Ian's hand was stroking slowly over the page, fingers brushing the paint where he wanted it, mixing them together precisely. Hard-won painting supplies dribbled onto a little easel on the ground next to him. He was careful, so careful, with the supplies they had. He knew how important they were to Steve, and so treated them almost reverently whenever he was allowed access to them.
Steve watched him out of the corner of his eye as he worked at the fishing net, repairing it with neat, quick movements of his fingers, threading in and out of the lines as he worked the pattern into place. Ian was lying on his stomach, feet up in the air behind him swaying gently to and fro as he worked. Steve smiled. He was content, in this moment. His son was hard at work with art supplies, making a painting. There was no fridge to hang it on, and Steve knew there'd be no blue sky in the picture, but it was still good. Ian was happy and occupied. That was all that mattered.
Steve bent his head quickly down to his work, then brought it back up like he'd been staring down at the net the whole time. From the way Ian's eyes narrowed slightly, he hadn't fooled him for a second. But Ian's smile didn't dim in the slightest. He rushed over to Steve, paper in hand.
“I finished it.”
Setting aside the net, Steve kneeled sat next to Ian to take a look. Gently he took the picture into his hands. It was of him and Ian, together. The sky was the red sky of Dimension Z, and Steve was bearded as he had been ever since he got to this place, but it was them. It was a portrait of their little family, as they were in that moment. Steve did his best not to get misty-eyed.
“It's perfect,” he said. Then he remembered something he heard a long time ago, from Sue or maybe Jessica. “Tell me about it?”
Ian's eyes lit up, and Steve sighed in relief. He did it right, then. Asked the right question. It was hard, sometimes, knowing what the right thing to do or say was. He hadn't realized how many pitfalls there might be, or how every little thing he ever said would stick in the boy's mind, like a beacon in the dim reddish twilight of Dimension Z. But there were times like these: times when he got it just right. Those times made it all worthwhile, those times when Ian's face lit up with life and vibrance, and his little chatterbox mouth started and just wouldn't quit.
“It's you and me, see? And I made sure to include your discus, because I know how much you love it. And we're standing outside with the Phrox. It's like that day that we came back from the hunt together at the beginning of the season. Do you remember? Because it was this light outside. Except I didn't draw the meat because I wasn't sure how to draw that.”
“I'll teach you, one day,” Steve promised. Then he reached out his arms and gathered Ian into a hug. “But it's perfect even as it is.”
After hugging him quickly back, Ian stepped away and shrugged. “It's okay. It doesn't look like when you draw.”
Steve laughed. Glancing over at the latest wall painting—this one of some of the Avengers, with Tony at his right hand—Steve smiled. “That took years of hard work, to learn how to get things the way I see them in my head. Back when I was a boy, older than you but much younger than I am now, I went to art school.”
Steve lifted his arm, letting Ian cuddle up against him as he did whenever Steve told stories about Earth. “Remember how I told you I was small and weak, once?” Ian nodded. “Well, since I was never one for sports, and never really brainy enough for too many books, I started to study art. When I got to the future I even got a job at a comic book company for a little while.”
“What about superheroing?”
“Oh, I did that too,” Steve reassured him. “But I needed a job for all the times in between the world needed saving. So I drew comic books.” Steve paused, thinking for a moment. He cuddled Ian just a little closer. “Not all heroes need to go out and save the world, you know. Not the way I do. Sometimes... Some heroes are the people who tell us about what it's like to be a hero. What heroes look like. Fiction writers, comic book writers and artists: they can tell us what good looks like, and the many deceitful shapes evil might take. They can inspire us to keep fighting, to get back up every time, even when we think we're as low as low can be. Fiction can be just as important as punching a bad guy in the face—sometimes even more, because it can reach so many people, and bring them to do good deeds all their own. It spreads out the goodness, like ripples in a pond, or waves crashing over billions of grains of sand on a beach.”
Ian squirmed a little as he thought about this. Finally he looked up at Steve, his longish brown hair falling back out of his eyes. “I think I want to be a hero like you are, though. The punching kind.”
Steve just laughed and ruffled his hair. “Well, when we get you back to Earth, maybe you can be. And just in case you want to try something different, I'll make sure you have all the art supplies you could ever want. Real supplies.”
“Sure,” Ian mumbled. Steve pretended not to hear the doubt in his voice. Instead, he picked up the picture again and studied it. One day he'd be able to hang something like this up on a fridge. He'd get to show it to his friends—whoever was left alive. And he'd get to show Ian to them. Show them what a good boy he was, what a smart, talented, kind young man. They'd see what the best of Steve could look like, uncorrupted and loving and good, in Ian.
Steve sighed and pressed his cheek to Ian's hair. He breathed deep the damp, heavy air of the Phrox caverns. Just as soon as they got back to Earth.
The ground was cool beneath Steve's hands, damp earth penetrating in its coolness even through the thick gardening gloves. In contrast, the sun was high in the sky, hot on his back as he bent over the earth and dug. The smell of it filled his senses, the repetition of the work planting the garden leading him into almost a meditative state, quieting his mind of all worries and concerns. He was returned home, and he was on Earth, and the soil and the sun hadn't changed, had stayed the same, waiting for him.
“...digging and digging in the garden, like an animal after something, it seemed. There he was with his long dark arms moving swiftly, planting, tamping, fixing, cutting, pruning, his dark face always down to the soil, his eyes always down to what he was doing…”
It was still odd sometimes. He still felt out of place—a man out of time, again, and wasn't that just the damnedest thing. Some nights he woke up, heart racing, wondering where Ian was and why he wasn't at his side. Some days the sun was too bright, the sky too blue, and his head pounded and eyes strained and he had to go back inside and shut all the blinds and hide in his cool little cave. But those nights were few and far between, and those days even fewer and farther. Especially now, with Ian settling in so well at the Future Foundation during the day and Tony there to reach over and place a comforting, if not exhausted, hand on his flank during the nights.
The door to the roof opened up behind him. He didn't turn away from his gardening work, just listened. The pitter-patter of little feet was loud in the quiet of the rooftop garden. And it wasn't so hard to guess whose footsteps those might be.
Planting one more seed, Steve took the time to gently pat down the earth on top of it. Then he turned and looked up at Ian, squinting in the bright light. His hand came up automatically to shield his eyes, and he smiled. There was his son, the bright yellow light of Earth's sun illuminating him brilliantly, the vibrant blue of the sky offsetting his messy brown hair and dark brown eyes. He looked more like Tony than Steve—sometimes acted more like him, too, when he was being a little brat. But then he smiled, a little nervously, and Steve could see all of himself in Ian. All the best parts.
“Are you busy?”
Steve clapped his gloved hands together, shaking off some of the dirt before removing them entirely. He set them on his thigh, still on his knees and peering up at Ian. “Not too busy for you,” he promised.
Ian shifted from foot to foot. “It's just... I finished... something. A thing. I thought.”
Standing in one fluid motion, Steve left the earth behind him in favor of his son. “Lead the way,” he prompted.
Ian skipped ahead, racing inside and down the flight of stairs that led to the elevators. From there, Steve was corralled into one of Ian's work rooms that Tony had given him. He glanced around curiously, but couldn't see anything especially out of the ordinary.
“Tony says he's on his way,” Ian promised. He pointed at one chair in the center of the room, facing the door. “You have to sit just there,” he ordered. Obediently, Steve went over and took a seat in the child-sized chair. His knees almost touched his chest. At ease, he spread his legs out in front of them and waited. There was a second chair, closer to the door and facing his chair, that remained empty. Steve supposed that was where Tony would end up sitting.
True to his word, Tony showed up a couple minutes later, jabbering hurriedly into his cell phone. Business plans, it sounded like: or perhaps some legal issue with patents. Whatever it was, Tony ended the conversation by the time he reached the empty chair across from Steve. As he slid his phone into his pocket, he pointed at the chair and looked at Ian. “There? Really?”
Ian rolled his eyes. “It's just for a minute,” he huffed.
Tony sarcastically huffed back, but the noise and expression had no bite to it. He was smiling beneath it all, as he threw himself down into his not-quite big enough chair.
“I don't suppose you know what this song and dance is about?” he leaned forward and asked.
Steve shrugged, unbothered. “Guess we're about to find out.”
Ian moved to the front of the room and closed the door, against the far wall that Steve was facing, and that Tony's chair backed up against. He looked nervous, still, and was fumbling with a little remote in his hands. “Um. This is... like. Ms. Potts called it an 'art installation'. So this is an art installation.” His cheeks were flushed red with nerves. Steve already began to tear up, even though he still wasn't sure what Ian was about to show them. But whatever it was, it was something Ian had made, for them. And it was something he had put enough of his heart and soul into to be nervous about revealing it.
Taking a breath, Ian continued. “So. I call this piece, uh. A Study in Family: Phrox Night.” Ian winced. “I can change the title,” he mumbled. “It's not very good.”
It was Tony who spoke up, twisted around in his chair and watching Ian carefully. “Titles are the worst. Take it from someone who's got dozens of published papers. Just show us what you've got and we can worry about the titles later.”
Ian nodded, face still burning red. “Okay,” he whispered. Then he punched at the remote, and the room went dark. In the stillness, Steve could hear another soft click as Ian's fingers depressed another button. And the room lit up.
Steve's first instinct was to gasp and jump up to look around, but he stopped. His and Tony's seats were apparently positioned just the way they were for a reason. They were part of Ian's art installation.
The room had changed into the Phrox cave that Steve and Ian had called home for so long. Muddy reds and browns covered the bright colors of Ian's room, washing away all of the toys and computers and amenities of modern life. The plush carpet beneath their feet now looked like the hard-packed earth that had been their bed for years; the smooth drywall had turned into the shorn-smooth rock of the cave.
Steve's eyes lit up as he looked across the room at Tony. Ian's art installation... was his art installation. Back in the caves. He had recreated the painting of the Avengers that Steve had created. Except this time, Tony was playing the role of himself. Which meant that Steve-
A warm, sweaty hand slipped into his. Steve looked over at Ian, whose pupils were dilated big again, like they always seemed to be back in the dim light of Dimension Z.
“Do you... Do you like it?”
Tony was turning around in his chair, studying the painting that he was apart of, projected on the door and wall just behind him. “Oh, hey, it's us,” he said. He glanced down at himself. “Oh, and I'm me. Huh. Sweet.”
“I love it,” Steve promised Ian, immediately. And he did. He understand it immediately, knew why Ian had been inspired to make it, and why he had been so nervous about showing it to them. His eyes welled up and he blinked, hard.
He cleared his throat. “Why don't you tell us about it?”
Ian squeezed his hand, then released it. He turned to speak more to Tony than Steve. “Well. It's... This was our home. This cave. And Dad, he used to paint all these scenes and people on the walls. One time, he painted all of you. And he put the two of you together, at the front: Iron Man and Captain America. Always saving the day. Always keeping the world safe. And. Well. Now you're here. And we're here. And... but. Okay. So that's the first part.”
“There's more?” Tony asked. He was still studying the art of the Avengers on the wall behind him, the recreation of Steve's mural in the Phrox cave. He glanced over his shoulder at Steve, smile soft. “You drew me?”
“I drew lots of people,” Steve replied flatly.
Tony snorted at turned back to the mural. He reached out and stroked at the holographic image of Steve, shadow following suit. “You drew us together,” he teased.
“My installation isn't finished!” Ian reminded them. He cleared his throat and continued on in his more “professional voice.” “That was then. It was family, but it was small.” He reached up and held Steve's hand again. “And we were separated.” The mural Tony was a part of glowed brightly.
“But now we're here.” A soft click, and the holographic around them changed. Now it was an imitation of central park, all green grass and even—Steve tilted his neck up to look—blue skies. Beneath their feet the grass was green; around them, peppering the walls, trees were brown and strong. Steve grinned, taking in all the detail. His son had done all this. It wasn't a photograph: it was a painting. That he had done on the computer, somehow, and translated it into this. It was probably even more complicated than he realized, with having to adjust for all the clutter in the room, making the paintings seem smooth on a bumpy background.
“Okay now come here and sit down,” Ian ordered both of them.
There was a picnic spread beneath their feet. Red and white checkerboard blanket and all. Steve obediently sat down, Tony following just a step behind. Ian sat with them, beaming.
“This part's called: A Study in Family: Earth Day.”
“I like the title,” Steve whispered. He was still looking around them, taking in the fluffy white clouds in the sky. There was even an airplane, small in the corner of the room. And the skyline, beyond the trees that dotted the walls, with Stark Tower prominent—perhaps a little too prominent, if Ian was going for realism, but—amongst the rest of the skyscrapers.
Tony was poking at the holographic picnic basket. “Pretty cool,” he announced. Ian preened visibly under the praise. “You know, if you want, I can show you how you can program all this stuff so we can interact with it. It'll take more math and science, though. Because computers.”
Ian shrugged. “It's supposed to be a painting,” he said. “Maybe for something else. But for this one, it's just supposed to... be. Just like all those paintings you always did, Dad. Except now we've got this one.”
“Yeah,” Steve whispered. He coughed, blinking hard. Reaching out, he put a gentle hand on Ian's shoulder and squeezed. “It's amazing. And perfect.”
“Are you impressed?”
Steve considered that. “I'm not surprised that you could do this. Because you're talented, and smart, and I know you can accomplish anything you set your mind to.” He paused and looked around at the beautiful scene that they were apart of. “But I never imagined something like this. I think you're a better artist than I ever was.”
Ian shrugged and squirmed uncomfortably. “I used loads of references, from the field trip to the central park last month with the Future Foundation. I took tons of pictures on my phone. And AIMEE helped me learn how to do the holograph trick.”
“But you thought to do all this with the tools you had,” Steve pointed out. “That's what art is. Seeing the world, and the materials you've got, and doing something with those things that no one else would have thought of.”
“It's what engineering is, too,” Tony pointed out.
Steve nodded. “Or being a hero. Looking at the world, the resources you have, and then seeing something that nobody else could see, or making something happen that nobody thought possible. Bringing out the beauty with what you have.”
“'Don't reinvent the wheel. Build the wagon',” Tony said, and it sounded like a quote.
“So you like it?”
Steve scooped Ian up into his arms and pressed his face tight into Ian's neck. Ian's skinny arms were wrapped tight around him in turn. “I love it,” Steve whispered. “And I love you.”
When Steve released Ian, he immediately glanced up at Tony, fingers playing nervously with each other. Tony rolled his eyes, but then held his arms open. Ian immediately leapt into them and hugged Tony just as tight as he had Steve.
“It's pretty daaahh... aahrn,” Tony changed his word choice thanks to a quick look from Steve. “Pretty darn amazing,” he confirmed. “I'm proud of you. How much you learned. I don't think the average Earth-kid could do all this. Hell, I don't think the average Earth adult could do any of this.” Ian pulled away a little, and Tony held tight to his shoulders, looking him the eye. “It's beautiful. I'd hang it on the fridge if I could.”
Steve looked away, finally having to wipe a hand over his face to brush away the tears. A moment later the light changed, and Steve hurriedly composed himself. The holographs were gone, leaving the three of them in the natural light of Ian's playroom.
“Hungry?” Tony asked. He was avoiding looking at Steve, deflecting his own concern by focusing on Ian. Steve appreciated it.
“Bear meat sandwiches?”
Tony groaned. “You know, my pride for you only extends so far. How many months of bear meat is this?” But he scooped Ian up onto his shoulders and they ducked beneath the doorframe together. Steve followed a short ways behind.
“You know, I could have you professionally shown. Pepper could arrange something.”
Ian squirmed on top of Tony's head, kicking him lightly with the heels of his sneakers. “Nooo,” he cried. “This was just stupid stuff. Messing around. For you two.”
“Well let me know if you have anything you want the public to see,” Tony said.
“Would you like to take an art class?” Steve asked. Maybe a summer camp.
Ian shrugged. “Maybe. We have art at the Future Foundation, but I know from looking on AIMEE that there's loads more out there. Egypt and Greece and Rome and China and Babylon and Aztecs... and then all the stuff happening now, more than everything from the past combined.” Ian thought some more. “There's a lot to know. A lot I don't know. I might like a class.”
“We'll look into it,” Steve promised.
He followed Ian and Tony into the kitchen, listening to them chatter at equally breath-stealing speeds. He hoped Ian wouldn't change the title on those two pieces. Steve thought maybe he'd like to sneak in that room sometimes, and look at the both of them. See his family in Dimension Z, and see it on Earth. And maybe figure out some way for Tony's computers to print out the two scenes so he could put it on the Avengers communal fridge. Everyone else should get to see how talented and thoughtful his little boy was.