They were working on some kind of robot spider. At least, that was what Steve thought they were doing; there was really no way to tell with the way Tony was babbling techno jargon. Peter was hanging onto the genius' every word, though, so that was something. Steve tried not to interrupt them too much when they were both so obviously happy, but he couldn't help but look up from his sketching every once in a while to watch them bonding. Eventually, he gave up trying to hide the fact he was watching them and went about starting to sketch the adorable scene in front of him.
“- so do you want it to look more like a black widow or a tarantula? Because aesthetics are important, and... are you even listening to me?”
Steve looked up – having been adding the finishing touches to his sketch – and smiled warmly at seeing Tony peering down at Peter. Somewhere along the line, the little boy had fallen asleep in the genius' arms, because he was slumped back against Tony's chest with his thumb in his mouth.
“Oh,” Tony murmured, frowning as he finally turned to Steve. “Was I boring him? I thought we were having a good time, but -”
“Trust me, Tony, he was definitely having a good time,” Steve reassured him quickly. “It's just his nap time, is all. Past his nap time, actually. He wouldn't have held out so long if he wasn't interested.”
“Oh, okay,” the brunet nodded, absent-mindedly sweeping Peter's hair away from his face. “Then I'm sorry for throwing his schedule out. Kids need schedules, right?”
“It shouldn't affect him too badly,” Steve shrugged, getting to his feet. “He might be up a little later this evening, but, if anything, that should mean that he'll sleep in later tomorrow morning. You've actually done me a favour.”
Striding across the room, he leaned down to scoop Peter out of Tony's arms – intending to lie him down on the couch – but, as soon as he attempted to haul the little boy up into his arms, he let out a truly pitiful whine in his sleep and clung to the front of Tony's shirt.
“Um...” the brunet mumbled, looking up at Steve with a confused little crinkle between his brow. “I can do it, I guess.”
“Thanks, Tony. You can just put him -”
“JARVIS, save and close everything down for now,” Tony called over him, grinning as he got to his feet with Peter cradled in his arms as though he was born to fit there. “I've been working hard over the past couple of days; I think I deserve a break.”
A warm, content feeling settled into Steve's chest as he stepped back to follow Tony to the door and up the stairs. The genius was obviously over his embarrassment if he was willing to come out of his workshop again, and Steve couldn't help but feel relieved by that. The thought of Tony locking himself away, not talking to anyone for days on end, made him feel a little empty inside.
“You know, if your project with Peter is taking up time that you should be spending working, I'm sure he'd understand,” he couldn't help but fret anyway.
“No, no,” Tony shook his head quickly. “There's nothing that needs my attention that badly right now. You... do you not want me to -?”
“Of course I do,” Steve amended immediately, dropping a hand down onto the man's shoulder. “Tony, you're my... my best friend. Nothing makes me happier than seeing you bonding with Peter, but I don't want your work to suffer because of that.”
As they came to the top of the stairs and into the corridor of the communal floor, Tony stopped completely and looked down at the sleeping boy in his arms.
“My dad used to make excuses like that all the time,” he whispered, and Steve came to a sudden stop, too. “He used to say he was too busy working; that was why he couldn't come to my science fairs and graduations.” Taking a deep breath, the genius looked up at Steve. “I will never be too busy – not for any of you.”
Steve didn't know what to say. On the one hand, a part of him was thrilled that Tony was prepared to open up to him like this, but on the other hand... he had known that Tony hadn't had the best upbringing, but he had a feeling they were only, even now, beginning to skim the surface of the true depth of Howard Stark's abuse.
It made him feel physically ill that anyone – never mind someone he had known – could treat a child like that.
“Do you... want to watch a movie?” the genius asked, obviously trying to dissolve the tension that had fallen across the corridor.
“Sure,” Steve nodded, gesturing for the man to lead the way. He was pretty sure, at this point, that he was physically incapable of denying Tony what he wanted.
He expected the man to give Peter back to him once they were settled on the couch, but, instead, the brunet just shifted the little boy into a sideways position so he could cradle him to his chest. There really was nothing more attractive than seeing him being so openly gentle and loving towards Peter, Steve decided as the lights dimmed and the movie started.
Tony had called out the title of the movie to JARVIS, of course, but Steve had been so invested in watching the man's hand running softly down Peter's cheek as the boy snuffled in his sleep that he really couldn't recall what on Earth they were watching. Already giving it up as a lost cause, he settled in to discreetly watch the genius, instead.
Tony really was a beautiful man. Steve had always thought so, even before he had recognised his feelings. There was something about him that was just so charming, and, no, it wasn't his public persona. Tony Stark – Genius, Billionaire, Playboy, Philanthropist – was actually a bit of an asshole, from what Steve had seen; Steve's Tony, who staggered into the kitchen in the middle of the day on the hunt for coffee like a zombie was actually a bit of an adorable dork. Steve loved that Tony, the real Tony, who stuttered over compliments and would do anything to make the people he loved happy. Steve felt honoured to count himself a member of that small minority, no matter what form their relationship took.
Quite suddenly, he found himself very much aware of just how physically close they were. Hell, their shoulders brushed every time one of them moved. If he were just brave enough, he could reach out and lay a hand on the brunet's thigh.
He wouldn't, though.
Glancing back at the screen in front of them, he realised they were watching some kind of romantic comedy, and found it a bit of an unusual choice for Tony to make. He'd always taken him to be more of an action kind of guy, after all. When he glanced back towards the genius, fully intending to ask why he had chosen this particular movie, he stopped short when he realised that Tony, this time, had been watching him. They both looked away when they realised the other had caught them, and Steve's heart was hammering in his chest as the same tension as before settled over them.
Before he could second guess himself, he lifted his arm and laid it across the back of the couch – going for around Tony's shoulders, but chickening out at the last second. The brunet still froze in place next to him anyway, and Steve watched with bated breath as, slowly, so slowly, Tony turned his head to look at him again.
Something was shifting rapidly between them; he could see it in Tony's eyes as they flicked from Steve's own, to his lips, and back again. He could see it in the way the other man relaxed back against the couch again, in how he leaned ever-so-slightly into Steve's side.
“Tony,” he whispered, but the genius just shook his head, signalling for silence. Steve dared to lean in a little, then, and was rewarded with Tony cautiously mirroring the action.
Oh God, this was it. The moment that Steve had been waiting for – validation that his feelings were reciprocated – and all they had to do was close the miniscule gap to -
With a single word, their moment was over.
Steve closed his eyes and took a deep breath, refusing to accept that this was actually happening, and then reluctantly looked down. Peter was staring up at him with groggy, half lidded eyes, his pudgy little arms coming up in askance to be held.
“You're awake, huh, buddy?” he tried to smile, studiously avoiding Tony's gaze as he withdrew his arm from the sofa to reach out and scoop Peter up. “You are just the warmest, cuddliest teddy bear when you've just woken up.”
“M'not,” Peter mumbled, obviously still half asleep as Steve rested him against his chest to snuggle. He hummed as he kissed the little boy's rosy cheek, and tried not to cry because he couldn't do the same with Tony.
“I should go,” the genius murmured, already getting to his feet. “I, um -”
“No, Tony, please,” Steve all but begged, reaching out in a last ditch attempt to get the genius to stay. “You don't have to -”
“No, Steve, I... I do,” he replied, swallowing thickly as he backed away. “We shouldn't have... I'm sorry.”
Steve felt like the air had been physically knocked out of him, and couldn't think of a single thing to say. Without another word, he watched the genius retreat out of the room, and then sighed, resting his nose in Peter's bangs in the hope that the smell might calm him a little.
For the very first time, it did absolutely nothing to help.
He took a moment to compose himself – already working on moving past the rejection, but it was hard – and then leaned back again to look at the little boy in his arms. He needed to focus on him, now.
“How do you feel about baking some cookies, huh?” he asked, plastering on a smile.
Peter's squeal of joy was enough to cheer him up at least a little.
He didn't sleep very well over the next couple of days. Tony's words kept spinning around in his head as he laid awake, and, no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't fall asleep with We shouldn't have... I'm sorry circling around his mind. Obviously he had gotten the wrong signal from the genius, and he shouldn't have pushed for more, because there was a very real chance that he had ruined their friendship now, and that thought made him feel sick to his stomach.
As expected, Tony had locked himself away in his workshop again, and was refusing visitors. For the time being, Steve gave him the space he so obviously needed – even though he worried constantly – and focused on being the father that Peter needed him to be.
“Jesus, who killed your puppy?” Sam asked as he wandered into the kitchen three days after Steve and Tony's almost kiss.
“We don' hab uh puppy, silly,” Peter giggled, taking a gulp of his milk as he sat on Steve's lap.
“No, we don't,” Steve agreed, cramming the last of their – by now, kind of stale – batch of cookies into his mouth.
“Seriously, though, you look miserable. Who's skull do I need to crack?” Sam asked, rolling his eyes.
“Please stop saying violent things in front of Peter,” he replied, side-stepping the question entirely, because he really wasn't in the mood to talk about it. If the way Sam rose his eyebrows at him was anything to go by, the man was absolutely not impressed.
“You're avoiding the issue.”
“That's because there isn't one. I'm fine,” he replied, forcing a smile. “Just tired, is all. I haven't been sleeping well.”
“Peteroo keeping you awake, huh?” the man chuckled, moving over to the fridge.
“Something like that,” he murmured, washing down the last of his cookie with a sip of Peter's milk.
“Yeah, well, Miss Potts is here to pick you up, so you better buck your ideas up before the interview,” Sam replied, pouring himself a glass of juice.
“She's here already?” he asked, panicking a little as he dusted the cookie crumbs off his shirt. “I didn't expect her so soon.”
“Well, she's got to make you look pretty before your big début,” Sam shrugged. “And you have to get to the other side of the country. You need me to watch the kid?”
“Would you?” Steve sighed gratefully, handing Peter over as he got to his feet. “He should go down for his nap in a few hours, anyway, and I should be back in time for bath time. If not, just make sure the water's not too high, or too hot, and he's not a fan of getting his hair washed, so just watch his eyes -”
“Steve,” Sam cut him off, holding a hand up to silence him. “I've got this, okay? You go do your thing; we're gonna have a great time, huh, little man?”
“Uh-huh,” Peter nodded, grinning. He had a milky moustache that Steve just had to kiss away, ruffling the little boy's hair before he went to meet Pepper at the elevator.
“Hi, sorry,” he greeted her. “Sam just told me you were here. I hope you weren't waiting too long.”
“It's fine,” she replied as they got into the elevator. “I'm a little early, anyway. I was hoping to catch Tony before we left, but it looks like he's locked himself in his workshop again, huh?”
“Yeah,” Steve sighed, sagging a little. “I... it's my fault.”
“Oh, Steve, honey, I'm sure he's just being difficult -”
“I tried to kiss him.”
Pepper stopped halfway through her sentence, obviously speechless. “You... you tried to kiss him?”
“Yes,” Steve sighed, running a hand through his hair.
“And he... he ran away?” she asked incredulously.
“See, I thought my pride couldn't get any more wounded, but putting it like that -”
“No, no, Steve, I just... he really ran away?” she asked, obviously shocked as hell for some reason. “God, he's an idiot.”
“It was my fault,” Steve insisted, a little indignant at the fact that Pepper was so quick to blame Tony for something that he hadn't done. “I must have seen something that wasn't there, and I pushed him when he obviously isn't interested -”
“Oh, I'm going to kill him,” she hissed, and Steve rose his eyebrows in confusion. “Steve, this isn't your fault, okay?”
“Just trust me on this one, all right?” she cut him off, surprisingly gentle after the aggressiveness she had shown before. “I'm going to talk to him, but I promise you, Steve, this isn't your fault.”
“You really don't have to do that,” he shook his head, feeling his neck heating a little bit. “I'm a big boy – I can deal with the rejection if he's not interested. It hurts, sure, but I'm pretty sure I can -”
“If you finish that sentence, I'm going to bang your heads together and then kill you both,” she told him firmly, and he decided it was just best not to argue with her. Her heels looked really pointy, after all. “Now, let's talk business. I got you a couple of suit options to choose from; you can try them on on the plane and decide which you prefer. They've sent over a set of questions that I've had revised, so they shouldn't be too invasive. Ellen is generally laid back about these things, so don't worry about it too much. They've also asked if they can show a photo of Peter. I've had JARVIS download a couple to a flash drive, but whether we give them to them is totally up to you.”
“What would you suggest?” he asked as they stepped out of the elevator and onto the roof. A Stark Industries plane was waiting for them.
“Honestly?” she sighed. “Either situation isn't ideal, but giving them an approved photo to show – just one – is likely to stop them trying to get one without your permission. I've had a restraining order plea made up, and it should go through within the next couple of days, but even when it does, it's probably not going to stop them all, and we can't hope to stop a couple of photos from leaking even if we file a law suit. It'd be easier to put a photo out there straight away, and it might at least stall them for a few months.”
“Makes sense,” he nodded, sighing, as he gestured for Pepper to board the plane in front of him. “I can't say I'm happy about it, but it's better than the alternative. They're nice pictures, right? Which ones did JARVIS choose?”
“From what I can tell, he was told to photograph Peter's every living moment,” Pepper rolled her eyes. “There are thousands of them. I'll give you the flash drive when we've settled and we can choose a good one together.”
“But... who told JARVIS to take the photos?” Steve asked, taking his seat.
“Who do you think?” Pepper replied, rolling her eyes again.
As the safety procedures began, Steve sat in silence and thought about Pepper's words. Why had Tony taken it upon himself to take so many photos of Peter? Sure, Steve had mentioned maybe once that he wanted to make sure he had some memories of the boy's youth, but he hadn't really expected Tony to be listening to him. Before too long, his chest was aching again at the mere thought of the genius' kindness, and the fact that he had ruined their friendship.
He begrudgingly modeled the suits Pepper had bought for him about an hour into the journey, and they decided on the coal grey three piece with a white shirt and light blue tie and handkerchief. Maybe he was a little overdressed, but he wanted to make a good impression.
“Okay, so I've had JARVIS get rid of all of the blurry ones,” Pepper explained, turning the laptop she had been using around to face Steve. “The ones he caught of Peter in motion weren't generally usable, but there are still plenty to choose from. I've highlighted the ones that'd probably be best, but it's ultimately up to you.”
“Thanks, Pepper,” he told her sincerely, because, honestly, he didn't know what he would have done in this situation without her. Reaching out for the laptop, he drew it towards him and began scrolling through the pictures. Immediately, he felt himself smiling.
Pepper hadn't been kidding when she'd said JARVIS had taken a lot of photos; there were hundreds to choose from, and all equally adorable. Before he'd scrolled through even half of them, he'd highlighted a vast majority for JARVIS to print out for him back at the tower, intending to put them in frames or his wallet when he got home.
“I can't decide,” he sighed after half an hour of scrolling. “They're all so adorable.”
“I know,” Pepper nodded, leaning over to watch him flicking through them. “Especially the ones where he's covered in some kind of preserve or sleeping.”
She was right. As messy as it inevitably was, a sticky Peter was an adorable Peter, and Steve could rant for hours about how his face went slack and angelic when he slept. He was pretty much set on a photo of him and Peter in the bath – Peter balanced on his lap, and both of them laughing at the other's soapy beard – until he came across one that trumped the lot.
“I've found it,” he announced, turning the laptop to show Pepper.
“Are you sure?” she asked, but she was smiling even as she said it.
“Do you think he'll mind?” Steve retorted, already beginning to doubt his decision.
“If there's one thing Tony's not, it's camera shy. He'll be fine with it,” she replied, shrugging.
Steve nodded, exhaling slowly as he turned the laptop back to him. He saved the other photographs to the laptop and then deleted all but the one he had chosen from the flash drive. He left the chosen picture up for a while, just looking at it fondly. It was from the day he and Peter had spent in the workshop; the day Peter and Tony had started working on their project together. Somehow, JARVIS had managed to capture a picture of little Peter as he reached up to Dum-E for the first time, Tony leaning down with a small, intimate smile on his face as he watched the interaction from his chair.
Before he closed the laptop down, Steve sent the photo to his private server.
Overall, the interview went well. Ellen Degeneres was a lovely woman, he found, and very funny. She helped him feel at ease in front of the audience and cameras, shoehorning him into the interview with easy questions and encouraging words. Everyone ate the picture of Peter up, as he thought they would do, and he only stumbled a little when he was unexpectedly asked about his relationship with Tony.
“So, you're close with Tony Stark, then?” Ellen asked as the coos and aws died down from the audience.
“I, uh -” Steve's mouth suddenly felt very dry. “Yes, we're... we're friends, we -”
“So you and the other Avengers get on with one another?” she rephrased, and Steve could have kissed her there and then. “You don't have to redecorate every time the Hulk trips over a sock?”
The audience laughed, and Steve found himself smiling, too. “No, no, Doctor Banner is probably the most laid back of us all, actually. Plus, it's likely to be one of Peter's socks these days, so nobody really minds.”
“So he's a messy baby, huh?”
“Well... not overly so, I don't think,” he shrugged. “His favourite food is peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, though, which is... a nightmare, frankly.”
The audience laughed again, and he felt like he was getting his confidence back after his earlier slip. Even Ellen laughed good naturedly, so that was a good sign.
“All right, well, listen, I wish you all the luck in the world with the rest of the adoption process,” she went on to say. “That's about all the time we have, I'm afraid, but I just want to, real quick, give you this.”
Grinning, she pulled out a little t-shirt that said My Daddy fights bad guys... on the front of it, and then proceeded to show him the back, which read ... but Ellen is a superhero. It got another round of laughter and applause, but Steve took it graciously, and then the interview was officially over.
“Steve!” Pepper gestured to him once he was done shaking hands – having appeared from the green room where they had been sitting beforehand. Feeling pretty good about himself and how he had done, he shook a few more hands and then went to meet her.
“How did I do?” he asked as she began to lead him back through the building to the car that would take them to the airport. “I felt like it went well.”
“It went really well,” she agreed, slipping past him as he held the door open for her. “You were friendly and funny, and I'm fairly certain at least half of the women – and a few men, actually – swooned over the way you talked about Peter.”
“How did I talk about Peter?” he asked, genuinely confused as he slid into the car behind her. “Did I do something wrong?”
“No, Steve, not at all,” she shook her head. “We're a society of fatherless families, these days. It was lovely to see you so obviously, completely in love with Peter.”
“Of course I am,” he frowned. “He's everything to me.”
“Well, now the world knows that, too,” she replied, smiling.
Steve wasn't sure if he was so happy about that.