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Vienna Waits for You

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Steve Rogers was desperate.

Not in the general sense of the word but the deadline for his college art project seemed to be looming and damnit, he should have been done already. But it had taken a bit of Barton and Wilson madness to leave his final project in pieces. Natasha, Bucky and the guilt-ridden duo had tried to help him, but the project was lost to him. They had even tried to offer their own college acquired expertise to help. Of course, he had to refuse.

“I have an idea,” Natasha enunciated from the couch.

She eyed Steve who was morosely trying to collect the remains of his project with a broom. Only Natasha was in the room, lying on her back on the couch and playing with one of the more spherical objects from the ruined project. The rest of them were giving a wide berth to him owing to the recent outburst when Clint stepped on one of the largest pieces and broke it. Steve was still reeling from the loss of the art piece and a good portion of his grade.

Steve looked back at her, sighing and leaning against the broom, a picture of abject loss. “What is it?”

“Well,” she started, rising up on her elbows. “I really think you should rent some studio space.”

Steve looked behind at the large pile of trash and then back at Natasha. Throwing his hands up in exasperation, he went back to cleaning the mess.

Natasha jumped up and ambled over towards him, popping her lips. “Actually, call it an early birthday gift from me and an apology from the rest of the idiots with their ears pressed to the door, we have rented some space on your behalf.”

Steve frowned at her, still not saying anything.

“The full room won’t be yours. Half of it is taken up by someone else. I’m sure you’ll like him, though.”

He twisted his mouth into something that looked like a grimace. Then he hugged her tightly. “Thank you.”

She smiled and hugged him back. “Thought this was what you needed rather than our help with the project. You’ll work it out, Steve.”

“I still have essays and assignments to work through.”

“Steve, you finished the project six months in advance. You still have over two months. You will figure it out, I promise. There’s nobody else I would place my unending trust in for this.”

“Rude!” Clint called from the other side of the door.

“Still about Budapest?” Steve asked, hiding a smile in her shoulder.

“Yes.” He could hear the roll of her eyes in her voice.

“So, Bucky and I will help you shift your things there. And we could only afford the place for two months. But I have full faith in you that you’ll be done in that time. And then you’ll be a big artist or doodler or whatever it is that you do.” She raised a single eyebrow and then shrugged.

She was feigning disinterest in his work, but Steve knew that she was always aware of everything going around her. He assigned it to her observational skills required for her forensics degree along with her love for him. They were after all good friends.

He smiled at her and let her go, finally cleaning up the room with a clearer mind.

~*~

Steve climbed up the steel staircase, judging the location every second. But then again, he couldn’t have expected more than this in such close proximity to their apartment. The building looked drab from the outside and the inside was a long hallway with doors all around it. The staircase was right at the end and looked close to unused with a heavy layer of dust settled on it. There was just one pair of shoes that had disturbed itself a path on the staircase. Steve followed them right to the top, feeling the vertigo set in but it was mostly because of the nervousness than anything else.

He reached the end of the trail. The dust had been cleared off at the landing of the top floor, but the windows were covered with a thick layer of dirt, barely letting the sunlight in. The door was open, leading into the studio space. It was huge and the walls were open brick. There was some paint peeling off the walls right around the large windows that hadn’t faced the same fate as the windows on the landing. One side of the room was full of sloping windows with the sun at the right angle lighting up the studio. A few bulbs hung off the ceiling.

Steve leaned against the door jamb; eyes wide. He hadn’t expected much seeing the outside of the building, but the room was perfect. Already, he could see himself working in the room and getting lost in the process.

“Hey!” A bright voice called from behind him.

Steve turned around and saw a young blonde standing on the top step. Her overalls were covered in paint and so was the white shirt beneath it. She tugged at one of the straps and smiled at him. From what Steve could see, she didn’t seem prone to nervousness.

“Hey,” Steve said, catching himself and holding out his hand.

She shook it. “I’m guessing you’re Steve. Natasha told me you’d be coming here. I’m Carol Danvers.”

“Uh, yes. I can’t believe she was able to find this. It’s amazing.” He knew he was gushing but he felt the space was worth it.

She smiled winningly at him and nodded, leading him inside. She sat down on her high stool in front of a canvas, pointing him towards an upturned milk crate that he sat down on folding his long legs. Her canvas seemed right in the beginnings of the making, so, Steve couldn’t tell what it was. There were other paintings lining the side of the room that he assumed were drying. They all depicted the sky or fighter jet. Some of them were detailed paintings of alien planets with humanoid creatures. The one at the far end of the room was of an orange tabby cat that opened its mouth to reveal tentacles.

Carol followed his eyes around the room. “I’ll clear up your side of the room,” she promised.

Steve shook his head. “That’s alright. There’s plenty of space. I just need the middle anyway.”

She nodded. “So, what are you working on?”

“My final project. I need to finish it soon. I actually had-“

“Natasha told me. It sounds painful enough. I don’t want you to go through it again. Professor Fury connected us actually. He knew that I was looking to rent out half the space.”

Steve smiled. “I’m glad I got the opportunity.”

Carol smiled back. “Do you have a plan?”

“Not yet. I had hoped that coming here would help.”

Carol got up and walked to one of the windows, looking out. “There’s a farmer’s market right off here that happens every Sunday from nine in the morning to late evening around eight. I watch it often. I know I probably sound dopey but even though I never paint that, I find it nice to see people being people. It’s inspiring weirdly. So, sit here. Sleep here. Whatever. The stars look exquisite from these windows, by the way.”

Steve could feel a surge of inspiration coming to him already. “Thank you, Carol.”

~*~

The inspiration was gone.

Steve had actively tried to think about what he was going to do, his notebook open in his lap and pen poised over it. However, that was only the first two hours, sitting at the end of his side of the room, back against the wall. Carol soon put on some music; mostly classic rock that Steve hadn’t heard much of. He had hoped that that would help. He even tried looking out the window at people. But nothing worked.

Steve was looking at the stars from the open windows, lying flat on the floor, during what he felt was the sixth hour of his time in his new studio. Carol came into his view, smiling at him as she wiped her face with a wet wipe. Steve sat up, turning around to face him. She crouched down beside him.

“I take it you’re having a hard time with ideas,” she murmured knowingly.

He shrugged and rubbed the back of his neck. “It’s my final project. I need to do something that combines art and engineering. Previously, I had made a giant canvas, palette and paintbrush using parts of vehicles. I had to buy them off garages. I can’t make that again and all the pieces from before are gone.”

Carol nodded. “I understand. Besides, you already made that once. It’s… Out of your system.” She patted his shoulder. “You’ll find something, I’m sure, Steve.”

Steve smiled faintly at her. “I hope so.”

“Come, let’s get dinner.”

He looked at the empty page of his notebook and sighed. “Yeah, I think that would be for the best.”

~*~

The next day Steve remembered to take his laptop along so that he could get started on the essays that he had to submit rather than solely mulling over his project. He didn’t realize when it was nighttime again, but he was feeling good. He had spent a good amount of time on the two essays that were due and roughly drafted an assignment.

Carol had left around two hours ago, making him promise to lock up after himself. He got up and stretched; his joints popping after hours spent in the same position. With his eyes on his laptop, he considered the essay on Art History that he was working on. There were some words still left in him, but he was desperate to get a cup of coffee.

Slipping his laptop under his arm, he locked up after himself to walk to the closest coffee shop. The walk was pleasant. His good mood let him circle back to the elephant in his life – the final project. Engineering and art. What could he do with that which didn’t involve just a model made out of vaguely engineer-y things? Carol was right. He couldn’t repeat his project. He had gotten that out of his system.

The walk was short, but it started to shake his confidence again.  He really needed some help on this. They were allowed to get someone with expertise on their projects if they could prove the expertise. He didn’t know where he could get that though. Natasha and Clint were in forensics together; Bucky was studying journalism, and Sam was learning to be a pilot. There wasn’t much they could do to help, no matter how supportive they were. Besides they had their own lives to worry about.

The bell tinkled overhead when he entered the café. He walked straight to the counter, greeting the barista and ordering a latte before settling in one of the booths. He opened his laptop and tried to type in the words he had thought of before leaving. None of them made sense. He cancelled the last few sentences he had written, getting more frustrated by the second. Thanking the barista for his order when she served it, he settled back with a sigh.

His eyes roved around the café and they settled on a pair just entering the café. The shorter man was talking rapidly and animatedly at his friend, jumping in front of him before he shot off to get a booth near the glass at the front. The other man sighed affectionately and made his way over to the counter. However, what caught Steve’s attention was the ring that glinted on each of their fingers.

The café was a long way away from Massachusetts Institute of Technology – in a completely different city in fact, but the rings were given to people who graduated, right? Before he knew what he was doing, he was walking over to the table with the man sitting. He was tapping his foot restlessly, gazing outside the window.

He looked up and smirked at Steve, pushing his sunglasses down his nose by the bridge. “Well, hello there,” he started, suggestively.

Steve blinked rapidly and shrugged.

The other man joined them, slipping on the other side of the booth. He eyed Steve, curiously. His smile and greeting were pleasant.

“Hi, do you need some help?” the taller man of the two asked.

“Yeah, uh. I’m Steve. Rogers. Steve Rogers. Um, so, you guys are from MIT. I’m guessing you’re experts in engineering.” He winced internally. That was dumb. “I mean-“

“Hey, Steve. Why don’t you sit down and tell us? I’m James Rhodes, by the way. But call me Rhodey. And that’s Tony.”

Steve nodded and took a seat beside James. “So, I’m an art student at Brooklyn College. I have my final project due soon, and it’s an engineering meets art kind of thing. My old one got… Well, let’s just say that my roommates had too much fun and my project was a victim. So, I need to act quickly and I need some help.” He fell quiet, suddenly feeling very stupid. Why would two strangers ever want to help him? Especially MIT people. They would have important jobs now.

James was eyeing Tony and they were staring at each other with the air of people who knew each other very well. Tony finally turned his eyes to Steve, air shifting suddenly. He put the smirk back on and now it was easy to see that it was a front.

“Well, I’m listening,” Tony responded. “I’d love to help you. I’m actually at NYU for a bit with my PhD, so, I can spare some time. What’s the plan?”

“Well,” Steve reddened. He could feel the heat emanating from his face. “I actually can’t think of what to do.”

“Hm,” Tony said, steepling his fingers under his chin and regarding Steve. “Cool, how about we meet here tomorrow and discuss what to do? Same place, same time?”

Steve gaped at Tony. “I… Uh, that would be great. Thank you so much!”

There was a pause.

“While I’m enjoying looking at you, Huggy Bear isn’t here for long, so, I’ll see you tomorrow,” Tony told him.

“Tony,” Rhodey admonished. “You’re welcome to sit here if you want, Steve.”

“Oh, no! I’m sorry. I’m just jittery. I’ll-“ He got up, knee banging on the table. “I’ll see you.”

Tony waved at him, smirking. “Bye, Rogers.”

That ‘Rogers’ did things to him that he didn’t want to admit.

~*~

Steve had realized he liked men when he was eighteen. Throughout his childhood and teenage years, he had been distracted by his multiple illnesses. He had assumed that his attraction towards men was visceral to having just had a single best friend whom he adored – Bucky Barnes. The crush had been easy to get over. Besides, soon came Peggy. Everyone glanced over him, but not Peggy. Somehow, she saw him.

Puberty worked wonders and modern medicine helped too. A growth spurt later, he was looking better than ever. Sometimes people glanced their way and looked at him instead of Bucky. Peggy and Steve had been getting close, but he hadn’t worked up the courage to ask her out until he felt confident in his own skin.

At the end of their first date, they kissed. It should have been electric. At least that’s what he had thought. They tried, and they tried some more but it never felt right. Finally, Peggy suggested that they should be friends, and he agreed. That wasn’t all she had to say. It was her who put the thought in his head.

And it just grew till he showed up at art school and realized that it wasn’t just an attachment. What he felt for men was more than just an infatuation with a friend. Being surrounded by a whole new set of people with none of the things from his past haunting him, it changed everything. But it didn’t draw him out of the closet, not even to Bucky. There was no reason to. There were crushes, sure. However, no one that caught the eye.

Of course, now there was Tony.

“You know who Tony Stark is, right?” Bucky questioned incredulously. He was situated on the counter of the kitchen, one leg incessantly beating against the drawers.

Steve had just regaled what had happened the day before and he was only now realizing that the name was familiar, but he couldn’t place it. “Uh?”

“Steve, you dumb asshole. You absolute buffoon. You beautiful idiot. You frus-”

Steve rolled his eyes at Bucky, shoving a piece of bread in his mouth to shut him up. “Will you get to the point?”

Bucky swallowed the bread and eyed Steve indignantly for a moment. “He’s the son of Howard Stark, only the richest man on earth. And he has earned his own name too. I mean, from mastering circuit boards at four and making a robot at six to being the playboy after he graduated summa cum laude from MIT at seventeen.”

Steve gaped. “What?”

“You’ve asked The Tony Stark for help. And he agreed!”

“Oh God, Buck. What do I do?”

“These kinds of things don’t happen every day!” Bucky exclaimed, clapping his shoulder and reaching around him to grab a piece of bacon sizzling on the pan. “You go meet him and accept his help! This is so cool. Do you think he’d give me an interview if you asked?”

Steve was barely holding back a scream. “I don’t even know him, Bucky!”

“Okay, okay. Hey, relax. It’s okay. You can get great ideas from the dude and start work. He’s just a dude, like you. And I think he’s younger than us. Nineteen.”

Steve was feeling each of his twenty-two years on this earth keenly as he tried to not freak out.

“Steve,” Bucky repeated, grabbing his arm so he would look at him. “It’ll be okay.”

~*~

“You’re staring,” Tony pointed out, popping a cookie in his mouth.

Steve shook his head and cleared his throat. “Uh, sorry,” he murmured.

“You’re still staring.”

Steve reddened and gazed down at his cup of coffee.

“You know, I know I’m dashing but unless you’re staring at your reflection in my sunglasses, you’re doing yourself a disservice.”

Steve looked up in surprise. Was that a come on? He elected to ignore it. “I… I’m sorry. I just didn’t realize yesterday that I had asked Tony Stark for help.”

“I believe we shared names,” Tony noted amusedly.

“We did but I didn’t realise that you were-“

“Tony Stark, son of Howard Stark? Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist?” There was a hint of exasperation, self-assuredness and, what Steve thought was, disappointment.

“Well… Why did you agree to help me?” He blurted out finally.

“Three reasons, Rogers. One, Rhodey asked me to. Two, Rhodey asked me to because I’m bored at work. I’m already almost done with my project and I desperately need a break. Three, you’re eye candy. Who could ever say no to you.” Tony leaned back in his chair, biting into another cookie.

Steve had no idea how to respond to that.

“Anyhow!” Tony clapped his hands together and leaned forward, practically vibrating with excitement. “Since you were having trouble coming up with ideas, I made a list.” He pulled out a tab from his coat pocket.

Steve couldn’t figure out how a tab of that size had fit in a coat that small. Before he could mull over it, Tony shoved the tab at him. It was open to a Word Document with three pages full of ideas. Some of them had descriptors and the others were just words. Most of them were beyond Steve’s comprehension, but a few caught his eye.

“Does any one of those spark any joy?” Tony asked, holding up his hands in question.

“I understand that reference,” Steve responded automatically with a grin. “My roommate loves that show.”

“Your roommate has good taste,” he commented, eyeing Steve appreciatively.

Steve blushed and cleared his throat. “So, I’m a little confused about the circuit board art,” he started. “And I really like the Tesla Coil idea as well. But I don’t think I have the required skill to make them.”

“Oh, don’t worry about it. I can take care of that for you.”

“Uh, what?”

“You asked me to help you right?”

“Yes, but I wouldn’t expect you to put any time into it.”

“Am I allowed to?”

“Sorry?”

“Does your project allow for me to put time into it?”

“As long as you’re not putting in more time than me,” Steve mumbled.

“Look, Steve. I have the time and I’d like to help. I don’t usually do that. Even when I have the time. I generally take that time and spend it between someone’s legs or in a lab somewhere. Rhodey seems to think I should expand my horizons so here I am doing none of those.”

“Okay… But… I don’t think I can arrange the materials if they’re expensive.”

“I have money.”

“Mr. Stark-“

“Tony.”

“What?”

“Call me Tony. Mr. Stark is my father. If you’re inclined, you can call me Mr. Bastard Stark or a combination thereof. But not Mr. Stark. I get indigestion.”

“Oh, um, okay. Look, Tony. I’m very happy that you’re willing to give your time, but I could never accept your money for this. I have to bring everything for the project, and I need it to be within a budget.”

“Alright.” Tony was smiling at him, a little amused but mostly admiring.

~*~

“Oh, hey!” Carol called out sunnily. She set her large tote bag down, letting it lean against the easel.

Tony and Steve turned around. Tony got up first with a smile, taking her hand.

“Hi, I’m Tony,” he introduced himself.

“I’m Carol. Are you two collaborating?” she asked, popping open the nearest window and fanning herself.

Steve nodded. “Yes. I have the option to use an expert on my project and Tony is an electrical and mechanical engineer.”

“That’s awesome,” she commented, moving back towards her easel to start work. “I can’t wait to see what you guys make.”

Steve smiled at her. “Same goes for you.”

Tony tugged at Steve’s sleeve, requesting his attention, already sitting cross-legged on the floor again. He was back to considering the pieces of circuit boards and tesla coils lying on the ground.

“You know. I made this when I was eight,” Tony murmured, holding up a circuit board designed to look like a 3D city.

Steve took it in his hands carefully, turning it around awed. “This is really amazing. I can’t believe anyone let you hold a solder at that age.”

Tony scoffed but didn’t say anything.

“What’s that?” Carol questioned intrigued, standing over Steve’s shoulder.

“It’s a printed circuit board or a PCB. Basically, it’s the base for any circuit and has connections in it through conductive layers. You put these components, right, and solder them on. Solder is a way to melt a wire on top of it that quickly solidifies just so the piece stays on but doesn’t lose its connectivity to the rest of the circuit. I feel like I’ll lose you soon to boredom.”

Carol grinned brightly. “No, that was interesting, Tony. But my artistic sensibility asks you to stop before this turns into slides.” She mock shuddered in fear.

He laughed softly as she drifted away to her canvas.  “Have you decided what you like?” He turned to Steve.

Steve set the board down and nodded. “I have. I’m thinking of a circuit board design. Something big.”

Tony contemplated that, looking into the distance. “Alright. I can get my solder gun. You’ll need to get a PCB the size that you need it to be. If it is custom made, that might cost you extra. I can hook you up with my supplier though,” he offered.

“That would be really awesome, Tony. Again, I’m very grateful for the time that you’re taking-“

“Don’t cheapen the moment, Rogers,” he quipped. “Come on. Let’s get lunch.” He looked down at his watch. “Or brunch. I need more coffee.”

Steve huffed but followed the man. They had just met the day before yesterday, but Steve couldn’t recall a moment that the other man had not filled with chatter. It wasn’t idle either. Every story that he had was interesting and Steve was thriving.

~*~

That night Steve couldn’t fall asleep even though Bucky was already sleeping peacefully on the other bed, head turned towards the window. Soft light from the streetlight straining from the curtains lit up his face. He looked so peaceful that Steve’s hand itched to sketch.

One sketch led to another and before he knew it, he had already doodled multiple positions of hands, sunglasses and a goatee around a sole sketch of Bucky’s peaceful face. Steve shut the notebook with a snick trying not to think about those hands, animated and expressive. He definitely avoided thinking about the warm brown eyes hidden behind the darkened sunglasses.

He fell back down with a quiet groan. He was so very screwed. The notification light from his phone glowed over the darkened ceiling. Twisting to his side, he grabbed his phone off the nightstand, switching it on.

It was an unknown number, but his phone vibrated with a few more messages and then fell silent. Steve frowned, unlocking his cell to check the messages.

Unknown Number: 01:13: Did you know that there is a bird that tends to impale itself?

Unknown Number: 01:13: It’s relevant to my research. Not falling into a Wiki rabbit hole.

Unknown Number: 01:13: Okay, maybe I am. But I’m almost done with the research and the results are still due. So, really. I’m not doing anything wrong.

Unknown Number: 01:15: How many PhDs can one person have anyway.

Unknown Number: 01:16: I checked. Someone has 30 degrees. Not all PhDs, sure.

Unknown Number: 01:16: If dad knew, he’d want me to break it.

Unknown Number: 01:17: Who am I kidding. Of course, he knows.

Unknown Number: 01:17: He probably already knows how many I have to get in this year.

Steve stared at the messages, something tugging at his gut. It was like he could reach out and tell who it was, but that was stupid. It could not be him.

Unknown Number: 01:24: Right, I forgot to mention. I’m Tony.

Unknown Number: 01:25: Stark.

Unknown Number: 01:26: The one who’s helping you with your project.

As if Steve didn’t know exactly who Tony was. Did Tony really think he ever had to introduce himself to someone? Especially, twice? He fell back on his bed, holding the phone up over his face. The bubble with the three dots turned up again. It vanished soon though without any new messages.

Steve considered how he should reply to the messages.

Steve Hunk Rogers: 01:30: Hi, Tony. Not time to sleep yet?

Stark, Tony Stark: 01:31: It’s the 48th hour, Steve! No time to sleep.

Steve Hunk Rogers: 01:31: That’s a long time to be awake. You should sleep.

Stark, Tony Stark: 01:32: Probably.

Stark, Tony Stark: 01:32: But I’ve also had too much coffee.

Steve Hunk Rogers: 01:40: I can’t sleep either.

Stark, Tony Stark: 01:42: Meet at the studio in half an hour?

And Steve had no idea why he agreed.

Steve Hunk Rogers: 01:42: Okay.

Not only was he romantically screwed but he was going to get killed or, worse, mugged on Brooklyn streets.

~*~

Steve reached before Tony, fortunately. He had time to open the studio and air it out to let the smell of the paint out. He walked around, admiring a few of Carol’s paintings. He hadn’t noticed one of them before. It was a portrait of a dark-skinned woman but seen from behind the misted glass with her palm pressed to it. It was gorgeous and haunting at the same time.

Steve wasn’t sure how long he was there admiring it before the door opened and Tony straggled inside the room.

“Rogers!” he announced, tossing down a box that slid to Steve’s feet.

Steve bent to retrieve it, amused. It was full of LEDs, resistors, electric wires, solder wires and a neatly wound up soldering machine at the top.

“How much do I owe you?”

“What? Oh, no. Nothing. I get most of it in bulk for my projects. Trust me.” Tony waved his concerns away, stalking off to a window. “There’s a drunk man peeing into the gutter.” He moved away from the window before Steve could respond. His eyes focused on Steve next.

Steve realized he looked positively manic. He expected those were the side effects of too much coffee. “We don’t have the PCB yet,” he pointed out, finally just to fill the silence.

He realized that that was probably the longest silence they’d fallen into.

“You know you’re interesting,” Tony spoke as if he was continuing a conversation. He leaned against the ledge. “You’re the perfect man. Just how my father describes him anyway. You’re everything that he ever wanted. Maybe with more of an engineering degree but he’d make do. You’re everything he wants but nothing like it.” A pause. “An enigma.”

“Edward Nygma,” he murmured. Maybe he was manic and off his rocker too.

Tony gave him a weird look followed by an amused smile. “Have you thought about what you’re going to put on the board?”

Steve shrugged, sighing. “I don’t want to think.”

“Okay,” Tony replied. He bent and held up an empty canvas from Carol’s pile. “Let’s draw.”

Steve watched him round across the room and grab a stray pencil lying on the floor.

“Come on, Rogers. You know you want to.”

“You know that’s not the base material for a pencil.”

Tony rolled his eyes at him, wiggling the pencil at him.

Steve caught it and shoved gently at Tony, going to sit in his space. He felt Tony follow, sitting beside him.

When he looked up next, the sun was just cracking over the clouds and Tony was asleep on the floor with his head cushioned on his arm. Steve blinked, rubbing at his eyes. He had been sketching for the last four hours and he had a portrait of his friends along with Tony to show for it.

~*~

Carol found them sprawled out on the floor on opposite sides of the studio, asleep. She shook Steve awake who got up with a jolt, staring all around himself. Rubbing a hand over his face, he looked at her apologetically.

“Sorry,” he murmured, hoarsely. 

Carol waved his concern away. “What are you doing here?” she whispered.

Steve rose up and gazed around blearily. “Uh. We came here because we couldn’t sleep and then fell asleep.” He shrugged sheepishly.

She snorted at him. “Okay. Why don’t you two go and grab coffee or breakfast? It’s almost noon.”

Steve cracked his joints and nodded, gratefully. “You’re a saviour.”

“Don’t you forget that.” Her smile was radiant.

~*~

With a coffee in his system, Tony was practically vibrating beside Steve. They had finally managed to find a decent enough diner serving brunch and dug in like they hadn’t seen food in days. They didn’t even need to fill the silence while they ate, both lost in their own worlds.

Tony finally cleared his throat as he ordered a refill for his coffee. “Have you ordered the board?”

“I have.”

“What more do you need?”

“Nothing, actually. You got me everything else. Thank you, by the way.”

“You’re welcome, Rogers.”

Steve smiled at him.

“Did you decide what you want to make on it?”

“Kind of.”

“That doesn’t sound promising like the lad I had been promised when this job was offered to me.”

“Kind of!” Steve rolled his eyes.

“That’s more like it! What a strapping young lad, you are! If only I had a daughter to offer her hand in marriage. Guess it’ll have to be my hand.”

“I accept.”

Tony eyed him, thoughtful but his eyes glinted with amusement. “Are you gay? You don’t have to answer that of course. I just got curious because most people I know are either violently out of the closet or violently in it. If I flirt, I either find them in my bed or a knife. So, you confuse me. In the most pleasant ways. Again, you can refuse to answer.”

Steve considered him for a moment. It wouldn’t hurt to admit it, would it? “I’m gay.”

“Okay,” Tony responded, neutrally. “I’m bisexual, by the way. I’m guessing you knew that. Or maybe you didn’t seeing as you didn’t recognize me earlier. Anyway, it’s been on the tabloids for ages. I swing both ways. There were puns and insinuations. Well, I at least enjoyed the puns. The insinuations not so much. They thought I was sleeping with Rhodey. Honeybear is a hottie but that doesn’t mean I’d sleep with my only friend in the world. If you count out Jarvis that is. Which you should because he’s the butler and I’m not going to be the sad rich boy whose only friend is his butler. No, siree. I’ll let everyone call him my father before that.” He swallowed some coffee.

Steve couldn’t keep his eyes away from the man as he steamrolled through one topic to another barely with any breaks, just pausing to eat or drink more coffee. The chatter left something behind, and Steve was beginning to see between the cracks that Tony lived behind, but he wasn’t sure that it was his place to mention them. He realized that he really cared about the sad rich boy. His childhood sounded rough and Steve was no stranger to that.

~*~

“I called my supplier. He says that the board will only be delivered next weekend, sorry. It’s a custom made. Those take time,” Tony told Steve when they finally reached back at the studio.

“Oh, no that’s alright. I do have my assignments to complete. I’ll get those done in the meantime.” Steve shrugged.

It was probably a good thing that he was getting time to catch up with his classes before he started his final project in earnest. He hoped that the teachers weren’t hoping to drop any last-minute assignments into the mix. The project deadline was already inching closer. Of course, Bucky would tell him that he was just preemptively freaking out that would be true, but when had that ever stopped him. He needed everything done on time.

“Oh,” Tony murmured, quietly.

Steve cocked his head to the side slightly, confused by his withdrawn expression. “You’re welcome to stay,” he ventured.

“No, that’s… I don’t want to get in your way.”

“That’s hardly true, Tony. You’re helping me. If it isn’t interrupting your work, you can work from the studio while we wait on the PCB. Besides, I could use your help in learning more about how the electrical part of it would work.”

Tony bit the end of his pencil and then finally gave him a lopsided grin. “I’ll stay but only because you asked so nicely.”

Steve rolled his eyes at him, smirking. “If you say so.”

~*~

“I really like this one,” Tony announced, pointing at one of Carol’s canvasses.

“You’re distracted,” Carol retorted in response.

Tony shrugged but didn’t deny it. “I’m waiting for the professor to approve what I sent her.” He gesticulated a little wildly.

“Well, she will approve. You’re Tony Stark. Shouldn’t you be planning your next PhD?”

Tony gave her a pleased glance. “Who’s to say I haven’t?”

Carol eyed him disbelievingly.

“Who’s to say you aren’t my next project?”

“Electroshock therapy when we don’t know about it?”

“Yes, I’m trying to drive the abstract thoughts out and convert you to science.”

“I thought you were working on AIs.”

“Yes, meanwhile, I’m also training my AI to learn more about… Artists.”

“Ah, yes. The affliction.”

Tony laughed.

Steve watched them operate around each other. He wasn’t sure how they could flirt so easily. He couldn’t even imagine doing that. Entering another word into the document that was open, he flipped it shut and paused at the realization that Carol had never been confused and/or shocked at Tony’s presence. He should ask about that.

“Lunch?” He asked the two.

Before either of them could answer, the door opened, and a girl entered. She beelined towards Carol, who smiled wider than he had ever seen her smile; she always smiled. They kissed, so, suddenly the smile made perfect sense. Steve felt that she looked familiar, but he couldn’t place her.

“Maria, that’s Steve,” Carol told her, pointing him out. “And that’s Tony.”

Steve waved at her. “Hi.” He got up to shake her hand.

Maria grinned at him. “Carol has told me about you. And you.” She turned to Tony sharply.

Tony gave her a sheepish grin. “Hey.”

“You didn’t think to tell me you were in Brooklyn?” She asked, walking over to hug him.

He hugged her back. “Rhodey didn’t tell you?”

It was a weak defence and Maria saw right through it.

“Both of you are as hopeless as they come.”

Tony shrugged agreeably.

Maria just rolled her eyes at him, sighing. “You’re buying my lunch.”

Tony grinned at what he perceived as a fair exchange. “For the next month,” he promised.

Maria and Tony exited together, chatting animatedly about Rhodey and the Air Force while Carol and Steve followed, sharing amused looks.

~*~

Steve decided that he liked Maria a lot. Where Carol was talkative and sarcastic, she was rather quiet but had extremely dry humour. She made Tony laugh a lot that Steve absolutely adored. It also answered the question of why Carol wasn’t surprised by Tony’s presence. They were already aware of each other’s presence. Of course, it didn’t make it any more likely to see Tony with a broke artist in a bedraggled area of Brooklyn. Well, it answered a part of the question anyway.

He was still struggling to remember where he had seen Maria before. That’s when he remembered.

“Hey! You’re the painting!” He blurted out.

The table stared at him. He suspected that the adjacent tables had fallen silent too.

He reddened. “Sorry, I mean. You’re in one of the paintings at the studio. You just seemed very familiar and I couldn’t place you up till now.”

Maria snorted softly. “So, you’ve been at it again?” She asked Carol, eyebrow raised.

“Obviously,” Carol replied, shrugging and biting into her pancake. “Your portraits always come out the best.”

Maria huffed softly but smiled at her girlfriend anyway.

“No wonder you put her in all of them,” Tony pointed out.

Carol smirked. “I need my luck.”

“When it comes to art, you really don’t,” Maria commented, rolling her eyes.

“True,” Carol conceded with a grin. “But I’d take some anyway.”

“Why don’t we talk like this anymore, Steve?” Tony mock-complained, pouting at Steve.

“If only you would stop hogging the covers at night, I’d be better rested,” Steve retorted, laughing.

Tony smiled at him, pleased.

~*~

After a week of hanging around the studio with Tony and Carol, Steve came one morning before his afternoon classes to find a giant package waiting for him in the stairwell. He carried it up the stairs, carefully, already aware of what it was. He lugged it inside the studio after unlocking it. Tearing open the wrapping paper, Steve ran his fingers over the rough surface of the printed circuit board. It was almost as tall as him and just as wide. He set it to rest against the wall, staring at the now bare board.

The board teetered and started to fall forwards. Steve panicked and caught it. The canvas that he had worked on with Tony caught his eye. He toed it away before setting the board back against the wall. Even after a week, Steve wasn’t sure what he could make.

The door banged open and even before turning around he knew that it was Tony. The sound of boots against the tiles was followed by words. A lot of words.

So, Steve didn’t even bother turning around. He was used to Tony by now.

“Hey! You aren’t listening,” Tony paused his monologue to say.

Steve smirked over his shoulder. He had figured out the ways to work up Tony.

“You suck,” Tony noted, putting his laptop on a stool and standing beside Steve. “Impressive. Have you decided what you are making on it?”

Steve was about to shake his head when he was struck with inspiration. He realized a second later that he had been staring at Tony for a good few moments.

“Have I got something on my face?” Tony asked, rubbing a hand on his nose.

“Oh, yeah. Right there,” Steve evaded, pointing at his own cheek.

Tony rubbed at it hard, grimacing.

“No, no. There,” Steve booped Tony’s nose.

Tony caught on, glaring at him. “Real mature.”

He laughed, picking up the box of LEDs and staring at it.

“Wait, wait. Me, being the more emotionally mature person here understands that you need an electrical lesson first. I brought slides!” He announced, fetching his laptop off the stool and tugging at Steve’s sleeve.

He looked at him and nodded. Setting the box down, he followed Tony to the floor. “How long will it take to go through this stuff?” he questioned. “And why didn’t we last week?”

“We were busy,” Tony shrugged.

Steve huffed. “I didn’t realise I’d need lessons.”

“Steve! Look alive. Science won’t kill the abstract in you. Just give me a few hours. You’ll be an expert in no time.”

“I’ll take your word for it.”

“You better.”

~*~

Steve wouldn’t call himself an expert on circuit boards in the few hours turned two days that the two spent on the subject. Tony wasn’t half bad of a teacher, but he tried to address Steve’s questioning looks with answers that only confused him more. At the end of the two days, however, Steve could say with some confidence that he knew what was going on. Mostly.

On the third day, he lay on his stomach with half the cover sheet of the PCB under him. Tony had helped him trace the PCB with a pencil so that Steve could draw the circuit over it. He used his understanding of the basic circuit components, throwing questions at Tony whenever he could. The other man sat cross-legged on the ground, working on his personal projects. He had shifted one of his first robots to the studio with him for the time being. Steve suspected that Dum-E was more for entertainment than help, seeing as he more often got scolded by Tony for “helping”.

For the next three days, Steve continued creating the circuit with helpful tips from Tony, but he managed to keep the actual design a secret by not letting Tony see the entire circuit together. Tony was super smart. Steve knew that if he saw the entire picture, he’d be able to tell what the actual circuit would look like in seconds. Meanwhile, Tony was working on what looked like six things at once. One of them was the AI.

“Steve, say something.”

“Something,” he murmured, thinking of the difference between transistors and resistors.

Tony stuck his tongue out at him. He fell back, lying down and staring at the ceiling. “You know what I’ll call it?”

It took Steve a moment to process the words, but he dropped his pencil, putting his head down on his arm facing Tony. “What?” he replied intelligently.

“The thing,” he enunciated, moving his hands in the air. “The AI or whatever.”

He was downplaying his achievements again. According to Carol, the world still hadn’t seen a perfect AI yet and what Tony was working at was much beyond the levels of what Siri, Alexa and the others could do.

“What are you naming your best achievement yet?” He teased, smiling softly.

Tony gave him an unimpressed look. “It’s not.”

“Yeah, you can do so much better.” He was only half mocking.

Tony’s lips twitched but he didn’t smile. “Jarvis.”

The word was said with trepidation. The name meant something to Tony.

“Oh,” Steve replied, unsure of how to handle the gravity of the situation. He wasn’t certain that he should ask who it was or wait for Tony to tell him.

Tony regarded him seriously. “My dad… Well. Let’s just say that that relationship has problems. I usually hang – hung out with Jarvis. He was our butler, but he’d been in the house since forever. His father used to work for the Stark family, and he grew up in the job. Jarvis…” He paused, looking away from Steve.

Steve held his breath. He knew that what he was hearing was something extremely important to Tony and he couldn’t help but hang on to every word.

“He was so much more than just a butler. He practically raised me. Mom was great but she was always busy. So, I had Jarvis. He’d play with me and hang out with me. Hell, he even sat through my tantrums. Jarvis was my parent more than my birth parents.”

“Where’s he now?” Steve couldn’t help but ask.

“He passed away last year. Fourteenth April. Worst day of my life.”

“I’m so sorry, Tony.”

“Yeah, it’s okay.”

Steve reached out and took Tony’s hand on an impulse, but Tony squeezed his fingers, holding back. He realised just how young the prodigy looked. He was nineteen and his sunglasses may hide maturity and hurt, but without them, he looked utterly vulnerable. Steve vowed to protect him.

Woah, he thought. That was rather quick.

Tony felt worth it, though.

~*~

The day started with breakfast together and a lot of coffee for Tony. Steve liked his daily pancake routine. Around afternoon, one out of the three in the studio would mention lunch and they’d trudge out together. The night would fall, Carol would leave and the two left behind scavenged for dinner. Most nights they ordered in because honestly, that is exactly when inspiration struck. How could they leave the studio when their muses were finally aligned.

Steve held up a plastic fork piercing a sundried tomato. It was a breakfast-for-dinner kind of situation. He realized as he bit into the juicy tomato that it was the fourth week of knowing Tony. That’s how he was judging the progress of his project: in Tony time. It was a great metric, ask anyone.

Of course, where Steve was barely into the circuit, Tony had already progressed through five of his projects and spawned six new ones. The AI Jarvis was sort of a running project. Steve wasn’t sure why Tony took to hanging out at the studio when he had a perfectly amazing workshop on the NYU campus and also in his apartment, but he was infinitely glad that he did. Tony hanging around not only meant that his circuit woes sorted themselves out quickly, but it also meant that he could bask in the glory of all that was Tony Stark.

The man was interesting, to say the least. Since the day he had talked about Jarvis, they had grown closer. Even when they weren’t together at the studio pointing things out to each other or confessing over food, they texted. They were constantly in touch and Steve really liked learning more about the young genius.

There was just another month to go before Steve had to submit. While he was feeling the pressure from the college to finish the project, it was bittersweet. How would he meet Tony again? There was no intersection in their life activities. Besides, Tony would return to MIT and get busy. What reason did he have to remember Steve anyway?

It was the fifth week that Steve found Tony with his back turned to him. He was early to the studio. Steve walked closer, touching his shoulder to get his attention. Tony whirled around, looking slightly manic.

“Hey!” He responded, happily. Immediately, he sat down, tugging at Steve’s sleeve.

Steve followed with a laugh, sitting beside him. “What’s up?”

“I have something to show you.” Tony leaned forward, setting fire to two small flares.

Steve leaned back, hand on Tony’s arm. “What?”

He pressed enter on his laptop and leaned back to sit with Steve.

The Tesla coils powered up and a soft voice filled the room. Just then the charges on the Tesla coils ran between the flares and the coils in synchronization with the voice. Steve couldn’t lie but he was taken aback physically, hand still clutching Tony’s arm. He caught his eyes and grinned. He could understand the mania now.

“Holy shit,” he murmured, starting to sing along. “Why this song?” Ella Fitzgerald’s sweet voice singing Stairway to the Stars reverberated in the room.

Tony faced him, holding his hand out to him. Steve took it. Tony swung him around expertly. “You mentioned it once,” he replied matter of factly.

Steve huffed a short laugh. “You never cease to amaze me.”

Tony reddened slightly but started to swing him around the room. Even though he was almost a head shorter than Steve, he led skillfully. “I took lessons,” he said abruptly. “I mean jazz dancing.”

Steve grinned at him, letting Tony dip him. His foot slipped on a paintbrush and Tony valiantly tried to catch him from falling, but they both fell to the ground.

Tony was on top of Steve when Carol walked in.

“My apartment’s empty if you want it,” she announced.

The boys jumped up, embarrassed and got back to work making lame excuses. They couldn’t escape Carol’s curious glances.

When he got to bed later that night, Steve realized for the umpteenth time that his crush was going to screw him over.

~*~

“Carol?” Steve asked hesitantly, soldering a joint together.

Carol looked up from her canvas and raised an eyebrow questioningly.

Tony was late to the studio that day and Steve knew that this was the only chance he had to ask her about what was bothering him.

“So, uh. How’d you know… Uh, you know?” He gestured wildly.

She didn’t stop staring at him wordlessly.

“Um… Right. I need more words. You and Maria, I mean.”

Carol ducked her head and then smiled at him. “Steve. What is this about?”

“I… Just wanted to know,” he tried.

Carol didn’t buy it. “Tony?”

“Well…”

“I met Maria when we moved to New York. She was my neighbour. We got along like a house on fire. Our parents were so tired of all our mischief. Didn’t stop us, of course. We loved each other since the beginning, honestly. Everyone thought we were like sisters, but we knew that that wasn’t what it was. We just didn’t have the right words for it till we hit puberty. So, I guess, to answer your question, we always knew.”

“Oh.”

“It’s okay, Steve. You don’t owe the truth to anyone.”

“Does it feel freeing to tell people?”

“Do you feel like you’re hiding something?”

He shrugged.

“What is this really about?”

“I just feel that if in the future I want to date someone… I don’t want to have to lie to my friends to do it.”

Carol nodded. “That’s a fair thing to hope for. Do you think your friends won’t accept you?”

“I… They’re decent people. But I… I’m not sure.”

“Steve, I understand the fear. I really do. But knowing you I don’t think your friends much different than you in temperament. They won’t take it badly, Steve. Have they outright said anything about it?”

“No. At least not in front of me.”

“I think you should do it. But take your time.”

“Thank you, Carol.”

“Anytime.”

~*~

“Buck?” Steve called out when he entered his room later that night.

Bucky stuck his head out from the bathroom, half his face covered in shaving cream. “What’s up?” he asked, popping his lips.

Steve walked to lean against the door jamb of the bathroom. “I wanted to talk to you about something.”

“Did something happen?” His voice came muffled as he contorted his mouth to shave his left cheek.

“Uh, no. Just. I’ll wait in the room for you.”

“Sure, I’ll be out in a minute.”

Steve changed into his sweatpants and settled at the edge of his bed, facing Bucky’s bed.

Bucky exited, dabbing his face with a towel. He settled opposite Steve. “What’s up?”

“I don’t know how to say this, Buck.”

“Okay, now you’re officially scaring me. What’s wrong? Do I need to beat someone up or save someone from your wrath?”

Steve chuckled. “Nothing like that… This is difficult for me.”

“Steve, I’ve been there when you heaved your first punch and broke your entire arm. I’ve been there for the most embarrassing moments. What could possibly be hard to tell me.”

“Well…”

“And we share a room! It’s fucking awkward staying with your best friend – mind, I love you. But just the number of times I’ve gotten my laptop shut in time is a feat! You know, this one time-“

“Buck!” Steve held up his hands placatingly.

Bucky fell quiet. “Sorry, got carried away. What were you saying?”

“I’m gay!” He finally blurted out, slightly worked up.

Bucky choked on his laugh and then after a moment, he started to laugh. He was so hysterical that he fell back on the bed, still laughing.

Steve shrunk in on himself. He had expected a lot of reactions but not this one. At least, he didn’t think that his confession would be treated with such inconsequence. It felt only obvious to trudge to the living area. Getting himself a cup of tea, he settled on the ledge of the window, looking over the alleyway.

A cool breeze blew inside the room when he finally managed to screw the window open. The fire escape rattled when their upstair neighbour’s cat jumped up and down, meowing loudly. She tumbled down the stairs and stopped to stare at Steve, eyes wide. Steve held out a cautious hand up and then landed it gently over her head. She inclined her head, eyes closing, and purred.

“Steve?” Bucky whispered, cursing as he budged into the side table, almost knocking over a vase.

“Over here,” he replied, sighing softly. He wasn’t sure that he wanted to talk to him right now, but when had he ever been able to deny his best friend anything.

Bucky waited to let his eyes adjust to the dark before meandering over to Steve. He settled on the ledge beside him, his back facing the window. “What happened?”

“Nothing,” he responded moodily.

“I’m sorry. It’s something I said, isn’t it?”

“More like something you didn’t.”

“What do you mean?”

“I didn’t think that my being gay was a joke to you.”

“Joke? Oh… Steve, no. I laughed because I thought you’re being ironic. I already knew.”

“What?” Steve stared; eyebrows raised.

“You haven’t been that good at hiding it, you know. I mean you did have me confused what with Peggy. But then she dropped out of your life. And you guys were “just friends”. I just thought it’s a thing we don’t talk about. I’m sorry, Steve. I didn’t think you were serious.”

Steve experienced relief flood his system. He was blinded for a second by the amount of exhilaration he felt. Carefully, he set his cup down and regarded Bucky. Of course, his best friend wasn’t lying to him but he did seem guilty.

“Stevie, you really thought that we would care who you liked?”

“The others know too?”

“Natasha guessed first and then it sort of just spread. That’s not the point, though. You really thought we’d throw you out if you told us?” He rested a hand over Steve’s.

Steve shrugged.

“Buddy,” he murmured, sounding so infinitely sad. “We love you, Steve. I love you. There’s nothing you could say to me that would change my mind about that. You are a pain in my ass though.”

Steve met his eyes, blinking back tears and then swooped in to hug Bucky. The man hugged him back, holding him close. “I love you too.”

~*~

A week passed since the confession and Steve was feeling lighter than ever.

“Hey!” He called out to Carol who waved from the floor. “Everything alright?”

“Oh, yeah. Just waiting for inspiration.”

“I’ve heard this does help with the process.”

She giggled and turned over, sighing softly. “Fuck the process.”

“Fuck the process,” he echoed.

They fell into a companionable silence only filled with the rasp of the soldering iron and Steve moving around looking for LEDs rolling away to inescapable places. Time crawled into afternoon and the sun shone overhead but there was no sign of Tony. Steve dropped a few texts and went back to work. Then, evening came with an order in of pad thai but no Tony.

The day passed but Tony didn’t show up or reply to Steve’s messages.

He knew he shouldn’t worry but he couldn’t help but think of what could have happened. They talked all the time and then, nothing. That was weird, right?

~*~

When Tony didn’t show up till afternoon the next day, Steve decided that enough was enough. He had to go look for Tony. But he stopped up short when he realized that he knew nothing about Tony that would tell him where he was. Unable to work anymore, he lumbered down to the diner close by with Carol in tow and thought hard.

The man on the table beside them was reading the paper and it kept crinkling as he tried to manage the paper and eating his food. Normally Steve could ignore the noise but today he was frustrated. The man finally worked out the physics of his lunch and reading. Steve’s eyes landed on the date on the paper.

Fourteenth April. That was supposed to mean something, right? He just couldn’t put his finger on what, though. More frustrated than before, he bid goodbye to Carol and went for a run around the city.

Right, Tony could be at NYU, but Steve wouldn’t be able to get in without access. And if he was there, he’d reply to Steve’s texts. If he was at his apartment, then there would be someone, like his parents, who would check up on him and make sure he was okay. Which again meant that he would respond. Why wasn’t Tony responding?

He was trying to think back to their conversations when he remembered. Immediately, he fished his phone out of his pocket and was barely able to snatch it before it slipped out of his sweaty hands.

Pulling out Google Maps, he had a crazy moment where he thanked God for this absolutely weird coincidence. The run from Prospect Park took him a little over half an hour. He stepped awkwardly inside the cemetery.

Greenwood Cemetery was one of the cemeteries with graves of well-known people, like Leonard Bernstein. It made sense that Edwin Jarvis’s grave would be there. The wooden door positively engulfed the entire face of the building and opened to the reception. When Steve stepped inside, he had a hard time believing that it was a cemetery. The glass on the ceiling lit up the reception naturally and there were plants in rows with arches of metal artistically rounding over them.

“Hello, sir. How may I help you?” The receptionist trilled.

Steve startled and then smiled sheepishly at her. “Hi. I was looking for Mr Edwin Jarvis’s grave.”

She tapped on her computer. “Oh, of course. Please take the door on your far left. Then follow it out. You’ll have to look in that area of the cemetery for the graves.” She smiled.

“Uh, thanks.” He nodded and followed her instructions.

Outside in the sun, he raised a hand over his eyes to focus. He didn’t need to look at the names on the graves, however, because Tony was sitting against one twirling a single red rose in his hand. Steve was jolted with the shock that he had been right and then the second epiphany was that this was downright creepy and an invasion of privacy.

He was about to turn tail and run but Tony looked up. His eyes were covered by his maroon sunglasses, but Steve could feel his stare. As if beckoned, his feet led him to Tony.

“I’m sorry that I wasn’t there to help you,” Tony murmured, eyes falling to the rose again.

“I’m not… I’m not here about that, Tony. I got worried.”

Tony gestured at the space beside him. He was sitting behind the headstone of Edwin Jarvis (“Your worth is not dictated by how far you’ve fallen. What matters is how hard you work to rise again.”). There was a sealed bottle of expensive scotch on one side and a full bouquet of white orchids, white carnations, and red roses. There were grass stains on the pants of his three-piece suit and the jacket lay forgotten beside him. The sleeves of his white shirt were haphazardly rolled up to his elbows.

Steve settled down beside him, pushing the jacket out of the way.

“How did you find me?” Tony questioned without any inflexion.

Steve swallowed at the way Tony looked so lifeless. “I remembered what you told me… About fourteenth April. And I searched… So, I thought I’d check. I’m sorry. I should have waited for you. I didn’t mean to be creepy.”

“It’s okay. I should have let you know. How much has your work suffered?”

“Tony,” Steve murmured, chagrined. “My work doesn’t matter. That’s not why I’m here or why I was worried.”

Tony shrugged.

“Talk to me, please,” Steve murmured. “If-if you want.”

When Tony looked up, his eyes were haunted and red-rimmed. “I miss him.”

He said it with so much emotion that Steve couldn’t help but hug him over the bouquet. Tony shuddered and hugged him back finally. They didn’t say anything as Tony started to cry against Steve’s shoulder. He stroked Tony’s hair, silent.

Eventually, Tony pulled away, seeming embarrassed. “Sorry, I, uh-“

“You don’t have to apologise. I’m here for you.”

“Why?” Tony asked, baffled.

“Because… We’re friends. Aren’t we?”

“If you’d like to be.”

“Yes, Tony. Obviously.”

Tony opened his mouth as if to say something but then thought better of it. He shook his head. “It’s beyond me why you’d want to be friends, but alright, Rogers.”

Steve didn’t say anything for a moment, instead leaned against the headstone beside Tony, pressed up against him. “You’re a genius, obviously. Everyone knows that but what they don’t see is that you’re generous. You see other people and extend your hand no matter what. You try to play up your image as someone who is indifferent, but I can see that you care a lot. You’re absolutely amazing, Tony.”

Tony folded his legs close to himself, wrapping his arms around his knees. “Steve…”

“You don’t have to say anything.”

They fell quiet. Tony eventually pulled out a bag of blueberries, offering some to Steve. He helped himself to some and stayed right beside Tony for as long as he’d have him.

“I flew to Florida yesterday. My dad’s there right now,” Tony spoke around the berries, some juice squirting on his shirt. “I wanted my dad to have a memorial for Jarvis. I thought I could convince him, but it didn’t work. He said no outright. Mom tried to convince him, but he wouldn’t listen. So, I flew back. I’m lucky that he’s buried here. I… Couldn’t leave him alone. It’s only been a year.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“It’s not your fault.”

“I wish I could help you.”

“Steve, I’m here alone. My parents refused to come, and my best friend is somewhere far away. You are doing more than anyone else.”

Steve took his hand in his and smiled softly.

“Thank you,” Tony murmured, squeezing his hand.

Steve kept his eyes on their joined hands and was struck by the realization that this wasn’t just a crush anymore.

He was in love with Tony.

~*~

After that day, Steve and Tony fell back into their routines at the studio. This time they were more in sync than before. Steve started enjoying Tony’s presence more until he couldn’t even imagine spending time apart.

But the end snuck up faster than expected and even before it was time for the final project presentation, Steve was done with his work. He wouldn’t let Tony look at the front of the PCB so he couldn’t guess the circuit but he let him look at the back just so he could fix the problems if there were any.

After Tony approved it, there really wasn’t a lot to do. Their work was done. They had no reason to spend time together.

“So,” Tony mumbled, looking at the finished project. “I guess we’re done.”

Steve eyed Tony and swallowed thickly. “I guess so.”

“This was great.”

“I, uh… Let’s grab lunch?”

“Actually, I have a meeting. How about dinner?”

“Oh. I already have plans with Bucky.”

“Oh, um. Guess, we’ll see each other.”

“Yeah, Tony. Don’t be a stranger.” He moved to hug Tony just as he moved to shake hands.

Tony smiled wryly, giving in to hugging Steve.

They stayed like that for a minute, hugging tightly. Neither of them wanted to let go but they did finally, looking at each other awkwardly.

“Bye.” That was the last word Tony said before he left.

They continued texting each other, but it wasn’t the same as before. Steve missed Tony.

~*~

Stark, Tony Stark: 04:11: Best of luck.

Steve felt nervousness crawl into his veins and settle somewhere inside his gut. Maybe what he had done wasn’t enough at all. It was finally the day when the projects would be showcased. Their professor had emailed them all that there would be a surprise in it for them as well. But he would reveal that only at the end.

Bucky woke him up in the morning, a little manic because of his own exams, but supportive, nonetheless. He waited for Steve to take a shower before shoving a plate of toast, eggs and bacon at him. Steve smiled at him, gratefully, and wolfed down the breakfast. His entire friend group had congregated that morning around the table in various states of sleep deprivation. Exam time was hard on everyone, but they understood that Steve was anxious about the presentation. It was a big deal for him.

Sam and Clint had especially been careful the past week as the day for the presentation drew closer. At one point Steve had to push Clint back to his room so he would continue studying rather than hover over his shoulder to check on him. It had meant a lot to him that they cared about him, but he had already forgiven them.

Steve had put a lot of effort into the project. Twice. If his professor liked his project, there was a good chance of getting a recommendation for a job. Anyone who had received a recommendation from Professor Coulson generally got picked up by the industry pretty quick. He knew that it shouldn’t be his end goal, ideally. However, it was a great thing to have for his job applications. Besides he didn’t have the connections that some of his classmates had. Moreover, he really liked Professor Coulson and getting in his good books would actually work well for him.

Before he knew it, he was settled on a seat in the class. He couldn’t believe that there were so many students in the class. Of course, that could just be his anxiety talking. Steve rubbed his knuckles, waiting for his turn. Looking at his classmates’ projects didn’t really help with his worry of falling short. Professor Coulson was a kind teacher, but he wasn’t really evocative. It was hard to tell whether he liked the project or not.

“Rogers, Steve,” their professor called.

Steve felt his knees shake as he made his way down the stairs to the front of the classroom. He realized just how hushed the classroom was from his vantage point. The TA helped him fetch his PCB setting it up at the front. The TA set his plug into the extension board and waited for Steve to give a thumbs up. He sighed explosively when Steve elected to switch off all the lights in the room. He lit the board up next.

The LEDs blinked and turned on in the shape of the sketch he had made with Tony his first night in the studio. The lights blinked after thirty seconds so that all his friends were facing the other way, but Tony had his head inclined towards the audience, one hand pushing his sunglasses down his face with a grin on his face. Steve switched on the lights a few seconds later.

“Uh, so, this is my project. I call it ‘The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb’. My friends have always been closer than family to me, especially after I lost my mom at sixteen. This is a commemoration of everything that they have done for me and the times that they have been there for me.” He nodded to himself and quickly walked away.

Professor Coulson gave no indication of his feelings about the project. The only sound was his pen scratching against the paper.

“Stevens, Riley,” the man continued.

Steve excused himself from the classroom unable to take the pressure anymore. He treated himself to a coffee and croissant making it back to the classroom in time for Professor Coulson’s announcement.

The pressure was relieved. At least he didn’t have to stand in front of the classroom anymore. What was done was done. Now, the results were not in his hand. Besides, he hadn’t done too badly.

Professor Coulson stood at the pedestal clearing his throat. He commanded the attention of the entire classroom immediately. “Good afternoon. It was a pleasure to have seen the culmination of your years spent here. Now with the world waiting for you young artists to leave your mark, I feel it right to remind you to not lose patience. Your time will come. I think you all have bright futures ahead of you. But there is no timeline for that.

“Congratulations on the end of your term and your life as art students. The results will be posted soon, and you will be notified through email. Now, for the surprise. Not only will the best project get a direct recommendation from me. But as announced by a benefactor, one of your projects shall be showcased at the next Maria Stark Foundation dinner. It’s a huge honour being bestowed and selected by our very own, Tony Stark. Of course, he will receive a video of all the projects and the winning project will be announced through email, again. Till then, have fun!”

Steve stayed even after the class cleared out, still in shock. He couldn’t believe this. Tony hadn’t told him anything about this. Had he taken it up because of Steve? Emotions warred within Steve’s mind. If he won the foundation dinner, his project would reach multiple people who could help him with his career ahead, but the layers of wrongness made Steve’s head spin. He hoped to God that Tony wouldn’t choose him. Besides, it was clear that that was Tony in his circuit art. Right?

Right.

~*~

Steve Hunk Rogers: 20:08: I can’t believe you didn’t tell me.

Stark, Tony Stark: 20:09: I’m sorry. I thought about it when Coulson reached out, but then I thought better of it. I didn’t think you’d accept my help then.

Steve Hunk Rogers: 20:10: This seems like a case of favouritism.

Stark, Tony Stark: 20:11: Only if I let you win.

Steve Hunk Rogers: 20:11: Are you trying to tell my project didn’t feature in the top for you? I thought it was our baby.

Stark, Tony Stark: 20:12: I’m just protecting our baby.

Stark, Tony Stark: 20:13: I think your project was amazing though. Thank you. I really loved it. I had a hard time not giving it extra points for getting my face and expression right.

Steve Hunk Rogers: 20:14: Thank you, Tony.

Steve Hunk Rogers: 20:14: Wait, you’ve already seen them?

Stark, Tony Stark: 20:15: I was in class with you.

Steve Hunk Rogers: 20:15: What? Why didn’t you stay back?

Stark, Tony Stark: 20:15: Says the man who was worried about favouritism a minute ago.

Stark, Tony Stark: 20:16: I promise you there was none of that, though. I discussed with Coulson and cleared it with him. Really.

Steve Hunk Rogers: 20:18: Alright, Tony. I believe you.

Stark, Tony Stark: 20:20: I won’t tell you who won.

Steve Hunk Rogers: 20:21: I didn’t ask.

Stark, Tony Stark: 20:21: You wanted to.

Steve Hunk Rogers: 20:22: Come onnnn. Tell me!

~*~

To: BA_Arts_0419_SectionA, BA_Arts_0419_SectionB, BA_Arts_0419_SectionC

From: phil.coulson@brooklynarts.com

Subject: Best Class Project and Maria Stark Foundation dinner winner

 

Dear Class,

 

I know that this has taken over a week to get to you, but the quality of the projects made Tony and me take a moment to decide. We have made our decision, though, and hope you will agree with us.

It was a pleasure teaching your class this year and, as I said in class, I am sure of the inevitable success in your lives. I hope you managed to learn something during class and will be able to apply it throughout your artistic lives. Do remember to keep in touch with us for anything that you require. We are always here for you.

Now, onto the announcements:

Best Class Project: Steve Rogers with ‘The blood of the covenant’.

Maria Stark Foundation Dinner: Bessie Nelson with ‘Projecting the future through the past’.

As your art professor, my decision has been based on artistic talent, creativity and complexity in the basis used. Essentially, I have given more weightage to artistic talent than the use of technology. Of course, your choice of the base material impacted my choice. I can share the marks given for each project with you if you feel that there is any discrepancy in the decision.

Mr Stark, on the other hand, made his decision more subjectively but based it upon the technological prowess and the innovative use of materials. He felt that Ms Nelson used the projector and photoluminescent paper to showcase racism and sexism over the years, especially against and among the African American community, very effectively.

Good luck, class! Keep in touch.

Regards,

Phil Coulson

Faculty, Arts Department

Brooklyn Arts Academy.

 

Steve was in his apartment, lounging with his friends when the email came. His back went rigid as he sat up, reading the email carefully. He couldn’t believe that he had been awarded the Best Project for his year and hadn’t been given preference by Tony.

Thank God.

“What?” Bucky asked, urgently.

Steve realized that everyone was staring at him. “I got Best Project.”

The entire apartment whooped and clapped Steve on the back. Bucky hugged him tightly, thumping him on the back still and grinning like he had won the lottery. Sam and Clint promised to arrange a party for Steve after they were done with their exams, just to make up for their mess. But Steve, at this point, was so beyond it that he forgot what they were talking about for a minute.

Stark, Tony Stark: 21:56: Congratulations.

~*~

Stark, Tony Stark: 05:45: I will have to return to MIT in a week’s time.

Steve and Tony tried multiple times over the next few weeks to meet but something always came up for either Steve or for Tony till they started to give up. Honestly, Steve was starting to feel that it just wasn’t in his fate to meet Tony again. He still felt his heart pound when his phone lit up with Tony’s message.

Bucky and Natasha had caught on with what Steve was going through, but they didn’t know how to help except for setting him up for dates. Bucky didn’t feel that even if Steve could salvage something with Tony, it could last. They were from absolutely different worlds. Besides, Tony wasn’t even going to be here for that long.

Between the partying at the end of school and his stress regarding Tony, Steve reduced his time at the studio. When he finally decided to spend a full day at the studio, Carol towered over his canvas, tapping his shoulder.

Steve smiled at her. “What’s up?” he responded, pulling an earbud out of his ear.

“Lunch,” she announced, happily.

Steve dropped his paintbrush on the floor and stretched. “Let’s go.”

“It’s a long walk, so, do you mind if we take my motorcycle?” She picked up two helmets from the ground, holding one out.

Steve took one dubiously. “Your treat?”

She laughed and shrugged. “Sure.”

Carol drove like she drew, passionately and driven. Steve hadn’t expected to enjoy it as much as he did, grinning as the air pleasantly hit his face. Carol rolled her eyes at him when she got off finally and punched him playfully with her helmet after she took it off. He grimaced, mock painfully and smiled at her. He looked around the apartments where they had stopped. There was a small coffee shop at the corner of the street, but it looked high end. He eyed Carol.

“Are you sure that this is where you meant to bring me?”

“Yep!” she replied, brightly, tugging at his sleeve to the closest apartment building.

The doorman opened the door for her automatically and smiled at her in greeting. Steve frowned at the familiarity of the situation but followed wordlessly up the elevators, which opened into a penthouse. Carol pushed him inside and the doors of the elevator closed behind him before he could react further. He frowned and jumped around as the shades mechanically closed over the French windows.

The room fell in darkness and the ceiling lit up with small lights, looking like stars. It lit up the room in a soft yellow glow. Steve stared around the room, entranced. Soft music started to play and even as he realized the song, Steve was hit with the realization of who it was. He spun around looking for the person in question.

Tony stepped out from the room on Steve’s right and smiled shyly at Steve, lit up in the gentle lighting. He looked gorgeous, his honey brown eyes huge and vulnerable.

“Tony?” He murmured in askance, voice quiet because he was unwilling to break the trance.

“So, we haven’t been able to meet in days. Meetings have been crazy. But I really wanted to meet you. And… Well, Rhodey knocked some sense into me to be more upfront. So, I’m trying that. Along with meditation. But I thought that I could do with something that I won’t exactly fail at. I mean I could lose but that’s okay. I guess. Anyway… Steve Rogers, I wanted to ask you out on a date.”

“What?” Steve enquired stupidly; eyes wide.

The music was on a loop, still curling around them and the stars still blinking. Steve was sure that he had died and gone to Heaven. This couldn’t be real life.

“Really?” He added; voice slightly higher than expected. “What about MIT?”

“Well, they need my presence but I’m a genius, so, I can be there and here at once. It’s a basic Skype linkup. Of course, I’ll have to fly there sometimes but there’s no reason I can’t work from my shop or NYU.”

“I… I’m so confused.”

Tony tugged him close by his collar, pressing their lips together. “Clearer?”

Steve felt like he was floating. He couldn’t believe that just a simple act like kissing could feel so good. “Could be clearer,” Steve responded automatically, drunk on the feeling of Tony’s lips against his.

Tony’s face split into a beautiful smile, the vulnerability chased out by pure adoration. He kissed Steve again, tiptoeing with his hands resting on Steve’s shoulder for balance. Steve swayed with Tony, arms going around his waist.

“Will you ever tell me about the date?” Tony whispered against his lips.

“Obviously, you idiot.” Steve grinned back, his heart soaring.