced one finger over the canvas, just a ghost of a touch, tracing the line of her shoulder.
Tony’s hand tightened on his shoulder and Steve reached up to cover it with one of his. “She was always looking out for everyone around her. God know she had her hands full with just me and Dad, but she helped out the people in our neighborhood too. If we had anything to spare, she knew someone who could use it. She always tried to help, even the neighbors who hated us for being Irish or people who were better off than we were. If someone was hurting she tried to help. And she would - she never cared how much work it meant for her. How tired it made her. She never stopped because someone didn’t thank her.” Steve had to duck his head and take a deep breath. “You remind me of her a lot. The same kindness.”
Tony drew in a shaking breath, but didn’t say anything.
“That kindness isn’t the only reason I love you, but I think that’s where it started.” Steve gripped Tony’s hand in his. “When I woke up confused and scared and grieving and more alone than I ever thought a man could be and all you wanted to do was help. That was where it started. And everything I’ve learned about you since then, every act of generosity and bravery and brilliance just makes me love you more.”
Tony’s voice was hoarse. “Steve.” His hand on Steve’s shoulder curls into a fist, fingers clenching at the fabric of his shirt and he pulls.
Steve clambers to his feet before the fabric can tear, lets Tony haul him around until they’re face to face. Tony’s eyes are wide and shining and so blue they make Steve’s heart skip a beat. “I never stopped to think I might be lucky enough that you would love me back.”
Tony laughed, those brilliant eyes crinkling at the corners. “How could I not?” he asked softly.
Steve leaned in, slowly in case he has overstepped, and pressed his lips to Tony’s mouth.
Their first kiss was soft and gentle, just the brush of Steve’s mouth over Tony’s for a long moment. But when Steve pulled back Tony was smiling at him, the hurt gone from his face, the defensiveness gone from his shoulders. “Come on,” he said. He slid one hand down Tony’s arm and took his hand, tangling their fingers together. “Show me the sketches and I’ll tell you about her. And then after, you can put on the suit and go deck Clint.”