The first attempt is the worst; Steve is unable to capture Tony Stark on paper, his fingers refusing to produce anything even remotely resembling the original. Tony is talking animatedly with Bruce, both of them sitting at the breakfast table with twin mugs of coffee and bags under their eyes, talking in that strange language they insist is proper English and which only they seem to understand.
It's pretty obvious they have been awake the entire night, lost in whatever project they have immersed themselves in this time. Tony is gesticulating wildly, illustrating his point with broad swipes of his hands, his face animated in a way Steve has rarely seen. Bruce is looking at him with an indulgent smile on his face, one that says he believes Tony is insane, but he's willing to listen to his rambles anyway because he likes him.
Steve stops at the door, fresh out of the shower after his morning run. He has his sketchbook with him, because he believed he would be the only one awake and was going to head to the roof to sketch for a bit. This here, though, is much more interesting than the sunrise.
He takes the seat next to the door, not announcing his presence for fear of interrupting, and gets to work. Bruce is easy; the fondness of his expression, the softness of his mouth and the warmth of his eyes transmitted into paper with a few lines and even fewer smudges. There is a glint on his glasses where he's turned to Tony, the light of the arc reactor reflected back at its owner. Steve likes the effect, and puts it on paper as best he can.
Tony, though, he can't draw.
Steve tries, because there is something incredibly compelling in Tony when he's in motion, and Steve is in awe with the graceful movement and the sheer life he can see in him. But the result is flat, two-dimensional and devoid of that same spark. The eyes are dull and the smile cruel instead of mischievous. The lines are wrong and he ends up pressing his hand against it and smudging the charcoal until only a shape remains. It looks as if Bruce is talking to a shadow and Steve puts the sketchbook down with a sigh. Maybe he's not as inspired as he thought.
"Hey Cap, finished scribbling?" Tony says, reminding Steve there is little he actually misses, even if he pretends otherwise. "Want some coffee?"
Steve nods and joins them at the table, the noise of the rest of the team awakening filters through the door, and he takes his mug and his place next to Tony, his drawing completely forgotten.
There are days when the world insists in throwing villain after villain at the team, not happy with having them fight a legion of oversized bug, some nasty aliens, and an army of robots some crazy scientist decided it was a good idea to build and then give psychopathic personalities. All in the span of twenty four hours.
Steve drags his battered body back to the tower, the only thought in his mind that of his bath and the humongous couch on the TV room, where he knows they're all going to gather in the next hour to unwind. Or, in this case, nurse their wounds with hot chocolate and a romantic movie nobody will admit to enjoy, least of all Tony.
It's become something of a tradition after bad missions, the hum of the TV and the presence of their comrades, still alive and whole, lulling them into a sense of safety that will allow them to sleep through the night without nightmares. The couch, large enough to accommodate all of them in the days they are on good terms, is the only concession to the fact that no one wants to be alone those nights. An unspoken agreement that yes, they might need each other from time to time. And they will all be there when needed.
Steve hisses the moment the hot water touches his skin, submerging into the hot tub and feeling the tension ebbing away. He feels aches he has forgotten were possible, the abuse he has submitted his body to exacting payment now the adrenaline is gone. If he's feeling like this, he doesn't want to imagine what the others might be like. They are all human, with the exception of Thor, and a battle armour and exceptional training won't help them heal their bodies any faster.
They are all in the TV room by the time Steve gets there, only moving once the water had started to cool. The picture they present is one that would intimidate no villain, but makes something warm glow in his chest. They have all changed from their costumes into comfortable clothes, hair still mostly wet and tired bodies draped all over the couch and each other. Thor is on one side, t-shirt stretched over his powerful torso, hair dripping on his shoulders. He's pressed against Bruce, who looks exhausted and completely relaxed, his own head falling towards Thor's body by inches. Steve knows he'll be asleep in a few minutes, the change into the Hulk taking most of his energy for the next day. Clint is next to him, legs under his body and one arm around Bruce, the other buried in Natasha's hair. She's between Clint and Tony, most of her body pressed against Clint, her feet on Tony's lap and her eyes half closed. Tony is mostly asleep as well, head thrown back against the couch and the glow of the arc reactor illuminating his face. There are a couple of bruises already forming, but the smile on his lips is soft an unguarded.
Steve can't help himself, he goes back to his room and picks up his sketchbook. He takes the only free space on the couch, Tony's warmth seeping into his tired muscles and relaxing him further. He draws the scene from memory, looking up from time to time to check a detail, the scratch of pen on paper soothing.
"You're missing the movie," Tony whispers at some point, the soft snores coming from the other side of the couch telling them Bruce is already out.
"Shh, you'll wake him up," Natasha says at the same time Clint snorts, "It's crap anyway." And Steve can't help but smile.
The credits are rolling by the time he's done, and he looks to see the result. It's almost perfect. Almost. Thor and Bruce and Clint and Natasha are all there, in the paper, almost as if Steve had taken a picture. Tony, on the other hand--it doesn't look anything like him. Once again Steve has failed to capture him. The drawing is still and lifeless, the bruises looking unnatural, his expression frozen, the glow of the arc reactor wicked instead of soft. He erases most of the face, intent on trying again when a huge yawn distracts him, bringing tears to his eyes, and really he can't concentrate. He lets the sketchbook fall from his fingers and curls closer to Tony, closing his eyes.
He can finish the drawing some other time, it's not as if he hasn't Tony's face memorized.
It frustrates Steve to no end that there is something he can't do well. He knows it shouldn't be like that, but he can still remember the feeling, back when he was trying to enlist and he kept getting rejected, of having something he wants very much and being unable to do it.
This time it's the opposite as it was back then. Before the serum, his art was the thing that gave him some measure of comfort, the one thing he could still do well enough. It's an odd feeling that now is that very same art what gives him the feeling of frustration.
It's not that he's bad at it, Steve knows he's not. He might not be Picasso or Rembrandt, but he has some talent in that area, something that is entirely his and not a product of the serum. The art is something that's all Steve Rogers, not a trace of Captain America in it.
And yet, there is something he can't draw. Or, more precisely, someone.
It wasn't a fluke those first two times, every time Steve tries to draw Tony it looks nothing like him. The rest of the team he can do, even random people on the streets sometimes. Still life, buildings, landscapes, even Iron Man looks fine when he depicts them.
It's just Tony that gives him trouble.
And, like he always does, Steve meets trouble head on.
He starts small, a brand new sketchbook dedicated only to this.
He begins with the eyes, mainly because it's the most difficult for him, but also the most fascinating. For a person like Tony Stark, who wears masks all the time, his eyes are incredibly expressive. It's all there, in the way they crinkle in the corners to show amusement, in the intensity of his gaze when he's focused on a project, in the way they narrow when his friends are being attacked. Steve draws and draws and draws, the sketchbook always close at hand in case he sees a new expression he's not yet familiar with.
His hands are the most difficult to get right, because they are always in motion, always busy building or destroying something, helping Tony express himself. He has beautiful hands, long fingered and calloused, a myriad of tiny scars covering them.
The mouth is easy after that, the soft looking lips always showing some kind of amusement, either at the world or at himself. It's very expressive, for all the effort Tony puts to remain unreadable. Once one has gotten past his defences, Tony is actually very easy to read.
After that, once Steve is happy to be able to capture the parts that compose Tony, he tries bigger. The face is still hard for him to do, unable to get the resemblance right, to get the expression the way he remembers it. But at least he doesn't feel the urge to erase it immediately. He fills pages and pages just with Tony, his arm in motion, the glow of the arc reactor, a soft smile he once directed at Pepper when she wasn't looking. Before he even realizes, Steve has dozens of pictures of Tony Stark.
And still it's not good enough.
He keeps drawing other things, but that's what the other sketchbook is for.
Steve is working on one of the other drawings, one of the view from the helicarrier as he saw it last time he was there, when Clint enters the living room. He's carrying the new bow Tony made for him, the quiver of arrows by his side empty. It's been a quiet couple of weeks, no attacks from aliens or villains, and they are using the time to practice and hone their skills. Thor is abroad visiting Jane, and Natasha and Clint spend most of their time sparring or practicing on their own. Bruce has been immersed in some sort of experiment for the last week, and Tony has yet to resurface from his workshop.
He has been there for most of the past four days, working on a new prototype of the Iron Man, and Steve refuses to acknowledge this is the reason he's drawing something else.
"What you're working on?" Clint asks, approaching Steve and looking at the picture upside down. "You're very good," he says with a smile when he sees it.
"Thanks, it's just--"
"This is New York from the helicarrier, isn't it?"
"Can I?" Clint gestures at the sketchbook and Steve hesitates for a moment before handing it.
It's not that Steve is shy about his art, he's not. He even participated in contests back at the time. But he's not shown his drawings to his team mates yet, it's something he does to relax, and though they are good, there is always something that keeps them from being perfect. And Steve is nothing if not a perfectionist.
But it would be ridiculous not to when he's been asked, so he sits and looks at Clint as he opens the sketchbook at the first page.
The first few pages are random drawings he did on the street, things that called his attention, people that stood out from the rest for some reason. They are not that good, just practice before Steve got back into the habit. Then, there are the ones of the team. He sees Clint's eyebrows shot up when he finds the first picture of himself, his face flushed a bit with either embarrassment, something Clint doesn't usually feel, or pleasure.
It's at this point that Tony graces them with his presence again, "Hey guys, what is so interesting?" he asks, making a beeline for Clint.
"Look, Steve is an artist," Clint says with a smile. "We're all here."
"Oh good," Tony says, shooting Steve an amused look. "Let's see."
They're not, Steve realizes, his stomach clenching. "No, I--"
"Shy now, Cap?" Tony teases, taking a seat next to Clint as they pass the pages, revealing more and more of the drawings. And Steve knows what they're going to see, or rather what they're not going to. He remembers the first drawing of Tony he tried, and how he smudged it in a fit of pique at his lack of skill. The second one where he erased the face, telling himself he would finish it the next day and never getting around it. He can see all the later attempts, always unfinished, and how he just stopped trying there.
And he knows how that's going to look to Tony.
He sees Clint frown in confusion when he gets to that picture, the expression deepening as he passes more pages. But that only registers vaguely, his entire attention focused on Tony, on his reaction. It's as bad as Steve expected, his expression blanking out completely, leaving it smooth and lifeless. It's like the worst picture Steve has ever drawn of him.
"Oh," Tony says, when they get to the last page. He stands up and leaves the room silently, and Steve feels like he's been punched in the gut because he knows how it would have looked to Tony, seeing everyone there but himself.
Because there is one thing Steve knows about Tony Stark, and that is that regardless of his cocky attitude and his swagger, he has self-esteem issues a mile wide.
"Steve?" Clint asks, and his tone is cold, angry. "What is the meaning of this?"
Steve laughs, self-depreciating and humourless. "It's not what it looks like," he finally says.
"It looks like you don't feel Tony is part of the team," Clint says.
"Yeah, but it's not that. He's just difficult to get right. I've been practicing, but not in that one."
Clint stands up from the couch and leaves the sketchbook on the table. "Then you should show him."
"Yes, I should."
Steve goes to his room before heading straight for the lab. Tony is nothing if not predictable, and when he's upset he ensconces himself in his lab, surrounded by his robots, and refuses to come up until it passes. One way or the other.
Steve is certain that if they leave him there to stew, Tony is not going to come out again. At least not the Tony they know now. It will be the arrogant asshole from the first days all over again, pushing everyone away to protect himself. Or maybe he will just push Steve away, and he doesn't know it that thought hurts more.
His normal access code doesn't work, not that Steve expected it to. The emergency override does, because not even Tony is crazy or fast enough to change all the emergency codes in the Tower before programming new ones and handing them. The door opens with a quiet hiss, and the blare of music slams into Steve with almost physical force. Tony is sitting on his work bench, his back to the door, and he's not even pretending to work on something. He's just sitting there, back bent and completely still, and Steve feels his stomach roil with guilt.
"JARVIS, lower the music, please," he says, and Tony's head snaps up at the moment the AI obeys the order.
"JARVIS, what the hell?" Tony barks, he looks over his shoulder and his entire posture stiffens when he sees Steve. "I forgot the emergency override codes."
"It appears you did, sir," JARVIS says, dry as the desert. And if Steve hadn't heard that particular tone a million times already, he'd wonder at a machine that has such a range of emotions only in a synthesized voice.
"Remind me to change them as soon as possible. And turn the music back on." He turns his back to Steve once again the music turning any attempt at conversation futile, almost as if he expects him to leave if he ignores his presence long enough. Steve can out-stubborn Tony when necessary, though. And they both know it.
He waits two full ear-splitting songs before he walks around the bench, facing Tony. Steve puts his sketchbook on top of the desk, Tony looking at it as if was a poisonous snake before dragging his eyes to Steve face. His expression is still carefully blank, and Steve hates it. Hates that he put it there.
They stare at each other for an eternity, and finally Tony sighs. "JARVIS, turn the music off." The room is plunged into sudden silence, almost unnatural after that hellish noise Tony calls music. It stretches between them awkwardly, and Tony pushes the sketchbook towards Steve. "Look, Steve, I understand. You don't need to explain anything to me, it's your art and what you do with it is none of my business. I mean, I have always knows the team doesn't--what my--Look, you don't have to explain. It's fine."
"Tony, it's not fine," Steve finally says, his throat dry.
"No, no, it's ok. You don't have to like everyone to work with them," Tony continues, and his tone is bland, his face expressionless. He's not even moving his hands, and this is the most still Steve has ever seen him. And it's wrong. "You didn't like me very much the first time, and well, I didn't like you either, but I thought we were all right now, obviously we're not, or we are, we don't need to be friends to be on the team. Unless you don't want me to be on the team, though you drew Iron Man, so Iron Man is still an asset, and--"
"Tony, shut up for two seconds," Steve finally snaps, not wanting to listen to Tony's stream of nonsense. He closes his mouth on the rest of the words, a startled expression stealing over his features before he smoothes it out. "Just look at that. Please."
Tony still stares at him silently for a second, almost as if steeling himself, and then takes the sketchbook back and opens it. He looks at the first page, and then up to Steve again, surprised. There is no mistaking the eyes pictured on the page, the careful lines that make each drawing. Steve feels himself flushing under Tony's gaze, and he forces himself to speak once the attention is back to the pictures.
"It's not as if I didn't want to, I just couldn't get you right. The rest of the team, the people on the streets, everything else is easy. But you, it never looked right. So I got tired of erasing it, of trying to make it good enough. And it never was." Tony is flipping the pages silently, the blank mask crumbling tiny piece after tiny piece at the portraits of himself there. "I needed the practice if I were to finish those. So, I practiced," he finishes lamely.
"Steve," Tony says, and there is a new note in his tone. Almost like awe. "These are amazing."
Steve smiles ruefully. He knows they're not. "No, they're not."
Tony's gaze flicker up to him briefly, is expression incredulous. "They really are." He keeps on looking at the drawings, moving past the eyes, and the hands, and the other body parts and reaching the last ones, the ones where Steve tried to picture the whole of Tony Stark. They are still not perfect.
"I can never get you right, the expression is not good enough, is lifeless."
Tony looks at him for a minute, his brow furrowing in thought before his expression clears completely, leaving only an incredulous sort of wonder in its wake. Steve watches him warily, still unsure of how Tony is going to react.
"Steve," Tony says, his voice barely above a whisper. "Are you, by any chance, in love with me?"
The question blindsides him, the air leaving his lungs in a rush. Steve closes his eyes, a denial already at his lips. But he can't get the words out, not when they are most likely a lie. It explains everything; how he's always been drawn to Tony first, how he's always by his side, next to him, be it at the breakfast table or during a fight, how nothing ever looks right compared to the original, Steve's obsession with trying and trying until he has every one of his expressions and quirks memorized. And really, it is fairly obvious.
"I think I might be," he says, because lying is against his nature, even if he's sure nothing will come out of it. It's fine as long as it has removed the mask of hurt from Tony's face.
Tony closes the sketchbook and stands up from the bench, walking around it until he's standing next to Steve. "Good," he says, and Steve turns to look at him. He finds their faces are really close, their bodies almost touching. "This would be terribly awkward otherwise."
And Tony kisses him.
Steve doesn't have much experience with kisses, the only ones he remembers were given to him decades ago, but they are nothing like this one. Tony's mouth is soft and his lips a bit dry, Steve can feel the scratch of the goatee, and it's something he would have never imagined would be arousing, but it sends a thrill through his blood. Then Tony's tongue is inside his mouth, and he can't think of anything but warm, wet and more.
They part entirely too soon for Steve's liking, his lips following Tony's for an instant. And then Tony is kissing him again, deeper and dirtier, pushing Steve against the workbench, pressing their bodies together, and the little trickle of arousal turns into a sudden fire, leaving Steve almost dizzy at the intensity. He's the one to break the kiss this time, breathing harshly against Tony's neck, unsure what to do with his hands. They are moving too fast, but he doesn't want to stop.
Tony takes one look at his face and steps back, but he's smiling, his lips swollen and slick with spit, his eyes shinning happily.
Steve's hand itches with the need to draw him.
"So, maybe we should go out, you know, just the two of us," Tony finally says, looking at Steve with that same happy expression. "Maybe dinner, theatre. You know, a date."
"And after that, maybe you could practice some more of your art," Tony continues, his expression turning mischievous. "I can't help but notice a lack of nude art in your collection, and that's my favourite kind. And since I am your muse now--"
Steve shuts him up in his now favourite way, swallowing a chuckle. But he doesn't refuse the offer. He still needs to practice. A lot.