“Do you really sign your art with Captain America?”
“I do.” Steve handed over the completed sketch as Jan angled for a better view. She brought her face close to the signature on the bottom right of the panel, expression battling bemusement and interest in equal part.
“The star's cute.”
Steve blinked. “I never considered signing it any other way. There's nothing wrong with it, is there?”
Jan gave him that affectionate, slightly disbelieving look that never failed to make him self-conscious of whatever old-fashioned thing he must have just said, even after having spending years in the future. “With you being you, Captain America, it actually could work. It's like if someone called themselves Hercules or something.”
“There is someone who calls himself Hercules.”
Jan waved him off. “Not the point! Hiding in plain sight is well and good, but have you considered making up your own name? Like how I'm the Wasp, Hank's Ant-Man-slash-Giant-Man-slash-Yellowjacket-slash-Goliath, and Tony's Iron Man. Thor doesn't need a superhero name.”
“Captain America is already an alias.” A good one too, Steve thought.
“But you didn't pick that name. It was assigned to you. If you had a superhero name, what would you have chosen? One that doesn't have to do with being disillusioned with the job,” she added quickly. “Something to rebrand yourself as you stand now, as Captain America.”
“I...don't really see the point. Sorry, Jan. Captain America is Captain America. That's how people knew me during the war, in all the years-inbetween, and now that I'm back. It feels disingenuous to clear away all that history.”
“It's not about forgetting your history! Sometimes you just need a fresh start, to ease off on all the burden and baggage that builds up. It's a good lesson to think about, Mr. Liberty and Justice for All.” Jan scrutinized him, before perking up again. “Remaking yourself! We always come to that point, it's part of the process of superhero-ing. With you, it usually just involves a little more...distancing from your usual Captain-ness.”
“Okay,” Steve conceded after a long moment, chewing on his lip. “You do make a good point.”
Jan probably meant it like the times Steve had dove into civilian life, trying to re-invent himself. It stood true there was an element of discovery in it. That was probably what teammates like Hank got out of overhauling their superhero identities.
“So?” Jan looked at him expectantly. Steve crossed his arms, and thought about it.
“I'm probably going to shoot down at least the first three ideas you come with, just to let you know.” Jan winked. “I'm a professional at this.”
“Cap! Iron Man! Could you pose just like in the sculpture there?”
“Of course.” Steve bent his knees, lifted his forearm with shield attached, leaned his torso back, and tried to injected a convincing bit of determination into his expression. At his back, he felt Tony get into position.
The flash went off with a click to his side, and the photographer emerged, grinned toothily at them. “Perfect! Now, could you both face me? Scoot to your side, so you don't obscure the – yeah, just like that!” A few more flashes, along with the clicks of the disposable cameras of a few observers who were clearly and gleefully ignoring the No photography signs pasted all over. “Thank you! The papers will love this.”
“It's no problem,” said Tony, waving at her. “Get as many shots as you can. Most of the team's out here tonight, and not just the active roster.”
“I'll be sure to find them.” She fixed them with a beam before trudging off.
“Cute girl. Sometimes I forget that being around cameras isn't all bad,” said Tony. “I'm ready for public opinion to swing around on us again.” Steve hummed in acknowledgment.
They were attending an Avengers benefit art auction for the Maria Stark Foundation, where artists city-wide had submitted their pieces. So, Tony was here as Iron Man, and Steve as Captain America. Even though it had been organized as a local venture, because of the sheer number of submissions, it was part live and silent auction. The silent part, Tony had jokingly put it, at least served somewhat to muss over any awkward feelings in the case that paintings of Thor would outsell those of the rest of the team three-fold. The Avengers weren't some popularity contest, although all of those polls ran in the mags suggested otherwise. Steve knew how Tony secretly reveled in being a fan-favorite among the younger crowd.
Well, yeah, kids love robots, Tony had tried to brush it off but failed to hide his grin. When I was younger, they were always some sign of an impending robot apocalypse. Great thing, knocking down that wall and embracing technology. Now it's usually only the ones who can't speak yet who start crying at the sight of me.
“What do you think of the work so far, my trained artist's eye Avenger?” Tony asked as they strolled past more sculpture submissions.
“They're amazing,” Steve said simply. I'm not nearly as professional as these people are. All of these displays deserve to go for a high price.”
“Mm, yeah, about that, my employer was interested in putting in some offers for his favorites.” Steve shared in the ironic smile that he knew was present behind Iron Man's faceplate.
“I did like that sculpture of the two of us,” continued Tony. “Ol' Winghead and Shellhead, back-to-back, fighting for their lives.” Steve found himself grinning in turn, because that inexplicable fondness for that part of Avengering was dangerously infectious to those involved.
“But where would I put it? The mansion grounds? I've always commissioned that sort of thing.” Tony inclined his head toward Steve. “Hey, if you're interested – ”
“I thought that sculpture was very well-done. Great sense of movement.” That was hard enough on a flat surface, let alone on a three-dimensional one. Steve could only admire the precision required to achieve that effect. “I don't think you'll find much better if that's what drew you to it. I've tried my hand at sculpting. It's...not exactly my favorite of the visual arts.”
If only Steve had hands like Tony's. There wasn't anything wrong with Steve's hands, per se, and they were perfectly good for handling a wide range art implements, but when it came to judging the precise pressure and strength needed for everything, molding and sculpting and texturing and glossing, he never felt so clumsy and out of his element. Tony, who worked with electronics smaller than his thumbnail like it was as natural than breathing, had some of the most precise and dexterous hands Steve had observed. Beautiful, too – long fingered, nails neatly trimmed and filed, but still obviously well-used with their nicks and calluses. That, along with the intense, focused look he got when engrossed – Steve loved watching Tony work. If Tony's interests had run towards art, he definitely would have been a sculptor to behold.
But no, his Shellhead's heart was stolen by technology, and engineering, and all of those other innovative, amazing, unbelievable things about the future.
“It's definitely on the list for Mr. Stark to peruse when he shows up later, for the auction,” said Tony, and okay, Steve could understand why Tony had always seemed especially wry when he spoke about his employer and Avengers benefactor. Before, Steve had always assumed the two were just very close, and a tad mean-spirited teasing was just Iron Man's way of showing affection. Iron Man hadn't been like that to Steve, always so good-natured when he did poke fun at Steve. Maybe Steve had wanted Iron Man and Tony's relationship back then, to really feel a part of his friend's life, but now that he knew the truth between Iron Man and Tony, he could emphatically say he really didn't, thank you very much.
Steve's heart rate picked up as they turned a corner and approached the next alcove, the largest section of this event. Several dozen paintings lined the walls. From the corner of his eye, he spotted the Wasp and the Scarlet Witch examining a certain painting. Jan whispered something to Wanda, much to the latter's amusement, and Steve could feel his face begin to heat. Maybe another photographer would stop them, and maybe even want an interview...
Usually Avengers paintings fell into the category of having the assembled team looking very heroic and statuesque, which was also well-represented here as well, but with all the entries, there were enough for a wider variety of subject matter.
“Hmm,” said Tony as they stopped to examine an Iron Man, art nouveau style. “If I – Mr. Stark bought this one, that would smack of narcissism, right?” At Steve's snort, his eyes danced in amusement. “What? He's the one who built the armor, you know.” He looked back at the painting. “People are great. They really capture that certain sense of...panache.”
“Now you're the one being narcissistic,” Steve chided.
“I'll make a note of it, for Mr. Stark to think about,” Tony said as they strolled past more paintings. Steve stopped to admire a photorealistic painting of Natasha. Her hair was cut close, her arms extended, ready to launch her Widow's Bite against the villain of the day. The artist – Ross – had perfected, enhanced the facial expression so that her eyes blazed.
“But I'd love to paint like that,” he said to Tony, who seemed appreciative enough of the piece but didn't offer up his own opinions. Steve's painting style was more focused on the usage of blocking and colors and lighting to reveal a scene. He would never be able to achieve the level of precision to fool others into thinking they were anything other than paintings. He liked his preferred style just fine, and sketching was where he aimed for more realistic depictions, but – yeah, Tony had it right. People were great. There were so many different talents on display, even just in this room.
Steve's feet slowed as they approached a certain section of wall, lingering on a intriguing surrealist painting of Vision. It was the only solo painting of their android Avenger he'd seen so far, which was the reason Steve stuck around it so long, or so he told himself. Tony stood behind him, and Steve tried to feel guilty for making the other man wait. Steve wondered why Tony didn't just move on without him. He can hear the shifting of the armor, fidgeting not so inconspicuous when you were encased in a hefty weight of metal armor, no matter how high-tech it was.
Reluctantly, Steve finally began to move on when he noticed that the space in front of that painting had cleared away. Maybe they could flit past it, giving it at least the cursory polite glance that all the pieces warranted...
Steve nearly stumbled into Tony, who had come to an abrupt halt before him.
“Oh,” said Tony. His blue eyes had gone wide behind the faceplate. Steve followed his gaze, trying not to cringe when he landed on the object of scrutiny.
The painting was of a recent team line-up battling against the Grim Reaper and his Unliving Legion. Back when he'd heard about the auction accepting submissions, Steve had a vision, ambitions that he wanted to reach – something more than his still-lifes or domestic scenes or single subjects that his sketches were full of. Sprawling, and chaotic, and conquerable, just like his time with the Avengers felt like. Fighting for hope and never giving up.
The nameplate read simply, “Wednesday, December 10th,” attributed to a “Homeguard.”
Steve had recalled the battle with startling clarity, along with the benefit of reviewing Avengers footage to get the details of the scenery just right. He'd had to hastily explain why he was examining this particular battle to Jarvis, who had simply raised an eyebrow and smiled. (It had only been later that Steve realized it would have been far less suspicious to not say anything at all. He was the team strategist, after all – any defeat suffered by the time, no matter how temporary, warranted review.)
There was doing his art for his own enjoyment, but here, when the people who would see it weren't confined to Avengers, Steve felt like an itch beneath his skin he couldn't scratch. All Steve could see were the places where he had carelessly applied too much paint, the saturation a bit higher in comparison to the rest of the layering.
“Hah.” Tony interrupted Steve's thoughts. “I like it.”
Steve grunted noncommittally.
“You don't think so?” Steve could hear the grin in Tony's voice. Tony glanced at him. “We're a superhero team. We stand and look pretty for the public, and not that I don't like being tauted, but this – ” he waved toward the painting – “is what we do.” He shaped his hands into two L's, like he was taking a photograph, then spread them part, “Like a comic spread in painting form. That's the Avengers for you.”
Steve shrugged, battling any expression than neutrality. Far be it from him to deny Tony's opinion. He couldn't exactly argue impartially in the matter. Tony hadn't seen a completed painting of his in years, Steve realized, and the style here was much more...well, stylized. Tony really didn't seem to have any idea who was behind this painting.
“The technical skill isn't the greatest of the bunch,” Steve pointed out.
“I can't talk shop about art, Steve, but Mr...Ms.? This Homeguard, wanna-be superhero alias and all, gets it. It's like how Peter Parker is the only photography whose Spider-Man's photographs are worth the price.” Tony nodded slowly, pacing back and forth before the painting.
“I'll buy this one on Mr. Stark's behalf.”
Steve blinked at him, suddenly unable to hide the smile creeping up. “Mr. Stark likes it?”
“Oh, believe me,” Tony said, and Steve just knew he had a grin plastered on beneath that mask, “I know Mr. Stark's taste. He will definitely be willing to pay for this. I think it's not part of the regular auction...?” He walked up next to the painting, squinted at the number next to it, and dashed a scribble off.
Steve didn't want to ask Tony how much he had just agreed to pay for the painting, and he wasn't about to go check as he trailed behind Tony, trying not to beam at the back of his unknowing friend's head.
The painting was promptly delivered that weekend and subsequently mounted. It was displayed in one of the main hallways of the mansion's ground floor. After the first week of Steve not-quite-dashing past it or altogether avoiding that section of the mansion, he had grown a bit used to walking past it, although there still wasn't much help for how his heartbeat picked up. But it made him feel special, somehow, that something he'd made could so easily become part of the mansion, his home, even if he still wondered if its spot was deserved.
Not that he was the one to make that sort of decision. Tony clearly liked it, anyway, and Tony was always so sincere about that sort of thing. He'd done it with Steve's art previously, although Steve had wondered how much of it was the art and how much of it was that it was Steve's art. But now he had the answer.
It was one of the things Steve liked best about his friend, how much heart and uninhibited excitement he could display. It was effortless for Steve to slot everything about him together with the multibillionaire company CEO and Iron Man, the Golden Avenger, and end up with Tony, so simple and so much at the same time. How couldn't one get caught up in him?
That evening, Steve stretched out a new canvas.
“Look what I got!”
Steve glanced up from where he was idly reading the morning cartoon strips, an eyebrow raising curiously at Tony's chipper tone, out of place so early in the morning before coffee. Then he saw what Tony was holding and nearly choked on his pancakes.
“Isn't it great?” chirped Tony, and Steve was torn between burying his face into his hands or beaming with undulated pride. He settled for a strangled grin, better to disallow any traitorous sounds from escaping his throat. Although, considering from the snort-giggle that came out of Jan's mouth from the other end of the table, maybe it wouldn't have been so out of place.
In Tony's hands was Steve's latest painting. It was of the team's flyers carrying their non-flyers, soaring over the Hudson, the idea spurred by a particularly impassioned conversation Tony and Carol had yesterday about flying. Steve had painted himself with his arms wrapped firmly around Tony.
“You should be careful with that,” was all he finally managed. Tony carefully propped it up against the wall.
“Is that the same person as the last painting?” Carol asked.
“It is him,” Tony said proudly. “And I'm confident it's a him, now. Homeguard has to be a reference to a volunteer UK branch of men who served locally during World War Two when they were unfit to be drafted.”
Steve tried not to blush when Jan let a sly smile slip out toward him at the name she'd finally thrown her approval behind.
“You should try to track this guy down for commissions,” Jan said sweetly. “If he were as keen on opportunity as an artist should be, he should have approached you by now. Two works in a row snapped up by Tony Stark? I'm sure it'd really get his goat to know that his Avengers paintings are being shown in the actual mansion.”
Steve tried to remind himself of how he had a sparring session with Jan later that morning, and just what her words right now were earning her.
“I actually have asked about that,” Tony said. “It's a pseudonym, obviously, and when I asked for contact details, the gallery gave me a public number that leads to a Billie Gresor, who doesn't seem to actually exist. There was a lot of call transferring, assuring me they'd get me in touch, and then I got snapped at and hung up on when I let slip who I was.” Tony shrugged, his easy smile not as carefree as he wanted it to be.
Okay, so Steve had submitted the pieces under one of his less-secure and low-risk S.H.I.E.L.D. pseudonyms (but being S.H.I.E.L.D., still perfect and nigh-impenetrable, unless you were Tony Stark, apparently).
But Tony had actually stopped in his search, like that was that, like anything could stop him if he really didn't want it to.
“You have something to go on. Couldn't you find him, still?” Steve asked. “If you really wanted to meet him?”
“I don't have a personal interest in the guy,” Tony lied through his teeth. “If he likes his privacy, I'll grant him that. People have aliases for reasons, you know?”
That was...fair. But there was what only could be described a look in Tony's eyes, like the one he got when he had a problem and a goal and all the time and resources in the world at his fingertips. It thrilled Steve just to see it, and that just made him wonder at how Tony had to feel.
“The thing is,” Tony continued, “the one from the auction was the first artwork submitted from him. The organizing agency said they'd first had contact with him specifically for the event.”
“Maybe he's already a name, and want to see how well they sell without anything attached to their name,” Jan offered. “When I was in school and felt like I needed to prove myself, I'd submit my designs to contests anonymously just for that.”
“It would be nice though, if he were open for commissions.” Tony looked thoughtful. “Maybe I should try calling again, but just to leave a message, instead. Or go walk into the gallery. We'll leave hand-written notes for each other, only able to talk through a mediator, like some contrived romance novel plot.” Tony shook his head with a laugh. “Usually I'm the person who's supposed to be out of reach for people. Artists really are eccentric, huh?”
Steve wasn't about to tell Tony that it was no use – he wasn't interested in making a career out of his art, not like years ago when he'd first tried, looking to prove something.
An idea struck him then, and he missed his mouth and grimaced as the fork spearing the pancake bounced off the side of his cheek.
“Ow,” he said belatedly.
“Are you feeling unwell, Steve?” Wanda asked, concerned. It took a lot for Steve to lose control of his motor skills.
“Yeah,” Steve said, hiding his smile into his napkin as he wiped at his cheek. He was more than fine.
Oh, he was going to have so much fun with Tony.
Steve talked to Tony all the time. He didn't really need to keep an ear out for little tidbits, but he started doing so anyway. He would seek Tony out and prompt him, for those small details that one needed a little reminding to notice.
“I was kind of obsessed with King Arthur and the rest of the Round Table,” confessed Tony one evening in the workshop, running a hand over the armor that gleamed beneath his fingers. “I guess this is the closest I could get to become a knight, isn't it?”
Steve began working on a medieval rendition of the Avengers that evening.
He probably didn't need to do anything based off of what Tony explicitly said. Steve knew him enough to make things that would appeal to him anyway.
But by golly, seeing Tony start going from giddy excitement to thwarted exasperation was worth it. Each subsequent painting shortened the interval between the two.
“He's screwing with me!” Tony exclaimed, after examining a painting where Iron Man was princess carrying Tony himself. He'd shown Steve an old newspaper article that proclaimed Tony Stark and Iron Man never being seen together a few weeks prior, wondering just exactly poor Shellhead had to do to prove that he was Mr. Stark's loyal employee after all. “There's no way...”
“It's like having your own personal artist, except you don't have to pay a commission fee.” Steve couldn't hold back his laughter. Tony had admitted to him he'd asked Rhodes to carry him like that before. I love flying, but it'd be nice to do it without armor sometime.
It was somewhat true – Steve hadn't felt so inspired about painting in ages, and he was going to take advantage while he could. He had always tried to be diligent about working on his art. But, with the lifestyle they led, not to mention how free time was very rarely free, but devoted to honing his skills or retaining his body in the training room, his art had often gone neglected for days, sometimes weeks in a row. That was part of the reason he usually stuck to his sketchbook, where it was easier to jot down all the imagery and the ensuing ideas they'd sparked. Painting took far more concentrated effort, not to mention time, but ever this began it felt like it didn't take anything at all. Tony would get the idea into Steve's head and there it would persist, echoing through his head in the mental exhilaration of progress without barriers, an eagerness to create, and the images ran like breath from him to canvas.
Plus, Steve found, it did work in his favor, when he only had the time to add little touches, because he'd need to wait for it to take shape before him anyway. He'd often get frustrated with sketching, wanting to finish it already, but with these he felt oddly unrushed, no matter how much he looked forward to seeing Tony's reaction.
“Are you still buying these just because?” Steve had asked him once, after the fifth of Steve's paintings had been added to one of the hallways on the second floor, to which Tony had scoffed, rolled his eyes, and pointed insistently at Iron Man, in the middle of an aerial roll in this latest offering.
“To be honest, they reminds me of the Captain America comics I used to read when I was younger,” he told Steve with a wink, while Steve tried not to flush. “Appealing to the nostalgia in rich, eccentric billionaires will always get you somewhere.”
Steve even tried once, to sign it under a different pen name, but it didn't fool Tony. He presented it to Steve animatedly, before scowling. It was adorable.
“But it's him again. What is up with this person and his anonymity? He really doesn't want to get discovered, does he?”
“Maybe art is just a hobby. All of his proceeds go to charity.”
“He could make a living off this stuff,” Tony said. “He's good enough, I'm sure.”
Not if Steve had anything to say about it...he knew how much Tony paid, and while it was a plentiful amount to go to charity, it was far more than what it was worth. Maybe that was a part of it – that Tony knew where the proceeds were going to and was thus more free with his wallet. Not that he wasn't always, what with funding a superhero team out of pocket...
Yeah, Tony had a point with the eccentric bit.
“Doing something you love for a living is different from doing it out of love,” Steve pointed out, to which Tony agreed reluctantly.
“I will find you, Mister Homeguard,” whispered Tony, eyeing Steve conspiratorially. Steve tried not to snicker, but soon enough Tony grinned back at him too, before diverting his attention back to the painting.
“Hey, is that me? Mind if I take a look?”
Steve lifted his head and leaned back against the living room chair, allowing Tony to peer over his shoulder at his sketchbook. He caught a whiff of coffee and oil grease, and when had the latter smell stopped making him wrinkle his nose in response?
It was a fairly typical study – there wasn't something that would make Tony recognize it was by the same person as who Carol had dubbed the “pet artist.” Which Steve wasn't, thank you very much.
Steve looked back at the sketch. It was of Tony, sitting on the couch in his workshop, looking to his shoulder and aiming a bright smile at the viewer, goggles pushed up on his forehead.
“Hmm.” Tony evaluated it carefully. “Are you going to give me a shirt in this?”
Steve went hot, more focused on restraining the flush chiding Tony gently. It was how it worked. You drew the unclothed body first, before adding in the rest of the details, nevermind that this was a portrait.
Tony laughed at his expression, before turning his attention back to the sketch. “I know this is a natural setting, but I can't stop thinking of how unnatural that is for a photo. Oh, I posed for a shoot in a pose like this before,” Tony added before Steve could ask the question. “Although the facial expression was more like,” and then he looked at Steve, from under his eyelashes, like he could pin Steve to the spot with just the power of his gaze, and as it turned out, he could.
“Like that,” Tony said, pulling back with a breezy smile. “I don't really do that sort of thing anymore. Even if I have an artificial heart now, what with all the scarring around here,” he traced around his chest with a finger, “it can't be very attractive.”
That was blatantly untrue. Steve paused. Tony nodded, raised a hand, then left room, Steve still staring at the drawing and not answering Tony's parting words.
Oh, he'd seen Tony in all states, including naked. But – he hadn't ever seen Tony like that, aimed just for him, but it wasn't really. It had been a joke. Those sort of things were never for Steve. But – if they were –
It came delayed, the thought and the imagery and the – the want coalescing into one. Into a understanding that he'd been unconsciously aware of this entire time.
Steve's body went hot and cold at the same time, but the rush definitely left him shivering. He closed his sketchbook, and that not being enough, shoved it so that it fell off the far end of the table.
So, he knew exactly when the little game stopped being so fun. It was when he started noticing too much. How Tony's eyes shone, how his smile lit up the whole room – things that had once been background noise, a pleasant hum of the sort that once it was gone made everything feel oddly bereft. But now that had transformed into the main attraction, the reason for wanting in the first place. And there was something Steve hadn't even noticed to begin with that was now so obvious he wondered how he couldn't have seen. How, past everything, the happiness and joking, there was something more than disappointment, less than outright rejection lurking in how Tony studied the paintings, running his fingers over the frame, in the same places Steve had touched his work. The reverence in his expression, and his touch, and....Steve wanted that, whatever it would mean. He could admit it now.
And so Steve began to experience his own whiplash, from embarrassment to pleased acceptance to smugness to the beginnings of a bitterness that lapped away at him.
That should have been a sign to stop.
It was different than the embarrassment of having praise showered upon him. It reminded him of when the neighborhood girls would admire Arnie when they were young, and of course Arnie had been handsome and charming and the effects on women warranted. That was a given. But there was this one time, when Arnie had been sweet on Becky down the street when they were teenagers, with her blonde pigtails, big brown eyes, and a shy, sweet smile. He'd roped Steve into writing a note to her, and she had gone so starry-eyed Steve thought Arnie would choke, he was so self-satisfied. (It was not long after that that they began to drift apart.)
It had made Steve bite his lip, trying not to jump in front and have those eyes fixed on him, instead. Look at me, really.
But he was a grown man now, a soldier, Captain America, for chrissakes . He didn't have the excuse of age and hormones, no matter how much he wanted to retreat to the gym for a session with the heavy bag to the point of exhaustion. Point was, he gave approval now, and he didn't need it for himself.
Seeing the light in Tony's eyes as he discussed his mysterious artist, Steve could almost forget it, like ice melted away by fire. Steve wouldn't let himself taint this image of Tony smiling at him. Hours of careful, painstakingly precise work had been poured into these, just to see the same animated expression in those eyes, seeing it and knowing it was something meant just for him – well, for Homeguard, and whatever image Tony had built up of him in his head.
He was having fun. Tony was enjoying himself. There was nothing wrong with this picture.
“You're getting burnt out on painting?” Jan asked as she leaned over the railing of the balcony. “That's too bad. You were really into it, but it happens. Your biggest fan will be disappointed.”
Steve frowned. “I can't see why. My paintings really aren't worth that much. I only had a year of art school. I did my short stint in advertising and comics. The lack of experience shows. My anatomy could use work, my technique is spotty, and I don't practice enough to see the improvement that Tony should be paying for.”
“Um.” Jan waited a moment. “Well, it's Tony's money. He gets to spend it how he wants.”
“He can get better.”
She quirked an eyebrow. “I'm second-guessing that burnt out excuse now. For being Captain America, Steve Rogers can be awfully insecure.”
Steve dutifully resisted a scowl. “My art's where it is because I couldn't do anything else growing up.” His mother had always told him to do what he'd loved, but it wasn't like he wasn't keenly aware of the divide between what he wanted and what he and his mother needed. Then again, considering his health, yeah, he hadn't been good for much else back then besides laying in bed and sketching anyway, either.
“Oh, that's why there are all those stories of you standing up to bullies during childhood in the history books.” Jan looked at him, worriedly now, before sighing. “You were fine with all that earlier, anyway? I thought you were having fun with your little game. Sorry I brought Tony into it, but if you just tell him, I'm sure he'll end up okay.”
“I...don't think I should tell him.”
“Why not? He has a sense of humor, and he doesn't get embarrassed often enough. I, for one, think he'd find it hilarious.”
He probably would, Steve thought. But Steve wouldn't.
Which is exactly why Steve tugged Tony along into his room the next morning and stopped him in front of the easel. There was nothing like feeling bad over not doing the right thing to make things work out.
Tony squinted at him, then at the painting, then back again.
“You!” And then to the sinking dread in Steve's stomach, Tony began to grin, increasingly delighted. “It was you!?”
“I wondered if you had already figured it out, actually.”
Tony's grin faltered. “But I hadn't?”
“If you had, you would have played along. String me back along in retaliation.”
That won Steve a laugh. “Okay, so I would have,” Tony replied. He put his hands on his hips, leaning back, and glancing out of the corner of his eye.“Huh. You got me pretty good, huh?”
When Steve finally aimed a look at Tony, he found the flush high on his friend's cheeks. Okay, so not completely as easygoing as his reaction seemed. Steve gulped.
“No, just an idiot!” Tony brushed his fingers back through his hair. “With how I was acting, it's no wonder you kept it going. God.” He laughed again, and buried his face in his hand, shaking his head back and forth. “Wow.” He peeked through his fingers at Steve. “But no, I'm okay.”
The words made something in Steve tighten up, his skin crawling with awareness. Because, Steve realized with a start, he very much was not.
“Steve? You alright?”
Steve shrugged shortly, his eyes fixed on a point on the wall behind Tony.
“It was hilarious,” Steve admitted. “That's part of why I did it. But I also wanted to make you happy. I thought I was.”
Tony looked increasingly confused. “You did. The art was great, Steve.”
“I know you liked the art, but...it wasn't me making you happy, right? It wasn't the art you were interested in, after the first few times.” Steve ran a hand through his hair in frustration, trying to find the words.
Tony looked at him, stunned. “What are you going on about? Why wouldn't you make me happy secret superhero name or otherwise?”
“It's because it was a secret.” Steve huffed. “You know, it doesn't work like that. It's not that romantic, seeing the art of a stranger and thinking you know the person behind it, that there's a relationship there.” That was it, and the words were spilling out of Steve, the torrent's pressure too great to stop. “Tony, whatever you felt from the art and whoever was behind it, it's not real. You can't just fall in love with the artist through their art, and I know this because you've never been in love with me.”
It took a few seconds for Steve to realize the words were gone, out of his reach now that they were out in the open. Tony was quiet. Steve felt something crumble inside him, all the careful effort and careless friendship falling apart with every passing second.
“I'm sorry,” he said, staring at the floor, hands curled into fists. “I shouldn't – you're not obligated to do – anything. Ever.” What was he thinking, Tony wasn't even interested in him, why should Tony feel guilty for his lack of feelings? He was Tony, who had opened up his heart and his home without a second thought, but he'd offered those purely in friendship. Camaraderie. He would have done the same for everyone, but – I don't want you to see me like everyone else, even though how you see everyone else is already enough to amaze me.
“Steve,” Tony finally said slowly. “You're honest?”
Sometimes Steve wished he couldn't be.
“Hey, look at me?” And it was that disbelief and hesitation that brought Steve's gaze up, because there was more than uncertainty there, and nothing of all of pity or guilt.
Steve looked into Tony's hopeful, searching gaze. Then, like Tony had found everything he'd been searching for, he broke into a smile, delighted.
“I can't believe I'm the one telling you you're wrong.” Tony leaned in halfway and paused, waiting. It was too much for Steve, to have nothing in his field of vision except Tony, so he closed his eyes, and let Tony close the distance.
Steve's mind wiped blank. Tony's fingers on his arms trembled and loosened as he pulled back, and Steve's lips followed him. Tony made a pleased, encouraging sound – encouraging enough for Steve to wrap a hand around his neck and thread the other one through his hair. After they parted, Tony was shaking his head.
“I don't even know why I'm surprised it was you. Of course it was you.”
“What?” Steve couldn't make the connection between their conversation and the kiss, but maybe that was the kiss clouding his mind.
“Steve, I've been half in love with you since we found you in the ice.”
“What?” Steve couldn't keep the smile off his face. “Well, that can't be right. The first thing I did was try to fight you.”
Tony laughed. “I'm exaggerating, Steve . I do that sometimes .”
“Tell me about it,” Steve sighed, wrapping his arms around Tony's waist, a thrill thrumming in him at Tony's easy acceptance of the physicality.
“Do you know how weird it was, that I felt connected with this artist I didn't know and never met? I couldn't understand how they knew me so well. To feel like that, with a stranger, when I'd never really been that into art? I was starting to believe in things like fate and destiny, damn you. But it was you, who's always been that for me.”
Always. Steve tested out the word in his thoughts, reveling in it.
Tony sidled up closer, wrapping his own hands behind Steve's neck and grinning lopsidedly. They leaned their foreheads together.
“So, now that the cat's out of the bag, I'd like to offer more ideas for your next masterpieces.”
“I don't think it'll be the kind you can display in the showroom. Or sell to anyone not me. At least, not without some contracts signed for likeness usage, and also some accusations of libel. You would have to talk to my people about that one. Personally, I think just showing it to my eyes only is a good start. And end/”
Tony glanced at him from under his lashes. That one heat-shiver took Steve again, and Tony grinned at him, like Steve couldn't hide anything from him.
“Since you found me in the ice. Really?”
“The best day of my life,” Tony admitted. “I don't think it hit me until right then, when you were there, that this whole thing was...a new beginning for me.”
Steve pulled Tony into an embrace, resting his chin on Tony's shoulder and almost lifting him with the force of the hug.
“For us,” Steve corrected.