“You know, you're going to die at this rate.”
Steve Rogers didn't move. He wasn't sure he was capable of it. Instead, he focused on breathing, on drawing a couple of thin, careful breaths. They were small, struggling, broken breaths, and they tasted like bright copper in the back of his throat.
“Yeah?” Steve managed. He coughed, and it hurt, the pain was excruciating, and he wrapped his arms around his ribs, trying to hold himself together. “Thanks, I'll keep that in mind.”
The sudden, violent rainstorm had stopped, almost as quickly as it had begun, but he was soaked to the skin, the cold like a layer of ice beneath it. He should be grateful. The storm was the only thing that had chased the damn muggers off. There had been three of them, desperate for a meal, or maybe their next fix. Either way, they hadn't been interested in listening to what Steve had to say, and Steve hadn't been interested in giving up his meager possessions without a fight.
Which had left Steve where his stubbornness and pride usually left him: facedown on the dirty pavement, wondering just how badly he was hurt this time, and hoping that his teeth were intact.
“Seriously. What are you defending?” A hand reached into his line of sight, and for an instant, Steve was transfixed by the beauty of that hand, the anatomical perfection of it. The fingers were long and straight and perfectly proportioned, strong and masculine.
Then those perfect fingers closed on the strap of Steve's backpack, and just like that, the spell was broken.
Steve lunged, scrambling and fighting and forcing himself upright. His feet kicked at the ground, and he fell back to his knees, but the force of his attempt was enough, and he got his bloody fingers around the strap of his backpack before it could be pulled out of reach. “Don't,” he bit out, blinking hard to clear his eyes.
“Still kicking, huh?” The pale, almost luminous oval of a face swam into view. “Good for you.”
Steve wrenched the backpack out of the man's hand, and the force of it sent him stumbling back against the wall. His legs were trembling so hard that he could barely hold himself up. He wrapped the strap of his bag around his hand, around and around, tying himself to his bag, and he hugged it close. Water dripped from his face, from his hair, and he shivered, folded around his backpack. “Who are you?” he asked, trying to get his vision to clear. “What-” The words died in his throat.
The man was less pale than he had thought, his skin had a warm, golden hue, as if he'd been in a place far sunnier than New York in mid-winter. His dark hair was a luxurious mass of curls, and his straight black brows winged warm, golden brown eyes. He was smiling, bright white teeth ringed with a neatly trimmed black goatee. There was amusement on his face, in his eyes, a spark of something bright and warm that settled low in the pit of Steve's stomach like a long drink of a warm liquor.
He was dressed in all in white, and that was odd. He wore a pair of white trousers and a white shirt, the fabric flowing over his trim body, open at the throat and loose at the wrists.
And he had wings.
Steve stared at them. Wings. Beautiful, bright wings, wings that seemed to glow, each feather flickering in the darkness, reflecting a light that wasn't there. As Steve watched, the man's shoulders shifted, muscles flexing beneath the soft confines of his shirt, and the wings fluttered around him, the sound like rustling silk.
“What are you?” Steve asked at last.
The man chuckled, and the sound rolled over Steve's skin, prickling as it went. “Isn't it obvious?” he asked, his smile curling with the same seductive twist as as his wings. “I'm your Guardian Angel.”
Steve swallowed. “Great,” he said out loud. “Head injury. Hallucination. That's... That's just what I needed right now.”
Turning on his heel, he limped towards the end of the alley, one hand braced against the wet brick of the wall, the other clutching his bag to his chest. His head hanging down, he picked his way back towards the street. He didn't have time for this. He had class. He had work to do, he had projects to finish. He had a long walk home, and everything, just about everything hurt. Another step, and another. He could do this. He didn't have a choice. He had to keep moving.
He bumped into his latest hallucination.
“Really?” the winged man said, his voice amused. “This is what we're doing? Listen, I have a very busy schedule, I've got things to do and people to see, and you are constantly gumming up my gears.” The bag disappeared from Steve's grip, and just like that, the man was digging through it. “For such a little guy, you make a very big mess of my schedule.”
Steve stared down at his empty hands.
“All this for a couple of sketchbooks?”
Steve's head jerked back up. In front of him, the man was flipping through his book, those beautiful fingers idle on the pages. “Give me that,” Steve said, lunging for him.
He thumped into the wall.
“You're good.” The man padded by, and Steve noticed, for the first time, that his feet were bare. And dry, despite the puddles he was walking through. “I mean, I knew you were good, you were always going to be good, but you've really improved since the last time I had a chance to check your file.”
Steve twisted, making a futile grab for the sketchbook, and crashed headlong into the man's chest.
“Now, now, this is far, far too forward,” the man said, those honey gold eyes warm in his vision. With one hand, he snapped the sketchbook shut as the other slipped around Steve's waist, dragging him close. “Or not forward enough. It's so hard to say.” Steve gaped at him. “Yes?” the man said, and his breath was warm, his body was warm, warm and solid and real. As real as the feathers that closed in around him.
Steve snatched at the sketchbook in the man's hand. The man held it out of reach without much effort. With a half jump, Steve grabbed it. “I am losing my mind,” he said, pulling away from those warm arms. Considering that they weren't real, it was a lot harder than it should've been.
“Probably,” the man said. He handed Steve back his sketchbook, and Steve fumbled it, nearly dropping it to the wet pavement, confused as to how it had gotten out of his hand. “It happens to most everyone from time to time, far more common than society would have you believe, really. But you're not scheduled for that for-” He paused, his brow furrowing. “I'm getting ahead of myself.” He held out a hand, and there was a book in it, a heavy ledger, bound in leather and filled with graph paper. He tapped the tip of his pen against it. “Way ahead of myself,” he said, and the pen and book were gone.
“But that's how the mechanism of the universe works occasionally. A slipped gear, the failure of a minor component, a wire frays at just the wrong time, and then, well-” He sighed. “Then off we're sent, to do our duty, to repair the damage.” He tipped his head in Steve's direction. His eyes were bright over the wire rims of his glasses. “The fix-it men of the universe.” He took his glasses off and they disappeared from between his fingers. “And it would appear that you, Mr. Rogers, require fixing. And so here I am!”
Steve was hugging his sketchbook, clinging to it like it was the last lifeline he had in the world. “I need to go home,” he said to himself. “I need to go home. I need to go home, have a glass of hot milk, take a hot bath, and go to bed.” He scrubbed a hand through his hair. “I'm cold, I'm in pain, and I have a head injury. I just need to go home. And forget that any of this happened.”
“No response? Nothing?” The man fell into step beside him, the leather bound book once again tucked under his arm. “You take stubbornness to an entirely new level.”
“I'm not talking to you.” Steve leaned over, just far enough to grab his backpack from the ground. Shaking off the water, he jammed the sketchbook back inside and worked it onto his shoulder, a slow and painful process. “I'm not going to talk to you, because talking to you is just going to- I'm not talking to you.”
“For someone who's not talking to me, you're doing a lot of verbalizing in my general direction,” the man said. 'Where are we going?”
“I,” Steve said, stressing the word, “am going home. Alone. By myself. Without-” He winced as the cut on his lip reopened. “Without you!”
“I don't think you understand the situation,” the man said, and Steve lost it.
“Don't understand the situation?” he spat out. “No. I don't. I don't understand the situation.”
“You always did show a distinct lack of imagination.”
Steve wanted to take a swing at him, he really did, but if there was anything worse than arguing with a hallucination, it was getting into a physical altercation with one. There really wasn't any way to win that, even if he won, he'd lose. “Go away.”
“I can't. I'm your Guar-”
“Oh, that's rich. Guardian Angel, really?” Steve paused, struggling to breathe. “If you're my Guardian Angel, you've been doing a pretty piss poor job of it, you know that?
“You'd be surprised how hard of a job it is, really,” the man said. “And I have an extensive list of clients, and all of you are major pains in the asses, so it's really-”
“You expect me to believe you're an angel?”
“It's the logical conclusion.”
Steve wanted to scream. “How is that logical?”
“Well, there's the wings.” The man smiled as they fluttered behind him.
“Other than the wings,” Steve said, well aware that he sounded STUPID and not really caring about it. “Other than the wings, you look more like a beach bum than a damn angel.”
“What, was this more of what you were expecting?”
Steve turned, and regretted it almost as soon as he did. The man's clothing had changed, from the odd but at least understandable shirt and trousers to flowing robes, a toga that trailed around his legs. The fabric actually extended below his feet, because he was aloft now, floating some inches above the ground, those massive, brilliant wings spread wide, glowing like moonlight. A faint glow wreathed his head, a corona of brilliance that made his eyes shine gold.
“Hi,” the man said. “I'm your Guardian Angel. Pleased to meet you at last.” He reached out, his hand extended towards Steve, and Steve couldn't resist. Couldn't have stopped himself from reaching out and taking that perfect, beautiful hand if his life had depended on it.
Their fingers touched, and the world went black.
Steve's eyes snapped open, and he stared up at his ceiling. It took him a second to process the strange thoughts, the hazy memories that were still floating through his mind. He took a deep breath, and it didn't hurt. He shifted, waiting for the pain, waiting for the pull of strained muscles or bruised skin, but nothing. He held up a hand in front of his face, flexing his fingers.
Nothing. No pain. No ache. Nothing but an effortless movement, smooth as glass.
His arm fell back to the bed with a thump, and he squeezed his eyes shut. “I have got to cut back on the caffeine,” he muttered, and rolled over.
“Hi,” said the angel on the other side of his bed. “I'm Tony. And you're due, I think, for a growth spurt.”
Being a student on a budget wasn't easy. Steve was good at budgeting, good at being very, very careful with his limited income. He considered it a point of pride, and he might have to print coupons at the computer lab, shop the sales, and make a weekly menu, but he ate three meals a day.
They weren't always the most exciting meals, but they were good, solid food.
“That is depressing,” Tony said, and he sounded depressed. Depressed and dismayed. He had a clear folder open in one hand, flipping through transparent pages with the other. Symbols and signs flowed over the space, light swirling between his fingers. Occasionally, it would morph into the heavy leather bound ledger, and back, until Steve stopped trying to follow the fluid changes.
“It's not depressing, it's nutritious,” Steve told him. He wondered if his subconscious was always this negative. It seemed unlikely. “It's Wednesday. Wednesday breakfast is half an English Muffin with peanut butter and raisins and a banana. And half a cup of milk.”
“Every Wednesday?” Tony asked, sounding pained. He was seated on the counter, right next to Steve's sink. He snapped the folder shut and it disappeared in a burst of light. “Every. Wednesday.”
“Every single Wednesday,” Steve agreed, spreading the peanut butter carefully over the muffin half. It melted into the hot surface, and Steve put everything away. “Can you not-” He shifted to the side, trying to avoid Tony's legs and feet. “You're in the way,” he said, trying to ignore the way Tony was watching him. It was disconcerting, having those brilliant eyes tracking his every move.
He supposed it was silly to find his own hallucination kind of sexy, but there was no denying that he had a very, very good imagination. He'd barely gotten a glimpse of golden skin and dark hair and impossibly soft feathers before he'd fled to the bathroom, dragging half the blankets with him. He'd nearly brained himself on the wall, and again on the sink, but he'd managed to lock himself in the tiny bathroom.
A quick panic attack and an even quicker shower, and he'd worked up the courage to crack the door open. Just far enough to peer into his bedroom. Just far enough to spot the probably naked hallucination curled up on his bed, his face buried in Steve's pillow, Steve's sheets in a tangle around his waist.
Silvery wings tucked up against the sleek, beautiful lines of his spine.
Steve wondered when, exactly, he'd picked up this particular fetish. Because he wasn't aware of having a thing for wings before this, but it was going to be a long, long time before he'd be able to remember that scene without blushing.
He knew his face was bright right, and he covered it by taking the jar of peanut butter from Tony's hand. “I ration that,” he said.
“That-” Tony said, pointing a spoon in his direction, “that is depressing, Steven. Depressing.” He tucked the spoon of peanut butter in his mouth and glanced around Steve's tiny apartment. “I am not putting up with these working conditions.”
Steve snatched the spoon from his mouth, caught between embarrassment and defensiveness. It wasn't as if he wasn't aware of how small his place was, how threadbare. But it was clean and tidy and he was careful with the few things that he had. He resented being ashamed of his circumstances. “You are a figment of my imagination,” he said, because he needed to say that out loud. “I'm not feeding you.”
Tony grinned at him, leaning forward. “You've got a very good imagination, then,” he purred, and Steve tossed the spoon into the sink with a little more force than was strictly necessary. Tony yawned, stretching both his arms and his wings over his head. “I'm tired,” he said. “What're we doing up so early?”
“It's nine am,” Steve said.
Tony groaned. “Can't we go back to bed?” he asked.
Steve choked on a mouthful of English muffin. “No,” he managed, blinking to clear his eyes. “No. We can't. I have class. You can go back to bed, if you want to-” He stopped, almost mid-word. “What am I saying? No. You can't go back to bed. You aren't real. You need to- I need to stop talking to you.” Jamming the muffin in his mouth, he looked around for his backpack. He didn't remember getting home. He didn't remember anything after the alley.
He choked down on a minor sensation of panic.
“I'm real, you know,” Tony said, and Steve looked up just in time to watch his new imaginary friend steal his banana.
“You're not.” Steve spotted his backpack, leaning up against the door, and heaved a sigh of relief. “I'm just stressed out. It's been a long semester.” A long semester and a longer year. He did a quick check of his backpack, relieved to find his sketchbook right where it should be.
“Is that what you got into a fight over?” Tony asked, taking a bite of banana. Steve zipped his backpack back up, ignoring him. “Next time, let them have it.”
Steve's head ducked down over his backpack, his hands tightening on the strap. “It's my life,” he gritted out.
There was a beat of silence. “It's not worth your life. It's paper.”
The words were gentle, but Steve reacted like he'd been hit. Slinging the backpack up onto his shoulder, he grabbed his jacket and stalked for the door. Fumbling with the locks, he wrenched the door open, and slammed it behind him. The keys stymied him for a second, and he had to stop, struggling to control his breathing, before he could get the door locked again. He was shaking by the time he started tugging his jacket on.
Steve turned away from the door and nearly shrieked as he found Tony standing there, waiting patiently. He was dressed in the flowing white toga again, making an attempt, it would seem, to appear angelic. “You forgot your banana,” Tony said, holding it out. It was missing a bite.
Steve pushed past him. “Keep it,” he said, heading for the stairs. It was a long way down to the front door of his apartment building, a long way down, and out onto the cold morning streets. His feet clattered on every stair, and he knew he shouldn't let his frustration and anger get the better of him. One good fall and he'd be laid up for weeks, an interruption to his classes and his work that he couldn't afford. He needed to control himself, he needed to get this whole mess under control.
Despite that thought, he wasn't at all surprised to find Tony waiting for him on the sidewalk, his eyes warmer than the sunshine.
“Can't you please just leave me alone?” Steve asked.
“Banana,” Tony said, holding it to Steve's lips with a coaxing smile.
He felt the blood rush into his cheeks, and Steve snatched it from him. “Thank you,” he said, reluctant but still drilled to be polite. “Now, please leave me alone.”
“I can't. I'm your Guardian-”
“Yes, yes, I got that, Guardian Angel, right,” Steve said, setting off for the bus stop.
“Why are you having such trouble with this concept?” Tony asked, easily keeping pace with him. His robes billowed around his legs, but his feet were still bare, just skimming above the icy pavement.
“Because there's no such thing as a Guardian Angel,” Steve said, shifting his backpack further up on his shoulders. He ate his banana with a series of methodical bites, tossing the skin into the nearest trash can.
“How do you know?” Tony asked.
“I just do,” Steve said. Tony made a humming noise under his breath, even as his bare feet skimmed over a patch of ice. Steve's glanced around; the street wasn't crowded at this time of day, but still, there were people out and about. There were people walking and driving and no one was even giving a second glance at the crazy man with the wings and the toga.
Great. Confirmation that he was insane.
“See, the thing is-” Tony started.
“Fine,” Steve said, his jaw tight. “You're my Guardian Angel. Fine. Can you go back to being, you know, invisible now?'
“I like being visible. It's nice.” Tony tipped his head up, squinting into the early morning sun. “This is nice. Talking to someone.” His smile was warm and bright. “Don't you like having someone to talk to?” Steve shrugged, and Tony's smile died. “You have friends, don't you?” One hand stretched out in front of him. The file fell open in his hand. “Your file says you have friends.”
“I have friends,” Steve said, his face heating. He hunched his shoulders and paused at the corner of the road, waiting for the light to change. “I- I have friends.”
“So you do.” Tony was frowning, and he swirled his fingers over the pages, through the pages. “Not a lot of them, though. We could do with more of those. You're a sweet kid, you should have more-” His lips pursed, he pressed glowing fingertips to the page.
Steve glanced over at him. “What're you doing?” he asked at last.
“Making the necessary adjustments to the program,” Tony said, and his voice was magnificent and terrifying and awesome. It was music and sex and Steve struggled to breathe for a second.
“What program?” he asked at last, scrambling for whatever logic he could find in this madness.
“Your program.” Tony snapped the glowing file shut. He caught sight of Steve's horrified face and smiled. “I fixed it.”
Steve took a breath, and another. It hurt. “I-” he said, and he choked on the words. “Do not need to be FIXED,” he said, spitting the word out with force. An older woman gave him a wide berth, and a nervous look out of the corner of her eyes, and Steve stalked across the road.
“Go away!” he snapped, frustration boiling over. “Just- Leave me alone!”
Steve stomped his way over to the bus stop. Halfway there, he realized that Tony hadn't said a word to that. Grumbling, Steve stepped into the graffiti covered glass of the bus stop enclosure, fully expecting to find Tony waiting there for him. He didn't want to admit to a feeling of disappointment when he found it empty. After a few moments, he leaned back out, looking back the way he came.
Steve heaved a sigh of relief, and slipped back into the corner of the enclosure, leaning his shoulders against the cold glass. “Fine,” he said, under his breath. “Good. He's gone. He's gone. That's the end of that.” He took a breath. “That. Is the end of that.”
He shifted, wondering why his ankles felt so cold. These pants must've shrunk in the wash.
“Do you have any idea of the energy you're expending? That rainstorm alone, that would've fried most of us, and you just-” Fury snapped his fingers in midair. “Do you have any idea what you're playing with here?”
Tony tipped his chair even further back, rolling wisps of energy between his fingertips like fish darting through deep rooted reeds. “Down to the amp,” he said, smirking at the warm glow. “I can give you an exact, painfully exact accounting, if you'd like.”
Fury huffed out a breath behind the folded tent of his hands. He was leaning over his desk, a vast, intricate piece of work, all golden hued marble and crystal pale metal. The thing was so massive, so ancient, and so immense that the newest among the angel ranks were told that it had come first, and the rest of the department had been built around it.
There was no telling how many of them believed it. It was, after all, quite believable.
Fury ran his department with a ruthless sort of efficiency that belayed the intense amount of loyalty he had to his people, and those they protected. Theirs were the hard luck cases, the borderline, the fragile and the fractured. There were never enough foot soldiers to go around, but somehow, Fury always managed to stretch his resources. He always got the people the Guardian they deserved, if not the one they wanted.
“Look.” Tony's fingers snapped shut. The energy swirled around his hand, and the warmth was a blessing, even as small and as fleeting as it was. He let his fist swing in mid-air. “Recall me like that again, and it'll be the last time I follow your orders.”
Fury gave him an unimpressed look. “You are letting your reputation swell your pretty little head,” he said. “You might be the one and only Engineer, Tony, but you are still a Guardian, and you will-”
“Let's cut to the chase,” Tony said, interrupting him with ruthless efficiency. “Steve Rogers is my case. And if I'm expending energy on him, it is energy that is DUE him. Over due, actually.” He leaned forward. “Rogers is my case, and you know it.”
“Not any more. Tony, we need-”
“You took his file from me,” Tony said, the banked rage in his voice bringing Fury to a halt. “You promised me, you swore, that he would be well looked after.”
Fury rocked back in his chair, his hands folded over the flat plane of his stomach. “Tony-”
“You swore,” Tony bit out. “You took his file, and you-”
“You had too high a caseload,” Fury snapped, cutting him off. “Even for you.” Tony's mouth opened to object, and Fury sliced a hand in midair. “Even for you,” he repeated. “Whether you want to admit it or not, you took on too much, you took on one too many high energy cases, and you could not handle it all. You were dying, Tony.” He paused. “You were going to start shedding your wings.”
Tony surged to his feet. “I was handling it!” he yelled.
Fury stared up at him, his face impassive. “You were bleeding energy,” he said, every word clipped. “I had a choice. Cut your files. Or cut you loose.” He shook his head. “And we need you. No one can do the repair work you can. Got no one else on the roster that can handle it.”
“I could've handled it,” Tony said, and he wished he sounded less lost.
“No. You couldn't.” Fury shook his head. “You had to lose a file, Tony. You know it.”
Tony gave a faint huff of laughter that had no humor to it. “So I fucked him over.”
“I chose which file to pull,” Fury said. “Rogers was the one most likely to survive with another Guardian.”
“I let you choose,” Tony said. Because that was the truth. That was the horrible, crippling truth. He could've fought it. Could've insisted on another one of them to be handed off. But it had been the right choice. Rogers wasn't the one most likely to survive under another Guardian, he was the only one of Tony's casefile who had any chance at all at survival.
Despite the fractures, despite the flaws, at his core, Steve Rogers had been a diamond in the rough, stable and hard and strong under pressure. Tony had been sure. He'd been so sure. He was a futurist. He was the fix-it man, he was the Engineer. He could run the numbers, he could see the pattern. He could flip a file and see every spot where things could go wrong, every skipped heartbeat, every missed step, every illness, every possible tipping point.
Tony had been over his file a thousand times. A hundred thousand. All it would take was a firm hand, a careful eye, a reasonable expenditure of energy. Steve Rogers' life wouldn't be easy. But it would be full. It would be the life he deserved, even if it wasn't perfect.
Instead, he'd been left alone. To struggle.
“I gave up his file,” Tony said, with a tight, hard edged smile. He shook his head. “I gave it up. And now my slate is clear. I'll expend as much energy on him as I want.”
Fury's sigh was resigned. He braced a hand against his mouth. “It wasn't your fault, Tony.”
Tony's head jerked in an uneven nod. “Yeah. I wish I could believe that.” He met Fury's eyes. “I'll expend as much energy on him as I want.”
Fury considered him, his one eye brilliant. “You think that being able to see you will do anything other than soothe your wounded ego?” he asked.
“We left him,” Tony bit out. “You promised me. You fucking promised me that he'd be assigned another Guardian, and for almost two decades, he's been alone.” The thought was agonizing; he pushed it away with the sort of detachment that came from long, long practice. “If I hadn't gone looking for him, you still wouldn't have known!”
“His file got misplaced,” Fury said. He sounded tired. Tony really didn't care; after all, he was tired, too. “It was a paperwork error.”
“It was his life,” Tony said, all the fight gone out of him. “Goddamn, Fury. He was supposed to be protected. Do I think that being visible changes his life? Probably not, but you know what? At least if he sees me he can take some minor comfort in the fact that he wasn't completely forgotten by the universe.”
“The universe is remarkably uncaring.”
Tony gave a snort. “Tell me something I don't know.” He held up a hand. “Don't jerk me out of there again. I won't forgive it next time.”
Fury tipped his head forward. “Don't lose your wings over this,” was all he said.
“They're mine to lose.” Tony snapped his fingers, and the light sparked, sending him back to earth.
The hand that grabbed his arm caught him off guard, and Steve was swinging his backpack before he had a chance to think it through.
“Whoa! What the hell?” Sam Wilson was laughing as he skipped back a few steps, safely out of reach. He held up his hands, broad palms out. “Chill!”
Steve sucked in a breath, and it came out on a cough. “Sorry- Kinda on edge,” he said, struggling to breathe. “Sorry, thought you were someone-” He sucked in another breath, and another. “Someone else-”
Sam's arm was already wrapping around his back. “Someone messing with you?” he asked, taking Steve's backpack from him. “Slow, slow, you're going to work yourself into an attack.” He steered Steve towards the nearest door to the student center. “Let's sit down.”
“I'm fine,” Steve managed, and the words were thin and thready, barely audible.
“Yeah, I know. Where's your inhaler?”
Glaring at him, Steve wished he had the strength to pull away. Instead, he had little choice but to accept Sam's help in getting to a chair. It was humiliating, but he was used to that by now. By the time Sam lowered him into a chair in front of the student cafe, the warm air was already helping him. Still, because Sam was going to hover over him until he was satisfied that Steve wasn't going to have an attack, he fumbled his inhaler out of his pocket and held it up.
“Good.” Sam put Steve's backpack down on the table. He stripped off his gloves as he added, “Stay here. I'm gonna grab a coffee.”
“Got class,” Steve said, because 'grab a coffee' meant that Sam was going to get him a coffee, an indulgence that Steve couldn't afford, and they both knew it. Which meant that Sam would be buying and Steve hated it. Hated that something as small as a cup of coffee could make him feel so beholden.
“In half an hour, and you're not going back outside, you're going to-” Sam caught the look on Steve's face and sighed. “I swear, if you try to ditch me, Rogers...”
He left the threat unfinished, and Steve slumped down in his chair. “Got class,” he said, between labored breaths. “Gotta go-”
“Half an hour.” Sam's dark eyes were worried. “Sit. There.”
Steve knew a losing battle when he saw one. Heaven knows, he'd seen enough of them. He nodded, concentrating on bringing his breathing under control. Even so, he heard the faint, relieved exhale from Sam and felt a moment of shame. It wasn't Sam's fault that he had too much pride and not enough sense.
“Be right back. And your ass better be in that chair when I do.”
Steve made a face, but when Sam returned, Steve was still sitting there, too tired and cold to consider doing anything else. Sam put a large coffee and a massive scone in front of Steve before he took a seat across the table. Reading Steve's expression, he rolled his eyes. “I got paid yesterday, can we please, for once, not fight about this? Just-” He reached over and nudged the plate closer to Steve. “Eat? Please?”
“I ate breakfast,” Steve said, his voice still raw. But he was breathing better now, the pressure and the strain was gone. “I always eat breakfast.”
“I know.” Another nudge. Sam was stubborn. Almost as stubborn as Steve himself. “Could you please just-”
Giving in, Steve ripped the scone in half and pushed half of it back in Sam's direction. That was apparently acceptable, because Sam leaned back in his seat, his lanky form loose and relaxed. He ripped off a chunk of scone and shoved it in his mouth. “Why didn't you pick up your phone last night?” he asked, after washing it down with a quick gulp of coffee.
Steve chewed his part of the scone with care, savoring it. “I got home and crashed,” he said. The coffee was hot and rich, the bitterness smoothed away by cream and sugar and a shot of hazelnut syrup. It really was too sweet, but he drank it gratefully. The heat alone was worth it. He glanced up, catching the worried glance that Sam was giving him. He shrugged, reaching for the scone. “I guess I needed the sleep.”
“You've got a doctor's appointment this week, right?” Sam asked.
“I've always got a doctor's appointment,” Steve said. “I've also got class.”
“Uh-huh.” Sam cradled his cup between his palms. “So do I, but you don't see me whining about it.”
“That is because you skim through life,” Steve said, making Sam laugh.
“Yeah, you're not allowed to talk to my mom anymore.”
“She calls me when you don't pick up your phone,” Steve said.
“Don't pick up, either!”
“That's really rude,” Steve said, disapproving. “It's your MOM.”
“I'm nineteen years old! I do-” Sam groaned, throwing his head back. The co-eds at the next table were paying attention, giving him appreciative and amused looks between whispered bits of conversation. “I do not need you telling my mom what I'm up to.”
“Your mother already knows what you're up to,” Steve said. He finished the scone, lingering on the final bite, and not so proud that he didn't lick the frosting from his fingers. “She's not stupid. Everyone knows what you're up to.”
“You don't need to confirm it.” Sam grinned at him anyway. “Tell you what, bitch, next time Bucky calls around my place, fussing like the mother hen that he is, I'll just tell him what-”
“Don't you dare,” Steve warned, making Sam laugh. “Sam, I'm serious, don't!”
“Fine. Pick up the damn phone next time.” Sam checked his watch and bit out a swear. “I got class, like, now. You okay?” He was already rolling to his feet. “Really, are you okay?”
“I'm fine.” If he was being honest, he was achy this morning, all of his joints protesting every move he made, but it wasn't anything he couldn't handle. “Thanks for the coffee.”
“Yeah, don't sweat it.” Sam was shoving his hat and gloves on, even as he was bobbling his bag and his empty coffee cup. He tossed the cup towards the trash and shifted the backpack onto his shoulder. “Where are you off to?”
Steve wrestled himself into his cold weather gear before grabbing his cup. He could stretch the coffee for a few more minutes. “Life drawing.”
“Aw, yeah. Naked girls.”
Shaking his head, Steve agreed. “Yeah. Naked girls.” Despite what his friends thought, it wasn't nearly as sexy as they wanted it to be. It really wasn't sexy at all. Most of the time, it was about as sexy as a still life made of a bowl of fruit and a wrinkled tablecloth. “Or, you know, a seventy year old man.”
“Stop ruining my delusions about your chosen career path,” Sam said, throwing an arm around Steve's shoulders. “I know it's all body painting and orgies.”
“Do you know how much paint costs?” Steve asked.
“Really? Really? I bring up orgies and painting the nubile young ladies in your classes, and you, you're worried about the cost of paint?”
“It's really, really expensive,” Steve said. He sipped his coffee as Sam stared down at him. “What?”
“I'm just going to think about that. See you at lunch?”
“Yeah.” Steve braced himself for the cold, and it didn't help much. He wrapped his gloved fingers around his coffee cup and walked for the art building as fast as he could manage without winding himself. Some part of him was looking for Tony the entire way, but everyone he passed was properly clothed, and none of them had wings. He told himself he was relieved by that.
Heading for his classroom, he wondered if he was just too tired. He'd been working, and studying, too hard, but what choice did he have? A couple more semesters. He could do this. He could hold himself together, he could hold everything together.
And he absolutely wasn't losing his mind.
He pushed the door open, and somehow wasn't surprised to find a familiar form sitting on the model platform. “Finally,” Tony said. “I don't suppose that coffee is for me?”
Steve's shoulders hunched a little higher, his gaze fixed on his work with a focus that could only be called intense. Tony, not really dissuaded by the lack of response, leaned a little closer. He was used to talking to himself. Most of the time, after all, no one could hear him. Unless there was another Guardian around, and there weren't many of his kind, his words always fell on deaf ears. He was used to it. Decades, maybe centuries, had passed since he'd taken his first file. Dozens, hundreds, thousands of cases had passed through his hands, and he had spoken to every one of them. None of them had ever answered back, and he had resigned himself to that, a long time ago.
Despite that, he found he wanted a response from Steve.
Steve could hear him, Tony knew he could. Tony made sure he could. Which made Steve's steadfast refusal to acknowledge him rather annoying. He was burning energy here, and he'd seen Steve's eyes go wide in the doorway, seen his feet stumble. Steve knew he was here.
He was just being stubborn.
Tony leaned over Steve's shoulder. “I knew you were good, but I didn't know just how good,” he said, his lips right next to Steve's ear, and maybe he blew a little at the tail end of the words, a brief little huff of an exhale right against Steve's skin. The wash of pink that swept up Steve's neck was adorable, and Tony just wanted to pick him up. Pick him up and cuddle him like a stuffed animal.
Somehow, he got the impression that he shouldn't give into that impulse.
Steve reached up and swatted at Tony, like he was brushing a fly away. Laughing, Tony ducked the haphazard blow and went right back to leaning against Steve's back. Despite the small, thin lines of Steve's frame, Tony's weight didn't seem to bother him. He kept right on drawing, the muscles of his back and shoulders flexing as his fingers slid weightlessly over the paper.
Steve's gaze darted between his work, and the soft faced girl who was the day's model. Tony considered her, his jaw brushing against Steve's hair. Her hair was a dark tangle of curls against her broad forehead and round cheeks, The model station was a raised platform in the center of the large studio space, set up beneath the skylights. The sunlight played over her skin and cast shadows along her arms, and on the swell of her breasts and the curves of her shoulders and hips and calves.
She was lovely. And her eyes were flat and dark above her sweet, empty smile.
Tony didn't even really think about it. Thinking wouldn't help. There was no file. Nothing for him to think about. This was instinct, this was impulse, this was the soft, stagnating burn of energy already slipping from his fingers. He was aware, on some level, of pulling away from Steve, of crossing the floor, but that wasn't important.
He knew his wings flexed as he started to work. He wasn't sure why, he didn't stop to question it. Maybe he just loved to fly, and every fix was a momentary chance to lift his feet from the earth, to set one or both of them free. The energy would flow like a spring wind, rattling his feathers and his bones when the path fell out from beneath his feet.
The simplest fixes were like going off a cliff, and waiting for his wings to slow his descent.
He went to one knee beside her, pale golden light flaring around his fingertips. No file. No case. No program. Just those sad eyes and a core of something out of alignment, a fragment of something that he could feel, even if he couldn't see it. The adjustments were microscopic, his fingers dancing over the flow of energy and watching how every touch created a cascade of changes. The faster he worked, the more the energy fractured, sparks flowing over his palms, rolling down the length of his arms.
Tony knew he had it even as his index finger tapped out the final alteration.
The girl sucked in a breath, shuddering and loud in the quiet of the room, and her lips parted on something like a sob. Her eyes flickered shut, and a single tear rolled down the curve of her round cheek. But when her eyelashes fluttered open, her eyes were clear and bright.
And her smile was luminous.
“Let's take a break,” the professor said, striding forward. “Everyone, take five minutes, wander around, stretch out the kinks, and look at everyone else's work.” She stepped in front of the model as the girl pulled on a bathrobe, starting to talk in a low voice.
Tony stepped out of her way, his wings shuddering back into place against his spine. He stretched, a bit of a warm burn still threading through him. He didn't even need to look over to feel the warmth of the girl's smile. Without thinking about it, he grinned too, flush with success and feeling so self-satisfied that he wanted to purr. Except that would be beneath him, really, far, far beneath him.
“What was that?”
Tony glanced over his shoulder, to find Steve hovering just behind him. Steve was holding his phone against his cheek, the clever boy, but his eyes were drilling into Tony. His face was pale, his expression strained, and his eyes darted towards the model. “What did you do?” he asked, his voice pitched low.
“My job.” Tony stretched, flexing his back and shoulders, his arms and his hands. His stomach went taut with the flex, and he shifted his wings again.
“Fixing.” Tony wandered around to the other side of the easels, crossing behind a couple of bored looking students. “She was hurting. I fixed it.”
“You can't-” Steve scrambled after him, and stopped in front of Tony, glaring at him. “Okay, why?”
“Why was she hurting?” Tony shrugged. “No idea. No file. No long term data. No history. It's like-” He paused, tapping a finger against the paper. It was an almost clinical depiction, and he wrinkled his nose at it. “A line of misplaced code. Just the smallest thing can have far reaching affects. Eat up memory usage, cause the program to function in ways it shouldn't function, right? If you diagnose the problem, and remove that line of code, if you pick out the bad syntax or the poorly thought out structure, then the program picks right back up and goes right back to functioning properly.” He grinned at the next drawing, still wandering along, his feet light on the dusty floor. “Or it can cause another, unintended problem.” He flexed his fingers in mid-air. “Gotta be fast, if you're going to fix without a file.”
Steve darted in front of him, his shoulder colliding with an easel. It rocked back and forth with a clatter, drawing a few eyes. Steve flushed, but he didn't look away from Tony. “Why did you do it?”
Tony shrugged. “Why do you draw?”
He knew what the answer would be before Steve's lips formed the words. Nothing so wishy-washy or half-hearted as 'because I like to,' or 'because it's fun.' Nothing so self-congratulatory as 'because I'm good at it,' or 'because I want to.'
“Because I have to,” Steve said, and Tony grinned at him.
“That's why I fix,” he said,flicking the tip of Steve's nose with one finger. “Because it's a challenge. Because there are few who can. But mostly because I have to. I can't not do it.” His hand slid through the air, trailing golden light in the wake of his fingers. They came to rest over Steve's breastbone. “Because you know what?” He leaned in, his body following the line of his arm. “Because I'm very, very good,” he whispered to Steve, who was now bright red, his whole face flushed.
Steve's mouth opened and closed, and Tony chuckled.
“Okay, kids, back to your seats.” The professor clapped her hands, and Steve jerked away from Tony. Jamming his phone back in his pocket, he retreated back to his seat. But he cast Tony a look over his shoulder, and Tony grinned at him, pleased with that.
“Whenever you're ready,” the professor said to the model. “Take a new position, and let's go again. Fifteen minutes, fast sketch, I want everything blocked out, then we'll change it up.” Around the room, stools and seats were adjusted, and students grabbed for their materials. “I'll call it at the ten, five and one minute marks. Ready? Okay, let's go.”
Tony took a seat at the edge of the platform, tipping his head back to soak up the sunlight that poured through the skylights. Bored, needing a distraction, he pulled Steve's file up and began working. Some small adjustments, little things. Connections that he could encourage. His fingers darted over the information, faster and faster, and he felt his face bloom into a maniacal grin.
Maybe it was just the energy rush, but he hadn't felt this alive in a very long time.
The class rolled on, the professor calling out the times and pages flipping around the room with each new pose. Fingers black with charcoal moved almost as fast as Tony's did, and he paused in his work to watch them draw, faces full of concentration and enjoyment. Through it all, the professor prowled the room, her soft footsteps causing students to tense, or shift to guard their work.
She paused behind Steve. “Steve,” she said, amusement in her voice, “imagination is great, but what's the point of paying for a model if you won't draw her?”
Steve's face flushed, and he wrenched the sketchbook off of his easel, flipping through his pages and tossing it back into place.
“What were you drawing?” Tony asked.
Steve ducked his head behind his sketchpad, drawing so fast that Tony could see the charcoal dust float down with each stroke of his arm. Steve was exerting too much pressure, but he didn't seem to care. And he certainly didn't seem inclined to answer Tony's question.
“Were you drawing me?” Tony heard the note of hope in his voice, and wished he could maintain some distance. Something that would make it hurt less when he expended his reserves and disappeared again. When he couldn't force himself to visibility.
Steve's head shook, a quick little denial, but Tony could read the truth in the way he glanced down, the way his ears were bright red, the way he bit down hard on his lower lip. Tony grinned. “You were. You were drawing me! Why didn't you say so, Steven? I can do so much better than this.” He waved a hand at his rather indelicate sprawl. “I can do so very much better than this.”
Behind his easel, Steve was shaking his head, looking a tiny bit panicked, but Tony was already rearranging himself on the platform. Since the model was now sitting on the far side of the platform, on a stool facing in the other direction, there was plenty of room for Tony to improvise.
Chuckling under his breath, Tony lowered himself into a reclining position, arranging his limbs in a loose approximation of grace. Arching his back enough to give himself room, he flexed his wings, letting the feathers curl around his body like the stroke of a hand. It didn't take much concentration to alter his appearance and with an impish grin, he deliberately minimized the fabric that wreathed his hips, letting his bare legs slide over each other as he found a comfortable position.
He glanced up and found that Steve was staring at him, his eyes dark and his cheeks flushed. He was holding the vine charcoal with a grip that was likely to break it any second, and his lips were parted, something between shock and appreciation in his face.
Letting his eyelashes dip low, Tony gave him a sultry look. “Draw me like one of your French girls, Steve,” he purred, and that was all it took. Steve let out a loud, rather impolite snort of laughter, just one choked back sound, before he clapped a hand over his mouth. It was far too late, everyone in the room had swiveled around to look at him, a dozen faces showing various amounts of interest.
“Let's focus on our work,” the professor said, with a faint smile. She paused in her rounds to touch Steve lightly on the shoulder. “Shall we?”
It took Steve a couple of seconds to get himself back under control. “Yes, ma'am,” he said. But he gave Tony a look around the edge of his pad that wasn't angry, and it wasn't disapproving.
It could almost be mistaken for affection.
“You can't do that,” Steve said under his breath.
“Why not?” Tony leaned in close over his shoulder. “You liked it. Can I see your drawings?”
“No, and I did not.” Steve skittered forward a few steps. “Stop that.”
Tony gave him an innocent look. “Just trying to shield you from the wind,” he said, his voice hurt. “But if you don't want me to...” He let his voice trail away, his wings folding up tight. As soon as he did, the brisk winter wind swept over him, and Steve shivered. “I can-”
“I'm fine,” Steve said, straightening his shoulders. Stupid pride. It had been nice, having Tony close to his back, having the shelter of his wings. And his pride made him mouth off, say stupid things that ended badly for him. Every single time.
Tony sighed, the sound almost lost under the sweep of the wind. He followed Steve across the campus, a silent shadow now. Steve glanced in his direction. “Do you really want to see my sketchbooks?”
“Of course I do.”
“Then put some clothes on,” Steve grumbled. When Tony laughed, Steve glared in his direction. “I'm not joking. I'm freezing just looking at you.”
“I don't get cold.” Steve kept glaring, and Tony nodded. “As you wish. What would you prefer?” he asked, with a smile that hovered somewhere between sweet and hot. “Maybe...” He snapped his fingers, and just like that, he was dressed in an exquisite three piece suit, charcoal gray with a perfectly coordinated shirt and tie and shoes polished to a mirror shine. He reached up and adjusted the matching pocket square. “Not bad,” he said, setting a high end pair of sunglasses on his nose. “You like?”
Steve hoped that the flush in his cheeks could be written off as windburn. “That's fine.”
Tony looked at him over the top of the glasses. “Will you draw me in this?” he asked.
“Don't push it, mister, I don't-”
That was all the warning he got before a whirlwind of cloth crashed into his side, knocking him off balance. He staggered, grabbed for a nearby fence, and nearly lost his bag. He felt, rather than saw, Tony's hand grab it, shoving it back onto his shoulder, and resisted the urge to say thank you. Instead, he managed a breathless, “Hi, Jan.”
She grinned up at him, her pixie face wreathed in a smile. “Hello!” she sing-songed, her arms still wrapped around Steve's waist. There was a wicked glint in her brilliant eyes, one Steve had long since realized meant trouble.
“What?” he asked, not quite able to suppress a smile.
Her face melted into a moue of disappointment. “What kind of greeting is that?” she chided, pulling back just far enough to grab his arm and weave her arms through the crook of his elbow. As regal as any princess, she started out, dragging Steve along with her. “Honestly, Steven, a girl would come to think that she isn't welcome!”
Steve rolled his eyes. “I will not be guilted by you,” he said, trying to mean it. It was very hard to mean it; Jan had an amazing ability to invoke guilt. “What do you want, Van Dyne?”
Her sigh made it clear that the world tested her patience. “I have a tiny favor to ask of you,” she admitted. She held up her hand, her fingers parted by a fraction of an inch. “Tiny. Almost not worth mentioning. Honestly, I do not know why I'm bringing it up.”
“But you're going to bring it up,” Steve said, making her laugh. It was a sweet sound, a cascade of humor that never failed to make him feel warm. “What do you want?”
“Mother,” she said, her nose wrinkling, “is insisting on replacing all my bedding and pillows, pretty much all of the linens on my apartment. She doesn't approve of my choices. Can I pack up my comforter and blankets, sheets, pillows, can I send it all you?”
Steve frowned. “I don't have room to store anything for you, Jan. My place is tiny.”
“No, no, you can use them!” For the first time, she was serious. “Please, Steve? I wouldn't ask, but if I don't move everything out before she arrives to redecorate, everything'll end up in the dumpster. And I know, I know, I should donate everything to the Salvation Army or something, but-” Her face crumbled. “Look, they're my things. And my mother wants me to-” She stopped, shook her head.
“If I give them to you, you can use them, I know the heat in your building is unreliable at best, so they'll be useful, and then if I absolutely need to get a pillow or blanket back, you'll give it back, I know you will.” She stopped, coming around to face Steve. “Please. You know I wouldn't ask if I could figure out anything else to do.” Steve opened his mouth, and Jan's lips got tight. “Please, Steve.”
He stopped, sighed. “Fine. I mean, I can keep some of it,” he managed, before Jan threw her arms around his neck. He staggered under his impact, but he wrapped his arms around her and hugged her back. “Jan, you have to-”
“I know, I know,” she said, and she was tiny, but she barely had to reach up to brush a warm kiss against Steve's cheek. “I'll make it up to you. I swear I will. Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
“Laying it on kinda thick here, Jan,” Steve said, rolling his eyes. “Just tell me when-”
“I'll bring everything over tonight,” she said.
Steve shook his head. “You've already got it all packed up and labeled with my address, don't you.” It wasn't a question. She shrugged. “Am I that easy of a mark?”
“No, you're that good of a friend.” She blew him a kiss. “I'll bring a pizza along with it all, that'll make up for my obvious lack of decorum, right?”
“It'll help,” Steve admitted. He should turn her down. He really should But his stomach was growling at the very thought.
Laughing, Jan shot off again, her high heeled boots carrying her along as easily as if she was in running shoes. Steve shook his head. Behind him, Tony chuckled. “She's a spitfire,” he said, making Steve laugh.
“Yeah. She is.” A passing student gave him an odd look, and Steve pulled his phone from his pocket. “You're still not real,” he said.
“Of course not,' Tony agreed. “She's a friend of yours.”
It wasn't a question, but Steve answered it anyway. “Yeah. We had a class together freshman year.” They didn't really have anything in common. Jan came from money, she was bubbly and outgoing and loved being the center of attention. She moved with such grace and ease that she looked like she was flying most of the time, her tiny body always in motion. Around her, Steve always felt awkward and a bit boring, but Jan made him laugh, she was kind and sweet and brilliant at her work. “But we have different majors, she's a fashion design student.”
“And you're what, fine arts?”
Steve snorted under her breath. “Graphic design and commercial art,” he corrected.
Tony frowned, his hand coming out to catch that now familiar file. “You should be fine art,” he said, scowling down at it. The pages flipped under his stare, golden symbols sliding through the air. He caught one or two with a flick of his fingers, shifting them around. “Why aren't you?”
“Because I'm practical,” Steve said. He'd grown up poor, he'd spent his whole life poor, and as it was, art was a horribly impractical choice. He didn't want to be world famous, he didn't want to end up in a museum. He wanted a steady job. And an apartment where the heat worked, where there was always hot water in the shower. Where the thought of a friend bringing a pizza over wouldn't manage to excite him.
Tony was still frowning at Steve's file. He flicked the sunglasses off his nose and they disappeared. “Odd. So, does Jan have a boyfriend?”
“What?” Steve frowned. “No. But there's a guy she likes, he doesn't go here, though. Why do you-”
“Who is he?”
“I don't know the details. Why are you asking me? Doesn't she, you know, have one of you?” Steve asked.
“What, a Guardian? Nope. Most people don't.” Tony snapped the file shut and ambled on, but Steve's steps stuttered to a stop. Tony glanced back over his shoulder, around the curve of his wing. “What?”
Tony shrugged. “There aren't that many of us. Not compared to how many people there are. And we have a finite amount of energy we can expend, so Almost all the people that are Guarded only have their files tended for a short time. But most never have a Guardian.”
“Only the broken ones,” Steve said, feeling his throat close up around the words. With a violent gesture, he jammed his phone in his pocket, and stalked off.
Tony appeared in his path with such suddenness that Steve had to scramble to come up short without crashing into him. Tony was smiling at him, those golden eyes amused. “Only,” he said, his wings blocking the wind, “the ones that can be saved. Most will struggle through. Some won't make it, no matter what we do.” He leaned in. “It is rare to find someone that we can guard, that we can guide.” He reached out, and it was such a short distance between them, his palm pressing against Steve's breastbone.
The touch was warm, and Steve leaned into it. “I don't need you to fix me,” he said.
“I know.” Tony shrugged. “But I need to fix the way I've fucked up.”
Steve gave him a gentle push. “What would you do if I told you to go away? If I said I never wanted to see you again?”
Tony's eyes shuttered. “You'd never see me again,” he said, his voice quiet. “If that's what you want.”
“But you'd still keep meddling in my life.”
“I have to.”
“Why?” Steve snapped.
“Because I have to,” Tony said, a note of frustration creeping in. He took a deep breath. “Do you want me to-”
“No,” Steve said, a little too fast, a little too loud. He sucked in a breath, and he started to cough. Before he could get his inhaler out, he felt arms, and then wings, wrap around him. For an instant, he considered pushing away, but he couldn't manage it. He leaned into Tony's body. “Don't leave me,” he whispered.
“I won't.” Tony's arms tightened, and Steve didn't know how this could feel so familiar, so real, after such a short time. Maybe he was going insane. But he wasn't sure he cared any longer. He just leaned into the touch, grateful for it, so pathetically grateful. A brush of a kiss stirred his hair like the wind. “It's okay, Steve. I won't leave you alone again.”
Steve huffed out a laugh. “Don't lie.” He took a deep breath, and Tony smelled good. He pushed back. “I have class. And work. And-” He sighed. “C'mon.” Not willing to think on this any more right now, he continued across campus, making a beeline for his next class.
And tried not to think about how comforting it was to have Tony shadowing his steps.
“What the hell have you done with my file?”
The Agent glanced up, his sharp, brilliant gaze holding something resigned and amused in equal parts. “I beg your pardon?” Phil asked, his voice laconic.
Tony slapped the file down on Phil's desk. “What have you DONE?” he asked.
Phil sipped his coffee. Tony resisted the urge to reach down and smack it out of his hand. It was a childish gesture, and it wouldn't be appreciated. Phil was the master of the subtle, and painful, revenge. So Tony stood there and seethed as Phil savored a long, unnaturally long sip of coffee.
Finally, Phil put the cup down on the desk, the crisp white of the porcelain in stark contrast to the black top. “I'm not certain I understand,” he said at last, folding his hands on the desktop. “To what are you referring, exactly?”
Tony stabbed a finger on the file. “My. File,” he gritted out. “What have you DONE?”
Phil's eyebrows arched, just the slightest flicker of an expression. “If you are looking for more information as to how I'm handling MY new file, I'd be more than happy to assist you with that. For informational purposes only, of course.”
“It is not your file,” Phil said, and just like that, it disappeared from under Tony's hand. He folded his hands over it, the gesture not so much possessive as protective. “I will not put up with this every time you decide that you disagree with my tactics. You transferred ownership to me, and that is the end of it. Do you understand me? As a personal favor, I agreed to take in your stray pups; do not make me regret that.”
Tony made a grab for the file. “Give me my-”
Phil sighed, his head falling forward into his palm. “Tony...”
“Barton needs a very special sort of guidance, and if you try to push him too hard in one direction, he will slingshot back in on you, it's a special sort of hell that-”
Phil was rubbing his forehead. “Tony...”
“And you have to look out several days out before you make any alterations to his path, because he has this way of finding alternate paths that you didn't even know could exist until the son-of-a-bitch manages-”
Phil came to his feet. “Enough.”
Blinking, Tony came to a stop. One glance let him know that Phil had exhausted his patience. “You know, you have this reputation for almost limitless reserves of calm,” he said, crossing his arms and tilting his head to the side. “I gotta say, I've never understood that, because from where I'm standing, there's really no basis for it. You-”
“You,” Phil said, his voice quiet but firm, “have a unique way of finding my last nerve and stomping on it. I'd be impressed by that, if it wasn't so annoying.” He straightened his jacket with a quick tug of his hands and subsided back into his chair. “Tony. You have a choice here. You can continue in your mad pursuit of correcting the agency's errors when it comes to Steve Rogers, or you can reclaim all of your reassigned files. You cannot do both.”
“Listen, I have handled far more than this-”
“You are a disaster, Tony, and I really have no idea how you've managed to outstrip the rest of the agency with your workload for all these years. It is quite literally a mystery to me. Your energy usage is insane.” Phil leaned back in his chair, his face tired. “Despite that, we need you.”
“More than you know,” Tony agreed, throwing himself into a guest chair.
“Not that much,” Phil said, arching an eyebrow.
Tony threw his legs out in front of him. “If you don't-”
Phil held up a hand. “I can handle Barton.”
“You really can't.”
“Get out,” Phil said.
“There's that legendary lack of patience, right there, I do not understand how everyone else doesn't see this, because it is so obvious to me that you-”
“Unlike you,” Phil said, “I have a surplus of energy at my disposal, and I'm more than happy to use it.”
“I'm not sure I understand-”
“I will summon a bolt of lightning unlike anything which you have previously seen, and I will fry your ass,” Phil said, his voice conversational.
“Gotcha.” Tony rolled to his feet. “So, I'll just take that file and-”
“Get out of my office, Tony.”
“Going, you humorless bastard.”