Tony Stark kept people waiting an awful lot.
It was over a week now since Steve had asked to meet with him to discuss the team's status, equipment-wise. He couldn't submit his quarterly report to Director Fury without it, but he was hardly well-enough-versed in the range of gadgets and weaponry they used to summarize it all for Fury without consulting Tony first. Clint and Bruce had both offered to help, but Bruce went way over Steve's head without even meaning to, and Clint had very little interest in any technology that wasn't used to shoot things, so he was pretty much out of options at this point. Which explained why he was sitting here, in one of the mansion's countless living rooms, waiting for Tony to show up for their scheduled meeting and flipping idly through the magazines on the coffee table in the meantime.
At first, he'd thought maybe the magazines would give him some insight into the things that interested Tony, but he'd quickly picked up on the fact that the only thing the glossy pages had in common was, well, Tony. An issue of Motor Trend looked appealing, with gorgeous shots of cars that Tony said were classic and Steve thought were futuristic, but it turned out to be a profile of Tony's automobile collection. There was an interior design magazine, and Steve recognized photograph after photograph of the mansion he was sitting in right now. Even Sports Illustrated was in the pile, because Tony had apparently taken ownership of a minor-league baseball team somewhere in the Midwest.
Checking his watch (Tony was setting records here, an hour and fifteen minutes late and counting), Steve dropped a full-colour spread on Tony's latest humanitarian actions in Africa and picked up another without looking. After all, he needed something to pass the time, and bothering JARVIS just seemed… rude somehow.
Opening this one, Steve flipped through a few pages of advertisements and…
… put the magazine down. Quickly.
What was Tony doing with that on his coffee table, where anyone might find it and pick it up? The twenty-first century was forward, but surely there were… limits?
And surely that wasn't what he thought it was. Because why would Tony have a magazine like that… with pictures of…
"Why does Tony have…" He gave up on trying to explain what he thought he'd just seen, and instead waved a hand weakly toward the magazine on the table.
"I would imagine for much the same reason as he has the others, Captain Rogers."
Steve paused, hand still hovering in the air over the coffee table.
Tony was in all of the others.
He thought about the implications of that for a moment, then reached decisively for the magazine. He'd read the car interviews, the house interviews, the baseball interviews where Tony talked about the Yankees, of all things, and now, dammit, he deserved a reward.
And it wasn't as though what he'd seen had been… distasteful.
"JARVIS?" he said again.
"Don't… don't tell Tony that I…"
"I wouldn't dream of it, sir."
He flicked open the cover of the magazine again, skipping past pages of colourful fashion and alcohol advertisements, through the first few… life models, that's what they were, references, posed carefully to avoid displaying anything untoward.
On page 37, he paused. And stared.
Despite Tony's well-cut suits, despite the close fit of the skinsuit he wore under the armour, despite the thin T-shirts and track pants he wore when they sparred, Steve had never imagined… this. The lines of Tony's body were swooping and angular, more well-muscled than he would have expected from Tony Stark, but, oddly, less so than he would have imagined of Iron Man. Pale skin – Tony really needed to get out in the sun more – contrasted with the faintest dusting of dark hair, and somehow Steve found his eyes travelling down the contours of Tony's chest, along the plane of his hip, until – but there it stopped, because of the artfully placed welding visor that Tony held across his body, blending in perfectly with the worktable he was draped over and the delicate machinery in the background.
It took Steve nearly a full minute to realize that his jaw had dropped.
He had the edge of the paper caught between his fingers, twitching them as if to turn to the next page, but clearly his fingers were not getting the message, because the page wasn't turning, and Steve wasn't stopping staring.
The door on the far side of the room flew open; Steve started, sharp intake of breath, and tossed the magazine back onto the stack as far away from him as he could.
"Uh, sorry I'm late, there was a, a thing, the War Machine armour, I had to do some really quick repairs, only they weren't exactly quick, and… uh. Steve?"
Blushing fiercely, trying to stop himself from glancing at the coffee table (there was no way Tony could tell what he'd been looking at, was there? was the magazine out of place on the pile? oh, God, had he closed it?), Steve stood up. "Tony."
He was pretty sure his voice sounded normal… or… almost normal…
Or not. "Yeah. I'm fine. Just, uh, let's talk about – " weapons, gear, technology, whatever he said just reminded him of that photograph, that worktable, that welding mask – "… equipment."
Not a better choice of words, Steve.
"Sure. You sure you're okay?"
On his way out half an hour later, flushing an even deeper shade of red than before, Steve snatched up the magazine and stuffed it deep into the front of his jacket.
Half past one in the morning and Steve was still awake, his mind racing too fast to let him rest. He wondered if this was how Tony felt every night, tinkering in his workshop until the sun began to filter in through his flight chute and he emerged in search of coffee.
Thinking about Tony wasn't helping.
Instead, he got out his sketchbook and a selection of pencils, picked out the softest one, and let his hands work with as little conscious input as possible, trying to clear his mind and get to a point where he could fall asleep. He stared into the half-dark as he drew, letting thoughts come to him, but letting them slip away again just as easily, until he glanced down at his paper and saw Tony there.
At first, he thought it was a perfect recreation of the scene from the magazine, Tony lying across a worktable, tousled hair pushed off his forehead, welding visor barely sketched in over him. But no; it wasn't quite the same. There were lines on Tony's face that weren't there in the centrefold, tiny creases in his forehead and at the corners of his eyes that spoke to the years that had passed since the photograph had been taken.
Steve wondered if he could read the rest of Tony's life in them, see the months he'd spent in Afghanistan, his struggle to survive with the arc reactor, the day-to-day stress of the work he did. He wondered if those lines spoke to lack of sleep, too much coffee, meals eaten only when Tony remembered. He wondered what that younger Tony with the knowing grin and the dark flash in his eyes would have been like.
The picture wasn't right; it never would be. He could draw the photograph he now had crumpled in the pocket of his jacket, the rest of the magazine discreetly discarded. He could frame it from memory, outline it with his eyes closed, trace it without even thinking, but it wouldn't be right. That wasn't Tony anymore, and the lines he'd set down on the page seemed empty somehow. Even with the sketched-in signs of years gone by, it still wasn't Tony.
Tony was life and laughter and anger and stubbornness and bright-eyed hints at jokes no one else understood; he was long nights and missed meetings, stern professionalism in the armour and casual disregard outside it. He was concentration, consternation, constant motion, dynamism, and maybe Tony wasn't something that could be captured on paper.
Maybe Tony wasn't something he could keep.
Sighing, he folded the half-finished sketch, tucked it into his pocket next to the photograph, and ran his hands through his hair. He'd go for a walk; going for a walk might help, and if he could get all of these thoughts out of his system, then maybe he'd be able to sleep when he got back.
Yeah. That's right. Get it all out of my system. Get Tony out of…
Steve was beginning to suspect it might be too late for that.
The mansion was dark and quiet, not even a straggler or two in the rec room despite the dim, sporadic flicker of the television. The kitchen was empty, too, and Steve tucked his sketchbook under one arm to pull open the refrigerator door, debated orange juice, and settled on the milk that someone had fortunately remembered to buy.
"Can't sleep, soldier?"
He jumped, spun around, and caught the milk jug just before it hit the ground, staring wide-eyed at Tony behind him.
"Didn't mean to startle you."
"No, I – you – it's fine. Uh, sorry."
"Little late for a nightcap," and now Tony was just making fun of him, because he'd crossed the kitchen and unearthed a bottle of brandy from a cupboard in the corner. "You want?" He held the bottle out in Steve's direction so that the amber liquid inside sloshed against the glass.
"I can't, you know. Get drunk." Jeez, what was it with him? Had he completely forgotten how to talk?
"All the more reason," Tony grinned and pulled a snifter from the cupboard as well. A generous portion of Janneau landed in the glass, which was pushed into Steve's hands, and Tony took a swallow straight from the bottle.
Steve frowned. "Are you sure you should be drinking that like that?"
"What? Yeah, no problem, bottle's almost empty, I'm not going to contaminate it for anyone else. Not that anyone else should be drinking it anyway, this stuff's not cheap, and it's not like people are starved for choice around here." A wave of his hand punctuated his sentence, as if to lay out for Steve the many alcoholic options that might have been stashed around the kitchen.
That wasn't quite what Steve had meant, of course, but he didn't seem to be communicating very well tonight, and if the bottle was almost empty anyway, it wasn't worth trying to explain. Instead, he just sighed and took a sip of the brandy he hadn't really wanted in the first place.
It was good, at least. Warmed him right up. Gave him something besides Tony to focus on.
"So," said Tony from less than a foot in front of his face, and Steve jumped again, brandy staying in the snifter more through luck than through coordination. He wished Tony would stop doing that. "What's keeping you up so late?"
"Just… just thinking about some things," he said, because he had no idea what else to say.
"Oh, yeah, things, I get that all the time," Tony agreed, and there was a twinkle in his eye that was directed just at Steve, and – well, it was the kind of thing that was liable to make Steve do something really stupid.
"I'm having trouble with a drawing," he blurted.
About half a second later, his brain caught up with him, and he had just enough time for a moment of crushing regret before Tony answered, "Trouble?"
"I…" and Steve was pretty sure he was setting a record for blushing over the past couple of days, "I've been working on some… art nude, and…"
"You're drawing naked pictures?"
"No, I – I mean… well, yes, but… not like that."
"Oh, the other kind of naked pictures."
"Tony – "
And oh. There it was.
"I could show you, if you wanted."
"Naked pictures? No offense, Steve, buddy, but I've got the Internet, I can just go, JARVIS, get me some naked pictures, and he would go – "
"The usual, sir, or would you prefer to specify a category?"
"… the usual?"
Tony blinked. "Uh, thanks for that, JARVIS, but anyway – "
"Tony," Steve said firmly; things had a way of getting lost in Tony's conversations and he very much wanted that not to happen this time. "Could I… could I draw you?"
Dead silence and yes, definitely setting records for blushing. He kept his eyes on Tony's, though, expression as neutral as he could make it, waiting for some kind of a response.
"Sure, fine, it's not like it'll be the first time I've posed naked. You do pose, right? I mean, you're not just gonna, like, check me out in the shower or something, because I, uh, I sing in there sometimes and…"
Steve held up a hand to stem the flow of words. "Yes. You pose. It's called life modelling."
"'Life modelling,' huh? Proper terminology really takes the fun out of everything. Great. When do we start?"
"Um," was Steve's articulate response.
"Tomorrow evening? After sparring? Unless there's an apocalypse or something."
Steve nodded. "Tony… thank you."
"Hey, whatever, it's nothing, no problem."
When Steve was alone in the kitchen again, he drew in a long, shaky breath and stared at the brandy snifter still clutched in one hand.
Sometimes, he really wished he could get drunk.
Tony arrived at his door about half an hour after their sparring session concluded, hair still damp from showering, thin T-shirt clinging to his shoulders in a way that ought not to be allowed. Steve permitted himself a brief moment of imagining what Tony would look like without the shirt – but then he realized with a start that he was going to get to see it, and he quickly busied himself with shuffling his sketchbooks. There were some things he just couldn't think about too hard if he was going to get through this with his dignity intact.
He'd arranged and rearranged things in his quarters half a dozen times since waking up that morning, trying to figure out what would make Tony least uncomfortable; what would make him least awkward. In the end, he'd just shoved everything back where it had started and decided that he'd leave it up to Tony.
"So, uh, I – can I get you anything? I'm sorry, I should have asked you right away." God. Smooth, Steve, smooth.
"No, no, I'm fine. So, how do you want me?"
Steve's head jerked up at the question, and oh my God, was Tony doing this deliberately, with the winking and the grinning and his choice of words right there? He was.
Fine. Steve wasn't going to rise to his bait.
"Any way you want, just make yourself comfortable," he said with forced unconcern, gesturing dismissively as he rifled through a drawer for a blending stump he knew perfectly well was already in his pocket. Giving up on the pretence of finding it, he slid the drawer shut and turned back to Tony, and –
It was just – he hadn't expected Tony to be quite so naked quite so fast.
The T-shirt and loose-fitting pants he'd been wearing were crumpled at the foot of the bed, casually tossed there by someone for whom even a two-thousand-dollar suit didn't make a dent in the petty cash. Tony, meanwhile, was reclining on the bare-bones chair Steve normally used when he was sketching, somehow managing to make even the unassuming wood grain look luxurious.
"I, uh," said Steve, "I have to get… some… stuff. I'll be right…" and he beat the hastiest retreat of his life, letting the door fall shut behind him and slumping against the wall in the corridor.
That's Tony, his brain kept saying over and over. In my quarters. Naked. Tony, naked, in my quarters. Tony. Naked. In my – God, Steve, focus, what are you, twelve?
"Captain Rogers, are you all right?"
"Yes!" he responded, knee-jerk, almost before the question had finished being asked. "Fine, thanks!"
"You looked a little… perturbed."
"No, sir, everything's fine." Could Agent Coulson tell his voice was higher than normal? Was he going to start asking awkward questions?
"… Right. Well, I'm sure you'll let us know if there's any trouble."
"Yes, sir, I will."
He heaved a sigh of relief when Coulson had retreated down the hall, and fished in his pockets for a few pencils to make it look like he'd actually been out to get something. Then, he took a deep breath, swung open the door to his room, and stepped quickly inside.
"Find everything you needed?" Tony was grinning again, and he knew, he knew that Steve hadn't really gone for his supplies.
"Yes. Thanks," Steve told him, reached for the sketchbook he'd chosen, and settled back into the extra chair. He opened the book, fingers running along smooth, heavy paper, tracing a few abortive lines along the edges of one sheet with his pencils, then looking to see the way the marks contrasted with the off-white surface of the page.
He glanced up. "Would you mind moving a little to the left?"
"The left?" and Tony shifted, stretching a little so that Steve could see the movement of muscles under skin. "Like this?"
"Mmm," but Steve was already distracted, pencil flying across the page, thick, dark marks and lighter shading merging together under steady fingers with a twist of folded paper. It was long minutes of silence, Steve looking between his sketchbook and Tony every few seconds, until he asked, "Can you… you're sort of… hunched over. It's hard to get the light."
"Oh, uh…" Tony dropped his gaze and, for the first time since he'd shown up at Steve's door, looked hesitant. "It's just that I, I have…" He let his shoulders drop a little, opened his arms over his chest, and Steve's eyes landed on the arc reactor.
The arc reactor.
"Oh, God, I'm sorry." How could he have forgotten that that might bother Tony? How could he have forgotten that that, of all things, had changed since the photograph still in his jacket pocket? He'd known it was there, had even begun drawing in the way the light reflected on Tony's face, but it had never even occurred to him that that might be a problem for Tony. "I didn't mean… you don't have to – "
"It's fine, Steve. Steve. It's okay, really. See?" He tapped the glowing surface of the arc reactor, tiny, tinny sounds that died before they could reverberate.
Steve reached out, hesitated, and asked, "Can I – ?"
Tony nodded and Steve leaned forward, brushing over the surface – warmer than he'd expected from the smooth glass and cold, blue light. His fingers ran over it, exploring; he memorized textures, watched the light play off the reactor onto his hand, their skin, Tony's face.
And then he met Tony's eyes, dark and intense and unblinking, and realized what he was doing.
"Sorry – " he gasped, backpedalling, "sorry, I didn't mean to."
Tony just nodded hesitantly, looking as though he wanted to say something and couldn't quite find the words for it. Steve went back to sketching, but it felt different now. Every time he put a few lines down on the paper, he'd frown and shake his head and smudge them off again with his eraser; every time he looked up, his gaze connected with Tony's, sparking across the gap between them so that he could hardly pull his eyes away to focus on anything else.
Finally, he spoke – not to Tony, but to the lines he'd just erased on his paper. "JARVIS, could you dim the lights, please?"
"Yes, sir. How would you like them?"
"How low do they go?"
Instead of answering, JARVIS just dropped the lights until they were almost entirely absent, save one softly-focused glow over Steve's shoulder onto the sketchbook. Steve, about to thank him, looked up from the page again, and froze.
In the darkness, Tony was illuminated almost entirely by the arc reactor, profile of his body barely visible against the backdrop of the room. The crisp luminescence emphasized the angles of his face, tracing light across his jawline, throwing his cheekbones into deep contrast. The effect was electric; Steve's breath caught in his throat and Tony watched him from the shadows, unmoving.
The pencils were tossed carelessly onto the nightstand; those weren't what Steve needed anymore. Instead, he slid a thin box out of his top drawer. He'd been waiting to use these, never quite sure that it was the time for them, that his work deserved them. The charcoals were the first thing he had bought with the money he earned at S.H.I.E.L.D., and yet here they were, still intact in their packaging.
Just touching the edge of the soft charcoal to the paper was enough; that was it, it felt right, and he layered and layered, shadows stretching out across the page to match the ones in the room, Tony's form emerging vaguely from the shading. Silence wrapped around them as effectively as darkness, no sound but the faint hum of the arc reactor and the soft whisper of charcoal on paper.
And Steve, almost unwilling to shatter the sensation, looked up to ask Tony to tilt his head just a little, and Tony glanced at the sketchbook in Steve's hands, and they just –
The hand holding the charcoal slowed against the page, thick line trailing off unnoticed, and Tony's eyes travelled from the drawing up to Steve, his eyebrows drawing together in an unspoken question.
Steve held out the book, then slid off the chair and over, close enough so that Tony could reach it, close enough so that he could try to read Tony's reactions in the fine details of his face. The page was nearly saturated with black now, shadows filling the hollows of Tony's body, covering him so that nothing but a faint outline was visible, and his face, lit up by the arc reactor's incandescent glow.
This, to Steve, was Tony – surrounded by shadow, but with light to counter it; light he had created himself, light that was uniquely Tony's own. Tony didn't like to show it, preferring instead to hide behind glitter and glamour, wrap himself in other people's lives until no one looked past the surface layers to see who Tony really was. But here, now, without any of his layers… this was the Tony Steve knew. The Tony Steve wanted to know.
Tony turned the book, slowly, looked at the sketch, looked at Steve. Looked at the sketch. Looked at Steve.
Heart racing, Steve didn't dare to speak. What if Tony hated it? What if he made some kind of stupid joke? What if he just… left?
The only thing that didn't go through his head was – what if Tony put the sketchbook down, fisted both hands deliberately into Steve's shirt, pulled him in and kissed him, warm skin on warm skin, faint scratch of stubble on dry lips? What if he let lips and teeth and tongue catch against Steve's, exploring, communicating things there was no way he would ever say in words? What if he unlocked his fingers from the shirt, wrapped one hand around the back of Steve's neck, tangled the other in his hair, and deepened the kiss until Steve thought he would never breathe again?
What if he let go, gasping, pulled back wild-eyed and stared at Steve in horror, like he'd just broken some kind of unwritten rule, crossed some line that somewhere, somehow, he had sworn never to cross?
Steve didn't know what else to do, and the look in Tony's eyes was too much, it was all wrong, walls sliding back into place, Tony vanishing behind the layers of internal armour he had built around himself. So he just caught Tony's face in both his hands, traced his thumbs carefully along the cheekbones he had been outlining with charcoal just minutes ago, and whispered, "Hey. Don't go."
Under his hands, he felt Tony tremble.
"Where," he said with effort, "would I go?"
Steve kissed him.
"I am naked in Captain America's bedroom. In the dark. Kissing Captain America. Steve, where… the hell… do you think I would ever go?"
Steve kissed him.
Tony kissed back, and Steve felt the tension in his shoulders slip away, felt the way Tony relaxed against him, still shaking, still breathing fast, but with him.
"Do you want to maybe," he said, gesturing to the sketchbook on the floor, "finish this later?"
"Yes," Tony said, "dear God, yes, what are you, why are we even still talking – " and he let Steve's kiss take away his words, let Steve's hands pull him gently from the chair and toward the bed, let Steve's lips make heated promises against his skin that chased away the shadows and let the light take their place.
It was enough for a start.