It's four months after Steve disappeared, after everything went to hell. It's four months after, and Tony starts receiving post cards of all things.
Hand-drawn postcards that depict cities.
The post cards don't come with any other identifying markings. Just Tony's name and address and, honestly, he's surprised they get to him. He's surprised that anyone going through his mail wouldn't immediately throw them away.
He's surprised that HE doesn't immediately throw them away.
But he doesn't. Each one is placed in a drawer.
Not just any drawer, but the very same drawer that houses a letter and a phone.
He doesn't need any identifiers on the post cards. He doesn't need to see the places they showed or the names, almost-faceless, people. He knows who they're from.
He should throw them away.
Steve starts slowly. It's just a random doodle, nothing he's paying too much attention.
Until he does.
Because he realizes he's talking lowly to himself when he sketches. And he sketches a lot.
His free time is filled with it these days.
The kicker is, he's talking to his friend. To his friend that's thousands of miles away and can't hear. Hasn't tried to hear him.
The phone in Steve's pocket has been quiet for the four months it's been there.
So Steve doesn't even think too much about it. Instead, he finds another way to share. He draws his sketches of his sights on blank postcards.
He tries not to think too much about it.
If he does, his heart hurts, his emotions leak into the sketches.
He wants to cry.
He does, once.
He takes those postcards and he mails them. Every single one. He never lets himself wonder if they're received.
His silent phone is answer enough.
Seven months later, Steve receives a package via T'Challa. T'Challa looks grim and possibly a little sympathetic.
It makes Steve's heart thump painfully in his chest.
He takes the package and barely get a 'thank you' out around the lump in his throat. He flees, walks to an edge of the courtyard where the viewing tables are sat.
He sets the package down and gets the top opened. He bends one flap back and peers inside. The only thing he pulls out is a small slip of scrap paper. It sits tight in his fist as he sits down and stares listlessly at the package.
The breeze tries to take the slip of paper. And Steve lets it. Lets the words 'Return to Sender' go with the first choked-off sob as he buries his face in his hands.
Tony knows now that he's being watched.
Someone IS going through his mail. Someone is seeing the post cards and he's not stupid enough to think that they don't also know who's sending them.
He also knows that it wouldn't be too terribly hard to track their path, to find their artist.
Tony licks his lips and knows that they were only ever safe in his hands. He can't trust that whomever is watching him won't make copies.
It scares him, tightens like a ball of lead in his gut.
He does the only thing he can think of to protect St-...
He shudders out a breath and goes to grab a box.
He has to protect Steve.
Even if that means hurting him.
Send them back. Send them back and he knows that Steve will stop.
'Stop' he mutters to himself as he yanks the drawer open and stares at the multitude of cards sliding around loose.
'Stop' he whispers frantically as he begins tossing them haphazardly into the box.
They're out of order now. The places and people not telling their story the way they had any more.
He's almost frantic with how fast he's throwing them all in and his breathing is stuttered, panicked.
'Stop' he pleads. 'Stop giving them clues.'
His hand closes around the phone and he grits his teeth so hard that they creak. 'Stop doing this to yourself.'
He lets the phone go and it clatters back into the drawer. He slams it shut and grabs the first piece of scrap paper he finds. In a hurried scrawl, he writes three words and throws the paper in the box.
All in the space of ten minutes, he's finished. He stands at the mail bin, a wide-mouthed cloth-cart that holds all the mail that hadn't left the Tower yet. His package sits on top of the mound, addressed to Wakanda. To T'Challa. His hand is now empty. His other fist, though, clutches the neck of a bottle of whiskey.
The rest of the night is a blur.