The tube is small and tough with tiny lettering splashed across its surface. Natasha leans back with her hands in her pockets and her eyes staring right at Steve- a spot on impression of someone who doesn’t care what Steve thinks of her gift. He uncaps it and squeezes a red that’s almost exact in its color to her hair onto his finger as she says “You like art so do some art.”
Steve smiles and rubs the paint off his finger and on to his trousers instead, his stained hand hovering over the assortment of paper and brushes and tubes in a messy display on the table. He doesn’t know where to even begin to explore. “I don’t know how to paint,” he finally says and when Natasha raises an eyebrow he continues on in a longer explanation. “I can sketch alright. But that’s graphite and pencil. It’s different. Paints are expensive. Or were expensive. Are they still expensive?” He stares fearful of how much this might have cost. “I don’t know how to paint. I don’t know how colors work.”
Natasha waves her hand as if swatting Steve’s anxiety out of the air. “Well you know what they say- Old dogs love new tricks.”
Steve lets out a breath that’s meant to be a chuckle. “I don’t think that’s how the saying goes.”
“Really? Are you sure?” She’s taunting him. She’s smiling and daring him to disagree further, and although he has no qualms with arguing with her all day and night, he decides that she might be right on this one. Just maybe.
“Thank you, Natasha.”
“Happy birthday, Steve.” She leans over the table and kisses him soft on the cheek a bit of red smearing on his skin. He suspects that she wore lipstick just for that small inconvenience.
He wasn’t lying before he really doesn’t know how to paint. He mentions it to Sam, his new acrylics and brushes laid out before him and untouched. He can’t bring himself to waste them. Sam’s lounging on the couch a Foxy Grandpa hat that had originally been gifted to Steve from Clint pulled over his eyes.
“Well that’s what Youtube is for, ain’t it?” Sam says as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world.
Steve stares blankly, not fully comprehending, and asks “Isn’t that the site for looking at cat videos?”
Sam laughs loud and with his mouth open wide enough that Steve can see his gap tooth glisten. “Yes, the site we use to watch cat videos has other less useful features. He pushes himself up to a proper sitting position and looks him in the eye from Steve’s place sprawled across the floor. “You can learn to do anything on the internet.” And to be honest Steve is just a bit blown away.
Sam’s gift to him was actually a collaboration between him and his sister. The late twenties college professor who Steve had only met twice but still had the generosity to split the cost of a smartphone between her and her brother.
(”Something only you and people you trust to know about. Keep it for emergencies or to play candy crush or I don’t know sign up for some hot phone sexting apps. It’s your choice.” Not his exact thought process, but he appreciates the sentiment behind having something of his own.)
Sam shows him how to download apps and then he shows him how to use Youtube for something other than videos of animals and then they crowd around it and spend two hours watching beginners courses on acrylics. It’s fascinating to Steve. He watches how to mix paints to avoid a dull colors and the proper brush techniques and how to prepare the paper so it doesn’t crinkle when water touches it.
He shoos Sam out of the apartment later, eager to try the paint out for himself, but too shy to let himself paint in front of someone else. The first attempt is a disaster. He tries to draw a landscape from memory and only gets half way through painting the horizon before he realizes this isn’t going to work. He crumples the paper in his hands, not even daring to go near a canvas yet, and pulls out another thick sheet. This time he goes simple. The pink lamp on the corner of the living room. Just like the still lives he use to do as a teenager in Brooklyn when he wanted to practice shading.
It’s. Lopsided. And muddy. He couldn’t figure out the proper color to highlight in and the yellow he had used was glaring and out of place. His attempt at shading gray and ugly. He sighs and debates whether to throw this one out along with the last one too, but hesitates and decides not to. It’s completed. Ugly and malformed, but still a finished creation of his own.
He paints the chair next.
It’s five pm by the next time he thinks of something other than acrylics and composition. There’s a knock on his door and in an impulsive flash of embarrassment he shoves the six or seven drying pieces of art under his couch. Steve’s stands up and walks in perfect silence to his door where he peers out of the eye hole to scope out the hallway. Occupational hazard.
It’s Tony and for a second he genuinely considers sneaking back undetected and pretending to be asleep, his fear of a possible surprise party ambush panic inducing, but then Tony knocks again and calls out loud enough for the entire apartment complex to hear “HELLO? MR. ROGERS? THE STRIPPERS ARE HERE.” and Steve is already so tired.
He opens the door and is halfway through saying “Tony you can’t just-” before Tony has already entered the apartment his arms full of some huge bag and his mouth going off a mile a minute about favors and gratitude and senior sanctuaries for dogs.
He pauses when he almost steps on a tube of blue paint and stares at it. “You taking up a new hobby, cap?”
Steve blinks at him. “Um, yes..” Finally a lull in conversation. “Hello, Tony.”
“Hello, Steven.” He laughs when Steve rolls his eyes. “Well, I’ll be quick although let me say you should really hire a maid this place is filthy,” he says while dropping the bright green bag that’s obviously a repurposed Christmas wrapping on to the living room coffee table. “Well, as the generous friend I am I’ve stopped by to bring you your gift and to say happy 98th birthday. Well, happy 98th brithday! Unfortunately the mom and pop cake shop refused to put that many candles on a cake due to a ‘fire hazard’” he says the words with heavy air quotes as if the concept of fire safety was foreign to him. “So instead you’re stuck with the much less exciting version that just has a big ol’ nine and eight on it. I know I know try not to cry too hard.”
Steve nods. Not too bad. “Thanks Tony I really appreci-”
“Oh don’t thank me the cake wasn’t even my idea. I wanted to have Thor jump out of one in a thong lightning ablazing, but Pepper insisted on this instead. I’ll be sure to forward all well wishes praises and heartfelt confessions that will surely go ignored to her however.”
And Steve grins. He likes Pepper. Appreciates her for what she does for him which largely seems to be centered around getting Tony to shut up. “Well thank you, Pepper.”
And Tony nods. “Well that cake is on the top with a big ol nine eight on it. Try not to confuse it with the cake directly below it in the tupperware (make sure to return it by the way) that Peter’s Aunt whipped up for you.” He leans closer and whispers despite them being the only two present in the apartment. “That cake was not made for consumption and may or may not constitute as a biological weapon so if I were you I’d keep a close eye on it and give the your garbage disposal a workout instead.”
And Steve nods along appreciative of the warning.
“And well that’s Pepper’s gift and that Peter’s gift so let’s bust out these bad boys and examine my gift to you, Mr. Living-History-Has-Never-Looked-So-Good.”
And Steve braces himself. Prepared for flares and tassels and an uncomfortable evening out on the town.
“My gift to you, Steven Grant Rogers,” Tony says with his arms held out for maximum effect. “Is absolutely nothing.”
It’s not what he was expecting. His mouth twists up in confusion, not sure of what the joke is or how this will be used against him, and stares with his arms crossed.
“Oh come on wipe that sourpuss away, Leo,”
And Steve’s eyebrows knit together even tighter. “Leo as in Leonardo Da Vinci or uh- The Great Gatsby man.” He’s getting more and more up to date on his pop culture.
“No no no like Leo from Old Friends Senior Dog Sanctuary, keep up, Cap.”
He’ll never be up to date on pop culture.
“What I’m saying is there is no surprise. There is no press conference, there is no interview, and there is no party. There is nothing. There is nothing you have to do today other than sit at home or go out with friends- If you so choose- or paint your pictures because I have gifted you with nothing.”
As the words sink in Steve smiles wider and wider until he’s grinning with all his perfect teeth right at Tony. “Oh thank God.”
“No no, God is too formal, Call me Tony.”
Tony leaves and in the green bag is the last few gifts he had dropped off on a favor. Bruce had concocted a brew of wine specifically made to be able to get Steve’s big dumb body drunk. He warns in a note, however, that it might also make his skin break out in hives for no longer than three hours so maybe he’ll try that another day. Thor had apparently miscalculated his Asgardian lightning bolt express mail in the middle of Tony’s bedroom instead of the roof. The fire had been quickly extinguished Tony assured him and the pair of gauntlets arrive perfectly in tact. Peter had left him a retro gameboy that Steve had no idea how to work, but was fascinated with nonetheless. It came with Pac Man and a Rocket Power game and he had no idea what either of those two things were but he was grateful anyways.
Other than that his evening was quiet. A few text messages buzzed on his flip phone, well wishes and work updates alike, but he’s to his own devices more or less.
He looks up color theory. He practices painting the lamp again, this time shading with a cool purple and electing for a less contrasting pink for a soft highlight. It looks better this time, and he smiles in relief at the improvement. He craves a human model, tired already of drawing his same drab furniture in repetition, and curious about the coloring of skin and hair and clothes. He blushes at the idea of asking Natasha, not quite comfortable with the idea of having her scrutinizing eyes stare at him, and instead wonders if he could ask Sam. Sam cracks jokes and pokes fun at him, but there’s a less intimidating softness in his eyes that Steve doesn’t think he could ever capture on paper.
His apartment is a mess. He cleans up the tubes of paint and papers thrown across the ground and finds a place for them in the drawer he’s designated to his art supplies. Then he goes to the kitchen, his limbs lagging behind him out of an exhaustion that is most certainly all in his head, to find a washcloth to clean the paint off of his living room floors. He’s grateful for hardwood in the moment a carpet covered in paint would’ve been a disaster. “Gotta get that deposit back,” he mumbles to himself despite knowing the impossibility of such. That deposit went out the window long long ago when his wall had been shot through and Nick Fury’s blood had stained the floors. Oh well.
It’s eleven when he peels his dirty clothes off his body and rests on the couch. He’s getting the hang of his smartphone fast, something Sam had assured him of, and he scrolls through a list of contacts he’s willing to give his new personal number to. Sam and his sister are already listed with an assortment of “emojis” next to their names. He adds Natasha, Clint, doesn’t hesitate on Tony for a second, decides adding a fifteen year old Peter would be odd, T’challa, never Nick Fury- He runs out of friends in only a few minutes.
Steve shrugs. He’s use to it.
He watches the clock tick down in the last few minutes of his birthday. Savoring the quiet moment of a day that is his, a day that celebrates his birth, a day that he is alive in.
The clock hits twelve and with it his phone chimes to announce a text. He swipes at the screen to open it, T’challa’s name blinking at him, as the message loads. It’s a picture attachment and Steve waits impatient for it before it pops up.
It’s a “selfie”. One T’challa had taken with Bucky frozen in the background and red white and blue text that says “HAPPY BIRTHDAY” stamped on it and it’s a sick joke that Steve stares wide eyed at for a second before bursting into uproarious laughter that he can’t control.
“Thank you.” Steve texts back. “Thank you so much.”
The minutes move further and further away from July Fourth, his birthday over, a new year of life already dragging on.
“np hppy bday ttyl ;3” T’challa replies back and Steve smiles. He has no idea what it says and that’s okay.