It starts out a secret: something he saves for after a battle, when everyone’s scattered and gone off to lick their wounds. He’s been living here long enough to know what places to avoid, but not long enough to find a place of his own, so he stays in his room, on his bed, and takes out some paper. A pencil.
He’s clumsy with it. He can remember a time when he was confident enough to draw on dirty napkins with little stubs of charcoal; when he would take a pen to his hands and wrists and arms and old, worn jeans; when he didn’t know what he was going to draw until he drew it, and didn’t care. He sits here now, with his perfect vision and steady hands, and draws a weak, crooked line.
The pencil doesn’t have an eraser; he pushes through because he’s tired of starting over. The line turns into a shape, a face, a smile. It doesn’t look anything like Peggy.
“JARVIS,” Steve sighs. “Lights.”
He draws guns, and skulls, and the view from a train; stares at his sloppy work and wonders why none of it makes him feel any better. But he doesn’t stop, because that feels too much like giving up, and hitting things has begun to exhaust him. He draws whenever he can, whatever he remembers, and leaves his sketches scattered around the room, like he wants someone to find them.
But no one comes in, and no one does.
They’re in the middle of a debriefing, dirty and still in uniform, and there’s a pencil in front of him. It looks small and strange in his gloved hand, and he has to hold it a little more firmly to keep it from slipping. His lines come out darker, thicker, and harder to control, but Steve’s never been afraid of a fight. He delights in every stray curve and do-over, every awful smudge his hand leaves.
He doesn’t realize he’s been drawing Natasha until the lead snaps, and he blinks, and her smeary profile stares back at him. She’s smiling.
He looks up and finds everyone’s eyes on him. His ears begin to burn. Nick Fury looks perplexed, Clint impressed, and Natasha stays unmoving until he puts the pencil down. When he does, she takes the paper from him—a classified document, Steve is horrified to note, which he just scribbled all over—and puts it in her briefcase.
“Hey,” Tony says, “I think I was supposed to sign that.”
It doesn’t stay much of a secret after that.
He tries to keep it to himself, but Clint starts littering pencils and paper wherever he thinks Steve will go next, perching on the chair opposite at every meal and staring intently off into the distance whenever he’s in Steve’s line of sight.
When he starts flexing as he drinks milk, Steve buries his face in his hands. He shouldn’t laugh. It’ll just encourage him.
“Please,” Natasha says one morning. “Please put him out of his misery.”
So he does. Steve won’t ever tell him, but Clint is the perfect model, and not just because he can freeze in any position, no matter how absurd. There is symmetry to him, a grace; his body mimics motion even when he’s holding his breath.
“You don’t have to do that,” Steve tells him. “Clint. Breathe.”
He’s bendy and sleek and ridiculous in his excitement. Steve grins as he draws and his lines take on a new life, like they’ve sucked in the breath Clint won’t. He gets a sketchbook and fills page after page with the twist of Clint’s arms and legs, the curve of his bow and Natasha’s smile.
It feels like a tether, his feet finding ground.
Then Tony comes up behind him, looks over his shoulder, and says, “I’m impressed,” as dry and contrary as ever, and Steve’s in the air again, flailing for purchase. He fights the urge to snap the book shut, because that’s—foolish. There is nothing there that Tony hasn’t seen before, even if it is the first time he’s said anything about it.
Steve steels himself and turns around. “What?”
“Nothing, it’s just—” Tony waves a hand. “I thought this was an elaborate way for you to ogle Clint’s ass. But you’re actually drawing—and not just his ass! That’s unexpected.”
Clint doesn’t move from where he’s bent double except to slowly flip Tony off, and all right, Steve can admit the pose is a little suggestive, but he wasn’t the one who suggested it—
“If he wants something to ogle, all he has to do is look in a mirror,” Natasha says, casual even as Steve goes red. Tony snaps his fingers in her direction.
“Nuh-uh. You’re not allowed to make comebacks for him.”
Tony turns back to him, leans in. “Nothing to add, Cap? Don’t tell me you’ll let the lady do all the talking.”
He looks tired and far too amused, mouth quirked in that way it does when he’s baiting Steve. This close, Steve can smell him: grease and metal and old sweat. Coffee. He clears his throat and looks down at the paper, where loose shapes are starting to make up Clint’s face and the thick bulge of his shoulders.
“I think,” Steve says, “I’d like to get back to Clint’s ass.”
Tony laughs, and Steve tries not to feel too good about that.
Bruce watches him draw all the time, as quiet and unobtrusive as he always is, but smiles and shakes his head no when Steve tries to make him the subject. There are times, when they’re all collapsed in the lounge, and Bruce falls asleep over the arm of the sofa, glasses slipping down his nose, that Steve’s hands itch for a pencil. But it feels too much like an invasion, like theft, so he shoves the urge down and away.
Bruce doesn’t like being photographed, either. It’s a thing. They all have those; Steve gets it.
Then he catches the other guy staring quietly at a picture of himself on the front page, all teeth and rage as he roars into the camera, and wonders. They don’t see the Hulk much outside of the fight anymore—Bruce has a tighter rein on him now—but one day in July, after the Wrecking Crew ambushes them outside the mansion and gets soundly beat, Steve takes his chance.
He runs inside and gets his sketchpad, tugs off his gloves and grabs a few pencils. The Hulk is still where he left him, sitting on top of an unconscious Thunderball and scratching idly at his knee. He looks over and tilts his head when Steve approaches.
Steve holds up his pencils and asks, “May I?”
He gets a squint in response, and then a casual sniff and shrug. So Steve plops down on the grass in front of him and starts with his face: the thick jaw and oddly delicate nose. Bruce’s eyes.
He misjudges the sheer massive bulk of his shoulders and doesn’t have enough space to fit them in, much less the rest of his body. Steve’s wondering whether he should start over, because the pose is a nice one—contemplative, for all that its base is a bruised, catatonic villain—when Tony drops in with noise enough to startle them both.
“Hey, big guy—“ he starts, then laughs. Through the armour it always sounds a little disjointed, but there’s no hiding the delight in it. “Oh, baby,” he coos, hovering near the Hulk’s face, “look at you, working that pout.”
The Hulk snaps at him, but his shoulders hunch up near his ears. Steve looks down at his drawing and sees it—how his mouth purses, the tilt of his chin. The only thing that’s missing is bedroom eyes. Steve bites his tongue to keep from smiling, because he has more self-control than Tony Stark, and the Hulk looks agitated enough.
And—embarrassed. He’s retreating, scowling again, so Steve reaches out and grabs his foot.
“Hey,” he says firmly. “I’m not done yet.”
The Hulk growls, and for a second Steve thinks he blew it, but he’s only turning to swat Iron Man away before settling in again. The pout reappears, just as pronounced as before.
Steve lets himself grin, and gets back to work.
Thor returns from Asgard on what starts out as a sunny day. He shrugs sheepishly in response to the grumbles over the weather, and drips all over the lounge until Clint throws a towel at his head. Somewhere in the middle of the ensuing scuffle, he learns about the drawing, and his eyes spark with a manic sort of joy.
“Do you sculpt as well?” he demands, and Steve half thinks if he said yes, Thor would go out and get a boulder for him to shape right that very instant. As it is, he ends up curled on the couch with Thor posed heroically in front of the television, Mjolnir in hand. He even puts his cape back on, and Steve suspects it’s only Natasha’s baleful stare that keeps him from letting out a war cry.
He’s doing his best to capture the tragic expression on Thor’s face when he sees Tony slide into the kitchen. It’s almost noon; he’s half asleep and headed for the coffee, yawning, hair sticking up every which way. His sweatpants are riding low on his hips. There’s—skin. Steve’s stroke falters, and Thor’s hand nearly turns into a hook.
It’s when Tony raises his eyebrows at him from behind the counter that Steve realizes he’s been staring. He turns red and shakes his head, ducks down and looks furiously at the drawing. He doesn’t know how Tony can make him feel like an idiot with a single look—a roll of his eyes, the curl of his mouth—just that he does.
Steve needs the uniform when he’s around Tony. He needs his shield.
“Captain?” Thor speaks up. He’s trying not to move, and straining to see Steve from the corner of his eye. “Is something the matter?”
“No,” Steve says, “no,“ because Tony’s gone, and that’s Thor on the page. He tries to focus; he’s gotten better over the last few months, and the form comes easier to him now, looser lines and fewer mistakes. He draws almost thoughtlessly, the way he used to, and it looks fluid. Real.
But there’s something off about this one. He’s eyeing Thor, trying to figure it out, when Tony reappears, holding his coffee in one hand and dragging a floor fan by the other. Where he even found it, Steve doesn’t know. It looks ancient, out of place—like something Steve would own.
He stares as Tony sets it up in front of Thor and plugs it in. It starts with a whir and blows Thor’s hair into a mess of tangles before lifting up his cape and making it billow.
Tony slurps his coffee, gives him a thumbs-up, and ambles out. Steve makes a point not to watch him go; keeps his eyes on Thor instead, who should look absurd, but doesn’t. He looks every bit like the avenging god he is, and damn pleased about the fact. Steve’s going to have to start over just to fit in his sudden grin.
He can feel Tony watching him from the doorway, but it’s just too much effort to pretend he minds.
They have more downtime than Steve thought they would. Even with the training, and the simulations, and his slow progress through the piles of S.H.I.E.L.D’s classified cluttering his desk, Steve finds he has hours to himself. He still spends most of them in his room, sketching whatever comes to mind: the trees outside, the laces on his boots, someone’s hands, someone’s eyes. The serum gave him a nearly photographic memory, but not the ability to transfer his vision to paper; Peggy never does comes out right, but he doesn’t stop trying.
He’s hunched over and fixating on the way her eyebrows arched when Tony waltzes in and collapses on his sofa.
“Do me,” he demands, and Steve nearly snaps the pencil in half.
Tony looks as though he just woke up, or never slept at all, bleary-eyed and expectant. He’s sprawled, legs spread and arms thrown back, like he belongs. This is the first time anyone’s sat on that sofa. The first time anyone’s come into Steve’s room.
And Tony didn’t even knock.
“You’ve done everyone else,” he says, “multiple times. My turn.”
He means the drawings, of course. What else. Steve shakes his head to clear it. “Tony—“
“What’s the deal, Cap?” Tony’s voice goes a little sharp around the edges. Steve wonders when he began to notice things like this. “Is the goatee throwing you off? You think I can’t sit still? What?”
Tony can’t sit still—it’s a fact, he’s bouncing his knee and twitching already—and the particular shaping of his facial hair does annoy Steve more than he will ever admit, but none of those things matter, not in this. So Steve says, “no,” and, “that’s not—“
“Then what is it? Because it can’t be that you don’t want to stare at my face for an hour.” He looks baffled by the very idea.
“It wouldn’t take me an hour,” Steve says, because he can only focus on one thing at a time. Tony never slows down for his sake, so Steve’s devised his own way to keep up: pointedly ignoring most of what he says.
Tony gives him a look and waves his hand as if to say, well then, get on with it. Steve looks down at not-Peggy’s half-finished face and fumbles. The thought of drawing Tony makes him anxious and clumsy, like he’s about to embarrass himself. It shouldn’t, because he’s just another face, an amalgamation of shapes and lines Steve’s become familiar with, but—
There is something to him, a—restless feeling, something not quite contained. Steve’s been trying not to watch Tony for so long he’s ended up sensing him instead, recognized him on some level his drawing won’t touch. Pencils mean precision, order and purpose even in the messiest line, but Tony Stark isn’t just messy, he’s wild.
Chaos, Steve thinks, and it hits him.
“Wait—just, wait here,” he says, and makes for the door.
“This isn’t one of those times where you tell me to wait and never come back, right?” Tony rolls his head back to look at him, lazy. “Because that would be rude.”
Steve ignores him—he’s getting good at that—and runs down to storage to pick up one of the few things he’s ever bought on a whim, months ago. They make canvases primed and ready, now, and Steve lugs it back upstairs with the easel under one arm and brushes in the other. He feels jittery, the way he hasn’t since before the serum, back when his hands used to shake from overexertion and he went breathless from thinking too hard.
When he walks in, Tony eyes his bounty warily. “You know how to paint too?”
“I went to art school,” Steve says, because he did, kind of. For a short while. Tony’s scepticism doesn’t slow him down any; he’s got everything set up in minutes and throwing paint on the canvas like a kid, rocking on the balls of his feet and grinning. It’s a mess of colors: too much of one, in some places, where the paint becomes disagreeable and goes brown, but Steve finds it hard to care. He wants to cover up the taunt of a blank canvas, and paint makes that so easy.
“Wow,” Tony says, coming up behind him suddenly. “That looks just like me!”
Steve laughs because he can’t help it, and Tony’s eyes crinkle at the corners. He’s close enough that Steve can count those crinkles, bump up against him if he angles his body the right way. He steps back instead, brush held in front him like his shield.
“Weren’t you saying something about sitting still?”
Tony throws up his hands and goes back to the sofa. Steve squints at him, tries to see shapes instead of lines. He blocks in colors and it’s awful, he’s bad at this, but he’s smiling so hard there’s an ache in his jaw. There is nothing meticulous about it: all of his strokes are sloppy, crooked but happy. Tony’s leg ends up looking a little broken, so he covers it up with a bright green splatter, then decides he likes the green and uses it some more—wherever he wants, however he wants.
It’s become habit to avoid looking at Tony for too long, but Steve’s painting is already failing to resemble anything but colorful vomit. He makes an exception and lets himself look and be obvious about it; lingers on the v of Tony’s spread legs and the angle of his jaw, his mouth, his hands, the way his throat bobs. He gets away with it for a few long minutes, before Tony’s up again and hounding him, coming around to stare critically at the painting.
“Where’s my head?”
“I’m not there yet,” Steve says, and Tony nods solemnly before snatching the brush out of his hands.
“Needs more red,” Tony says, and uses the brush to scoop up a giant blob of paint. He’s aiming for the green blotch—Steve can see it in his eyes—so he grabs him by the wrist and tugs him away. Steve doesn’t ever underestimate his strength, not anymore, so either all the painting made him stronger, or Tony stumbles into him on purpose, leans his whole weight in until they’re pressed up against each other, their faces inches apart.
He can read Tony’s pulse on his palm. “Don’t. You’ll ruin it.”
“Cap, look at it. Anything I do will be an improvement, trust me.”
Steve huffs and lets him go, but Tony doesn’t move. His hand is still in the air, and Steve can still feel the steady pressure of the arc reactor. Tony looks the way he does when he’s found an answer; solved a puzzle; saved the day. Steve closes his eyes as Tony brings the brush down and drags cold paint across his cheek.
“Hey,” he says, quiet. “Steve. Why didn’t you want to draw me?”
He knows why. Steve looks down at him and tries to make light.
“I couldn’t stand to stare at your face for that long,” he says, but it doesn’t sound funny, and his voice is hoarse. Steve swallows. “Without—“
He’s kissed before he can finish, and Steve is not surprised. Tony never lets him finish.
The brush drops to the floor silently. There’s a hand cradling Steve’s face, and a thumb spreading red across his cheekbone. Tony’s mouth is soft and hot and tastes like coffee and sleep; his beard scratches the sensitive skin of Steve’s upper lip until it starts to hurt.
Steve can feel it when he breathes.
“Okay,” Tony murmurs against his mouth, “that’s good.” He turns his head a little, nudging Steve’s nose with his own, and nods at the painting. “Can we burn that now?”
Ignoring Tony, Steve discovers, is a lot easier when there’s kissing involved.
Steve does finish the painting eventually.
It looks nothing like Tony, but Clint and Natasha still end up stealing it to use as a dartboard. By the time Steve gets it back, there are holes everywhere from Tony’s blotchy, colorful face to his equally colorful crotch.
“Oh god,” Tony groans when Steve hangs it up in the bedroom. “Why won’t it die. Jesus, I can’t—JARVIS! Lights!”