The first few times Steve doesn’t pay attention to the man.
But the man is almost always there, every morning and every evening, and when he disappears for one day Steve finds himself noticing it with a hint of irrational worry. It’s just a homeless guy – a random person, he knows – but he still feels relieved the next day when he sees the man again.
This time he actually comes up to the homeless man to drop some change into the box and read the sign. It says Will invent for food in neat sharp-edged letters, which makes Steve frown. He’s seen many homeless people around but this has to be a first.
The man doesn’t look up, he seems to be sleeping. But when Steve bows down to make sure the coins land in the box, the man mumbles a thank you. Steve smiles quickly, shrugging, and straightens his back in an army-drilled way before he walks away.
Everyone tells him that he’s too curious for his own good and they are mostly right. Rather than verbalize his doubts, he just tends to be shy about his questions and spend coffee-fueled nights researching on his laptop or in one of the libraries open till late.
He starts to pay attention to the man every time he passes the spot, throwing a few coins into the box as he walks. The man seems pretty short – it’s difficult to say as he’s wrapped in blankets all the time – and very thin, with ragged brown hair and a clean-shaven face. This gets Steve’s attention: he has no idea how the man keeps his face neat like that, but he’s not about to ask. There aren’t many bags hidden anywhere: just one dirty suitcase and a worn-out leather pouch that is never out of the man’s reach.
It takes Steve several days to see the man with his eyes open.
They are brown and bright and have a magical quality to them. A soft feel that says exactly how tiresome the story is, that makes Steve want to grab his pens and sketch them to keep them alive on paper.
‘Hey,’ he says, pretending to look for coins in his wallet while he’s holding them with two fingers, pressed into his palm. He tries to persuade himself that he’s not being pathetic about this but fails because he’s really not good at human relations.
‘Hey,’ the man replies, his voice raspy. He looks down at his lap. Steve follows and notices that there’s a sketchbook with complicated-looking technical designs in it. The man’s hand scribbles quick flat letters in the small patch of empty space.
So maybe the sign isn’t a complete lie.
Steve wants to say something but he already knows that he won’t. There are too many thoughts in his head at once and he’s overthinking things again, so he just drops the money and retreats, hearing a quiet thank you before he disappears.
Curiosity is stronger than common sense, or even the awkwardness settling in Steve’s gut, so after a few days of avoiding a certain way back home, he decides to stop being silly. He comes up to the man in quick steps and puts the change into the box, silently praying for the man to not notice him, but he’s just not that lucky.
‘Been out of town?’ the man asks, looking up at Steve with an intensity that makes Steve shiver.
‘Yeah,’ he lies, ‘for couple days.’
‘Cool,’ the man mutters, adjusting the blanket wrapped around his shoulders and looking back at his notebook, writing something fervently on a single sheet of paper stuck at the end, which looks as if it was ripped out from somewhere. ‘Thanks,’ he adds; Steve can barely hear him.
He ends up spending the night listening to old jazz and trying to get the eyes right but something is missing. The man in his drawings is simple and boring and feels just flat, compared to the real one.
He puts the sketchbook away carefully – it was expensive – and as he turns off the lights, an idea pops into his head.
‘Here you go,’ Steve says after half an hour of pacing behind the block and trying to persuade himself that this is a good decision. He doesn’t put change into the almost empty box today, just offers the man a thick plastic-bound notebook with a paper cup of hot chocolate on the top of it.
As he keeps his hand stretched, waiting for the man to make a movement, he can feel the warm spring sunrays on the exposed part of his arm.
It’s strange, thinking that the whole winter has already passed.
‘This…?’ the man trails off questioningly and Steve offers him a small smile.
‘I noticed – I thought you were running out of space,’ he explains, eying the old notebook tucked safely between blankets near the man’s hip.
The man takes the gifts unsurely, puts the cup onto his suitcase at if it was a table and opens the notebook, flipping through the smooth white pages, running his fingers across them with absolute wonder on his face. Steve waits, still crouched, taking up too much of the pavement space and finding himself not caring about it at all.
‘Thank you,’ the man says, his voice deep and rough, and it sounds as if he really means it this time, really means it instead of being just tiredly thankful the way he usually appears to be. ‘This is just what I needed.’
Steve looks away and tells him to drink the chocolate while it’s still hot because the man seems as if he forgot about it. Then he leaves.
There is a mission and he doesn’t come back for three weeks. The first thing he does when he’s dropped the bags at his place is go and see the mystery man. He tells himself it’s just because it’s on his way to work and he prefers to walk rather than take a bus, even in the light April drizzle.
‘Haven’t seen you for a while,’ the man comments as soon as Steve approaches him and then takes a few quick, shallow breaths.
‘You all right?’
‘Peachy,’ the man says, quirking the corners of his lips upwards, in a phantom smile. Steve doesn’t believe him at all but then it’s not his thing to intervene so he lets it be. ‘Thanks for the notebook,’ he adds, lifting it up and Steve can see that it’s all covered in scribbles now. All one hundred and twenty pages of tiny handwriting and he’s been gone just for twenty days.
‘You finished?’ he asks curiously, just to confirm. The man nods.
‘Had too many things in my head and nowhere to put them down, so I did just now.’
‘Is it all,’ Steve asks, frowning slightly, ‘that you have in your head?’
‘Nowhere near,’ the man replies and closes his eyes, taking regular slow breaths again.
Steve comes back the next day but the man is not there.
He is worried. There are million things that could have happened and not all of them bad but knowing New York, it could be dangerous. But the man, he didn’t seem like a reckless guy. He seemed… troubled, more than anything.
In the morning Steve goes to HQ his usual way and the man is still not there. But when he’s going back, he sees the familiar sign and checked blanket he knows so well, so he exhales in relief and makes his way across the street, almost running in front of a car.
The man is sleeping, this time for sure, he’s curled up on his side and snoring slightly. Steve makes effort to be as quiet as possible when he places another notebook on the suitcase and leaves, tiptoeing, even if it doesn’t make sense as there’s a lot of city noise all around.
It’s signed on the first page, with Steve’s phone number and ten dollar bill stuck behind the black cover, and a note saying just in case.
‘I’m Tony,’ the man says the next time he sees Steve. He’s looking tired, more tired than usual, with dark bruises under his eyes and two day stubble. It makes him look older, even though it’s hard to tell his age.
‘I’m – well, you know,’ Steve says awkwardly, wondering silently why he is doing this when he’s obviously very bad at making contact. ‘Steve.’
‘Nice to meet ya.’
‘Um, the same,’ he replies, then clears his throat. ‘The other day, the notebook? I take it was here when you woke up, no one stole it or did anything funny?’
Tony murmurs something Steve can’t understand and then takes it from under his covers.
‘Real nice. Useful, notebook boy.’
‘What do you write down there?’
‘My projects. You know, inventions,’ he says, waving at the sign at his feet. ‘Got hundreds of them in my head. Curing cancer, clean energy, kitten saving devices,’ he stops to take another of those scarily shallow breaths and Steve freezes for a moment, but then he finishes, ‘take your pick. It’s all there’.
‘You’re joking,’ Steve says casually, rolling his eyes at the way the man speaks – as if it was all a joke, it feels – and Tony’s face brightens with a heavy smile.
‘Not entirely – are you one of those church people?’ he asks, changing the subject in the split of a second.
‘No, does it matter?’
‘Nah, I’d like you even if you were a Satanist–’
‘Don’t say that!’ Steve protests. Damn it, that’s not something to joke about, really. But then he takes a moment to consider Tony’s position and agrees, ‘Well, fair enough .Why exactly?’
‘You bring me these,’ Tony says, pointing at the notebooks. ‘That’s all I need.’
‘All right,’ Steve agrees, even though he doesn’t understand that completely and Tony seems to know that he doesn’t but neither of them makes a comment about it. ‘Okay– I need to get going,’ he adds, glancing at his watch. He’s already late for his meeting but no one will mention it because he’s Captain America. ‘See you, Tony.’
Tony doesn’t reply, instead he follows Steve with his dark eyes until Steve disappears around the block.
‘I know you get enough change from people to buy yourself food and you never seem to eat or ask for money for food. So the sign…?’
‘I never spend the money people give me on food,’ Tony admits, licking the salty grease off his fingers. Steve bought him a McDonalds meal, it was the closest place, so Tony can eat something warm on this gloomy day. ‘People buy me food sometimes. When they don’t trust I’d spend the money on anything other than booze or drugs. That’s why the sign says that, money is – it’s not a priority.’
‘All right,’ Steve says slowly, trying to make sense out of it, but he can’t quite. ‘So, the money, what do you do with it?’
‘Go somewhere I can shower,’ Tony says with a shrug, the blanket around his arms moving sharply, ‘go to a library, or internet point.’
‘I talk to someone.’
That makes Steve sigh and wonder what twenty first century romantic story-book he’s suddenly jumped into, but then Tony continues, ‘My science buddy. He’s in India. It’s the only way we can communicate.’
‘Does he know that you are…?’ Steve trails off, feeling his ears get red as he realizes that this was a tactless question. Tony doesn’t seem to mind though, his face full of food as he chews for a long time.
‘No, not really. Not exactly,’ he says when he finally swallows the bite.
‘Is he an inventor, like you?’ Steve asks, making sure the words sound genuine and not in any way mocking: He knows they could but he doesn’t intend them to, it’s just difficult to make others understand what he means sometimes.
‘He’s a doctor.’
Steve is already nodding when Tony adds, ‘Physics kind of doctor. But he also treats sick people for free.’
‘He must be a smart man,’ Steve says and instantly wishes he didn’t because that sounds wrong even to his own ears.
Tony laughs, though, and doesn’t seem offended at all; after a second the laughter turns into a cough that is deep and obviously painful to Tony and Steve has no idea what’s happening and what he could do to help; Tony just ignores him, closing his eyes and it seems like he’s trying to just stop and calm his body down and breathe.
Steve wishes that doctor lad was around. Really, really wishes.
‘Good one,’ Tony says finally, his voice weak and quite breathless. When he looks up at Steve and their eyes meet, Tony looks away instantly, going back to his food, head down.
Then Steve’s phone vibrates and the text says simply ASSEMBLE and Steve stands up quickly, everything suddenly forgotten, but he does wave at Tony before he runs off.
He doesn’t get back for over two weeks and when he does he ignores Clint and Natasha and everyone else, ignores their curious and silly comments and doesn’t grace them with a reply, just tells them he wants to go back to his place asap.
Only because he passes Tony on his way back.
Tony is sleeping. Steve debates leaving the food and letting him sleep but it will get cold and that’s not very nice. He puts the box in Tony’s lap and then shakes his arm gently.
‘All right, I’ll go ‘way,’ Tony mutters sleepily, sitting up a bit more straight, opening his eyes and blinking a few times at Steve’s face in front of him. ‘Thought you were a cop.’
‘I just brought food,’ Steve says looking at the box; Tony does the same and smiles.
‘Of course –’
‘Nah, people think it’s May and sunny, so I don’t need warm food – don’t take me wrong, I’m very grateful but it’s still nice to have something more real meal-like.’
Steve shrugs, so glad that he didn’t just go away.
‘So, what are you working on now?’ he asks because the silence feels a little bit awkward. It probably isn’t more awkward than the situation itself but it feels right to express genuine interest.
‘Flying,’ Tony mumbles between bites. ‘Just perfecting a few things. Flying sounds like something I’d want to do.’
‘Agreed,’ Steve nods; he’s seen S.H.I.E.L.D. scientist working on that for a long time and yet they haven’t come up with a simple and doable solution yet. Steve doesn’t know much about engineering or anything but he’s too curious to pass on this one. ‘Can I see?’
Tony blinks, looking shocked.
‘You actually – you believe me?’
‘I guess,’ Steve agrees, suddenly wondering if this is a new level of naivety; Natasha always calls him out on that. ‘Is this why you don’t make money on your things, people not believing you?’
‘Everyone just thinks I’m insane because the things I come up don’t seem too real. They are – their minds are in the present,’ Tony says, picking out one of the notebooks; they all look the same, the five Steve bought him so far, but Tony seems to know without hesitation which is which. ‘I’m far in the future.’
Steve has no idea if what Tony talks to him about for the next half an hour could ever be real but he’s mesmerized by the change in the man’s behavior. His eyes are sparkling with excitement instead of their usual tired dullness, he’s gesticulating more and talking until he can’t breathe, literally, freaking Steve out, but Tony himself just ignores those moments and doesn’t offer an explanation so Steve doesn’t ask.
In late May there are aliens and incredible mysteries that Steve doesn’t understand at all but no one else seems to get them much either so he’s not alone in that.
They fight and get hurt and Steve tries not to think about all the people out there that they couldn’t save, of all the threats that Director Fury somehow manages to blow off, but everyone knows it won’t be enough soon.
No one says that aloud, though, letting the media and the public make up more urban legends; superheroes aren’t supposed to exist. They work as quietly as possible – if one can call portals and alien monsters quiet – letting the stories spiral and get more and more unreal. It helps with keeping S.H.I.E.L.D. and its work secret.
Steve still isn’t sure how he feels about being a part of the madness; you can’t call it any different after you’ve seen the agency and the Avengers teamwork from the inside.
So, stereotypes really aren’t Steve’s thing but when he sees S.H.I.E.L.D. R&D, it’s hard not to think of them as of mad scientists. They seem to be able to come up with the craziest things on a whim, an endless supply of tech that keeps everyone on their toes – like the sheer variety of Clint’s arrows or the almost magical blue guns that Phil loves to use – but when Thor comes by and says in hasty words that he’s just learned that his mad brother might attack the earth or ask his buddies to do it from space, everyone is left speechless.
Even the engineers can’t come up with something that would compare to alien technology.
Thor’s words loom over everyone at S.H.I.E.L.D., almost making Steve physically sick with the tension and responsibility. It’s not like they can share their knowledge with anyone, and when a week later nothing changes, he tells Fury he’s taking a break.
He runs too much and eats too much ice cream and tries to shove the most obvious answer out of his head: it would be a serious breach of confidentiality.
Then after a few more headache-inducing days at HQ he doesn’t care anymore. So he takes a shower, puts on some clothes fitted for the warm late spring weather, and makes his usual way, trying to think of how to word the problem for Tony. All of the versions he comes up with sound bad, even inside his head, but he doesn’t think he has a choice. He texts Phil in the meantime, telling him to get a free pass for a person he’ll be with, knowing that Phil will trust him enough to pull the strings and do so.
‘I need your help,’ Steve tells Tony as soon as he comes up to him, crouching and keeping his voice down. Tony looks tired as he laughs sharply. ‘No, really – I just can’t tell you what with. But it’s important and I don’t think I know of anyone else who could be any help.’
‘It’s – very important. Really, really important and I can’t tell you why or what it is because that’s classified, please don’t make that face, it really is classified – you could do something amazing. Get money. I’ll vouch for you.’
‘I love how enthusiastic you are,’ Tony snickers.
‘It’s just really important. And time sensitive,’ Steve adds, glancing at Tony’s stuff. ‘You’d just need to walk somewhere with me, it’s not far, it’s right in the center of Manhattan –’
‘I can’t,’ Tony says simply. Steve pauses.
‘Don’t be like that, it’s your chance, we need you and I trust you, it’s – you’ll help with something big, we need help right now, remember that designs you told me about –’
‘Wow, you’re verbose when you’re nervous,’ Tony comments, tightening the arms wrapped around his chest a bit more, in a gesture that completely tears Steve despite being in the middle of world-saving. ‘Sounds nice but I still can’t,’ he says again.
‘Please,’ Steve says, wishing he didn’t have to beg, wishing Tony would be like a normal person for once, not the hurt passive man Steve’s grown so fond of and so worried about; this is the chance, it really is, Steve knows. Tony knows it too.
And yet he doesn’t even stand up.
‘It’s just a fifteen minutes’ walk from here,’ he adds, trying to be welcoming.
Steve stretches out his arm, palm open, and hopes Tony will take it. Of course the man has learned not to trust strangers, not to trust people in general, and it’s a long shot to ask him to come over to some unknown place for a reason Steve isn’t really allowed to explain, it does sound fishy, but he’s known Steve for some time now.
It takes a moment but Tony finally wraps his bony hand around Steve’s and lifts himself up, and a moment later he’s standing close, almost too close, still holding onto Steve, looking as if he were dizzy.
‘Are you all ri–’
‘I can’t walk there,’ Tony says, his voice quieter and firmer than usual.
‘It’s fine, I won’t let anyone –’ Steve tries, but Tony cuts in again.
‘No, I didn’t say I can’t go there, I said I can’t walk there.’
That makes Steve blink and stop all his thoughts for a second. Tony definitely isn’t paralyzed or something like that, he seems to physically capable, so that doesn’t really make sense until he explains it with two words.
‘My heart, I’ve got a heart thing, I just can’t walk there. That far. For that long,’ he explains, still looking at his feet rather than at Steve.
Steve remembers all the times when he was a boy too sick to get out of the bed, the memories feel painfully real all of sudden. He can feel the longing for the sun and fresh air and the sole possibility of touching the grass, of running across the park.
He looks around again: there’s Tony’s suitcase and blankets and the signs, that’s all. Very few possession for a homeless person but it makes more sense now: it probably is difficult to drag everything around and whatever is in the suitcase, Tony doesn’t seem keen on leaving it alone for a single second.
‘No one else seems to be able to help me save the damn world,’ Steve says, twisting his hand a bit so that he can squeezes Tony’s reassuringly, vaguely surprised by the fact that Tony didn’t pull away yet. ‘You’re the only person I know who I trust to. I don’t care if I need to carry you,’ he adds in his commanding voice, and then steps onto the street and waves at the next taxi that comes by a few moments later.
‘Okay?’ he asks. Tony nods unsurely, but it’s definitely a yes.
The driver seems reluctant about letting Tony in – he might be a bit less ragged than most homeless people but you can still tell he’s one of them – but Steve puts a fifty dollar bill into the man’s hand and tells him the address which is really close by, especially by a car.
‘Just please take us there,’ he adds politely, trying to be as charming as Captain America can be.
It’s a five minute, completely silent drive.
‘I still have no idea what I’m doing,’ Tony mutters when they get out of the car in front of a normal-looking Manhattan building. Steve grabs the suitcase and the rest of Tony’s things in one hand and takes Tony’s hand to lead him into the building with his free one.
They enter the lobby and Steve directs Tony to the corridor on their left. They walk slowly and cautiously, and yet somehow naturally, Steve listening to Tony’s breaths as he presses his fingers into the reading pads embedded into the handle. The door buzzes and they enter the long hall; Steve knows S.H.I.E.L.D. system will check their biosignatures as they walk down to the other door at the end.
It opens when they are a few steps away, making Tony flinch in surprise. Steve tightens his fingers around Tony’s palm just a little bit.
‘Welcome to S.H.I.E.L.D.’ Steve says, trying to keep the sheepish smile out of his face–he knows how cheesy that sounds.
‘So it is real,’ Tony mutters, wonder in his voice, as he looks around at the vast multilevel space that’s open in front of them, with voices in several languages echoing around and endless data streams on all the screens, glass and metal under their feet.
‘As real as we are.’
Tony smiles and then adds, seriously, ‘So you weren’t joking when you said it’s about world saving?’
‘No, I wasn’t.’
‘Okay,’ Tony breathes, closing his eyes, and a cold chill runs down Steve’s spine as he sees the now-familiar strain on Tony’s face, the now-understood desperation for a damn bit of air that Steve knows so well. ‘I might –’
‘Sit down,’ Steve says quickly, helping Tony to one of the chairs that some blessed person put in a neat row just next to the entrance. ‘Do you need anything – medicine? Water? Anything?’
Tony shakes his head for no, pressing a hand to his chest where his heart is, as if it was supposed to help; Steve doesn’t think it will, but he gets the need to just do something. Then he hears footsteps, a familiar set, and a moment later he can see Deputy Director Hill, Agent Sitwell, and Phil.
‘Is this –’ Maria starts, eyebrow raised, Steve thankful that Tony can’t see the skeptic look on her face as he doesn’t let her finish.
‘We’ll need a glass of water and a wheelchair, ASAP, please, and then we can proceed. Director,’ he adds, only because Maria loves to be called that.
Sitwell is the only one who stays, leaning against the wall, playing with his phone as always, and looking at Tony sitting there with Steve crouching in front of him. Steve can imagine how Tony must look to them, even if he isn’t looking very messy – he’s just so tired, Steve can tell, his clothes are in terrible state and his nails dirty.
‘Can we take your things to a secure place or do you need them?’ Steve asks, keeping his voice friendly. He’s feeling very protective of Tony tonight, it seems.
Sitwell smirks a little as he notices that.
‘I,’ Tony starts and then glances at the suitcase. Steve gets it: he wants to say he doesn’t need it but it’s literally all his has. It’s his whole life.
‘We’ll lose the blankets though,’ he says and Tony looks up at him, offers him a small smile and goes back to what Steve calls in his head breathing mode. Heart not working properly means not enough oxygen in blood, Steve knows. Each breath is a treasure.
Sitwell is already tapping something on his phone.
There’s a moment of hum-filled silence, Steve can feel it making the metal construction of the building vibrate under his feet – thanks to his super-senses – and everyone comes at the same time: Maria with Phil behind her, pushing a wheelchair, and two junior agents. One hands Tony a glass of water, curiosity not too well contained on his face, and the other puts all of Tony’s belongings into a big transparent bag covered with barcodes.
‘Bureaucracy,’ Steve explains, noticing Tony’s unsure face. ‘They’ll make sure it’s tracked and doesn’t get lost anywhere or the items don’t get separated.’
‘Good,’ Tony nods sharply. ‘I still don’t know what I’m doing,’ he adds, looking up for the first time for real, meeting everyone’s eyes. ‘This adorable idiot dragged me here saying it’s top secret but I could save the world or something.’
‘If you can do what he claims you can do, that might be the case,’ Maria says tightly, checking her watch again. ‘I have a meeting in ten. I trust you to take care of this. Agent Coulson.’
‘Of course,’ Phil nods just slightly and gives Maria the last glance as she turns around and goes away. Sitwell makes a shooing motion at the two juniors, still standing in the hallway, and as they scramble to get out of sight he takes a chocolate candy out of his pocket and puts it into his mouth slowly.
‘Tony, do you need anything else before we go to the R&D – Tony?’
‘No,’ Tony says tightly, clearly in pain, rubbing his hand over his chest again, but looking as if he didn’t have any strength left to do that. Phil observes it all with narrowed eyes.
‘We’ll go to medical first –’
‘No,’ Tony interrupts Phil, this time his words firm and decisive. ‘No. I’m fine. It’s not like you can do anything.’
Steve doesn’t feel persuaded by those words at all but there’s something in the way Tony’s suddenly all tense and sharp at the edges that tells Steve to let it go and do as Tony wants; he’ll have time for questions later. And Tony would definitely walk out if they tried to force him to do something he doesn’t want to do, Steve knows that much.
‘We’ll need your full name and all that to do a background check before we give you a high enough clearance level,’ Sitwell informs no one in particular in a happy voice, still tapping at his phone. ‘I’m listening.’
‘To– Anthony Edward Stark,’ Tony says.
‘This will take a few moments, running through all databases.’
‘You want to make sure I’m not a terrorist?’ Tony’s lips quirk; Steve agrees with that, it would be ridiculous. He just can’t imagine Tony being a bad guy.
‘There you go,’ Phil says, coming closer and placing an energy bar on the chair next to Tony, sitting in next free one. ‘You look familiar, somehow, but I can’t place it –’
‘I think my dad was supposed to work for you,’ Tony mutters, ‘He was an engineer, too. But I thought that was only stories,’ he stops to take a few shallow breaths, ignoring Steve’s hard look. ‘Stories my mother told me to make my father something more than a genius alcoholic. I never thought,’ he stops again, this time closing his eyes and taking a moment longer, ‘That it could be real. Superheroes and a secret agency that defends the world.’
‘We are very very real,’ Phil says, his face kindly blank, as always. ‘I think I remember your father’s name on the sheet of contributors to a few projects. Old ones though –’
‘He had me when he was old. Possible.’
‘You used to work for S&S Industries, later Stane Industries,’ Sitwell says with wonder in his voice. ‘You seemed to have disappeared from the face of earth after a – skirmish, with the other man, is that right?’
‘He claimed I was insane –’
‘I can see. Access to all your medical history and background check,’ Sitwell remind him, walking over to Phil and showing him something on the phone.
‘You all right?’ Steve asks, voice hushed, not knowing what answer to expect. Tony seems distressed, somehow, but too tired to care.
Maybe it’s just too much at once.
‘Like always,’ he replies, shrugging slightly.
‘All right,’ Phil says, standing up, ‘I think we can go to meet Director Fury now. Since you will be informed of Level Eight matters, it’s imperative that you understand the gravity of the matters we’ll be discussing.’
‘And what happens when I’m bad?’
‘You don’t want to know,’ Sitwell chips in cheerfully, still chewing on his candy.
Tony just laughs.
‘This is the list of things we need but no one seems able to construct them for us,’ Fury says five minutes later, shoving a print-out across the table. Tony takes it and reads it with a frown between his brows that smooths out as he goes on. Then he takes out a pencil from one of his too-many-times-repaired pockets and starts ticking things on the list.
‘What is this?’ Fury ask after he’s handed back the paper.
‘Things I’ve already done,’ Tony replies with a smile. A radiant one, not a fake one.
‘Flying cars? Coulson, if that’s a joke –’
‘I put it there, yes,’ Phil says with an innocent smile, ‘to see if what Steve’s been saying was true. Besides, it would be nice, wouldn’t it?’
‘Futuristic,’ Tony mutters under his breath, clearly not to happy that Phil would play with him like that. ‘And before you say I’m insane let me –’
‘I trust you,’ Steve says firmly at the same time as Phil says, ‘No one doubts you.’
‘How so?’ Tony raises an eyebrow, looking up at Phil questioningly.
‘We have your medical history,’ Sitwell explains, still smiling drily, eyes on the little screen, starting to get on Steve’s nerves. ‘We know about what you have in your chest.’
Tony immediately pales and hunches his shoulder protectively, making Steve feel too much like punching Sitwell for being damn insensitive, especially since he seems to be the only person in the room who doesn’t know what the thing in Tony’s chest is. He doesn’t feel like asking though, it seems to be some kind of a trigger, so he just stares at Sitwell with his disappointed Captain America look until the man looks away sheepishly.
‘I can show you how to do this one,’ Tony says, leaning over the table and pointing at one item on the list with the tip of his pencil. ‘Give me the materials, tools, and a day.’
Fury and Phil exchange a long look while Steve stays behind Tony, keeping his hands places firmly on the back of the chair, and waits for them to say yes.
‘But first you get a shower, a change of clothes and a proper meal. I won’t have you wander around the HQ looking like a tramp.’
‘I am a tramp,’ Tony says happily, scribbling the list of things he needs on the back of Fury’s paper already, without a second of hesitation. ‘And it’s not like I’d be wandering anywhere,’ he mutters quietly, presumably to himself, but Steve can hear it anyway, and it makes him feel so hollow inside.
Tony looks so different with freshly washed, still wet hair, wearing a pair of standard S.H.I.E.L.D. issue black pants with a matching shirt. He seems younger, somehow, and smaller as he sits, without any protest, in the wheelchair that Steve pushes for him.
He seems somehow dangerous, too, like a wild animal in a cage.
Steve follows Phil to R&D floor three where a free workshop is waiting for Tony with all the things he said he needs for a reflection panel – that’s the thing he said he’ll do and Steve can’t wait to see it for real – with Natasha sitting in the corner, doing a crossword on her tablet.
‘This is Natasha,’ Steve introduces the woman. ‘Tony,’ he adds simply, as he was informed by Tony earlier that he doesn’t care about his last name and he’s rather not be introducing himself as a Stark.
‘I’m not that person,’ he just said and Steve nodded. He knows all about not being that person anymore.
‘Hey,’ Tony gives Natasha a small wave and lifts himself up from the wheelchair. She doesn’t move, just observes them coldly.
‘She’s the precaution Director Fury spoke about,’ Steve adds, hoping that Tony won’t feel bad having someone hover around him all the time, looking at his hands, but honestly the level of trust S.H.I.E.L.D. has in him is pretty impressive.
Mostly because they’re out of time and options, Steve knows, and he’d rather not know how much out of time and options; the thought makes him shiver.
Tony just nods, sitting down in the soft armchair by the working bench, and looks around, assessing everything and mentally cataloguing the items, before turning around and giving Steve a quick smile.
‘I’ll come as soon as I can,’ Steve assures him; there’s a junior agents training he’s supposed to lead and he’s been late too many times already, or cancelled due to world-saving, so he can’t afford to miss another one.
When he’s back, three hours later, it’s nine p.m. and Tony is sitting in the armchair, eyes barely open, hands holding the armrests so tightly his knuckles are all white, and he breathes. Slowly. Breath by breath.
Then, after a second, Steve realizes Natasha is by the workbench, too, attaching some wires with a serious face, and she’s humming something – a rhythmic melody.
Tony seems to take breaths to match the rhythm.
‘Got tired,’ Tony wheezes, ‘she’s my hands. Nat.’
‘Shut up and tell me what now, idiot,’ Natasha comments fondly – well fondly for her standards, making Steve wish he was here when this happened. ‘He’s like a puppy,’ she adds, Tony makes a face at that, ‘A weak, sick, pathetic puppy.’
‘Red now – and I resent that,’ Tony adds, but he doesn’t seem too honest.
‘He said he can do this in a day,’ Natasha continues, ignoring him, still attaching the wires, only now she’s moved to a different color, ‘we can do it in five hours.’
‘That’s amazing,’ Steve manages to say before an alarm sound drowns out his voice.
‘For fuck’s sake, not again,’ Natasha says at him, letting go of the things in her hands, ‘I need to go, too. Don’t try anything funny,’ she tells Tony, wiping the grease of her hands, ‘you’re on security feed all the time. Red button if you need assistance,’ she tosses a S.H.I.E.L.D.-upgraded pager into Tony’s lap.
‘Sorry,’ Steve says before he has to go; Tony’s quiet wishes of safety follow him and Natasha out of the room.
Back at the HQ a few hours later, Steve inhales the familiar metallic scent with a pleasure he’s never noticed before: it’s such a nice change from the scent of blood and death. He wishes very much he didn’t know that.
Natasha goes to medical with Clint – he’s the most accident-prone superhero ever – so Steve makes his way to check on Tony by himself. A shower and a meal would probably be a better idea first thing in an after-battle morning, but Steve feels bad enough about leaving Tony here, alone.
He finds Tony sitting by the workbench, smiling really widely.
‘You okay?’ he asks, just to make sure.
‘Yeah – you okay?’ Tony asks in return, frowning slightly. Steve nods. ‘Finished what Fury wanted some time ago,’ he shrugs, motioning towards the end of the table. ‘Thought I could tinker a bit. Haven’t had fancy tools in my hands for too long.’
Steve hums approvingly, remembering the set of tools from Tony’s suitcase he’s seen once; they were surprisingly good quality but old and so worn out. Everything at S.H.I.E.L.D. is shiny and new and top-notch, like in an engineer’s dream.
‘So, was it a world-saving emergency?’
‘You wouldn’t believe how many people think they can be the evil rulers of the world,’ Steve sighs, sitting in a chair next to Tony. ‘You don’t really hear about them in the news, not all of them, but it’s crazy how often we deal with that. Or honestly mad scientists. Or –’ Steve stops, exhales, and gives Tony and apologetic smile.
‘Not yet,’ he admits. It’s not yet the time to tell Tony everything.
‘So, which button do I press to have your Director come over?’
Fury is impressed.
He doesn’t look impressed, he never looks anything, but Steve’s known the Director for long enough to be able to tell those little things. Fury is impressed and he’s observing Tony with much more concern than before, that’s also difficult to pick out unless you know what you’re looking for. It’s the way he keeps glancing at Tony, as if he were checking up on him.
‘Could you install the reflection panels all over a big surface?’
‘This big,’ Fury says, tapping something at the nearest screen and a picture of Helicarrier comes up. They haven’t been using the ship much – it’s an easy target, too easy – but it would be a tremendous facilitation for everyone.
‘Yesss,’ Tony all but hisses, curling up his shoulders a bit. He seems so lost when he’s like this, Steve notices.
‘Can you teach out R&D how to make these?’ Fury asks, holding up the mini panel. Well, Steve knows that he’s holding it but he can’t really see the thing itself as it’s very good at pretending it’s invisible.
‘Sleep first,’ Steve cuts in firmly, giving Fury a long glance. ‘Rest first. Besides, shouldn’t they be able to make it on their own if they have the project you’ve just whipped up? They should, right?’ Tony nods for yes so Steve smiles. ‘You’ll rest now. You haven’t slept all night.’
Tony doesn’t protest. Steve can imagine him physically needing the rest – with whichever heart trouble he has, more than anyone – but being too proud to ask for it. Definitely.
He looks tired and in pain and everyone knows he’s just a random homeless man, even if a genius, but he’s still holding his chin high and Steve loves that.
After he shows Tony the temporary room, having wheeled the man there, the suitcase with them for the whole time, he tells the man to sleep and goes back to Fury. He is a supersoldier: he doesn’t need to sleep.
‘I don’t know where you found him and I don’t know how this insanity is possible, but thank you so damn much. Maybe he’ll put our R&D back in line.’
‘Our R&D is great, sir.’
‘But he still seems to be better, even though he’s just –’
‘Please call him Tony, not he,’ Steve cuts in as politely as he can, ‘Sir.’
‘Tony, then,’ Fury rolls his eyes. ‘What’s wrong with him?’
‘Heart problems, he said. But you have his medical history –’
‘That gave me no information besides an unknown reason for failing heart and inability to get a standard treatment. Pretty sure he’s hacked it as there isn’t much in the files. He built an experimental device all by himself, they put it into his chest and that’s keeping him alive, apparently, when no one predicted more than a month of life for him. It was years ago.’
‘Oh,’ Steve says breathlessly and nods to himself.
Somehow, even if Tony’s just a homeless guy he’s passes on the street and Steve doesn’t know him well, it feels like something he’d do.
‘I want medical to look at him –’
‘He’ll just run.’
‘Well, Captain, then that’s a job for you. Goodbye,’ Fury adds, turning around and leaving the room with his leather jacket almost sweeping behind him.
‘I’m worried about you,’ Steve says the next time he sees Tony. It’s afternoon and he’s brought a bowl of hot soup for Tony to eat, it’s a simple tomato, Steve’s favorite food from the cafeteria. Tony just glances at the bowl, swallows, and turns back to the workbench he’s sitting on, legs crossed, back hunched over whatever he’s working on right now.
‘If you’re gonna be worried now, why did you even take me here?’ he asks quietly, voice muffled. ‘I don’t wanna be trouble.’
‘You’re anything but,’ Steve protests, mentally cursing himself for saying something wrong again. ‘It’s just – you need to stop and eat. No one is going to kick you out or anything if you take a break.’
‘Come down from that table and sit like a proper human and eat,’ Steve tries, keeping his voice firm but polite; he doesn’t want to sound authoritative, like a commander. Tony isn’t one of his soldiers.
‘Okay,’ Tony mutters, putting down the tools to join the neat row on his left.
‘Fury wants medical to check you over. He’s worried and I’m only saying this because you wouldn’t be able to tell and because I made sure there’s no surveillance here now that I’ve entered the room. He’s taken a liking to you. He wants to make sure you won’t die on him.’
‘I’m a tough bastard,’ Tony flashes Steve a grin, but it’s a tired grin. Almost a perfect illusion but not quite.
‘Your heart –’
‘I die when I die,’ Tony says between sips of his soup, making the words feel unreal, as if Steve’s only imagined them because the setting is not nearly serious enough for discussing the matter. ‘You can’t do anything.’
‘You made something that kept you alive for years –’
‘It was just a life-support. Not a remedy.’
‘It was experimental, wasn’t it?’ Steve asks softly, sitting down in front of Tony in slow motion, making sure he won’t scare Tony who seems too tense, as if he was going to jump and run any second. The subject is really touchy, that’s obvious, and Steve doesn’t want to push, but he feels like he should for Tony’s own good.
‘Can’t you make something again?’
Tony’s head snaps up, his eyes distant. He smiles, though it’s more of a grimace than a smile, and takes a moment to reply, ‘Nah. No. Can’t.’
Then he goes back to his soup and Steve lets him.
‘I need to get out of this place,’ Tony says three days later.
Staying here so far has done some good to him, he looks a bit less tired, put together, calmer. He’s still wearing S.H.I.E.L.D.-issued clothes, obviously not caring about something more fancy. He lets Steve wheel him around which doesn’t cease to surprise Steve, it doesn’t fit with the rest of the person Steve’s got to know so far.
Tony probably knows there’s no other way and he’s not a kid to protest.
‘Why? Do you need anything? I could get you –’
‘I need to go somewhere.’
‘All right,’ Steve agrees with a frown; it’s not like Tony is a prisoner. Steve would never agree to that. ‘Where exactly?’
‘Library,’ Tony mumbles, a wire between his teeth, making the word almost a riddle to Steve.
‘Okay,’ Steve says slowly, wondering what the library could have that S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn’t. He’d understand a different request, even something as simple as I want to go and enjoy June sunlight because that’s what Steve feels like himself, but a library? For Tony, who can barely walk half a mile, that’s just strange.
‘Need non-surveilled internet access,’ Tony adds.
Oh. Now that makes sense. The friend from India.
Steve doesn’t say that aloud though, instead, he takes his phone out of his pocket and puts it on the table in front of Tony.
‘I’m sure you can ensure no one can track you. Do whatever you want with my phone, whatever you need.’
‘Should you – won’t you get in trouble for that?’
‘You’re my guest, in a way,’ Steve smiles, pushing the phone to slide it across the tabletop. ‘Besides, whatever the urban legends might say about Captain America, lots of the good things I did were against orders and I don’t regret any of them. Go on.’
‘Thank you,’ Tony breathes out, obviously relieved, and lets a small smile crawl onto his face. A real smile for once, a bright real smile that makes him look nothing like the man Steve met in the streets a few months ago. ‘Thank you.’
Steve leaves for a mission but he’s not worried since Natasha is staying in HQ and she’s taken liking to Tony in the same way you might take liking to a stray pet. She looks like she wants to pat his head all the time, being seriously concerned and pretending not to be at the same time.
Tony can see through all this, Steve has noticed, but he doesn’t mention it. They both seem to be enjoying the game so Steve lets them play.
When he comes back a week later, Tony is in the workshop, hunched over his workbench as always, but this time surrounded with people. Steve recognizes a few faces from R&D but Phil is also there, and Nat and Clint. Even Sitwell came and appears more interested than his usual elegantly bored act.
‘Am I interrupting something?’ Steve asks even though he obviously is; he hates the sudden attention on him but that’s worth the smile that Tony gives him across the room.
‘Told you I could make things fly,’ he says, the words pretty quiet but Steve can make them out anyway. ‘Give me just a moment,’ he adds, turning back to the disk thing in his hand.
‘I’m going to kill you,’ Steve mutters to Natasha who suddenly is on his right; he doesn’t even flinch at her sudden appearances these days. You get used to that.
‘Welcome to try,’ she hisses, voice mirthful, making Steve roll his eyes.
‘He looks like death warmed over,’ Steve whispers back, trying not to engage anyone else in the conversation. Natasha sighs deeply.
‘I tried to make him rest. He kept coming back here to work, I know he really needs rest with whatever’s going on with him, but he kept coming back whenever I made him go. On foot. I found him slumped on the floor, barely breathing, heart racing, just a few feet from here, yesterday night. He said he couldn’t wait so I just let him do whatever he wants because he’s too damn stubborn to be reasoned with.’
‘Well,’ Steve pauses at the sudden outburst of whispers around them, everyone’s attention focusing on Tony, so Steve turns his head too.
There’s a moment of silence, complete silence, then the softest buzz starts, a wave of cheers and hand-clapping following, and then Steve sees it. It’s a tiny car, just a toy, a red sports car that Steve can’t name but he’s pretty sure he’s seen one before, and it’s hovering almost soundlessly in the air, soft blue glow coming from underneath.
Tony moves his hand across the tablet he’s holding absentmindedly, without looking down, and the car flies towards Phil. There’s a note inside, Steve notices, and Phil sees it a moment later and takes it out. Steve can tell he’s trying to be contained and cool like always – especially in front of all these agents – but it’s easy to tell his excitement to Steve who knows him well.
‘Give me a real one and I’ll make it fly,’ Phil reads out, then all heads turn back at Tony.
‘What the fuck were you doing in the streets?’ one of the engineers asks with clear wonder in his voice. Tony smiles a bit shyly and shrugs, looking back at the mess on his workbench. The car seems to move around in the air pointlessly, only so that everyone could see it from up close.
‘Life happens,’ he says, shrugging again, and puts a few things into a bag hanging from the back of his chair. The he stands up, ignoring everyone – most eyes are still trained on the red toy – and promptly sways, as if dizzy; he doesn’t fall to the ground, though. Natasha is just behind him to hold him steady.
She whispers something into his ear as she helps him walk, staring down everyone who’s staring at her and Tony, and leads him straight to Steve.
‘Sorry,’ Tony mutters weakly, eyes closed tightly. ‘Wheelchair…?’
‘I don’t believe you dragged it up here with you, mister,’ Steve says as lightly as he can manage given the fact that Tony asking for wheelchair makes him want to scream at someone. And Tony is still, still, refusing to let anyone help him anyway. ‘Your own fault,’ he adds. Tony’s heartbeat is too fast to be okay and he looks slightly disoriented so Steve simply takes the smaller man in his arms in one smooth movement and makes his way out of the room unceremoniously, Natasha a few dignified steps behind him.
‘He’s brilliant,’ Steve hears before they pass through the door, and also what’s wrong with him and have you seen that body armor alloy, and he smiles.
He isn’t sure it’s the right moment but he’s proud so he smiles.
Tony seems to feel the change of mood, opens his eyes and then smiles back, weakly, but he does.
‘I’m just glad I stopped and read your sign,’ Steve mutters half across the long hall.
Tony just nods.
Steve is annoyed with the constant refusal of help from Tony but he’s also sensitive enough not to push. He managed to make Tony lay down on a sofa in what they call Avengers common room on the top floor of the HQ, with a beautiful view of the city line stretching behind the big windows. Tony seems to like the space, Steve notes gladly, as it’s one of his favorite places to spend time, calm and bright and spacious.
‘So, the superhero deal,’ Tony says after a long silence, his voice echoing softly, ‘I take it you’re gonna use my things to save the world and things, but I wouldn’t mind a word about how all that works, I mean, we’re preparing for something big I understand? Right? What for though? Fury said it’s Thor who told you something’s coming up and you don’t know when but seriously, Thor?’
‘Stop and take a breath,’ Steve comments amusedly, not looking away from his book.
‘I mean Thor, I’m a scientist, I can’t believe in Thor and all that –’
‘You’re right,’ Steve agrees, takes a breath and makes a decision. He closes the book and stands up, ‘Thor that’s ridiculous but – I’ve been silly, too. Keeping things from you is impossible anyway, so we’d better just do this.’
‘Do what?’ Tony frowns, looking up at Steve, arms wrapped around his chest tightly, his eyes reluctant.
‘Meet Thor. And Clint. I know you hang out with Nat and you’ve probably met Hawkeye, but Clint is something else.’
‘Do I –’
‘You stay here,’ Steve says and disappears.
It’s not hard to find the rest of the team, they are so predictable sometimes. All three of them are in the training room, with a multitude of junior agents watching them from the viewing section.
‘My comrades like each other too much to practice real fighting,’ Thor comments off-handedly as soon as he sees Steve. He has a rating chart in his hand and a gigantic coffee mug in the other and looks pretty amused with Nat and Clint’s shenanigans.
‘I heard you,’ Clint says between heavy breaths, jumping out of Natasha’s reach and doing a somersault in the air, gaining a wave of applause from the audience.
‘This is,’ Natasha says, throws a knife that Clint narrowly avoids, ‘very serious.’
‘Indeed, friends,’ Thor all but laughs, his voice booming. ‘Cookie, Captain?’ he adds, pointing at the pastry pyramid on his left. It’s the price of watching the spectacle, Steve knows. He didn’t oppose much against cookies even if they are an illegal payment method.
Steve observes the fight with an amusement for a minute more and then claps his hands, getting the attention of everyone but the fighting two; he knows they hear him though.
‘If you are done,’ he says, giving Nat and Clint a hard stare, ‘I’d like you to come with me, please.’
They know Steve well enough to stop, take their things and leave, ignoring the unhappy juniors’ mutters.
‘I wanted you all to meet Tony –’
‘We’ve all met him,’ Natasha rolls her eyes but doesn’t stop.
‘No, Natasha met him. And he’s seen Hawkeye. But he hasn’t met the team.’
‘Is your friend planning on staying with our agency, Steve?’
‘I hope so,’ Steve replies truthfully. ‘I really hope so.’
Tony is, as Natasha says, a small likable pitiful pet, and as much as he claims to resent the description, he doesn’t seem to mind it that much. His eyes are warm every time Natasha says something like that.
‘Steve totally loves you, man,’ Clint says as soon as they enter the room. Steve would comment on that but he can hear the familiar shallow breaths that give him goose bumps every time, so he just gestures at his teammates to stay behind and gives Tony a moment to pull himself together.
‘Guys, Tony –’
‘Hey,’ Tony cuts in, waving a hand at them from the armchair he’s sitting in now, facing the window.
Natasha huffs and removes herself to the kitchen to make them all some tea, claiming that no one else can do it properly.
Thor takes a liking to him straight away and Steve can tell he’ll end up coddling Tony and pretending to be oblivious about Midgardian customs but in truth he’ll do that because he can see – can feel – how sick Tony is.
Clint frowns, waves back, and sits in the other armchair.
‘You can’t be a Norse god,’ Tony protests several times, only gaining a wider smile each time. Then he gives up on denying when Thor, to everyone’s amusement, calls a storm as subtly as possible. Just a little storm so that New Yorkers won’t be too surprised.
After they’ve drank the tea and talked for a bit – Tony becoming more and more comfortable with each minute, seeing that they accept him completely – Thor stands up and says it is late and he would like to rest now.
‘Yeah, right, you never know when your next super-secret op will be,’ Clint says wisely, nodding to himself, making Tony grin. ‘Better catch every bit of sleep you can,’ he says as he’s walking out of the room with Natasha right behind him.
‘Shall I take you to your room?’
‘Yes please,’ Tony says, closing his eyes as he sits in the wheelchair, his hands trembling slightly. He keeps silent so Steve does, too, and when they get to the room, he notices that Tony simply fell asleep. He scoops the small man out as delicately as he can, puts him in the bed and covers him with blankets.
Walking out, he puts a do not disturb sign in the door and prays people will respect it for once.
The simple routine continues for a few more days during which the Avengers train, Tony works on more of his projects for S.H.I.E.L.D., Steve argues with Fury, and a few agents die during a tough mission went south in Africa, putting the whole agency into a mourning mood.
It’s late June when Steve knocks on Tony’s doors and enters when Tony tells him to, and stops in the doorway, unsure of what’s happening.
‘Meet DUM-E – I just call him Dummy. He likes it. Endearment. Dummy – say hello,’ Tony adds and the… thing, the metallic thing, turns towards Steve and all but waves.
‘You asked me what I had in my suitcase and I never answered. I had this little bud there, in pieces. I couldn’t – I had to keep him. Made him ages ago, it took me this long to put him together now, I couldn’t – I’m not strong enough to work as much as I’d like to, especially with all the projects–’
‘I can cancel all that if you need rest, you’ve done so much already,’ Steve cuts in, not taking his eyes away from the robot.
‘Nah, don’t, it’s fine, he’s ready now –’
The rest of the sentence is cut off by a blaring alarm. Steve sighs deeply, turns around and opens the door, saying, ‘Sorry, Tony, I’ll come back as soon as I can – and it’s amazing.’
‘He is amazing,’ he hears Tony’s words through the almost closed doors.
‘It will happen tomorrow at morn,’ Thor say as they are coming back to New York, bruised and battered but happy with the definite win.
‘It will, friends.’
‘How do you know?’ Natasha asks, narrowing her eyes dangerously and then glancing at Clint who is the most messy one, as always.
‘I just know, friends –’
‘We need to let everyone know immediately, then,’ Steve declares in his most commanding voice. ‘I’ll help Natasha pilot the jet, Clint, you talk to Phil.’
Clint nods, the happy mood suddenly forgotten, and goes to the back of the plane.
HQ is buzzing with activity when they land, agents running around in what to an untrained eye might seem like panic and chaos but is in fact perfectly synchronized and practiced dance, getting arms and body armor ready for everyone, checking engines and control panels and every detail to make sure things work perfectly. Helicarrier has just been tested out with the reflection panels a few days earlier and everything seems to work perfectly; Steve’s happy it was right in time.
When they get out of the jet, Phil and Fury are waiting for them silently and lead the team to a conference room to give updates to each other.
As soon as the meeting is over, Steve rushes to Tony’s room to see how he’s doing – he seemed so exhausted the last time Steve saw him – but the room is empty. The robot is there but doesn’t move, as it if it was turned off or something, which is strange. Steve frowns at that but makes his way to R&D as quickly as possible, but Tony is not there either, and he’s not anywhere in the Avengers space upstairs.
Steve can feel his heart pumping too fast, even for a super-soldier, the worry rising in his gut as he runs to medical – but someone would’ve told him if Tony was hurt, right? Hurt or something else – someone would have told him.
‘Where’s Tony?’ he asks loudly as soon as he opens the door. Lisa, the doctor on call, makes a gesture at him to enter and follow her and it makes Steve freeze in place. ‘What’s wrong with him?’
‘Everything is wrong with him,’ Lisa says, sounding equally worried and annoyed, ‘but I don’t know the answer to your questions because he’s not here.’
‘He was here,’ she says, not letting him finish. ‘He fainted. His heartbeat was completely off charts, I was worried – we were worried, I called all the doctors, we discussed all possibilities but it’s though when we still don’t know exactly what the device keeping his heart beating is – and the next thing I know, he’s not here.’
‘How can he not be here? He can’t walk for ten minutes! The cameras –’
‘Are blacked out. We don’t know what happened.’
‘Damn it,’ Steve mutters.
‘I think he might’ve run away. Gone back to the city. Medical –’
‘He didn’t want your hands on him, I know, and then if he woke up here from unconsciousness he might’ve panicked and – yes, of course,’ Steve agrees as calmly as he can, knowing that it’s not Lisa’s fault. ‘But the invasion –’
‘You can’t go and look for him now, soldier,’ he hears Fury’s voice behind him, grim but firm.
‘Director, I don’t think this is negotiable –’
‘You need to save the damn world, Captain. Don’t give up on it because of one man.’
Steve hangs down his head, swallows, nods sharply, and leaves the room quickly, heading towards the conference room.
He hates himself for making this decision.
The world seems to be on fire, filled with too-bright warm light, the kind Steve has never seen before but he’s imagined something similar back when he was a kid, reading science-fiction novels of old authors who had much more imagination that nowadays.
It almost feels like a bomb blast, flashes so bright Steve can see through his hands as he throws the shield and tries to avoid getting hit with one of the blue laser-like shots while not letting the aliens come close to the entrance of the building. There are hundreds of people inside and only seven of the aliens left for Steve to deal with, it should be easy but it’s not because of the light, he can hardly see anything properly, reflections all about, remote rumble and crackling of buildings on fire echoing down New York streets.
And he can’t stop thinking about Tony who couldn’t even run if he had to, who would inhale the smoke and choke on it, whose heart would beat frantically with stress and fear and it’s all – it’s all too much.
‘Focus, Captain,’ he hears Natasha’s voice in his ear and he listens to her, the familiar voice grounding him amidst the madness. He takes out the aliens, shouts at the people to stay where they are as it’s the relatively safest place for those who weren’t able to evacuate, and then he jumps onto Clint’s flying cycle that has been finished by R&D just yesterday, based on Tony’s technology.
‘Breathe, Steve, you’ve got about five hundred more to kill,’ Clint says tightly, flying the cycle like a madman between buildings, avoiding getting shot or crashing into something with unnatural, almost inhuman ease.
‘This is –’ he only manages when the cycle suddenly moves up and brings them both over the roofs of the city: the destruction is terrifying.
Everything seems to bright, ablaze, unreal, and Steve wishes he was never woken up.
‘Gonna drop you there,’ Clint says, pointing at a spot in the middle of a square, ‘they need backup.’
Steve nods, knowing that Clint won’t know if he does but it’s non-negotiable. They need Steve. There are S.H.I.E.L.D. agents down there, a few dozen of them, but they are not going to hold off the aliens from another civilian retreat place.
‘Good luck,’ Clint says just before Steve jumps off the cycle, shield firmly in hand, and then it’s only whistle of the air in his ears.
God-know-how-much-later he’s still fighting, still moving, running and throwing the shield and shooting but it doesn’t seem to help; there are simply too many aliens and even the Helicarrier isn’t helping much; it’s still confusing the aliens about where the people and the shots and mini-missiles are coming from – the invisibility mode in engaged and intact – but it’s not enough.
There aren’t enough superheroes in the world to save it, it seems, and it only makes Steve grit his teeth harder and run faster and shoot more quickly.
Even his super-soldier body is soon going to fail, though, but he’s going to die fighting, he decides. He only wishes he could have said a few goodbyes. One goodbye.
It feels like he’s going blind with time even if he isn’t; the light doesn’t cease and it hurts, it makes his head ache deeply inside – it’s phantom pain, he doesn’t feel the real one – and he only wishes it would end.
But he won’t let it.
Hawkeye is nearby at some point, Steve doesn’t exactly notice when he comes around, shooting arrows with scary precision despite having to shield his eyes from the light with special sunglasses, it’s only logical he’s have something like that on him, to be honest, and Steve wishes he did, too.
They work together just like they’ve always practiced, adapting to the aliens’ style, keeping their movements smooth, almost like a dance, smooth and flowing but it’s getting slower every minute and they know they won’t last long.
Thor is up somewhere, making the skies roar and flash with cold lightning light that only melts into the warm one. Natasha reports being in the air, too, having hijacked one of the alien’s flying things, Steve can’t find a name in his head and he can’t stop to think, and Phil’s on the Helicarrier, trying to somehow wrap his head around the madness as he sends remaining agents into the battlefield.
Steve’s cutting off an alien’s head with a throw of the shield – he’s never done that before and hopes he never will have to do it again – and turns to see more of them coming, catching his shield coming from behind without looking, when Phil swears into the comm line.
Everyone stops for a fraction of second, it’s as much as they can afford, and then wait for an explanation because Phil would never, ever do that.
‘WSC is sending a nuke to New York,’ he says, voice tight and furious, and Steve blinks.
‘That won’t help,’ he protests, never stopping his fight, ‘they will just pop up somewhere else, they’re from space, they can be anywhere right now–’
‘We know,’ Fury’s voice says crackly on the comm line, ‘they won’t listen.’
‘Fuck it, we’re gonna intercept –’
‘It’s three minutes until the bomb hits,’ Phil states.
His voice is calm and Steve suddenly feels painfully calm, too, like a magical spell. Everything seems to slow down and become so clear, bathed in the light.
He throws a punch at one of the aliens and shoots another one a second late and it feels like slow-motion. Clint on his right lets an arrow out of his bow and it flies through the air without any noise, piercing an alien armor and going straight through the heart, and the creature falls to the ground.
Two minutes thirty-nine seconds, Steve’s brain supplies.
He hasn’t done that in ages but he finds himself muttering a prayer as he spins around and jumps, as he catches the shield and crouches to avoid a blast, all instinctive rather than conscious, and there are words, sed libera nos a malo at the back of his head, and Tony’s smile as he tried to pretend he wasn’t terrified of his racing heart.
Two minutes and a second when Thor strikes a few dozes of the aliens with a lightning, and then he’s towering over Clint and Steve, the square suddenly deadly calm.
‘Fuck all this, I always wanted someone to fucking stay on earth to sing the glorious songs of my heroic death,’ Clint declares hollowly, making it difficult for Steve to guess if he’s joking or not.
Then Cling bursts out laughing and Steve does too, and Thor, and Steve has damn tears in his eyes when another bunch of aliens appears in the sky over them and Steve shoots them like a madman.
One minute forty seconds, he’s gonna die, for real this time.
It feels more funny than genuine, he decides – and then he notices something in the sky.
‘Missed me?’ a familiar voice saying into his ear, on the comm line, and Steve closes his eyes for a second, knowing that Clint will notice and cover him.
‘Friend Tony?’ Thor asks – so they all heard it, it’s not just Steve’s brain making things up right before he dies – and Steve opens his eyes and stares back at the sky. It’s just a second.
‘Just fight, idiots, I’ll take care of this,’ Tony says and then goes silent.
Then Steve isn’t sure what’s happening anymore, all he knows is that he doesn’t die, he keeps fighting and counting the seconds and he doesn’t die, it’s twenty seconds past the deadline and he isn’t dead – and then the light suddenly disappears.
The alien in front of him drops onto the ground before Steve can touch him, and so do all the others.
‘Tony?’ Steve asks, slumping down to the ground, the sudden silence buzzing in his ears, ‘Tony? Are you there? What have you – what have you done?’
There’s only more silence and then Thor’s large warm hand of Steve’s shoulder.
There is no nuke and no aliens. There’s just a burning city, dead bodies, and a bunch of heroes who aren’t supposed to be real, and silence.
‘’m okay,’ Steve hears a murmur on the comm line. ‘Okay, Cap. Took care of the aliens, not me, Jarvis, we took care of the aliens–’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about – who you are talking about,’ Steve replies quickly. ‘Tell me where you are.’
‘Brooklyn,’ Tony replies, ‘I’m in Brooklyn.’
Steve takes a breath, stops himself from laughing hysterically and then picks up his shield and starts to run, ignoring everyone and everything, letting the voice guide him.
It takes Steve too damn long to get to Tony; he snatches Clint’s cycle out of Natasha’s hands on his way and then flies over across the water not even caring that he’s actually flying, and follows Tony’s directions to find him curled up, with a blanket wrapped around his arms, sitting on a carton in a blind alley. He has blood smeared all of his forehead, as if coming from a cut on his head that Steve can’t see, but Tony doesn’t seem to care.
Steve comes up quickly, kneels on the dirty ground and takes Tony’s cold had to make sure he’s real.
‘How – how did you do that?’ he asks in an almost-whisper, ‘I thought we were all gonna –’
‘I know,’ Tony says closing his eyes and relaxing. Steve feels blessed to have such a privilege. ‘Your phone,’ he adds, smiling tiredly at Steve’s incredulous face, ‘never gave it back. Thought you’d ask but you, ah, didn’t. I used it. To hack.’
‘The nuke –’
‘Yeah, went up –’
‘Why couldn’t anyone else do it? The whole of S.H.I.E.L.D. was trying to do something –’
‘They couldn’t do it remotely,’ Tony explains, still not taking Steve’s hand, ‘When I was playing, tinkering, at the HQ, I made this little thing to see if I still remembered how to do ‘bots. A small flying ‘bot. Sent it after the nuke –’
‘Did you hack into our comm?’
‘Of course I hacked into your comm,’ Tony smiles, trying to fool Steve. ‘Easy. Heard about the nuke, sent the thing to help me hack into its navigation, tough part. It shouldn’t be possible, like, ever, but I had motivation, you know? And I thought –’
‘Yes?’ Steve prompts, moving closer. He can almost hear Tony’s irregularly beating heart.
‘I thought I wasn’t gonna die without saying a goodbye – so just in case I die,’ he adds, looking away from Steve, ‘goodbye, Captain.’
‘You’re not going to die –’
‘I think I might, well, it’s been a thing for a long time –’
‘Stop. Talking,’ Steve orders him sternly and Tony listens, focusing on breathing. ‘Isn’t there anything you can do? No projects? No engineering magic?’
‘I made this –’
‘I know what you made, I know it’s keeping you alive, but I ask you, what can you do? Is there anything you can do, anything more?’ Steve asks fiercely, concentrating on the feeling of Tony’s hands in his, not letting himself think. ‘Is there?’
‘… there is. Could work. Never know for sure,’ Tony replies after a short pause, making Steve’s head snap up as he fixes his eyes on Tony.
‘What do you need?’
‘Bruce,’ Tony says and Steve remembers the one time Tony slipped the name out and then pretended it never happened to protect his friend; it must be the person who is a doctor-but-not-of-that-kind. ‘I need Bruce.’
Steve nods sharply, knowing that now he just has to get to this Bruce no matter what, and for the first time in long hours the world around him seems real.
‘I don’t care what you have to do, Director, I know there are endless things that S.H.I.E.L.D. needs to take care of now, but Tony did it. Okay? You wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for him. We were all useless and he did it. We owe him that much,’ Steve says firmly, anger lacing his words, glad that Natasha took care of Tony and he doesn’t have to witness this.
‘Half of Manhattan is burning, Captain,’ Fury replies, raising an eyebrow in a silent challenge. Steve holds the man’s gaze.
‘That’s a great exaggeration and you know it, Director. All I’m asking you for is to spare an agent who would make this man’s entrance into the USA possible. It can’t be that much, can it?’
‘He’s a convict. The military will never allow it.’
‘Then make sure they do,’ Steve states, standing up, and leaves the room, closing the door behind with a heavy thud, the echo following him down the corridor.
When he reaches Tony’s room, he greets Dummy and politely asks Natasha to leave; she does quietly, without a word of protest. Steve knows he’ll go have drinks with Clint now; this is how they mourn.
‘Why did you do it?’ he asks Tony, who is sitting in an armchair, knees hugging his chest, and staring out of the window at the smoke-covered skyline.
‘You shouldn’t be here,’ Tony just says.
‘There are surely lots of thing that need your attention more than me. Like the fact that you guys were pretty obvious this time,’ a breath, ‘and it’s gonna be tough to pretend heroes ain’t real.’
‘I hate that you’d say that,’ Steve tells him, moving closer and stopping two steps away on Tony’s right, eyes locked on the view. The destruction, it’s almost like in a movie. ‘Why – why did you do it, why did you leave?’ he asks again, and then adds, quietly, ‘especially when you knew?’
There’s a long moment of silence, the nothingness ringing in Steve’s ears.
‘I overheard doctors talking about having a look at the thing in my chest – a closer look –’
‘That sounds like something they would say when you collapsed on the –’
‘You don’t understand,’ Tony says bitterly, the tone making Steve shiver. ‘It’s not – I couldn’t have them poke me –’
‘They wouldn’t do anything without your consent –’
‘Oh, really? And what if I was unconscious, what then? Wouldn’t they?’ Tony asks, throwing the words at Steve angrily, only to cover the fact that he’s scared. Steve can tell. He’s seen this done so many times before, the smokescreen, and it doesn’t work on him anymore.
Then Tony looks at him and suddenly, Steve gets it.
‘Someone has done that before,’ he realizes breathlessly, a freezing feeling climbing down his back, ‘someone has – touched – the device without your consent before, haven’t they? They did – they did something bad, didn’t they?’
The silence is even longer this time.
‘Obie – Stane. My business partner,’ Tony finally says and then silences Steve with a movement of his hand before Steve can even say something. ‘Did you ever look at my file? Sure you did but you’re too nice to ask – you must’ve seen the notes. Stane, he said I was alcoholic, insane, irresponsible, suicidal –’
‘I thought –’
‘I was only alcoholic, highly functioning, perfectly functioning,’ Tony says softly, closing his eyes, ‘everything else he made up and made everyone believe him, and then he, he –’
‘Hey,’ Steve says, seeing how much it hurts Tony to say those words, whatever they are, ‘you don’t have to tell me.’
‘You kept worrying about me during alien invasion and when you thought you’d die,’ Tony protests, ‘I owe you that much. No one even noticed me for years.’
‘You owe me nothing –’
‘I want to tell you, then,’ Tony cuts in, his voice still quiet, ‘I ended up in ER with heart trouble and he told them I tried – to kill myself, using the device in my chest because I can control it.’
‘You were unconscious and he did it,’ Steve realizes. Tony nods almost invisibly.
‘He wanted me dead. Wasn’t thorough enough so I didn’t die. And then he took everything from me.’
Steve swallows, not sure what to say in this situation, what does a person say? It doesn’t feel real, it doesn’t feel possible for something like this to happen in real life. And yet he trusts Tony’s words completely.
‘He died over a year ago, stroke I think the newspapers said, I didn’t – I could bother to find out more, it was still too raw.’
‘It’s always gonna be raw,’ Steve says, thinking about his memories back from the forties, how they never fade with time, even though he’s been in this century long enough to build a new life. ‘But that’s okay. That’s human.’
‘So I didn’t want them to – it’s silly. I know they wouldn’t –’
‘Would you let the doctors examine you if I was there the entire time?’ Steve asks, looking at Tony expectantly. Maybe it’s too much to ask. He still doesn’t feel like he know normal human relationships well enough, but Tony is unique. Unlike anyone Steve’s ever known.
‘… yes,’ he breathes in the end, making Steve suddenly feel so light. ‘Yeah.’
Bruce is there the next morning and Steve goes out to meet him on HQ’s roof; New York airports are out of use now so S.H.I.E.L.D. flew him by a jet from D.C.
‘Welcome back to the U.S.,’ Steve greets the man with a smile of relief. ‘Steve Rogers,’ he adds, stretching his hand out, surprised at how strong the handshake is for such an unassuming person.
‘Doctor Bruce Banner,’ Bruce says, looking around distrustfully, Steve can’t blame him. ‘So, I heard you had quite a fight yesterday,’ he says, quirking an eyebrow.
Steve blinks and then he can’t help it, he laughs.
‘I think I know exactly why Tony gets along so well with you,’ he says when he calms down a bit. Bruce is smiling, it’s a faint smile but it’s an amused one; he relaxes a bit, too, and that makes Steve feel happy.
‘He doesn’t know you’re coming,’ Steve says when they’re walking down corridors, shooing juniors out of their way with fondness, ignoring their awed whispers at Doctor Banner. Steve has learned a lot about the man since yesterday and even though he doesn’t know enough about science, he gets why everyone is so excited.
Also, he couldn’t believe how lucky Tony was to randomly make contact with the man not knowing who he was at the beginning, using only strange nicknames on an underground website.
Steve lets Bruce open the door; Tony is sitting in the middle of the Avengers common space, on his favorite sofa, staring out of the window. He does that a lot. His breaths are ragged as he’s clutching his chest in a strange twisted position; he does that a lot, too.
The footsteps don’t make him turn around.
‘Tony,’ Steve says softly, ‘you have a guest.’
‘I don’t feel well,’ Tony mutters and Steve barely makes it out.
‘I know, but please…?’ Steve asks, knowing that he won’t regret it. Tony sighs, takes another breath, and turns around – and then freezes.
‘How is your genius self doing today?’ Bruce asks, his voice warm and curious and Steve can’t be anything but amazed with the ease. ‘They made sure I could come back and flew me over here, first class, to save your ass.’
‘I – Steve?’
‘Thank you,’ Tony says, still pale and still in pain, but beaming.
‘I heard you saved the world after I explicitly told you not to push yourself so hard.’ Bruce speaks up, moving closer and sitting on the edge of the sofa, eyes quickly assessing Tony’s state. ‘Have the doctors seen you?’
‘Later, in the evening, I couldn’t…’ he trails off and Bruce nods, which means he knows the story, too. ‘I didn’t really do anything, saving the world,’ Tony says, turning back to look at the city. There are black holes where burning buildings were, and the dust still hasn’t settled completely, but the high summer sun is shining and making everything look less depressing. ‘It was just a bit of robotics and some hacking and I just – I just laid there. My blankets wrapped around me. With Steve’s stolen phone.’
Steve hears lightest footsteps behind him just as Tony says those words and he knows it must be Natasha and Clint as no one else can walk like this.
‘You say you didn’t do anything?’ Clint asks aloud, making Tony and Bruce turn around and look at him sharply. ‘Of course you did, you damn idiot. You saved the planet, blah blah, while you were almost-dying – you’re still almost-dying, ain’t you? – and we, the superheroes, we only saved the world. No dying part. You’re officially awesome.’
‘You heard him,’ Natasha adds, her voice as cheerful as it gets.
Bruce looks back at Tony and now everyone is staring at him, so Tony shrugs slightly and says, ‘Okay, I’m awesome.’
Clint nods eagerly, turning his head to Natasha.
‘We need to go to a few meetings now, Captain. We should be back in a few hours. You two,’ she gestures at the occupied sofa, ‘can catch up, and the doctors will see you in the evening. Doctor Banner, please make sure he doesn’t run.’
He can’t afford to, Steve hears unsaid.
They all end up in medical, sitting around Tony like an overly-protective family from one of those modern movies Steve has seen, only that they listen rather than talk, trusting S.H.I.E.L.D. doctors to know what they are doing.
‘We need to build a special artificial heart, in this case,’ a tall doctor says, ‘and he – and you don’t have more than two months.’
‘I’m sorry, but it’s almost impossible,’ the man adds, ‘all the studies are years behind what you need as it can’t be temporary, you need a permanent solution and –’
‘We have blueprints,’ Bruce cuts in and everyone look at him; he’s clearly uncomfortable with the whole attention he’s getting, ‘We can make a heart. Tony – we’ve been working on the project, along with all the others. But it’d cost millions of dollars to get the materials we need so we weren’t able to do it before – we can build a heart, though,’ he repeats, this time more strongly.
The doctors look at Tony expectantly, waiting for some kind of a confirmation – they seem willing to trust the man who’s done so many impossible things so far – and Tony nods.
Steve believes them.
Tony needs rest so they start planning the operation the next day; it’s mostly Bruce and Tony who take care of all the preparations. They need to actually build the heart and run a lot of tests before they can even think of doing surgery so they need to hurry; S.H.I.E.L.D. can’t spare too many people but they are, for once without an argument, generous with the resources.
‘We’ll need JARVIS’ help,’ Bruce mutters to Tony when Steve brings them both some warm lunch. Tony’s in his wheelchair, instructing Bruce – his hands are too shaky to trust them, he said – the room around them full of sunshine, the windows open, letting in heat and dust-scented air.
‘Who is Jarvis?’ Steve asks, setting the plates in an empty spot on the workbench. He wasn’t aware they have acquaintances in common, but it only makes sense since they’re both scientists.
‘JARVIS is an A.I.,’ Tony explains casually and for a moment Steve isn’t sure if he’s being serious or joking. ‘He really is,’ Tony adds, noticing Steve’s stare. ‘We need him to analyze all the tests we run, it’s gonna be much quicker this way.’
‘Do you have access?’
‘Access?’ Steve questions. Tony gives him a look, his eyes shining.
‘JARVIS has been stored in a secure place on the internet,’ Tony explains, ‘very, very secure. He’s my greatest creation. I just need a few minutes to get to him and, well, wake him up – thanks, by the way,’ he adds and Steve’s only more confused.
‘The phone,’ Tony says, taking Steve’s cell out of his pocket, ‘it kind of saved the world, too.’
Steve shakes his head in disbelief; to tell the truth he hasn’t noticed the phone missing, he still has the pager thing he communicates with the team with and mobiles don’t seem very appealing or useful to him so he’s never cares much.
JARVIS turns out to be an artificial being of British accent, perfect manners and politely sarcastic attitude. The voice greets Steve out of his own phone after the lunch is eaten, while Bruce is working on something Steve doesn’t quite understand, following Tony’s instructions, as Tony himself keeps tapping at the phone.
‘Good afternoon, Captain Rogers,’ the voice says, suddenly everywhere, and Steve looks around frantically trying to find the source.
‘J and I, we just hacked S.H.I.E.L.D., he’s speaking through the HQ’s comm system,’ Tony explains with a smile.
Steve frowns and then laughs, realizing that, with Tony around, pretty soon he won’t be surprised by anything.
Everyone who can be spared spends days in streets, helping out NYPD, volunteers, and local communities to take care of cleaning the city up. Steve is there, too, with Natasha and Clint; it’s good that while they had to go public after this stunt, their identities are not known. With Avengers’ costumes forgotten, working as themselves, it feels natural and obvious to be there and help.
It’s their home, too, the city.
Tony says the same.
‘I have a flat, you know,’ he tells Steve, his hands never stopping to move as he connect wires so small Steve can’t believe it’s possible, even with magnifying goggles. ‘My old man set that up. Pointless, but he made sure I couldn’t sell it. So I had no money to pay the bills, everything was cut off. And it’s on the sixth floor on a building with no elevator so it was never worth it to bother to go up there. With my things, it would’ve taken me, like half a day. In the streets I got some change, at least, for food, or a nice hot chocolate,’ he smiles and Steve knows he’s the one who always brought chocolate.
‘JARVIS says it should be intact,’ Tony answers the unfinished question, ‘but it’s just an empty space,’ he adds quietly. ‘Hasn’t been my home for a long, long time.’
‘I wish I could help you,’ Tony mutters over dinner one evening, in late July. It’s been three weeks since Bruce came and the heart is almost ready for tests. That hopefully won’t take longer than a week; the sooner the better.
Tony has been awfully quiet recently and it’s not a good sign.
‘Just fix your heart and regain your strength and help all you want,’ Natasha tells him over her soup, ‘we’re good for now.’
‘Yeah, like, everyone wants to meet the mysterious man. S.H.I.E.L.D. never said more than about two sentences but apparently the world’s crazy about you, dude. They’d love some interviews.’
‘Do I have to…?’
‘Not if you don’t want to.’
‘Yeah, I know that,’ Tony nods, playing with his food. It’s tough to make him eat, even with Bruce’s hard glare. ‘Do I have to, you know, do it as me?’
‘Do you want a secret identity, too?’ Steve asks, admittedly he hasn’t thought about that before. ‘You don’t have to make yourself a public person.’
‘Dunno, don’t mind,’ Tony says, looking away, staring at the Manhattan; he seems in love with the view. ‘There’s just someone…’
Someone. Of course.
‘She used to be my assistant, and then I didn’t have any more money, ah, to pay her. I ordered her to go away and I knew she wouldn’t, so I never let her know what happened. I just observed her – from far away. To make sure she was fine.’
No one knows what to say, really.
‘Do you want me to…?’ Steve asks after a moment. Tony smiles tiredly – Steve can see a bit of his face still turned away – and sighs.
‘I could say goodbye,’ he says, one of his hands moving up to his heart as if unconsciously. ‘Just in case.’
‘You’re not gonna die,’ Steve protests, but he knows he’ll do whatever Tony asks him.
‘Just in case,’ Tony repeats and closes his eyes.
Pepper turns out to be a lovely well-mannered woman, pretty and therefore making Steve blush around her all the time, and she’s completely mad at Tony. She shouts at him for at least fifteen minutes, her words turning from angry to desperate, and she ends up crying, Steve can hear it in her voice through the wall, and when he finally enters the room to see if they want some lunch, she’s cuddled up to Tony’s side, heels forgotten, her expensive dress getting all wrinkled; she’s petting Dummy with one hand, resting the other over Tony’s heart.
Steve feels strangely envious of the simplicity of the comfort.
Tony never lets anyone that close.
She stays at S.H.I.E.L.D. Phil takes an immediate liking to her, they seem to understand each other well, and even Fury doesn’t try to make her go away.
Tony seems happy.
He keeps telling everyone goodbye, every evening, as if he wasn’t going to wake up, and Steve dreads that part of the day.
When Tony wakes up on the day of the surgery – all the tests have been successful and they can’t wait anymore, his own heart is growing too weak too quickly – he says goodbye to Steve, too.
‘I hate you for this,’ Steve tells him before he can stop the words coming out of his mouth.
Tony laughs at this, it obviously is taxing for him to laugh but he still does.
‘I don’t want you to regret – if – not having the chance to bid farewell,’ he says, using one of Thor’s favorite expressions, making them both grin in unison.
Then he takes Steve’s hand and puts it on his heart. Steve can feel, with his enhanced senses, how weak and strange the heartbeat is, almost jerky at times, making Steve shiver with anticipation at each jolt.
‘Don’t forget to save the world if I die,’ Tony says, ‘and don’t make that face, a few weeks ago I didn’t even expect to live. I’ve known this for too long to be bitter about this chance. Don’t mourn me and don’t let anyone else do it either, just save the damn world whenever it needs saving. In my name, if you need.’
All Steve can do is nod stiffly, even though he firmly believes Bruce and the team of excellent doctors will do their best and succeed.
‘When I was a kid,’ Tony adds, still not letting go of Steve’s hand, ‘I always wanted to be a superhero, I even made up one for myself: I called him Iron Man, a man flying an iron armor. Then I got older and wiser and understood it’d be almost impossible from engineering point of view, but you know, you always remember your childhood dreams. And then I met Captain America who is real. Here. Real. It’s more than I could have asked for.’
Steve nods again, not trusting his voice, and at Tony’s command pushes the wheelchair through the corridor, where everyone wishes Tony luck, into the pre-op. The medical team is already waiting for Tony.
Steve leans over the back of the chair and whispers into Tony’s ear, ‘Goodbye.’
Tony is woken up two days later.
‘Am I dead?’ he asks, voice harsh. They all laugh happily to see him – alive, alive and being himself, alive and as well as can be expected.
‘No, you’re very much alive,’ Pepper tells him fondly.
‘My readings do in fact indicate that you are not dead, sir,’ JARVIS quips in. Tony’s eyes widen at the voice. He seems a bit woozy, obviously still not very present, but he’s alive.
‘You did it,’ Steve says, and then glances at Bruce who nods. ‘You and Bruce, you did it. The heart is working perfectly, as good as a healthy new one – and you know what?’ Tony frowns slightly and shakes his head, ‘now we all get to be annoyed with you about the goodbyes.’
‘Fair enough,’ Tony agrees.
They are all pretending not to be too damn moved to speak.
With meds, physical therapy, and constant support from all around, Tony keeps recovering. Since the procedure was pioneer and experimental, he has to be monitored at all times for at least several weeks so he stays living with the Avengers in the HQ.
Superhero business is going slow these days, it seems like all the bad guys got a bit scared after New York battle and retreated for a moment; no one complains about that, though. They are rather happy to keep helping down in the city and pretending to have normal lives for once.
Pepper takes care of Tony’s legal issues with his if you want but no need to bother permission; she worked with him when Stane was the CEO and she obviously wants to fix as much as possible. He never tells the public his identity.
Tony upgrades JARVIS from Steve’s phone while he’s spending most of his time in bed or just sitting up, and brainstorms with Bruce about things Steve couldn’t hope to understand; he talks with Natasha and jokes with Clint, he even argues with Fury – it’s a well-executed game on both sides – but he’s always there for Steve.
‘You were the one who believed in me,’ he tells Steve after a long time of silence; they’re both sitting in the common room, Tony observing New York bathed in autumn sun, Central Park’s golden and red surface somewhere on the edge of the view, and Steve reading a book. ‘You are the one who gave me – all this.’
‘How many times do I need to tell you that you saved yourself? I was just there. By accident. And I couldn’t have done anything without your help –’
‘We can argue like this forever,’ Tony summarizes. Steve nods in agreement. ‘You still dragged me to a different world.’
Tony’s arms are wrapped around his knees, a careful position that he doesn’t need anymore, the stitches are long healed and his body is doing great. He seems like he’s missing something, though. Like he’s alone, that look in his eyes, Steve recognizes it from long ago.
He puts his book away and moves from his armchair to the sofa, sitting so close to Tony that they can feel each other’s body warmth, and they stay like that for some time.
‘Please never say goodbye again,’ Steve mutters eventually, breaking the calm silence.
Tony wraps his cold hand around Steve’s and says nothing.
It’s the end of November when Steve manages to persuade Tony to show him the apartment.
Sixth floor, it was like climbing Everest a few months ago, almost impossible. Steve knows the last time Tony was there was during a blizzard in winter two years prior and it was hard enough to take all these steps already, the luggage heavy in Tony’s freezing hands.
‘I told you all about me,’ Steve says truthfully, ‘and I just want you to show me the place you grew up in.’
‘If you really want,’ Tony agrees; he pretends not to be worried, but Steve knows him well enough by now to be able to tell that Tony is in fact very worried. Going up, walking up the stairs, it seems like a challenge – like a trial. Like a final test of his artificial heart.
The day is cold but sunny, so they wear everyday clothes and go out pretending to be normal people, in polished shoes and black coats, with Tony wearing a smart hat. They take a cab to the building, it’s pretty far away and none of them wants to push it. Steve pays the driver and when he turns around, he sees Tony standing there, unmoving, head up and staring at the top floor of the building, or maybe at the sky.
‘Take your time,’ Steve says, putting a hand on Tony’s shoulder reassuringly.
It seems like such a big thing.
It takes Tony over fifteen minutes of standing in the cold to finally shrug, as if he wanted to get something off his shoulders, and move towards the building. Steve follows. The steps are slow, reluctant, but Tony doesn’t really hesitate. He’s just taking his time, Steve realizes, as if he was afraid of failure but savoring the success at the same time.
It takes three to six months to fully recover from a heart transplant, Steve knows, and no one is sure how long it should take with Tony’s heart. He seems to be doing well, though, step by step, each of them echoing in the stairwell, the wooden floor and barren walls making the noise loud and empty.
Third floor, Tony stops for half a second, closes his eyes and takes a breath, but then continues easily. Fourth, he puts his hand on the railing and lets his fingers run across the uneven metallic surface, more out of habit then for actual support. Fifth, and he’s biting his lips, as if trying to keep a premature smile out of his face.
Steve doesn’t bother, he just smiles.
On sixth and the last floor, as soon as Tony takes the last step, he stops, breathing heavily – but it’s normal heavy breaths, Steve notices, not too quick or too shallow, it’s just heavy breaths of a person who isn’t used to this kind of physical activity – and then looks at Steve, eyes shining.
It’s a journey he’s never expect to make again.
He takes the big key out of the his pocket and puts it into the keyhole, hands just slightly unsteady with excitement, and when he opens the door with Steve a step behind him – he freezes.
The room is full of warm light coming from fairy lights and candles and filled with warm scent of spices and roast, people moving around speaking in hushed voices. Tony’s eyes are wide as he understands what’s going on; being a proper mad scientist he forgot about the holidays, too buried with his research to bother to check the calendar.
It’s a proper Thanksgiving dinner with turkey and potatoes and beans, the table filled with plates and glasses, and all the Avengers, Bruce and Pepper several S.H.I.E.L.D. agents are present, clapping and cheering and speaking too many words of congratulations at once.
‘You –’ Tony says and everyone seems to pause, looking at them with various stages of curiosity, ‘You knew about this,’ he adds accusingly. Steve nods happily.
Tony takes a breath, looks around once more, and lets a bright smile crawl onto his face.
‘Screw being a superhero,’ he says tightly, ignoring the mock-annoyed face Steve makes at the swear word, ‘this is so much better.’
Steve nods in agreement, taking Tony’s hand, and leads him inside.