Steve dares to stick his head into the workshop on a Tuesday which had so far been filled only with paperwork, and as soon as he actually comprehends what he's seeing, he kind of just wants to forget the filing and the G-33 forms and just stay down there forever.
Tony is working. Correction: Tony is inventing.
He's standing with his back to Steve, tipped slightly forward to study what can only be schematics, but they're unlike any plans Steve's ever seen, because they're not on paper at all, they're all around him, filaments of light reacting to Tony's gestures and winking in and out of sight.
Tony makes a careless gesture to one side and an image of what could have been a circuit board banishes itself to what Steve had initially thought to be a television, but which apparently was yet another monitor. Tony pays it no mind, just adjusts more of what's in front of him, muttering to Jarvis as he goes on. For once there’s no music; Pepper must have shut it off while Tony wasn’t paying attention. It leaves the room feeling strangely monastic, even as Tony’s motions remain frenetic and inconstant.
Steve finds himself leaning against the door frame, content to watch even while his hands itch for paper and charcoal. It wouldn’t be very useful here, anyway; what he really wants is thick black paper and bright pastels, or maybe colored pencils. Otherwise he’d never begin to capture the symphony of light Tony’s orchestrating just now.
Tony makes an indecipherable noise and steps back for a second, cocking his head and then moving forward again, pulling up a long scroll of data and then pushing parts of it open, dictating annotations that appear in spidering lines to the left and right, expanding and falling into place, schematics shifting and accommodating new variables, new physical implications. He’s strangely graceful, a bit birdlike on the whole, all sharp angles and twitching, idiosyncratic gestures that somehow come together into wider arcs of movement that make his back muscles flex and twist.
Steve dares, for a moment, to admire him.
Then he notices something else.
He knows he could never match or even fully comprehend Tony's sheer technical genius, but here in the workshop he realizes that he can begin to follow its process. It's unsettling and compelling all at once, a dance for him between confusion and feeling out the the blurred edges of understanding as he watches designs take shape and change. He's a visual learner, always has been, and Tony isn't teaching him right now, but Steve's learning anyway.
The modern world has been loud and overwhelming to Steve in ways he often can't predict; he adapts quickly enough, quicker probably than anyone else would in his position, but until this moment he hasn't felt the rush of difference and jarring strangeness accompanied by something else that's positive and comfortable. Tony embodies everything Steve finds alien about the 21st century, but somehow his natural environment, made of clean holographic interfaces and nearly physical interactivity, is something that Steve can haltingly begin to come to grips with.
He tries not to think about the implications of this, and fails.
Tony makes a hmph noise, jabs a finger at two items in the central schema and moves to toss them out of existence with a sweeping underhanded throw that brings him around to face in Steve's direction. He startles when he spots him, hands faltering slightly, causing the two balls of light to scatter and roll, one of them coming to 'rest' at Steve's feet.
Steve looks down at it for a moment, and then bends down.
"It's not real, you're gonna—"
He closes his fingers around it. Or rather, he halts his motion when it looks like he’s holding it. It is just an image--he can't feel it.
But when he turns his hand, the ball comes with it.
"Huh," Tony says, after a second.
Steve straightens, and mimes a toss in Tony's direction. The ball obeys, and Tony catches it, his expression unreadable.
"Jarvis must really like you," he says, banishing the ball properly to the recycle bin.
Steve chooses not to comment. Instead he walks forward into the workspace, dodging shining planes of code and spare armor plans. "What are you making?" he asks. "It looks incredible."
"Everything I do is incredible," Tony scoffs, but then he leans forward slightly and adds, "And this is definitely on the higher end of incredible. But, as it happens, it's also incredibly boring. Flight stabilizers, just making some improvements and adjustments. Lemme show you something you'll actually like."
"I don't want to interrupt—"
"You're not. Or, well, you did, but now that you have, it's fine, I can switch over. Hey, actually, this could be interesting. Pepper’s usually the only other person who ever comes down here on a regular basis, and she definitely doesn’t like to mess with my UI, so I’ve never really had an extra pair of hands to work with. Not that I need them,” he says pointedly, “But still. God knows you’ll at least be more competent than Dummy.” He pats a robotic arm on his left. “So come here. Jarvis, put this all away and give me Cap’s shield.”
Steve frowns. “Tony, what—”
And then, there it is. Only in outline, but with a gesture Tony expands the image until Steve can see in the slight warping of glowing contour lines the nearly invisible indentations of the hundreds upon hundreds of bullets and bodies his shield deflected over the course of a war. He thinks he can even see the three pits from where Peggy had taken a crack at him in Howard’s workshop.
“You have a model of my shield?” he says faintly, obviously.
“Sure. I wanted to study it, but even when you were still recovering Fury wouldn’t let me take a look at it. So I scanned in as much as I could with my phone and filled in the rest in pieces.”
“You have any idea how rare vibranium is, Rogers? It’s so rare I had to reinvent it after Dad hid all of his notes away.”
“You could have just asked me,” Steve says. “I’d let you look at it.”
Tony snorts. “You don’t owe me anything. I wasn’t about to ask a favor out of nowhere.”
“Well,” Steve says doubtfully, filing that piece of Tony Stark Strangeness away for later. “So what are you showing me?”
“This.” And Tony makes an extravagant gesture with both his hands, and the shield magnifies to cover the whole room, then larger and larger until only a matrix of particles remains in sight, the arc of the metal invisible as it grows over their heads into a canopy of interlocking, shifting points of light.
Steve cocks his head. “This is—”
“Vibranium-steel alloy, at the molecular level. See, you can see the bonds here, how they work together,” Tony points, and a single sheet of molecules comes into focus, interlocking elements spinning in place. “Nothing else absorbs force like this, it should be impossible. But these bonds here, and here,” he points, “They take the energy of the impact and dispel it almost instantaneously. It’s amazing. What you carry around with you every day, it’s amazing.” He swallows oddly, like something is stuck in his throat. “Even down to the molecular level, it’s really fucking awesome.”
“You had to reinvent this?” Steve murmurs, after a long moment, studying the hologram in fascination.
“Well, the vibranium, yes. I just extrapolated from that to recreate the alloy structure afterwards.”
“Why were you working on vibranium?”
Tony pauses. “I…needed it.”
Steve looks at him, takes in the way his hand has come to rest subconsciously on the glow beneath his t-shirt. “Oh,” he says, in comprehension.
Tony winces. “I was using palladium before. It was killing me, so I had to switch. Again, this stuff is amazing. The way it absorbs impact, neutralizes energy? Same reason it’s working for me. It’s a heavy metal, it should be poisoning me. But it’s not.”
Steve tries not to think of before, what that must have been like to have the thing keeping your heart beating slowly leeching away your life. “So the stuff that’s in my shield…that’s keeping you alive?”
“Pretty much,” Tony replies lightly. Then he adds, “If you read that as my dad saving my life, I’ll punch you in the face.”
Steve holds up his hands. He’s already learned the hard way that Howard is a tender spot for Tony. “I wasn’t. I won’t.”
Tony nods, apparently satisfied.
Steve looks around again, at the constellation of light around them, and takes a breath. “I was thinking, actually, that it was strange how the same thing’s saved both our lives, over and over again,” he says quietly.
He’s met with silence for a long moment, and then Tony says gruffly, “It’s just an element, Rogers.”
“Well, yeah,” Steve says, “But it’s your element.”
Tony snorts. “It’s Howard’s,” he says, with rehearsed detachment.
“It’s not,” Steve blurts out, and then hurries on, feeling his face heating, “Howard never figured out how to take the arc reactor in his factory and turn it into this.” He lifts his hand and puts his fingers lightly on the glow in Tony’s chest. “It might have been his to start with, but it’s definitely yours now.”
Tony takes a breath, and Steve suddenly realizes how close together they’re standing. He moves to take his hand back and maybe step away, but then Tony’s hand closes around his wrist and he stills.
“Thank you,” Tony murmurs, and for once, it doesn’t sound sarcastic.
Steve can feel the callouses and scars along Tony’s fingers, and the sinewy strength in his grip. He flexes his wrist slightly, but not enough to pull away. His face is still red; he can feel it. He doesn’t move, though. He asks, “What for?”
Tony just shakes his head. His thumb is on Steve’s pulse.
Steve takes another chance, and shuffles forward. He’s several inches taller than Tony, so he tilts his head down to look at him, and Tony takes another slow, unsteady breath, not saying anything even though Steve knows that in any other situation he’d be making flippant, defensive comments right now. But where they are it's dark and strangely intimate, illuminated only by the image of something precious to the both of them, the rest of the workshop dim and still, and neither of them seem inclined to step away from it.
Steve has only been awake a few short months, but he’s pretty sure this swooping feeling in his gut isn’t something exclusive to his time. “Tony,” he says.
“This is a bad plan,” Tony says, more to himself than to Steve, but he sounds faint and breathy, like he can’t quite bring himself to mean what he’s saying.
Steve can’t think of an answer to that, so he just repeats, “Tony.”
“Fuck,” Tony breathes, “Why are you even here, Rogers?”
That makes him focus, slightly. “I wanted to see what you were up to,” he says as honestly as he can, “But then you were working, and…I just wanted to watch. It’s amazing, what you do, you know that? You’re amazing.”
“Not just an empty suit?”
He sucks in a breath. “I’m going to regret saying that forever, aren’t I?”
Tony shrugs. “You never know,” he says, and there’s something brittle about that which makes Steve press his hand forward so that his fingers rest more firmly on the arc reactor.
“I only meant it when I didn’t know you,” he says firmly.
“Plenty of people who know me quite well would agree with you.”
“I’m kind of getting the sense that most people who claim to know you really don’t, at all.”
Tony just shakes his head, a small smile that doesn’t look particularly happy twisting his lips. Steve looks past him to the holograms around them. “Can you show me something else?” he asks.
“Sure,” Tony says, stepping away. Steve shivers slightly at the loss of contact. “Got something in mind?”
“The arc reactor,” Steve says, knowing full well how massive a risk he’s taking. “Show me how it works?”
Tony just raises an eyebrow, however. “Steve. I’ve explained the arc reactor to premier, Nobel Prize-winning engineers, and some of them still don’t get it.”
“I don’t want to be able to build one,” Steve rolls his eyes. “I just. I’d like to see it. If that’s okay.”
Tony stares at him. “Oh, what the hell,” he says, after a second. “Jarvis, pull it up.”
And as Tony launches into a breakdown of structural and molecular analysis, gesticulating through simulations of copper filaments and rings of the rarest of synthesized metals, Steve flicks his gaze between the holograms and the play of their light on Tony’s face. He murmurs neutrally to indicate that he’s still listening, and he stands close at Tony’s back.
After several minutes, he raises his hand again, only to rest it at the center of Tony’s spine.
Tony stutters to a halt. He radiates heat from beneath his shirt. He looks back at Steve. “Should I continue?” he says, and he’s clearly aiming for coyness but lands somewhere in the realm of surprise and uncertainty.
“Please,” Steve says sincerely, and Tony must hear something in his tone because he doesn’t reply with a comeback; he just nods and continues, his voice a dropping little lower as he continues to spin the diagram back and forth, breaking down the component parts and pointing out energy readings.
“Here, hold this, will you?” he says, passing him a piece of the schematic he’s lifted out of the central model. Steve takes a second to recognize the coils of vibranium that now appear to rest in his opposite palm. “Sure,” he says, belatedly.
And then Tony leans, infinitesimally, back against him.
“Right, so now we’re down to what I first thought of while I was building this,” Tony says, “Which was when I was imprisoned in a cave, mind you, just to give you some context for the level of genius you’re dealing with here…”
Steve smiles and nods, and thinks that yes, he could maybe stay down here for a while.