Pepper is impressive, but that’s a given. Steve wouldn’t have expected anything else from the new CEO of Stark Industries. Along with Tony’s brief comments about her, Steve’s expectations are quietly brimming by the time he actually meets her.
She’s stressed but effortlessly put together, all sleek skirt and blouse and swishing ponytail as she pours her coffee and crosses the kitchen to sit down with it. Her phone is out before she’s even settled into the chair.
Steve pauses in the kitchen doorway, just long enough that she notices. She swallows her mouthful a second too fast and coughs into her fist.
“Sorry- hello,” she says through the cough. She clears her throat. “You must be-”
“Steve Rogers, ma’am.”
She looks like a person who shakes hands, so he offers one. She shakes it, firm and quick before letting go and picking her phone back up from the table.
“Pepper Potts. Nice to meet you,” she says, with a smile that’s polite but not very warm at all, and then she goes back to her phone.
Steve doesn’t press her. Honestly, it’s nice when he meets people who don’t fawn over him. He heads over to the cupboard and starts assembling his usual breakfast- toast and eggs with mushrooms.
Cracking eggs into a bowl, he looks over his shoulder. “Would you like some eggs?”
“Hmm?” She looks up distractedly. “Oh. No, thanks.” Another flash of the polite smile.
Steve nods and turns back. So this is Tony’s recently ex-girlfriend. He wonders briefly if he should offer his condolences, but quickly decides against it. She seems busy and there’s something in her body language, not to mention her smile, that gets Steve thinking he isn’t her favourite person in the world. Maybe Tony told her too much about him back when they didn’t like each other. He hopes he’s mentioned one or two nicer things in the six months since they’ve become friends.
She leaves before he’s started sliding eggs into a pan. She doesn’t say goodbye, but she’s on the phone by then so Steve doesn’t think much of it.
When Tony stumbles in ten minutes after, Steve waits until Tony has some coffee in him until bringing it up. “You just missed Pepper.”
Tony glances up at him blearily. It takes a second to process- from the looks of the smudges under Tony’s eyes and his general dishevelment, he spent last night in the workshop rather than his bed. “Uh-huh,” he says when it registers. “Uh. Yeah, she came over to drop off some- those document. Things. Should be in my…”
He trails off, sips at his coffee. He blinks heavily, like he’s on the verge of falling asleep at the table.
Steve changes the subject to what Tony’s working on and then nods through Tony’s weary, near-slurred explanation. These sleepless nights have gotten worse since he and Pepper decided they’d be better off as friends- with minimal shouting, from what Steve’s heard about it- but Pepper and Tony are still in what Clint dubs ‘the awkward phase where they shift back to Just Friends.’
It looks like rough going. Steve sits down next to Tony and nods until he can tempt Tony to drink tea instead of coffee.
“Next you’ll be plying me with hot milk,” Tony says as he lets Steve take his mug up to the shelves.
“Don’t tempt me,” Steve says, and tries not to grin too hard when Tony laughs.
Two weeks later, he sees Pepper again.
They’re both distracted- Pepper is trying to get information out of a nurse and Steve is on the phone with Fury, but Pepper immediately makes a beeline for him when she spots him.
“I’ll call you later,” Steve says, and hangs up in the middle of Fury swearing quietly. “Hi.”
“Hi,” she says, like an afterthought. She pushes hair out of her face- she’s still expertly put together, this time wearing a brilliant red lipstick that reminds Steve of the kind Peggy used to wear. But the stress is still obvious in the lines of her shoulders, though it’s more than the tension it was last time- this time it forms her collarbones into sharp ridges. Her eyes are bright and worried.
“He’s fine,” Steve assures her. “A dislocated shoulder and some scrapes, but nothing worse than he usually gets.”
This doesn’t seem to put her at ease. Pepper clutches at her own elbows, then releases them only to cross her arms. “I- I saw it on the news. It looked…”
Steve nods when she doesn’t continue. His chest had seized up when he’d watched the building come down on Iron Man. For a second it’d been so close to an asthma attack Steve had to pause to catch his breath.
“It looked worse than it actually was,” he tried. “I’ve just seen him, he’s fine- walking and talking. Arguing with the doctors to let him leave,” he adds, a smile tugging at his mouth without his permission.
Surprisingly, Pepper echoes it, but it fades fast. “How did it happen?”
Steve reaches up to run a hand through his hair before realizing he’s still wearing the cowl. He’d been sure he’d taken it off at some point. He pulls it off and says, “Apparently there was a stray cat left in the building. Tony’s scanners detected it and he went in for it.”
Pepper laughs, a short earnest thing that suits the worry in her eyes. “Of course he did,” she sighs, and her lips tighten. She meets his eyes and Steve blinks- her eyes are the kind of blue that make him want to paint.
An unwilling image of Tony being stunned by those eyes, but a completely different stunned than Steve, wavers through his mind. He shakes it off.
“I should- go,” Pepper says.
Steve feels himself start to nod, but shakes this off too. “He’d probably like to see you,” he tries. “He’s- he hasn’t seen much of you lately.”
Her mouth tugs down at one side and Steve thinks back to Clint’s description- Awkward is right.
“I only came in to check if he was okay, he wasn’t answering his phone,” she says. “I’m postponing a meeting right now, I’ve already had to cancel once-”
Steve is already nodding. “I’ll tell him you came by.”
“Thank you,” she says after a moment. She straightens, and it’s coming out of Steve’s mouth before he can consider it fully-
“I could give you my number, in case something like this happens again. That way you don’t have to rely on Tony checking his phone to find out if he’s okay.”
Pepper’s lips part in surprise, then move wordlessly until she manages, “Oh! That- that works. Thank you, one second, I’ll just-”
She fumbles at her bag to get her phone, and for a moment Steve can picture that frazzled PA he’s seen photographs of from old news articles. Soon Pepper resurfaces with a phone, and Steve smiles stiffly before taking it and tapping his number in.
Pepper thanks him a third time when he hands the phone back. She puts it back in her bag and says under her breath, “Captain America’s phone number, okay, sure,” quiet enough he assumes he wasn’t meant to hear, so he doesn’t respond.
She pauses before turning to leave. “Um. I’ll send you a text later, so you have my details. Just in case.”
He nods and watches her leave. Natasha passes her as she steps out of the elevator Pepper is heading into, and the two of them share a greeting that is particularly warmer than her and Steve’s.
“Has Tony broken out yet,” Natasha asks when she approaches. She’s munching on a bag of vending machine chips.
“Not yet,” Steve says. He watches the elevator doors close. “Hey- you know Pepper better than the rest of us, right? Apart from Tony, anyway.”
She turns her inscrutable gaze on him. “Sure. We get lunch once every few months, if we’re both not too busy. Why?”
Steve pockets his hands. She makes me feel like I’m five feet tall again, he doesn’t say. And I can’t tell if it’s intentional or not.
“Lets’ go see if he’s convinced Clint to make a rope of sheets and tried to scale down the hospital yet,” Steve says instead, then “Oh, thanks,” when Natasha tilts her chip packet towards him.
Pepper texts him that afternoon- hello this is pepper potts thanks again for today- but they don’t have any other contact until a month later.
Steve and Tony are in the middle of an argument where the shouting is less angry than it is incredulous. This happens for around a quarter of their arguments, since they have a spectrum now- they rarely get furious-shouting nowadays. Instead it’s mostly shouting-for-the-sake-of-making-a-point or shouting-because-one-of-us-started-raising-our-voice-and-it-got-out-of-hand or shouting-that’s-half-shout-and-half-laugh, which are Steve’s favourite arguments. They’re fun, like most of the arguments he used to have with Bucky, and they don’t leave Steve quietly roiling with rage.
They’re at the tipping point where it’s either going to break into actual yelling or laugh-yelling when Pepper strides into the workshop, coming to a rapid halt when she takes in the situation.
She wavers. “Should I-?”
“No,” Steve hurries to say. “We’re just-”
“Good, you can settle this,” Tony cuts him off. He puts his hands on his hips. “If astronauts and cavemen got into a fight, who would win?”
Pepper stares at him. She darts a look at Steve before turning her gaze back to Tony, her lips pursed against what could be a smile. “I feel like I’ve seen this in a TV show before.”
“Oh, you have. Me and Steve caught an episode when we were channel surfing last night and Steve made a comment that, frankly, was one of the worst things I’ve ever heard, but we got distracted and only got into it ten minutes ago. Thoughts?”
Pepper is definitely fighting down a smile. “I have no thoughts on this, Tony. Do you know what I have thoughts on, though?”
“No, and I don’t want-”
“Very strong thoughts-”
“No,” Tony repeats, turning back to the holographic blueprints he had been shifting through before he had gotten distracted enough to turn around and yell at Steve. “We’ve been over this, I’m not going to pander to-”
“It’s not pandering! You put up with galas and charity balls all the time, this is just-”
“-you know I have no problem with laughing at some dull dud’s jokes so they fund us, Pep, how long have we done this, it’s just the people whose jokes you want me to fall over my own ass for-”
“Fall over your own-?”
Steve eyed the door. It didn’t look like this was going to end soon, so he cleared his throat. “Hey, I might leave you two to this.”
“Don’t you dare, I’m not finished with you,” Tony says, pointing at him without breaking eye contact with Pepper, who had come to stand a foot away from him. Then, apparently talking to Pepper again: “Pep. Pepper-pot. We can do this later. I’ll argue, you’ll argue, we’ll finally settle on something that requires me to do less ass-kissing to these raging cockheads and I’ll give you another storage painting to represent my eternal gratitude for your hard work. You still want that Monet piece, right?”
Pepper narrowed her eyes. “You gave that to me after the ’09 debacle.”
“I did? Huh. Okay, how’s about Frida Kahlo? The one with the little girl in the creepy mask. No idea why you liked that one, by the way, it looks like a drug dream and not a fun one.” He claps his hands before Pepper can respond. “That Pollock guy! His are actually decent, definitely have a couple of those lying around, you like him, right-”
Steve hears himself say, “You have a couple of Monet, Kahlo and Jackon Pollock pieces lying around? In storage?”
Both Tony and Pepper turn to him and Steve tries to rearrange his expression into something less scandalized.
Tony squints at him. “I thought Pollock was a sixties guy.”
Steve shakes his head. “Some of his paintings came out before the war, and during. I looked him up a while back- he painted some amazing stuff when I was-uh, after the war.” He never knows how to phrase while I was unconscious in the Atlantic ocean.
He itches to ask after the Monet paintings- he’d spent hours staring at pictures of them in his textbooks- but he buttons his lip.
Tony blinks. “Right- yeah, you went to art school, I forgot. You’re probably a bigger art buff than Pepper. Hey, do you want some paintings?”
Steve makes a tight noise in the back of his throat. “What, you want me to just- to hang a Monet on my bedroom wall?”
“No,” Steve says, almost scandalized. “They should be somewhere-”
“What’s wrong with your bedroom wall?”
“It’s nothing special! They should be- first off, they shouldn’t be in storage. They should- they should be in galleries, or-”
“Yeah, yeah, I’ll find a place to put them.” Tony waves a hand dismissively and looks over at Pepper. “Where’s that storage unit again? Still in New York? Don’t tell me it got damaged in The Battle, I think Steve would have an aneurysm.”
Pepper has been looking between the two of them with a curious expression. “It’s still in New York, yes. And it’s far enough underground that it didn’t get damaged.”
“Great,” Tony says. He spins around to the holographic blueprints and his fingers take up the complicated dance he had been doing before and even sometime during his argument with Steve. “Show him around,” he tells Pepper. “Steve, you’re free now, right? Take a look around, pick out a few. Give Pepper a list of galleries you want the rest sent to or something.”
Steve opens his mouth to say he’s hardly the best person to decide that, but Tony has already honed in on the blueprints. When Steve looks at Pepper, she looks equal amount of surprised, fond and exasperated. Steve doesn’t have to guess that it’s a worn expression when it comes to Tony.
The taxi ride takes them less than fifteen minutes and they sit in silence for almost all of it.
Finally, Pepper says, “I didn’t know you went to art school.”
Steve jolts out of his near-haze. He could hang an actual Monet in his actual bedroom. He won’t, because he isn’t a lunatic, but he could. “Yeah, there’s a lot they don’t put in that museum exhibit or those movies,” he says.
It earns him a smile. Still more polite than anything else, but there’s something more earnest in it this time, which propels Steve into adding, “My ma moving from Ireland to America, for one.”
That gets Pepper’s brows raising. They’re shaped perfectly, like every famous woman Steve has met since he arrived in this century. “Oh, wow,” Pepper says. “I pictured- something more stereotypically American.”
Then she backpedals: “Not that immigrants,” she starts, then doesn’t seem to find a way to finish it. “I mean- obviously, they-”
He cuts her off from what he thinks would have been a prepared speech. “It’s fine.”
She nods curtly and he thinks they’re going to go back to looking out their separate windows until she asks, “Were you really born on the 4th of July? I always thought they made that up for propaganda.”
Steve huffs a laugh. “No, that one’s actually true.”
“Wow,” Pepper says again. “Sorry, I shouldn’t have- I should know from Tony that the person they post all over the news is hardly the real version.”
Steve blinks. He hadn’t thought about it that way- comparing his Captain America persona to Tony’s public persona. They’re both so different, and Tony fits into it so naturally that sometimes Steve forgets it’s a mask. Or, not a mask- Captain America is more than a mask, it’s a part of him, and he guesses Tony’s performance has to be the same to some degree.
He must give her some kind of impressed look, because she looks almost taken aback. Apparently Pepper Potts isn’t immune to Captain America looking impressed by her, but her expression quickly subsides into something more tame as they pull up in front of a building that doesn’t look like it’s holding however many priceless paintings.
They make small talk until they reach the paintings, which are all stored carefully but covered in drawers. Steve pulls each out one by one and ends up staring at them for possibly too long before closing them.
“I’m hardly an expert at picking out galleries to send these to,” Steve says. “Even if I was, I’m not exactly up to date.”
“I have resources,” Pepper says in a don’t-worry-about-it tone, which has changed since she’s come beside him to look at the paintings. Her mouth twists as she sighs. “I always told him they shouldn’t be locked up like this, but he doesn’t care about them enough to think about them as more than a passing thought.”
Some of Steve thinks fair enough. He’s seen how busy the man is; he doesn’t blame Tony for not having time to consider it. Still, part of him grimaces at the thought of the paintings being kept locked away where no one can see them.
When Steve gets to the Pollocks, he lingers even longer than he did on the others. Tony owns one of his favourites, one he just missed out on- Shimmering Substance, ’46. His first instinct had been that it was gaudy, but then he hadn’t been able to stop looking.
When he gets to the Monet painting- Tony seems to only own one- Steve is horrified to hear his breath catch. He almost reaches out to touch the protective glass that holds the painting, but he curls his hand into a fist instead.
The Magpie, 1869. “I wrote an essay on this.”
Pepper makes a surprised noise. “Me, too.”
When Steve turns to her, she relents. “I minored in Art History,” she says, and comes to stand beside him instead of slightly behind like she had been. Her eyes are careful and reverent. “God,” she says. “Even just the light-”
Steve nods. “It’s really something.” It’s not exactly his gushing essay, and it sounds lame in his mouth, but Pepper nods back understandingly.
When Pepper goes on to ask what his essay covered, Steve tells her. When he asks what her Art History major covered, she goes on about a few painters he knows and many more he doesn’t, and eventually Steve finds himself engaged in a conversation about art he barely even had in school; the kind of conversation that just keeps steamrolling forwards and outwards.
Steve is about to go to bed that night when Tony corners him.
Or, he makes an unsubtle attempt to coax Steve into conversation before coming out and saying what he’s been bursting to say. “So Pepper tells me you two are going to a gallery exhibit next week.”
Steve stifles a yawn. “Yeah, it should be interesting. I think one or two of those paintings are going to end up there.”
Tony nods and shifts from foot to foot. He’s looking at Steve pointedly, and Steve looks back with what he hopes portrays ‘I have no idea what you’re staring at me for.’
“Okay,” Tony says when Steve doesn’t give him what he apparently wants. “That’s great for you two. Very nice. Friendly. A friendly event between… friends. Fellow art lovers, whatever.”
The inclination in friends is what finally keys Steve in. “What- Tony, no, I’m not interested in Pepper,” he says, incredulous, but doesn’t realize his slip up until Tony’s gaze turns shrewd.
“Oookay,” Tony says again, slower. He’s finally stilled, but his fingers tap on his elbows. “The way you said that sounded like it’s not Pep, but there is someone-”
Damn. Damn damn damn. Steve hurries to find a subject to change to and lands squarely on Pepper. “Hey, do you know why she wasn’t too fond of me when we first met?”
“She was a bit- cold,” Steve tries. “It seemed personal?”
Understanding clicks in Tony’s eyes, but he tries to smother it. God, the man is crashing hard at his attempts to be subtle today. “Oh. Uh, probably nothing,” Tony says, and Steve opens his mouth to pry but Tony opts for the same tactic Steve had gone for. “You going to keep this going? Art hunting or admiring or whatever you art loving hippies get up to?”
Steve pockets his hands. “Maybe.”
Tony nods again. “Might tag along sometime,” he says. “If that’s okay with the two of you.”
He doesn’t come along to their first art gallery outgoing, but he does turn up at an auction several weeks later after both Pepper and Steve have found a time in their schedule that fits.
“I love that table,” Pepper says, craning her head to catch a glimpse over the heads in front of them. When she catches Steve’s look, she laughs. “You’re more of a painting guy than antiques, hmm?”
“It’s a nice table,” Steve tries. It is- ornate but not to ridiculous points. He can admire the carvings along the legs, even.
Tony stays suspiciously silent. He hardly talks during the whole auction, opting to instead spend it tapping away at his phone. When the auction ends, they walk back to the Tower- to Tony’s multiple protests- and end up watching a few episodes of Community in the communal lounge.
It doesn’t take long for others to start trickling in- Natasha and Clint, glistening with sweat and bruises from sparring, come in and sit on the floor. Bruce makes a quick appearance, but ducks out after an episode, muttering about his experiment. Thor makes an even quicker one, walking through the room and stopping to chat with Natasha about proper hair-plaiting techniques for a minute or two before making his way off to see Jane.
“Does it ever get less strange,” Pepper asks Steve when they’re in the kitchen to gather supplies for a group of hungry superheroes. “Living here?”
Steve considers. “Sometimes,” he says. “And then there are times when all you can do is do your best not to say ‘this is the strangest thing that’s ever happened to me,’ because that’s almost a guarantee that something stranger is bound to happen soon. Which it always does, but I like to think not saying it helps.”
She snorts. It’s ungainly and almost un-Pepperish and that’s when Clint walks in.
He eyeballs them both. “Heard you two and Tony went to an auction. How’d you rope these guys into that,” he asks Pepper.
Pepper shakes her hair back. “Steve and I went, actually. Tony came along for- some reason.”
Clint looks towards Steve. “Since when are you into auctions?”
“He isn’t, as it turns out,” Pepper says. “Sorry, by the way,” she adds to Steve.
“I had a good time anyway,” Steve says honestly.
Pepper shakes her head. “Next time we’ll stick to galleries,” she offers.
At Clint’s dubious look, Pepper says, “He went to art school. Do you think everyone would prefer microwave popcorn or chips?”
“Both,” Clint says. “Always both.”
It’s good having a friend to talk with about art. Even back in the 30s and 40s, Steve hadn’t had anyone to talk to about it outside classes- he hasn’t had a friend like Pepper before. For Steve, friendship had mostly been what is apparently called ‘ride or die.’ He had Bucky and only Bucky, and then the Commandos and Peggy, and then he had Natasha and Sam and the other Avengers. He has Tony. He sees them often and they routinely go through twelve kinds of intense shit together.
They don’t get to see each other often, what with their busy schedules- Pepper’s being a few shades busier than his own- but they try to make time for each other when they can.
Mostly, they see each other in passing: Pepper waves at him as she passes the kitchen to give Tony some documents; Steve tells Tony to tell her hello when he’s on the phone with her. Instead of bonding through shared trauma, they go to experimental movies and galleries. It’s simple and doesn’t involve any kind of PTSD. It’s nice.
Months after their first gallery visit, they manage to go out for coffee. She gives him The Time Travelers Wife, which Steve had mentioned wanting to check out sometime.
“Only to borrow,” she clarifies as he sets it on the table in front of him. “That’s my signed copy.” Then, wistfully: “Sometimes I wish I had enough time to join a book club.”
“You can talk about it with me after I’m done with it,” Steve offers.
She smiles, pleased. “I might take you up on that sometime. You know, a month from now when the two of us have a chance to breathe that works with each other’s schedule.”
The conversation drifts- medial how have things been, I’ve heard from Tony about blah blah blah, at which point it turns to the topic they always touch on if nothing else.
“He gave me an art studio,” Steve says.
Pepper pauses in stirring sugar into her coffee. “He mentioned something about that,” she says. “Did you like it?”
“It was-” Steve runs a hand through his hair. “I liked it. But it, it was a bit… overwhelming?”
Pepper hums against the rim of her mug as she lifts it to her mouth. “Yes,” she says. “He can be that.”
“He hung a Monet in it. It’s very offputting,” he says, and she has to set her mug down in case she snorts it up her nose.
“Oh god, I’ll bet! Anyone would find that offputting, do you just- you’re painting away and you look over and there’s Monet, just taunting you with that incredible-”
“Sometimes it’s inspirational,” Steve allows. “But yes, there are moments where I want to break all my brushes and throw in the towel."
She picks her mug back up. “Which one did he get? Oh, was it-”
“The Magpie,” Steve nods.
She hums again. “I always used to think it looked lonely.”
Steve starts to reply, but the barista comes up with Steve’s coffee and he has to turn to thank her. By the time he turns back and starts spooning sugar into his coffee- it’s pink, for some reason, but Pepper had no reaction to it so he assumes it’s normal here- Pepper is changing topics.
“He got me a kitten, once.”
“Of course he did.”
She smiles and for a moment she looks strikingly like Peggy, which isn’t uncommon. Steve often wonders why he doesn’t have some sort of feelings for her that go beyond friendship because of it.
“I had to train myself not to mention things I wanted,” she tells him. “Because I’d keep turning up to work or I’d come home and something completely implausible would be sitting on the steps.”
“Did you keep the kitten?”
She shakes her head. “I gave it to my niece. She called it Mopsy.”
They drink their coffee and watch the sun glint off the buildings. It’s a crisp day as autumn starts to set in, and the morning light is bright and striking.
Steve starts, “He’s very,” and then trails off.
“He is,” Pepper agrees as a longtime observer of the hurricane that is Tony Stark. She adds, “I didn’t expect you two to get along. That, um. That might have been why I wasn’t very kind to you when we first met- I wasn’t sure you were good for him. That was before I saw you two talk, though.”
Steve can’t find anything to say to that, so instead he says, “I didn’t expect to get along with him, either. He grew on me once I got to know him, though. I’m glad to have- I’m glad to have him,” Steve says, and then panics- things nowadays are incredibly more wary of possible homosexuality, ironically, so he adds, “He’s a good friend.”
When he looks up from his coffee, Pepper is eyeing him in a way that nears suspicious. But then it softens and she goes back to sipping from her mug, seemingly for something to do. Her eyes keep flicking back towards him, and Steve guesses he wasn’t so successful with the hasty cover he’d tried to drag over his affections.
If she thinks anything of it, she doesn’t mention it. Instead she starts talking about The Time Travellers Wife and how it’s going to make him cry, but in a good way. Also in a not so good way.
“I’m looking forward to it,” Steve tells her.
He meets Rhodey about a month after that. By then he’s finished The Time Travellers Wife but has yet to meet with Pepper to talk about it. He doesn’t quite know how he feels about it yet, but it did make him sit on the roof and think about Peggy for the better part of a day, watching the light cross the sky and feeling heavy.
When Rhodey comes into the building, it’s halfway through the team’s bi-monthly movie night. It seems like news to Tony, who stands and says, “Shit, he’s early. Make room,” he adds to the others next to him on the couch- Steve and Bruce.
“Why,” Natasha says from where she’s huddled on a chair, arm curled around a bowl of popcorn. “He can just sit in your lap.”
“Har-de-har,” Tony says. When the elevator doors open, he swings his arms wide. “Rhodes! How do you feel about an inspiring tale of an old man following his dreams to-”
“You know how I feel about Up, man,” says James Rhodes. He looks just like he does on the news, albeit in more casual clothing than he always wears on screen.
“Right,” Tony says. “You start crying before the opening sequence has even finished.”
“Shut it, Tones,” Rhodey says, but he’s grinning as he walks towards him.
Vague surprise colours Steve as Rhodey and Tony meet in the middle, falling into an easy hug that they both lean into for several seconds before clapping each other on the back and letting go- Tony’s hand stays on Rhodey’s shoulder; Rhodey’s on Tony’s elbow.
Tony’s hand squeezes. “Are you losing muscle tone? What, they just let you sit around now?”
“You can talk. When was the last time you stepped foot in a gym?”
“Hey, superheroing is a full time job.”
“Uh-huh. And somehow I manage two,” Rhodey says, before turning to the Avengers. “Hey, all. Think I’ve met most of you.”
“Everyone but these two,” Tony says, steering him to the couch. “Rhodey- Bruce and Steve.”
Bruce gives a quick handshake that Steve knows he wants to be over as soon as possible, but he’s polite and he’s making an effort for Tony’s friend so he even adds, “Nice to meet you. Do you prefer James or Rhodey?”
“Rhodey’s fine,” Rhodey tells him with a grin. Then he turns to Steve and his smile shrinks- it’s hardly noticeable, but it’s there. “Hey, Rogers.”
“Colonel Rhodes,” Steve replies. He stands to give a salute- watching Rhodey push down something like surprise before returning it- then sits again.
Tony’s surprise isn’t so easily smothered. His eyebrows stay raised even as he sits back on the couch, but they then go down as he tries to argue that yes, all four of them can sit on the couch, Rhodey doesn’t need to sit on the floor.
“I can deal with the floor for one movie,” Rhodey tells him, and settles on the ground next to Tony’s side of the couch. His back leans against the arm of the couch and his arm presses into Tony’s knee.
Steve doesn’t expect to talk to Rhodey for the rest of the night, but they end up running into each other when Steve is nominated to fill the popcorn bowl. As he’s leaning on the counter next to the sink waiting for the microwave to finish, Rhodey comes in and makes a beeline for the glasses.
Steve steps away from the sink.
“Thanks,” Rhodey says with barely a glance as he fills his glass. It’s not rudeness, exactly- instead he’s standoffish in a way that reminds Steve of the way Pepper was at the start. Does Rhodey has the same worry- that Steve isn’t good for Tony? He wonders if he should try coaxing Tony into conversation; show Rhodey that their friendship has grown considerably since their first meeting. Then again, maybe it has something to do with that other aspect Pepper mentioned, the Howard aspect that Tony has talked about once before clamming up-
He catches Rhodey dart a glance at him as he drinks his water.
Steve turns towards the microwave and watches the bag rotate. He hears Rhodey’s glass clink against the dishwashing rack, then:
“Are you really a Captain?”
Steve looks over at him. People usually don’t ask, but- “Technically, yes.”
“Uh-huh.” Rhodey leans his hip against the counter and folds his arms. “And they just- gave that to you.”
“It was propaganda more than anything,” Steve says, and turns to him fully. He feels his shoulders start to draw back and forces himself into a more casual posture- this doesn’t need the Captain America intimidation. “Is there a problem here?”
Rhodey eyes him. “Just with that,” he says. Then he relents, shifting in his spot. “Look, I didn’t mean to come across that hostile. It’s just- you should’ve seen me this one time I had dinner with Tony and his folks back when we were at MIT. Howard was not happy when I pointed out your whole rank deal, but it always bothered me. Guess I couldn’t let it go when I actually met you. I didn’t mean for it to get ahold of me like that. I apologize.”
Steve clears his throat. “It’s fine. Thank you for- apologizing,” he says, when he really wants to ask about the Howard situation- he’s long since found out it wasn’t a happy one where Tony was involved, but recently Pepper has keyed him into some more information relating to how Howard talked about Steve while Tony was growing up; how he may have said it to tear Tony down. From the limited amount Tony’s told him, it’s more than a little accurate.
He clears his throat again and stops himself from unconsciously drawing himself up to his full height. “Is that the only problem you have with me?”
A hint of a smile. Steve has no idea what that means. “Yeah,” Rhodey says. “That should be it.”
Steve eyes him, but the microwave chooses then to start dinging and by the time Steve has opened the door, Rhodey has returned to the lounge.
The next time he sees Pepper is while she’s neck-deep in business matters- Steve comes into the lounge to find Tony and Pepper eating takeout and talking in rapid-fire action while Pepper haphazardly answers phone calls and talks over Tony, since he doesn’t seem to want to stop the conversation.
Steve makes her a cup of coffee and brings it out to her. She gives him a fleeting but very grateful smile, mouthing thank you before continuing into the phone, “No, I don’t think that at all. What I meant was-”
Steve catches Tony’s pointed look and says, “She’s busier than you. You can easily get up and get your own.”
Tony’s eyes narrow, but he stands from his spot on the table and makes his way to the kitchen just as Pepper pulls back her phone to look at it. She sighs.
Steve leans on the wall. “They hung up?”
“It’s how all our talks end,” she says, giving a small eyeroll. She pushes her hair out of her face. “One of those nights, I guess,” she says, and then her eyes light on him. “Did you read the book I gave you?”
“I did. Then I re-read it,” he admits.
She lets the hand holding her phone drop to her lap. “What did you-”
“It was-” Steve pauses. His mouth moves around nothing and he eventually ends up making a gusty sound almost like a sigh. “Christ.”
“Isn’t it just,” Pepper agrees. She closes her eyes and tilts her head back. When she opens them, she says, “Maybe it’s good I don’t have time for a book club. I don’t think they’d appreciate expression via expressive noises.”
Steve laughs. “I’ve heard you talk about art. I’m sure you’d find something and latch onto it.”
“Mmm,” Pepper says. She looks at him wistfully. “I can’t right now, I have a hundred other calls to make- but sometime we have to get together and talk about it properly. Oh, I heard you met Rhodey!”
“I did,” Steve says. Something about his tone must tip her off, because she brings up her free hand and pinches the bridge of her nose.
“Don’t tell me he brought up your rank.”
“God damn- Rhodey.”
“I did salute him,” Steve grins. “Which he seemed to like.”
“James Rhodes,” Pepper sighs, but she’s smiling. “Sometimes it’s very easy to see why he and Tony became friends.”
Steve shrugs. “I didn’t really get it at first, but they seem good for each other.”
“They are,” Pepper says. Her smile is endlessly fond. “And it makes more sense the more you see them together.”
Her gaze turns on him, and Steve feels a jolt as he takes in the pointed look in her eyes. “Steve-”
His shoulders come up to his ears before he can force them back down. “You must want your book back,” he says, glancing towards the door where Tony will come back with his coffee. “I should go and get it-”
Pepper’s hand on his arm stops him. He stills.
“You’d be good together,” Pepper says, and Steve doesn’t have to ask to know she isn’t talking about Rhodey.
Speaking of which- “Don’t tell him.”
“Both. I don’t think Rhodey would approve.”
“Oh, I don’t think that’s-” Pepper falls silent as Tony enters the room, steaming cup in his hand.
Tony looks between the two of them with the uneasy suspicion he sometimes adopts when he sees the two of them together. “That was very subtle,” he says dryly.
Pepper gives a proper eyeroll this time. “People don’t actually spend their days endlessly talking about you, Tony.”
“Slander,” Tony says, mild as anything. He sits back on the table and ignores Steve and Pepper’s twin disapproving looks, though he does mutter good god into his cup.
Rhodey comes around a few times a week and doesn’t stay despite Tony’s continued comments that there are ‘enough rooms for a hundred Rhodeys, come on, if anything you’re wasting sheets by going back to your own apartment, why do you still even have that thing.’
But Rhodey continues going back to it. Even if he did move in, Steve doesn’t think he’d see much of him- the Tower is a big place, and it’s easy to avoid people when you want to. Not that Steve tries very hard- it’s Rhodey that has the problem, not him, and Steve has bigger things to worry about than whether or not his friend’s friend likes him.
Still- it’s not not nice when Rhodey sits down on the couch with him (not at the complete opposite end but not next to him either) and spends ten minutes silently going through his phone.
“What’re you reading,” he asks finally, and Steve startles. He thought they were going for a not-so-easy silence where they both ignored each other.
Steve shows him. “Ah, The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s one of Pepper’s.”
Rhodey looks at the cover, then flips it open to the inside cover and laughs. At the top is scrawled Property of Virginia Potts in neat handwriting.
“Yep, there it is,” Rhodey says, and releases the book. “I heard you two get together for gallery viewings once every couple of months.”
“Whenever we can fit each other in,” Steve agrees. “So yeah, every few months sounds about right.”
“Oh, tell me about it. When I was a kid everyone told me that adult friendships involved a lot of schedule-juggling, but I never thought everyone around me would be so busy.”
Steve agrees again, and somehow it devolves. Or evolves, depending on how he thinks of it- whichever way it goes, it ends up with the two of them 20 minutes later braced on the floor in the middle of a pushup contest.
Steve is still smothering laughter about it- he’s really getting a picture of the guy who must’ve looked at a 14 year old Tony Stark, lost and stubborn; full of blustering confidence and a striving need to prove himself; small and too smart for his own good- and thought yeah, we’re best friends now. Who the hell else would take up Steve’s joking challenge to see who can get to 500 pushups the fastest?
“What the hell.”
Steve and Rhodey look up in unison to see Tony standing in the lounge doorway holding a bagel, sunglasses and struggling against a smile.
“Hey, Tones,” Rhodey says, not slowing down with his pushups. “How’s it going.”
“What,” Tony repeats, “the hell. Is this what it looks like? Because it looks like your competitive streak is raging for a comeback, and usually I’d be taking pictures but did you seriously challenge a supersolider to a pushup contest.”
“Nah,” Rhodey says. He’s starting to pant. “He challenged me.”
Tony turns his incredulous stare on Steve, who ducks his head towards the carpet to hide his grin.
“He wasn’t meant to take it seriously,” Steve says, even and fast in his pushups. “He’s doing very well, though.”
“Wow, thanks so much, not at all condescending,” Rhodey says, a trace of wheeze having crept into his breath.
Tony waves a hand at Steve. “Supersolider, Rhodes! He’s a literal- how did you even-”
“He’s ahead of me by five right now,” Steve says.
“Hell yeah I am,” Rhodey says. His arms are starting to pick up a hint of a tremble.
Tony lets out a barking laugh, and Steve twists his head upwards to look at him. Tony’s face has lapsed into lines, bright and easy in a way that he never is in public. It makes Steve think of the light in Monet paintings, makes him think of the painting hanging in his studio; light on snow. It’s beautiful.
Tony catches him looking and Steve drags his gaze back to the carpet as he continues pushing himself up and down. “How are things in the workshop?”
“Just heading down there now,” Tony says. “But yesterday Dummy wouldn’t stop trying to fistbump me. I blame you.”
“He’s a smart little guy.”
“No, he’s been corrupted by your influence. Do you know how annoying it is to be working on something that could revolutionize the world and out of nowhere your robot comes up and tries to fistbump you?”
“He gets lonely! He likes spending time with you!” Steve is grinning, but it slips when he looks over and sees Rhodey eying him in a way that’s far too reminiscent of Pepper’s knowing looks. But he’s also panting like a bull.
“You okay,” Steve asks.
The competitive glint comes back into Rhodey’s eyes, pulled back from where it had been temporarily replaced with curiosity. “I’m great,” Rhodey insists. He grunts as he pulls himself up. “I could do this all day. 200,” he adds as he pushes himself up again.
It yanks a laugh out of Steve. His own breathing has hardly hitched.
Tony comes to stand next to them. “Rhodes, just give in. The guy’s not even sweating yet. How is this fair?”
Rhodey wheezes, “203.”
“Jeeesus,” Tony says. Then, louder, “Okay, I’m going to do you a favour and even the playing field,” and goes and sits down on Steve’s back, crossing his legs and holding onto Steve’s sides so he doesn’t fall off.
Steve takes it in stride, not missing his even beat of pushups. Tony’s weight is hardly anything to him, though it does effect him on a more personal level- this is not how he’s imagined having Tony on top of him.
Focus, Steve tells himself.
Tony gets out his phone and shuffles around to film Rhodey until he proceeds to lose by eighteen pushups.
“Good effort,” Steve tells him. “That was impressive.”
Rhodey makes a noise like haaaaaaathanksman that’s more than a breath than anything.
“That was pathetic,” Tony says, grinning down at Steve when he glares. “What?”
“You gonna get off me or are you planning on staying there for a while,” Steve says dryly.
Tony pretends to consider. “I thought I’d stay, is that all right with you?”
If Steve flushes, he can blame it on the pushups. He rolls sideways until Tony tumbles off, and Tony ends up halfway underneath Steve. It’s distracting, and by the looks of Tony’s suddenly glazed eyes as they take in Steve’s slightly-heaving chest and slightly-sweaty skin, he’s not the only one getting distracted.
Steve allows himself one heady second of distraction before he curls into a sitting position a safe distance away from Tony, then standing. He’s relieved he doesn’t have to offer Tony a hand up when the man gets up himself, so Steve busies himself with offering a hand to Rhodey.
“Think I’m just gonna lie here for a bit,” Rhodey says. He’s huffing like a racehorse, but his gaze is shrewd.
Steve nods and goes to the couch to retrieve his book and take it back to his room where no-one’s looking at him.
The next day, Rhodey knocks on his bedroom door.
“Hey,” Steve says when he opens it.
Rhodey nods. Apparently this works as a greeting, because he follows it with, “How’s about we go for a run? Apparently you do that a lot.”
Steve looks back at his clock. He was planning to go for a run in the next few hours. “Sure,” he says, keeping his voice light even though a vague sense of worry is setting in. “Let me just get changed.”
Rhodey lets Steve guide the route, so Steve takes his usual one towards Central Park.
“Glad to see we’re not competing this time,” Steve says when Rhodey sticks more or less to his side.
Rhodey laughs. “Yeah, sorry about that. I was a lot worse when I was younger, but it still crops up sometimes now.” He clears his throat, eyes in front of him. “Actually, I wanted to talk with you.”
They turn a corner and the sun hits their eyes. Both of them squint as Rhodey says, “You seem like a good guy, Steve. I shouldn’t have let some decades-old worry cloud that.”
When Steve looks over at him, Rhodey sighs. “Pepper and Tones both say they’ve mentioned the Howard thing. How he used to compare you and Tony.”
“Yeah,” Steve says. “Yeah, they have.” It still eats at him, even though he couldn’t have done anything about it and he wasn’t close with Howard in the first place and Tony’s even assured him he doesn’t blame Steve for it at all.
“Good,” Rhodey says. “Because that’s not something I want to go over. Especially since I don’t know you too well.”
They run in silence for around a minute before Rhodey speaks up again. “Been talking with them both about you. Pepper says you might be thinking about starting something up with our boy. Jesus- no, that sounded strange. With Tony, starting something up with Tony.”
Steve’s throat clicks. “She said that, huh?”
“Not in so many words,” Rhodey said. “Or at all. I just know her well enough to read between the lines- Tony, too. And you’re not that subtle.”
Steve winces inwardly.
“Neither’s Tony,” Rhodey continues. “So. Just wanted you to know that I think you’re a stand up guy and the two of you could be good together if you did decide to pursue something.”
Steve very narrowly avoids running into a pole as he’s staring at Rhodey. He dodges it just in time, and it’s only thanks to his serum-enhanced reflexes that he misses it at all. When he rights himself Rhodey is smothering a smile.
“Eyes ahead, Colonel,” Steve tells him, mouth twitching with a smile.
Rhodey grins. “Uh-huh,” he says, and proceeds to stay in pace with Steve through the whole run.
After Steve has returned home and showered and has wolfed down eight energy bars, he heads to his art studio to find Tony standing in it.
His heart leaps into his throat- had Rhodey had the same talk with him? He wasn’t ready to confront this yet- but when Tony turns around and spots him, he looks sheepish and says, “Hey, shit sorry,” which doesn’t seem like the start of whatever that conversation would be.
Steve approaches cautiously. “What’s going on?”
“Uh, I thought I’d-” Tony waves a hand up at the painting he’s standing in front of and Steve looks up. The Magpie hangs in its usual place- off to the side where Steve can’t see it unless he purposely turns to look.
“You… had a hankering for Monet,” Steve says slowly.
“Sure, doesn’t everyone,” Tony says, mild enough that Steve wrinkles his brows at him. Tony sighs. “Okay, no, I didn’t. I was- I was trying to see what you always see. How great it is and- masterful and all those deep things that art buffs coo over.”
Steve nods. “And?”
Tony shrugs. “It’s good,” he says, like what else is there to say.
“Heathen,” Steve says, and grins when Tony rocks sideways to shove his shoulder into his. “At least I can admire your art.”
Tony has to glance at him before it clicks. “That’s hardly art.”
“What else would you call it?”
Tony considers. Steve imagines the impossible schematics of the arc reactor; the Iron Man suit; the inventions that no one else has been able to puzzle out; all splaying out through Tony’s mind with a speed and complexity no one on Earth could match.
“Touche,” Tony says eventually. “I guess.”
Then: “It looks lonely.”
Steve stares up at the painting. His eyes are never drawn to the bird, who sits alone on the thin brown fence. It’s the only living thing in the picture, and yet- “I thought so at first,” Steve admits. “But- now it looks hopeful to me. Like an early morning in peacetime.”
He feels himself smile, small and private. “I always imagine someone taking a walk through their neighbourhood before breakfast, watching their breath cloud in front of their face, the whole world still and cold and quiet- sorry,” he says when he catches Tony staring. “Uh-”
“No, keep going,” Tony says. “I’m kind of jealous that Pep’s the only one who gets to hear these rants.”
“They’re not-” Steve wets his lips and nods towards the painting. “Look at the light, the shadows. At the colours-”
“It’s literally just snow, Steve.”
“There are still colours,” Steve argues. He points. “It’s not actually white, it’s a variation of different colours blended together into an amalgam that makes it look white.”
He leads Tony close so they can both squint at it- the low winter sun hiding out of frame and slinging light across the landscape; skeletal trees turned soft and lovely; comforting yellows and blues and violets sitting together to make up the deceptive snow; the sky much the same. The painting is imbibed with colour and light and it still takes Steve’s breath away like it did the first time he saw a large print of it on the wall of his classroom at age 18.
“How,” Steve says, “can that not be hopeful?”
Beside him, Tony swallows. “I- huh. Huh. Maybe there’s something to this art shtick after all. You must’ve been a great student,” he adds.
“I was okay.”
“Why’d you drop o- the war,” Tony cuts himself off.
Steve shakes his head. “Ma got sick. It was either take care of her or finish school.”
“Ah,” Tony says quietly. “I’m sorry.”
“Is what it is,” Steve says. His eyes continue roving over the painting. “I thanked you for doing this for me, right?”
“You did. About a thousand times.”
Steve looks at him. “Thank you, Tony.”
Tony looks just as low-key uncomfortable as he did the first time Steve thanked him. “No problem. Anything to see you look like-” he drags in a breath. “To make you happy,” he finishes, and then grimaces. “Uh. Wait.”
“No, that was good,” Steve says. He’s doing his best to fight down a loose smile but it’s a losing battle. “I feel the same.”
He turns back to the painting, but he hears Tony make a noise like oh.
Less than a week later, Steve comes into the lounge to find Pepper and Rhodey eating hummus and crackers and arguing over what looks like an episode of Community.
They both look up when he enters.
Pepper waves, her mouth full.
“Hey, Rogers,” Rhodey calls. “Pop a squat.”
Steve comes and sits down in a chair next to the couch they’re sitting in. “Thanks,” he says when Pepper nudges the crackers towards him. “What season is this?”
“Three,” they answer in unison.
Steve nods. “Alright, then.”
By the time he’s remembered why he liked this season the best after the four-season marathon that the whole team had drifted in and out of (two episodes in), Tony walks into the lounge and pauses when he sees who’s sitting in it.
He looks over the three of them and announces, “Okay, I won’t lie- still makes me a little nervous.”
“He said that every time I went to see Steve,” Pepper tells Rhodey before inclining her neck towards Tony. “You have a meeting, but after that you should come and watch with us.”
Tony stands and watches for a few seconds, then says, “Oh, hey. I love this season.”
Steve nods and scrapes hummus onto another cracker. It’s the last of the hummus and nearing the last of the crackers, and he stands to get more before Rhodey and Pepper beat him to it.
“Are you sure? I can-”
“’s fine,” Pepper says, mouth full of cracker. She’s wearing the least amount of makeup he’s ever seen her wear, which means she still has eyeliner and some lipstick but not much else. “You want the feta hummus or garlic?”
“Guy after my own heart,” Rhodey says as he follows Pepper into the hall that leads to the kitchen.
Steve settles back into his chair. Tony is standing at the other end of the couch Pepper and Rhodey had been sitting on, and he’s moving from foot to foot as he watches Annie get upset on screen.
“What’s she yelling about,” Tony asks.
“The usual,” Steve answers.
Tony nods. His fingers tap on his elbows.
Steve watches him glance towards the kitchen and it clicks- “You know we aren’t leaving you for each other, right?”
Tony startles. “What? Of- of course,” Tony says in a tone that suggests it’s the first time he’ s heard it put into words and only now realizes how pathetic it sounds. “That would be very irrational and childish.”
“Two things you definitely aren’t,” Steve says, nodding sagely.
“Mm-hm,” Tony says, crossing his arms.
Steve watches him instead of the TV for a few more seconds. “None of us would give you up for anyone, Tony.”
This time when Tony looks at him it’s underset with more wonder than panic. He blinks, eyes large and bright like an owl, lips parting in surprise.
“Um,” Tony says. Light is streaming through the windows and slanting across the lounge, falling over the floor and climbing Tony’s frame until it reaches his chin.
Steve takes a breath and pictures that winter morning where they had found Monet bundled within an inch of his life in the field where he had painted The Magpie. Those hands, numb from cold, had held a brush and stroked life into the easel. He’d died before Steve was ten years old, not knowing about the future of the 20th century let alone the one after that, and Steve was sitting in a heated Tower with the winter wind beating a heartbeat on the windows.
Light climbs and slants across Tony’s mouth.
“Hey,” Steve says. “Would you like to have dinner with me?”
Tony blinks those wide eyes. “Muh.”
“What? Sure! I mean- yes. Is this-?” Tony stops, tries to start again and stops.
“I’d like it to be,” Steve says.
“Oh,” Tony says, small and soft in his throat and making Steve think back to the two of them standing looking up at a painting made by someone long-dead. “Then- yes.”
“Okay,” Steve says. “Good.”
On screen, Annie is hyping up to a yell. Neither of them turn to look at her.
Tony’s mouth moves into a tentative smile in the afternoon light. “Right. Okay. Good,” he says, like he’s still talking himself into believing what just happened. His hands slide into his pockets. “I. Have a meeting. But afterwards, we should- I know a good place down on fifth.”
“Great,” Tony echoes. His throat clicks loudly. “I- great. I’ll see you then. JARVIS will-”
He waves a hand towards the ceiling. “You know.”
Steve nods. Tony nods back, slightly manic. Then he blurts, “They didn’t put you up to this, did they?”
“Who put who up to what,” Rhodey says as he comes down through the hall and into the lounge holding a bowl of some strange-looking chips with various brands of hummus stacked on top of it. Beside him, Pepper is carrying what looks like a pitcher of lemonade and three glasses stacked into each other.
Tony jolts. “What? Nothing. No one said that. I was checking. See you at seven,” he adds to Steve, and makes for the hall. His steps stutter before he makes it out of eyesight and he turns.
“Seven’s great, Tony,” Steve says.
Tony starts the manic head bobbing again. “Great. Great great great. I’ll see you at seven then bye,” he says in a rush, and this time he does make it out of the room.
Steve leans forwards to take a handful of chips- which definitely aren’t potato-based- and one of the hummus punnets. “What,” he says when both Pepper and Rhodey look towards him expectantly. “Eat your hummus and, uh. What are these?”
“Pita chips,” Pepper supplies, lips twitching.
Steve pops one into his mouth. “They’re good.”
“Uh-huh,” Rhodey mutters, every bit as judging as before, but he’s grinning down at his hummus as he leans back into the couch so Steve isn’t too worried.
Steve settles back into his chair. His eyes are turned towards the TV, but he keeps an eye on the winter light as it continues its trek across the lounge.