Tony knows his social security number. He memorized it when he was three and he’s known it ever since. But people don’t have a lot of reason to stick around if they don’t think Tony needs them so he’d told Pepper he didn’t know it.
Still maintains he doesn’t know it.
Whatever, it’s a little lie. And yeah, maybe the lies add up. He might know a bit more about biology than he lets on to Bruce, or more about the physics of the archer’s paradox than he lets on to Barton, or more about well-- everything-- than he lets on to Steve, but it’s for the best. He likes Steve. He likes to be around Steve. And Steve isn’t going to like a know-it-all.
It’s fine. It’s not pathological. Even when he’s pretending he doesn’t know these things, it’s acknowledged he’s the smartest guy in the room. There’s an equilibrium.
So it’s unexpected and kind of awful when Tony’s sitting in his workshop, and Steve walks in uninvited and thrusts some printed papers under his face.
He looks pissed. His expression is a thundercloud of disapproval.
“What’s this?” Steve asks.
“I don’t like being handed things,” Tony says. He’s actually mostly past that with Steve, but in the face of anger it’s a reflex.
“I know you don’t like being handed things,” Steve counters. “Which is why I’m not handing you this. I’m holding it out for you, so you can see and then explain.”
“I don’t know, Steve. It’s a print-out of something. It’s--”
It’s too close to his face for Tony to read and he has to shift back in his seat to get a decent look and then it’s nothing. Well-- something, but nothing worth noting.
“It’s an essay,” Tony says.
“On art,” Steve says.
“Fine, on art,” Tony says, lifting his hands in a sort of confused surrender. “Is there something else I can help you with, Captain Obvious?”
Steve makes a growly sort of huff under his breath and Tony can see that his knuckles are white where he’s gripping the paper. Tony digs his toes into the floor and then wheels himself away from Steve a few feet. He’s not afraid Steve will hurt him. Steve won’t hurt him. Tony just hates this kind of confrontation. Usually it means an end to a friendship. Tony’s been through lots of endings. But usually he sees them coming.
“I went to see an art history professor today,” Steve begins. “About a charity thing. We got to talking about the Avengers and he mentioned you were a student of his once. Said you’d written one of the best papers he’d ever read. It was so good, the guy had kept it all these years. Is any of this ringing a bell?”
Tony shrugs. “Undergrad is a blur. That’s what happens when you finish it in a year.”
“Did you even write this?” Steve asks. He’s still gripping the paper, and he looks so annoyed Tony’s forced to take the question seriously.
“I’m a lot of things, Cap. Cheater ain’t one.”
Steve drops the paper to Tony’s desk. “When Pepper and I were talking about the Hals exhibit, you said the only thing you know about art is that you like the stuff with boobs.”
“You listen. I’m touched,” Tony says.
“I say a lot of things, Cap. What’s the point?” Tony demands.
He wasn’t angry at Steve’s initial intrusion but now he kind of is. Leave it to Steve to get a rise out of him over practically nothing.
“This essay’s about The Potato Eaters,” Steve says. “And it’s perfect. It’s everything I’d say if I could put my thoughts to paper the way you can. This is art interpretation at its best.”
“Are we done here?” Tony asks, glancing up at Steve with all the petulance and irritation of the young teen he was when he’d written the damn thing. He even crosses his arms.
“You’re free to leave,” Steve says with a shrug. “What I don’t get is how you--genius, billionaire, philanthropist...”
“Playboy,” Tony supplies.
“Playboy, right,” Steve says, sounding as unimpressed now as he did the first time he’d heard it. “Why play dumb? What do you get out of it?”
“What?” Tony asks. He really doesn’t see it that way.
“Is art the problem?” Steve asks. “It’s not mechanical so it’s not important?”
“You’re taking this a little too personally,” Tony says. “Because believe it or not, it’s not about you. And just because I took an art history class once upon a time, that doesn’t make me some kind of expert.”
“But thermodynamics you can learn in a night,” Steve says. It isn’t a question.
“Fine. I know a little about art. I liked that stupid painting with the stupid people eating their stupid potatoes. I wrote the essay. It won an award, did the professor tell you that?” Tony asks. “And you know what my dad said when I invited him to the awards dinner? That the ten minutes it took me to write that paper was time I was never going to get back. That he’d be embarrassed to show up. That art’s a waste, and I wasn’t going to get anywhere in life if I didn’t focus on what was important. He wouldn’t even read it.”
The Potato Eaters by Vincent Van Gogh
((So you don't have to google!))
Steve is appalled. Tony knows he’s appalled because Steve’s mouth is stuck open and his eyes are wide, like a trout mounted on a wall in a country club.
Finally he speaks. “Howard said all that?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Tony says. “Yes, I might know more about art than I let on. Enough to contribute to a conversation. But I’d just be embarrassing myself. My legacy. So I leave it to my friends.”
Steve sits down on the edge of Tony’s desk and his posture has relaxed. “I don’t think Pepper’s going anywhere because you can tell a Monet from a Manet.”
“I think she’d be impressed if I could tell a Monet from a jar of mayo,” Tony admits. “Why do you care?”
Steve looks surprised at the question. “We’re friends.”
Two words. Three, maybe, depending on how Tony counts the contraction. Two syllables, for sure. Eleven letters. Tony can analyze Steve’s words in a lot of different ways. It’s harder to turn them into meaning.
“We’re friends,” Tony repeats. He’s known for a long time how much he likes Steve. He’s always been a little unsure about how Steve feels about him.
“I’d like to think so,” Steve says. “Or I guess I thought so.”
Tony picks up the paper and starts to read it. It’s short. Three pages. His eyes soften. He remembers now. This paper really was full of promise. When he puts his essay down, he does so carefully.
“I’d forgotten,” Tony says. “I didn’t cheat, I swear. I just... it wasn’t important and so I forgot about it.”
“Why did you choose The Potato Eaters?” Steve prompts.
“It was the first one on the list,” Tony says.
Steve looks disappointed. “Well, that’s a reason.” He sighs, puts his hands on his knees, and then pushes himself up off the desk. “I’ll let you get back to your work. I’m sorry for disturbing you.”
Tony hates the tone of Steve’s voice. He hates that he’s the one who makes him sound so lonely.
Steve reaches for the paper and Tony puts his hand on top of it, pinning it to the table. “Leave it,” Tony says. “I’ll get it back to Professor Armand.”
“Suit yourself,” Steve says. There’s finality in his voice. One more person Tony has disappointed.
Tony lets Steve get all the way to the door, before he speaks.
“I wanted to eat a family dinner,” Tony says. “We never did. I ate with Jarvis in the kitchen most of the time and if he was busy, I ate alone. Mom and Dad had a giant table in the dining room and we never used it. I thought... when I chose the painting... I thought the people looked lucky. They didn’t look happy. They were poor. They were probably sick as fuck of potatoes. But they had something I didn’t. They had family. Maybe they were miserable but they were miserable together. I guess... that just got my attention.”
Since Steve doesn’t say anything immediately, Tony adds, “And it really was the first painting on the list. As soon as I saw it, I knew I could write about it. I thought it’d be one thing about art I could get right.”
Steve listens, and when Tony finishes he lets out a slow breath. “I’m about to get dinner with Nat, Sam and Clint. Come with us.”
“I don’t need your pity,” Tony objects.
“It’s not pity,” Steve says. “I like what I heard. I like when you’re honest. And I would like you to come to dinner with me.”
Tony isn’t sure what to make of the offer. Dinner sounds good. Time with Steve always sounds good.
“Okay,” Tony says, pushing himself to his feet. “Okay, yeah. I’m done here for the night.”
“Maybe we could take a walk after,” Steve says casually.
“This is sounding a lot like a date,” Tony points out.
“Is that a problem?” Steve asks.
“If I’d known you were going to be this impressed by my old essays, I’d have dug some up sooner. If I tell you I won a prize for my translation of parts of The Divine Comedy, would that turn an after-dinner walk into ice cream?”
“That depends,” Steve says. “Are we talking a translation from an earlier translation or did you work from the original Italian?”
Tony feigns insult. “Original Italian. Do you think I went to a state school or something?”
Steve laughs. “Then let’s make it gelato and you have yourself a deal.”
Dinner leads to a walk. A walk leads to gelato. Gelato leads to coffee. Coffee leads back to the penthouse.
It’s only when they’re on the elevator that Tony realizes he’s been talking for ten minutes straight, and people hate that. He knows people hate that. He trails off mid-sentence and starts in on the usual fix-it.
“Sorry... that was an infodump you didn’t ask for...”
Steve cocks his head slightly to the side, like a confused golden retriever. “Did I say something wrong?”
Steve hadn’t said anything at all, so no.
“We’re on a date. You didn’t sign up for a lecture on astrophysics.”
“Give me some credit. I do know what I’m getting into here. And for your information, my crush on Neil Degrasse Tyson is real and valid,” Steve says. “I’ve been to Hayden Planetarium more times than I can count. He narrates the--”
“Dark Universe,” Tony fills in. “I snuck in a couple months ago.”
“I like it better than Planets Alive, but not as much as I like One World: One Sky.”
Tony chokes on a laugh. “The one with Big Bird and Elmo?”
Steve shrugs. “A classic’s a classic.”
The elevator comes to a stop and Tony stares at Steve with a new kind of wonder. It’s not the science. Well-- it’s a little the science. But it’s more that Tony’s always looked at Steve in a certain light and made a lot of assumptions and now Steve’s admitting that he not only loves planetariums, but he’s a total nerd about it.
“You’ll get no arguments from me,” Tony says.
“Well that’s a first.”
Steve’s grinning at him, and Tony takes a deep breath, and despite all the signals that Steve’s interested, he prepares himself for possible rejection.
“You want to come in?” Tony asks. “Jarvis could queue up some Cosmos for us. There are still a few I haven’t watched.”
“Are you asking me inside to Netflix and chill?” Steve asks.
“God, who even let you near the internet?” Tony asks, unable to keep the smile off his face.
He can feel that his cheeks have gone warm. Steve Rogers is troll enough to make him blush. Tony is such a goner.
“That’s not a no,” Steve smirks.
To drive home the point, he rests a hand on Tony’s hip. It’s a tentative sort of touch and Tony leans into it with absolutely no shame. “You seem awfully sure where this is going.”
“That depends,” Steve says.
“On what?” Tony asks.
“If I’ve got astronomy questions while the documentary is on, you’ve got to answer them without trailing off or acting like it’s no big deal you know the answer off the top of your head. No playin’ dumb. Not with me.” Steve softens his words by tugging Tony a couple of inches closer. “Deal?”
Tony nods. “I don’t think you know what you’re in for, but sure I’ll give it a go. Under one condition.”
“You kiss me every time I’m a bigger science nerd than Neil Degrasse Tyson.”
“Like a drinking game but with more tongue?” Steve asks.
“Yup,” Tony replies.
Steve leans in and presses his lips to Tony’s. He lingers there, moving his other hand to the small of Tony’s back and Tony is more than happy to go along with this plan. He deepens the kiss and tugs at Steve’s shirt until they’re pressed flush against each other and Tony can close his eyes and lose himself in the oh god yes of their first kiss.
Steve doesn’t pull away until Tony’s almost breathless and then it’s only to whisper one word. “Deal.”