Fury says, “I’ve got something to show you,” with one of those all-knowing smiles Tony is quickly growing to hate. “Out in the yard,” Fury instructs, ushering Tony out of the tent that passes as his office.
“Does this have anything to do with your cryptic messages about eagles and falconing?” Tony asks with as much bite as he thinks he can get away with.
“It might,” Fury looks, somehow, even more smug. “Look up.”
Tony’s first thought when he sees the circling shape above the camp is, that bird is enormous. His second thought, as the form comes into focus, is that someone has actually managed to pull off Daedalus-style wing frames.
“Project Rebirth,” Fury is saying. “We had a success a few months back, and now find we’re in need of some of your less combat-oriented skills.”
When the figure lands, the only word Tony can think of is angel. There’s no harness. No sign of fasteners or glue in the wing structure or feathers. Instead, Tony’s confronted by a six-foot tall blond with piercing blue eyes. He’s skinny as a rake and looks like maybe he lives on pure determination alone, and he has fully-fledged wings the color of honey. Wings that apparently support him in flight. Tony puts his fist to his mouth in an effort to keep himself silent. Anything he could say right now would only make him look like an idiot in front of Fury, and he is very much not doing that.
But wings. Actual, functional wings. In the corner of his mind, a small part of him is screaming like a child over the potential implications.
The figure folds in his utterly unbelievably marvelous wings and crosses his arms over his chest in a way that’s more hugging himself than a display of power and authority. He looks suddenly human and unexpectedly young.
“It’s still really cold up there,” he says to Fury. “Are you sure there isn’t anything else I can wear?”
“Working on it,” Fury says. “In fact, I’d like you to meet Tony Stark, adventurer, inventor and pilot of the Iron Man and general problem-solver. He’ll be designing your new uniform, maybe taking you around on his airship sometimes.”
The angel turns.
“Steve Rogers,” he says, holding out his hand.
“Tony Stark,” Tony repeats, even though Fury just said that because his brain is not working properly, too much of his focus fixating on details like the sheer size of Steve’s wings and the slight iridescence of his feathers and speculating on just how amazing his shoulder and back muscles must be. It’s taking a lot of willpower to not just say ‘wow’ and circle around to get a better look.
“Yeah,” Steve says, and he grins, flashing impossibly straight white teeth. “I used to read Marvels. I know who you are.”
The tent Fury’s set up for Tony’s workspace is . . . substandard, in Tony’s opinion. There’s a desk with a sewing machine and a drawer full of tape measures, pins, scissors and tailor’s chalk. There’s a table, and a waxed canvas bag full of fabric. Mostly field uniform wool. There are no leather or metalworking tools, and no material for it either. He makes a mental note to talk with Fury about budgets.
“So.” He claps his hands together and spins to face Steve, who’s still hanging awkwardly by the entrance flap. “What’s the most annoying part of your current uniform?”
“Chafing,” Steve says immediately. “Over my shoulders, mostly.”
“Can I see?” Tony gestures at the center of the space.
Steve’s face twists into a grimace, then smooths into neutrality. He strides into the middle of the tent and starts removing his jacket with the sort of crisp, unhurried movements that betray long practice with this situation.
The Army, Tony muses, where notions of privacy are systematically eliminated. And more than that, an experimental project for the Army. Steve’s probably been poked and prodded by every manner of biologist, avian specialist and physician the government can get their hands on. So, remember, Stark: don’t let your scientific interest carry you away. You know a bit of what it’s like to be a curiosity. Try to be more personable. You’re good at personable.
“Well,” he says, taking the jacket from Steve’s hands. “I can see why you’re cold at least. This is a disgrace.” Someone had done their best, probably, but their best turned out to be a cannibalized pilot’s jacket with strips cut away to allow for Steve’s wings. There is, at least, a wool lining and a wide belt to cinch everything down but it can’t be comfortable, especially not up in the wind at anything like a decent speed.
Steve looks somewhat relieved.
“You have a better idea?” he asks.
“Several. But first, let me see your shoulders.”
“It won’t show up much,” Steve says even as he pulls off his undershirt. “I heal fast.”
“Then I might need you to point out the worst areas.”
Not that it’s completely necessary. Tony can make some pretty good guesses. The undershirt is just a basic wool long-sleeve shirt with two long cuts up the back from hem to shoulder seam. There’s no question that any twitch of Steve’s wings would lead to either it or the jacket bunching up or pulling too taut. Still, he makes careful notes. There’s redness over the outer curve of Steve’s shoulders and around his neckline, and he gestures as best he can at the skin under his shoulder blades. Tony thinks about sliding snake scales and flexible lobster shells and ways to work in protection as well as warmth.
“Alright if I take some measurements?” Tony asks. Steve nods.
He keeps up a steady stream of chatter as he works, and learns, alongside measurements of the width of Steve’s wings and the distance between them, that Steve is from New York. That his chest and lungs really are a few inches outside the normal range and that he doesn’t have asthma anymore. That Rebirth changed his bone structure significantly, and his favorite issue of Marvels was the Arctic expedition in ‘31. That he absolutely hates the story of Daedalus and Icarus, and he used to attend art school.
(“So if I were to say you remind me of a Caravaggio . . .” he says, grinning.
“I’d tell you I’m more likely to be in a Rembrandt.”)
Tony also learns that Steve has fluffy down feathers the same flaxen color as his body hair that spread out from where his wings meet the skin of his back. That the iridescence he noticed earlier is a light coating of waterproofing oil. That however Steve’s increased healing works, it applies to his wings too: the few times he’s lost a feather, they’ve grown back within a day or two. He fills his notebook with numbers and sketches of Steve’s wings extended; Steve’s wings folded; the shift of skin and muscle when they flap. If Steve were a bird he thinks he might be a falcon. Maybe a gull. His ornithology studies are a bit rusty these days. Finally, he hands back the shirt and jacket.
“Anything else bothering you?” he asks, pen at the ready.
“Um.” Steve stalls halfway into his shirt. “My feet get cold?”
Tony grins. That’s easy enough. He records Steve’s boot size alongside the rest of his notes, his brain already running through calculations and material possibilities.
Fury’s budget is not anything like enough for what Tony wants, so after a few dissatisfying experiments he decides he doesn’t care. He has his own funds, and he wants to find a real, workable solution more than he wants to deal with Army bureaucracy. He sources his own silk (finer than parachutes) and leather (cowhide, thicker than the bomber jacket because Steve might be flying but he also doesn’t have a plane).
The first prototypes are cheaper, of course, wool and cotton thickened with rag filling to make sure the shapes work. Rhodey and Jarvis offer more ideas for better textures, better fit, sturdier structures. It takes a few tests to find something truly workable, and they end up with more even layers than Tony had anticipated. Two base pieces of silk next to the skin and then a whole array of wool-and-leather pieces that strap and buckle over each other, overlapping and reinforcing to protect Steve’s back and chest and sides. Parts of it turn out more like a medieval suit of armor than a modern uniform, at least from the waist up, with pauldrons and vambraces and gauntlets over Steve’s arms and a gorget to protect his throat. Tony makes fur-lined boots and fur-lined gloves and a cowl with fitted goggle lenses. The silk mask over Steve’s mouth and nose is Pepper’s suggestion, and while it may not be the best solution to insects and icy wind, it’s better than nothing and doesn’t impede Steve’s breathing.
It’s not the Iron Man, but it’s good. Tony feels good about it, feels invigorated, making something new and stretching new connections between technology and biology. The weeks he spends in Fury’s camp, steam-shaping leather and sewing layer after layer of wool into place, is some of the most productive time he’s spent since the war started. It’s satisfying in a way that he’s missed.
Then Steve takes the new uniform out on a mission and Tony frets the whole time he’s gone. He paces. He takes a tray at the mess and can’t eat any of it. He draws out possible improvements for his heart repulsor pump and then systematically tears them out and crumples them up because none of them will work in a practical setting. He works on the Iron Man until he hits his own hand with a wrench one too many times and Jarvis banishes him from the airship. It’s like he can’t breathe properly, can’t think properly, like something dark and insidious is looming on the horizon of his mind that he can’t quite shake.
It’s not until Steve’s back, whole and tired but obviously satisfied, with his wings glowing gold in the setting sun, that Tony realizes it wasn’t the uniform he was worried about. He knows his work is top-notch. No. The breathless feeling in his chest and the trickle of relief sliding down his spine is about Steve. About Steve’s humor, and his laugh, and his utter sincerity. About the determined set of his jaw and the soft curve of his lips and his too-skinny ribs and the way he looks at Tony, like he thinks Tony can do anything. Like Tony hasn’t mucked up his life six ways from Sunday.
Tony shouldn’t be thinking like this. Not here. Not now. He needs to cut his losses and leave. Get out of Steve’s life before he complicates things too thoroughly.
Fury claps him on the back, congratulatory.
“Looks like your tangle of belts works,” he says, and Steve turns with a smile to thank him.
You’re welcome, Tony should say. Glad to hear it.
“I’m not done,” he says instead, and when Steve’s smile grows wider he tells himself that hope is a dangerous drug.
Chainmail. That’s his excuse. Steve needs better protection, if he’s going to be flying around getting shot at, and chainmail will at least deter a few bullets. Jarvis grumbles about too much time spent in one place and Rhodey gives him a look that’s entirely too knowing, but they both sign up for more shifts at the infirmary without any complaints. Pepper even seems appreciative, telling him it will give her time to interview more soldiers for her latest story. There are certainly worse places they could be, these days.
He teaches Steve to use the pliers and they spend long nights sitting side by side, swapping stories and twisting and pinching rings into shape. He watches Steve’s hands in the lamplight, watches the turn of his wrists and the fine dexterity of his fingers. Watches his mouth as he talks.
He doesn’t touch. That’s his rule. Look all you want, but don’t touch.
It’s difficult. Steve is tactile, and Tony had done nothing to dissuade him in the first few weeks they’d worked together. A hand clapped to his shoulder. A nudge of knuckles against his ribs and a private grin at shared jokes. A brush of fingers as they pass wire back and forth.
More than one evening ends with him staring into the night, wondering what would happen if he leaned into those touches. If he took Steve’s hand. If he wore a red tie, would Steve know what it meant? What if he started dropping references: Achilles and Patroclus, Bacchus and Ampelos, Cavelieri and Michelangelo? But those are thoughts for a dance club, or a New York diner after midnight, or a walk in the dark. Not a military base in a warzone.
The fact that it is, very much, still a warzone is made absolutely clear one night when shouts and alarms ring out across the camp. Steve immediately douses their lamp. Tony can hear machine gun fire.
“I should get out there,” Steve whispers. He’s halfway out the tent before Tony catches his elbow.
“We have no idea what’s happening. Stay here a minute and I’ll get the Iron Man.”
“You’re a civilian, Tony.” Steve pushes at his chest, hand spread over the repulsor panel, guiding him back. “You stay here. I’ll be fine. I have good night vision these days.”
“I’ll be fine, Tony,” Steve insists. Tony can just make out the faint reflection of his teeth in the starlight as he grins. “I’ve got the best armor you can design. Trust it.”
And then he’s gone. For a moment, Tony is frozen in the dark, reaching after him. And then he’s moving because no way is he sitting by while other people risk their lives, not when he can actually make a difference, and especially not when some of those other people are Rhodey and Jarvis and Steve.
The camp looks different in the dark, but he knows his way and he finds the airship with a minimum of stubbed toes and uncertain footing. The only people he encounters are soldiers running the opposite direction, off to the west where muzzle flashes and the sound of gunfire are almost constant.
The Iron Man is waiting for him, the second suit already gone. Tony straps himself in and clenches his teeth against the jolt in his chest as the repulsor unit connects. And then he’s up in the air, powering towards the battle.
Steve is a flitting shape in the sky above the main force. He swoops and darts, and he has something he’s throwing that returns to his hand. They’ll definitely be talking about whatever that is later. The other armor is also aloft, and by the flight style Tony is guessing Rhodey as the pilot. As Tony gets closer he can see that the attacking force bears HYDRA’s insignia, and some of the weapons they’re using shoot blue energy that leaves devastation in its wake.
And then he’s in the thick of it, shooting and dodging and trying to narrow in on those energy weapons, because without those Fury’s men will be more than a match for a force this size. One down. Another. Rhodey picks up his strategy and starts implementing it on the other side of the field. Tony takes down a third and a blue-tinged explosion distorts the landscape as it meets a grenade. When it clears there’s a crater that far outstrips the actual size of the explosion.
Okay, change in tactics. He lands heavily to pick up the ones he can still see, both to prevent the enemy putting them back into use as either guns or bombs and to make sure there’s something left over to study.
“Tony!” Steve swoops low, throwing his whatever it is—Tony still can’t get a good look but it’s round and it reflects light—at a HYDRA soldier who’s trying to climb up the armor’s leg. Steve’s weapon hits hard, knocking the man back, and then rebounds to Steve in a way that defies Tony’s understanding of physics.
Tony turns to sketch a salute in Steve’s direction and sees another soldier, taking aim with another energy weapon. His only thought as he leaps is that the Iron Man is sturdier than Steve’s wings, which is true.
When the bolt hits, it hits like it’s powered by oricalchum, and it occurs to him that such a relationship does not mean the Iron Man can actually take the shot without damage.
The joints seize up. The metal covering over the capsule creaks and sparks. His heart feels like it might beat right out his chest.
He catches a glimpse of pale feathers, and another flash of blue, and then everything fades away.
Tony wakes to the sour smells and impersonal busyness of a field hospital. Jarvis is seated beside him, working on something that involves leather lacing.
“You gave us all quite a scare,” he says, gruff, when he realizes Tony is awake. “Almost thought I’d have to reinstall that gadget.” He gestures at Tony’s chest.
“Sorry,” Tony manages to croak. His throat feels raw and dry, like he’s been ill.
“Don’t give me that. If you were sorry you wouldn’t keep pulling stunts like this. Just tell me you’re going to find a better way to protect yourself from this HYDRA junk next time.”
“Definitely,” Tony promises. “I feel like I’ve been run over by a Jeep.”
“Some of that’s from your rescue. Rogers pulled you out of the Iron Man but he had to haul you by the shoulders. It wasn’t the gentlest landing, either.”
“Where is he?” It’s out of his mouth before he thinks, but he does want to see Steve. See him safe and hale and maybe even smiling. Jarvis waves his hand vaguely.
“Off tracking our ambusher’s retreat or something, trying to find their den. Fury wants to see you, when you’re well enough.”
“I’m not,” Tony says, almost on automatic. But right now he feels awful enough he’d probably agree to just about anything just to get Fury to leave him alone, which is markedly less than ideal.
“That’s what I thought,” Jarvis drawls, dry. He stands. “I’ll tell Rhodes and Miss Potts you’re awake, shall I?”
Tony falls back asleep before anyone else arrives.
Over the next few days, he gets a better sense of just how badly he was hurt. His chart is a mess. The unit’s medics and nurses clearly have no idea what to do with him. Rhodey reacts with such fiercely determined humor he thinks it must be nearly as bad as when he first had to install the repulsor all over again. Pepper looks a little wan and pale and tells him he’s not allowed to do anything like that again because she is not finding another job in the middle of a war. They and Jarvis all check in every day, sometimes more than once. There’s still no word from Steve.
On the third day, Fury visits. He has a new mission for Tony and his crew, and folders of documents to go with it. Surveys, mostly. Of Egypt. Apparently there’s HYDRA activity, and a general down there who needs some expert advice on the sorts of artifacts that might get dug up. Consultant work, not building. Not fighting.
“You’ll set out as soon as you’re feeling well enough to travel,” Fury says in a tone that brooks no arguments. Tony argues anyway, of course, but not well. He’s out of excuses, especially in the wake of Steve’s absence. And it’s true that there are all manner of possible surprises waiting in the desert. It’s no one’s fault but his own that he’s lost his taste for hunting treasure.
He stretches his recovery for three more days. On the last, he wakes to find Steve sitting at his bedside, his elbows on his knees, his wings and his fair head drooping with his own exhaustion.
No touching, Tony reminds himself. Don’t you dare.
He wraps his hands in the sheets as he sits up.
“I think you look worse than I do,” he says. “You want this bed? I’m almost done with it.”
Steve’s smile is a faint twitch of his lips. There are stress lines etched around his eyes.
“I’m glad you’re feeling better,” he says. He laces his own fingers together around his hat and squeezes his hands until Tony can see the outline of his knuckles under the skin. “I wasn’t sure you’d be here when I got back, the way Jarvis was worrying.”
“You almost missed us,” Tony says, light and casual, trying for another smile. “We’re shipping out for Egypt tonight. Apparently HYDRA isn’t scared of curses, and they probably should be.”
Steve looks away, his mouth drawing into a frown. His wings twitch restlessly.
“Yeah. Rhodes told me.”
He looks at his boots and doesn’t say anything else. After a moment Tony clears his throat.
“So this mission you’ve been on. How’d it go?”
“It’s classified,” Steve says, on automatic, given the grimace he makes after. “Fine,” he amends. “It went fine. No casualties.”
“How about that disk you were throwing around,” Tony asks. “Is that classified too?”
“The shield?” Steve looks surprised. “I thought you knew about that.”
“Did I know about a device you fly with that defies the laws of physics?” Tony raises his eyebrows. “You really think I wouldn’t have been all over that, if I had known?”
“How about that thing in your chest?” Steve gestures at the repulsor unit. “You never mentioned that, and it wasn’t in Marvels.”
“That’s because it didn’t come up. The particular condition of my heart doesn’t tend to, in most conversations.”
Steve opens his mouth like maybe has a response for that, but whatever it is, Tony doesn’t get to hear it.
Steve turns. Behind him, Tony can see a young sergeant, looking a little wide-eyed.
“The general wants to see you,” he says.
Steve sighs and nods. “I’ll be right there.” He stands and looks to Tony. He bites his lip. And Tony realizes that this is it. Steve is going to leave for this meeting, and Tony’s going to leave tonight, and they’re probably never going to see each other again. Fury likes to keep his assets separate, when he can.
Steve’s eyebrows pinch together. His mouth twists. Then he sighs again.
“Take care, Tony,” he says.
And what can Tony say to that, really? Here, now, in reality, not in some half-imagined daydream.
“Yeah, you too,” he manages, pushing the sound past his lips because he has to say something. “Be safe, Steve.”
Steve nods once. His right hand clenches tight around his hat. And then he’s gone.
Tony’s double and triple-checking the lashings over their supply crates in the waning light of dusk when something hits the airship with a soft thump. He drops into a crouch and hefts a better grip on his wrench. It’s not the best weapon ever, but it’ll serve as a blunt instrument in a pinch. He creeps around barrels and crates and stretched lengths of canvas, listening hard.
Something brushes his shoulder and he turns, raising the wrench—and sees feathers.
Steve catches his arm.
“Sorry,” he says, “sorry, didn’t mean to startle you, I wanted . . . ” He lets go. Tony sets the wrench down.
“Yes?” He rubs his arm, where Steve grabbed it. Not because it hurts but because for a second there he’d had an impulse to just step closer, into Steve’s space, and rubbing his arm stops him doing that. It doesn’t stop the little stuttering feeling in his chest as his heartbeat speeds up, but there’s not a lot he can do about that. Steve’s here. Talking to him. Well. Nominally talking, anyway.
“There was something I wanted to say, before, but I wasn’t sure and—and you’re leaving, so if I don’t say it now I might never . . . ” Steve’s eyes scrunch tight and he presses his hand to his face. “I’m making a mess of this.”
“Only a little,” Tony grins at him. Hope is drug, he reminds himself, but still it seeps into his blood. “But I don’t mind. What did you want to say?”
Steve licks his lips and presses them into a thin line. His wings flutter slightly. His hands clench and unclench.
“Have you ever seen um, Apollo and Hyacinth?” he asks, finally.
Tony can feel his grin widening. His hands feel warm and there’s a wavery, fluttery feeling in his stomach.
“Which one?” he asks.
“Pretty much any of them,” Steve says, and he looks like he regrets asking now and no, no, Tony can’t have that. He edges closer.
“I’ve seen several. Is this a commentary on me nearly dying in your arms or are you trying to say something that might be illustrated with Wilde’s green carnations?”
Steve’s smile is a little wistful, he thinks. A touch more pensive than expected.
“Maybe both? But mostly the second.”
“Glad to hear it.” He reaches out and slides his palm over Steve’s side, pressing against the wool and silk that make up his camp uniform, and Steve steps in, his wings curving out around them both. Steve’s hands on his face are unexpectedly cold, but his lips are soft and warm and Tony’s not even remotely close to complaining. He puts his other hand to Steve’s hip and leans in, kissing back with as much self-restraint as he can muster. It’d be no good rushing forward and driving Steve off now, right here on the cusp of possibility.
It’s Steve who deepens the kiss, Steve who slides his tongue into Tony’s mouth and smooths one hand down Tony’s jaw and the other into his hair. Steve who backs him against a crate and turns a relatively chaste kiss into something more than that.
When the kiss ends, Tony barely gets a glimpse of the rosy flush on Steve’s face before he’s pushing his nose against Tony’s neck.
“I’ve wanted to do that for a long time,” he says, the words half-muffled.
“Me too. Imagine if we had any sort of courage between us.” Steve just shakes his head and holds him tighter.
“No really,” Tony continues, “we both spent most of our lives in New York. How strange is it that we meet here, in the middle of a war? It’s almost tragic.” Which links back, suddenly, to earlier topics. “No early deaths.” He pokes at Steve’s chest. “Antiquity has enough examples. We make our own myths.”
Steve leans back and smiles at him. His hair is slightly mussed, the fine strands glowing around his head in the final light of the day, and Tony’s heart aches with the image he makes.
“Our own myths,” Steve repeats, like he’s tasting the words. “Yeah.” He smiles wider and kisses Tony again, soft and lingering. “I like the sound of that.”