“Steve, what are you, what even is that.” Tony’s wrench is paused mid-turn on one of the screws on his gauntlet as he watches Steve lift a sheet of paper out of a shallow tray of water. Steve lets it drip for a moment then flips it over and submerges it again, and Tony has no idea what he’s doing, except that it looks medieval. And Steve looks gorgeous, in dorky khakis and a t-shirt that Tony will never tell him is three sizes too tight, because why would he? Steve makes a very beautiful dork.
Steve looks up, reaching for a roll of – tape? Tony would say that it’s tape, except that it looks like it’s made of brown paper. “I told you I was going to start doing watercolor again. I told you that, didn’t I?” Steve sounds confused at Tony’s confusion and what is that, Tony doesn’t see how he’s meant to know what this is supposed to be. “Okay, I’ll admit I don’t know much about art and stuff but, I’d assumed that watercolor is paint.”
“It is,” Steve says slowly, gesturing towards the array of tubes spread over the table. Tony is starting to feel astonishingly clueless, and that was not something he’d had in mind when he’d set up the studio area for Steve in a corner of his workshop. The point was getting to be around each other while they worked.
Steve wets a sponge and rubs it slowly over a wooden board that’s in front of him. Tony watches the motion of the sponge for a long minute, the way the wood darkens as it soaks up the water, then snaps his head up. “Okay,” he says, blinking, “this cannot be a thing twenty-first century artists actually do. What actually are you doing?”
“Stretching paper,” Steve says, making it sound like it’s obvious but, he is so being purposely vague. Tony can tell because it’s the kind of thing he usually does. His fingers curl at the air and he pulls his hands back, resisting the urge to flick Steve across the head. When exactly did his dorky amazing boyfriend start picking up on his tricks? “Yeah, okay, still have no idea what you’re doing,” Tony grits out.
“Painting with watercolor entails, well, water,” Steve starts patiently. He plucks his paper out of the water, and Tony can see that it’s thick and creamy and textured. Steve lays it carefully on the damp board. “The paper expands because of it and gets wrinkled, and you don’t want a wrinkly painting.” He grabs the roll of brown tape and tears off a long strip, laying it down along one side of the paper. Tony snatches off a piece as well, inspecting it, and it’s brown paper with one coated side that he realizes goes sticky at contact with water. “Basically I’m wetting the paper then stretching it out on this board, taping it down, so once it dries I can paint while it’s taped to the board and it’ll stay flat.” Steve sets the board to the side and sits down. “Make sense now?”
“Yeah, sure, except for the fact that what the hell. That is so primitive, Steve, I mean, I’m sure someone by now has invented some kind paper that stays flat with water, this is, I feel like I’m in the renaissance or something, what.”
Steve shrugs. “This is the way I always did it before. Seems valid enough now.”
“Okay, Steve, babe? You know I think it’s adorable that you’re part of the like, four percent of the population that still uses actual paint – ”
“Tony, you know that’s not – ”
“ – but really, the awesome part about waking up seventy years into the future? There are basically easier ways to do everything. Including, I’m willing to bet, this. And I am either going to find out or else invent it myself, before your hunk of wood here even dries.”
“Tony, I really don’t want – ”
“ – to wait around hours for your paper to dry before you can actually use it? Thought not.” Tony leans in quickly to follow it up with a messy kiss before Steve can say anything else, then ducks away behind his holograms.
Turns out, there is such a thing as wrinkle-resistant wash paper. “Glued on one side,” Tony says, tossing the A3 pad down in front of Steve. “So it stays flat. I mean. You could have like, checked if this innovation had been made during your seventy-year limbo.” He’d been going for smug, but it just comes out exasperated. Steve can have that effect.
Steve frowns down at his new paper, flicking the cover open. “Huh.”
Huh . That was it? That cannot be it. Tony crosses his arms and focuses on glaring a hole into Steve’s forehead, waiting.
“The tooth is all wrong,” Steve says, brushing a hand over a page.
Tony blinks. “The what?”
“The – the surface? Of the paper? Its texture, I mean. It’s called a tooth, see, it’s sort of rough –” he stops and peals into a long laugh and what. Is going on.
“What is going on,” Tony demands hotly. Steve lifts an apologetic hand, shoulders quaking. “I’m sorry. It’s just. It’s kind of funny, okay? You not getting any of this. Because it’s usually me who can’t tell what on earth any of your science talk mea – ”
Really, when did things get so fucking reversed around here. “Yeah, yeah, hilarious, really. I’m starting to think setting up a studio area for you in here wasn’t such a great idea, Cap.”
“Ten bucks says you’re wrong.” Steve shoves his new paper aside.
Later, after he can move enough to peel himself off of Steve’s worktable, Tony fishes a ten-dollar bill out of the crumpled heap of his pants and tucks it behind Steve’s ear.
By the time they’ve both picked themselves up Steve’s board is dry. He starts into it while Tony gets back to work, watching Steve paint in snatches and muttering something about tooth.
If Pepper wonders the next day why Stark Industries is suddenly the leading manufacturer of wrinkle-resistant wash paper with exceptional tooth, she doesn’t say anything, and Tony doesn’t bother with explanations that go further than “Steve didn’t want it.” If Steve had wanted it, well, Tony had been fully prepared to produce his brilliant paper exclusively for Captain America, but Captain America is content to stretch his paper on wooden boards.
When Steve decides a week later to start doing woodcut, Tony vaguely registers a quip about fixation on wood leaving his lips. He intends to follow it up with a rant revolving around the words outdated and twenty-first century but it gets interrupted by the snags in his schematics, and fades back into the rhythmic scratch of Steve’s carving in the background. Tony bats at holograms and trashes things and runs diagnostics and trashes more things and swears, until he gets fed up and pushes it all away and turns to Steve.
“Oh my god, even I know this one, Steve, they actually have presses for that.”
Steve – damn adorable with black ink smudged over his nose – looks up from where he’s pushing some kind of disk into the paper set over his inked woodblock. “Nineteenth century printing houses had presses, Tony.”
“Wait, so you do realize this is so two hundred years ago?”
Steve gives him a look and continues pushing. Tony watches the ink spread in faint tendrils through the back of the paper as it imprints on the other side, and also watches the strain of the vein in Steve’s neck as his body rocks forward with the movement. “There are modern presses, of course. But they’re nothing like the old ones. God, those are beautiful.”
“Are? They still exist?”
Steve heaves into his block one more time then falls back all at once, muscles easing visibly behind his shirt. He sets the disk thing down and peels back the paper for Tony to see. “Of course. A couple hundred, maybe, in the world. There are foundries that restore them and put them up for sale.”
“And people buy them.” It only comes out half-mocking as Tony gazes at the print Steve’s holding up, taking in the effect of the grain and the quality of the carving. “Nostalgics like me, yep,” Steve shrugs, setting the print down and picking up his brayer to re-ink the block for another. “If they can afford it.”
Rather than point out that photocopy machines exist for a reason, Tony curls his fingers into Steve’s shirt, tugging him in for a soft kiss before slinking away to scoop up his tablet.
Two days later he insists furiously on having no idea what the massive, coal-black iron handpress with the bright gold trim and nineteenth century lettering across the front is doing parked in Steve’s studio area. Steve thanks him for it anyway, in various ways. Tony decides that pushed up against the press is even better than bent over the worktable. As an afterthought he gives Steve another ten bucks.
When he leaves Steve to test the other uses of his new-old press and gets back to his schematics, his mood quickly pummels. He runs new formulas, trashes them, argues with Jarvis, trashes more formulas without bothering to try them. A few hours in it has to be either scotch or Steve, so Tony hurls a couple of holograms across the room and troops over to the studio corner and climbs into Steve’s lap. “Watcha reading?”
“William Morris,” Steve says evenly, not that Tony cares, getting between Steve and his book to burrow into Steve’s chest. “Is he like, an art guy?” he asks disinterestedly, inhaling the ink-leather-linseed smell of Steve’s skin through his ridiculous shirt. He can feel Steve grin against his hair. “Kind of, yeah,” he says, shutting the book. He’s quiet then and Tony nudges into the crook of his neck, mouthing gently and this is perfect right now, the comfort of Steve’s hands pressing circles into his back and the warmth of him. “So are we talking renaissance or gothic?”
Steve laughs. “No, he’s from the nineteenth century. Arts and crafts movement.” You’d think the nineteenth century were yesterday from the way he says it. Tony pulls up to rub against Steve’s cheek. “You know there are actual recent art movements, yes? Like, pop art or whatever. And, digital art. That.”
“Actually,” Steve says, “he sort of reminds me of you.”
Well, that catches Tony off guard. “I dunno Cap, not that I know much about this business, but I’m probably more the Andy Warhol type? Like, I want to videotape you masticating bananas. That. Would be art.”
“It’s just that he was so revolutionary,” Steve muses, as if Tony hadn’t just been entailing a fantasy and Jesus. “He was so talented Tony, in every kind of craft. Calligraphy, illumination, engraving, weaving, stained glass, tiling, wallpaper, carpets, tapestry, embroidery –”
“Woah, hey, what does embroidery have to do with me?”
“It’s not just that he could do them all,” Steve says, getting animated, and it sounds like he’s really into this guy. It makes Tony sit up a little straighter, very dignified in Steve’s lap, and listen. “He was amazing at them all, when all around him quality was being sacrificed for economy. He didn’t like it so he did something about it. Tony, it was like, he hated all the furniture that was on the market so he just learned the craft and started making furniture himself. That was how he approached everything. Like you did the other day, with my paper?”
“Yeah? I hope nineteenth century people appreciated his furniture more than you did your paper,” Tony says, and he is totally not impressed at all, okay, he isn’t.
“Have you even seen how that paper is selling? Millions of people appreciate it, Tony.” Steve smiles widely and locks his knuckles at the small of Tony’s back and god, his smile actually radiates, and wait. “Is that – is that why you refused to use it? Because I wasn’t going to put it on the market if – oh my god.” He jabs a finger at Steve’s face. “You, Captain America, are a lying sneak.” Seriously, this role reversal thing? Getting out of hand. Tony is supposed to be the devious one and Steve, Steve is supposed to be innocent, and totally not sneaky.
“And books,” Steve goes on, stroking the one in his hand, ignoring Tony. “You do not want to know the terrible things that were happening to bookmaking. The entire craft was deteriorating and he basically rescued it.”
“So, like me rescuing the world with sustainable energy.”
“Something like that,” Steve nods. Tony huffs and tosses his head. “Except that in my case the achievement is arguably more significant.”
“Nearly all books printed in the mid-nineteenth century disintegrated within decades,” Steve deadpans. “But by the time that happened Morris had already changed things. What if he hadn’t? Half a century of printed work could have been lost to the world.”
“Hmm.” Tony sucks in his bottom lip and looks at something, nothing, beyond Steve’s shoulder. Maybe a little impressed. He slumps down into Steve’s chest again, chewing on his lip, and the disaster of the latest arc reactor application he’s been messing with flickers in the corner of his mind. “So if everyone around him was doing it wrong and it was all falling apart. How did he move forward from that?”
“By going back,” Steve says reverently, folding his arms around Tony and holding him close. His chin falls into Tony’s hair and he strokes through the sweaty tendrils at the nape of his neck. “There was nothing to be salvaged from the wreck that was being made of things, so he went back to before things went downhill. And the thing is, he didn’t just get stuck in old-fashioned ways, he used them to move forward. He had this huge, revolutionary impact on the future through a revival of the past. Can you imagine? It was, it’s just. A hundred years later and it’s still amazing to me.”
Tony presses back into Steve’s touch and thinks about Howard and going back to his old stuff to discover vibranium, and he kind of gets it. He fingers the spine of Steve’s book that’s nestled between them then pulls it free and flips it open. “That why you stick to the old ways?”
Steve laughs smoothly. “This is all pretty new to me. I’ll move along at my own pace, I guess. But you just hurtle forward, Tony, so far ahead of everyone and it’s amazing.”
“Yeah. Maybe I need to slow down a bit sometimes.” Tony pulls up from Steve’s shoulder and reaches up for his hair, pushing a hand through the lush gold of it. “Thanks Cap,” he whispers over Steve’s mouth, and presses a kiss to it, long and soft, then gets up.
“Tony?” Steve calls after him.
Tony is already pulling up his holograms, fingers flying, adjusting, aligning. He trots back over to Steve, digging into his pocket for a ten-dollar bill that he hands over before turning, lifted, back to his work.