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artistic integrity

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The Stark Gallery is swanky, up-scale, and incredibly popular. It’s one of those galleries that, if you manage to get your art into an exhibit, will be the highlight of your career. Selling just one painting through Stark can set you up for life.

Steve knows this. Steve also knows that all the art is handpicked by Mr. Stark himself and that, rumor says, his reasons for picking certain artists are all over the place. Usually it’s because they’ve done something to stand out from the crowd, so to speak. With thousands of submissions, you have to do something to get noticed, something to set you apart from all the other talented and creative people.

Which is where Steve comes up with a plan. He knows all about Mr. Stark from the papers and online gossip columns that Bucky frequents. He knows all about his partying habits, his personal life, and his supposed vanity. And while Steve thinks that there’s more to the guy than that, you seriously don’t curate an art gallery that popular and that good while being that shallow, he does get the feeling that Mr. Stark does have a lot of confidence… and a sense of humor.

Bucky laughs when he sees the project, he tells Steve to be careful and shoots him a knowing look that makes Steve’s cheeks heat. When Steve gets his portfolio ready for submission, the very first thing they’ll see is the painting he’s been slaving over for two months.

He sends it in and is on pins and needles for three weeks. Every time the phone rings he’s a mixture of excitement and terror. Then one day he answers it and the responding voice makes all the blood drain out of his face. He’s dimly aware of Bucky rushing to his side, asking if someone’s died, if Steve’s okay. 

Steve is more than okay, though. The lovely voice on the phone, Pepper Potts, informs him instead that he’s been accepted. She tells him the exhibit is in two months, if he wants to work on any finishing touches he’d better get started. Then she pauses for a second, as if she’s debating what she’s about to say, and lets out a huff of laughter.

“I’ve never seen Mr. Stark laugh that hard. I think he even mentioned wanting to buy that piece for his personal gallery,” she says.

Steve just chuckles nervously and they finish up the conversation.

He spends the next two months alternating between celebrating and feeling sick.

Opening night comes and there’s a big ceremony with a party afterwards. Even as the speeches are made, Steve feels like someone’s watching him, the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end.

When the time comes to mingle, he positions himself near his work ready to make conversation. Not even one minute later, there’s a throat clearing behind him.

"You’re Steven Rogers?"

Steve swallows hard. “Steve, please. And yes. It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Stark. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this.”

"Tony, please." Tony says, giving Steve a once over and oh, wow, Tony Stark in person is more attractive than Steve thought possible.

"Tony. Still… thank you," Steve says sincerely.

Tony waves him off as his eyes travel over to Steve’s paintings. “You’re talented, Steve. The honor is truly mine. Although…”

Steve’s heart does a weird little flip in his chest, wondering what he’s going to say next. He raises his eyebrows as Tony turns back and smirks at him.

"I don’t seem to see my favorite piece from the collection you sent over."

Steve struggles not to choke on air, feeling the tips of his ears go warm. “Ah, well, I didn’t think it would be appropriate and I—I, it doesn’t really go with—”

"Steve," Tony says, laughing. "It’s a joke."

Steve’s shoulder sag with relief and he can’t help but return Tony’s gorgeous smile.

"I will admit that I'm tempted to ask you if you’d be willing to part with it. For a good price, of course. I think it would look perfect in my bedroom." He pauses. "Though there are a few… issues with it. Inaccuracies, you know. Can’t be helped since it was done from your imagination, but there’s definitely room for improvement on the… scale of certain things."

This time Tony lets his eyes drag up and downs Steve’s body a little slower, more obvious. Pleasure races up Steve’s spine and his stomach is doing funny things and he honestly can’t believe what comes out of his own mouth next.

"Well, I’m sure if I had the real thing in front of me, it wouldn’t be too hard to correct those… inaccuracies."

Before Steve has a chance to mentally berate himself, Tony’s eyes light up and he laughs. It’s a beautiful sound that Steve would love to hear again.

Of course, that’s when they get interrupted. Other well-wishers and people with deep pockets who come by to talk about Steve’s art. Tony gives him a look that makes his toes curl before he slinks away to charm some people out of their money. They don’t get a chance to speak again until the end of the night, but Steve catches Tony watching him no less than five times over the next few hours. He doesn’t even want to think about how many times Tony catches him staring.

When all is said and done and there are only a few stragglers about, Tony turns up at Steve’s side again. He looks a little tired, but happy. He looks like Steve feels. 

"How about a congratulatory drink?" Tony asks.

Steve raises an eyebrow at him and Tony smirks.

"And maybe you’ll get a chance to fix those inaccuracies we spoke of earlier," he amends.

Steve clears his throat before speaking. “It’s a matter of artistic integrity, you see.”

"Right. Artistic integrity." Tony agrees, but the heat in his gaze says he knows otherwise.

It’s a lovely night. And Steve does get a chance to study the subject matter. He gets the chance again the next night and so on and so forth until pretty soon he’s extremely familiar with it.

Steve never does take Tony up on his offer to buy the painting that started the whole thing. But when he moves in to Tony’s penthouse, he can’t help himself…

Tony walks into the bedroom later that night and sees the naked painting of himself, done in shades of red and gold, hanging up on the wall. The painting that he first saw over a year ago.

He laughs.

(It’s still the most beautiful sound Steve has ever heard.)