When Steve sets off the sprinklers in the indoor firing range, he’s pretty sure he’s fucked. He’s breaking the rules. Or-- well, technically he hasn’t broken any rules that he’s ever specifically seen written down. He has range credentials. And permission to use them whenever he likes. He just isn’t so sure his superior officer in the ROTC program is going to see it that way once the part where he’s brought in a hot plate and set his dinner on fire is thrown in the mix.
If it’d kept to a sprinkle, maybe it would have dried by morning, but no-- it’s a monsoon.
For the first five seconds, Steve just stands there, staring at the water and his ruined dinner, wondering exactly how much trouble he’s made for himself. But after that, instinct kicks in and he grabs the nearest chair and stands on it, surveying the grid of pipes above to see if he can figure out which one is connected to the main water valve. Before he’s worked it out, the water goes off all on its own.
He tugs his soggy t-shirt off over his head and is wringing it out when the door to the range opens. A young man, in a hoodie and a hat that’s pulled down over his eyes strolls in, with body language that screams annoyed. Or annoyed until he spots Steve and then Steve can see a smile under the brim of the cap.
“Trying to burn the place down?” the guy asks.
“Trying to make dinner,” Steve says, nodding toward his hot plate and his ruined soup. He takes a step toward it and the guy practically jumps in front of him.
“Don’t. It’s wet and that’s electric. Bad combo unless you hate your life.”
“Right,” Steve says, and then surveys the room again and sighs. “I am so fucked.”
“Did you break in here?”
“What? No. I had permission to be on the range. I just didn’t have permission to set it on fire. Are you Student Security?”
“No,” the guy laughs. “I don’t think anyone would think that was a good idea. I broke in, actually.”
Steve raises an eyebrow at that and then nods toward the guy’s utility belt and the large set of janitorial keys attached to them. “That’s some lock-picking kit you’ve got there.”
“You can break in with keys,” the guy protests.
Steve crosses his arms, looking skeptical and the guy sighs.
“Maintenance Work-Study. I was emptying the trash in one of the offices when I heard the water rush through the pipes, figured that wasn’t a good thing and shut it off at the valve. Didn’t hear an alarm though, which is weird.”
“Not really,” Steve says. “This building’s a death trap. ROTC gets the leftovers.”
“You’re military?” the guy repeats, looking away for a moment before he turns back to Steve. “Figures.”
“You’ve got a problem with the military?”
“I’ve got a problem with authority. Or so I’ve been told. Doesn’t matter-- I’m going to get out of here before all this somehow ends up my fault. I can’t lose this job.”
“I’ll take the heat,” Steve promises him, smirking at his own bad pun.
“I’m embarrassed for you right now,” the guy says.
“It couldn’t have been that bad. You smiled.”
“I felt sorry for you,” the guy says. He’s still smiling.
“I’m Steve, by the way. Steve Rogers.”
“Tony Stark,” Steve repeats. “Must be rough sharing a name with a kid who can't keep his name out of the papers.”
“You don’t know the half of it,” Tony says, shaking his head. “Worst part is how disappointed people are when they’re hoping to meet the real thing.”
“I doubt the real Tony Stark would have bothered to save me from a flood. You win.”
“You may be the first person to ever think so,” Tony says.
Tony reaches around to his backpack and slings it to the floor despite the wet carpet, then digs inside until he produces a thick pair of rubber gloves. He walks over and unplugs the hotplate, which sends sparks flying from the wall.
“Do you carry those around for maintenance emergencies?” Steve asks, genuinely interested.
“I never leave home without them,” Tony says. “Part of being a master burglar and all. Taking out the trash is just my cover.”
Steve laughs and shakes his head. “You’re a regular Bilbo Baggins. Good luck, though. With whatever.”
“Good luck with your soup,” Tony replies.
And then he is gone.
That would have been the end of it, too, if things around the building didn’t suddenly get all... fixed. The ROTC building elevator that hasn’t worked in Steve’s four years at Penn State dings to life the next morning. The air conditioning that had been declared “unrevivable” by more than one A/C repairmen, whirs out comfortably cool air a week later. The wires that bring the targets forward on the range after you’re done firing hasn’t worked since the 50s according to some graffitti’d complaints in the men’s room, and yet one afternoon, out of the blue, the whole rig jerks into motion.
It’s weird. And it had all started after the night Steve had encountered the “work-study-burglar.” At least that’s what his best friend Bucky’s taken to calling the guy since Steve filled him in on what happened that night.
“Stevie. He gave you a fake name,” Bucky insists. “He probably stole those keys.”
“He didn’t,” Steve insists. “And he gave me his real name. No one could drum up that kind of name loathing in the middle of a lie.”
“So now he’s what? Phantom of the Opera-ing the ROTC building?” Bucky asks.
“You need some culture, Buck,” Steve laughs. “If he was the Phantom he’d be killing people. And playing an organ.”
Bucky smirks in a way that convinces Steve his friend problem knows the whole damn show by heart.
“Shut up,” Steve says.
“Didn’t say a word,” Bucky insists. Then walks away whistling Masquerade.
That lack of support is exactly why Steve’s staking out the building all on his own. Yes, it’s probably ridiculous to assume Tony and the improvements are connected but Steve really can’t convince himself otherwise. Which is why Steve sits in the ROTC stairwell four nights in a row, waiting.
It’s a little after eleven on the fifth night when he hears the jingle of keys and then the door to the stairwell open. Steve waits until the footsteps are close before he stands.
“Holy fuck,” Tony swears, stumbling in surprise at the sudden movement in front of him.
Steve reaches out without thinking, and manages to grab him, though they both end up slipping down a few more steps until Steve can brace against the wall to stop their momentum.
“Shit that hurts,” Tony whines. “What the hell?”
He eases himself to the stairs and now Steve feels terrible.
“Fuck, I’m sorry,” Steve swears. “Here--” Steve pulls out his phone and swipes on the flashlight to give them some light.
Tony’s wearing a hat again, and the same heavy hoodie.
“Where does it hurt?”
“My ankle,” Tony grumbles. “Seriously-- is someone paying you to do this? You try and set me on fire and that doesn’t work so now you’re going to shove me down the stairs?”
“Did you hit your head?” Steve asks. Because there’s really no other explanation for that kind of paranoia.
“I said it was my ankle. Are you seriously in college and aren’t sure where that’s located?” Tony asks.
“I can find an ankle,” Steve sighs. “Look-- sitting here on the stairs by the light of my phone is great and all, but I should probably get you to an ER if it’s hurting that badly.”
“Student Health opens at 9,” Tony says. “I won’t die before then.”
He pushes himself up but as soon as he tries to put weight on his ankle he grabs for the railing and groans.
“What are you even doing in the stairs?” Tony demands.
“It’s a long story. I guess-- I mean I was waiting for you, but not to maim you. I thought maybe you were the one fixing things around here and I wanted to thank you.”
“Buy me some flowers next time,” Tony grumbles. “Assaulting me on dark stairs is a weird way to show appreciation.”
Steve can’t even disagree with that. “I’m sorry. Let me help you home at least.”
“Leave me alone,” Tony says.
“I’m not going to leave you here,”
Tony puts weight on his foot again then sighs dramatically. “Fine.”
Steve pockets his phone, and then it’s slightly more pleasant because he can no longer see Tony’s scowl under the brim of his hat. Steve wraps an arm around him and supports most of his weight as they make it up one stair and then another, though with each progressive step, Steve can feel how much Tony is shaking.
“This would be easier if I carried you,” Steve says. “I won’t tell anyone if you won’t.”
“This sucks,” Tony replies. Though he does turn slightly toward Steve. “But go ahead. I’m not going to make it up the stupid stairs any other way.”
There are two ways Steve can pick Tony up. Either in a fireman’s hold or a bridal carry. Neither is without its awkwardness. In the end he goes with the bridal carry simply because it seems the steadiest on the stairs. Tony is lighter than he would have thought.
When they’re on the first floor he sits Tony on a bench near the front door.
“What dorm are you in?” Steve asks.
“Not a dorm. The Alumni Scholarship House. Other side of campus.”
Steve puts a hand to his forehead. He can’t carry Tony that far. Or he probably could but that’s 15 minutes of pure awkward.
“Do your keys open the field room?” Steve asks. “The one with all the outdoor supplies?”
“My keys open everything,” Tony says, handing them over. “Shit-- I’m going to lose my job if I can’t walk.”
He sounds so genuinely distraught Steve drops down on the bench next to him.
“This was my fault. I’ll make it right, whatever it takes. I’ll figure out a way to work your shifts. If you’re on crutches I’ll rearrange my schedule to carry your books or something. It’s going to be okay.”
Tony doesn’t respond. He sniffs though, and Steve realizes he’s made this guy cry and he feels like the kind of dirt that grows under other dirt.
“Wait right here,” Steve says, taking the keys and jogging down the hall.
“S’not like I can go anywhere!” Tony calls after him.
It only takes Steve a minute to get into the room he was looking for and empty out the wagon. It’s bigger than a kid wagon, though not exactly meant for adults. It doesn’t matter, because it’s better than the alternatives. He wheels it back to Tony.
“I can get you home in this tonight. Then I’ll stop by in the morning to go with you to the Student Health Center if you want. Or you could give me your phone number and I can text to ask what you need. I really am sorry. This wasn’t my intention.”
Tony nods. “It’s okay. Shouldn’t have accused you of trying to kill me. That was probably rude.”
“But not completely uncalled for,” Steve says. “Here. Mind if I help you onto the wagon?”
“And here I thought college was all about falling off one,” Tony says.
Steve laughs as he picks him up and sits him down on his temporary ride.
“Aren’t you a little young to be drinking?” Steve asks.
“I’m 18,” Tony disagrees.
“Which is my point exactly,” Steve says, as he begins to wheel Tony out of the building and down the side ramp.
“You didn’t drink until you were twenty-one?” Tony asks, sounding skeptical.
“I didn’t,” Steve agrees. “Though it wasn’t because I was opposed to it. I was part of a health trial. Alcohol and experimental drugs don’t really mix.”
“Must have worked,” Tony says. “I saw you without your shirt. Picture of health.”
“I’ll tell Doctor Erskine that,” Steve says.
“Wait-- Doctor Abraham Erskine?” Tony asks. There’s a tenseness in his voice that Steve can’t quite place.
“You’ve heard of him?”
“Yeah,” Tony says. “Some journal. Science journal.”
There’s definitely more to it than that, but Steve doesn’t press.
They walk the rest of the way to the Scholarship House in silence. It’s late so they only pass a few people on their way, and those people seem nothing but thrilled to see some random guy wheeling another guy around in a wagon.
When they get to the house Steve stops in front of it but Tony doesn’t move.
“I was a late addition. There’s a building in back.”
Tony points to an alley between houses and Steve rolls him down it, kicking up a bit of gravel as they walk to what looks like a garage, complete with two old style garage doors and a padlock.
Steve resists asking how exactly the university thinks this is fit for a student. He’d grown up poor and lived in less. He pulls Tony right up to the door with the lock.
“I can carry you inside,” Steve offers. “Get you settled with something to drink so you only have to get up for the bathroom.”
Tony takes a moment before he responds. “Sure, why not. But if this is another plot to kill me, you should know we walked past at least six security cameras. People have seen us together now.”
“Is this a real problem in your life?” Steve asks as he takes the key Tony offers him and unlocks the door. “People trying to kill... you...”
He’s opened the door and if anything, it’s him who should be running in terror. The garage is a nightmare. There are electronics and half torn apart office machines everywhere. Four copy machines have been connected together in an unnatural way that reminds Steve eerily of the time Bucky forced him to watch The Human Centipede. There are half-torn apart guns, too. And what looks like three-fourths of a rocket launcher.
Two separate robots start to move and beep and Steve takes a hard step backward and bangs his head against the door jam.
“Like it?” Tony asks from behind him.
“Not sure I shouldn’t be calling Homeland Security,” Steve says as he rubs at the pain where he hit. “What is this?”
“Home,” Tony says, lifting both his arms to be picked up as if he’s decided it’s the most natural thing in the world.
“Home,” Steve repeats. “Wow.”
He picks Tony up and carries him inside and deposits him on the sofa in the middle of the room.
“I’m not gonna lie, I’m a little freaked out right now,” Steve says.
Tony pulls his hat off, and shrugs out of the hoodie and then looks up at Steve. “Does this help?”
And for a few seconds, no, that helps nothing. Then something clicks into place.
“You’re Tony Stark. You’re the--” Steve stops, not sure how to say the next part without it coming out insulting. “You said you weren’t.”
“No, you said I wasn’t the real one and I didn’t disagree,” Tony counters. “It’s better when people don’t know.”
“What about your classes?”
“I’m enrolled under my first initial and my middle name. I don’t talk in class. I’m not really what people expect and I usually wear the hat. I wouldn’t have given you my real name but you caught me off guard.”
“And why do you think someone’s trying to kill you?”
Tony shrugs. “I don’t. I was being dramatic. Are you going to tell anyone?”
“Not if you don’t want me to,” Steve says. “I did already tell my roommate that I thought the janitor was fixing things around the building but I won’t say anything else. You deserve your privacy as much as anyone.”
“I don’t have any money so there isn’t any point in trying to blackmail me,” Tony says.
“I’m not going to try and blackmail you,” Steve huffs. “Has anyone ever told you you have trust issue?”
“For good reason,” Tony says.
“Fair enough,” Steve says. “Do you have ibuprofen or anything around here for your ankle pain?”
“That’s it? You aren’t going to ask why I’m here? How I’m here?”
“If you want to tell me, I’ll listen. But it seemed like it’d be rude to ask.”
“You’re weird,” Tony says. Then sighs dramatically and lets his head fall back against the cushions. “I had to get away from home. My dad and Uncle Obie both wanted me to go to MIT. Insisted I go to MIT, actually. But I didn’t want to. I wanted to come here. And since I’m 18 I could, but dad cut me off, hoping that a week of being poor would make me come crawling back. I know it’s only been a month and a half but I can do this.”
“Wow,” Steve says. “Good for you. That’s-- really cool.”
“You think so?” Tony asks. “Because a minute ago you looked at my living situation and called it freaky.”
“Sorry about that,” Steve says instantly. “If this is where you want to be, you did the right thing. There aren’t very many people who can’t be bought off by your father.”
“You sound like you know him,” Tony says.
“No,” Steve says. “I’ve never met him. But I’ve heard stories. For a long time Stark Industries was trying to recruit Doctor Erskine. It was hard on him, because he’s friends with your dad, and he’d worked there early in his career. Oh-- that’s how you recognized the name.”
“He’s my godfather,” Tony admits. “And the reason I’m here. Since he’s on faculty he pulled some strings to get me a housing scholarship and my work study job. He’s offered me money, too, but I don’t want him to be stuck in the middle.”
“If you want,” Steve offers, “I could show you some tricks to get by. You can’t live on ramen alone. You’ll get scurvy.”
Tony lifts an eyebrow skeptically.
“It’s a real problem,” Steve says, then laughs. “Fine, scurvy isn’t a concern. Do you have any ibuprofen I can get you before I leave?”
“Second copy machine on the left. Third paper drawer down.”
“You keep your medicine in a copy machine?”
“I didn’t have much furniture and they were throwing all this stuff out.”
“Good thinking,” Steve says, impressed. Also somewhat relieved Tony hasn’t created a Copy Machine Centipede Monster in here. He walks over to the machine, pulls open a paper drawer, and sure enough, it’s got bandaids and a few alcohol wipes, and a large bottle of generic pain reliever.
Steve walks it back over to Tony then ends up at the sink, filling a clean cup sitting nearby and walks that over, too.
“Think you’ll survive the night?” Steve asks.
“I’ve survived worse.”
After that, Steve and Tony are fast friends. Steve keeps his word and shows back up the next morning to take Tony to Student Health Services and insists on taking on his janitorial duties until he’s back on his feet. He carries Tony’s books for him as often as he can, and one afternoon a few weeks later, when the rain is pouring down in buckets, Steve meets Tony outside of his class with an umbrella.
“I’m gonna miss this once I’m off my crutches,” Tony says, grinning at Steve. “I’ve got to be the poorest guy in the world with umbrella service. I feel like a diplomat.”
Steve laughs. “Just remember me when you hit the big time.”
“Or vice versa,” Tony says, as they make their way slowly down the steps. “You’ll be a General or something and you can convince the army to buy my weapons. Or just convince them not to buy my father’s. You know-- either/or would be great.”
“I’ll do that,” Steve agrees. “And you know, just because you aren’t on crutches anymore doesn’t mean I’ve got to stop walking you to class. I was thinking-- maybe you’d like to get dinner sometime? My treat.”
Tony stops, there in the middle of the sidewalk, and looks up at Steve. The confines of sharing an umbrella have them well within each other’s space. They’ve been close before, but this seems closer somehow. And Tony’s not saying anything at all, just searching Steve’s face like he’s looking for something important and Steve looks down at the ground to gather his thoughts.
“This isn’t a plot to kill you,” Steve starts, letting the hand that’s not on the umbrella reach over to rest lightly on Tony’s hip, being careful not to bump his crutches. “I’m definitely not after your ramen noodle stash.”
That makes Tony smile again, even if there’s still doubt in his eyes.
"If you don't want this, we can just be friends," Steve hedges. "I'll still take you out to dinner. No strings attached."
"I like strings," Tony says. "And Italian. Ask me again."
Steve laughs from relief.
"Tony Stark, Phantom of the ROTC basement, Janitor-Thief Extraordinaire. Would you please go on a date with me?"
Tony's smile is bright and happy this time. Whatever he'd been looking for he'd found.
"Well, since you asked so nicely..."