Bleary and aching and a little bit heartbroken, Tony stumbles into the kitchen at 4:48 in the morning and is immediately greeted by the welcoming sight of a Very Disheveled Steve Rogers, who’s wearing sweatpants and a wife-beater because it’s 4:48 in the morning.
Tony doesn’t miss a beat.
“Crazy night, Cap?” he mumbles, reaching into a nearby cabinet, fumbling for an embarrassing fifteen seconds before his fingers close around a tall glass. Next stop, the wine cabinet, and Tony hears the good Captain snort quietly when Tony uncorks a half-empty bottle of gin and begins to pour.
“Want some? It’s pretty decent gin for midnight,” Tony retorts, swinging around to face a stool-bound Steve. Tony already knows the answer, but it’s always polite to ask, etcetera, etcetera.
“No, thanks,” Steve says quietly (because he’s always polite, period.), and his voice is like down, all soft around the edges, and Tony knows he needs to get some sleep. So he shakes himself and pushes off from the countertop, leaving the glass of gin behind (because he knows Cap really does want some; he just doesn’t like to ask).
“Your loss,” he mutters in a tone so cavalier that it would put even his father to shame, and exit Tony Stark, stage left.
The next night, they all gather in the TV room to watch a movie (a Special Copy of the second Star Trek, which Tony produced seemingly out of thin air), and Tony catches Steve studying him from the other side of the couch. When they lock eyes and Tony tosses him a cocky smirk (because he has to, really) he could swear, even in the blueish light, that Steve flushes a bit pink.
“Captain, we must return to base,” Spock says onscreen in a pained voice. Steve looks away, down, and Tony’s pulse is thrumming.
The day after, when he catches Steve staring at Thor, Tony tells himself that he doesn’t care.
“Ah, fuck,” Tony manages to swear before ducking. A renegade scrap of metal just barely makes it over his head, and it clangs against one of the walls, already beginning to smoke. Tony scowls at the alloy. “Okay, now, don’t try that again, okay, or I’ll drop the whole project and turn you into scrap metal,” he says, moving towards the still-smoking shard. “I don’t want to do it, but you’d leave me no choice; I can’t have misbehaving metal in My Suit, that’s not how that works—”
Fuck. Tony whirls around and says “Cap!” brightly, plastering on a cheeky smile, like Steve hadn’t just walked in on Tony talking to a piece of metal.
Steve looks like he’s not sure whether he’s supposed to acknowledge Tony’s insanity (most people don’t), so Tony crosses his arms and quirks a brow. “Something you needed, buddy?”
Steve blinks, his gaze snapping from the smoking metal to meet Tony’s eyes. “Yeah, actually,” he says slowly, shifting from foot to foot. “…I was opening some drawers to put a few things away, and I—I found this.” He steps forward eagerly, thrusting an old, faded photograph towards Tony, who automatically takes a step back.
“Yeah?” Tony says, guarded, his arms still crossed. He hates that he can’t tear his gaze from the photo.
Steve hesitates. “Well, I guess I was wondering if— if you wouldn’t mind – if I could… have it,” he says lamely, the extended arm falling limp by his side.
“Yeah, sure,” Tony answers, voice as tight as his arms, and he wants to reach out and tear the photo to shreds but he can’t, not if Steve wants it, because that would be Rude. “Do whatever you want with it.”
Steve seems sad or something, so Tony tries to feign some interest: “Look, I’ve got more than enough memories of my father, okay, so really, take it, it’s fine,” but it comes out sounding more bitter than he means to, and Steve’s brow creases.
“You didn’t like him,” Steve says slowly, like he’s amazed, and instead of flinching or rolling his eyes or saying ‘You wouldn’t have liked him either, Cap.’, Tony slips into a familiar skin and starts lying with truths.
“Bingo.” Tony smirks, like the acknowledgment doesn’t ring an empty echo in his gut. “My old man wasn’t… he wasn’t a family man, let’s say. Brilliant, sure—” Tony waves his hand vaguely and doesn’t point out that he’s even more so. “…But not very keen on raising a child, let alone a capital-G Genius.” A cavalier shrug, a wry quirk of the lips, and it’s the Tony Stark Doesn’t Care package, all tied up with a pretty pink bow—but Steve’s not buying.
“…I see.” Steve looks disappointed, but in who, Tony can’t say—it’s probably him, because Tony’s nothing if not A Perpetual Disappointment.
“Help yourself to any other photos you find,” Tony says, and he turns back to the blowtorch in his hand, hoping Steve will take the hint. He does.
The sound of the closing door echoes emptily in his workshop.
A few weeks later, Tony and Steve go out for pizza because Tony wants to know if pizza has changed much since the 40’s (hypothesis: it hasn’t). Barton and Romanoff are busy doing something for S.H.I.E.L.D. (or are busy getting busy; Tony still doesn’t understand their relationship, but to be fair, he doesn’t think anyone does), Bruce is running some marvelously intriguing tests in his lab that even pizza couldn’t tempt him from, and Thor has been too enthralled with the Wii to do anything lately, so Tony and Steve are on their own.
And even though it begins in an awkward silence, it ends with a twinkle in Steve’s eye, and Tony’s glad that he forced Steve to try the barbeque pizza.
(Conclusion: pizza has definitely changed since the 40’s.)
Name: Social Function Number 10037
Place: The Museum of Natural Who the Fuck Cares
Invited Guests: the whole fucking city, apparently
Attending Guests: the whole fucking city minus Barton and Thor and Bruce, because Nick Fury’s an asshole who thinks they could each “singlehandedly cause a diplomatic disaster so stupid that Stark would need to do damage control,” and Tony had both preened and frowned at the implication.
Because the truth is that Tony’s magnificent at parties (when he’s not bone-shatteringly smashed (but there’s no danger of that, because Fury put Steve on ‘Tony Duty,’ the dick, and dutiful Steve hasn’t left Tony’s side since, so Tony’s only had three glasses of champagne all night)).
“This is my bodyguard,” Tony introduces Steve to one of the figurine-ladies in statuesque dresses, and he can’t remember her name, but that doesn’t matter, “He’s here to protect you.” Steve rolls his eyes, because Tony has introduced Steve the exact same way to the past sixteen people.
The woman quirks a penciled brow. “Aren’t bodyguards typically used for the opposite purpose? To protect you?” Her voice is perfectly tuned, the socially appropriate cocktail of feigned flirtation and restrained disinterest. Tony bites back the urge to knock the drink from her hand just to get a Real Reaction.
So he sips from his glass of champagne and waves his hand dismissingly. “Not if you’re me, I’m afraid. I’m the real danger at this party,” he murmurs, as if it’s a Big Secret. But it’s not a secret at all, not really, because Tony can’t count the number of people he’s hurt (Pepper, his treacherous brain instantly offers, Yinsen and Rhodey and your mother and—), and out of all the people in that cavernous hall, he has the most blood on his hands and on his make-shift heart.
Tony loses track of time, as he tends to do, and it’s the usual black hole of names that he instantly forgets and faces that he’ll never see again, of bright eyes but fake smiles, of hands grabbing at his until he returns the bored small talk with some of his own. It pulls him under like it always does, but this time, when he swims up for air, he meets Steve’s gaze before the riptide pulls him in, and Steve’s hair is the same color as a sandbar, and his eyes look sad and tired and a little bit angry, but Tony doesn’t have time to think about that because here again comes the rising tide.
“Cap?” Tony opens Steve’s bedroom door without knocking, because this is his goddamn tower anyway. He can hear the sounds of a running shower from the adjacent bathroom, so he’s about to leave and come back later, but something on Steve’s desk catches his eye, so he takes a step forward.
And instantly goes cold.
It’s a sketch. It’s a sketch of him. He knows it’s of him because the man in the sketch’s mirror has the same facial hair, and no one in the world has the Tony Stark beard but Tony Stark. He can taste bile in his throat, but he walks forward until he’s standing right over the desk, and the taste of bile grows stronger.
It’s a sketch. A man stands with three-quarters of his back to the artist, and the sketch of the man is looking into a mirror, and in the mirror, Steve has drawn the rest.
A disfigured face.
Hair like carbon.
A smirk, indescribably and effortlessly cruel.
Eyes as cold as ice.
Hands drenched in blood.
And on his chest, above where his heart would be: the arc reactor— but it’s completely and totally black. It’s a hole.
Each pencil stroke hurts like a motherfucker and stabs like a bullet.
Time stops, and Tony can feel his whole body shaking; he’s been pulled apart and opened up and Steve has seen inside him, and Tony can’t breathe. His hands tremble and he can’t tear his gaze away but he’s not crying, not at all, definitely not crying, and time stops until he hears the sound of a shower turning off, and he stumbles from the room, dazed, only to collapse against a wall in the hallway and put his head between his knees.
“Sir?” JARVIS asks hesitantly, but Tony forces out a strangled “Turn off.” JARVIS obeys without a sound, and Tony is alone.
He locks himself in the workshop for six days, and he doesn’t let Pepper in when she knocks.
On the seventh day, Thor smashes through one of the workshop’s walls with his hammer.
Tony looks up from the memory chip, too exhausted to be worried by the sound of a crumbling wall, and the Avengers (plus Pepper) are just staring at him.
“Afternoon,” Tony says blankly, before his mind can adjust to this new development.
“It’s ten o’clock at night, Tony.” Pepper sounds like she’s in pain, and Tony makes another tally mark on the mental Number of Times I’ve Hurt Pepper chart.
“This must stop,” Thor booms (because Thor always booms), and beside him, Romanoff crosses her arms and Barton and Bruce nod in agreement. “I do not know what is troubling you, but we have decided that you must be fed.” Thor crosses his arms like Romanoff. “By any means necessary.”
Tony blinks. “Well damn, that sounds like an awful plan,” he says faintly, trying to crack a smile. His voice rasps from disuse and he winces before slipping off the stool. “I appreciate the worry, guys, but I’m fine. Ask Pepper,” he gestures vaguely towards her, “I’ve gone this long loads of times; even longer. It’s fine.”
“Tony,” Rogers begins, and Tony’s gaze snaps to meet his. Something like rage and fear and despair well inside him, and some of it must have slipped into his eyes, because Rogers suddenly looks shocked. “This is different,” he continues weakly, “Now you’re part of a team. If Director Fury calls us and you’re unfit for duty like this—”
Tony interrupts him with a bitter laugh, and he doesn’t even care that it sounds crueler than he means it to: “Cap, you know better than most—I’m always unfit for duty.”
Rogers stills. “…So you did see it,” he finally murmurs, eyes shuttered and no longer looking at Tony.
Another bitter laugh, but Tony pretends to shrug it off. “Yeah, Cap, I saw the drawing,” he says, and he crosses his arms over his chest. The rest of the group looks confused, glancing between the two of them like it’s some sick volley of pain, and Pepper sighs.
“Come on, everyone, this looks like something to be settled in private,” she mutters, shooing the others back into the hallway, towards the elevators. Barton looks like he’s about to protest, but Pepper holds up one finger. “Don’t even try, Clint.” Barton blinks, deflates, and follows everyone else out.
“Tony—” Rogers is suddenly standing right in front of him, and Tony has no choice but to look up and meet his gaze. “You were never supposed to see that. I’m sorry. I know it was—”
Tony steps back. “You don’t need to apologize. I know that I wasn’t ‘supposed’ to see it, but I did, so.” He forces a tight smile onto his face. “At least now I know how awful I seem to you, so something good must’ve come from it; otherwise, I would’ve kept thinking that we were friends, god-forbid, so consider yourself Saved, man, being friends with Tony Stark is hell, let me tell you…”
Tony grits his teeth: “No denial, then? No, never mind, I didn’t expect any, well, maybe I did; most people at least pretend in situations like this, but you’re not Most People, are you, Captain America—”
“No.” Rogers sounds like he’s being strangled. When Tony looks at him, he’s pale. “No, Tony,” he says weakly, “You’ve completely misunderstood, I don’t—”
“And there’s the pretending,” Tony observes viciously, fingers drumming against the countertop. “Knew you had it in you, Cap.”
“Stop, no, it’s not—” he whispers, and he looks so much like a sad puppy that Tony laughs, in spite of himself.
“It’s fine, Rogers.” He turns away, back to the memory chip. “You’re not the first person to treat me like shit, so don’t have a complex. This is nothing I can’t handle.” His voice sounds completely neutral, and he’s almost proud.
Rogers doesn’t respond, and when Tony turns back around, the workshop is empty. It’s only then that Tony lets his eyes slip closed and his posture slump into a pose that a stranger might describe as ‘defeated’ or ‘lost’ (but that definitely isn’t).
He stays like that, until—
“Here.” Tony’s eyes fly open. Rogers has returned, a stack of loose papers clutched in one hand. And in the other, the hand offered towards Tony: a drawing. “The picture you saw,” Rogers says, strained, “it wasn’t finished.”
And then the piece of paper is in his hand, and time stops again.
There are two sketches, now. Tony’s already seen the one at the top, and he doesn’t let himself linger. (The disgust still tastes like bile.)
…But the sketch on the bottom. It’s the same scene, but the perspective has switched; this time, three-quarters of the mirror’s back is to the artist. Tony can see his likeness’s face, not its reflection, and he’s…
He’s not monstrous.
Tony’s no artist but he knows instantly that Steve is a damn good one, because he can read so many emotions in the pencil strokes. He looks sad but determined, with a devilish smile on his lips and one hand perched on his hip. And there, where it should be— the arc reactor, and it’s not black. It glows.
Like a star.
“Um.” He doesn’t know how much time has passed since Steve handed the paper to him, and he doesn’t know what to say. Tony clears his throat. “This is, uh. This is great, Cap. I really— this is. Uh.” He winces.
The tips of Steve’s ears tinge pink, but he offers Tony a cautious smile. “Thank you,” he says slowly. “I hope you’re not offended by the first one. I never planned on showing it to anyone. I know I shouldn’t have sketched you like that, so personally, but sometimes, late at night, I don’t really know what my hand is doing, and—”
At that, Tony quirks an eyebrow suggestively, and Steve flushes.
“I— you’re just a fascinating subject to draw,” he blurts, and seems to regret saying it immediately. Tony gapes, but Steve holds his ground. “I mean, you’re very… complicated,” he says quietly. “Layered.”
Tony snorts. “Me? Layered? Cap, listen, I think it’s high time you got some rest. You’re obviously sleep-deprived, so how about some good old-fashioned shut-eye, because when people start calling Tony Stark ‘complicated,’ something must—”
Steve wordlessly pushes a stack of papers across the workbench.
Tony hesitates, but he never could restrain curiosity very well.
Some of the drawings are of other members of the team: Romanoff sharpening her knives; Barton crouching on a window sill; Thor swinging Mjolnir above his head; Bruce bent over a laptop. And then there are the ones of Tony.
Bleary, standing in the kitchen in grease-covered pajamas, clinging to a glass of gin like a lifeline.
Grinning on a couch in the blueish light of a movie, sitting beside a dozing Bruce.
Gazing dejectedly at something out of frame with a desperate anger, and he’d bet ten bucks that the Off-Frame Thing is a photo of his father.
Leaning back in a seat with only two of its legs on the floor, a piece of pizza dangling in one hand and tomato sauce smudged on his lip, laughing.
A small, glowing figure surrounded by dark shadows with claws, pulling him in every direction.
Tony exhales. “Is this…?” He points to that last sketch, and Steve nods tightly.
“Yes. The party,” he answers, and Tony feels hollow, but in a good way.
He turns to the rest of the sketches, which aren’t of him:
Surrounded by dark, churning, ominous waters, an oasis of an island covered in red flowers and sparkling sand.
A maroon castle standing firm in the eye of a tornado.
A red and gold striped lighthouse shining through a storm.
“You’re. Uh. You’re really good,” Tony finally says, glancing back up to meet Steve’s gaze. Gesturing towards the latter three sketches: “did you see all of this before the crash or something?”
Steve lets out a choked kind of laugh, then seems to hesitate. “No,” he replies slowly, his eyes on the papers. “They’re… I wanted to experiment with shapes, and they’re.” A soft sigh. “…They’re still of you, Tony,” he eventually mutters, cheeks now a bright red.
His words take a few seconds to register, and Tony, confused, looks back at the sketches.
A red and gold island,
A red castle,
And a red and gold lighthouse, with a beacon like a star.
Steve eventually clears his throat, and Tony realizes that he hasn’t said anything for approximately three minutes. Steve looks extremely uncomfortable, like he’s just been pulled apart and opened up, like Tony has just seen inside him, like he doesn’t know what to do.
“I know they’re a bit… untraditional,” Steve says quietly, cautiously, his gaze somewhere to the right of Tony’s head. “And I should have gotten your permission first— for all of them. I apologize.”
Tony straightens and pulls the lighthouse sketch towards him. “Shut up, Steve, these are fantastic,” he says brightly, and he means it. “I mean, I’m nowhere near as big as an island or a castle or a lighthouse, so frankly I’m a bit insulted at the jab at my weight…” He waits until the other man meets his eyes before continuing. “But have you ever considered, you know—” Tony gestures encompassingly at the various sketches “—doing a Thing?”
Steve blinks. “…A ‘thing’?” he repeats.
“Yeah.” Tony nods, mind whirring. “I know a few people, and if you were interested, we could probably get some of your stuff in a museum or something…”
Steve’s face is red. “No, I don’t,” he stammers, “—my sketches, they’re. I’d like to keep them private, Tony. If it’s all the same to you.”
Tony feels his expression soften, because of fucking course Steve would want to keep his non-world-saving talents off the public radar. Of fucking course.
“Well,” he shrugs, and he offers Steve a smile. “Thanks for showing me, then, I guess? They’re really good,” he says for the billionth time, and Steve returns his smile. “I mean, you got me all wrong, but—” Tony shrugs. “They’re good.”
“Thank you,” he replies, the corners of his eyes crinkling.
Neither speaks for a few seconds, and Tony has never liked awkward silences, so he clears his throat and sits back on his stool. “I should probably…” He gestures towards the memory chip, and Steve frowns.
“You should eat, Tony,” he says, brow furrowing. “If I go back upstairs without you, the others will murder me, and Ms. Potts will be the first in line.”
Tony has to laugh at that. “Yeah, yeah, I’ll be up as soon as this is finished, mother.” At Steve’s disbelieving frown, Tony chuckles. “Shouldn’t be more than half an hour, Steve. Promise.”
Steve sighs, and Tony knows he doesn’t believe him, but he feels mysteriously warm when Steve turns to go anyway, sketches in hand. “Thirty minutes, Stark,” he says sternly, jokingly, and Tony laughs again.
“Wait, Steve—” he hears himself say, and Steve stops at the door. “Can I,” Tony swallows his pride, “Can I have that lighthouse one? …If you’re not, you know, using it.” He’d spoken so softly that he briefly wonders if Steve had heard him, but then Steve turns around, and he’s smiling.
“Sure thing.” The sketch lands on the countertop, the red and gold lighthouse gazing up at him; Tony automatically shrinks away from it. “And being friends with you isn’t hell, Tony,” Steve says quietly from the doorway. “...It’s the complete opposite, actually.”
And Tony’s alone again, but this time, he doesn’t feel it.