The problem with freedom, Steve had come to realize, was that it was easy to have too much of it.
He hadn't thought so, not at first. When he'd set out on his bike his only thought had been getting away from everything, from orders he wasn't sure he could follow in good conscience, from leaders he couldn't trust not to lie to him. It'd been almost exhilarating, knowing all he had to lead him was the open road, the freedom to go anywhere he wanted.
However, it hadn't taken too long for him to realize he didn't truly have anywhere to go.
Back in his time, his life had been full of the war for so long, he hadn't truly thought about what he would do after it. Sure, he'd had some vague ideas of settling down with a nice girl and maybe getting an education. However, that had been but a distant dream in the middle of battles and pain and death, a dream he had said his goodbyes to when he saw Bucky falling down, when he had told Peggy he would take her dancing, a proper date at last. Then he'd woken up, in a world where there was nothing left for him, and all he'd had in mind was getting away from SHIELD, finding himself a new life to drown out the voices of his past.
Now he was free to make anything out of his life, a bike to take him wherever he wished and enough back pay on his account to settle down somewhere, and he found himself with no idea where to go.
He'd gone around looking at the old places, at first, seeing what was the same and what had changed. There were some hints of his time, here and there, a building or shape he recognized, but those only served to highlight the differences. The buildings and people and technology and the city were different, even the air feeling foreign as he breathed in deep, hoping for some hint of his home. Whatever he wanted to do for a home, it was clear he'd have to start from scratch.
Start from nothing, and with nobody.
Steve had almost thought of going back to SHIELD. At least they had offered him some structure, even if it had been rules and regulations to keep him in line like a good little dog. However, the few people there he might have cared to meet again were gone, some more irrevocably than others. He didn't know when Hawkeye and Black Widow would return, didn't know where they had gone in the first place, and wasn't sure if they'd even want to see him again. Director Fury was a constant, but he couldn't face him again, not quite yet, certainly couldn't follow his orders ever again without questioning his motives. And the one man he was sure would have liked to see him again, the one he would have liked to know better than the brief conversations they'd had… well. Steve was never going to see him again.
Phil Coulson. It was just another name, another face to add to the list of those he had lost. The latest addition to a life he was never going to lead again, opportunities he could never have again. He hadn't known how to react, how to talk to the agent, too flustered by his open admiration; now, he would never get to break through that admiration and show he was just an ordinary man who happened to be a bit stronger than most.
Just an ordinary man. Nothing like the hero who had risen against Loki all alone.
Steve had never considered himself a hero. As a child, he might have dreamed of such, a hopeless dream in the face of the reality of his frail body and numerous ailments. He'd tried his hardest when he grew up and the world was set on fire, had tried to enlist again and again, hoping to make a difference. And when he'd finally been granted the strength, the ability to do what he'd always wanted, he'd come to realize he was not a hero. He had little to fear and even less to lose. Compared with those who had actually laid down their lives for their countries, he'd been nothing, a mere symbol in a colorful uniform. All he could hope to do was being the best symbol he could, to inspire those who truly were heroes.
And yet he'd had the gall to tell another man he would never be a hero.
He'd been proved wrong, then, he got the feeling Tony often proved people wrong about himself, though he supposed it would have been difficult to do so in a more dramatic fashion than what he had witnessed. He had seen once again how apparently anyone could be a true hero aside from him. He was just a leader of heroes, for what little leading they needed.
Now, he didn't even have anyone to lead. Nobody to lead him, either. He was free at last, and that was growing a more and more daunting prospect by every day that passed.
It took him two weeks to figure out his new phone well enough to realize that it had a number saved on it only labeled "Tony". It wasn't until another week of wandering aimlessly later that he actually gathered his courage and called.
"Yeah?" The voice that answered the phone was familiar enough, but sounded rather distracted. In the background Steve could hear the faint sound of metal hitting metal. "What is it?"
"Ah, Tony? Is that you?" Of course it was Tony, Steve chided himself. The voice was right, and that was the name attached to the number on his phone. Still, he couldn't help but fear this was some kind of an elaborate prank.
"The one and only. Well, I'm pretty sure there are other guys named Tony, at least two or three, but I'm also one of them." There was a stronger metallic strike, now. "Who's this?"
"Ah, Steve." He paused. "I mean. Steve Rogers."
"Right! Captain!" There was the tone of recognition in Tony's voice, and something Steve chose to interpret as a positive emotion. "It took you a while to call. I was starting to wonder if you could even use your phone."
"I did manage to figure it out eventually. Thank you for giving it to me, by the way." However much he had tried to protest against accepting such an expensive gift.
"Eh, it's nothing. I figured you'd rather not have too much SHIELD tech on you, I wouldn't put it past those guys to track you down." Because Tony himself would never do something like that, obviously.
"I'm pretty sure we've established that if they truly tried to find me, they wouldn't need a tracking device to do so." Steve drew a deep breath. "So. Is there a particular reason why you chose to give me your number?"
"Well, I thought you might like to get in touch some time. You seem like the type to go for the whole team spirit thing." Tony sounded almost cheerful. "That and I wanted to tell you about the renovations."
"Renovations?" Steve blinked. "Do you mean the Stark Tower?" As he recalled, it had been damaged rather badly in the battle, though at least it had still been standing, unlike some of the other buildings in the area. New York would be bearing the scars for quite a while.
"What else? Though I've been thinking of renaming it or something." Tony paused, and the sounds of tinkering intensified for a moment before ceasing entirely. "So, see, I pretty much have to rebuild the top floors entirely. And then I came up with this awesome idea, because all my ideas are awesome and that's a fact, and then I got the other owner to agree as well so I can actually go ahead with my absolutely awesome idea."
"Right. So what is this idea?" Steve supposed it involved him, if Tony had been hoping to talk to him about it, but he had no idea what it could be.
"Simple." He could hear the grin in the other man's voice. "I want you to move in."
Steve blinked, resisting the urge to take his phone off his ear to stare at it. Certainly he hadn't heard right. "What?"
"Come live here." Tony chuckled. "Don't panic, I've designed rooms for the whole team. Bruce's already staying here with me, seeing how he's not really got a lot of places to go. You're next on my list, since if you're here, I can probably actually strongarm Fury into letting our dearest assassin friends leave their cells as well."
"If you mean Hawkeye and Widow, I somehow get the feeling they wouldn't stay anywhere they don't want to, no matter what the Director says." Steve sighed, scratching the back of his head. "Why would you want me to actually live with you?"
"Temporary insanity?" Tony chuckled. "I know we didn't get along at first, but, well, Pepper seems convinced you can't be entirely bad because she's a terrible judge of character, I mean that, there's no way anyone with any actual social intelligence would choose to be with me as long as there are other choices." He paused. "And that's probably not what I should be saying when I want you to live with me."
"I'm pretty sure I could have figured out all on my own that you're probably not the easiest of people to get along with." So Pep, Pepper, was Tony's girl, if he'd deciphered that right. He wondered what kind of a woman Tony Stark would go for. "And what if it turns out we really don't get along?"
"Then you can always move somewhere else. Or I can, not like I have a shortage of places to stay. And I'm not going to charge you rent or anything, so it's not like there's much of a risk for you, either."
"So you want me to move in with you because your girl seems to think I'm not a bad guy." Yes, definitely a Stark.
"First, never, ever call Pepper a girl where she can hear you, she'll re-educate you faster than you can stutter through your apologies. And second, not quite. I figured this team thing might actually work if there's going to be more trouble, and since the majority of us has either no place to go or some tiny closet at SHIELD, it obviously falls upon me to be the provider for our merry band." His voice turned into a conspiratorial whisper. "I'm pretty sure this is just part of Pepper's grand scheme to teach me people skills, but I'm confident I'll manage to let her down all over again."
"Right." Steve paused. He couldn't see how this could lead to anything but a disaster. But then, Tony was also right in that he had nowhere else to go, nowhere else he would have cared to be at least. And he did want to get to know him better, to know just how wrong his initial impression had been. "Do you really think that would be all right?"
"Look, Cap, one thing you should know about me: it's really hard to get me to do things I don't want to. That means that I wouldn't be inviting you if I didn't think it's fine. Sure, we may start fighting within a week or maybe you'll just want to throw me through a window after half an hour in the same room with me, but I think it's worth a try at least."
"Why would you want me there, though? And don't tell me Pepper said it's a good idea or something about the team. What do you think is going to happen?"
"Best case scenario? Maybe I'll figure out why my old man seemed to think you were made of pure gold and rainbow farts. That, and you and Bruce can keep company for each other when I'm drowning in SI stuff or whatever." The sound of tinkering had returned, though it was still faint. "And you can probably tell that I haven't really planned this thing or whatever, but then some of my best ideas have come about without much planning, so I figure it's worth at least a try."
"Of course." He should say no. Obviously this was little more than a whim for Tony, he'd probably regret it before Steve could even make his way to the tower, and if nothing else it would eventually lead to an explosion, a literal one or otherwise. Agreeing would probably be one of the worst decisions in his life, and he'd had plenty of bad ones to compare with.
"So, what do you say? Want to keep company for poor old me?"
Say no. You should say no. "Ah. When could I move?"
"Whenever. The damages have been repaired for the most part, and the living space is all finished. If you just walk in to the Tower and head to the VIP elevator in the main lobby, JARVIS will make sure you get in."
He should have asked for more information, should have said he'd consider it, should have at least asked who exactly JARVIS was. However, before he could decide what to do, Tony said something about having to go because of a robot uprising and cut off the call.
The best choice would have been to just forget the entire thing. Maybe send Tony a message or something so he wouldn't be expecting Steve and then continue his search for a place to call his own. Yes, that would be for the best.
He supposed he could blame his tendency for bad decisions for the fact that he soon found himself standing in the main lobby of Stark Tower, staring at the door of the VIP elevator and trying not to be too surprised that it had simply slid open as he approached.
To Steve's absolute surprise, his decision to accept Tony's invitation didn't immediately blow up in his face.
He had no doubt some part of this was thanks to Miss Potts — Pepper, he had to remind himself she was Pepper or she would be sure to remind him in rather sharp words — who seemed rather happy with the idea of Tony actually developing a social life of some description. He had only met her a couple of times, but from the first time he had been introduced to her and seen the way Tony looked at her, it had been obvious the man was smitten. He might have been jealous, reminded as he was of Peggy and how he was never going to get the opportunity to call her his, but he couldn't help but feel happy for Tony instead. Tony was a good man, that much was clear, however annoying he might have been from time to time, and he deserved that bit of happiness.
The first couple of days had gone by in a blur with Steve simply trying to get used to his new home. Even in this age of technology, the Stark Tower was clearly futuristic, with everything and anything controlled by JARVIS, Tony's invisible helper. Tony kept telling Steve to ask JARVIS if there was anything he needed to get or find or know, but he still felt somewhat awkward at doing so, as though he was demanding too much of him. It? Steve just wasn't sure how to think about JARVIS, and he couldn't very well ask Tony.
JARVIS was his most usual companion, despite the awkwardness, given the small number of people living in that part of the tower. Doctor Banner spent most of his time at his lab, and when he did come out, his interactions with Steve were mostly polite and friendly but not terribly close. Steve couldn't truly blame him; he hadn't treated the poor doctor very well, after all. However, he seemed to be more open towards Tony, so Steve had some hope of winning his trust. At least, he hoped he did.
Tony was a mystery. Whereas Banner was carefully distant, Tony was all over the place in the strangest way. He could go from sweet and almost soft with Pepper to mad with inspiration to enraged about one matter or another within the space of hours, and Steve felt almost winded at trying to follow his train of thought. Sometimes he was sure he would be alone in the living room, with both of the scientists holed up in their respective labs, only for Tony to suddenly storm in, eager to show off his latest bit of brilliance or wanting Steve to lend an ear to his ranting about someone who clearly was an idiot, no see Cap, I cannot believe anyone would actually think something like this. It was during those latter moments that Steve sometimes caught himself staring, trapped in the blaze of Tony's glare, fingers itching for a pencil to try and capture that look on paper.
For all that he was still mostly a mystery, what Steve did manage to realize was that Tony wasn't Howard. Of course, he'd known this, had known it with keen pain in his gut ever since he had first seen the man, but it wasn't until now that it was starting to truly sink in. Every moment he spent around Tony made it clearer, confirmed the thoughts he already had forming in his head. Every day brought out a new side to him, some new aspect of his personality Steve had never expected, some new way his face shifted that he couldn't imagine on Howard's features, a way of wording he couldn't hear in the other voice. It was the other voice, now, the memory of Howard's tones, replaced by Tony's rapid-fire explanations echoing in his ears, his sarcastic remarks and rare moments of sincerity. It was Tony's features that were taking more space in his head now, this new face coming to mind first when he thought of a Stark. He found himself cataloging the differences in a new way now, all the ways that Howard was different from his son rather than Tony from his father.
He suspected, rather strongly at that, that he would find it easier to like Tony than it had ever been to like Howard.
That was perhaps the most surprising thing. He and Tony had not gotten off to a great start at all, rather to the opposite; meanwhile, Howard and he had never fought quite like that. However, there was something about Tony that drew Steve to him, more so than Howard ever had. The elder Stark had been an incredible inventor, a good ally to have on his side, a brave man who had shone like a lighthouse in the night, focused and brilliant and pointing those around him in the right direction. However, Steve had never found himself wanting to get close to him, had never been drawn to the lighthouse beam as much as he'd merely used it as an aid to navigate the stormy waters. Tony, Steve found himself thinking, was a bonfire, shining and burning in the middle of shadows, crackling and sending sparks flying everywhere. He could get burned, that much was clear, had already been burned once and felt sharp pain at the well-aimed words, yet he still wanted to stay close and bask in the warmth. Tony's genius was more alive, a dancing flame rather than a single, pointed beam, and God was his metaphor getting out of hand.
The point, if there was a point to his private musings, was that Tony was not his father. There were similarities, yes, but those were overshadowed by the wealth of differences between the two. And, from what he could tell so far, Steve rather preferred Tony, bad first impressions aside.
He wasn't sure what Tony thought about him, exactly, probably wouldn't have found out even if he had asked directly from the man himself. Tony would have made a joke about it, declared his undying love or told him without a moment's hesitation he was only fattening Steve up so he could make a roast out of him. Or possibly both, Tony's sense of humor being what it was.
Whatever the truth, though, obviously Tony didn't think he was unworthy of spending time with. Sure, Tony had his own life, a busy life at that which left Steve often morose at the realization of how empty his own days were, but somehow he still found reasons to hang around Steve every now and then. Aside from needing an audience for his angry rants or latest breakthroughs, it seemed Tony found great pleasure in educating Steve about the modern world whenever he had a free moment. At first Steve had thought he was simply smug about knowing so much more than Steve, but over time he convinced himself that there wasn't anything condescending about the manner Tony answered his questions. Sure, he was sometimes amused at the matters Steve was ignorant about, but he never made him feel stupid for not knowing about something that had come after his time. On top of that, Tony seemed more than happy to talk about the things he knew, always enthusiastic to point out the genius that had gone into figuring out this or inventing that. Between him and JARVIS, while Steve still had quite a lot of history and other such matters to catch up on, he was finding it easier and easier to adjust to living in the modern world.
The one part of this age he would probably never get used to, however, was modern TV. When he first realized just how many channels there were available, he'd almost felt dizzy. The idea of so much content available, so many programs he could watch if he could find the time, had seemed almost absurd. When he'd mentioned to Tony he had no idea how there could be so many things to watch, Tony had snorted and told him this was because the great majority of it was rubbish. And, being Tony, he had then moved to proving this to Steve with a very thorough demonstration.
While Steve soon came to agree that most of TV programming was not worth watching, he was not as convinced about the uselessness of watching Tony watching TV. It seemed that no matter what they put on, be it a children's cartoon or the latest news, Tony always found a reason to disagree with whatever facts were being presented as true. He used the exact same tones for telling the news caster just how wrong he was about his report on the political landscape as he did for pointing out how atrocious the portrayal of gravity was in most children's cartoons. Steve might have pointed out both the uselessness and ridiculousness of ranting about mistakes in something intended to entertain three-year-olds, but more often than not he found himself just smiling and nodding along, enjoying the spark in Tony's eyes.
Right now there was no ranting, though, just occasional comments on perceived inaccuracies, which likely meant that Tony was actually enjoying the program. Not that he was watching most of it, anyway; his hands were busy playing with one of his endless tablets, manipulating what seemed like a diagram of some kind of a machine. Steve couldn't tell what it was supposed to be, but then, if he'd needed to know, he trusted Tony would have told him, eagerly and at length.
Maybe this could actually work, Steve thought. Maybe he could get used to all this — to this century, this tower, this Stark by his side making snide comments at the atrocious security systems at the fictional facility on a fictional space station. All he needed was a moment to get settled before anything strange or life-changing happened again.
It was then that four teenagers suddenly materialized midair and fell to the floor, unconscious.
When four kids decided to appear right in the middle of the living room, Tony first thought he had finally overdone his caffeine-fueled design craze and started hallucinating. It was only to be expected; Pepper had warned him often enough that sooner or later, he would snap. It was nothing but appropriate that his mind would choose to inform him of the passing of this particular gate by showing him something that he knew to be absolutely impossible.
Then Steve shot off the couch and towards the kids, and, with a slow blink, Tony started to consider this might not have been just his imagination. Pity. At least a psychotic breakdown might have been treatable.
"They are alive," Steve breathed as he reached the sudden arrivals, sounding relieved, because of course Captain Perfect's first and foremost concern at reality-defying intruders was to make sure they were all right. Tony, being the less idealistic of the two and shut up Rhodey he was absolutely a cynic no matter what, was slower in setting his tablet aside and standing up.
"JARVIS? Can you tell me what happened?" Because JARVIS would know. JARVIS knew everything.
"I'm afraid I have very little data to offer, sir," JARVIS replied, because fuck Tony's life. "One moment, my sensors indicated only two people within the living area, the next, four more appeared."
"So they didn't sneak in as invisible or something?"
"I do hope I would have noticed such an approach." JARVIS sounded actually insulted. Tony was a genius, that was what he was. "No, far as I can tell, they simply were not here until a moment ago. There is no indication of any of the perimeter security systems being breached."
"So, what? They teleported in?" Which was a fascinating thought, but worrying all the same. His living room wasn't open for school field trips, thanks.
"To my infinite regret, Sir, in this particular matter your guess is as good as mine."
"Is that sass I detect, JARVIS? Really? I'd say I built you better than that but fuck if I'd know, I was drunk half the time I was writing your program."
"That would explain quite a few things, Sir." Aw, yeah, his AI was the best there is. "For now, all I can tell you is that their vital signs seem for the most part consistent with ordinary human teenagers in a state of temporary unconsciousness."
"For the most part?" Steve frowned. Tony had to admit it did not sound too good. "What do you mean?"
"One of our unexpected guests has an unusually fast pulse for someone apparently unconscious. However, that is the only abnormality I can detect for the moment."
"You mean, aside from the part where they should not be here at all if they were good kids and obeyed things like the laws of logic and physics and private property?"
"Yes, well, I presumed that would be taken as a given, sir."
"Right." Still somewhat wary, Tony walked closer, joining Steve in his inspection of the intruders. There were four of them, somewhere in their late teens most probably, wearing ordinary street clothes for their age bracket. They had landed in a heap, lying partly on top of each other, in a manner that was reasonably consistent with them having appeared in the middle of the room and falling to the floor at once. Three boys, one girl, with two of the boys having identical features though drastically different hair. "We should probably take a closer look. And no, I don't want to hear any complaints about respecting their privacy; if they end up in my living room, I claim I have the right to make sure they're not carrying a bomb with them or something."
"I think that's an understandable argument." Steve, ever the gentleman, carefully extracted the girl from under a couple of legs and set her to the side before turning towards the boys. "Earrings are not unusual on men nowadays, right?"
"Ten points for staying with the times, Captain." Though the number of them the non-identical boy had on his ears was somewhat above the average, still. Ah, teen rebellion. "Try to see if you can find anything with their names on it." He was personally going to start by rummaging the couple of bags they had with them. They didn't seem like anything but ordinary school bags for ordinary high school kids, but better safe than sorry. He really, really didn't want teleporting suicide bombers at his hands. Or in his house, for that matter.
Tony's search of the apparent twins didn't bring up anything too peculiar. One of them clearly had a fake ID, because there was no way a guy this baby-faced was actually 21, white hair or not. Never mind the fact that his almost-reflection's driving license said he was only 17. At least he had names — or what seemed like names. "JARVIS? Run a search for these names, would you?"
"Right away, sir."
Before Tony could thank JARVIS, or possibly brag to Steve about what an excellent AI he had, his thoughts were interrupted by a surprised sound from Steve. Turning towards Steve, he found him kneeling beside the girl. "Something wrong?"
"Well, I'm not sure." So why was the Captain frowning? "It's just — she's got a weapon."
"What?" Tony immediately moved closer. He wasn't sure what he'd expected — a gun, probably, not that he had much time to think about possibilities — but what he saw was most certainly not it. "A bow?"
"Yes. A well-used one, too."
"And powerful. You could put an arrow through a man with that." At Steve's surprised gaze, he shrugged. "What? It's a weapon. I know weapons. I'm one of the foremost experts on the subject, in fact."
"Well, yes, but I was under the impression your expertise ran more towards more advanced weaponry. At least gunpowder level, given your propensity for things that explode."
"Professionally, yes. Back when I was at boarding school, though, they had us pick a sport, and archery seemed like the least demanding choice." Tony shrugged. "Boy was I wrong. At least I got a good working knowledge of bows, though, and that one is most definitely a weapon."
"So, this isn't merely for sports?"
"I'd be pretty surprised; you don't need nowhere near that much power to hit a target. It doesn't look like a hunting bow, either, at least not the ones I've seen." Tony shook his head. "I'm not sure what they're doing here, or how they got in, but I don't think I like it."
"Well, what are we going to do?" Steve frowned. "As long as we don't know anything, there's not much we can do about the situation."
"Let's think about it for a bit." Tony clicked his tongue. "Did you find any ID on them?"
"Yes, I did. Just ordinary New York State driving licenses." Steve showed them to Tony. "Why do you need those?"
"I'll have JARVIS check their names, along with the wonder twins. As for right now, I vote we put them somewhere behind a locked door for now while we think about our choices."
"Do you really think that's necessary?" Oh, crap. Not the Captain Puppy Dog eyes. Good thing he had the perfectly reasonable excuse of returning to his tablet to turn away from those.
"Frankly? Yes, I do. We have no idea who they are or why they are here; for all we know, this could be an attack gone wrong, or some more very human-looking aliens. They won't be hurt by getting locked up for a moment, and we don't have to worry about them sneaking in to stab us in the back while we discuss the situation."
"I would notice them before they managed to stab us, I'm sure."
"I wasn't being literal, Cap." Tony sighed, standing up. "Let's take them to the room I planned for Thor. It's got the biggest bed; they should all fit nicely." Because he doubted Steve would have approved of leaving the kids on the floor. He was far too nice for his own good sometimes.
It was clear enough Steve still wasn't entirely happy with the idea, but even he couldn't deny that Tony had a point. Which was a good thing; Tony considered himself pretty fit, but he'd have had a hard time moving all the kids over by himself. Of course, Bruce wasn't even there to help, having chosen this precise afternoon to go out at town. He was going to hear about his sudden betrayal later.
Assuming, of course, that they didn't get visited by some sudden teleporting Avengers-killing strike team before Bruce got back.