It started with a team-building exercise. Like a lot of things that ended up working out better than they should have, it was Coulson's idea.
“You actually don't make a half-bad team,” Coulson says, and he's still a little too pale and still hunches his shoulders in an odd way to avoid pulling on his injury, but the Glare is back in fine form. “If we eliminate the Chitauri staff entirely, you guys almost managed to get it right.”
Tony Stark looks to be half asleep, sprawling on the couch in what Steve thinks are probably silk pajama pants and a too-small t-shirt that proclaimed Back to the Future on it in large white font (it makes Steve vaguely uncomfortable, like maybe it's a joke at his expense, but he's trying not to assume the worst). He looks like Coulson had dragged him out of bed, which was probably the case seeing as Stark had been ten minutes late to this meeting even though it was being held in his own living room. “You have met me, right, Agent? I don't do teamwork. It says so in my file.”
“No,” Coulson says. He's the only one standing, in his suit and tie, a pair of shades tucked into his jacket pocket. He has a clipboard with him that he hasn't so much as glanced at yet. “You don't like teamwork. None of you do. But all of you are capable of it. I've seen the footage of the battle. If the six of you can break your own bad habits and start working together, you could be the world's most effective fighting unit.” He gives them all the Glare again for good measure. Steve has to consciously fight the urge to sit up straighter. Agent Barton squirms in his seat and even Romanoff looks mildly chastised.
Stark offers Coulson a toothy grin that manages to look – from what Steve can tell, anyway, Stark is a better actor than the spies, sometimes – mostly sincere. “Aw, Agent, you love us.”
“You're an idiot,” Coulson tells him. “I am just the poor bastard with the bad luck to be stuck with you all. I pray for the day I get reassigned to personal security for Kim Kardashian because it would be less aggravating and more productive use of my time.”
“If SHIELD is providing personal security to reality divas, I'm moving back to India,” Dr. Banner interjects, and everyone save Coulson and Stark blink at him like they'd almost forgotten he was there.
“No,” Stark says, reaching out both hands and making grabby-motions at Banner like a toddler. “No, Bruce. Bruuuuuuuce. Don't leave me.”
It makes Steve want to twitch, but Banner just chuckles and shoots Stark a quick grin. “Well, I suppose as long as I have such a nice lab to work in, I might as well stay and get some research done.”
Stark seems to be satisfied at that and burrows back against the couch cushions.
“Children,” Coulson says. “In the interest of encouraging team-building-”
“Oh, god,” Stark interrupts. “Tell me we aren't going to be living in some log cabin in the woods and playing trust-building exercises. Because nature gives me hives and the first time Barton dropped Bruce we'd have a Hulk-sized hole in the ground where he used to be.”
The words all make sense, Steve can't help but think. Context though, that's everything.
“I'm with Tony on this one,” Banner says. He leans forward in his chair and eyes Coulson warily over the top of his glasses. It's the same look he gives all the SHIELD agents, though, so Steve doesn't think there's any imminent outburst. “No offense to any of you, but I don't do well with enforced togetherness. I am definitely a guy who needs his space. And a team-building retreat is not exactly known for privacy, so...”
“Nothing that elaborate,” Coulson assures him. “I'm initiating a mandatory team-building night. Once a week-”
Tony groans and slumps against the pillows like a puppet whose strings have just been cut.
“-all six of you will spend a period of time no less than one-hundred-and-twenty-minutes in length in each other's company.” He ignores another dramatic groan from Stark that makes Steve sigh and Barton bite back a grin. “What you do with that time is up for the six of you to agree upon, but I would suggest a movie night.”
“Movie night,” Barton repeats.
“It's not a bad idea,” Steve says. He feels a little wounded when almost everyone's expressions clearly indicate surprise at his agreement. “If we start off with a movie night, we can get used to each other's company without a lot of awkward and forced conversation. And if this works, we can always adjust to do something else.”
“I've checked all of your schedules,” Coulson says, holding up the clipboard. “And Thursday is the best night.”
“Do we have to?” Stark whines.
“Yes,” Coulson says serenely. “This is mandatory for all Avengers personnel-”
“I'm not an Avenger,” Stark announces, crossing his arms. “I'm a consultant, you were going to bring in War Machine instead, so since I'm not actually a part of the team, I think I should be excused.”
“If you're out, I'm out,” Banner tells Stark and he's giving Coulson the suspicious look again.
“Don't be stupid,” Romanoff says without looking at anyone in particular.
“Agent Romanoff's initial assessment is being reconsidered following the introduction of data to which she had been previously unaware,” Coulson says. “Therefore-”
“He's an Avenger.” Steve doesn't feel entirely comfortable with the leadership mantle that had been handed to him so early in the team's history, but some things should have been obvious. “If you have paperwork and assessments that say otherwise about anyone in this room, or about Thor, they're officially irrelevant and I want them removed. There's not a man – or lady – woman,” he corrects himself twice and has to fight the blush that threatens to steal up his throat – “here who didn't prove themselves to me and the rest of the team.” He ignores the raised eyebrow that's slowly creeping up Banner's forehead, or the strangely baffled look Stark is giving him. “Please inform Director Fury that if he has any concerns about my unit, he should contact me immediately.”
Everyone stares at him for a moment, but mostly in a positive way. Stark still looks a little like someone just gave him an unsolvable riddle.
“All right, then,” Barton says, rubbing his hands together. “So what are we watching first?”
* * * *
The first movie night goes fairly smoothly, all things considered, with everyone showing up more-or-less on time and with a minimum of griping. Stark and Banner both have to be reminded of the time and pulled out of their respective – laboratories? Steve's not sure. Banner comes in wearing a lab coat that he shrugs off and drapes over the back of the recliner. Stark follows him, wearing a battered pair of blue jeans and a faded shirt covered in what Steve's pretty sure is motor oil and grease. He doesn't seem to notice as he curls up in the same corner of the couch he had claimed as his own during Coulson's meeting earlier that week. He doesn't say anything to anyone, just pulls his knees up against his chest and stays in his own space. Steve toys with the idea of calling him out on his behavior, but the man is there and seems to be staying, and frankly considering Barton has been bitching about the whole thing non-stop for three days, Steve figures he should take his victories where he can get them.
They decide pretty quickly that coming to a consensus on what to watch is going nowhere fast, so Bruce thinks they should just take turns. Barton suggests that since the movie night is being hosted in Stark's house – Coulson just sort of announced that, Steve feels a little uncomfortable because he isn't a hundred percent certain that anyone actually consulted Stark on that and it's just rude, it really is, even if he is letting Steve and Dr Banner stay there – but Stark declines the honor rather urgently. So Barton ends up choosing that first night, gleefully rifling through the massive collection of digital movies at Stark's disposal, and looking more at ease than Steve has ever seen the man.
No one really interacts much, that first night, aside from some good-natured heckling of the movie. They watch a science fiction flick called Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country which is right up Steve's alley, even if he knows he's missing a lot of references. It appears to be part of an on-going series, which certainly doesn't help. But he finds he doesn't mind so much, caught up in the special effects (“So out-dated,” according to Banner) and kind of pleased to see that even in the future, the dream of reaching forward is still part of the human experience.
Besides, the crew of the Enterprise makes a damn good team.
Steve is doing an interview with some morning talk show that he's never actually seen himself, but everyone assures him is extremely popular and wholesome, when they ask him what he thinks of working with Tony Stark. “You mean Captain Kirk?” he asks, caught temporarily off-guard, and the host bursts out laughing.
They fall into a pattern pretty quickly. Everyone gets there mostly on time, except for Stark who always shows up a few minutes late, rushing in from a meeting of some sort, or wandering up from his workshop. There are snacks, mostly provided by Stark, and they'll squabble over who gets to hold the popcorn bowl and whether or not it's too late at night for caffeine (Stark and Banner always say no, Barton mostly sides with them). Then everyone settles down in their seats to watch.
Sitting arrangements are static at first. Banner always ends up in the recliner. Romanoff curls up in a giant round chair by the window that looks like a bowl. Barton tends to sprawl on the floor, usually after having stolen possession of the popcorn bowl.
Tony has his little corner of the couch. He doesn't squirm around much and he doesn't stretch out and Steve, on the other end, usually gets a 'don't touch' vibe from him. It doesn't bother him, some guys just aren't touchy-feely after all. So he respects the invisible boundary line Tony seems to have drawn and sticks to his own cushion.
Steve is killing time, sketching and absolutely not paying attention to the daytime drama on the television, when Stark comes in one day.
He's been gone for two days, to a business meeting in Japan, and Steve is still a little impressed by the idea of a lifestyle where you just go to Japan the way someone else might go down the block. Stark always seems to act like it's normal, that that's just the way business is done, but Steve is pretty sure his perspective is skewed. So Tony tends to come and go, leaving the state or the country often without much in the way of announcements or fanfare. Steve is finding that he can tell when Tony's been gone just because the Tower feels emptier without him there. Less full. He blames it on Stark's personality and ego, either one of which is enough to take up the same space as ten normal people.
“Hey, I was thinking about you,” Stark says and Steve raises an eyebrow at him. They mostly get along – they mostly got along before Loki and the staff and that embarrassing, stupid fight on the Helicarrier, after all – and if Stark still calls him Capsicle, Steve finds it's better than what a lot of guys used to call him back in the day.
Besides, he's pretty sure it's a sign of approval. Tony calls Barton “Bird-Boy” and “Legolas” and other names that Steve doesn't recognize and Barton mostly ignores him. And he calls Bruce a bunch of things, like “Brucie” and “my little irradiated love slave.” Stark's actual friends have it worse, as far as Steve can see. Ms. Potts responds to things like “honeypoo” and “fruit cup” which even Steve can figure out are mostly joking, but jeez.
“I was thinking of you, too,” Steve says easily. He puts his sketchbook down – it's just a pencil sketch of the room, nothing private or terribly important, so he doesn't cover it. Sure enough Stark's eyes go straight to the paper. “I have a request of you. I'd like you to consider it.”
The look on Stark's face – like he's kind of surprised and also impressed, which Steve will find gratifying and annoying both at a later time – is immediately replaced by wariness. “All right, Cap. Hit me.”
“When you leave town on business, I'd like you to inform me.” He's very aware that Stark is a touchy fella, so he's considered how to phrase this a dozen times, and is still hoping he doesn't rub the man the wrong way. “I understand how busy you are, and also that things frequently come up at the last minute, but perhaps you could ask Ms. Potts to keep me informed? Or you have one of those digital calendars, right? Is there a way I could get a copy?” He sits up on the couch – he's technically in Tony's spot, the one he always claims for movie night – and adds, “It's hard to have your back if we can't find you. This way, the next time you disappear for forty-eight hours without a word I'll at least know where you are.”
Stark gives him a narrow-eyed look that Steve can't entirely suss out, then shrugs. “Yeah, most of those are scheduled in advance. I don't see why I couldn't have Pepper email you my itinerary. Sometimes things are supposed to be top secret, but I suppose if we can trust you with the fate of the free world, we can trust you with some R&D testing. Just don't spread it around, all right?”
“I won't.” It could go two way from here, and Steve knows it. Maybe Stark will do exactly as he said and have Ms. Potts keep Steve informed of his schedule. Or maybe he'll conveniently forget and Steve will have to go to Ms. Potts himself. Either way, getting him to agree to further monitoring without a fight is a victory and Steve knows it.
“Right,” Stark says. “Anyway, I wanted to show you something.” He jerks a thumb at the television where Brady is confessing his affair to Marlena. “You watching this?”
“Nope,” Steve says, because he's no man's fool. “What's up?”
“So it's occurred to me that you don't know a lot of modern cinema. And it's not like they had Tivo or DVDs back in the olden days. Not even VHS,” Tony says with the disdain of the technologically advanced, the same tone he uses to talk about Justin Hammer or anything with a lower-case 'i' in front of the name. “Though I guess you did have film reels, obviously, and I bet people had them set up for home-viewing somewhere – my old man had one down in the basement, refused to upgrade to VHS which was actually not a terrible choice on his part – but a setup like that would be pretty expensive and I don't think you had anything like that lying around. I assume? Is that rude, to assume? I'm never sure. Anyway. Movies.” He has a remote in his hand, a little black one that Steve's seen lying around but never needed to use. “I thought you might like some movies you actually recognize. So there you go.”
Steve takes the remote as it was thrust at him, but hesitates. “I'm not sure I follow?”
Stark blinks at him. “Oh. I arranged for a database of movies that were filmed between 1940 and 1945.” He gestures at the remote. “It's just a start, I'm going to add to it, see if I can't go back a bit further. But I figured it's enough to get us through a few team-building sessions anyway, without forcing you to watch movies you don't even know if you'll like when it's your turn. We should get you caught up on modern film,” he says and he's off on a segue, talking about something called a Net Flick and threatening to make Ms. Potts take him to the cinema on her day off.
Steve tunes him out and hits the power button on the remote. The screen flashes blue – he can still hear Marlena talking, but instead there's a list of movie titles, followed by the date that they were, he assumes, filmed. He recognizes a lot of them. Casablanca. Fantasia. His Girl Friday. Sargeant York. The Pride of the Yankees. Wizard of Oz, which actually came out in '39 if Steve's remembering right.
“This is great,” he says, and Stark's rambling grinds to a slightly flustered stop. “Thanks, Stark. There's some good stuff in here. And a bunch that I've always wanted to see. You didn't have to do this.”
“Not a problem,” Stark says.
“Don't know how thrilled the team will be about a bunch of old-fashioned black and white movies,” Steve says ruefully.
“Hey, if Clint gets to inflict his godawful tastes on us, it's only fair that you get the same chance. The rest of us will just have to suffer through.”
Barton likes action flicks. Sci-fi, thriller, spy; doesn't matter. As long as something explodes in a satisfying manner, and there's a car chase and maybe a sex scene, he's happy.
Romanoff – Natasha, she's told him twice now, with a look on her face that says he'd better not need a third reminder – Natasha likes fairy tale flicks, for the most part. They're all kind of violent and horrifying and bloody, but Steve supposes the fairy tales were too, so he shouldn't be surprised. And he thinks it kind of fits her. Something beautiful with danger underneath.
Bruce generally picks nature documentaries or whatever popular movie has just come out on DVD at the time. He never really seems interested in whatever he picks, and Steve tries to gently encourage him to show them his favorites, but Banner just looks uncomfortable so he backs off. It's Stark who points out what should have been obvious by saying, “Yeah, it's probably best. Can you imagine the Big Guy's reaction if one of us made a snarky comment about his favorite movie?”
Stark knows Banner better than the rest of them, but Steve still feels bad for not getting it himself.
Stark himself never seems to put a lot of thought into what he chooses, either, but Steve thinks about it for a couple weeks and decides that Tony's not hiding anything from them, and it's not his subtle way of saying 'screw you' to the team-building exercise. The man just honestly doesn't have time to watch a lot of movies.
Steve tries not to inflict too many of his “oldies” on the team, mostly deciding based on reviews he's read in the papers and, occasionally, picking a movie just because he knows one of the others has been wanting to see it.
But sometimes when he can't or doesn't want to to sleep, he comes downstairs and picks a movie from the library Stark made for him, and pretends he's paid his last thirty-five cents to get into the theatre and that Bucky's just running late.
Barton gets bored halfway through Quantum of Solace (his love for all action movies does not extend to the Bond franchise, apparently) and ends up climbing into Natasha's papasan chair with one of Tony's engineering journals. He spends the rest of the movie flipping through the journal while Natasha uses his shoulder as a pillow.
The next morning, when Steve comes down for breakfast, the journal is sitting open on the kitchen table. There's a sticky note stuck on the center of one page. Steve spins it around with one finger so he can read it right-side-up and sees an article about the weaponization of miniature concussive devices. The sticky note reads “Please, Stark? Pretty please? I'll give you my next movie night.”
Hands down the least interesting thing they watch, including the two-hour long animated movie adaptation of a cartoon show none of them had ever seen about a girl who could talk to animals, is Banner's fault.
It's in French. Steve's reasonably fluent and he has no idea what's going on. There's an attractive young woman whose apartment is full of flowers and a handsome man who walks by her window every day and if anything else has happened in the last eighty minutes, you couldn't prove it by him.
He kind of wishes he had his sketchbook. He doesn't bring it, because he doesn't want the team to think he's trying to ignore them, it's the same reason he discouraged Stark and Banner from bringing their tablets. But every time the film shows an overly long establishing shot of the woman's apartment, Steve's fingers start to itch. The building is too new to be anywhere he ever stayed, but it looks hauntingly familiar.
Stark actually does have his tablet today, but since he's obviously paying more attention than anyone else (he's mocking them in a high-pitched falsetto and he's doing it in what sounds to Steve like flawless French), Steve leaves him to it.
Dr Banner's already asleep and snoring, after all and it was his movie.
“Tell us something about the Hulk,” Jon Stewart says, leaning back in his desk chair. Steve's never seen the show before he was invited on, so he's initially startled by the loud and unprofessional approach. But the more he sees the more he likes it. At least Stewart seems to feel that the things he's reporting are important enough to get loud about. He's not surprised that of all the interview requests he's received, this is the one Stark encouraged him to accept.
That only made up Steve's mind halfway. The way Fury's good eye started twitching did the rest.
“He's not a big foreign film fan,” Steve says. “But he's really into something called Adventure Time.”
Stewart raises his eyebrows and holds his fingers and thumb together against his lips, like a man smoking a cigarette.
“I don't think he smokes,” Steve says warily, and the way the audience laughs tells him he missed a reference there.
Fury tries to cancel movie night, citing that Steve has caused a public relations nightmare by implying that Dr Banner is a marijuana addict. Stark, who showed up with Coulson and apparently just invited himself along when he heard Steve was getting a chewing out, snickers.
“Whatever, he totally called me a slut on network television and you didn't even blink. Way to play favorites, Fury. Here I always thought I was your favorite.”
“I did not!” Steve said (except he might have, he could have, he gets the slang wrong all the time and there's always a cultural reference that makes his head hurt). “And if I did, I didn't mean it.”
Stark gives him a look of tolerant amusement, like he's embarrassed for Steve's very existence, yet simultaneously finds him absolutely adorable and it's almost unbearably familiar. Bucky used to roll his eyes at Steve the same exact way. “Anyway, look at it this way. The more pop culture we introduce the old man here to, the less likely this is to happen again.”
“But no more french romances?” Steve asks hopefully. “I mean, unless Dr. Banner really enjoys them, then of course-”
Stark laughs. “You guys know Bruce is fucking with you when he picks his movies, right?”
“So, you're a Star Wars fan, Dr. Banner?” Steve asks tentatively when Bruce picks A New Hope for the second time in a row.
“Call me Bruce,” Bruce says. “Tony, stop hogging the chips.”
So it turns out that Barton has a soft spot for romantic comedies and Tony knows most of the dialogue to Love, Actually by heart. Steve's not sure what to do with that information, because if there were two members of this team he wouldn't have expected to like that movie, it's them.
He would have assumed Natasha, but he's working on that. He's tired of Stark signing him up for the sexual harassment seminars at SHIELD every time he stumbles over the word 'dame'.
“The first time I saw this it was a bootleg in Mandarin,” Barton says from the floor. “I had a concussion and don't actually speak Mandarin, but going by the subtitles I thought it was about an adulterer who was reincarnated over and over because of a magic necklace. To this day I don't know which version I like best.”
“Hello,” Tony says in perfect unison with the woman on the screen, “you must be Tony. I heard you were gorgeous.”
Natasha is sitting upside down in her papasan chair, with her feet on the window (she's wearing fluffy socks with big yellow smiley faces on them) and her head hanging over the edge. “I can't believe I worked with you for more than a year and never realized you were a woman, Stark.”
“Barton likes it too,” Stark retorts.
“Well, I knew Clint was a woman.”
“Can I help it if Pepper loves this movie? I think she's made me watch it twenty times.”
“You should have invited her,” Bruce says.
“I did,” Stark says, and doesn't offer commentary for the rest of the movie.
Stark is mad at them. Steve's not sure why – he's not sure Stark knows why. But the man's been sharp-tongued and brittle for days, his usual banter edging on actual insults, quick to hear criticism in almost anything Steve or Coulson says. Natasha's been avoiding him entirely and Barton deals with it by always having a pot of coffee brewed and offering Stark some whenever he walks into a room. Which is rarely since he's been living in his workshop for most of the week.
But it's movie night. They wait a few minutes (he's always late, no reason today would be different) before Bruce pushes up off his recliner and volunteers to go get him.
“Unnecessary, Doctor Banner,” JARVIS informs them. “Sir is on his way upstairs as we speak.”
“Thank you, JARVIS,” Steve says, because he's learned from Barton's example that it pays to be polite to the all-knowing, self-aware computer than has the ability to turn off your hot water at a moment's notice.
When Stark arrives, it's obvious his mood has not noticeably improved since Steve last saw him, but he throws himself down on his end of the couch and draws his knees up to his chest. He doesn't say anything, doesn't meet anyone's eye, doesn't volunteer an opinion on the movie, but he came and Steve know the man well enough by now to take that as a good sign.
“I made iced mochas,” Barton says suddenly. “I'm gonna grab one. Anyone else?”
Bruce raises his hand as the archer makes his way toward the kitchen. “I'll grab you one, too, Stark? I make my own whipped cream.” He claps Stark on the shoulder in passing.
Stark doesn't flinch, but he does freeze a little and only relaxes when Barton's hand pulls away. “Yeah. That-” he frowns down at his shoulder for a minute. “Sure. Sounds great.”
He's in a better mood after the huge mug of chocolate and coffee Barton prepares for him, piled high with whipped cream and chocolate shavings. But he doesn't say a word, even when Natasha chooses Red Dawn.
And then he disappears for two weeks.
He did actually get Pepper to give Steve his itinerary, though, which means Steve knows that Stark has accepted a last-minute invitation to appear at a technology conference in Berlin. He doesn't give anyone much notice, including Coulson, or the organizers of the conference. In fact, from what Steve's been able to put together, he pretty much just walked out of the Tower one night and had everything arranged by the time his chauffeur got him to the airport. He took his communicator with him, and the suitcase armor, so Steve figures the odds of this being an elaborate kidnapping plot are slim.
Steve cancels movie night until Stark gets back. It's Stark's turn, after all.
He's having breakfast in the main kitchen when Bruce wanders in, barefoot and wearing sweat pants and a baggy hooded sweatshirt. “Does Natasha live here?” the scientist asks. “Because if she doesn't, I'm worried about all the knives I keep finding.”
“Knives?” Steve repeats.
Bruce is studying the empty coffeepot with a look of deep and abiding disappointment. He transfers the stare to Steve for a long moment before shuffling over to the cupboards to find the coffee beans.
“If she lived here, I think we'd know,” Steve says, choosing to ignore the unspoken reprimand. He doesn't drink it, so there's no reason he should be expected to prepare it, right? He doesn't ask any of them to make him eggs in the morning.
“There's a purple sports bra drying in the gym,” Bruce says. “It's not mine, so unless you want to tell me something, I think we have a new roommate.”
Coulson will neither confirm nor deny that the Black Widow has taken up residence in Stark Tower.
Steve doesn't actually see Natasha, but someone keeps drinking all the soy milk.
And Bruce is right. There's an alarming number of knives turning up in almost every drawer he opens.
Stark comes back with about as much fanfare as he left. Considering Steve once thought the man incapable of taking a piss without a self-congratulatory parade, this seems out of character.
He wanders into the biggest living room, the one they always have movie night in, and seems surprised to find Steve there, which is probably a sham since Steve spends pretty much his entire day either in the gym, running in the park, or sketching on the couch while he watches television.
Steve doesn't have a life. He's aware of the problem.
He throws himself down on the couch, making sure to keep his hands and feet to himself, even though Steve's kind of sprawled all over. “Whatcha drawing?”
Steve's still trying to find a way to explain why he's sketching two men kissing that won't make Tony think he's a deviant when Stark just leans in and helps himself. “Oh,” Stark says, and he sounds pleasantly surprised. “That's really good. Anyone I know?”
“Just some guys from this show I saw while I was flipping channels.”
“Uh-huh.” Stark grins at him and levers himself up off the couch. He looks tired, but the angry edge around his eyes from before he left is gone. “Why, Cap. You open-minded, twenty-first century guy, you.”
“We had gay people in the forties, you know.”
“Had them arrested, if I recall my history lessons correctly.”
“Not everyone agreed with that,” Steve says mildly because he's learning the difference between Tony Stark trying to be playful and Tony Stark trying to make you punch him in the face and he's pretty sure this is the former. “Welcome back, by the way.”
Stark shrugs. “If I'd known Captain America was waiting to greet me with gay porn, I'd have come home sooner.”
He actually sounds mostly serious. Steve doesn't know what to do with that.
When he finds out they canceled movie night, he seems surprised.
“It was your turn, dumbass,” Natasha says.
Stark is eating breakfast and wearing the same clothes he'd been wearing when he got back the day before, but he's lost the suit jacket and the tie, and the sleeves are rolled up to his elbows. There's engine grease on his hands. “Be honest with me, my little buttercups. You just didn't want to skip ahead to the Captain's turn and have to watch another Charlie Chan movie.”
“That too,” Bruce says.
“Tomorrow night,” Steve says. “It's your turn to choose.”
“You could try being on time for once,” Natasha adds. She's drinking hot tea out of a mug the size of Steve's head.
“Only boring people are on time,” Stark says. “Well, since we missed two meetings, we technically have a two-hundred-and-forty minute deficit, don't we?”
“What are you thinking?” Bruce asks.
“Let's make a night of it.” Stark rubs his hands together. “I'll order in food and drinks and we can watch a real classic.”
“Define classic,” Natasha says, because she's the smart one here.
Stark has already dug out his cell phone. “Barton. Tomorrow night. Lord of the Rings: Extended Edition marathon. Your job is to convince Coulson that catering counts as a business expense. No, you may not wear your prosthetic ears.”
Barton fails to convince Coulson of any such thing. Steve knows for a fact that Stark is going to submit the expense report anyway.
Stark is, per usual, running late. The food has already arrived; steaming hot platters of chicken wings, fried cheese, baked potato skins, a variety of cold drinks and several vases full of fruit cut up to look like flowers.
There are heavy footsteps in the hall. Steve, who has sprawled all over couch, jumps up to get out of Tony's seat and is therefore the first one to see Thor in the doorway.
“Friends,” Thor greets them warmly, and everyone is sitting up and welcoming him, even Bruce who waves at him with a plate full of chicken.
“Hey.” Steve holds out his arms, encompassing the room and the food and their teammates – most of them. “Have you come for the team-building practice?”
“Indeed,” Thor proclaims. He's wearing jeans and a plaid shirt over a bright blue t-shirt with a cartoon horse on it, which distracts Steve for a moment. “I have just returned to New York and been informed that we have been instructed to strengthen the warrior bond that unites us all as blood-brothers! And sisters,” he adds cheerfully.
“That's the plan.” Steve puts his hands on his hips. “So we were just getting ready to start. If you want to-”
He never gets the rest of the sentence out because Thor tackles him.
Apparently on Asgard, “strengthening the warrior bond that unites us all as blood-brothers” is a fancy way of saying “we're gonna brawl until we're too tired to argue anymore.” Thor swears it works wonders for young warriors who are too full of themselves and need to have some energy beaten out of them. Steve takes one look at Thor's toothy smile and suspects it doesn't work as well as advertised.
By that point Steve is mostly being used as a human pillow for a very heavy Asgardian alien. Barton, who ended up in a headlock trying to help Steve, is panting for breath next to him. Natasha is sitting with her legs tucked under her, munching on a watermelon flower and using Thor's back as an arm rest. Even Bruce, who initially kept his distance, has joined them on the floor and is using Clint's chest as a resting place for his chicken wings. They're extra-spicy. Steve knows because he tried to steal one and now he thinks his tongue is on fire.
The others are trying to explain what Lord of the Rings is to Thor and Steve, but Steve's mostly trying to tune them out because he likes being surprised. Also he's fairly certain Barton is making things up, though when he goes off on a tangent about the epic love story of Frodo and Sam, no one contradicts him.
He doesn't realize Stark has finally joined him until he happens to glace toward the door and sees him there.
Stark's paused in the doorway like he froze in the middle of a step. He looks a little off-kilter, and Steve suspects they make quite a sight.
“Well,” he says, a little self-consciously, “on the bright side, at least you'll have the couch to yourself?”
And for a second he's not sure what the look on Stark's face means.
“Actually, I just wanted to tell you guys to start without me.” Stark holds up his hands, where he's apparently been trying to wipe off grease with a dirty rag. “I'm going to grab a shower.”
“It's your movie,” Steve objects, and he can feel Thor twisting on top of him. “We can't start with-” he groans as Thor accidentally elbows him in the ribs and Tony hastily backs away.
“No, I've seen it a hundred times. Just got to clean up a bit. You kids have fun, it's all back story in the beginning anyway.” And then he's gone, disappearing down the hallway too sedately to be called a retreat, even if that's what it looks like.
Barton and Natasha have gone silent, exchanging a glance that seems to communicate more than any ten conversations they've ever had in Steve's presence. Bruce sighs.
And then he remembers something he'd almost forgotten over the last few months.
It's very, very easy to say the wrong thing to Tony Stark.
Stark never comes back, despite Bruce disappearing after him for most of an hour. But Banner has returned empty handed and reports to the others that Tony is back in his workshop and doesn't want to be disturbed.
“I said something wrong, didn't I?” Steve says, keeping his voice down because Thor is absolutely enthralled in the antics of the Hobbits.
“It's not your fault,” Bruce says.
Which means yes.
Steve's expecting to see a lot of people in the kitchen the next morning. Mostly people who live there, or Thor, who got emotional over the Boromir/Faramir/Denethor family dynamics and had to be put to bed by Natasha. Maybe even Stark, brittle smile firmly back in place, pretending nothing weird had happened the night before. He's not expecting Pepper Potts to be sorting through the mail.
“Good morning, Ms. Potts.” He's very glad he's wearing a clean pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt that doesn't have any holes in it. (It does proclaim him to be Captain America 1.0 – Beta Edition because Tony gave it to him in front of witnesses so he can't get rid of it)
She smiles at him even as her perfectly manicured fingers flip through a stack of mail as thick as a bible. “Captain.”
“Of course, Captain.” She smiles at him, a quick flash of strangely white teeth. Steve won't ever tell her this, of course, or any other lady, but the habit of whitening your teeth until they're white like paint or paper is a strange one. Everyone's teeth look fake to him in the twenty-first century. “As soon as you start calling me Pepper.”
He coughs into his hand. “Uh, yes ma'am. I'll uh-” He flounders for a minute. “Coffee?” he asks instead.
“No thank you,” she says, flipping several envelopes onto the table. “I had some with Tony. There's a charity gala this evening, so we're off to an early start today.”
“Oh.” He's relieved. If Ms. Potts has already seen Tony, then surely he'll be in a better mood. He'd never seen a man who so clearly reveled in his lady's presence as Stark did. “Sounds like a big date night.”
She tips her head to the side, a strand of strawberry blonde hair falling into her eyes. “Captain. Steve. You know Tony and I broke up weeks ago, don't you?”
He didn't. He'd wager no one did, save Bruce maybe. Or Natasha who just knows everything.
Well, he can't help but think as he blinks and struggles for the right words. That explains a lot about the last month, anyway.
Steve calls an emergency meeting of all the Avengers who aren't Tony, which basically just involves waiting till they all straggle into the kitchen and then refusing to let them eat until they hear him out.
He's definitely getting this leadership thing down.
“So here's the deal,” he says. “This was supposed to be about team-building. And we've got a damned good foundation going here. But we managed to leave Stark out somehow.”
“Stark left himself out,” Natasha says. She's flipping a butter knife over her knuckles as she waits for him to get to the point and Steve's pretty sure it's a threat. Natasha takes her morning tea seriously.
“Maybe,” Steve allows. “Probably. But if we're a team that means we don't leave a man behind.”
“We can't force Tony to socialize.” Bruce is sitting in between Natasha and Clint and his shoulders are slightly hunched. He looks defensive, which is not a good sign.
“I don't want to force him to do anything,” Steve objects.
“We don't need to force him to do anything,” Barton says. “Look, I get Stark. I knew a dozen kids like him at the orphanage. He's the kid on the playground who desperately wants to play with us but won't admit it because it gives us power over him. He's afraid we'll kick him off the swings and mock him for thinking he's cool enough to hang out with us.”
Natasha sets her knife down with an air of finality. “Stark's a grown man.”
“Yeah, and you wrote his personality profile. Tell me I'm wrong.” Barton meets her glare head on, proving himself to be both the bravest and craziest guy Steve knows. “Look, that's really all it comes down to. He wants to belong. But he'll cut his own throat before admitting it. If we reject him and he never wanted to be part of the group anyway, he can pretend it's not a real rejection. That's why he's always making those cracks about only being a consultant. It's why he never shows up to movie night on time. He can't admit it matters because then we might take it away.”
“He cannot honestly believe himself not to be worthy,” Thor says. He's wearing pants, but nothing else, and his hair is falling in his eyes. “The Man of Iron fought honorably and saved the lives of every man, woman and child in Midgard.”
“If we wait for Tony to come to us, we'll be waiting forever,” Bruce pipes up. He looks less defensive, but he's still got his arms crossed as he faces Steve. “Clint's not entirely wrong. Tony's not good at reaching out to people. And he's got baggage with some of the people at this table.”
It's not Bruce at his most tactful, but Steve supposes he could have been more blunt. Tony and Barton seem to get along well enough, but Thor's been gone for months. Steve and Tony are... better. But not close. And there are trust issues with Natasha.
“I stabbed him in the neck once,” Natasha tells Thor.
“I'm sure you had a good reason,” Thor assures her. “But I can see how that would cause our friend to doubt his welcome.”
“If he won't come to us, we're going to have to come to him.” Steve doesn't want to draw out the debate. “This is about being a team. If we can sit here, every one of us, and agree that we want this, and that he wants this, but we still can't make it happen, then it's on all of us. We'll all have failed.” He lets that sink in for a minute. Barton and Thor seem to agree, and even Natasha looks thoughtful. “Bruce, you know him best, so try to give us a head's up if you think we're going about it the wrong way. Thor, are you sticking around?”
The Asgardian nods solemnly. “I had intended to visit Jane and her compatriots, but this must take priority. She will understand. She is wiser than most.”
“It's the smart ones you have to look out for,” Natasha says.
Steve's not sure, but he's pretty sure Barton has moved in after that morning. Not officially. No, Barton just brought a bunch of his stuff over one night and never left. Coulson doesn't seem to mind, though he does make a point of acting surprised whenever he stops by the Tower and finds Barton eating in Tony Stark's kitchen, sitting on Tony Stark's couch or on one loud and memorable occasion, practicing naked archery in Tony Stark's workshop.
(There was an official explanation involving a new suit for Barton, something perfectly designed and engineered for him, and having a need for specific measurements. And to be fair, there were electrodes and a lot of cameras involved. Steve's unofficial explanation is that they aren't allowed to get drunk together anymore, no matter how much easier it makes Stark to talk to.)
“Because they're terrible,” Barton says with absolute conviction and Bruce just rolls his eyes.
“No shit, Sherlock,” the doctor says, and Steve's always a little surprised when he swears. “That's why they're so much fun to watch. I mean, you can't have this kind of fun with a good movie.”
“This is fun?” Natasha asks no one in particular, but she's been shouting insults at the screen since five minutes in, critiquing everything from the characters' wardrobes to their fighting skills.
“I cannot believe you made us watch this,” Stark grumbles from his corner of the couch. “Bruce. Bruuuuuuce. I'm getting stupider by the minute over here. The world needs my brain, Bruce. If you make me dumb, Fury will kick you off the team.”
For all his griping, Stark actually seems to be enjoying the movie more than the man who chose it, snickering at the overwrought dialogue and cheering on the evil robots.
Bruce shoots him a grin, his eyes kind of crinkling at the sides and Steve gets it.
Thor just jumps in with both feet, loudly greeting Stark with declarations of undying friendship and respect every time the man walks into the room.
“Friend Stark! Come, share with me thy knowledge of this infernal device.”
“Man of Iron! Tell me again of your conquest over the scoundrel Whiplash!”
“Never would I have thought myself fortunate enough to find new shield brothers in this realm, but to find five capable of such bravery and strength! Truly I am blessed!”
It's not subtle, but you can't argue with Thor's sheer enthusiasm.
Natasha has decided that Tony needs to learn how to brew a decent cup of tea. Steve learns this one night when he can't sleep because his sheets are ice-cold despite him asking Jarvis to crank the heat up. He's on his way to the gym when he hears voices in the kitchen and he stops to listen.
There's a soft yellow light emanating from the kitchen door. Steve stops well short of it's warmth.
“There's a skill to it,” Natasha is saying. She's speaking in a voice soft as cotton, and there's a hint of an accent that she rarely lets through. “My grandmother taught me the proper way, when I was too little to even reach the stove. But she'd pour the water for me and show me how to measure the tea leaves and how to know when it was properly steeped.”
There's silence for several long, aching moments and Steve is about to leave and take the long way down to the gym when he hears Tony's voice over the quiet clink of porcelain cups. “My mom used to – she had this shelf, in the kitchen. All these different tins.”
“Ah,” Natasha says. “So you understand.”
It's Steve, who spear-headed the mission in the first place (Clint is calling it Operation Force Tony to Play Nicely but Steve is just calling it “the mission” at least until someone comes up with a better name), who ends up floundering.
Because, here's the thing. He likes Stark. He thinks they worked well together during the invasion. He even thinks they could be friends. But right now he and Stark aren't close. He doesn't know what they have in common. And the only thing that immediately comes to mind is Howard and he doesn't need anyone to tell him what a terrible idea that would be.
So he finds himself watching. He drags his sketchbook around with him everywhere and finds reasons to plant himself in whatever room Stark happens to be in and after three days of insisting that he's just sketching whatever inanimate object happens to be nearby he's pretty sure Stark thinks he's crazy.
He's actually sketching Stark, little doodles, or the shape of his eyes. He has a whole page of the arc reactor, learning the shape of it and trying to figure out how to make it glow with just a pencil. He's learning the shape of the man, but he hasn't figured out how to reach him.
And that's when Colonel Rhodes drops by.
He's wearing his uniform and has a briefcase in one hand when he lets himself into the Tower. He returns Steve's casual salute, nods to the others and grabs Stark in a headlock.
“Ow,” Stark says, obviously just on general principle. “Rhodey, baby, butter bear, golden graham. Why is it always violence with you?”
“A little birdy told me someone had increased the beam canon's range by thirty percent,” Rhodes says. He slings his other arm around Tony's shoulders until he has the man in what looks like a rather uncomfortable sideways embrace. “Who's your favorite pilot?”
“You can't ask me to play favorites like that,” Tony objects. “I am the very pinnacle of impartiality-” He shouts and squirms as Rhodes works one hand under Tony's shirt and starts tickling his ribs.
Rhodes doesn't let go till Stark's red-faced and laughing. “Please,” he cajoles. “Pretty please? Tone, you're killing me here.”
Stark slumps against his chest. “Fine, you brute. Come downstairs, I'll show you what I'm working on.” He shoves his chair back from the table and leads the way down to the workshop.
As he passes by, Rhodes taps Steve's sketchpad, currently open to a half-finished pencil drawing of Tony asleep on the couch. He narrows his eyes at Steve and makes the “I'm watching you” gesture as he follows Tony out of the room. Steve tries not to let it get to him – Rhodes has never been very pleased with him, ever since they were first introduced by Colonel Fury and Rhodes – still in his own armor – had gripped Steve's hand tight enough to leave actual bruises and offered to strand him in another dimension sometime. Steve doesn't know what he'd do if it had been Bucky who flew that bomb through the portal and figures he's lucky Rhodes is just holding a grudge instead of trying to deck him. It's what any best friend would do.
He stays in the kitchen after they leave, because he knows better than to try to interrupt their rare afternoon together. He makes a cup of cocoa and draws, finishing the sketch Rhodes had seen.
It's hours later, when he catches himself rubbing his thumb along the curve of Tony's shoulder over and over till the lead smears and smudges, that he realizes he knows what to do.
“Good morning, Tony,” Steve says. He has a cup of coffee already brewed just the way Tony likes it best – hot, bold and black. He takes one of Tony's hands and presses the mug into it, folding Tony's fingers around the handle. He holds his hand over Tony's for a moment. “Got it?”
Tony stares at the mug for a long moment, at their hands. He doesn't quite look at Steve, though.
“Careful,” Steve says. “It's hot. Clint's making oatmeal. If you join us for a few minutes, I'm sure you can talk him into making you a bowl.”
Tony's mouth moves without sound for a second, then he clears his throat. “Ah. I was heading to bed, actually. Just finished up in the workshop.” His eyes flicker toward the table, where Natasha is peeling an orange and Thor is yawning into his fist.
“You should eat,” Steve says. “Come on, sit with us for a while. You won't sleep well on an empty stomach.”
“I-” Tony falls silent when Steve touches his shoulder and guides him toward the table. “I don't like oatmeal.”
“You'll like mine,” Clint says like a threat. He's covered in cinnamon and brown sugar and studying a pot of simmering oats like it's going to explode.
Steve takes the seat next to Tony and lets their arms brush slightly where they rest next to each other on the table. Tony doesn't say anything, or even really look at him.
But he doesn't pull away either.
He pats Tony on the back. Claps his shoulder when they pass in the hall. Takes him by the wrist when Stark's half-asleep and staggering toward his bedroom. Hands him coffee and smoothies and dinner plates and makes sure their fingers brush. Smiles at him. Calls him Tony instead of Stark, calls him the Iron Giant. Calls him Shell Head. Tony almost chokes on his coffee and comes up sputtering.
The next movie night is Steve's choice and he picks something from Tony's list.
He waits till the movie has started. Natasha's in her chair and Bruce is in his recliner. Thor and Clint are sprawled across the floor with a mountain of junk food between them. Tony's on his end of the couch and Steve shifts his weight until he's just barely on Tony's side. “Did I ever say thank you for this?” he asks, tipping his head toward the screen. He's leaning into Tony's space, with his arm resting on Tony's knee. “I mean it. You're a good friend.”
He means it, of course. Tony is a good friend. It's easy to overlook that sometimes, when he's busy being an ass, or hiding out in his workshop. Easy to forget all the little things. Stark acts like his generosity means nothing, and Steve's ashamed that sometimes the rest of them follow his lead. But they're getting better about it. They know that Tony's a member of the team.
And they'll find a way to convince him. If they can save the world from aliens and trickster gods, they can do this.
“Who would you say is the most important Avenger?” the reporter asks him.
Steve can feel himself starting to grit his teeth. He isn't wild about the press, something they've started to notice, and a lot of them seem to take it as a personal challenge. They've taken to ambushing him as he's leaving stores or the market, following him onto the subway or even jumping out in front of his motorcycle, waving their arms and shouting questions. It makes him even less enthusiastic about answering their questions. Especially when the questions are ones like this.
“A team doesn't work like that,” he says, biting back the desire to snap at her. Aside from being incredibly rude, it would just be giving her what she wants. A sound bite for the evening news. If she was going to get it anyway, he might as well try to show himself and the rest of the team in the best possible light. “A team, a real team, has a group of people who all bring a different necessary skillset. We work together because we each complement each other. Without any one of us, the rest is weakened.”
She nods like she's agreeing with him. “While I'm sure that the Asgardian prince Thor, who commands lightning, and the highly trained federal agents Hawkeye and Black Widow are incredibly beneficial members of the team, I'm sure you'll agree that a loose canon like Tony Stark – the self-proclaimed superhero – is ultimately a weakness.”
“I've heard plenty of people proclaim him a hero,” Steve says, and he's so mad he has to put his helmet down on the seat of his bike before he cracks it. “Including me. When you're willing to sacrifice yourself for a greater good, or at the very least willing to stop trying to slander those who are, then we can talk. Until then, this interview is over.”
Fury chews him out for a solid fifteen minutes about playing nice with the press, but when he's done he offers Steve a drink.
“Oh, my god,” Tony howls, arms wrapped around his stomach. He's sliding down the couch, slowly but surely. “Oh, my god. Oh god. Steve. Steve. Please tell me you knew what this movie was about when you picked it. Nothing could make me love you more.”
“I-” Steve's aware that he's probably turning bright red. “I- It had Rosie O'Donnell and Dan Akroyd. I thought it was a comedy. It was – I-”
Tony cracks up again and flops sideways onto the couch. Steve huffs irritably as he hauls Tony back up to a sitting position. “Oh whatever, you made us all watch Twilight. You have no room to talk.”
One morning, Steve wakes up and isn't the first one in the kitchen. He pauses in the doorway and watches Tony as he works over the stove. His hair is a mess, curls going every which way, and there are dark circles under his eyes, but he just looks tired, not ill or exhausted. Steve can smell bacon and coffee and he can hear something sizzling in the pan Tony's holding. His stomach growls.
“Hey,” Tony says. He looks up from the pan for just a moment, offering Steve a grin that make the laugh lines at the corner of his eyes stand out. His teeth are too white, Steve can't help but notice, but they don't look fake, not when he smiles like that. “So apparently I'm actually awake for the meal that is traditionally called breakfast and I figured what the hell.”
“How long have you been awake?” Steve asks, crossing the kitchen.
Tony apparently has to think about it. “I dunno. When did Coulson show up and threaten to revoke Barton's housing allowance if he didn't fill out his change of address paperwork?”
“Monday,” Steve sighs because that's not even the longest he's seen Tony go without rest. “That was three days ago, Tony. No wonder you look so tired.”
“I am wide awake and stunningly handsome,” Tony says. “Also, I am making an omelet, so I'd be nice to me if I were you, unless you want to make your own.”
Steve leans over Tony's shoulder and examines the concoction Tony is currently poking with a spatula. “Well, there's eggs in there, yes sir.”
“Oh shut up and get a plate.”
They pile their plates with omelet – or, well, egg-thing with spinach and apparently tomatoes mixed in. It's almost an omelet, but somehow runny at the same time. Steve has no idea how Tony managed that – and toast and all the bacon because Tony refuses to leave any for Clint. They eat in the living room, in front of the TV, watching the morning news shows and mocking the too-awake hosts (that part's mostly Tony, but Steve laughs maybe more than he should).
Steve keeps stealing Tony's coffee, gulping it down hot, and it's gone before Tony notices. Tony steals the rest of his bacon in revenge, then falls asleep during a segment on a woman who started a shelter for homeless cats. Steve catches his plate before it can fall and polishes off his omelet and toast, listening to the sound of Tony's breath, soft and even in Steve's ear, Tony's weight a comforting warmth against Steve's side.
His sketchbook is starting to get full. Pages of Tony's hands, Tony's eyes. He has page after page of Tony in the Iron Man armor, and even more pages of Tony as Tony: sitting with his chin propped on his hand at the breakfast table; clutching a cup of coffee like a lifeline; talking on the phone, one hand loosening his tie.
The one of Tony asleep on the couch is done now, though the lead is still a little smudged over the curve of Tony's shoulder. Steve's fingers seem drawn to it somehow.
“Spar with me?” Steve offers one day.
Tony gives him a wounded look, all big wide eyes and pouty lower-lip. “I thought we were friends, Cap. We both know you'd cream me.”
“You could go put on the suit,” Steve says, and it's a gamble.
Tony just snorts. “I am not letting you pound on my favorite toy in the world, Steve. If you want to beat me up just say so.”
“Seriously, come down with me sometimes. I'll teach you some hand to hand. You box, right? I can teach you some throws, some self-defense.” He wraps his hand around the back of Tony's neck, grins down at him. “Come on, it'll be good for me. I always learn more when I'm trying to teach someone else.”
“You just want an excuse to get me naked in the showers.” Tony leers at him a little, but he looks intrigued.
Steve – well, Steve's suddenly having trouble swallowing.
It's snowing outside, but the living room is warm and bright. Steve feels a chill between his shoulder blades whenever he lets his gaze stray toward the window, and it makes him dread the night ahead in his dark room, trying to stay warm beneath the covers and freezing slowly from the inside out.
Clint has decided that he wants a Harry Potter marathon and they end up spending most of the night there. Clint falls asleep halfway through the second movie, curled up in Natasha's chair, and Bruce isn't far behind him, sound asleep on the floor with his head pillowed on his arms.
Steve doesn't think he'll be able to sleep, with the thick flakes of snow starting to stick to the windows. He feels like he's being buried alive.
Sometime into the fourth movie Tony yawns and lets his head fall back against the couch cushions. “I should...” he gestures half-heartedly with one hand. “Bed or something.”
“No one else has,” Steve points out in a low voice. The others are asleep, though Natasha stirs slightly at the sound of their voices.
“Mmm,” Tony says, which is close enough to agreement. He's boneless and lax against the cushions, his eyes starting to drift shut.
Steve curls an arm around Tony's shoulder and tugs him down. “Come here,” he says. “You'll get a crick in your neck.” He settles Tony against his side and feels him slide into sleep almost instantly.
He resigns himself to a long, cold night, but Tony's like a space heater, soaking warmth into Steve's skin wherever they touch. Steve grabs a blanket off the back of the couch and wraps them up, catching the warmth between them and holding it there.
He presses his lips to Tony's hair and falls asleep before the next movie cues up.
As the winter gets colder, it's more and more regular for Tony to come out of his corner of the couch without prodding. He sprawls a little more. He stretches. He flops. Sometimes he just flings himself down on the couch and uses Steve's leg as a pillow, falling asleep instantly. Sometimes they spend most of the movie with their heads together, mocking the dialogue or trying to plan how they'd defeat the villain if they had the chance. Tony doesn't like the cold either, though it's not the creeping specter that it is to Steve. He just likes to be warm, so Steve hogs the blankets and monopolizes the space heater and generally does everything he can to encourage Tony to encroach on his personal space.
He doesn't realize what he's doing until he's flipping through his sketchbook one day.
The earlier drawings of Tony are all very simple. Very obviously the work of a man who was still learning. Here's the way Tony tilts his head to the side when he's tired. Here was the exact curve of Tony's mouth when he's trying not to laugh at a bad joke. Here's the way the way he holds his hands when he's trying to describe flying.
The later sketches are different. Less mechanical, less technical. The pencil lines are surer and gentler, tracing over angles and curves the artist obviously knew well. The corners of Tony's eyes. The way the curls at the back of his neck clung to his skin when he was sticky with sweat. The long lines of Tony's back, the lean muscles of a calf, the curve of a hip, the pout of a lower lip.
This is what it looks like when the artist falls in love with his subject.
He goes looking for Tony and finds him in the living room. He's stretched out on their couch, tie undone and hair tousled, flipping channels while he nurses a cup of coffee from the deli down the street. Steve's fingers itch, but not for a pencil.
Tony smiles up at him. “Hey,” he says, and he sounds tired, like he's had a long day. “Where've you been hiding?”
“I had some things I needed to think about.” More than his own feelings, which were frighteningly clear once he stopped to really look at them. There's Tony to consider. What Tony wants. If this thought Steve is holding close to his chest will be welcomed.
“You look like a guy who's been wrestling some demons.”
“Not demons,” Steve says. “No – it's. This sort of thing, when it happens, is always a blessing.” He believes that, he honestly does. Love is always a blessing, even when it's unexpected. Maybe moreso then. “I just had to decide where to go from here.”
“Go?” Tony starts to push himself up, but Steve sits down on the edge of the couch before he can move. “Steve, are you all right?”
“I'm fine,” Steve says. “But there's something I need to talk to you about.”
“Okay.”Tony says it so promptly, without the wariness or the hesitation that would have been there just a few months ago.
Steve has struggled with the words all day but in the end he doesn't use them. It's too easy to say the wrong thing. Instead he holds out a hand, stained gray with pencil lead and charcoal, and touches Tony's cheek, brushes his fingers against the curve of Tony's jaw, presses his thumb, so carefully, against the soft lower lip that he's drawn a dozen times and never, never drawn as beautifully as the real thing.
Steve thinks he can live with this, however it goes. But he needs Tony to know. That Steve wants him. That Steve will always want him, even if Tony doesn't want him back.
But Tony raises his hand and covers Steve's, holds it against his jaw, dips his head to press a soft, dry kiss to Steve's palm.
Tony pulls him down and Steve goes willingly. He presses his face to Tony's throat, wraps his free hand around the curve of Tony's hip and lies there for a long while, listening to Tony's heart.
Clint makes them watch Brokeback Mountain for their next movie night. It backfires on him when Thor becomes highly invested in the love story and Tony smothers his laughter against Steve's shoulder.
They still don't have a lot in common. Steve still says the wrong things and Tony still takes offense too easily. They can't talk about Howard or politics without it turning into a shouting match. Tony still doesn't sleep enough and Steve still has nights when he won't come to bed because he can feel the ice in his bones.
It's not easy. Except when it is.