In retrospect, Tony probably got the idea when they visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“You know,” he’d said, “I don’t think you’ve ever told me how this artist thing got started.”
They were sitting at the café in the American Wing of the museum; Steve had learnt there was no use protesting Tony’s choice of dining area by now, even though museum cafés had a tendency to be ridiculously over-priced, and had remained quiet as Tony had picked a table as remotely located from the rest of the crowd as possible.
Easier said than done on a Sunday afternoon when most people were free from work, but the sound level wasn’t bad enough to be unpleasant. Tony had settled for an espresso while Steve had resolutely not picked a slice of apple pie.
“When did you decide you wanted to be an engineer?”
Tony raised an eyebrow. The look on his face was the same expression he could put on while playing a pop quiz on one of those Friday nights when the team couldn’t agree on what movie to watch; like the answer was so simple it had to be a trick question.
“It’s the family business. Even if I wasn’t a genius that’s the trade I would’ve been raised to take over. Doesn’t help that’s the one thing I’ve always been good at. I’ve never considered another option.”
He raised the cup of espresso and inhaled deeply before putting it to his mouth. In this day and age, the coffee industry was apparently a lot more varied than it had been in Steve’s time. Or maybe that was just Tony, who tasted coffee the way some people tasted fine wine – at least when it was past nine o’clock in the morning and he’d had his daily dose of caffeine.
There was foam in his moustache when he put down the cup again. Steve smiled.
“It wouldn’t have been what you wanted if you didn’t have passion for it, was my point,” he paused and stabbed his slice of Devil’s food cake trying to find the words. “I’ve always loved drawing. When I was a kid that was one of the few things I could do as well as anyone else, if not better, regardless of my health.”
He remembered spending days in bed, listening to the sound of the city, fragments of other people’s lives drifting in through the window while his mother worked from early morning to evening trying to make a living for the two of them. Books had been the best company then, old and brittle things left from his father or borrowed from the library; at least until one day his mother had come home with a low-quality sketch pad and crude pencils.
“We couldn’t afford good paper, or any paper at all from time to time, but I didn’t really need that either. As long as you have a pencil, you can draw. On napkins, old newspapers… It was something I could dedicate myself completely to.”
One harsh winter when he was thirteen, he’d drawn on the torn off edges of the morning newspapers, snatched from other people’s trash or the street. When the pencil had become nothing more than a stump there had been coal from the fireplace; messy and impossible to do delicate work with, but it gave him something to do, a distraction from the fact that he couldn’t do anything that mattered at all.
To punctuate his short monologue, Steve finally put a piece of the cake in his mouth and waited for Tony’s reply.
“To be honest, I would’ve thought you’d be more of a writer,” he said and grinned. “You’ve always had so many things to say.”
Steve had always had many things to say and he wasn’t the kind of person to keep quiet about them either, but maybe that had been the thing. As a child he’d had his head full of ideas that he’d never written down, fantastical stories like those in the leather-bound classics from the library or the pulp paperbacks sold down the corner of the street. But he’d never felt the urge to write them down, had settled for trying to put the stories in the lines of an image instead.
“Mostly I’m a visual person, I suppose,” he said, “Like nothing I could say in words would be more powerful than an image.”
“You do realize you’re one of the patron saints of modern rhetoric, right? The only American speeches more famous are the Gettysburg Address and “I have a dream.””
Steve felt his face heat up at that comparison. He still wasn’t entirely used to the iconic status Captain America had reached the decades after the war, and he doubted he ever would be. There was something extremely disconcerting about being compared to people like Martin Luther King, who had had true vision and fought hard for what they knew was right against the majority’s prejudice, which was much more dangerous and prevalent than Nazis. The only thing Steve had ever wanted to do was to help.
“I really hope you’re exaggerating about that. And there’s a difference between holding a speech and writing. It’s as much about how you speak as what you’re actually saying, and there’s a way to convey emotion I don’t think I could replicate in text.”
It was the same way a prose writer didn’t necessarily write good poetry, or a painter excelling at using aquarelle colors didn’t automatically do well with oils.
“But you can in images,” Tony replied. “I’m not questioning you or anything, just curious. I’ve never been very artistic.”
Maybe not in the traditional sense, Steve thought, but there was something intricately artistic about some of the effort Tony would put into the design of his inventions. Design was just as much about style as it was about function, after all. And Tony knew what it was like to create, loved the entire process of it and dedicated himself to it completely. It was one of the things Steve loved about him.
“My mom made me learn how to play the piano when I was eight, but I suspect that only worked so well because I thought of the notes as mathematical equations.”
The Avengers had found Tony’s mother’s old photo album once. After Tony had ended up accidentally blasting Peter into a wall and crushing Logan’s right foot trying to secure it, it had kind of become a thing of legend, lost to time and a high security system. The only spoil of the skirmish they’d retrieved was a Polaroid picture of a small boy with messy black hair and big eyes with a look of such strong innocence it was obvious he was going to do something with the screwdriver in his hand everyone would be sorry about later.
Jan had triumphantly put the photo on the fridge. Tony had yet to notice, presumably because he gravitated towards the coffee maker whenever he entered the kitchen.
Steve imagined that young Tony, tongue sticking out in concentration and a frown on his face as he tried to put half notes and quarter notes together; the same expression Steve had seen on his face while leaning over a fried circuit in the armor, or the front page of the morning newspaper at seven AM. He felt warmth bloom in his chest at the mental image and smiled.
“If you handled music as well as math, you must’ve played like a prodigy.”
“Flatterer,” Tony grinned, “I did okay, I guess. If it hadn’t bored my eight-year-old self to tears I might’ve become really good at it. Kids, you know.”
“No appreciation for the fine arts,” Steve said and shook his head in mock concern.
“Except for you, of course. And you still draw.”
True; or at least he tried to. When Steve drew, it was usually in an armchair in the living room or by the desk in his bedroom, hunched over his sketch pad. Since he’d been defrosted Steve hadn’t had as much time as he would’ve liked to sit down and let himself get lost in the lines the way he had when he was still in art school.
There was always something demanding his time and attention; one day New York was infested with fire-breathing pigeons, the other the Masters of Evil had their monthly reunion party with lots of innocent bystanders. When the Avengers got back no one was really in the mood for anything that demanded too much attention, which was probably the reason they usually ended up in front of the TV watching the latest romcom or Disney movie every Friday evening.
There were more quiet weeks, of course, and sometimes he did get around to do something that demanded more effort; a painting, or sketches from spending a couple of hours in a park trying to capture the passer-bys on paper. But those calmer days were not as common as Steve preferred.
“Not as much as I’d like,” he said. “I draw a lot, but that’s mostly doodles or messy sketches. I don’t think I’ve sat down and let myself work on a picture from scratch in ages, even less colored it properly.”
Unlike Tony, he was unwilling to sacrifice sleep for the sake of self-indulgence. Even if he did need less sleep than most.
Across the table, Tony raised an inquiring eyebrow.
“Some universities and culture centers arrange sittings for hobby artists; croquis, that sort of stuff. It’s usually free or very cheap. Could check out something like that if you haven’t already.”
“I’ve been meaning to, but haven’t got around to it.”
They dropped the topic after that and found other things to talk about. Tony complained about the board of directors and heads of the R&D department at Stark Industries. For all that Tony was the CEO of a multi-billion company, there was still something refreshingly mundane about being able to sit in a café a Sunday afternoon, listening to a friend complaining about his workplace. Like they could lean back and pretend that the world wouldn’t need saving yet again in the close future, just for a while.
Steve wasn’t naïve, didn’t like to think of Tony as his, and it was in moments like this he was reminded that it didn’t matter if Tony never returned his feelings as long as this friendship between them remained.
It made him feel silly to think that he had been afraid, if only for an instant, that Tony might not want to spend time like this with him anymore.
* * *
When Steve came out of the proverbial closet, he was only half aware he’d been in it in the first place.
Logically, he knew that he’d never explicitly told anyone about his personal preferences or love life (or lack thereof) because no one had ever asked; nor had it seemed relevant to bring up in conversation. But Steve himself had never tried to hide it, and even though he’d probably be lying if he said it wasn’t partly out of habit – having grown up in a time where showing romantic affection towards someone of the same sex was punishable by law – he still felt like something he hadn’t known was out of place had been settled once he found out that homosexual behavior was legal now.
Steve was satisfied to know that he would be able to answer honestly and that none of the people who mattered would think less of him whenever it was brought up.
Even with that attitude the moment of revelation to his team had been sort of anti-climactic.
“Does it ever bother any of you that every member of this team is essentially single?”
Steve glanced at Jan over the newspaper. She was standing by the kitchen counter in a tank top and pajama pants the same shade of glaring pink as her Giant-Girl costume, plastic cup of yogurt in one hand and an inquiring frown on her face.
Across the table, Tony had buried his face in a coffee mug as usual, Ororo serenely ate her müsli and Wolverine had dug into a breakfast that would’ve made any Englishman Steve had served with weep with joy. Peter had left early for work and Bruce was away for a couple of days for research purposes.
Steve folded and put down the newspaper.
“I thought you and Doctor Pym have been seeing each other for a while now?”
“Yes, and no,” Jan sighed. “We’ve been dating for almost a month, but I’m not sure Hank realizes we’re actually dating.”
“Ah,” he said. “Then why don’t you tell him? I never got the impression you were the sort of girl to wait for a man to sweep her off her feet.”
“She isn’t,” Tony added, voice thick and gruff like every morning.
He had put down the coffee cup and raised an eyebrow at Jan over by the counter. Tony wasn’t a morning person; he’d once jokingly claimed he’d be taking caffeine intravenously if he thought he could get away with it. Until then, he made do with a minimum of three cups of coffee per morning.
Tony needed it too, judging by the dark rings under his eyes and the fact he was still wearing the oil-stained wifebeater he worked in. Steve would say something about that if he hadn’t breached the subject a hundred other mornings and Tony never once had promised he’d try to do something to change this bad habit.
“Ask him if the interest is mutual,” he told Jan instead. “Alternatively, sweep him off his feet yourself.”
“I probably will, I’m just… kind of afraid I’ll scare him off? I don’t want to make things awkward,” she replied. “Well, more awkward. Hank is kind of awkward by default; it’s a geek thing apparently.”
“I don’t think you have anything to worry about,” Tony injected dryly.
“Although, who says I can’t want to be swept away once in a while?” she added and made a stabbing motion with her spoon towards Steve, “I doubt you’d appreciate the finer points of being swept off your feet by a man.”
And there it was. A perfect opening. Steve didn’t spend any time on considering the consequences before he opened his mouth to reply:
“You’d be surprised.”
There was a second or two of silence as everyone present let the implications of that sentence sink in. Enough time for Steve to feel a tinge of fear curl at the pit of his stomach, more out of deep-rooted habit than anything else; he quickly banished it to the part of his mind containing all the things about the 1940s he absolutely did not miss.
Jan raised her eyebrows in a look of pleased surprise.
Ororo looked up with an unreadable expression that quickly morphed into a smile before she returned to her breakfast.
Logan opened a beer.
(In retrospect, the only person who had been upset had been Peter, and that was because he didn’t find out until Tony had draped himself over Steve for movie night more than a month later. And even then it was actually because he was the last one to find out; Bruce had literally stumbled upon them kissing in the hallway five days earlier.)
“Okay, no, there’s nothing I can say to counter that,” Jan admitted, but Steve wasn’t listening to her.
Tony had been staring at him for a couple of moments with a wide-eyed expression Steve would probably classify as “dazed” before breaking into a smile that simultaneously made him weak in the knees and banished the last lingering threads of fear.
Nothing was going to change. Well, not for the worse anyway; no awkwardness or outright distaste. That was all he had worried about, really; an unrequited crush was frustrating but bearable. Having the man he loved feeling uncomfortable around him on the other hand, that would’ve hurt.
“Of course,” Steve replied and locked gaze with him. Tony didn’t stop smiling.
“’Just tell him’, right,” Jan muttered and rolled her eyes. “It’s too early in the morning for hypocrisy.”
Steve still wasn’t listening. Apparently, neither was Tony.
* * *
They’d gone for a walk once they’d finished their rounds at the museum, ended up having dinner out in a small Italian and didn’t step into the elevator to their living quarters in Stark Tower until twenty minutes past nine.
Art had been brought into the discussion again, but in a less personal manner than before (Tony, from a purely aesthetic point of view, did not get the deal with the Dutch Renaissance; Steve felt compelled to object mostly based on the personal principle that all art had some sort of value). At some point Tony told him to look up places open for croquis sessions as soon as possible. The past week had been unusually quiet for them and Steve should take his opportunity while it lasted. Steve nodded and smiled as they stepped out of the elevator and assured him he would.
“Are you going to bed?” Tony asked.
“Mm, soon. Thought I’d search for sketching sessions first. I’ve found some places before but it’s been a while now, they might not be open anymore, or the dates have changed.”
They were walking down the corridor and Steve slowed down in front of the door to Tony’s room, opposite to Steve’s right at the end of the hall. The four rooms there were bigger than the others and to be perfectly honest Steve found it more than a little disconcerting to wake up in a queen-sized bed every morning. But back when he and Tony recently had started to befriend one another and Steve still had nightmares about gunfire and unbreakable ice it had been a small comfort, even if Tony hadn’t always been in the other room.
It had taken some time before the rest of the team found out about the nightmares; Steve wasn’t loud when he woke up, didn’t need much sleep to begin with and hadn’t wanted to impose on people he still wasn’t more than an acquaintance of. But at some point he’d been unable to go back to sleep, had decided to go for a glass of milk in the kitchen and stumbled upon Tony with greasy clothes, disheveled hair and eyes wild from shaping the future down in his workshop.
Steve had told him then. Tony had started going to bed, or at least done theoretic work in his bedroom, more often from that point on. Steve had known almost immediately, because he’d started leaving the door open for light to pool out of the room whenever Steve got out of bed between three and four AM.
They stood quiet in front of the bedroom door for a moment; Tony started leaning against the wall, apparently waiting for Steve to say good night so he could sneak off to do some nocturnal work. He honestly wished Tony wouldn’t do that nearly every evening; he didn’t have superhuman stamina, as much as he seemed to think so.
“What can I say to make you go to bed early tonight?” he asked with an exasperated smile.
Intelligent blue eyes looked up at him through a curtain of long, dark lashes and the smirk that spread over Tony Stark’s face was positively lascivious. It spoke of wrinkled sheets and smooth skin in a way that made Steve’s life extremely difficult as he tried to fight a blush.
“I don’t know, Steve, got any ideas?”
Himself, Tony and a bed seemed like a winning combination, but telling that to the man you had an unrequited crush on was perhaps not the best idea. Steve sucked in a quick breath and slowly exhaled as quietly as possible, hoping Tony wasn’t feeling particularly perceptive tonight.
“I’ll-- come back when I do,” he tried. Tony’s smirk faltered, turned into something less flirty and more… safe.
He felt as though there should be more to it than this. They were standing in front of the door to Tony’s bedroom, having spent a blissfully quiet day out topped with dinner and Tony was smiling at him, looking warm and content in a way he seldom did, like this day had rejuvenated him as much as eight hours of sleep would have. Steve suppressed a shiver as he had a vivid mental image of waking up next to Tony in the morning, that lazy but happy smile on his lips.
If this had been a movie, Steve would kiss Tony good night. Steve wanted to kiss Tony good night, to take his hand and press his lips softly against the other man’s.
Instead, he did an awkward sort of shuffle sideways and backwards, towards his own bedroom.
“Good night, Tony.”
Tony waved at him as he straightened from his lounge against the wall.
“Good night, Steve.”
* * *
There was something decidedly karmic about the way the Avengers barely managed to catch a breath the week after that.
First, the trees in Central Park came to life to wreak havoc upon every unsuspecting kid riding a skateboard or hefting a baseball bat before starting to attack more indiscriminately. Later in the afternoon on the same day there were two bank robberies conducted by people with superhuman abilities around the same time on opposite ends of the city and the team had to split in two to deal with them.
Afterwards they’d stayed to help clean up the mess, but not for too long before a security breach at Stark Tower had to be dealt with, although luckily in a fight against the clock more than brute strength, as the breach was conducted by some former employee of Tony’s turned cyber terrorist.
And that was only on Monday.
Come next Sunday, Steve had entirely forgotten that he’d had plans to indulge in anything less physically exhausting than throwing his shield around.
Tony, it would turn out, hadn’t.
* * *
As an Avenger, you learn to be prepared for the unexpected.
Steve had fought disconcertingly well-organized snake cults, fended off amorous sentient planets, switched body with his teammates while battling Nazis and explored cyberspace. The other day he’d witnessed how Spider-Man accidentally blew up the television set because Tony failed to mention that he’d turned the remote control into a laser during a bout of insomnia.
And that wasn't even counting all the things he'd witnessed during the war, before he got frozen and thawed out in the 21st century; Steve was fairly sure it was reasonable for him to claim he'd seen practically everything to be seen (until the universe proved him wrong) and that he was as well-prepared for it as you could be.
Nothing in the entire multiverse could have prepared him for the sight of Tony Stark lounging naked in his bed that welcomed him the next day.
Steve promptly slammed the door shut.
Then he made sure that it was, in fact, his bedroom behind said door and opened it again with a strange mix of guilt, embarrassment and excitement. But mostly embarrassment.
"Hi Tony. I, um. I thought you were supposed to be in the workshop."
Not that Tony kept a schedule, since he seemed to base his life philosophy on the extremely subjective truth that schedules happened to other people; mostly to a red-haired woman called Pepper Potts, in fact. But whenever there was time not spent being dragged to board meetings or fighting supervillains Tony probably spent 75 % of it down in his workshop, working on some new invention or repairing and upgrading the armor so he would be prepared for next time they had to prevent someone from conquering (or eating) the world.
Tony raised an eyebrow. Steve tried to concentrate on that instead of anything below his collarbone.
"It's not like I keep a schedule."
Peeking out from behind the door made Steve feel even more like some kind of peeping tom, so he gingerly stepped inside and closed the door.
Technically, it wasn't the first time he'd seen Tony naked. The training facility in Stark Tower had showers, of course, and there had been that one memorable occasion when the armor had been taken out of commission by Bad Guy of the Week. Tony had ended up crawling through the ventilators without a single thread on his body to reach the electrical cabinet and cut the current in order to prevent every display dummy in New York to gain sentience. Steve had been too distracted by Bad Guy of the Week and his plastic henchmen to even consider appreciating the view properly.
But it was one thing to catch sight of someone else's naked body in the locker room, where nudity was pretty much a requirement, or during a fight over the fate of shopaholics all over the city, and quite another thing entirely to find your best friend lounging in your bed with a distinct lack of clothes.
Boundaries, Steve thought. Steve had boundaries; Tony clearly didn't. No surprise there.
"Anyway", Tony continued, "I thought I was going to help you out with your artistic endeavors. Croquis, was it?"
"Okay. I mean no. Yes. Croquis, yeah. I’ve been thinking about it.”
He had been meaning to do croquis at some point, when he had time to attend any of the various sessions arranged in the afternoons, but he hadn’t gotten around to it yet. This was as good a time as any, the artist in him thought – or maybe that was his libido in clever disguise.
Probably the latter, as Steve’s inner artist idly pointed out that a bed would hardly be the best prop when the model was expected to change position after a couple of minutes; Steve doubted Tony could stay still long enough for a detailed figure drawing.
Tony smiled and Steve couldn’t help but smile back.
“So, how do you want me?”
Steve’s jaw worked uselessly for a couple of seconds before he managed to reply.
“Are you sure? I wouldn’t want you to waste time when you have something better you could be doing…”
“Armor repaired, fuel capacity of the Quinjet improved and I fixed the microwave oven Hulk smashed last week. All in a day’s work. Thought I could afford to let someone else take advantage of me for a while.”
Unfortunate choice of words aside, that was nice. It wasn’t like Steve had anything against spending time with Tony, or art, or any combination of the two. It was just that the lack of clothing… made him uncomfortable, a feeling that spoke very loudly about his feelings for Tony. Steve had never had an issue with nude models before, and he highly doubted more than five decades in the ice would’ve changed that in any way. But Tony was different because Steve knew him; knew how desirable he was, not just physically.
He could, Steve supposed, kindly decline the offer. It was unlikely Tony would take offense, only look at him, feign hurt and complain about Steve not appreciating the things Tony does for him. But Tony would get up, get dressed and tell him he’d be in the workshop or the living room for the rest of the afternoon and evening, and Steve would sheepishly thank him for the offer. He’d spend the next hour either putting down his feelings of frustration on a canvas or under the running water of a cold shower. And then they’d never speak of that time Tony ambushed him naked in his bedroom again.
On the other hand, Tony had taken some musing Steve had shared with him almost two weeks ago and taken it to heart, if in a very unconventional manner. They were probably past the point when this would have felt strange for both of them; it’s easy to grow close to people you team up with against alien invasions and mutated house pets on an almost daily basis.
Just because Steve had feelings for Tony it didn’t mean he had an excuse to reject a favor his friend was ready to sacrifice time to do for him, especially not when he could’ve spent the hour he’d be lying on Steve’s bed to do something much more productive.
“What do you know about croquis?”
* * *
It was easier to sink into the familiar role of artistic detachment, Steve found, once he’d sat down and let the pencil slide over the paper until he could see the outline of Tony’s back taking shape, the curve of his spine and shoulder blades.
He’d given a more detailed explanation of what kind of performance Tony as a model should aspire to during a croquis sitting; Steve was completely convinced he’d seen the other man deflate a little with relief when Steve told him he should change position after three to five minutes, although of course he wouldn’t admit it. When Tony had asked if there was something in particular Steve wanted to practice, he’d told him to start out with his back towards him for some rounds and then do as he pleased. It didn’t matter if the poses were outlandish or unnatural, since the main point of croquis was to filter out details to catch the basic anatomy and pose.
Steve would’ve liked to make more detailed sketches at some point; even from a purely artistic point of view, Tony was very attractive, with his toned skin and long limbs.
Being able to study the other man’s body for an extended amount of time left something aching in him though, and not simply from physical desire. It wasn’t just the way Tony’s back curved, or his lithe muscles, or how his dark hair and fine eyebrows made Steve’s fingers itch for coal.
It was Tony’s smile, for one; sometimes when he turned around to face him Steve could see a small, soft curve at the corner of his mouth and sometimes a small frown between his eyes. The smile was nothing like and yet just as enticing as the enthusiastic grin the other man would break into when gesticulating about some new and exciting invention waiting on his work table. Even when Tony was encased in armor, Steve knew when he was wearing that smile.
He wondered if Tony would agree to sit for him for a proper figure sketch at some point. Steve had sketched him before, of course; in front of the TV for example, when Tony was dozing on the couch on a lazy afternoon after pulling another all-nighter, or simply from Steve’s own memory.
But none of the results had been satisfactory and in the small space at the back of his mind unoccupied by getting the lines down on paper Steve wondered if that had less to do with his talent as an artist and Tony simply being… Tony. Tony, who never seemed to slow down until he ran out of fuel, who has little patience for board meetings but is willing to be dragged through art gallery upon art gallery with Steve.
It had unnerved him when they’d first pulled him out of the ice and leading the Avengers wasn’t something he was familiar with. The way Tony could storm into a room and shake it up before leaving as suddenly as he’d come, or effortlessly glide between glamorous socialites at a charity event; for a while Steve had thought that Tony didn’t care to spend time with other people. He’d felt bad about it, because Steve didn’t like to make such accusations towards his teammates even in the privacy of his own head.
After a while, of course, when the team had grown tighter and Stark Industries hadn’t been attacked by nanobot hackers (because apparently eliminating a threat like that has a tendency to take a lot of time and effort), Steve had found that Tony was quite swell, really, but also a rather busy man.
Friendship, it turned out, is quickly forged in battle against spandex-wearing megalomaniacs later combined with an introduction to the works of J.R.R Tolkien.
After another while he’d found that the reason Tony was so busy was because he cared a lot. If he stayed up all night it was because Tony felt 24 hours was way too short to finish everything he wanted to get done. To be the CEO of an international multi-billion company, head of its R&D department, part-time superhero and still leave time for armor repairs and team bonding wasn’t easy to squeeze into the schedule of one single day.
Tony wanted too much, had too much passion for one man to contain. By the time Steve had realized how driven Tony was, he’d also discovered he was halfway to being completely smitten with the man.
And yet, Tony always made time to be with Steve. Sure, they stole some time from their Avengers duties; sitting down in the park for a snack or stopping by a sports hall while on patrol. But Tony had never turned down an invitation from Steve in his spare time unless he’d had a very good reason to do so.
Steve knew it was indulgent, but he liked to think of himself as a balancing influence in Tony’s life and that maybe Tony knew that as well. That for every sleepless night there would be one when Steve made him go to bed early and that for every heroic task or mind-numbing charity gala there’d be an art gallery and a café serving Devil’s food cake.
That Steve would always be there, whether they were facing extraterrestrial threats or the more mundane challenges of a civilian life.
It seemed oddly appropriate to capture Tony like this then. Not with gentle lines, shades and details trying to catch the looks of someone who was too complex to be put down on paper with nothing more than a stick of coal, but with fast and bold strokes capturing glimpses of something whole.
If this was a one-time thing and Tony didn’t volunteer for anything like it again, Steve consoled himself with the knowledge that he’d have made the best of it.
* * *
“There. It’s been more than an hour now, Tony.”
On the bed, Tony sighed as he went limp and rolled onto his stomach. Up to that point, he’d been striking a familiar pose Steve deeply suspected was consciously nicked from the Rokeby Venus.
“Finally . Next time, we do this on a flat surface. My shoulders are protesting most vehemently, thank you very much.”
Steve turned around to put his sketchpad and pencils away on the desk. He had been unable not to notice how Tony’s limbs would tremble from time to time; probably not from keeping the pose itself, he was in good shape after all, but rather from trying to keep his balance.
When Tony’s words sunk in he almost pulled a muscle whipping his head around.
Steve tried not to wince and hoped he didn’t sound as hopeful as he thought. If he did, Tony didn’t make any of it and simply shrugged.
“If you want there to be a next time? With emphasis on ‘time’. Man, I hope you appreciate the things I do for you, Steve.”
“Well, someone has to appreciate the things you do, Tony”, he chuckled in reply, trying not to think too hard about how true that really was. He sat down on the edge of the bed. If Tony rolled to his left now, he’d press his face into Steve’s thigh. Steve took a moment to appreciate the new angle he was presented with from this position, admired the column of Tony’s throat and the strange new lines and shadows that appeared from this perspective.
You’d think he’d be a bit more familiar with the other man after having drawn him naked for the past hour, but Steve wasn’t really surprised to find that he still enjoyed looking at Tony, seeing him in every different way he could. Never mind that he wouldn’t be able to put them all down on paper properly.
“Thank you,” Steve added.
“You’re welcome,” Tony smiled as he sat up before scooting closer to Steve again. He still hadn’t put his clothes on and Steve could feel the heat of his body this close; he wasn’t sure if he was supposed to be mortally embarrassed by that or not. Once the improvised croquis sitting was over the sense of guilt over ogling your best friend in the nude had returned. “And I’m sorry.”
Steve was about to ask what Tony could possibly feel the need to apologize for in a situation like this when Tony leaned forward and pressed his lips against his.
Steve wasn’t sure how he’d imagined kissing Tony would be like. Nice, of course; deep and languid, but not dirty, or at least not the first time. Hopefully drawn out or followed by another.
He certainly hadn’t imagined himself squeaking against Tony’s lips, causing the other man to pull back way too quickly.
“I said I was sorry, would you please not make me feel even more guilty? I wanted to at least know what that was like, before surrendering to the overwhelming evidence pointing towards the fact that you’re not the least bit interested in me as more than a friend, Steve.”
Tony sighed and leaned forward, hand searching for something on the floor. After a moment Steve realized he was looking for his clothes; apparently he’d hidden them from plain sight under the bed. Good thing; Steve had started to fear Tony had walked into his room naked. Before that train of thought had been blocked by Tony’s lips, that was.
“Look, I mean it. I’m sorry. I just thought…” he sighed again, “No, that’s a lie, I wasn’t thinking. Not with my brain, at least, because hey, if you’re going to reveal you’ve had a ridiculous infatuation with your clearly-not-interested teammate for ages, why not do it naked in bed after having posed indecently for croquis sketches for the past hour? That was a rhetorical question by the way, I don’t doubt you could come up with at least fifty reasons why not to reveal your ridiculous infatuation with—“
Tony needed to shut up. And stop disappearing beneath layers of clothing.
“Tony, shut up.” Steve put a finger to his lip.
For a long, terrifying moment Tony did keep quiet; long enough for Steve to let his confession sink in, to revel in the way his stomach seemed to churn with both happiness and paralyzing fear at the same time, the way his heart felt strangely soft and sore where it lay beating in his chest, like someone had squeezed it too tight before letting go.
He was about to say something when Tony kissed him again. The fact that he was smiling and tracing the edge of Tony’s goatee with his thumb probably gave him away.
It was better when Steve was actually prepared for it, but still more tentative than he’d imagined, like Tony couldn’t quite believe they were actually kissing. Steve wrapped a large hand around the other man’s neck to keep him in place before licking his lower lip; he felt more high-strung than he ever had in battle, still bursting with happiness and disbelief. So he chose to concentrate on the feeling of Tony’s slightly chapped lips and the soft hair at the back of his neck for a little longer before pulling away. As dizzying as kissing Tony was, he couldn’t hold back the words gathering on his tongue for too long before they threatened to spill out.
When he opened his mouth, Steve felt like he could be breaking something with his words just as well as he could be making it, make it more real. It was an absolutely terrifying feeling.
Tony just smiled and that made Steve lean forward yet again to kiss the corners of his mouth.
“I didn’t think you wanted this,” he murmured. Tony pulled back slightly before he swayed forward to rest on Steve’s shoulder and groaned.
“I flirt with you at every opportunity that presents itself and you didn’t think I wanted you? You do wonders for my inflated ego, Cap.”
Tony did flirt with him a lot, but Tony flirted with everyone. He probably wasn’t even aware that he was doing it. The fact that he’d expected Steve to take notice somehow seemed monstrously unfair, especially since it would have spared Steve an unknown number of weeks of unrequited love if he had noticed.
“If I were to assume you wanted a relationship with everyone and everything you’ve flirted with this week only, I’d have to share you with Jan, Ororo, Bruce, Pepper, the waitress at the Indian place, that new police officer, the coffee maker and your armor.”
He paused, scooted back a bit to give Tony some space as he felt hesitation welling up in his chest. “If you are interested in a relationship, that is.”
It was Tony’s turn to snort, this time in disbelief, and Steve stopped moving as he braced himself for the answer to his question.
“Steve, I spend entire afternoons at museums and art galleries with you. I have dinner with you at least two times a week. I flirt and we go on dates and it didn’t occur to you to think that I was interested?”
“We’ve been dating?” Steve blurted out, not sure if he should feel excited or frustrated about missing something that big. Tony smiled like it was the better alternative to start banging his head against the wall.
“The first thing I did when you came out was to ask you out. But you didn’t pick up on any on my cues, and you’ve known I’m bi for a long time, so—“
“You told me not to trust those magazines!”
“Well, in this case, they were right. So I thought you weren’t interested.”
“But we’ve been doing all those things, the meeting up and eating out, for almost as long as we’ve known each other,” he protested weakly. The idea that Tony had been hoping, mentally dancing around him the way Steve had with Tony while Steve was completely oblivious to his advances made his stomach twist.
“Yeah, well, basically I’ve been coming onto you for a long time, but I didn’t actually think there was a possibility that you’d reciprocate.”
Tony didn’t meet his eyes as Steve let that revelation sink in.
“And then you sneaked into my room and lay down on my bed. Naked.”
“Not my proudest moment, that,” Tony admitted as he squinted to inspect something very fascinating he’d found in the ceiling, “If posing suggestively for naked pictures for an entire hour didn’t do it for you I told myself I’d back off.”
So apparently Tony hadn’t noticed the way Steve had kept shifting and crossing his legs at first.
“It, um, did. I thought you just wanted to help.”
“By ambushing you naked in your bed? Steve, who does that?” Tony asked incredulously. “The only thing that could’ve made it more obvious would’ve been greeting you with a rose between my teeth! Which I did consider, by the way, but that would’ve been too desperate even for me. “
He couldn’t help it; Steve laughed, loud and clear, and he got the feeling Tony would have been looking incredibly offended if Steve hadn’t taken his hand and entwined their fingers. As it was, he just looked like he’d completely lost control of his life and found it rather liberating.
“You could have just asked,” Steve said. He realized exactly what he’d just said as the smile on Tony’s face dimmed.
Why hadn’t Tony made his intentions clear, not even once? It wasn’t like him to be shy, especially not in matters of this nature; something that had caused Steve quite a decent amount of heartache as he’d seen the other man charm his way through crowds of both men and women. If Tony found someone that made him happy, Steve would never deny him that.
But at the same time he knew how little Tony cared for most of them and how much of his social interaction seemed to be based on what Tony thought other people would find appealing. It was a little sad, always frustrating and often led Steve to feel guilty about his tendency towards casual jealousy. Even if they’d been together, it would’ve been no business of Steve’s to police who Tony chose to spend his time with.
Still, it wasn’t like Tony to dance around a question like this. Suddenly, Steve’s throat felt strangely dry.
“Why didn’t you ask, Tony?”
Before Tony replied, he pursed his lips like he wasn’t sure whether smiling was the right thing to do. It made Steve want to kiss him all over again and he felt relieved when the corners of Tony’s mouth curled upwards.
“Maybe”, he said and Steve could see everything in those beautiful blue eyes, all the fear and love and hope, “I didn’t want to hear you say no.”
And it was that simple, it made Steve feel humble and happy in a way that was impossible to put into words. So he simply grinned so hard it felt like his face could split in two and kissed Tony again.
After all, they had a lot of lost time to make up for.
* * *
By the time they separated for more than just air, Tony’s lips were red and swollen and begging to be kissed once more; Steve stole a quick peck before he could say something.
“You know,” Tony began conversationally and licked his lips, “Jarvis is going to kill us if we don’t turn up for dinner.”
“Kill you, you mean,” Steve corrected, “Unlike some, I don’t lock myself up for hours and miss out on important bonding sessions over painstakingly prepared gourmet food by my long-time father figure for the sake of trying to figure out how to integrate a coffee maker with my high-tech cybernetic suit of armor.”
“Perhaps,” Tony admitted and rolled onto his back; Steve would have felt inclined to protest and pull him back into his embrace, if the change in position hadn’t given him a nice opportunity to admire the carefully arranged pattern of bruises adorning Tony’s throat.
When starting to get dressed earlier, Tony hadn’t had time to put on more than a pair of underwear and an unbuttoned shirt. His chest and abdomen were exposed, revealing the cold light of his mechanical heart and tan skin stretched over taut muscles; Steve hadn’t had the opportunity yet to explore any parts further south than Tony’s collar bones, but he was happy to get a preview of what was to come.
“Still,” Tony continued, “I thought I was your favorite person now. You wouldn’t want to risk my life just because you’re favored by the powers that be, would you?”
“And I thought you lived on oxygen and caffeine? Usually we have to drag you out of the workshop for a meal consisting of more than coffee, water, a couple of sandwiches and a snickers bar.”
“Oxygen and caffeine are perfectly valid sustenance,” he said cautiously, like he wasn’t sure how his reply would be received, “Within a limited amount of time. Less than three days, at least.”
That made Steve sober up. He’d brought Tony sandwiches the day before yesterday, but he’d assumed Tony would’ve grabbed something at work the day after; despite over a year of being exposed to Tony’s eating- and working habits, clearly Steve could still underestimate their volatile co-existence. It struck him that the trembling Steve had attributed to Tony trying to keep a pose was more likely due to an adrenaline kick and suddenly Tony living on coffee wasn’t funny at all.
“Let’s go,” he said, sat up and tried a smile, “Wouldn’t want to be responsible for the death of my favorite person.”
Tony chuckled and looked up at Steve through his eyelashes with the same tentative smile as before. “It’s not going to be easy, you know. I’m not… The easiest person to live with.”
He knew that very well by now. After having been entombed in ice for over five decades, finding a New York made of neon lights and unfamiliar faces when he woke up, the Avengers had been the only place for him to go. None of them had turned out easy to live with, but he wouldn’t trade them for anything else in this brave new world.
Tony wasn’t going to change just because they could share a bed now; at least not too soon or too much. Not even thirty minutes had passed since Steve’s world had shifted and turned when he looked into those eyes and Tony was already displaying one of his bad habits. Tony was in love with him, and he’d still lock himself up in the workshop, still skip board meetings and do unholy alterations to the kitchen appliances.
Steve wouldn’t change him for the world.
“I know. No one is,” he said earnestly, “and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Wouldn’t have you any other way.”
“I’m not sure that’s supposed to be reassuring, coming from the guy whose most imperfect trait is that he drools into the pillow when he sleeps,” Tony jested and Steve rolled his eyes. He wasn’t perfect, no matter what the rest of the world might think. But Tony knew that, had always known that no matter what he said, and that was just another thing Steve loved about him.
“I guess,” he continued, eyes focusing on a spot just above Steve’s shoulder, “Even if you didn’t know I’d be interested, you’re not the type to run away.”
Steve knew where this was going, felt his heart clench a little with something like regret, but he refused to bow to it. They hadn’t missed a dozen opportunities, standing on the edge and not quite daring to make the leap; if anything, they’d grown closer for the almost two years they’d been nothing more than friends. Steve refused to see it any other way and the possibility that Tony thought—
“You could’ve just asked, is all I’m saying.”
A crooked smile as he echoed Steve’s own words from earlier and Steve got it, hoped he was doing this right as he grabbed Tony’s hand, squeezed it and looked into the other man’s eyes until he could be sure he had all of Tony’s attention.
“Maybe”, Steve said and smiled at the man he loved, “I didn’t want to hear you say no.”