“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.”
“Good work, Steve! Why don't you count down your drawer and clock out?”
Steve's head came up, fast enough to make him dizzy. “What?”
Pepper paused on the other side of the counter, her clipboard hugged tight to her chest. “You okay?”
Steve managed a nod. “Ah, yes.” He wasn't. He probably wasn't. His throat was aching, and he could feel that prickly heat under his skin. It had been building all day, but he could ignore it. He reached up, pushing his damp hair away from his forehead. “What did you say?”
One hand flicked up, perfectly painted nails catching the light as she tucked strawberry blonde strands back behind her ear. “Your shift is over,” she said, not unkindly. “And I'll count down your drawer.” She made a shooing motion. “You look about ready to drop.”
“I would really prefer not to sit in that tiny office with you right now,” Pepper said, her voice crisp. “Go home. You have tomorrow off, don't you?”
Steve pushed away from the counter. It was harder than it should've been, and he refused to think about how long he'd been standing here, feeling the ache grow in his throat and head and down to his bones. “Yeah,” he said, with a faint smile at Pepper. “Rare. Saturday off.”
“Enjoy it. Get some rest.” With a bounce in her step, she was around the counter and collecting his drawer from the register. “Off with you.”
“Yes, ma'am,” he said, only partially kidding, and Pepper stuck her tongue out at him. She often seemed split between being pleased she was in charge of the small on-campus art store and resenting it when the staff treated her like a boss. Steve didn't worry about that contradiction, especially not tonight.
Five minutes later, he was wrapped up in every piece of winter outerwear he owned, including two hats and a pair of mittens over his gloves, and he was considering the door. He wanted to go home so badly he could almost taste it, but even the street lights were casting a glow that held no warmth. He swallowed, ignoring the sting, and sucked in one last breath of warm air.
The night air should've felt good on his prickle-hot skin, but there was no cooling sensation before it seemed like he just froze. Too hot to too cold in the space of a breath. He gritted his teeth and shifted his bookbag higher on his back.
“It's about time.” Tony was seated on the back of a wooden park bench, his feet up on the seat and his head back. His golden skin was bare, the usual wrap of white linen fabric draping his hips and dancing in the wind. A faint, almost invisible snowfall was swirling through the air, and Tony exhaled, making the snowflakes dance around his head. For a second, the warm air of his breath formed a halo that caught the light from the lamps, and he was so beautiful that Steve staggered, wobbling on his feet.
Tony glanced up, eyes going sharp. “What's wrong?”
“Nothing.” Steve huddled a little deeper into his jacket. He put one foot in front of the other, a slow, steady slog of movement. He could do it. He'd done it before and he would do it again. “Can you please put some dang clothes on?”
Tony glanced down at himself. “I think I look lovely in the snow,” he said, grinning. With a sigh, he waved a hand in midair, and just like that, he was clad in a crisp overcoat and bright red scarf, jean clad legs and boots visible beneath the hem of the quality fabric. “Better?”
“Better,” Steve muttered.
Tony's hand cupped his forehead, his body suddenly side by side with Steve's. “You have a fever.”
“No, I don't.” Steve brushed his hand away. “I'm tired. And you're not real.”
“I know.” Tony matched his pace. “Did you take anything?”
There was a note of disapproval that Steve was pretty sure he didn't like. “I don't have anything to take,” he muttered. “Over the counter stuff is expensive, and even if I could afford it, I have to be really careful about mixing my medications.”
Tony nodded. “You should've gone home early.”
Steve gave him a sideways look. “If I don't work, I don't eat,” he said, and that was a point of pride, not shame. He could provide for himself, and he always had. “My other job is off for a-” Too much talking, he knew it even as he felt the coughing fit build behind his teeth. One last indrawn breath and he was doubled over, choking on it.
Tony's arms closed around him, and then his wings, sealing in the warmth, as his hand rubbed slow, gentle circles on Steve's back. “Okay,” he said, his voice tense. “That's enough, let's get you home.” Steve, still gasping for breath against his shoulder, barely noticed when Tony's hands shifted on his back. One wrapped around his waist. “Put your arms around my neck.”
“I am too tired for your games right n-” Steve started, and then his feet left the ground. Choking on a shriek, he wrapped his arms around Tony's neck, clinging hard. “Wait, what-”
“Just hold on,” Tony said, and he was grinning, eyes glinting. “This? This is the best part.”
Before Steve could figure out what to say to that, if there was anything he could say to that, they were airborne. For an instant, he was shocked into silence, shocked into staring as the street got smaller beneath his feet, until they were above the streetlights, above the trees, above the buildings themselves. Until the only thing he could see clearly were the wash of lights of the city beneath them. Until the only stable point in his world was Tony, his arms looped around Steve's body, his hands firm.
He didn't know why he was laughing, but Tony was, too. It was a gorgeous sound, full and rich and filled with warmth, and Steve wanted to just absorb it, wanted lose himself in it, in this. He tipped his head back, laughter rolling out of him, and caught sight of Tony's wings.
Spread wide, brilliant and broad, the wings caught the moonlight and they were no longer white. They were prismatic, they were tempered with flames, each single feather picked out as if with an artists' brush. Brilliant yellow at the base, washed with gold, fading out to the flicker of crimson red at the tip. Unable to resist, Steve reached out, his fingers trailing over the spray of feathers, watching the colors saturate and dissipate as his fingers slid across their surface. The light reflected against his skin, red and gold like a burst of fireworks cradled in the hollow of his palm.
Steve knew he was whispering something, and he couldn't hear himself, the wind was too loud, but Tony chuckled in his ear. “You should see the rest of me,” he said, and just like that, they were descending, the full length of his wings catching the air and letting them glide down to the ground. Tony's feet came down with grace and perfect balance, half skipping over the frozen pavement. Steve, still clinging to him, didn't bother to try supporting his own weight.
Shaking, he sucked in a breath, and another. “That,” he whispered, “was amazing.”
“Flatterer.” Tony's wings folded up against his spine, white again, the feathers coming back into alignment as he shook them out. “You still with me?”
Steve nodded, his head spinning. Tony's grip shifted on him, am arm coming up under Steve's knees, and then he was being lifted free of the ground. Giving up anything approaching dignity, Steve just held on, his arms around Tony's neck, his head falling forward onto Tony's shoulder.
When his eyes fluttered open again, he found himself in his tiny apartment, and Tony was lowering him down to the edge of his bed. For an instant, Steve clung, his face buried in Tony's shoulder, and then his hands slid free. “I'm not sick,” he managed.
“And I'm not real,” Tony agreed. He crouched down in front of Steve, pulling Steve's shoes free of his cold feet. “Strip, then shower, then straight to bed.”
“Hot water's broken,” Steve said. He could hear the slur of the words and wondered if he should be concerned by that. He fumbled at his mittens, finally stripping them off with his teeth.
“Of course it is.” Tony reached up and yanked the hats off of his head, one after another, tossing them back over his shoulders as he did. He unwound Steve's scarf and unbuttoned his coat. “I'll be right back.”
“Okay,” Steve said, ignoring the way his heart sank. “Where do you go?”
Tony paused in the act of standing up. “What?”
“Where do you go?” Steve asked, head down. He fumbled at the hem of his worn sweater. “When you leave me. Where do you go?”
“To fix things.” Tony's hands covered his, and he helped Steve pull the sweater off. “Now, you're sick, and-”
“I'm not sick,” Steve managed, kicking at his socks. “Can't get sick.”
There was a moment of silence. “Why not?”
“'Cause I get a cold an' I'll be laid up for weeks,” Steve said, resigned. Exhausted. “Or, you know. Die.”
“Bad lungs. Bad heart. Bad immune system.” Steve wrapped his arms around himself, the shivers taking hold with a vengeance. “Not sick. Not gonna get sick.”
There was a moment of silence. Then warm hands cupped his face, tipping his head up. “You're sick,” Tony said, his voice gentle. “And fuck it, that's fine. Because you're not going to die. You're going to have a little fever, and tomorrow morning, you'll. Be. Fine.” Tony leaned in and brushed his lips against Steve's forehead, the contact a brush of heat that seemed to roll over Steve's skin. “I'm not going to leave you until you're sure of that.”
Steve took a deep breath. It wasn't as hard as he thought it would be, his chest expanding without complaint. He licked his lips. “Promise?”
“Promise.” Tony's hands slipped away. “Gonna go and fix your damn water heater.”
“Oh. Okay.” Steve tried to focus on him, but the feverish ache in his head was receding, his vision washing out along with it. He blinked, his face scrunching up. “You can do that?”
“Yeah. I can do that.” Tony's fingers slid through Steve's hair, pushing his bangs away from his forehead, and Steve's head lolled along with his touch. “Clothes, off.”
“Okay,” Steve repeated, and that made Tony chuckle for some reason. Steve pried his eyes open, to find his tiny bedroom empty. “You flew,” Steve said, even though Tony wasn't there any more. “You flew. You have to be real. You flew. I can't-” He huffed out a breath, clothes tumbling to the ground. “Fly.”
There was a clean shirt and folded socks lying on the bedside table where he'd left them this morning. Absurdly grateful for his foresight and pessimism, Steve struggled into them. He was breathing hard by the time he managed it, and he collapsed back into his pillows. The massive down comforter swallowed him, and Steve curled up, savoring the warmth.
Steve's eyes opened. “You fix it?” he asked.
Tony was wiping his hands on a scrap of cloth. “Yeah. It took a bit of energy and bit of elbow grease, but yeah. You've got hot water.” There was grease on his fingers, and it didn't seem to bother him much. “Let's go, shower.”
Steve rolled over, cuddling into the blankets. “No.”
“What do you mean, no?” Tony sounded insulted. “I- I fixed it!”
“Wanna sleep.” Steve shifted to the side. “I'm cold. Come to bed.” That didn't sound right. He wasn't sure why. “I'm cold,” he said, trying again. “An' you're warm.”
“That I am.” The bed shifted beneath him, and there was a flicker of gold light, and then he was tucked neatly beneath the sheets, the down comforter tucked up around his shoulders. Confused, Steve tried to struggle back into a sitting position, but Tony's hand came down in the center of his chest, holding him in place. “It's fine. Go to sleep.”
He went to move away, and Steve grabbed his wrist. “You look tired,” Steve said. He clung when Tony would've pulled his hand away. “I'm so sick of being alone, an' being cold,” he whispered. “Please don't leave me.” He chewed on his lower lip. “Please. You said you wouldn't.”
Tony's eyes were brilliant in the dark of the room. “Move over.”
Steve let out a sigh of relief that sounded more like a sob. He twisted, just a bit, but sleep was on him, almost as soon as he felt Tony's weight settle behind him. The last thing he remembered was the weight of Tony's arm wrapping around him, pulling him close.
The damn point wouldn't move.
Frowning, Tony shifted a sequence of events, shuffling energy around to reroute things, then set everything in motion again. The light spilled out, forming a complex web of symbols and systems, lines connecting and pieces slipping neatly into place. Tony leaned back, a frown creasing his face as the systems fell into place, one after another after another. Every single thing reacting the way he expected it to.
Until it got to the point, that singular, infuriating point, and then the whole scenario collapsed.
"Son-of-a-BITCH!" Tony snapped, and every head in the room swiveled in his direction.
"I'm sorry," Fury said, his arms crossed over his chest. "Are we interrupting your special 'me' time, Tony?" His head tipped to the side, his gleaming diamond sharp eye glittering. "Would you like us to give you some privacy?"
"That would be nice," Tony said. He leaned forward, bracing his elbows on his knees, and cupping his mouth in one hand. He stared at the file, frustrated beyond reason. "Goddammit."
Carol shook her head. "You are such an asshole. You know that, right?" There was no heat to the words, and Tony pressed a kiss to his fingertips and blew it in her direction. She rolled her eyes, but a smile was hovering around her lips. "Idiot."
"Why do we put up with him?" Jennifer asked, half turned in her chair. Her wings, tiny and covered in baby fine brown feathers, barely got in her way. Tucking her legs to the side, she leaned an arm over the back of her chair. "Can't we just fire him?"
"Please," Phil said. He had a seat. His stack of files had another. There were two coffee cups on top of them, and Tony knew they were both empty by this point.
"None of you have operational jurisdiction to remove him from the ranks," Fury drawled. "I, however..."
"Yes, Director." Tony rolled his wrist in mid-air. "Let's hurry this up, can I fill in the blanks? I'm on thin ice, need to show more respect, have a limited attention span..." He slanted Fury an innocent look. "Do you have anything new to add to this discussion?"
"Since you're unlikely to develop humility in the next thirty seconds, I think we can assume things will go on as they always have," Fury said. He glanced around. “Does anyone other than our resident swelled-head diva have anything to add?” All around the room, heads were shaking, files being gathered. “Okay, then. Get out, all of you, you've got work to do. Anyone who's taking on new files, come see me as soon as you've got the energy to spare.” He gave a brisk nod. “Phil, you're with me.”
“Yes, sir.” Phil gathered his things, and the two of them were gone in a dual flash of light.
“One of these days,” Allison said, “you're going to push him too far, Tony.” She stood, all long, lanky legs and a sweep of golden hair swirling down the length of her back. Her voice was melodic, even when she was simply speaking. Her wings glittered, sparkling with each movement. “One of these days.”
“What is he going to do?” Tony asked, scrubbing a hand over his face. “There's barely enough of us to keep up with the work now.”
“Yes,” Jennifer agreed. “But it's not like you're helping with that.” Her high heels clicked on the marble as she straightened in her chair, and she reached up to push her long black hair into a chignon. Her pale, grass green robe strained to keep her chest contained. “I've got more of your files than you do right now.”
“You owe me,” Tony pointed out.
“You think everyone owes you.” Carol was already on her feet; sitting never agreed with her, and stillness was foreign to her nature. Her feet braced, her shoulders back, she was already leafing through her files. “I hate to shatter that delusion...”
“I wouldn't even try.” Misty walked past, brilliant red linen swirling in her wake. She gave Tony a look, her huge dark eyes amused. “He's protected by a solid wall of ego.”
“I've missed you,” Tony said, grinning up at her. “Where have you been?”
“Working?” she said. With one arched eyebrow, she smirked down at him. Tony's fingers flicked out, releasing a dart of brilliant gold. Her arm came up in a smooth, polished move, copper light encompassing her brown skin from fingertips to shoulder. The block was perfect, turning the energy aside with the barest amount of effort. “You're a waste of talent, you know that, don't you?”
“Oh, he knows.”
Tony's head tipped back. “Rhodey!” He spread his arms out. “Where have you been?”
“Working,” every single one of them chorused, and Tony burst out laughing. Rhodey kicked his chair.
“Why is it every time I'm looking for you, I find you surrounded by the loveliest ladies the Guardians have to offer?” Rhodey asked.
“Pure animal magnetism,” Tony said, utterly serious.
“Oh, God,” Carol said, her eyes rolling up. “He's surrounded by women because it's like watching a train wreck happen in slow motion.”
“Also the animal magnetism,” Jennifer agreed.
“See, this is why you're my favorite,” Tony told her.
“I'd be flattered except you have the attention span of a hamster with short term memory loss,” she said. Still, she patted Tony's cheek. “Allison, you got a sec?”
“For you? Always.”
As the group broke up, Rhodey snagged a newly empty chair and dropped into it, his arms folded behind his head. “So.”
“Have you ever dealt with a stuck data point?” Tony asked him. He flipped Steve's file back open. He frowned down at the data. “I can't-”
Rhodey shook his head with a groan. “You gotta be kidding me. Tony. Tony, Tony, Tony. Seriously? Are you seriously-”
“See, no matter what I do, no matter how I adjust the data, there's-” He was already making adjustments, moving things, pushing the energy, watching as it spread out. “It won't move.”
Tony pulled it out of the array, a single glowing dot. He rolled it between his thumb and fingers. “What are you?” he asked, frustration driving him. “Why-”
It was snatched from his hand. “Hey,” Rhodey said, leaning in. “What are you doing, man?” he asked. “Seriously, can you please focus for the next five minutes? Can you talk to me?”
Tony rolled to his feet. “Any time. Really. Any time. Except now.” He snatched the bit of light back, his feet moving fast, circling around Rhodey's seat. “Working, right? Everyone's working.”
“Everyone's working, except you,” Rhodey said, not bothering to stand up. “You wanna explain why?”
Tony shook his head, fast and jerky. “We're overworked,” he said, his voice low. “We've lost, what, two in as many months?”
Rhodey's head snapped around, his body going stiff. “We don't talk about that.”
“Why not?” Tony leaned in, his voice tight, even to his own ears. “Why don't we talk about them? About the ones who have ceased?”
“Because there are rules,” Rhodey said, the words even and calm. “You know that.” His eyes followed Tony's movements. “Can you sit down, please?”
Tony considered arguing, but Rhodey was staring at him with that expression that he'd come to know so well. He dropped into his chair. “Why are there rules? Why aren't we able to ask what happened to Betty?”
Rhodey sighed. “Tony...”
“The ones that cease. How many do you remember?”
Rhodey was shaking his head. “You need to leave this alone.”
“Why?” Tony asked.
Grabbing his shoulders, Rhodey leaned in. “Tony. You have to let this go.”
“Why.” Tony leaned into his hands. “Rhodey. Why? It doesn't make sense. Betty planned her energy usage better than any of us. She was controlled, she was absolutely precise, so where-”
Rhodey shoved him away. His feathers, slate gray with crisp bars, ruffled behind him as he surged to his feet. “Enough, Tony. You know, I don't get you, I am trying to keep you together, and I don't know how long I can do that, you know that right, Tony?”
“Who's got Betty's files?” Tony asked.
“I don't know why I bother, I don't.” Rhodey turned away. “So, what, you're tossing your files?”
“No, I have my file. Singular. One. One file. I have done my time multitasking,” Tony snapped. “And we fucked him over.”
“No one's arguing that, but you are-” Rhodey shook his head. “If Betty was controlled, if she was precise? You are a Roman candle looking for a place to explode.”
“I need to fix this,” Tony said. “Isn't this what you've been telling me I've been needing to do for years?”
“No. It isn't.”
“It is, this is-” Tony leaned back, hands spreading wide. “This is your fault.”
Rhodey stared at him. “You are fucking kidding me.”
“You've always told me,” Tony pointed out, “that I treated my files like- Like a job, you always said that I needed to see the human side of it, see the lives instead of just the data, and that's, that's what I'm doing now. That is what I'm doing with him.”
Rhodey ran a hand over his close cropped hair. “Someday,” he said, “you will learn moderation.”
“No, no,” Rhodey said. “You- I need you to just- Stop talking for a minute.” He took a deep breath, the muscles of his shoulders bunching with the movement. “From the very beginning, Tony, from the first moment, you have taken to this work like no one else I've ever seen. You are brilliant, you are a genius.”
“Well, yes,” Tony agreed.
“You may well be the best Guardian we have, but you are reckless and you are stupid about how you go about it.” Rhodey folded his arms. “And all the brilliance in the world will not save you if you go beyond your limits.”
“See, that's where you're wrong,” Tony said. “I don't have limits.”
“Yeah? Then you wanna explain that pretty little light you're trying to hide?”
Against his will, Tony's hand came up, covering his breastbone. “I don't know what you're talking about.”
Rhodey let out a snort. “Yeah. Right.” For a long moment, he and Tony stared at each other. “You know what that means. You're hollowing yourself out. You wanna keep your wings, you'll let Rogers go.”
Tony blinked first, his gaze falling away. “Betty didn't-”
“I don't know!” Rhodey snapped. “I don't know what happened to Betty.”
“Oh, for fuck's sake-”
“No. No, really. You're older than me.” Tony leaned in, hands spreading along with his wings. “You were here first. You're one of the first, I remember you, when I was still a fledgling. Who's the oldest?”
That won him a long-suffering look. “Fury.”
“Except the Director. Other than him.”
“I don't know, Tony.” He cut Tony off before Tony could press. “The Agent.”
“Phil, right, of course it's Phil.” Tony leaned back. “Phil would know.”
“Phil knows the rules.” Rhodey's face worked. “And so do you, so I don't know why I'm arguing with you. I should save my breath.” He turned on his heel. “Let me know if you decide to get your head out of your ass and you decide to let us help you.”
Tony braced himself against the sensation of guilt. “Rhodey?” When Rhodey glanced back, he said, “He's worth it.”
Rhodey's face was unreadable. “I hope to God he is.”
Steve had a moment of clarity just as he was waking up. A moment of realization, or of sanity, it was hard to say.
There were really two options here. Either Tony was real, in which case Steve should really be having a discussion with him about the minimum requirements for personal space, and expect Tony to actually obey him in that. Or Tony was a figment of his overworked brain, in which case Steve was starting to worry that he was a sex-obsessed pervert, because he kept waking up with Tony curled against his back. Which he should really be objecting to. Because this was something he should not be putting up with.
It was absolutely not something he should be enjoying.
He was, though. He loved the warmth, the solid presence of Tony's body against the length of his back. He loved the way that Tony's feet tangled with his, the way that his wing folded over both of them, sealing in their body heat like a blanket, he loved the way that Tony's arm draped over his chest, Tony's palm resting over his breastbone.
Tony's hand always felt... Warm. Comforting. And even though Steve knew he should tell Tony that this wasn't acceptable, that he couldn't keep doing this, the thought of waking up alone was starting to hurt.
He'd always prided himself on dealing with his weaknesses. He really had no choice. It wasn't like anyone else would do it for him, and if he didn't handle it, the realities of his life would overwhelm him completely. He'd learned early on to identify the many, many things that would end in disaster for him.
And he'd begun to suspect that Tony was going to be a disaster.
His phone vibrated on his small bedside table, and he fumbled for it. A single glance at the readout had him grinning, and taking the call. “Hey, Bucky! How's the new base?”
“Arizona's gonna take some getting used to.” The words were warm in his ear, and Steve settled back, basking in the familiarity of that voice. He could almost see Bucky, barely awake at this hour of the morning, his voice rough from sleep as he huddled over a cup of coffee, as hot and black as he could get it. His brown hair would be tumbled over his forehead, and he'd be propping his chin up on one fisted hand. “How's things there? Your son-of-a-bitch landlord fix the heat yet?”
“Yeah, actually, it's been functioning for more than a week now without a problem. Water heater, too.” Steve shifted in bed, and Tony shifted with him, a faint sigh shifting Steve's hair. Without thinking about it, Steve patted his arm. “And Jan gave me a bunch of, uh, well, there's a goose down quilt, so freezing isn't so much a problem now. Suffocating might be a bit more likely.”
Bucky was laughing. “Knowing Jan,” he said, his voice sardonic, “Yeah, that's a possibility. How- You know what, I don't want to know. I don't suppose this is the first step to Jan spending the night along with you and her quilt?”
Steve rolled his eyes. “No. For the like, seventy-second time, Bucky, no.”
“A guy can hope. You need a date.”
“I can't afford a date,” Steve pointed out. Carefully, he slipped free of Tony's arm and wiggled out of bed. He risked a glance back over his shoulder, to where Tony had tried to follow him, rolling over to bury his face in Steve's pillow. With a foolish smile, Steve stroked his hair. Catching himself, he jerked his fingers back. “Besides,” he said, because let's face it, he needed the reminder, “who'd wanna date me?”
Tony mumbled something that sounded like 'me,' and Steve moved away, as far as the tiny apartment would let him. It was cool, but the radiator was already thumping its way to full life in the main room. Steve yanked on socks and padded in that direction.
“You're killing me, dummy. Really.”
Steve chuckled. “I miss you, too.” He set the kettle on the stove and retrieved a couple of once used teabags. “How's Arizona?”
“Colder than it should be.”
“Well, it is winter.” Steve set his mug and bowl out. “It happens.”
“Ha, ha.” Bucky's grin was loud and clear. “But it looks like I'm gonna end up back on the East Coast when I finish my training. So that's good news.”
Steve's shoulders relaxed, a strain that he hadn't even been aware of falling away. “Oh, thank God,” he said, and Bucky laughed. “Shut up, loser.”
Still laughing, Bucky said, “I'm not the one reusing a tea bag.”
“I'm frugal,” Steve said, not at all embarrassed. “I'm not the one drinking a six dollar cup of coffee.”
A loud slurp came over the line. “It's delicious,” Bucky purred.
“I'm sure.” Steve watched the kettle, waiting for it to boil. “Why are you up so early?”
“Oh, right! Before you distracted me, I had news.” There was the sound of a chair moving. “My uncle is finally done with that stupid renovation project in Brooklyn. I got you and Sam an apartment for next semester, so you can move out of that rat trap and Sam can move out of his parent's place before his mother kills him. Or he ends up drinking as a full time hobby.”
Steve frowned. “That's nice of you,” he said, choosing the words with care. “It is. But I can't afford-”
“Same price you're paying now,” Bucky said, cutting him off. “And Sam can swing that much too, you know he can. He'll help my uncle with some minor repairs on the other apartments, and I promised that you could do some murals around the place.”
Blinking, Steve reached for the kettle. “Yeah, I can do that,” he said, and the idea took root in his head. “But if there's-”
“Steve. C'mon.” Bucky didn't beg. He wasn't good at it. But he did manage a frustrated tone that wasn't quite commanding, and that made it clear that he needed something. “I worry, okay? Your apartment is a shitbox, and you're going to get sick, and I'm not there to-”
Steve rolled his eyes. “I can take care of myself,” he said, not quite able to resist glancing over his shoulder towards the bedroom, where Tony was still asleep.
“I know you can. Just- I'll talk to Sam.”
“Don't talk to Sam! You are a real piece of work, Barnes, you know that, right?”
“Can't hear you, dialing Wilson now, buh-bye!” Bucky made loud, exaggerated kissing noises into the phone, and Steve was laughing as Bucky cut the connection.
“Jackass,” he said to no one in particular. Setting the phone aside, he stood and reached for the kettle. The hem of his t-shirt rose up when he reached for it, and Steve tugged it back down. He needed to budget for new clothes as soon as it started getting warmer; his threadbare clothing all suddenly seemed to be the wrong size or too threadbare to keep him covered.
Leaving his tea to steep, Steve went to get dressed. He had class today, a lot of classes, and a shift at the art co-op tonight, so that meant packing two meals if he wanted to eat properly. Lost in thought, he went through his morning routine as if by rote, and it wasn't until he went to pull on his shoes that everything came to a screeching halt.
Because he couldn't get his sneaker on.
He stared down at his shoe. Gave it another tug. And studied the way that his heel absolutely was not going to make it into the canvas sneaker. His heart pounding against his breastbone, he sat there, trying to make sense of it. The way that his sweaters now ended a good three inches above the prominent bones of his wrists. The way his pants didn't come close to his ankles any more. The way his belt was being latched on a new hole, the way his shirts stretched too tight over his shoulders.
And suddenly, he knew why.
A moment later, he was leaning over the bed, his shoe still held in a deathgrip in one hand. Steve grabbed Tony's shoulder and gave him a shake. The angel came awake with a flip of his hands, his face twisting with confusion. “Wha-” He pushed himself upright, the muscles of his arms and his chest pulled tight by the movement. “Steve?” he asked on a yawn. “What're you-”
Steve shoved the sneaker in his face. “Why don't my shoes fit?”
Tony stared at the sneaker, his sleepy eyes almost crossing as he tried to focus on it. “Because they're cheap pieces of junk?” he asked, his face twisting. With one finger, he pushed it away from his face. “I don't understand what you're-”
“Why don't any of my clothes fit?” Steve asked, and his heart was hammering, his breath coming in hard, fast pants. He struggled against the sensation of panic, fear making him light headed. But even as he sucked in breath after breath after breath, his lungs didn't lock up. He didn't have to struggle to breathe.
He wasn't fumbling for his inhaler.
The shoe tumbled to the bed, and Steve's hand came up, clutching at his throat. “What did you do to me?” he asked, his voice quiet.
Tony stared up at him, and his dark eyes were fathomless, golden brown pools terrifying and soothing, all at once, and Steve wondered if he could drown, would drown, in their depths. But when Tony's hand came up, his fingers extended, to rest above Steve's breastbone, he didn't flinch. He didn't move away. He leaned into Tony's touch.
“I told you,” Tony said, his voice almost flippant. His touch was warm, almost hot, through the thin fabric of Steve's t-shirt. “You were due for a growth spurt.”
Steve's hand came up, covering Tony's, pinning it against his breastbone. Tony's fingers were hot to the touch, and Steve sucked in a breath. “You're making me grow?” he asked, and he was already shaking his head. “Why? No, actually, I don't care why. Stop it.”
Tony's lips quirked. “Sorry,” he said, leaning forward. His lips brushed the back of Steve's hand, and Steve jerked his fingers away, freeing Tony's hand. “I can't. You'll be healthier, stronger.” He reached up, flicking at a lock of Steve's hair where it tumbled across his forehead. “Things will be better.”
Steve frowned at him. “How much of this is your doing?” he asked, his voice very quiet. Still. “The heat. The scholarship that suddenly came up last week.” He sank down to the edge of the bed, his hands shaking. “Jan giving me the blankets. The apartment. Bucky's transfer. You're not just screwing with my life, you're making a mess of other people's.”
Tony's face was closed off, shuttered. Steve's hands went into fists. “I'm not your charity project,” he said, and he wanted to be furious, but it came out hurt, shattered. “I've taken care of myself for years, Tony. I don't need you.”
Tony flinched. It was a tiny flicker of movement, his shoulders drawing up tight, his wings tucking in close to his body for a second. An instant later, it was gone, and so was he, disappeared from the bed in a single blink. Steve, shocked, jerked backwards, and his head swung around.
Tony was in the doorway, back in his toga, arms crossed over his chest, his dark hair a tumbled mass of curls, his wings flexing wide. Lit from behind, he was the picture of a Renaissance angel, except his face was cold and closed off. “You don't seem to understand,” he said, and his voice was a rolling, thundering rumble. “I don't need your permission.”
Steve stood, his chin out, his shoulders back. “What am I?” he asked, trying to keep his voice steady, struggling not to let his humiliation, his disappointment, overwhelm him. “Just another job to do?” He took a step forward, and another. “Right,” he bit off. “Fine. I can't stop you, you're right, I'm helpless against whatever you want to do to me, but you know what?” He stabbed a finger at the door. “Get out. I might not be able to stop you, but I don't have to put up with you pretending to be friends with me.” His indrawn breath sounded like a sob to his ears, and he bit hard at his bottom lip.
Tony's mouth opened, and Steve slashed a hand in midair. “GET OUT!” he yelled, and just like that, he was alone.
He sucked in a breath, and another. Another. And he absolutely was not going to cry. He pressed a hand hard against his face, his fingers digging in, clawing at his skin. He was not going to cry. He was not a child, he was not so easily broken, and he would not cry.
But he sat, for a long, long time, in the sudden silence of his apartment, listening to the sound of his own uneven breathing. And wondering how long it would be before he'd be able to stop hating himself for his stupid pride.
“Why does this feel less like doing your job, and more like being a stalker?”
Tony didn't bother looking up. “Who asked you?” he asked, his eyes still locked on the front door of the pizza parlor where Steve was bussing a large bin of dishes. He moved without difficulty, the bin balanced on his hip and a white apron tied around his waist. His blonde hair was tumbled across his forehead, his face flushed with exertion. A couple of co-eds lingered at a table by the door, their heads tipped together, their attention clearly on Steve's rear as he walked past.
Tony scowled at them, unreasonably jealous. He jerked her attention back to his work.
“Yeah, you're clearly rational and calm about this.” Carol settled down on the edge of the roof beside him, her red gloved hands bright against the dirty snow. “You've missed three meetings.”
“Don't care,” Tony said. He shifted the energy in front of him, and Carol reached out, her hands fitting easily around his, steadying his work. Her fingers trailed cool, blue white light, mingling with Tony's gold. “Thank you,” he said, the words grudging.
“Don't worry, I'm not planning on making a habit of this,” Carol said, arching an eyebrow. “I'm only here as a favor to Rhodey.” She leaned in, her elbows on her knees, her hands dipping between them.
“Since when do you run errands for Rhodey?” Tony asked. Below them, Steve was wiping tables and collecting plates. The co-eds left, giggling and reluctant. Steve gave them a smile, even as he locked the front door of the restaurant.
“Since I owe him a favor, and since you are clearly hiding from him,” Carol said. “He's not used to you ducking him.”
Tony gritted his teeth. “Not ducking him. Just not wasting the energy to make the trip back to the office.”
“Uh-huh.” Carol leaned over, pushing her pale hair behind her ear when the wind threatened to catch it. “Is that your boy?”
“Not my boy, just my guarded,” Tony said, the words tense. “You've seen me, I'm fine, you can go tell Rhodey all about it.”
Carol gave him a look full of feminine pity. “We all know you're not fine.” She shifted. “I knew Betty better than you.” Tony stilled, but Carol didn't look in his direction again, her attention now focused on the lights going out in the pizza place, one after another. “I knew her. I loved her. And she had a boy, too, that she said was just her guarded.”
She pushed herself off of the roof, her blue wings tipped with red and yellow as they unfurled, her feathers as brilliant as any bird of paradise. Hovering in mid-air, she flew with perfect balance and control. “Go see Rhodey,” she said, “because you might not have a chance to do it later.” She looked back over her shoulder. “And he loves you.”
“I know.” Tony snapped his file shut. The golden light went dark in his hands. “I can handle this.”
Her smile was a tiny bit sad, bitter on the edges, like she'd tasted something that was hard to swallow. “You're stronger than most,” she said. “You might be the best we've ever seen. But Tony? We're not immortal, and we're not invulnerable. And you are one of us. You can bleed. And you can fall.”
It was silent, the cold night stretching out around them. Carol's eyes were clear as stars. “I miss Betty,” she said, her voice sad. “Every day, I miss her.” Her wings flexed, and she swirled up, coming around to face Tony even as she headed up. “And I would miss you. If you weren't around.”
“No, you wouldn't,” Tony called after her, his mood a bit lighter for her presence.
“Yes. I would.” Grinning back, she shot up. “Talk to Rhodey, you jackass!”
Tony watched her go, until her brilliant wings disappeared into the darkness, and only then did he turn his attention back to the pizza parlor. He had a certain internal clock when it came to Steve's movements, and right on schedule, he saw Steve slip out the door, waving at the owner as the door was locked behind him. As always, Steve paused, his eyes sliding over the mostly quiet street. It was very late, and the residential neighborhood was still, only the occasional car and cab whizzing by through the darkness.
Steve took a deep breath, his body expanding with the force of it, and adjusted his backpack on his back, then tugged his gloves into place. He was frowning down at his hands as he did, his brow creased. Tony pushed himself off the roof of the building across the way and glided down to the street, meeting Steve halfway. “Hi,” he said, falling into step with Steve. “Long shift today.”
Steve didn't react. Which was about right, because he couldn't hear a word that Tony was saying, or see him. Still, Tony kept talking. “I liked the still life today. Your teacher must've liked it too, based on the grade you got.” He looked over, Steve's face was set and miserable in the light of the streetlamps. Tony sighed. “You didn't eat lunch today. That's not good.”
Together, their strides almost matching now, they headed for home. Tony was pretty sure that he was still talking, but even he wasn't listening any more.
Steve paused, alone in the middle of the sidewalk. “I'm sorry,” he said, and Tony's steps ground to a halt. “Tony?” His head swung around, his arms crossed over his stomach, his face miserable. “Tony, are you still-” He stopped, and swallowed. “You're probably not.”
He set out again, his head down. “You asked me, at the beginning? You asked me why I got into a fight for my sketchbook. I gave them my wallet, I gave them everything else. All I wanted was to keep my sketchbook.” His breath was easy, soft clouds of mist around his face as he walked. “I just-” He swallowed. “I can't give it up. It's my life.”
“Not worth your life,” Tony said, even if Steve couldn't hear him.
“And I can almost hear you saying that it's not worth my life,”Steve said, with a faint huff of laughter. “But what else do I have to live for, you know?” His head tipped back, towards the sky. His cheeks were pink, jagged fragments of blonde hair peeking out from under the edge of his hat. “I created those works, and they didn't have any right to take them away from me. It wasn't right.” He paused. “I hate bullies. And I wasn't going to let them destroy my sketchbook just because my wallet was empty.”
Tony sighed, his steps matching Steve's. “You could make more, you know,” he said, even as he opened Steve's file. Stubborn. Proud. Fiercely principled. Intelligent. Compassionate. Tony flipped through the pages, even though he knew the information by heart by now. His fingers traced the words, all the good and bad and the parts that made Steve, well, Steve. All just words in the face of Steve's brilliant blue eyes and calm voice.
“I miss you,” Steve said, his voice barely audible. “I miss you so much. It's not fair, that I can miss you like this.” His fingers fumbled to the straps of his backpack. “I was used to being alone, and then you came along and then I was just...” He sighed, his fingers knotted hard on the backpack straps. “I want to understand why you're doing this.”
Tony walked along beside him, silent, and Steve stopped. “Please,” he said, his voice very small and very quiet. “Please just explain.” His face twisted. “Please respect me that much.”
Tony didn't even know he was doing it, but he knew he was visible when Steve's eyes went wide, his face relaxing into a grin. “Because I like you,” he said, because that was the truth. He wasn't so good with the truth, but it was tumbling out of him now, fast and hard. “Because I should give your file to another and let them take care of you, because I am a jackass, because I do start thinking about making things right and forget that I'm fucking up your life, but I-” He stopped. “Like you.”
Steve's face was luminous, his grin so wide that it looked like his cheeks might crack. “You are an asshole, you know that, right?” he asked, his voice shaking.
“It's been mentioned.” Tony jammed his hands in the pockets of his jeans. He gave a faint shrug. “A lot, actually.”
“You didn't leave,” Steve said.
Tony's throat felt tight, dry, and he tried to swallow. “I promised you I wouldn't,” he said at last. “And I can't.” Helpless, he shrugged again. “I know I should. You want me to. But I can't-”
Steve lunged, and Tony froze as Steve's arms went around his neck. Their bodies slammed together, and Steve had enough weight now to knock Tony back a step. Without thinking about it, he wrapped his arms around Steve, returning the hug as Steve's arms tightened. “I'm sorry,” Steve said against his shoulder, and Tony's arms tightened, clinging to him. “Don't. It's okay, it's just-”
“Stop it, just stop,” Tony said, guilt thick in his throat. Steve was shaking in his arms, and he bit back a curse. “I just- I need you to be safe, I need you to be safe and healthy and I need to fix this, this was my fuck-up, Steve. I should never have left you alone, and I did, and now I can't. I can't do it.” The words were tumbling over themselves, his mouth not able to even slow the flow. “I can't leave you alone again.”
Steve nodded against his shoulder. “Okay,” he said, his voice muffled against Tony's shoulder, against his coat. His fingers dug in, not enough to hurt, just enough to make it clear the he was reluctant to let go, and when he pushed back, his eyes were red, his mouth tight.
Tony stared at him, reminded again just how very young he was. He pushed Steve's hair away from his forehead with careful fingers. “I'll stay invisible, if you want me to,” he said, and he hoped that didn't sound as whining and pathetic as he thought it did.
Steve's lips quirked up. “Like you could,” he said, even though he wasn't moving away from Tony, Tony could almost feel him pulling away in spirit.
“You're the only person who's ever seen me,” Tony said, and Steve stilled. He glanced up, meeting Tony's eyes. Tony's shoulder rose in a half shrug. “None of my other, well, none of the others ever saw me.”
Steve's lips had parted, his jaw gaping, just a bit. “Why me?” he whispered. “Why do I see you, then?”
“Because you need to,” Tony said, and that felt real. That felt right. It wasn't in Steve's file. It wasn't obvious. But the words, the concept, felt right. “You need to know that someone-” He leaned in, his forehead against Steve's. “You are the most important person to me,” he whispered, and Steve shivered.
“You are an asshole,” Steve said, his eyes tipping up, and his grin was like the sunrise, slow and warm and familiar. “You know that.”
“I know that.” Tony stepped back, and let Steve compose himself. “I am not hurting anyone. I swear to you. I'm not giving you anything at the expense of someone else. I'm just arranging the things that should always have been yours, and doing my best to put things right.”
“I'm fine,” Steve told him.
“I know.” Tony extended a hand. “Fly with me?” he asked, coaxing. That was the one thing that he could seduce Steve with, that one trick he had that Steve seemed to revel in. He loved to fly.
Almost as much as Tony himself did.
Tony lifted off of the ground, hovering enticingly just off the ground, and Steve smiled up at him. His hand came up, and Tony grasped it before he could have second thoughts, dragging Steve up and into his arms. “Don't make me regret this, Tony,” Steve said, even as he looped an arm around Tony's shoulders.
His teeth flashing, Tony said, “Oh, you're not going to have a chance to regret it. Don't worry, Steve, I'm going to give you the ride of your life.” With a whoop, he took off, and Steve was laughing in his ear, clinging tight, and for the first time in weeks, things felt like they might be okay.
Steve glanced around his easel. “Why do you agree to pose for me if you're not going to hold still?” he asked, grinning.
Tony was lying on his back, one long leg crooked up, a bare foot flat on the tumbled sheets of the bed. His jeans hung low on his hips, his chest and arms were bare against the white of the fabric. His wings were unfurled behind him, lit by the gold light that he was playing with, one hand shifting the flow with idle touches.
“I didn't agree to model,” he said, his lips curling up. “I agreed to lie here without my shirt on. Paint faster.”
“I'm not even painting at this point.” Laughing despite himself, Steve went back to his work. “I'm just sketching.”
“Sketch faster.” Tony's fingers darted through the light, and Steve shook his head.
“You can't rush art, Tony.” He reached for his kneaded eraser, rolling it between his fingers. “What're you doing?”
“Just running some tests.”
“Please stop with the growth spurts,” Steve told him. “All of my joints hurt. And nothing fits anymore.” Tony made a non-committal noise under his breath. Steve sighed. “How tall do you intend me to be, anyway?”
“As tall as you should've been all along,” Tony said, as if that meant anything at all.
“Who decides how tall I should be?” Steve asked, shoving a hand through his hair.
“Me,” Tony said. “Well. Now.”
“Of course.” Steve kicked at the bed, making Tony laugh. “I'm tall enough.”
“I know what I'm doing, Steven. I have been at this a very long time.”
Steve glanced up. “How long?”
Tony glanced at him. “Hmm?” He frowned. “I don't remember, exactly. I remember-” He shook his head. “I remember a lot of things,” he said. “And some things I should remember that I think I've forgotten.” He tipped his head to the side. “I remember you. As a little boy.”
Steve paused. “Do you?” He flushed. “That's embarrassing.”
Tony's teeth flashed in a grin. “Why? You were an adorable child. All solemn eyes and serious little face.” His smile died back into a faint ghost of one. “I only saw you, briefly. Then I lost your file.” He paused. “I'm sorry.”
“It might be hard for you to believe, Tony, but I was just fine without you.” But this was better. This was so much better. A rare day off, no classes, no work, nothing to stress about. Just a pot of tea and a bunch of leftover pizza from Sam and Jan visiting the night before, and warm socks and a worn sweatshirt that barely now fit his shoulders. There was snow outside, a bare swirl of flakes in the cold air, but for once, his apartment was warm, the radiator knocking hard. The air smelled of linseed oil and the sting of turpentine, mingled with paint and charcoal dust and steeping tea.
Nothing to do but fill page after page with whatever he wanted to draw. Which was, pretty much, Tony.
He might be obsessed. He wasn't sure he cared.
“Besides,” he continued, “didn't you say that most people didn't have angels? How am I different from the millions of others you didn't watch over?” He glanced up to find Tony's eyes on his. “Hold still,” he chided, making Tony smile.
“Yes, but you're different,” Tony said, his fingers dancing through the air, swirls of golden light forming universes between his hands. “You always have been.”
“Nothing special about me,” Steve said, grinning. “Other than you deciding that I need constant baby-sitting.”
“I don't need this abuse. I have other files I could be working with.”
“No, you don't.”
“No, I don't,” Tony sighed. His eyes closed as he yawned. “Tired, lately. Let the others handle it for once.”
“How many of you are there?” Steve asked. “Angels, I mean. How many Guardians?”
“Not many.” Tony's arm swept an arc above his head, spreading the golden light in all directions. It clung to his fingertips, wisps of the bright glow swirling around his hands. “I only know a couple of dozen personally. There are more, of course, there must be more, but it's hard to say. New ones appear from time to time.”
“Yeah,” Tony agreed. “Fledglings, they're called. All of us were a fledgling once.”
“Well, that makes sense, you had to have been a child once.” Steve traded out his charcoal, going for a harder piece. Thick black lines slashed across the page in the wake of his fingers.
“Not children. There aren't any-” Tony grinned at him. “We wake up, fully grown, with wings. Where we come from, or what we were...” He shrugged. “No one knows.”
Steve paused. “No one knows?”
“There's a couple of theories, but they're just that,” Tony said. “Theories. No way to know if they're right or not, really.”
“Theories?” Steve leaned over his sketchpad. “Hold still.”
“I didn't move,” Tony objected.
“Yes, you did,” Steve said. He paused, stretching his shoulders. “Theories?” he prompted again, his eyes tracing over Tony's body. His fingers went back to work, quicker now.
“Mostly, that we were human once,” Tony said. His wings cast an intriguing set of shadows over his face, over his golden skin. “That we were all humans. And we were either very good, the best of humanity, and when we died, we were given an extended life. Extended life that we use to benefit the rest of humanity.”
“Or?” Steve asked, his fingers running over the drawing, smudging it as he went. He didn't know why, but it felt like he was caught by some madness, some fervor that he couldn't define. The charcoal striped the page, black and gray and the blank spaces between like white wounds. The clean stack of white feathers were set in rows like soldiers as Steve drew.
Tony didn't reply for a moment, his golden brown eyes going dark and shadowed. “Or,” he said at last, “we did something very, very bad, and this is our penance. The way we work off our debt, our karmic deficit.”
Steve went still. He glanced up. “What do you think?”
His wings flickered. Not moved so much as shifted. “I don't remember,” Tony said. His face was blank, his eyes hidden behind the dark sweep of his lashes. “I woke up with wings and a stack of files.” He yawned. “It doesn't matter.” His eyes closed. “This is boring.”
“I appreciate you putting up with it,” Steve said, his lips twitching up.
“It's only because you're gorgeous when you're covered in charcoal dust.”
Steve let out a snort. “So I've got some on my fingers, big deal.”
One eye opened. “And your face. And your hair. And your neck.” Tony's face relaxed into a smile as Steve scrubbed the back of his arm over his face. “Yeah, that didn't do anything. Can I move yet?”
“No, stop whining. If you're going to live here and not pay rent, you need to pose for your supper,” Steve said. He rubbed his cheek on his shoulder. Judging by Tony's snort of laughter, it wasn't successful. “It's fine, art is a dirty business.” His face flushed, he went back to work. But when he glanced back up at Tony, he caught a faint, warm smile floating across Tony's face.
Steve rolled to his feet, crossing over to stroke Tony's hair away from his forehead. “Whatever it was, however you got here,” he said, smiling down at Tony, “I'm-” His lips twitched. “I'm glad.”
Tony's eyes fluttered closed, and open again. His hand came up, the tips of his fingers brushing against the inside of Steve's wrist. The skin was sensitive there, and Steve couldn't quite repress a shudder. “Yeah?”
“Yeah.” Steve wondered if he looked as lovesick as he felt, and he tried for a lighter tone. “It's so hard to find a decent model in this town.”
Tony laughed, then reached up, his fingers ghosting over Steve's cheek. “Hold still,” he said, his tone laughing, as he ran his thumb across the plane of Steve's cheekbone. “You're a mess.”
Steve leaned into the touch. “Your fault,” he pointed out. “I've got to draw fast, because you keep moving.” Tony laughed, but both of his hands cradled Steve's face now, his fingers long and beautiful and comforting. Steve smiled down at him. “You can move now,” he said.
“Wonderful,” Tony said, releasing Steve and pushing himself up. Steve backed up, enough to let Tony get to his feet, stretching. Despite himself, Steve reached for his sketchbook again, mesmerized by the play of muscles beneath Tony's skin, by the flex of those great snowy wings, by the golden gleam of energy that flickered around his hands as he slid them through his dark hair.
The feather was so pale, so gleaming white, that he almost missed it amongst the sea of the comforter. Blinking, he reached down and picked it up. “Are you molting?” he asked Tony with a grin, holding it up. It was perfectly formed, gleaming and pristine on the edges, almost glowing in his dirty, ordinary hand.
Tony glanced over his shoulder, and his face went blank. “I should hope not,” he said, and there was a strange note to his voice. A faint smile on his face, he held out his hand. “Give it here.”
Steve pulled his hand back, the movement reflexive and needy. “Can I keep it?” he asked, mesmerized by the light, almost weightless object.
“No, you can't keep it.” Tony's teeth flashed in a smile. “Give it back.”
Not sure why he was so reluctant, Steve handed it over with a faint sigh. “It's beautiful,” he said, and Tony gave him a sly, knowing smile. “Shut up,” Steve managed, feeling his face heat. He tossed himself back onto the bed, flipping his sketchbook open. “And hold still.”
“Slave driver,” Tony said, grinning. He boosted himself onto the sill of the narrow window, one foot braced on the bedframe, the other trailing to the ground, his bare toes brushing the battered wood. Backlit by the setting sun, Tony went back to work, the golden light flowing out of his hands.
Steve frowned, watching as the light seemed to expand far past what Tony had been working with before. He watched for a moment, trying to memorize the way that Tony's hands flexed, the way his eyes went soft and the way he smiled when his work went well. “Well?” Tony asked, his lips twitching. “Draw. I'm not going to sit here all day, Rogers.”
Laughing, Steve bent over his sketchbook, and tried not to think about how natural and easy this all was. He drew his knees up and balanced his sketchbook on his knees, feeling a warm sense of contentment flood him. Maybe, just maybe, things could go on like this forever, and he'd never have to tell Tony that he was in love with him.
The feather fluttered down to the surface of Phil's desk. Phil's pen hit a bare second later, with a finality that made Tony's stomach knot.
Phil glanced up at him, his mouth a tight line. There was something in his eyes that was unfamiliar on Phil's face, but on anyone else, Tony would've categorized it as fear. “When?”
Tony rubbed a hand over his face. “A few hours ago.” He collapsed into the seat on the other side of Phil's desk, his hand worrying the ache beneath his breastbone. His palm scrubbed up and down, trying to soothe the pain, but it was too deep for him to reach. “How much longer do I have?”
Phil picked up the feather, his fingers delicate and careful. “We'll get you in stasis as soon as we can clear you. It'll take-”
Tony's fingers rattled against his breastbone, a sharp sequence of taps. “How long until I can't function any more?” he asked, speaking over Phil. “How long before I lose-”
Phil came to his feet. “Are you out of your mind?” he snapped. “Are you-” He held up the feather. “You're collapsing! You go into stasis, today! Now! If you want to save your wings, you will follow the goddamn protocol, Tony!”
Tony didn't even look in his direction. “How much longer?” he repeated, his voice weary. His foot was jerking against the ground, rattling and snapping, his muscles too tight, too sharp.
“Why did you even come here, if you're not interested in doing anything about this?” Phil snapped. His wings were vibrating behind him, quick little flutters, and it was an unusual sign of nerves from the usually calm and collected Agent. “Do you think we can afford to lose you now?”
“I came here,” Tony said, and the words hurt, “because you are the oldest.” He glanced up. “You're the only one who'd know. Has anyone ever begun to shed, and survived?”
Phil's mouth opened. Closed. He took his seat again, the movements careful and controlled. He reached out and set the feather in front of him. “Once,” he said, his voice quiet. “Only once. But-” His eyes came up from the feather, and he flicked out a finger. His energy was cool and silver, like moonlight and pale light on metal, and the tiny spark hit Tony dead in the center of his chest.
His body illuminated, and he stared down at his arms, at his hands, at the crawling pattern of blue-black lines that were slicing along beneath the thin veil of his skin. His lips quirked up, a humorless smile, and he raised his hand up to cover the blue hole that was eating away at his soul. “It's too late for me,” Tony said, meeting Phil's eyes.
Phil looked back down at the feather. “It's too late for you,” he agreed. He took a deep breath. “Take the stasis. Let us alleviate the effects. Stabilize you. There must be something we can do.”
“But you don't know what that would be,” Tony said.
Tony snorted out a laugh. He watched as the lines faded back into invisibility as his skin went opaque again. “If you don't know it, it doesn't exist. I should know. I've been going over every possible option. None of them will make a damn bit of difference.” He scrubbed a hand through his hair, frustration boiling through him. “How much longer do I have?”
“Why can't you stop?” Phil asked, his voice quiet. “Tony. You can't help him if-”
“He's going to die.”
Phil was silent. “Explain.”
Tony got up, his whole body a live wire, energy crackling around his hands. “There's a fixed point. There's a damn fixed point. I can't get it to move. Nothing I do. No matter how I adjust his file. No matter what I do to push the timeline out-”
Phil had a hand pressed tight to his mouth, his eyes shadowed above his fingers. His voice was very quiet when he asked, “And how far have you pushed his timeline out, Tony?”
Too late, Tony realized the danger. His mouth opened, and shut, and he sliced a hand through the air. “It doesn't matter, the point is that the fixed point doesn't change no matter how we attempt to push the timeline, and there's a possibility that-”
Phil's eyelids slid down, hiding the dark hollows of his eyes. “How far?”
Tony stopped. Sighed. “Just, a couple of, you know.” He rubbed a hand over his forehead, his fingers tense. “What difference does it make, Phil?”
“I don't know. A couple of, what? Weeks? Months?” His eyebrows arched high. “Years?”
Tony met his eyes. “Decades.”
All the color leeched out of Phil's face. “Tony...”
“I had it,” Tony snapped, his temper spiking. Rage and something that felt uncomfortably like fear churned low in his stomach, a toxic mix that made him lash out. “I could handle it! I am handling it!”
Phil's head fell forward into the cradle of his hands. “No. You're not.” His shoulders rose and fell in a sigh and his wings slid forward to cup around him. “We're going to lose you.”
“How long do I have?” Tony asked, because he'd known that, walking in. He'd known that, the instant Steve had held up that feather. He could feel his wings now, feel the fragility of the bones, feel the threadbare control that he still managed to maintain. He wrapped his arms tight around his chest, holding himself together with a force of will.
Phil picked up the feather, rotating it between his fingers. It gleamed, flickers of gold and red rolling over the barbs. “Where did you lose this?” His eyes darted up. “Fight?”
“I left it behind when I got out of bed,” Tony said with a tight smile. “And before you ask, no. Nothing energetic was happening in bed, either.”
“Even you wouldn't sleep with your guarded,” Phil said, with a tight smile.
“Yeah,” Tony said, his voice expressionless. “Even me.” Phil glanced up, his mouth opening, and Tony held out a hand. “No, I know what you mean, it's not-” His mouth worked. “You know I wouldn't.” No matter how much he wanted to, how much time he spent wondering how Steve's lips would taste, how long he'd dreamed of Steve's smile and his voice and his steady, clear gaze. He knew better. Flirting was fine. Even the occasional touch was excused; humanity needed the comfort of touch from time to time.
Loving the guarded, that happened. Sex didn't. Not ever. There were stories of those who did, spoken in whispers to the fledglings. Every one of those stories ended badly.
Very, very badly.
“I know you wouldn't,” Phil said. He paused. “You love him.” Tony didn't say a word, his eyes focused on the feather, his eyes steady. He heard Phil sigh. “I can't help you,” he said. “I can't fix this.”
“I know,” Tony said, his voice expressionless. “I didn't ask you to.” He looked up, and it was strange. Very strange. But it didn't hurt. There wasn't any panic, any fear. Just something like peace. “I just want to know how much time I have left, Phil.”
“Why does it matter?” Phil asked.
“Because I can still do this,” Tony said, and that was where the peace was coming from. From the certainty, the understanding, the knowledge that he could fix this. No matter what the cost. He glanced up, meeting Phil's eyes. “Because I will do this.”
Phil had kind eyes. Kind, steady eyes. “I know you will. As long as you don't run out of energy first.” His mouth quirked up, just a bit, a crease appearing in the skin of his cheek for just a moment. “And that, I may just be able to help with.”
Tony leaned forward, his hands braced on Phil's desk. “Now, see, I knew you were good for something.”
Phil's eyes flicked up, towards the ceiling, and back down, an eye roll without the effort. “You are remarkably bad at asking for help,” he said.
“I'm not asking for help, Phil.”
“Okay, begging. Begging for help.”
Tony opened his mouth. Closed it. “Touche.” He straightened up. “What do you want.” It wasn't a question.
Phil paused. “What-” He stopped, his mouth going in a flat line. “How-”
Tony's eyebrows arched. “Barton, or Romanov?”
Phil's hands folded in front of him. “Barton,” he said, the word dragged out of him.
“She's a whole other problem,” Phil said, and he leaned back. “I'll keep you alive. As long as I can. You tell me how I keep Barton from jumping off of things that he should not be jumping off of.”
Tony's mouth went tight, his head bobbing. “Yeah, not going to happen,” he admitted, with a faint shrug. “Mostly, I just try to let him land on something that won't kill him.” He paused. “Dumpsters are your friend in this.”
'That's your solution?” Phil asked. “Throw him in a dumpster?”
“No, my solution is to put a dumpster in the path of where he's throwing himself so he doesn't end up as a mingled puddle of poorly aligned DNA on the concrete,” Tony said. He gave Phil a tight smile. “You've got a whole new respect for me now, don't you?”
“Let's just say that I'm willing to assist you in your suicide mission, now that I see what your life is like,” Phil said.
“You know what?” Tony stabbed a finger in his direction. “I'll take it.”
Steve blinked at Bucky. “How in the world-” he started, a grin blooming on his face.
“I have leave,” Bucky said, his voice clipped. He was resplendent in his dress uniform, the hat tucked under his arm, his shoes polished to a mirror shine. “Let us in.”
“What-” Steve obediently stepped aside, and Bucky strode into the apartment. “Who's-” He didn't need to finish the question, Sam was right on Bucky's heels, and Jan came in behind them.
“Sorry,” Jan said, her nose wrinkling. “I tried to talk them out of it, but they're both-”
“What's going on?” Bucky asked.
Steve closed the door behind them, setting the locks. “I don't have any idea what's going on,” he said, spreading his hands. There was paint on his fingers, on his wrists and arms, and he headed back to his easel for a rag. “I didn't even know you were back in New York, Bucky!”
“I called him,” Sam said, his arms crossed over his chest, his face set in unhappy lines.
“Can someone please tell me-” Steve asked, and then Bucky was standing in front of him, almost nose to nose, and Steve blinked at him, surprise washing over him.
“Care to tell me how you've grown about six inches since the last time I've seen you?” Bucky asked, his voice quiet. “Six inches. In a couple of months? Long, long after you've finished growing?”
Steve's mouth opened. Closed. “I have not,” he said, hunching his shoulders. Which only really called further attention to the way his shirt now strained against them. “Look-”
“I am looking. And Sam is right. You,” Bucky caught Steve's shoulders, forcing his back straight. “You're still way too skinny. But you are-”
Steve pulled away from him, and Bucky let him go. “It's complicated,” he said, and went back to scrubbing at his hands. “You came all the way back from Fort Huachuca for this? Seriously?”
“Seriously.” Bucky's face was tight. “Want to tell me what's happening?”
Steve cast a nervous glance at his easel. Luckily, the painting was still being blocked out. It wasn't clear what he'd been painting, not quite yet. “Look, you want something to drink?” he asked, giving them a tight smile. “I can make tea, or-”
“Steve,” Sam started, and Jan touched his arm, the contact fleeting and delicate. Still, Sam subsided, his jaw tight.
“Steve,” Jan said, and her big eyes were worried. “You need to tell us. Are you-” She chewed on her lower lip. “Taking anything?”
“Taking-” Steve blinked at her, his gaze darting towards Bucky, towards Sam, and found three identical looks of concern pointed in his direction. “What do you mean, am I 'taking' anything?”
“Is your doctor pressuring you into-” She paused. “Any experimental treatments?”
“What?” Steve asked.
“Did you have to sign paperwork?” Sam asked. “Did they say they were testing anything on you? Or say that you were going to be paid for what they were doing to you?”
“What?” Steve asked, still stymied.
“Who did this to you?” Bucky said, and for the first time, Steve realized that he was furious. Controlled, but furious, his face white and tense, his hands in fists at his sides. “Do you have any idea what they're giving you? Or how it's going to affect you, long term? What if you-” He stopped, swallowed. “Steve, God, what if this makes things worse?”
Steve realized his mouth was hanging open and closed it with a snap. “It's not-” He scrubbed a hand over his face. “Look, you wouldn't believe me if I told you.”
“Steve, that's bullshit, and you-”
Sam cut Bucky off. “Try us.”
Groaning, Steve headed for his tiny kitchenette. He grabbed the kettle off the stove, glad for anything that could count as a distraction. He filled it, the rush of water covering the chilling silence in his apartment. By the time he set it on the hotplate, he could almost feel the tension reach a breaking point. “Do you promise to listen?” he asked, his back to them, his hands braced on the edge of the counter. “Really listen?”
“Yes,” Jan said immediately. “Boys, sit down.”
“I don't-” Bucky said, and Jan cut him off, her voice cracking like a whip.
“Sit. Your giant self. Down,” she said. Steve turned around in time to see Bucky flop into his single kitchen chair. Sam collected his painting stool and straddled that. Jan, for her part, boosted herself up onto the counter next to Steve. “Okay,” she said, smiling at Steve. “Tell us.”
“What are we telling them?” Tony asked, and Steve glared in his direction. Of course, the damn angel had chosen now to reappear. Tony's eyebrows arched. “I missed something here.”
Steve kept his eyes locked on Tony's as he stalked across the apartment. “I know this is going to be difficult to believe,” he said out loud, “I know, because I didn't believe it for a long time. But I've got no choice but to believe it, so-” He stopped, face to face with Tony. “I have a Guardian Angel.”
“What.” Sam's voice was flat. It wasn't a question, but Steve answered it anyway.
“I have a Guardian Angel who is screwing around with my life,” he gritted out. He turned back to them. “So there's that. There. Explanation done.”
“This is a bad idea,” Tony said. “And I know from bad ideas, Steve.”
“A Guardian Angel.” Jan's brows drew up tight, a worried frown crossing her face. “Steve...”
“I know what it sounds like, all right? I spent about a week thinking that I was going insane.”
“You are going insane, if you think-”
“Not helping, Bucky,” Jan said, her voice tight. “Steve, baby, I know you've been under a lot of stress this semester, and it's been so super cold, and we all know you don't get much to eat-”
“You keep a list of the medications that your doctor's got you on, right?” Sam asked. “Where do you have that? Maybe we should just take a look, Steve.”
“I could use some help here,” Steve said to Tony.
“I'm not helping you; I told you this was a bad idea,” Tony said, scrubbing a hand over his face.
“Who's Tony?” Bucky asked. “Is Tony your imaginary friend?”
“You know what, I don't like you,” Tony said to Bucky, who was oblivious to the words, and Steve wanted to kick them both in the shins.
“He's not imaginary, and right now, he's not my friend.” Steve stepped forward. “Tony. Please.”
“What am I supposed to do?” Tony asked, his face creasing with frustration.
“Let them see you.”
“Steve-” Jan said.
“See, that's a really large energy expenditure, it's surprisingly difficult to make a human being see me, let alone three of them,” Tony started.
Steve glared at him. “Make yourself visible,” he said, soft and steady, “or I swear I will never acknowledge you again, Tony.”
“This isn't funny,” Bucky said. “Do you think this is a joke, Steve?”
“Tony,” Steve said, and he heard the order hook into something like a plea.
“I think we need to get you help,” Sam said. Steve swung around, hurt by the note of pity in his friend's voice. Sam's face was struggling to remain calm, but he'd never had much of a poker face. Worry and fear were there, barely hidden, and Steve's shoulders slumped.
Arms closed around his shoulders from behind, Tony's arms draped around Steve's neck with his usual familiarity. He leaned into Steve's back, his cheek brushing Steve's hair. “He has all the help he needs,” Tony said, his voice a low, sensual purr.
Bucky scrambled backwards, crashing into the table. Jan let out a shriek, the tiny sound choked back as she slammed both her hands over her mouth, her whole body folding up in a ball, her knees tight against her chest. Sam's legs kicked out in front of him, tipping the stool backwards, and he fell with a thump.
“Do you have to do that?” Steve asked, his eyes rolling up towards the ceiling. “Really?”
“Yes,” Tony said, not pulling away.
“I don't think you really have to,” Steve said on a sigh. “Tony, this is Bucky, Sam and Jan.” He gestured over his shoulder at the limpet of a man clinging to him. “Guys. This is Tony.”
“Holy FUCK!” Sam choked out. “What the-”
Steve felt the air around him shift, and Tony's wings unfolded, fluttering in mid air before curling around them in a half-relaxed state. “Exactly what he said,” Tony said, and Steve could hear him smirking. “I'm his Guardian Angel.”
“Well, that's- Everyone else is seeing this, too, right?” Jan said, her voice high and faint. Her eyes were gigantic as she slid down off her countertop perch. “It's not just me?” She walked across the room, as if in a daze, and reached up, her fingers brushing against the feathers that covered Tony's wing.
“Madam, how forward,” Tony said, trying for disapproval and only getting as far as flirty amusement. Steve, caught by a sudden and unreasonable feeling of jealousy, tugged at Tony's grip. Tony didn't let go.
Jan jerked her hand back, her face going red. “Oh, I'm sorry, is that- Am I not supposed to do that?”
“No, go right ahead, touch all you'd like.” Tony rested his chin on Steve's shoulder, and Steve's mouth went dry. “I don't mind in the least.” One wing flexed out, flicking at her fingers.
“Get off of him,” Bucky bit out.
Tony's head rolled in Bucky's direction. “No,” he said, his voice bored.
“Tony,” Steve started.
Bucky started forward, his jaw tight, his eyes furious. “Get off of him!”
Tony's breath was warm through Steve's shirt. “No,” he repeated, amused now.
“Tony, that's enough, let go,” Steve said, and with a sigh, Tony stepped back, his arms slipping free of Steve's shoulders. Steve had a moment to mourn the loss of his comforting heat, then he was stepping forward to meet Bucky's forward momentum. He braced his hands on Bucky's chest. “He's harmless,” Steve said.
“Excuse me?” Tony sputtered.
“You shut up now,” Steve told him.
“I am not harmless! I am-”
“Shut up, Tony!” Bucky was still trying to get around him, and Steve gave him a hard shove. For perhaps the first time in their respective lives, he had the strength to knock Bucky back a step. “He's not going to hurt me,” Steve said to Bucky, breathing hard. “He's-”
“What has he been doing to you?” Bucky yelled. “Has he been making you do anything in exchange for-”
“What? No!” Steve felt his face heat. Not that he would've minded. He banished the thought as quickly as it came. “Oh, my GOD, Bucky!”
“It's a legitimate question,” Sam said. “He's all over you, Steve.”
“He's an angel!”
“No offense,” Jan said to Tony. “But with that outfit, that goatee, and that attitude, you're far more devil than angel, really. Or is there a male version of a succubus?”
“I'll take that as a compliment, actually.” Tony glanced down at the faded jeans and battered Metallica t-shirt that he was wearing. “Steve picks out my clothes,” he said with a rakish grin.
“I do not!” Steve said, so embarrassed that he just wanted to sink into the floor. “Could you keep your horrible lies to a minimum?”
“You didn't want me in the toga any more,” Tony pointed out, tucking his hands in his pockets. The already tight jeans drew tight across his hips.
“The toga's so SMALL.”
Tony shrugged. “It's traditional.” With a snap of his fingers, he was back to bare skin, his hips wrapped in the swath of delicate linen.
“Well, hello,” Jan said.
“Hello, yourself,” Tony said, grinning at her.
“Really? Do all of your kind wear them that-” Steve's hands fluttered in mid-air. “That tiny?”
“Only if they've got the body for it.”
“Are you kidding me?” Bucky asked.
“Probably not,” Steve told him.
“Can we all just calm down for a second?” Sam said, spreading his hands in a placating gesture. “And Jan, stop feeling up his wings, you're freaking me out here.”
“I can't help it.” Jan sounded almost drunk. Her fingers were playing with the tips of the feathers. “They're so soft.”
“You should feel them wrapped around your bare skin,” Tony said, his lips curling up, and Jan flushed, her mouth parting.
“You-” Bucky snarled.
Steve sighed. “This isn't helping, Tony.”
“I'm not trying to help.” Tony shrugged, never taking his eyes off of Bucky. He smirked, and Steve smacked him on the shoulder. “What?” Tony asked, rubbing at his arm.
“Is he here all the time?” Bucky asked. He was still staring at Tony, barely banked fury on his face.
“Pretty much,” Steve said.
“Where does he sleep?” Jan asked, and Steve froze. Luckily, she glanced at Tony. “Do you sleep?”
“Not much,” Tony said.
“Wait, has he been going to class with you?” Sam asked. “Is this why you're ALWAYS on the phone recently?”
“It's easier to pretend I'm on the phone than to ignore him.”
“I'm difficult to ignore.” Tony's hand flicked out, the file settling into his palm. He opened it, leafing through the glowing pages.
“Why are you messing with him?” Bucky asked.
Tony's head came up. “Because we failed him,” he said, all humor gone. “It's a mistake that I won't make again.” His smile was tight, cutting. “No matter what you think of the situation.”
“Tony,” Steve said.
“You bastard, if you put one finger out of place-” Bucky snarled.
“Try it,” Tony said, his smile sharp and dangerous, and Steve glared at him. “What?”
“Wow, Bucky, only you would get into a pissing contest with an actual angel,” Jan said.
Sam laughed. “You don't-”
“Sure I do,” Tony said, golden eyes narrow slits of heat. “Whenever I want to.”
“Enough!” Steve's voice was too loud, too sharp, and he didn't care. “Enough, all of you!” He took a deep breath. “This,” he said, trying to make the word firm, “is stupid. All of you. Shut up.” Sam was grinning, and Steve glared at him. “I swear, if I can adapt to the situation, so can all of you. And if you can't, leave. You can come back when you can accept it. But as long as you are here, as long as you are talking to me or with each other about me, I need you to pretend to be adults!” He took a deep breath. “Is that understood?”
Tony arched an eyebrow. “Whatever you say,” he said with a warm smile.
Steve looked at the others. “Fine,” Sam said, shaking his head.
“Can I fix your pants?” Jan asked Steve. “Because if they get any further up your legs, you're going to be wearing capris, Steve, and I'm not sure if you can pull off that look.”
“Please,” Steve said. “Please fix my pants.”
“Good, give them here, I'll see if I can do anything about the length, I had to hem a bunch of them a lot, so I should be able to let them out.”
“Wait, you'll take your pants off for her?” Tony asked, pouting. Steve rolled his eyes.
“I swear to GOD,” Bucky muttered.
“Bucky, he's just doing this because it annoys you,” Steve said. He caught Bucky's arm, and tried to make Bucky look at him. “Please. Just-” He gave Bucky a pleading smile. “He's- Things are better. Now. With him. Please?”
Bucky took a breath. “Fine.” The word seemed to be dragged out of him. But he said it. And again. “Fine.”
Steve let out a breath that he hadn't known he'd been holding. He threw his arms around Bucky. “Thank you.”
Bucky hugged him back. “I swear, if he's molesting you-”
Steve smacked him on the back of the head. “Why are you such an idiot?”
“So what now?” Sam asked. Tony's wings flickered, and he flinched. “That is really disconcerting.”
“Sorry,” Tony said. With a benign smile, he did it again.
“As the only woman in the room, I vote for strip poker,” Jan said. They all looked at her, and she gave them an innocent smile. “But that's just me.”
“Seconded,” Tony said.
“Let's just eat dinner, okay?” Steve asked, blushing.
“Then poker after,” Tony said to Jan, who giggled.
“I don't want a raise.”
“I'm serious.” Steve held up a hand when Tony reached for him. “Don't even try it. I'm mad at you.”
“You can be mad at me while we fly,” Tony wheedled, his wings held open in an enticing manner. Steve's eyes darted up, but his face remained stubbornly resistant. “Do we have to be mad and walk?”
“Yes, we do, because when we fly, I have a hard time being mad at you,” Steve said, slanting a look at Tony from out of the corner of his eyes. Tony gave him an innocent look. “We're walking home.”
“You're walking home,” Tony said. “I'm flying.” He lifted off the ground, his wings cutting through the air just enough to let his feet skim the pavement. He held a hand out to Steve. “Humor me?”
“No,” Steve said. “If we fly, I'll end up being not mad at you. And I can't- No.” His cheeks flushed, he jogged forward a few steps, keeping just out of reach. “No.”
Tony kept pace with him without difficulty. “You need to let me fly you home before you freeze.'
Steve let out a snort. “You need to not get me a raise.”
“I didn't get you a raise! You got you a raise!” Tony swooped around him, light and easy, trying to tempt Steve into taking his hand. Steve's eyes flickered towards him, longing clear in their depths, but he continued up the road, his feet stuck firmly to the ground. Tony sighed. “I didn't mess with the co-op's books, Steve.”
“You do these things,” Steve said, poking a finger in Tony's direction. “You keep doing them!”
“I didn't!” Tony flipped open the file, rifling through the data points. He didn't think he'd done it. He was pretty sure that he hadn't. “Steve. You show up for every shift. You're never late, you're always polite to the customers, you're knowledgeable about the stock, you volunteer for the shifts no one else wants, and I swear about half of the clientele just buys things so they have an excuse to hang around you.” He snapped the file shut. “If I was in charge, I'd give you a raise, too. Now, can we please just fly home?”
“No.” Steve shouldered his bag and continued resolutely up the path. “No. We cannot.”
“Why are you so unfair?” Tony asked, rolling onto his back, gliding along beside Steve. “We could-”
“If you were really serious about respecting my wishes here, you'd put your feet on the ground, and you would walk,” Steve said.
Tony rolled, floating close, so close his wing brushed Steve's head. Steve didn't flinch, even when Tony was face to face with him, their lips a breath away from touching. “Is that so?” he asked.
Steve's eyes dropped to his mouth, just for a second, but Tony saw him swallow before his head came back up. “Yes,” he said, his voice steady. “Walk home with me.”
“I didn't get you a raise,” Tony said.
“Okay,” Steve said, his hand extended, his lips curling up just a tiny bit. “Then walk home with me.”
Tony held his gaze for another second, and then his feet were brushing against the pavement. A half skip through the air, and he was walking forward again, his bare feet easy on the cold concrete. “I put up with a lot from you,” he said.
Steve grinned, his eyes alight with it. “Thank you,” he said. “Your sacrifice is greatly appreciated.”
Tony snorted, but it was hard to ignore the warm burst of pleasure that Steve's grin always brought him. “I'm serious,” he said, not quite ready to give up on his grumbles. “I haven't walked this much in forever.”
“Nothing wrong with walking,”Steve said, as they turned the corner. Tony fell into step with him without a second thought, as Steve adjusted his strides to match Tony's. Almost shoulder to shoulder, they paused at the crosswalk, waiting for the light. “I like walking.”
Tony resisted the urge to smile back at him. “Why are we walking to Queens?” he asked.
“That's Sam's problem,” Tony said, not interested in whatever girl Sam was chasing in Queens. The light changed, and he skipped out across the frozen pavement. “Why are WE walking to Queens?”
“Because Sam needs some help, and I owe him,” Steve said, unconcerned with Tony's tone. “What do you have against the borough, anyway?”
“It's Queens,” Tony said, disdainful.
“Uh-huh.” They headed across the bridge, and Tony curved his wings up to provide Steve some measure of protection. Night came early, even this late in winter, and it was dark already, dark and cold and Tony wondered if he would still be here come spring. His wings ruffled in the wind, and he tucked them in a bit. To his eyes, his wings were dull and shadowed, the white like bleached bones now.
“You need to stop messing with Sam and Jan,” Steve was saying, and he tried to pay attention. “It's not nice.”
“But it is fun. And isn't that all that matters?”
It happened so fast that he almost didn't catch it all. A wiry, slim boy in the red and black hoodie was darting his bike up the sidewalk just ahead, his head down, a huge backpack strapped tight across his chest. He was sliding through the handful of pedestrians when a harsh blare of horns and screeching brakes brought Tony's head around.
A panel truck swerved sideways, crashing against a car and sliding sideways over the icy pavement. Things slowed down, slowed down to a crawl, and then the van was crashing into the boy on the bike, sweeping him off the ground and across the road. The truck smashed into the low railing, and for an instant, the boy just rolled across the hood, hanging weightless in the air for a bare second.
And then he was falling, disappearing into the darkness, leaving only a scream in his wake.
For the first time, Tony saw a fixed point in time play out right in front of him. He saw that moment, unmovable, inescapable, a lodestar upon which Steve's life was fixed, and he knew, he knew that there was nothing he could do to stop what happened next.
He didn't even see Steve move.
But Steve was moving, Steve was stepping out of his shoes, kicking out of them, the shoes tumbling back out behind him, his backpack falling along beside them, his jacket shed like a well-worn skin, and Tony heard himself screaming, howling with a denial that wasn't going to do anything.
Because Steve was already boosting himself up and over the railing. Maybe it was Tony's failing wings, maybe it was the shock, but when Tony lunged forward, his fingers stretched out, desperation giving him speed when his body and his energy failed him, he came up just a bare inch short. His fingers closed on thin air, and Steve dropped into the darkness.
Somewhere, a woman screamed, and someone cursed, and there were no words, not on heaven or earth, that Tony could manage. All he could do was go down after him, plummeting through the air screaming Steve's name with a voice gone silent. It was empty and pointless and he was crying out and no one would ever hear him.
Tony howled as he plummeted into the water.
It hit him, the ice enveloping him in an instant, in the space of a single breath, he was drowning. He didn't feel cold, and he didn't need to breathe, but the water swallowed him up, and he was drowning, even as he plowed forward, his arms and legs and wings forcing him through the ice.
In the darkness, in the icy depths of water that pressed against the skin like the flat of a knife, he found Steve, struggling with clumsy fingers with the the straps of the boy's backpack. Tony's fingers glowed, light and energy, too sharp in the empty cold of the darkness, and with a slice of his arm, he severed the straps. No time to deal with the niceties, no time to struggle, because he could feel Steve's heartbeat through the water. He could feel it in his blood, and he could feel it begin to stagger, began to falter.
Tony went up, and Steve didn't need to be pulled, even with the dead weight of the boy in his arms, he was kicking, he was struggling up towards the hazy echo of the light through the water. A streetlight was their lighthouse beacon, and they swam up, Steve hauling the boy and Tony hauling Steve. It was achingly slow, that horrible ascent, and Tony screamed to break the surface, hard as ice now.
Steve's head crashed through to the night air, sucking in a breath before he shoved the boy up, forcing his head above the waterline. Above them, people were screaming, howling, cheering, and Tony dragged all three of them towards the nearest pylon, towards the men who were climbing down to meet them. Steve shifted his grip on the boy, dragging him along, his grip hard and steady, swimming for both their lives now.
Tony's wings were sodden, dragging him down, dragging him back into the cold, and he fought it. He sucked in a breath and opened Steve's file.
It was pure energy now, unleashed, running wild, out of control and burning through the cold. The damage was done, now, there was no going back, there was no way to fix this, he could feel Steve's body getting heavy with each kick of his legs. Tony latched one hand in the fabric of his shirt collar with a death grip, and with his wings fighting him, with the cold and the river and the unconscious boy in Steve's arms fighting him, with the slow decay of Tony's own body fighting him, Tony did what he did best.
He went to work.
Too much, too fast, energy rolling from his fingers, rolling in galaxies around him, years of Steve's life, laid out in whirls of hope and failure, of pleasure and pain. Tony changed variables, rerouting possibilities with the speed of thought, desperation feeding into his brilliance, need and rage and determination.
It was love, he knew that, he could feel it, even as it emptied his veins, even as he shifted the course of Steve's life, he poured everything into one final gambit, even as he dragged Steve out of the water, onto the pylon, onto the ladder. Just above them, just out of reach, hands were stretched down, men balanced precariously, women leaning down, hands stretched out.
Steve climbed, only a handful of feet that might as well have been a mile the separated him from safety, the boy half under his arm, half over his shoulder, and Tony had Steve by the back of his pants now, hauling him along by his belt. Steve heaved himself up, shoving hard, pushing, and the weight of the boy was lifted from him, the kid dragged up and over the lip of the bridge's railing.
Steve's fingers slipped, and he tumbled down a rung or two, his body slamming hard against the metal and stone, and Tony was dragged down with him, losing years as he fell. They both caught hold, both dragged themselves forward, both clung and moved and Steve was mumbling something that was probably Tony's name and he wished he had the energy to respond. Because Steve's face had a blue cast, his lips ice white and his eyelashes frozen in sharp points.
Energy was flowing out of Tony in a rush now, lighting up the night, enveloping them both.
He found it, he found the solution, the last broken fragment, and he was laughing as he flicked it into place, as he shoved Steve up the last foot, as arms came down to grab the Steve and drag him over the railing. Tony was laughing, even as the last of his energy snapped Steve's file shut.
Tony felt his wings shatter.
Like a thread being pulled free, like a bond being broken, the last of his energy dissipated, and with it, his wings. For a split second, he hung in midair, a last moment of flight, a last moment of the light enveloping him, and then he was falling. He fell through the debris of his own wings, the gold and red feathers catching the moonlight, swirling around him. He dropped, his body a dead weight, and he stared up.
He kept his eyes on Steve until the last, kept his eyes on the fading glow cast by the street lamps. Until the darkness closed around him. Then, and only then, did he let his eyes close. “I love you,” he whispered, and then there was nothing.
The soft, steady beep had a sad sort of note to it. Steve knew the sound of a heart monitor far too well, and he kept his eyes closed. A quick inhale, and he caught the scent of disinfectant and rubbing alcohol and blood and bile, all smells he knew well, all smells he was resigned to smelling again. For a moment, he wanted to curl back into himself, to ignore the sounds and smells of a hospital, wanted to pretend that he wasn't sick again, that he wasn't garnering a mounting bill with every single breath.
Then he remembered. The water. The fall. Tony's voice, calling his name. And suddenly, the cold silence seemed oppressive and terrifying. Steve's eyes snapped open, and pain flooded his his system along with the light. His hands clawing at the blankets, he tried to pull himself up.
A hand came down against the flat of his breastbone, and for an instant, hope flared.
“Slowly, please. Slow, shallow breaths.”
The voice was unfamiliar, but for some reason, Steve obeyed it, even as his chest began to ache with a pain that had nothing to do with his injuries. He blinked, and his eyes burned.
“Good. Take a moment, Mr. Rogers. The pain will pass.” The hand was removed, and his chest was cold, he was cold, cold and bereft in the wake of the contact.
He sucked in another breath. It came out on a single word. “Tony?”
There was silence, and Steve's stomach dropped. He pried his eyes open, his head lolling towards the voice. The man seated next to his bed was just as unfamiliar as his voice would indicate. There was a faint, sad smile hovering around his mouth, and his eyes were dark and sharp. He was dressed in a perfectly tailored dark suit, every line of it crisp.
His wings were a glossy, matching black.
Steve's heart was pounding. “Where's Tony?” he croaked out, and the man reached for the pitcher of water beside his bed. He poured a glass, the movement precise and controlled, and pressed the cool glass into Steve's hand, wrapping Steve's fingers around it.
“He has ceased.”
Steve's vision went white, and he blinked hard against the burn of tears and the siren call of unconsciousness. “What does that mean?” he managed, with lips gone numb.
There was a beat of silence, then the faintest hiss of a sigh. “You know what it means,” the angel said, and his voice was kind, achingly kind. Steve stared at him, helpless in the face of that, mute and shattered. The man leaned over him, and he nudged the cup of water towards Steve's mouth with a gentle hand. “Drink.”
Steve drank. “I don't know what it means,” he said, and he could hear the hysteria in his voice. He could hear the fear and the rage and the dawning shame. “I don't understand at all.”
The man, the angel, looked at him with fathomless eyes. “Yes, you do.” But he sat down again. “Tony expanded the last of his energy. He has lost his wings, and has ceased. He will no longer be with you as your Guardian.”
The agony was overwhelming. Nausea rolled in his stomach, and Steve could taste the coppery tang of blood in the back of his throat, thick and choking. He sucked in a breath, and another, and he stared at the angel, silently pleading for a leniency that he knew wasn't to come.
“I'll be watching over you for a time, but his work was perfect,” the angel said, a faint smile on his lips. “Truly. It's impressive. He was focused on making sure that you were safe, even at the end.”
Steve stared at him. “Is that- Supposed to make me feel better?” he asked.
The man took a seat again, his wings smoothing out as he settled back. “Yes,” he said, folding his hands on his knees. “It should.”
Steve's eyes dropped to the glass in his hand. The surface of the water was trembling.. He gripped it hard, trying to hold his hands still. “Well, it doesn't,” he said, and the words were sharp and vicious. “It-” He clamped his teeth tight on the urge to say more, to say things that he knew he'd regret. “It doesn't.”
The angel just watched him, as still as if he'd been rendered in oils. Not speaking. Not reacting at all. Steve wanted to throw his water glass at the man's head, anything to spark a response. “What happened?” he asked instead.
“Does it matter?”
“Yes. Yes, you owe me that much, and you know it, or you wouldn't be here.”
The angel came out of his seat in a sustained rush, his body exploding upwards, his wings flashing out with a force that was enough to rattle the windows and set the machines clattering on their bases. “Let's get this much cleared up,” he said, and his voice was soft. It was soft, but it made Steve shudder. “I owe you nothing at all. As a Guardian, I am responsible for your file, and that is all. The guarded should never have contact with his Guardian. I owe you nothing more than my protection and my best work. However, I owed him quite a bit, and it is for his sake that I am standing here, explaining anything to you. Do you understand me?”
Steve stared him down. When his mouth opened, when the words started, they were just as quiet and just as weighted. “Go to hell. Tell me what happened.”
The angel's lips curled up, just a fraction of a bit, just on one side. A quick little quirk, and then it smoothed out again, but the sparking light in his eyes was gone. When he took his seat again, he seemed strained and sad and very nearly human, despite the sweep of the wings on his back.
“We have a finite amount of energy, of life force, I suppose you can say. We can expend it to influence the world of humanity, to make changes in our files, to alter our guarded's lives. Any number of things,” he said, still soft and almost gentle now. A teacher with an eager, but rather slow, student.
The pain sat heavy in his stomach. “To make yourselves seen,” Steve added, with lips that resisted the words.
“To make ourselves seen,” the angel agreed. “None of our energy expenditures are accidental. They are carefully planned and even more carefully executed.” He read the expression on Steve's face, and continued, “Whatever happened, whatever he did, he chose to do it.”
Steve stared at him, the pain so overwhelming that it he had no choice but to retreat into numbness. “He-” His eyes squeezed shut, tight as he could make them. “Why?”
“Because he chose to,” the angel said. “There are a million reasons why we make the choices we do, Steven.” his wings shuddered, the feathers sighing. His hand swept to the side, and the familiar file opened flat on his palm. But as he leafed through the information, his fingers sliding through the symbols that rose and fell at his command, it lacked Tony's comforting golden glow. Instead, it was rendered in slim, barely visible silvery gray light, lines of text and drawings delicate and fine, drawn as if by a pen with a delicate, fine nib. As if the bare minimum of light and energy was being expended to set the work in motion.
“And Tony's choices in this case were perfect.” He paused, his face lit with the energy he was manipulating, his eyes tired and his face expressionless. “He couldn't stop the boy from falling, or from you being there to witness it. Nor could he keep you from going in after the child. None of that was within his ability to alter. But Tony was good at dealing with the consequence of the action, if he could not deal with the action itself.”
Steve didn't respond, and the angel didn't seem to notice. “Even as he was pulling you out, he was putting events in order,” the angel continued, and with a swirl of his hand, the file expanded, a small universe of interconnected plot points, bullet points laid out on a three dimensional plane, and the angel began to cycle through them.
“There was a news van on the scene. They caught the whole thing on tape. The visual of you jumping into the water without even pausing, of you bringing that boy back up, it's very powerful. Then of course, after the fact, after you were taken away in an ambulance, that's when the story really picked up speed.” The angel's fingers slid over the pages of the file. “You've been a medically induced coma for a few days, to be honest, I didn't understand why Tony chose that path, but I let it stand.
“As with everything else, he was right. Gave you time to heal.” He glanced up, dark eyes catching Steve's. “And the cameras love your friends. Talking about the selfless, kind, brave person that you are. Talking about your health problems. About your struggles.”
Steve stared at him, hatred a living thing in his chest.
“You're famous now, Mr. Rogers. A series of funds have been set up. To pay your immediate medical bills, but more than that, to pay for the remainder of your schooling.”
“I don't want people's-”
“It does not much matter what you want,” the angel said. “You did something unspeakably brave, despite the danger it posed to your well-being. This is something that people like to reward. And you might have a problem with that, but luckily, your friends have no such qualms. Pride is one thing, but there is no shame in accepting help when you need it.”
“To being a charity case? It seems like a lot of shame to that,” Steve said. He buried his face in his water glass, sipping the liquid and using it as an excuse to avoid the angel's gaze. “I never wanted this. Any of this.”
“But Tony did.”
There was a long pause. “Tony,” he said at last, “was difficult. Mercurial. He failed on occasion, as we all did. As was inevitable, because nothing is fully within our control. For all our planning, for all our efforts, for all our care, sometimes you just can't get that dumpster into place in time.” Steve stared at him, and he gave a faint smile, leaning one elbow on the arm of the chair, and putting his jaw upon his fist. “Most of us learn to accept that, to know that sometimes, we will fail.
“Tony, for all of his power, for all of his brilliance and grace, never did.” The angel's eyelids dipped, sadness washing over his features. “Perhaps it was because of his brilliance and his grace that he found it so hard. Tony was young, and his failures weighed heavily upon him. He was so used to being able to fix his files with barely any effort. When he fell short of that, when he failed, he would withdraw from everyone, and throw himself into his work with a single minded focus that could be defined as a mania.
“Your file was taken from him when you were just a child, and never reassigned, and that was a mistake that he could not bear. I believe, from what I knew of him, that he was determined, no matter what it took, no matter what the cost, that he would not fail you again.”
Steve's teeth were gritted so hard that it felt like his jaw would break. “So he fixed my life at the cost of his?”
“He fixed your life despite the cost to his.” The angel's eyebrows arched. “And he did an amazing job with it.” He turned his attention back to the file.
“Your health problems are already disappearing,” the angel said. “A medical miracle. It will cause a minor stir, but eventually, they will decide that a random combination of rare treatments that you've been given in the wake of your injuries and the hypothermia had unexpected results. The asthma, the heart problems will simply fade, and you will continue to grow and develop, becoming an absolute paragon of human health and strength.” He slapped the file shut with a flick of his fingers. “Tony's work was... Phenomenal. You must understand that. There was no other, is no other, that could've done this, that could've stabilized and provided for you this far out.” He gave a faint smile. “He did his greatest work, his purest work, for your benefit, and he did it of his own free will.”
“He's dead.” Steve's voice was still and dark. Broken. “And I killed him. So I don't give a good goddamn what I get out of that-” He choked, and forged on despite it. “I killed him.”
“No.” The angel stood. “He knew what he was doing. Don't mistake me. He knew. All the time when he was doing his work, he knew the price he would pay for it. He paid it, without flinching.”
Steve was still. Silent. He wanted to scream, to howl, and yet he didn't know if he could survive it. “He's dead,” he said at last, because perhaps repetition could make it seem more real. Or less. He didn't know which he wanted anymore. “I don't- He's dead.”
There was a moment of silence, broken only by his rasping breath, and the shudder of feathered wings. “But he made certain, down to the moment that he lost his wings, that you would not follow him into that ending, not for a great long time.” The angel didn't look away, didn't flinch from Steve's eyes or his grief. His voice was very quiet. Very gentle. “Respect his work. If there is nothing else you can-”
“I love him.” It was a soft, broken whisper. He felt the tears on his cheeks, cold and humiliating, and he didn't care. “I love him. And he's dead.” He sucked in a breath, and it hurt. The act of breathing hurt. “I won't-” He refused to look away, even as he felt his face twist. “I don't want any of this,” he whispered. “I just want him to-”
He folded forward, his arms coming up to wrap around his head, his whole body drawing up tight. Something crashed to the floor, needles and wires ripping free, and machines started to whine with repetitive alarms. Steve barely heard them, barely heard anything above the sound of the sobs that wracked his body.
“Steve!” Hands came down on his shoulders, his back, his arms, his head. He dragged his head up, to meet Sam's wide, shaken gaze. “Jesus, Steve, what is it, what's wrong? Are you in pain?”
Steve's mouth opened, closed, and his fingers came up to clutch at Sam's shirt. “I-”
Sam wrapped his arms around Steve, drew him in, pulled him close. “It's okay,” he said, his voice shaking. “It's okay. Whatever it is, Steve, it's okay. It's okay.”
Steve buried his face in Sam's shoulder. “He's gone,” he whispered, but Sam's hands went still on his back. “He's gone, Sam. He's gone. He's-”
“What's going on?” Jan's voice, behind Sam, shaking on the edges. “I'll get the doctor-”
“I think it's Tony,” Sam said, and Steve couldn't breathe. He couldn't breathe, couldn't do anything but cling to Sam as if he were a lifeline. As if Steve was back in the ice cold water, waiting for his strength to fail him and for the river to drag him back down into the darkness.
“Tony?” Jan asked, and Steve didn't know if she was asking him, or if she was calling for the angel himself. But in either case, there was no reply, no reply that could come from either source, and her hands were on Steve's back and her cheek against the line of his shoulderblade. “Oh, Steve...”
Beyond shame, beyond caring, he just let them hold him as he sobbed, until the staff was prying them apart, until a needle slipped into his IV and he sank back into the cold darkness. It was like drowning again, except this time, he knew, there would be no hand to pull him free.
“It's time to go, Steve.”
He didn't move. “Yeah.”
“C'mon, this is-” Bucky's feet were heavy on the thin flooring, on the threadbare carpet that barely muted his the sounds of his steps. He'd always walked loud, had always marched, even before he joined the Army. Steve was used to it by now. In its own way, it was comforting.
He didn't look up when Bucky's hand came down on his shoulder, a firm, steady grip. He kept his head down over the sketchbook, braced on one knee as he worked through the lines. As he ran the point of his pencil over them again and again and again. Bucky sighed. “You're going to rip the page.”
Steve shrugged, a quick jerk of his shoulders that almost dislodged Bucky's grip. “Then I'll draw it again,” he said, his lips quirking up. “I missed a lot of class. I need the practice.”
“It'll be okay,” Bucky said. He paused, shifting his weight. “The class, I mean. Jan said-”
“I know,” Steve said, cutting him off. “I know. Doesn't mean I like being behind. Missing out. Again.” His fingers were too tight on the pencil, and he took a deep breath, making a deliberate effort to relax. “Even if they are letting me make up my work and pass this semester, I don't like it, Bucky.”
There was a pause. “Maybe this'll be the last time,” Bucky said at last.
The pencil snapped between Steve's fingers, the crack of splintering wood sharp in the quiet room. Startled, Steve jerked his hand back, but it was too late, too little and far too late. Biting back a curse, he tossed the remains into his pencil box and buried his head in his hands. “Yeah,” he mumbled against his palms. “Yeah, I know.”
“I didn't mean it like that,” Bucky said, frustration bleeding into his words. “Jesus, Steve, you think any of us like this?”
“I know you don't,” Steve said, quiet about it. “I know. But I don't, either.” With care, he flipped the page of his sketchbook. Stared down at the empty white sheet.
Bucky and Sam and Jan had stripped his small apartment, packing everything up and moving it out. He was only supposed to be returning the key, that was the agreement, one last trip back to sign paperwork with the uncaring super and check to make certain nothing had been left behind.
Steve had brought his sketchbook and a small stool, and despite Bucky's opinion on the matter, had set himself to sketching the small rooms where he had lived for the past two years.
“I would've thought you'd want to forget this place,” Bucky grumbled, his broad shoulders braced against the clean white wall, freshly stripped down to the paint. “You hated it here.”
“I didn't hate it here.” He paused. “But sometimes I hated my life here.”
“Steve-” Bucky stopped. Shifted his weight. “I packed up your paintings. There were a lot of them. Of him.” Bucky's jaw was tight. “Did he, I mean did you-”
“No,” Steve said. “I would've, I wanted to, I wanted him so much, all-” His face flushed, he looked down at his feet, too big and too clumsy now. “I love him. And I wanted him. But he didn't ever-” He took a breath, shuddering with the force of it. “He didn't touch me.”
“Why him?” Bucky asked, his voice full of frustration. “I mean, he wasn't even-”
“Do you have any idea what it is to be alone?” Steve asked, his words hushed. “You're good at- At people. At pulling them in. At talking to people. You have this-” He waved a hand. “This family, and this life, and it was great, all of you, it's great, it is. I am so glad for you, for all of you.
“But I could go for days without really interacting with anyone. I worked two jobs because I needed the money, but also because, well, people could see me, I could make myself visible. And sometimes, when things got busy and everyone was going full speed, I felt like I was being left behind. No matter how hard I tried. No matter how much I tried to reach out, sometimes, it felt like-”
He glanced up, meeting Bucky's eyes. “Like no one ever saw me. Like I was fading, slipping through the cracks, just-” He shrugged. “Like I was disappearing.”
“Steve-” Bucky started, but Steve cut him off.
“And Tony always saw me. Always.” Steve's lips tried for a smile and didn't quite succeed. “No matter what else he was doing, no matter how busy he was or how tired he was, he always saw me. Always knew I was there. And he would-” His throat worked. “Smile. He was happy to see me, every time. Even when I wasn't doing what he wanted me to do. Even when I was fighting with him. Even when he was frustrated and tired and in a lousy mood.”
Steve paused. “The first time his eyes met mine, he would smile. He had an expressive face, good eyes, sharp jaw and a nice nose.” His fingers touched his nose, the gesture idle. “I liked his nose. Good nose. Don't trust a man without a strong nose, Bucky,” he said, and that might be hysteria, it might be sadness or grief or love in his voice. “He had a good face,” Steve said. “And he would smile.”
His eyes closed. Just for a moment. “Before he remembered he was mad at me, before he was fully awake, before he could put on an act or a fake front, he always smiled. Like I was the person he wanted to see right then, like I was just the person he wanted to see.” He scrubbed a hand over his face, exhaustion carving into his ability to lie, to hide the truth. “I know that I was his, well, his job, for lack of a better word. I know that it wasn't anything more than that. That I was just human.
“But you have no idea what it was like, to know, every single day, that someone was waiting for me. That he'd be here. If I woke up in the middle of the night after a bad dream, or if I had to walk halfway up midtown, or if the bus was late again, or if Sam was going crazy studying for finals-” His eyes were open, staring sightlessly at the white paper pad in his hands. “I know I was just what he had to do. But he liked me, Bucky. And I-” He met Bucky's eyes. “I-”
He managed a smile. “I loved him. And I liked him. A lot.”
Awkwardly, Bucky wrapped his arms around Steve's shoulders and Steve leaned forward, burying his face in Bucky's midsection. “He smiled,” Steve whispered. “And I was always glad to see him. I missed him when he was gone. He was funny and sharp and he could be such a jackass, he didn't respect boundaries and he always thought he knew what the right thing was, and damn the rest of the world, and he was impossible if he didn't get his way, he was spoiled and secretive and his hands were the most beautiful things I'll ever see in my entire life.” He choked on a sob, a single shuddering sob, and then it was past. “He was brilliant and beautiful and he could fix anything.”
Hidden in Bucky's shirt, his face twisted. “Even me.”
Bucky exhaled hard. “Only you,” he said, his voice affectionate, “would end up with a jackass of a Guardian Angel.”
Steve gave a watery chuckle as he pushed away from Bucky's grip. “I must've been very good in a past life, huh?” he asked.
“Stupid,” Bucky said, ruffling Steve's hair. “I love you, you know that, don't you?”
Steve stood, and he felt so tired, so exhausted, like he was an old man, or like he hadn't slept in years. “I love you, too,” he said. He watched, mute and weighted down by his thoughts, as Bucky collected his stool. “Bucky?” When the other man glanced at him, Steve blurted out, “I never told him. That I liked him. That I was glad that he was there. Or even-” He paused, his arms hugging his sketchbook to his chest. “Or even thank you.”
Bucky paused. “Didja smile back at him?” he asked at last.
Steve's lips quirked up. “Yeah.”
“Then he knew, didn't he?” Bucky shifted the stool under one arm. “Let's get out of here, Steve. This place is a goddamn rat trap, and you know it.”
Steve took a deep breath. “I just- Give me a second?” Bucky opened his mouth to say something, and Steve hurried on. “Please, Bucky? Just- Let me? Please?”
“Five minutes, and then we're gone,” Bucky said, and Steve gave him a weak smile, relieved. “I should not still be such a sucker for that face, Rogers.”
“Thanks,” Steve called, but Bucky was already out the door and down the hall. Shaking his head, Steve turned back to the tiny apartment. He took a deep breath, and wondered how long it would be before that wasn't odd anymore. Until he could take breath after breath without thinking of Tony. One last gift that he'd have forever, and that was horrible and wonderful and he didn't try to separate the two anymore.
“Thank you,” Steve said aloud. “I'll never forget you. I'll never stop missing you.” He paused, his eyes closing. “You ass, you selfish, self-centered asshole, how could you do this to me?”
He reached up, his fingers pressing against his breastbone. “The doctors say my heart's fine now. Normal. That's a death sentence that's been hanging over my head since I was a kid, and you know what I was thinking when they told me? The only thing I could think?”
Steve smiled. “That I would've preferred to keep my broken heart, and kept your smile. You muleheaded, stubborn, brilliant idiot.” He looked at the window, where Tony had sat so often, his wings fragments of clouds clinging to his shoulder blades.
“If I'm fixed now,” he whispered, “then why have I never felt more broken?” His eyes shut, slick with tears. “Shoddy workmanship, Tony. Who do I speak to about a refund?”
He stopped. Took a deep breath, and another, and tried to think of each one as a benediction, as a prayer, as a way to give thanks for what he had now. “Good-bye, Tony.”
Turning for the door, he caught a glimpse of something, out of the corner of his eye. In the window, on the hazy glass, he could swear he'd seen a reflection of an angel. Not the one he wanted, not the one he hoped for, but the one with the glossy black wings and the soft smile. Steve turned back, but the room was empty, stripped bare. Frowning, he shook his head. “It's time to go,” he said.
Phil watched him leave, and opened his file. A quick glance told him that everything was going exactly as planned.
He considered the data point, and smiled, just a little. “Tony didn't see that one coming,” he said, amused by that. “Serves him right.”
The faint ruffle of feathers didn't even bring his head up. “Hello, Rhodey. How are you holding up?”
“How the hell do you think I'm holding up?” Rhodey moved up behind him, leaning just over Phil's shoulder. “This, here, there's-” He reached out, only to have Phil's voice stop him dead in his tracks.
“Are you fussing with Tony's final work?”
Rhodey's hand was still for a moment, then he flicked the energy into place. “Yeah. If he didn't want me screwing with his favorite file, he should've stuck around to stop me.” Phil smiled, even as he went back to work, integrating Rhodey's new alterations. “Are you sure about this?” Rhodey asked.
Phil glanced back at him, his hands still moving. After all, he had a job to do. “I'm not,” he admitted, after a moment of consideration. “But Tony was.” His finger came up, a sharp jab that sliced through the energy of Steve's file. “I think we have to trust him. Don't you?”
“I'm not certain this was what he had in mind,” Rhodey said, his arms crossed over his chest.
“As he said to me, sometimes all you can do is break their fall. Besides, he didn't anticipate this, because he never knew it was an option.” Phil grinned. “It's not any concern of mine that he lacked imagination.”
That startled a laugh out of Rhodey. “Fury'll have your wings for this.”
“Let me deal with Fury. You-” Phil's hand passed through the air, and by the time it reached Rhodey, there was a new file in his fingers. “Have other concerns.”
Rhodey looked at the file, his eyes hidden behind the heavy weight of his lashes. But his hand came out, his fingers brushed the file, and its energy shifted, from Phil's pale, finely wrought silver to Rhodey's bright, sharp platinum gray. “I am an idiot,” he said out loud.
“Well, you know what they say. The Angels watch over children, fools, and medics.” Phil shut Steve's file. “At this point, we may qualify as all three, so best we keep an eye on each other.”
“This is going to be a pain in my ass, isn't it?”
“Can I give this back to you?”
“Come now, Rhodey. You are, and have always been, our best Soldier.”
“What the hell am I doing?”
“Becoming world famous.”
“That is the worst thing you have ever said to me,” Steve said, staring blankly into space as Sharon adjusted his tie. “Please don't ever say anything like that. Ever again.”
Her lips twitched. “I need you to not panic,” she said, smoothing the jacket over his chest with careful hands. “Think of this as going to war, Steven, and you need to keep your head about you.”
“Oh, yeah, that's remarkably calming,” Jan said, sweeping in. “Wonderful. You know, as his agent, I'd think you'd want him to not be hiding in the coat closet all night.”
“He could use a good, solid, American scandal,” Sharon said. She ran a comb over Steve's hair. “Feel free to hide in the coat closet, just bring someone with you.”
“What?” he asked, staring at them both.
“I can suggest some people, if you're looking for suggestions,” Jan said, her impish grin just the same as it always had been. That, alone, had a calming affect on his nerves.
“I'm not having sex in the coat closet at a gallery opening,” Steve said. “Especially not my gallery opening. When the press will be here, to take pictures of me. And talk to me.” His chest seized up, in a way that it hadn't since he'd gotten over his asthma, his lungs going tight and spastic. “I gotta sit down now,” he said, his voice faint. Just like that, the world went sideways, his knees buckling under him, and both women lunged.
“Don't pass out,” Sharon ordered, her hands locking on the lapels of Steve's jacket. She heaved him back upright with a strength that he didn't know she possessed. Steve wobbled on his feet, and Jan shoved a chair into place behind him.
“Sit,” she ordered, and Steve sat. “Give us a second, will you, Sharon?”
Sharon gave her a sharp look, but Jan returned it with a sweet smile and a look that was pure steel. Sharon nodded. “Fine. I'll go check and make sure everything's been hung properly.”
“Thank you,” Steve managed, and then Jan's hand was on the nape of his neck, pushing his head down. He went without protest, leaning forward until his head was between his knees. He heard the quick, sharp rhythm of Sharon's high heels crossing the floor, and then the door closing behind her. Steve let out a breath. “I don't want to do this anymore.”
“I know, baby.” Jan rubbed his back, sinking into a chair next to him. Her dress, a gorgeous fall of multicolored silk, swirled around her legs, and his. “But you've got to get through this. After this, you can burn your canvases and retreat back to be a hermit, smearing paint on the walls of his cave.”
Steve tipped his head in her direction. “I'm not that bad.”
She leaned in and kissed him on the top of the head. “No, you're not. You're remarkably gifted, and strong, and with just the right amount of humility to make this work.” Her thumb stroked against the line of his cheekbone. “And your work is phenomenal.”
“Oh, God.” He squeezed his eyes shut. “I can't do this.”
“Yes, you can,” she said, and he could hear the laughter in her voice. “I'm here, and Bucky and Sam are outside, and I swear they match, I don't know how, but when you see them, just... Just look at them.”
“What do you mean, you don't know how? You dressed them!”
“I did, didn't I?” She leaned back in her chair, her grin distinctly proud. “Them? You. And baby, thank you. Thank you for putting that suit on and looking like, well, you.”
“I am not modeling for you,” Steve told her, and her grin dissolved into a pout. “I mean it. I am not cut out to be a fashion model, I feel like an idiot.”
“Why not?” she whined, kicking at his leg. He easily avoided it. “Sam is!”
“Sam can handle it.” Taking a deep breath, he staggered to his feet. “I can't.”
“Stop. Sharon's right about one thing, if you pass out right now, we will dump water on your head, and drag you out there by your feet. I will do this thing, you know I will, Steven Rogers.”
“You know, when you were doing your first collection showing, I was very supportive,” Steve said. “I seem to recall holding you as you sobbed for twenty minutes about a misplaced pin.”
“It was a gusset seam, not a damn pin, and we both know you're a better person than me.” She flicked at his bangs. “I keep telling Sharon that you're so much cuter when you're not gelled into a Ken doll. I mean, the woman is brilliant, and so good for you, she is, I adore her, but for heaven's sake. You look so stiff that you might break in a stiff wind.”
“Jan?” he asked as she adjusted his cuffs. She made a humming noise that he took for a reply. “Do you think this is what he wanted?”
She glanced up, big dark eyes going soft. “I think he wanted you to be an artist, however you defined that,” she said, not pretending to misunderstand him. “I think he wanted you to have choices.” She leaned in, her arms going around Steve's waist. “But most of all, I think that he wanted you to be happy.”
Her hug was the kindest thing he could remember, and he fumbled his way through returning it, still a bit awkward in his larger body, still so fearful of hurting her without meaning to. But her grip was strong, and he buried his face in her hair. “Why does it still hurt?” he asked, his voice a raw whisper. “It's been three years. Shouldn't I be over it by now?”
Her arms tightened. “It's okay to still miss him,” she said, chiding. “But baby-” She leaned back, meeting his eyes. “Maybe you can start letting him go. The painting-”
“I know. I know.” He took a deep breath, and tried for a smile. It felt fake and it probably looked worse, but Jan didn't say a thing. “I hate seeing it out there.”
“It's gorgeous,” she said, shaking her head. “It is stunning. And you should be proud of it.”
“What do I say when they ask me about it?” he asked.
“Whatever you want,” she said.
“I probably shouldn't tell them about my Guardian Angel, right?”
“I wouldn't,” she said with a faint smile. “I barely believe it. And I saw him.”
“We should take it down, there's nothing I can say-”
Jan pressed a finger against his lips. “'Ruin' is brilliant,” she said. “And it speaks for itself. Let it be a mystery. Let the press read whatever they want into it. Smile, tell them that the statement you were looking to make is there in the painting, and politely decline to comment further.” Jan's chin came up. “Let them try to figure it out, because that means they'll all be talking about you.”
He took a deep breath. “Thanks, Jan.”
She brushed her lips against his cheek, then rubbed at the invisible lipstick mark with the pad of her thumb. “We all love you, Steve. Now, pull yourself together. The party's going to start in under thirty minutes, and you're going to need to be out there, being yourself and charming people out of their money.”
“I don't want to-”
“I know, I know, art for the sake of art,” Jan said, throwing her hands in the air. “But wouldn't it be nice to quit your day job?”
“I like my day job,” he objected.
Jan stared at him. “You paint comic book covers for a living.' she paused. “You... Paint comic book covers.”
“Yep,” Steve agreed with a grin. “Superheroes and knights, inventors and time travelers, and sorceresses and ghosts. It's a good job. I really like my job.”
“Yeah, I can't help but notice the flapper girl with the adorable bob and the stained glass wings looks familiar,” Jan said.
“I modeled the wings after Tiffany lamp shades,” Steve said, his lips twitching.
Her hands on her hips her upper body canted forward, she gave him a look. “And the rest of it was modeled after me.”
“Maybe,” he said, grinning outright now. “You would've made a fantastic superhero, Jan.”
Her mouth opened. Closed. “That is true. And you-” she said, stabbing a finger in his direction, “are tricky.”
Her arm swung around, finger pointing at the door with the same sort of regal attitude. “Go. Familiarize yourself with the locations of your paintings, have something alcoholic, and get over your panic. We're all here for you. All right?”
Steve managed a smile. “All right.”
“The Wasp,” she said, with a snort. “I'll show you a sting, buster.” Hiking her skirts up in both hands, she aimed a kick at his backside. “Get out of here.”
It took him a couple of tries to pull himself together, but walking the empty floor of the gallery helped. He didn't really need to look at the paintings; if Sharon had done anything wrong, he didn't want to know about it at this point. Not with the minutes ticking away.
But he cut to the middle of the main room, to find the exhibition's centerpiece. He paused, just for a second, and stared up at it. The canvas had consumed him for so long that it was odd to see it completed and hanging on that blank white wall.
The painting was one of swirling darkness, a rich depth of color that bled into darkness, like the depths of a cold ocean or a starless night. Caught in a collapsing bubble of light, a single figure was illuminated, recorded in a moment of free-fall.
The man was facing away from the viewer, his body twisting, his skin bare. Suspended in a moment of time, in the darkness, he had one hand stretched above his head, he was reaching for the single point of light in the painting. From a distance, in a single glance, it looked like he was grasping desperately for the golden glow that was ghosting just over the tips of his fingers.
But a closer look revealed that his head was thrown back, and though his face wasn't visible, the arch of his cheek, the sweep of his lashes revealed no fear, no anger. He seemed to be smiling, at peace, even as he disappeared into the darkness. Because he wasn't grasping for the light, for the single, star-like glow: he was releasing it. The tips of his fingers were spread, cradling the space beneath that light, pushing it upward, even as he fell.
And it was only from a few bare inches away that the truth of the matter was revealed. The glowing orb of light was a feather, not a pin feather, not the strong, long line of a flight feather, but the tiny, fragile wisp of a downy underfeather, curling like smoke. The lines were so thin as to be almost invisible, the feather itself not so much a light but a gleaming hole in the darkness.
Steve stood there, in the silence of the gallery, and stared up at Tony, letting the last of his feathers slip through his fingertips. There was no way to see his face, no way to recognize the angel, but Steve knew every sleek line of his back and arms and hips, even if he hadn't had the heart to paint Tony's wings. He'd titled the portrait 'Ruin,' though he wasn't sure if that moment he'd depicted was the ruin of Tony, or just himself.
His vision blurred, and he let his eyes fall shut before he could start crying.
He glanced back over his shoulder. Sam was standing there, his hands in his pockets, his face creased in a warm smile. The suit Jan had made for him was perfect, giving him a long, lean silhouette that made his shoulders look impossibly broad. “You ready for this, buddy?”
Steve took a deep breath, letting it pull his body tight, and as he exhaled, he tried to release all the tension with the air. It didn't work, but he felt better. “I don't think so.”
A champagne glass appeared over his shoulder and without conscious thought, he latched onto it. “Too bad,” Bucky said. He was in a simpler suit of wedgewood blue fabric, cut to follow every line of his body and move with his every movement. He'd lost the fight to just come in his dress uniform, because not even he stood any chance against Jan when she set her heels. “Drink that. It'll help.”
The gallery owner was hovering a bit further back with Sharon, and Steve tossed back half the glass in one gulp. It fizzed in his throat, in his nose, but he managed to swallow. And, glancing up, he nodded.
“Ready,” he said, “as I'll ever be.”
The painting was a small one, tucked into the front of the exhibit.
Steve stared out of the canvas, the lines of his face achingly familiar. He was staring straight out at the viewer, blue eyes highlighted with flecks of burnished gold, his brows straight. But his lips were quirked in a curious half smile, tipped up on one side and pulled down on the other, the attempt a simple smile unsuccessful. His right hand, holding a paint brush, crossed under the line of his chin, his jaw, the curl of his knuckles resting on his left cheekbone. His fingers were marked with paint, spots and stains at the joints and the pads, a streak of pale blue like a wound on his wrist.
Half-hiding, half-exposed, his brush gripped like a weapon, he stared at the viewer, a faint smile hovering on his lips and his hair tumbling over his brow.
“Are you enjoying the show, sir?”
He glanced back over his shoulder. “Yes,” he said, and that sounded short, tense and short, and his fingers were gripping the stem of his wine glass like it was a lifeline. He made a conscious effort to relax, to force the sharp lines of his muscles into something approaching calm.
He shouldn't be here. This was stupid. This was incredibly stupid. Almost as stupid as hiring Pepper, but he'd done it, he'd done it and he hadn't regretted it, not for a single second. Because he wanted that connection, as fine a thread as it was, he couldn't bear to lose that last, tenuous link.
He had never been smart about some things. He had never, ever been smart about Steve Rogers.
The moment the invitation had crossed his desk, he'd seen it for what it was, a siren call to his doom. And just like any other siren song, this one was irresistible. It wasn't personal, he knew that. A good gallery owner, just like any other small business person, knew to cast their net wide, to look for new clientele where it could be found. Corporations and businesses were always common targets, the arts version of a cold call.
But that small, well designed invitation haunted him.
He'd told himself to just throw it out, to shred it, to forget that it existed. He'd followed Steve's progress for years now, from those first stumbling attempts to the occasional painting in a group showing. He'd been careful. He never intruded, he never went digging. He could content himself with the occasional news article and online profile, simple blurbs and polite, posed newspaper photos.
That, and the ever growing collection of comic books in his workshop.
“And you, Ms. Potts?” he asked, managing a smile through force of will. “Are you enjoying yourself?”
“Quite a bit, thank you. I knew the artist, back in school. He was a nice boy, I'm glad that he's made good on his talent.” She smiled, and she was beautiful in blue silk and soft curls, her bare arms graceful. “I'm sure he'd still remember me, would you like me to introduce him to you?”
And that way lead madness, true madness. He knew this was wrong. He knew it. He was doing it anyway, but he could almost forgive himself for it, because he'd managed to keep his distance. To just watch, from the far side of the room, as Steve walked through, a tall, gorgeous blonde on his arm. The woman had been laughing, and he'd been smiling down at her. She'd reached up to smooth Steve's hair away from his forehead, and the pain had been shattering.
Since then, he'd been here, staring at a painting and nursing his drink. And what absolutely was not the empty hole in his chest where his heart should be.
“No, thank you, I prefer not to deal with-” He struggled to find something logical to say and settled on, “I don't like to meet the artist, it colors how I see the art.”
“Really. What other reason is there to attend a gallery opening?” She was studying him, her eyes sharp.
One of his shoulders rose and fell in a smooth shrug. “I like a good party.”
“That, I knew,” Pepper said, her lips twitching. “Despite that, I wasn't expecting you to accept this particular invitation. A local gallery opening doesn't usually make it onto your schedule.” She paused. “That, and I wasn't aware that you had any interest in art.”
He studied the painting over the rim of his martini glass, grateful for the raw burn of high quality vodka, and for the excuse to delay his reply. When he lowered his glass, he arched an eyebrow at her. “I inherited some pieces of worth, but I'm considering starting a collection of my own.”
Her surprise was telegraphed in a single blink and a slight widening of her eyes, but that was all. “I see,” she said. “Do you have a focus in mind?”
He tipped his chin towards the small canvas. “What do you think of this one?” he asked, as if her opinion of the painting was going to do anything to change his mind.
Pepper leaned past him. “'Self-Portrait of a Stranger,'” she read from the tag. Her slim brows arched. “My. That's quite an impressive price they've put on this.”
He hadn't even looked. He didn't care what they priced it at; the cost was immaterial.
“Why?” he asked.
He waved a hand at the room, a gesture that tried to be idle and just came out too sharp, too frustrated. “There are much bigger, much-” He stopped his eyes narrowing. “Much better pieces here. Why do people keep returning to this one? Why is it so fascinating?”
Pepper moved up next to him, her champagne glass hovering near her mouth. Her eyes narrowed on the canvas. “Because it isn't what you're expecting.”
He shook his head. “How so?”
“Most self-portraits hold a sense of pride, or self-congratulations. Of ego. Or, conversely, they speak to self-hatred or disgust, or shame. This, this is neither. This is confusion and something that almost feels like-” Her brows drew up tight, her head tipping to the side, as if she was trying to get a better angle on it. “Fear.”
He stared at it, at the quirked mouth and half hidden cheek, and the way the fingers were drawn up tight, almost a fist against Steve's own face. He ignored the churning sensation of nausea that settled low in his stomach, eating away at him.
“But the eyes are direct, are clear and sharp. They face the viewer head on, they don't flinch from the viewer, or, vicariously, from the mirror that this portrait represents. It's a strange dichotomy, the artist has created a work that celebrates his own lack of self-knowledge, and by doing so, has come to create that same self-knowledge. It is a portrait of a man who is at once afraid and yet incredibly brave in the facing of that fear.”
Pepper smiled, just a little, he took his eyes off the painting long enough to focus on that sweet, warm upturn of her red lips. “It is an artist who is uncomfortable with the viewer, but exposing himself anyway. It is an intensely personal work, and that is what draws the eye. It might not be as polished as some of his other works on display, but the very rawness, the very lack of technique is what makes it worthy of contemplation. It was not planned. It was simply experienced, and we are being allowed to experience it along with him.”
“Really,” he said, because he had nothing else to say.
“I think it's an evocative, interesting work,” Pepper concluded. “Brilliant, and honest. I also think it's incredibly overpriced, but-”
He stared at the small canvas. “I want it. Buy it.”
Her faint sigh was barely audible. “Of course.”
He turned on his heel. “And I want it wrapped up and removed tonight.”
Pepper caught up to him in two strides. “They're unlikely to agree. They'll mark it as sold, but they'll want to keep the pieces on display through the end of the showing, and-”
He gave her a look over the top of his sunglasses. “For that price, if I want to take it off the wall and carry it out under my arm, they'll agree. Just make our position known.”
“Of course. Will there be anything else, Mr Stark?”
“No, thank you, Ms. Potts. I've lingered here too long as it is. I'll meet you at the car.”
“With your emergence into the world of real art, are you going to be leaving your comic hobby behind?”
Steve kept the smile on his face through a force of will. His hand tightened on the bottle of beer in his hand, though. He bought himself a second or two by taking a drink, and Sharon was going to kill him for this, for the bottle of beer, for stalling, for being completely out of patience with answering the same questions over and over and over for a dozen different reporters.
He probably shouldn't compound the problem by being snarky about this. Even if he had been asked the same thing by all seven reporters tonight, it wasn't her fault. Steve studied her over the top of his beer bottle. Or maybe it was her fault. They had all pulled that question out like they were attempting to blindside him, like he should be shocked that they'd bring up his comic work here, in a respected gallery.
Of course, he'd hung a couple of his comic covers as part of the exhibit, so maybe they were just dense.
He set his bottle down on the side table. “No,” he said, giving her the warmest smile he could manage. “I love my day job. I wish I could work faster, so I could do actual comics. Right now, with my ability level, the only thing I'm capable of working on is the covers.”
There was a faint twitch of the muscles beside her mouth, as if she wasn't quite able to decide if she should be smiling or not. She went with not. “But clearly-”
Steve cut in, still smiling as best as he could. “It might be clear to you, but from where I'm sitting, things are a bit different and I have a different perspective. Maybe you'd consider it a bit more blurry, but I think I see just fine. I love to paint. I love to create. I'm very lucky that people are willing to purchase what I create; there are many people more talented than I who aren't that lucky, and I know it.
“But I'm not ashamed of my comic work, even if some people seem to think I should be. It's taught me discipline, it's taught me the importance of communication, it lets me see things differently. And I try to share my perspective with those who might not ever step into a gallery, by choice or simply because they'll never be given the chance.” He paused. “Art shouldn't be just for those who can afford that luxury.”
Her eyes were sharp beneath her blunt cut black bangs, and as her head tipped forward, the light swept over the perfectly straight bob. “A portion of tonight's sales are being donated to a charity that funds museum passes for lower income students, is that-”
The door to the small office opened, and Sharon leaned in. “I'm terribly sorry,” she said, her voice smooth, “but we're running past time and I'm afraid I need Steve for a moment.” The reporter opened her mouth, probably about to object, and Sharon simply rolled over her, a force of nature with a pleasant smile. “If there's anything else you need, I'm sure we can set up some time for him to speak to you on the phone.”
More than happy to take the graceful exit, Steve stood. “Thank you,” he said, extending his hand and another smile. Left with no choice, she stood and took it. Even in heels, she was several inches shorter than him, and he wondered if that would ever stop being weird.
“Thank you for your time,” she said, her voice pleasant and her grip firm.
“I'll be right back, Steve, wait here?” Sharon said, already sweeping the reporter towards the door. She didn't wait for a reply, just escorted the woman out and shut the door behind her with a firm click.
Steve gave it a couple of seconds to make sure that she wasn't going to come back in, then he collapsed into his seat with a groan. “I am never doing that again,” he said aloud, his head falling back.
“That good, huh?” Sam asked as he slipped in. Steve held up his beer bottle and then, without raising his head, or looking up, drained in in a couple of fast gulps. Sam let out a whistle. “That good.”
“I am reconsidering Jan's suggestion of leaving the city and going to live in a cave,” Steve said. “Hermit cave.”
“I do make the best suggestions,” Jan said, peeking in from under the arm that Sam had braced on the doorframe. “Are you coming out?”
“Hermit cave,” Steve repeated.
“Because Hank is here. I was hoping you'd meet Hank. Sam's met Hank.”
“She could do better,” Sam said, and dodged a not-really joking punch from Jan. “What? You could!”
“I love him,” she said, and Sam wrapped an arm around her shoulders.
“Yeah, I know, I know, and I'm sure he's a sweet guy, because you usually have very good taste in friends,” he said. “I mean, look at-” He waved a hand in Steve's direction. “On second thought, let's not take the drunken, disheveled possibly hallucinating artist into account. Instead, let's focus on me. I'm a good choice of friends. I'm fantastic, if I could just point out, I'm-”
“Shut up now, Sam,” Jan said, giving him a flick of a punch to his stomach. “You are an idiot.”
“But I'm sexy. Can't deny that.”
“In that suit? No. I can't.” She swept in, regal as a queen. “What's wrong, Steve?'
“Nothing's wrong,” he said, wrenching his tie off without much care for the delicate fabric or the the wrinkles it would cause in his shirt. Jan made a pained sound. “Sorry, I'm just-” He flicked open a couple of buttons and slumped back into the leather chair, tipping the beer bottle back to his lips. He drained the last drops and set it aside. “Other than the fact that I'm out of beer.”
Jan whimpered. “Please model for me. Please. PLEASE.”
“No.” Steve ran a hand through his hair. “But no, there's nothing wrong.”
“Actually,” Sharon said, striding back through the door, “we've got a problem.”
Steve took a deep breath. “Yeah, of course we do.” He stood. “What is it?”
“We've sold a painting that shouldn't have been sold.”
“What do you mean?” Steve asked, confused. “I thought we were here to sell things, Sharon, what's-”
“They sold a painting that wasn't for sale.” Sharon was furious, her red lips a tight line. “I'm sorry, Steve, but-”
“So, we explain the situation when he comes back to collect it,” Jan said, waving a hand. “It's not that big of a deal, the gallery with make the apologies and-”
“She took it.” Sharon glanced down at her phone. “She handed them a check, her driver collected the piece, and she just left.” She shook her head. “It's gone, and so are they.”
“But we have the check-” Jan started.
“It's a corporate check, it'll be a nightmare to figure out-”
“Wait, which piece?” Steve moved past them, his heart hammering in his chest. In a moment, he was down the short hall to main exhibit space. As soon as he turned the corner, he let out a sharp breath; even from this distance, he could see 'Ruin,' too big and too bold to miss. Almost dizzy with relief, he stepped back, out of sight from the gallery, turning to face Sharon and the others. “'Ruin' is still up,” he said. “What else didn't we want to put up for sale? The comic pieces, we didn't expect those to sell, but other than the ones of the Wasp, the Winter Soldier, and the Falcon-”
“I would like to point out that Bucky's the only one who doesn't get to fly,” Sam said to Jan under his breath.
“He is a damn stick in the mud,” she replied with a smirk.
“I'm glad you both find this to be so funny,” Sharon said, and her voice could've frozen them all. Jan shrugged, never overtly impressed with Sharon's take-charge attitude.
“Hey, they didn't do anything wrong,” Steve said, pulling her attention back. “What got sold, Sharon?” Her eyes slid away from his, and his stomach sank. “What did you hang that I didn't want hung?” he asked, resigned now.
She huffed out a sigh. “'Self-Portrait of a Stranger,'” she said. Steve stared at her, aghast, and she caught his arm in one hand. “It's a beautiful piece, Steve!”
“It was in a box! Under my bed! How did you even find that?” he asked, and pulled himself up short. “No. You know what? No. I don't even care, it happened, there's no point in arguing how it happened or how disappointed I am that it happened-”
“Ouch,” Jan said, under her breath.
“What I do want to know,” Steve asked, “is how it had a price tag on it! You had to know that I wouldn't want that picture, of all things, to be sold to-”
“The gallery is here to make money,” she said, her mouth tight. “The contract stipulates that we can only have a small number of works officially labeled not for sale, and between 'Ruin' and the comic pieces, we'd used up our spots. So I put a very, very high price on that one, thinking that no one would-”
“Wait, how high a price?” Jan asked, and Sharon handed over the receipt. Jan's eyes went large. “Oh,” she said. “Oh, my.”
“Is that rich person speak for 'holy shit?'” Sam asked, looking over her shoulder. “Because I'm going with 'holy SHIT' right now.”
Steve didn't want to look, told himself not to look, not to do it, but almost against his will, his eyes slid in that direction, and his stomach plummeted. “Sharon!” he choked out, snatching the receipt from Jan. “How- This-” He ripped his gaze away from the string of zeros. “Are you out of your MIND?”
“It's what your work should be commanding,” Sharon said.
“Are you out of your MIND?” Steve repeated. “I- Oh, GOD.”
“How long ago did she leave?” Steve asked.
“Because I'm going to go explain what happened. Get the check, and anything else the gallery has,” he said, brisk and sharp. “Jan, you're going to look up the company and see if you can find out anything.”
“Got it,” she said, hiking up her skirt with one hand and sweeping towards the door. “I'll pry the paperwork out of them.”
“Sharon, this place has a security system, right?”
“Of course, but-”
“Pull the footage,” he said, not willing to listen to anything close to an objection. “Sam, find Bucky and pry him away from whatever girl he's found.”
“I'm on it,” Sam said. “What do you want us to do?”
“Figure out if anyone paid any attention to that picture.” Steve turned on his heel. “I want to know who we're dealing with here.”
“Fine,” Sharon said, “we'll get everything together, but you get back out on the gallery floor.” When Steve stared at her, stymied, she shook her head. “You have to do this,” she said, and her voice verged on begging. “You've barely been out there, we need you to-”
“I'll come get you as soon as we've got the security footage set up,” Sam said. “You know I will.”
“I'm really bad at playing to an audience,” Steve said to Sharon.
“I need you to-”
“Be a dancing monkey in a suit. Got it.” With a sigh, Steve straightened his shoulders. “I really hate this.”
“We'll handle it, trust us, buddy.” Sam patted him on the back. “I'll get Bucky to handle it. You know him, iron fist without the velvet glove, he'll find what we need found.”
“I hope so. Who the hell would want that picture?” Steve muttered.
“We've got trouble.”
Tony didn't even glance up from his phone. “Flat tire kind of trouble or angry ex-girlfriend kind of trouble?” he asked. “Do I care? Trick question, I do not care.” He slumped lower in the seat, in a foul mood and not particularly interested in the answer.
Pepper shifted on the seat next to him, and he knew, without even looking up, that she was leaning forward. “What is it?” she asked, setting her leather portfolio aside.
“Don't know, just got the call. Romanov's going to meet us at the garage,” Happy said, his fingers bouncing against the steering wheel.
“Wonderful,” Tony grumbled. “Natasha kind of trouble.” He crumbled up the last of the cheeseburger wrappers and tossed it in the general direction of the empty paper bag. Pepper was considering him, and he resisted the urge to stick his tongue out at her. Bad enough that he'd insisted on fast food, he didn't need to give his PA any further ammunition.
Natasha was waiting for them at the guard station just inside the Tower's underground parking entrance. She slipped into the passenger seat, slamming the door behind her. “Drive,” she said to Happy, and Happy drove. Keeping an eye on the landscape, she said, “There's an issue in the lobby. We're handling it, but we're going to keep you down here until we've got the premises cleared.”
“What is it?” Pepper asked.
“Just some rather adamant visitors,” Natasha said. She glanced back, considering Tony out of the corner of her eyes. “We're trying to see if we can handle it without involving the authorities, but they are proving very stubborn.”
Tony had a bad feeling about this. He stared down at his phone, watched the data scroll across the glass face, his face set in a frown. As the silence stretched, Tony felt his shoulders go tight.
“Do you have any-” Pepper started, and Natasha handed the tablet back over the seat to her. “Good lord,” she said, her voice cracking. “Steve?”
Tony's eyes closed, his stomach sinking beneath the weight of that word. He took a deep breath, and another, and the cheeseburgers rolled in his gut. “Fan-fucking-tastic,” he managed. Rubbing a hand over his face, he tried to think. “How long ago did they arrive?”
“Not long,” Natasha said, her eyes sharp. “But you took longer to get home than we'd expected, considering when you left the gallery.”
“I wanted a cheeseburger.” Tony avoided looking at the tablet. His chest hurt. He rubbed at his breastbone, his fingers tense.
“We can bring him up in the elevator, bypass the lobby and go straight to the penthouse,” Pepper said.
“Yes. But is there any particular reason an artist and his entourage are determined to wreck our lobby?” Natasha asked.
“The painting-” Pepper started, and Tony cut her off.
“No. I paid for it. It's mine.”
In the silence that followed, Natasha gave him a narrow look. “Understood, sir.” Happy pulled into a reserved slot near the elevator banks, and she reached for the handle. “We'll handle it. For now, stay here. I can't imagine they're more than they seem, but let's play it safe.”
Happy turned off the engine. “I'm coming with you,” he said, eager as always to get into a fight, no matter how ill-equipped he was for it. Natasha gave him a look.
“Stay in the car.”
“I'm not staying in the car.”
“Stay in the car,” Natasha said, already pushing the door open. She was gone before Happy could get his seatbelt unsnapped.
There was a single beat, and then Tony shoved his door open. “Yeah, no. I'm not doing this,” he gritted out.
Pepper scrambled for her things. “Natasha said-”
“Yeah, she was talking to Happy, not the guy who pays her salary,” Tony said, slamming the door behind him. “I'm getting this over with. Have the painting brought upstairs, I'm keeping it.”
“What are you talking about?” Pepper called after him, and Tony didn't bother responding. Pepper ran after him, surprisingly quick on her high heels, but she didn't say another word, her arms wrapped tight around her leather bag.
He had a moment in the elevator to think about what he was doing, about how quick this could be, how painful, and then he was stepping into the lobby. "Stay here," he snapped at Pepper, who had moved to follow him.
Natasha was nose to nose with Barnes, not backing down, not even slightly flustered, but his color was up, his face flushed red and his eyes dark beneath lowered brows. “Goddamn it, Phil,” Tony muttered under his breath. “I know I told you that those two should meet, but this was not what I had in mind.”
“As I was saying,” Natasha said, and there was the faintest hint of her accent slipping out now, a sure sign of interest on her part, or a loss of temper, there was no way to know which it was until she started punching, “Mr. Stark is not available to speak to you; feel free to make an appointment.”
“Lady, we're not going to-” Bucky yelled back, and Sam had him by the arms, yanking him back.
“Listen, we just need-” Jan was saying, her hands in the air, trying to look polite and calming, and therefore, no one was paying any attention to her.
Whatever else they were saying faded to insignificance as Tony found the one person he'd been looking for. Half a dozen security guards were standing around, staring up at Steve, who was still, utterly still. His face was a mask, expressionless and pale, the color leeched out and his mouth tight. At his sides, his hands were in tight fists, the knuckles white beneath the perfect sleeves of his suitcoat.
Tony allowed himself a moment, just a moment, to soak in that face, familiar and perfect and heartrendingly foreign all at once. He didn't move, he didn't make a sound, but Steve's head came up, turning in Tony's direction, and their eyes met.
It was a body blow, and he staggered under it, his weight rocking back on his heels. Steve's eyes were agonized, full of rage and pain and suffering and that was Tony's fault. That, right there, that was one last sin he had to bear when it came to this man.
He swallowed something that would probably have been a sob if he'd let it loose. “Stay here,” he said to Pepper, and started across the lobby. “Visiting hours are over for the day,” he said, and his voice was smooth, smooth and polished and with a little hint of nasty sarcasm hovering in its depth. “Can I help you, gentlemen?”
There was a moment, just a single moment, of stillness, and then Natasha sighed, faint and resigned. Barnes lunged, ripping free of Wilson's grip, and she intercepted him with a sharp, brutal swing. Bucky took the blow without so much as slowing down.
Sam just stood there. “You son-of-a-bitch,” he said, resigned.
Tony ignored him. He just stared at Steve, who was staring back. “I was going to go with, 'I don't think we've met,' but now that just seems stupid,” he said, shoving his hands in his pockets.
Steve's mouth opened. Closed. “You are an asshole,” he said at last, his voice thin and broken between the breaths. “You are...” His face worked, twisted. “Such an ASSHOLE.”
Tony's head bobbed, his mouth tight. “Yeah,” he said at last.
Steve moved forward, and security was there, hands on their weapons, and Tony just lost it. “It's fine, we're fine, all of you-” He waved a hand. “Stand down, or get down, or just- Just go.” He stabbed a finger upwards. “That means you, too, Barton.”
“Way to give away my position, sir,” Clint called back from his usual perch.
Steve moved forward, and Tony held his ground, froze, his feet locked in place, even as Steve got closer and closer. He was an inch or two taller than Tony now, his shoulders broad and tense, and Tony braced himself for the swing as Steve's hand came up.
Then Steve's fingers unfolded, his fist falling away, his palm cupping Tony's jaw, and he leaned in. It was less a kiss and more a brush of lips, tentative and faltering, his fingers shaking against Tony's cheek, his breath coming in uneven gasps. But it was a kiss, his lips warm against Tony's for a bare second, and then it was over.
Steve stepped back. “I should hate you,” he whispered, his fingers falling to his side. His blue eyes, brilliant and fathomless, squeezed shut. “I want to. But I'm just-” He sucked in a breath, and another. “I'm just so grateful that you're not dead.” His face split in a grin, uneven and unstable. “You ASSHOLE.”
Tony stood there, wobbling on his feet, confusion and relief warring in his brain. Relief won. “Yeah,” he managed, and then his hands were latching onto the front of Steve's jacket, dragging him in, dragging him down, and Steve met him halfway, his arms going around Tony. His grip was too hard, too tight, it hurt, his fingers digging in, his arms like a vise, and Tony did not care. He didn't care, he was glad, and the kiss they shared was bruising, a battle as much as a benediction.
When they finally broke apart, Tony was panting and weak-kneed. “Okay,” he gasped out, even as Steve hauled him closer, “this is not going the way I thought it would.”
“I'm pretty confused myself,” Jan said, as Steve buried his face in Tony's neck. “Steve?”
“Tell me you're not letting him get away with this,” Bucky spat out. “After what he did to you? He's a fucking liar, Steve, he's a-”
“Watch it,” Natasha said, her voice very quiet. “I still have the right to determine what is, and what is not, a threat to my employer.”
Bucky glared at her. “Do you have any idea what he-”
“We could go upstairs and not say anything in public that would make everyone think you're crazy. You know. Your choice,” Tony said, pushing himself away from Steve with a force of will. He was breathing hard, he was shaking, and he gritted his teeth and tried to deny both. “Because what you're about to say, GI Joe? Gonna make everyone here think you're crazy. I can pretty much promise you that.”
“Upstairs,” Steve said, and that voice brooked absolutely no argument. Everyone moved.
“Stay here,” Tony said to Natasha, who arched an eyebrow at him. Tony shifted his weight, knowing full well that his suit was never intended to hide an erection this fierce. “There's been- A miscommunication.”
“Is that what we're calling it?” Clint asked from the upper walkway, his bow now braced on the railing by his bent knee.
“I don't think-” Pepper said, and Tony shook his head at her.
“You know him.” He gave her a tight smile. “He won't- He won't hurt me.”
Pepper's teeth sank into her lower lip. “Don't hurt him,” she said, her tone serious. “And have Jarvis call for us if you need us.” With a last, worried look, she allowed Natasha to pull her away.
Tony was never so glad in his life for the express elevator to the penthouse, and even with the speed that it moved, Bucky was talking almost before the doors opened. “What the fuck happened here?” he growled out, and Jan patted him lightly on the back. “Who are you?”
“Anthony Stark,” Tony said, stalking out of the elevator and down into the sunken living room. He headed straight for the bar, grabbing a bottle and a tumbler and slamming them both down on the counter. “There's no lie there. That's who I am.” A healthy splash of liquor sloshed into the glass, and he brought it to his lips before the liquid had a chance to settle. “Computer programmer, robotics genius, ect.” He waved a hand at the room. “All of that. And this.”
“How is that possible?” Jan asked, her voice very quiet. She took a seat, perching on the edge of the couch. “You had wings three years ago. We all saw them. You had wings, and the ability to be invisible, and you were not fixing Steve's computer back on campus.”
“I don't know for sure,” Tony admitted. He stared down into the depths of his drink. “The old ones, they talk about, well, we called it stasis. Those who had expanded too much energy would disappear, only to reappear after years, or decades. Stasis prevents us from expanding energy and allows us to, well, recharge. But no one remembers what happens during it. I assumed it was almost... Sleeping.”
Tony shrugged, raising the glass to his lips. “I suppose this counts. Sleeping. Or just human.”
“Why didn't you-” Steve's face twisted. He was still standing over by the elevator. “Why didn't you let me know you were-”
Tony reached for the bottle again. “I didn't remember. Anything other than being Anthony Stark.”
“Bullshit,” Bucky said, frustration rising in his voice. “Tell me you're not listening to this, Steve.”
'I had these dreams afterwards,” Tony said, his voice soft. He set his drink aside and tossed his jacket over the bar. His tie went on top of that. His fingers worked on the buttons of his expensive dress shirt, slipping each one free of its hole with care. “Things that didn't make sense. Didn't mean anything. Faces and wings and bits of the future. I'd wake up frustrated, or terrified or just-” He took a deep breath. “Angry. Like something had been stolen.”
He pushed the shirt aside. “On the day I left you, I woke up in the hospital with this.” He brushed his fingers over the knotting of scars over his breastbone. “They tell me that I was drunk, and insisting I could fly. I jumped off of a building in the middle of a party.” Tony gave Steve a half-smile, ignoring how pale he was. “I apparently landed in a dumpster, so that's something, and it took me forever to know why I should be pissed about that.” He let the shirt hang open. “But I jumped, and nearly died. Woke up in the hospital with the memory of being Anthony Stark, nothing else. Except for a sense of having lost something.”
He glanced up, meeting Steve's eyes. “But I didn't know what.”
Steve had a hand clamped over his mouth, his eyes dark and shadowed. “Your wings,” he said, the words muffled.
Tony met his eyes and managed a single word. “You.”
Steve's hand dropped away. “Is that supposed to make everything better?” he asked, his voice very quiet. “Is that supposed to fix everything?” His face was tight, his eyes almost slits, his jaw a hard line. “I thought you were dead. For years. I thought I had KILLED YOU, Tony.”
“No,” Tony admitted. “It doesn't fix anything. It's just-” He resisted the urge to curse, or to cry. “I lost you. For years. I drank too much and I worked too much and I-” He rubbed a hand over his face. “And I didn't know why I felt like a stranger in my own life.”
“You're saying that this person is a cover story?” Sam asked. He was leaning against the back of the couch where Jan was sitting. He was frowning, but it wasn't aggressive or angry, not the way Bucky's was. “That, what, you ran out of energy, and this is the life you'll live for now? Until you go back?”
“I don't think it's supposed to be like this,” Tony admitted. “I was-” His nose wrinkled, and he braced his hands on the bar. “I don't think I was ever supposed to wake up, as it were. I don't think I'm supposed to remember being a Guardian. But it wasn't clean, the way it happened, I refused to go into stasis, and I think that's what caused the problems. That I refused to follow protocol, I stretched it too long. The angel world and the human world aren't supposed to intersect, but I fucked that up.”
“Why did you remember?” Jan asked.
Tony picked up his glass, anything to have his hands occupied. “I picked up a copy of Juxtapoz that someone had left in the marketing department of StarkIndustries. I was bored, waiting for a meeting to start. It had an article on-” The words trailed away, and he waved a hand in Steve's direction.
It was been a good picture of Steve, the man leaning forward to brace his elbows on his knees, his forearms splattered with oil paint and a slight smile on his face. The photographer had posed him in front of one of his own canvases, a huge pair of brilliant wings in the painting lining up with Steve's own spine. Between Steve's angelic face and his art, it was an arresting photo.
Tony had collapsed in the middle of the board room. Like a dam breaking, everything had come flooding back and in an instant, he'd remembered centuries of life, of work, of people, before his body had just shut down. He'd woken up with tears on his cheeks and with full understanding of a loss so immense that he almost couldn't cope with it.
“That was months ago,” Jan said. “Why didn't you come looking for him then?”
“That was the article that implied that I was dating Sharon,” Steve said. “Tony-”
Tony met his eyes. “I thought you were recovered,” he said at last. “Your life was going the way I had intended it to go. Things looked-” Frustrated, he tossed back his drink, and for the first time, Steve moved. He stalked down, long legs eating up he distance, and he pulled the tumbler from Tony's hand.
“Stop it,” he said, his eyebrows drawing up tight. “Stop. Hurting yourself.” He set it down, very carefully. “I am not over it, I will never be over it, I couldn't stop-” He glanced up. “You're human.”
“Yeah.” Tony shoved his hands in his pockets, his shoulders hunching forward.
Steve's hand smoothed over his chest, his fingers gentle against the scars there, and Tony shuddered. “You're alive.”
Tony caught Steve's hand against his skin. “Yeah,” he whispered. “And it was worth it. Everything was worth it. You're healthy and safe and successful, though comics? Really? Comics? I did not intend for that-”
Steve's eyes met his. “Screw what you intended, you left me,” he breathed. “At that point, you waive any right to complain about my choices. You left me. And you promised you wouldn't.”
Tony managed a lopsided smile. “You didn't need me any more,” he said. The words were horrible, but he managed to get through them. “You were fine. You didn't need me any-”
“I'll always need you.” Steve took a breath. “How long?” At Tony's confused look, he clarified. “How long will you be human?”
“I don't know.” Tony shifted. He resisted the urge to grab Steve and cling. He could get through this with something approaching dignity. He could. He had to. “Until I recover.” He had signs. Signs and symbols, but that wasn't something he could explain.
Steve shifted closer. “Stay with me.” His mouth was almost against Tony's, his breath hot on Tony's skin. “For however long we have. Don't leave me.”
Tony gritted his teeth. “I can't promise anything,” he admitted. “Except that I won't ever willingly leave you.”
His grin was soft and warm and perfect. “Good enough for me.” His hands slid under Tony's open shirt, settling at the small of his back. Tony shuddered and leaned into Steve's body.
“And as much as I'd love to stay and see the two of you naked, I think that's our cue to leave.” Jan stood. “Gentlemen, let's go.”
“Are you kidding me?” Bucky said, but he sounded more resigned than angry.
“Thank you, Jan,” Steve said, never looking away from Tony.
“Hurt him and we'll break your legs, birdboy,” Sam said, catching Bucky's arm and dragging him towards the elevator. “Call or text if you need a pickup or a mafia style hit, Rogers.”
“I know, I know,” Jan soothed, shooing them towards the elevator. “Be safe, Steve! Remember, it's always okay to say no! You don't have to do anything you don't want to-”
“For God's sake, Jan,” Sam said, and then the elevator closed.
“You don't,” Tony managed, and it was agony, it was actual pain to say that. “If you don't want to-”
“I really, really do,” Steve said, his face flushing. “I mean, that is, if you-”
“Yes.” Tony was already shedding his shirt, reaching for his belt. “Yes. I very much do.”
Laughing, Steve leaned in for a kiss, and it was sweet and hot and Tony was fumbling at Steve's clothing, pulling at anything that came in reach. “God,” he managed as Steve's lips moved down his throat, over the plane of his breastbone, “I missed you so much. I missed-” His face twisted, and he dragged Steve in for another kiss before he could say anything stupid.
“Tell me you have a bedroom somewhere here,” Steve said, and Tony grabbed for his waistband, dragging him along towards the nearest bed. Steve was laughing as they went, and that was okay. That was just fine.
Steve was smiling when he woke up.
He was aware of it, of the sappy, dopey smile that was on his face, and he didn't care. He was a sap, he was a dope, and he was waking up, warm and comfortable and lazy, in Tony's bed. Soft, feather light bedding was drawn up to his chin, his arms wrapped around a pillow, his body curled up tight into the warmth.
He pried his eyes open, blinking with sleepy ease against the morning sunlight. The huge windows were open now, blue sky stretching in all directions, broken only by the occasional spar of a skyscraper. Up here, there wasn't much that got in the way of the view.
Of course, the view inside the room was even better.
On the other side of the bed, Tony was sitting cross-legged amongst the tumbled blankets, a pair of dark blue pajama pants riding low on his hips. Lit from behind with the early morning light, his skin was washed in gold, his dark hair tumbled over his forehead. His hands were dancing in mid-air, gleaming electrical blue windows and code hanging in the air all around him. He manipulated them effortlessly, his eyes glinting and his grin brilliant.
“Color change,” Steve said, his voice rough with sleep. “But otherwise, this seems familiar.”
Tony glanced over, his teeth flashing in a bright grin. “Like it?” he asked. “Holographic computer interface. How I do my work. I went with what felt natural. It was a relief to go back to it.” He slashed a hand through the air, and the glowing panels disappeared, collapsing in on themselves as his hand passed through them. When the air was clear, he turned towards the nightstand, and Steve's breath froze in his lungs.
Tony had wings.
Not real ones, but a tattoo that spread across his shoulder blades and down his back, an almost mechanical schematic, each of the feathers perfectly balanced and arrayed, picked out with details of red and gold. They were part machine, part sculpture, and even though the work seemed half-finished, it was beautiful in its design. For an instant, Steve struggled with a wholly irrational feeling of jealousy, hating the idea of another artist with his or her hands on Tony's skin.
Instead, he reached out, smoothing his fingertips over the beautiful linework. “I love it,” he said, and Tony froze.
“Wait, you can see it?” Tony glanced over his shoulder, his eyes large.
“The tattoo? The wings?” Steve's lips quirked up. “Yeah. They're hard to miss.” It had been dark the night before, and he'd been reluctant to give up his face to face contact with Tony.
“Actually, they're easy to miss,” Tony said, a faint huff of a laugh slipping out with the words. “No one else has been able to see them.”
Steve blinked up at him. “Wait, what?”
“It's not a tattoo. I didn't have it done. They just appeared, and they've been getting darker, since I remembered my time as a Guardian.” Tony leaned back on his hands, catching his weight. “I think they're, I don't know, a battery indicator? A visual reminder that I'll be-” His lips quirked up. “That I'll be getting my wings back, someday.”
“They're beautiful,” Steve said, making Tony grin. He settled back, ignoring the pang that hit him deep in his chest at the idea of Tony disappearing, going on without him or just vanishing one day. Something must've showed in his face, because Tony moved closer, and fell backwards into the pillows next to him, making the bed bounce.
“Hi,” he said, as Steve reached out to push his hair away from his forehead. Tony's nose wrinkled. “Stop, hey, I don't-” He pushed Steve's hand away, but he was laughing.
“Good morning,” Steve said, rolling onto his side to face Tony.
“Morning,” Tony said. “How do you feel?”
Steve thought about that. “Like I'm hungover,” he admitted. His face flushing, he added, “I have aches in muscles I didn't even know I had.”
“Aching head?” Tony asked. He leaned over Steve, his fingers cool and gentle on Steve's forehead, playing with strands of Steve's hair. “All cotton wool?”
“Yeah,” Steve said, and it sounded breathy and needy, even to his own ears. He cleared his throat.
Tony leaned over, his lips brushing against Steve's collarbone. “Sore shoulders? Back?”
“Ah, yes,” Steve said, trying to stay still, but his body had other ideas.
Tony smiled against Steve's skin, even as he pushed the blankets down, his hand skimming over Steve's chest and stomach. “Stomach? Muscles burning a bit?”
“A little?” Steve said, as Tony brushed a kiss against his nipple. His whole body arched, his hips coming off the bed. “Legs, too.” He tried to concentrate on what Tony was saying, and it was hard, it was incredibly hard, because his body was steadily becoming accustomed to Tony, Tony's hands and mouth and the sweet, intoxicating purr of his voice.
“Couple of things we can do here,” Tony said, sliding down, pushing the sheets and blankets out of his way, his lips ghosting against Steve's hipbone. “Coffee helps. Aspirin, of course.” His tongue flicked against Steve's skin, and Steve whined, a high, sharp, pleading noise, and Tony's hand stroked over his stomach, soothing and arousing in equal parts. “Or, just like any hangover-”
He pushed up, his body sliding against Steve's, his mouth and his hands and so much contact that Steve was actually dizzy from it. He straddled Steve's hips, the soft, thin fabric of his pajamas the only thing separating them. “We could go with a little of the hair of the dog that bit you,” he said, his hands braced on the pillows on either side of Steve's head, his body a living temptation.
Steve's hands came up, gripping Tony's waist. “I like that option,” he said. His hand slid up Tony's sides, then latched onto the back of Tony's neck, dragging him down for a kiss.
“Know what?” Tony asked against his lips. “So do I.”
He woke up alone.
For a moment, he wasn't sure what had happened, but he squinted at the pillows. “Tony?” he asked, yawning. There was no reply, and he rolled over, hugging his pillow. “Tony?” A little louder, but the room was silent. Carefully, he sat up, rubbing a hand over his head.
Before he could start panicking, he spotted a folded note on the nightstand, with his name printed on the outside of the envelope. He reached for it, pleased.
“Quick meeting,” it said, the words bold and dark. “Will be back in an hour. DO NOT GO ANYWHERE. Or put on pants.”
Laughing, he shook his head. “Well, that's not very romantic, Tony,” he said, but he tucked the single page back into the envelope. It was his, after all. Had his name on the front and everything. And maybe it was pathetic, but it was the first love note he'd ever gotten.
And he was still going to find pants.
Because he was pretty sure his were still in the living room, and wow, that was embarrassing right there, he'd stripped in the middle of the damn living room and if he thought about that for very long, he would crawl under the bed and stay there. Instead, he headed for the closet, digging out a pair of sweatpants that fit him well enough, and a t-shirt.
Somewhat decent, he leaned cautiously out of the bedroom. “Tony?” His voice echoed in the empty space, and he paused for a moment, yanking the shirt over his head. It was a little too small, the fabric straining across the breadth of his shoulders, but he felt a bit better for having it. Smoothing his hair down with one hand, he padded down the hallway.
The view from the living room windows were gorgeous, and he was caught, transfixed by the city, spread out beneath him, brilliant and flawless in the morning sun. Without thinking, he headed for the terrace that he could see beyond the huge glass expanses.
“You are not authorized to access this part of the house.”
Steve jumped back, his hand falling from the door knob like it was hot. “Oh, uh, sorry?”
“That's Jarvis,” a familiar voice came from behind him. “He runs the tower.” Steve glanced back to find Pepper descending the sunken staircase, her heels clicking on the stone. She was grinning. “Good morning, Steve.”
“Good morning,” he said, his face heating. He glanced at the dry cleaning bag in her hand and shifted his weight. “Oh, God, is that- I'm really sorry, I-”
“I found your things in the living room and had them cleaned,” Pepper said as if that was a normal thing to do. “Don't worry, I have your wallet and phone.”
He shoved another hand through his hair, disordering it. “I should go.”
Her hand caught his arm. “Oh, no. No, you don't.” With a firm grip, she towed him towards the kitchen. “He will kill me, you wouldn't want that, would you?” Grinning up at him, Pepper nudged him along. “I thought we were friends, Rogers.”
Relaxing just a bit, he smiled back. “How have you been, Pepper?”
“Exceedingly well, thank you.” She gave him an impish smile. With her free hand, she pulled a chair away from the breakfast bar and maneuvered him onto it. “Your work is lovely, I very much enjoyed your showing last night.”
“Thanks.” Steve braced his folded arms on the counter and leaned forward, bracing his weight there. He cleared his throat. “So. This is awkward. Isn't it?”
“Not really, no.” Pepper puttered her way across the massive kitchen, her ponytail swinging along in her wake. “Would you like coffee? Black and sweet, right?”
“Yes, please, and yes.” Steve glanced at the door. “I should go.”
The cup came down in front of him. “No. You shouldn't.” Pepper set the cup down in front of him and took a seat, her own mug cradled between her palms. “You should sit there and drink your coffee and maybe send a text to your friends because I think the big fellow with the brown hair is going to call the police and report a kidnapping if you don't check in soon.”
“Oh, hell.” Steve took the phone she held out to him. “I'm sorry. I am-”
“Don't be,” she said, laughing just a little. “I remember Jan and Sam from closing time at the store, but rumor in the security staff is that Natasha had a run in with your friend, and was impressed enough not to break either of his wrists.”
“Bucky's pretty tough,” Steve said, already typing out a quick text. “Natasha's the redhead? She seems...” He paused. “Nice,” he finished lamely.
“She is utterly terrifying,” Pepper said, sipping her coffee. “It works for her.” Her eyes dancing, she arched an eyebrow. “Your friend didn't seem intimidated.”
“He likes terrifying women,” Steve said. He finished his messages and set his phone aside. “I'm really sorry about all this.”
Pepper waved him off. “I should've known that something was up when Tony insisted on going to an art gallery. And he did insist.” She paused, her face going serious. “I hope you don't mind my asking, but-” She paused. “There's history there, isn't there?”
“Yeah.” Steve wrapped his hands around his mug. “I knew him. In college. And I-” He felt his face flush. “I fell for him. But we didn't...” He let his voice trail away. “It didn't work out.” He shrugged. “He's a different person than I thought he was.”
Pepper frowned. “Did he lie to-”
“No, no, it was just-” Steve paused, and smiled. “He's different now. And I'm fine with it. I don't know if this is going to amount to anything, I don't, Pep, but I really want this.” He glanced up, smiling. “We just got our wires crossed.”
Pepper smiled back. “I'm glad you got them uncrossed,” she said, patting his hand. Her phone beeped, and she reached for it. “Excuse me for a moment,” she said, glancing at it. “Ah, and he's on his way up.”
The words were barely out of her mouth when Tony burst into the room, his dress shoes skidding across the highly polished tile, his tie fluttering behind him as he came to a stuttering stop. He grinned at Steve, even as he swaggered across the floor. “Pepper, are you trying to steal him away already?”
“I would never, Mr. Stark,” Pepper said, smirking at Steve over the lip of her coffee cup. “I know a hopeless case when I see one.”
Steve flushed, and Tony laughed. He extended a hand to Pepper, who took it and allowed herself to be pulled to her feet. “Now, is that any way to talk about your boss?” Tony chided. “Your magnanimous, brilliant, generous and-”
“I deserve the rest of the day off,” she said, cutting to the heart of the matter, her head tipped in his direction.
“That you do.” Tony spun her quickly in a circle, catching her neatly in his arms. “Take it.”
“Is there anything else, Mr. Stark?” Pepper asked him, grinning.
“Thank you, Ms. Potts, that will be all.” Tony released her and, chuckling, she gave Steve a little wave and headed for the door, an extra sway in her steps.
“Have a good day!” she called back over her shoulder, and then she was gone.
“Cheeky woman!” Tony yelled after her, even as he came to lean up against the table next to Steve. “Hey,” he said, grinning down at Steve, and that was Tony, the warmth, the laughter in his eyes, the set of his arms and his back and the flirty way he leaned in. Steve looked up at him, arching an eyebrow.
“Yes?” he asked, taking a sip of his coffee and hoping his face wasn't as red as it felt. “I'm sorry, have we met?”
“That, that is just cold, Rogers. Cold.” Tony leaned in and brushed his lips against Steve's. Steve's eyes fluttered shut, savoring the warmth of his mouth, the slight scratch of his goatee and the whisper of Tony's breath against his skin. “I think we've been introduced.”
“Maybe,” Steve allowed, his coffee cup deserted now as he ran warm hands up Tony's back, under the weight of his suit jacket. “Your face seems familiar.”
Tony huffed a laugh against the side of Steve's neck. “I have one of those faces,” he allowed. “People always think they know me. It happens.”
Steve caught his chin and pushed it up, far enough that he could see Tony's eyes. “There's only one of you,” he whispered, and it was stupid and sappy and he was going to die of humiliation later, but he couldn't stop himself. “I missed you. So much.”
Tony leaned his forehead against Steve's, his eyes closing. “I couldn't figure why I was so lonely,” he said, and the words seemed to slip from lips that didn't move. “So many people. So close. So loud. I kept looking, and I didn't know for what, I didn't know why-” He buried his face in Steve's shoulder, his back flexing with the force of his breathing, and Steve just wrapped his arms around him and held on.
“C'mere,” he said, and it was so odd, to be this size, he'd never get used to it, he'd never quite understand being able to pull Tony into his arms, into his lap, and have them be the same size. If anything, Tony was a bit more slight than him, his muscled frame sleek and lean. He settled easily in Steve's lap, his legs straddling Steve's hips. Steve ran a hand up the length of Tony's back, and after a second, Tony shifted, slipping out of the suit coat and discarding it with a flick of his hand. “Kitchen striptease?” he asked, grinning.
“I'll have a pole installed,” Tony said, yanking his tie free. “I didn't want to get out of bed. I resent the fact that you are wearing clothing now. This is a crime against humanity.”
Steve rolled his eyes. “You are outrageous, you know that, don't you?”
“I am, yes.” Tony took Steve's coffee and drained the last of it. “Better,” he said, half tossing the cup towards the counter. It rolled on its base and clattered into place, and Tony grabbed the hem of Steve's shirt.
“There are- What're you- People, Tony! There are people around!” Steve didn't really fight him, and when Tony got his shirt off over his head, he was laughing. “Well, I hope you're happy.”
“I am! Shirtless suits you.” Tony swung Steve's shirt over his head like a lasso and gave it a toss. “Hi,” he said, grinning.
“Hello, Tony.” Anything else he was planning to say was drowned out by his stomach growling. He flushed. “Sorry. I didn't eat last night. Too worried.”
With a reluctant sigh, Tony slid off of his lap. “Fine, I suppose I ought to feed you. Let's go, we can still catch brunch somewhere, and then we can-”
Steve wrapped an arm around Tony's waist and pulled him back in. “Or,” he said, feeling a bit shy, “I could make eggs and toast and then we could go back to bed.”
Tony gave him a look, his eyebrows arched. “I do so like the way you think.” His beautiful hand came up, cupped Steve's jaw, his thumb stroking Steve's cheek. “You're going to cook for me?” For some reason, he sounded eager, and a bit surprised.
“I'm pretty good at the easy stuff,” Steve said, smiling as he stood. “Do you have the basics in your fridge?”
“Yeah, I should-” Tony headed for a recessed cabinet, a walk in pantry that he disappeared into. “There should be eggs, milk, uh, yeah, sausage or bacon in the freezer, I think there should be, sometimes I get food deliveries and Jarvis likes having the staples on hand. Want potatoes?” His voice echoed out as Steve opened the fridge, pulling out his ingredients. “I got potatoes.”
“I can make hash browns,” Steve agreed, grabbing a carton of orange juice. “Onions?”
“Uh, I think? One sec.”
Laughing, Steve set a carton of eggs on the counter. “How do you not know what you have in your kitchen, Tony?”
“Because I don't actually eat in here!” Tony yelled back. “Food just appears magically when my back is turned and that works out really well for me.”
Steve shook his head, more amused than he should be. “Where are the glasses?” he asked.
“First cabinet to your right, second shelf,” the polite, vaguely English voice said from above him.
“Thanks, Jarvis, right?”
Steve opened the cabinet, revealing neat rows of clean glassware. “Thanks, Jarvis.”
“I have champagne, we can have mimosas,” Tony said, as Steve poured himself a glass of juice. The familiar sound of his feet on the floor came up behind him, and Steve glanced over his shoulder.
Tony was laughing.
Steven blinked at him, not sure if he should be hurt, or just confused. Before he could decide, Tony grabbed his face between his palms and dragged him in for a kiss. The orange juice went tipping out of his hand, the carton splashing to the floor, and Steve had an instant to be glad that it was almost empty and then his brain went completely off-line.
A moment later, Tony pulled back, just far enough so that he could meet Steve's eyes. “Know why we should make love in the daylight?” Tony whispered against his lips.
Steve had to swallow twice before he could form a thought, let alone a word. “Why?” he managed, his hands sliding down Tony's sides, down the sleek angles of his back. Steve got hold of Tony's hip and used it to drag him in tight.
Tony nuzzled his neck, still chuckling, and it tickled against his skin. Steve tipped his head back, giving him better access, panting just a little. He was so focused on the sensation that he almost missed Tony's words.
“So we can watch your wings grow.”
Steve's eyes snapped open. “What?”
Tony raised his head and he was grinning. He was grinning, a grin so broad and beautiful that it hurt to look at him, it hurt like a physical ache in his chest. Tony's fingers ghosted over his shoulder, over the curve of his arm, to settle like a warm breath on his shoulder blade. “You,” he said, eyes dancing, “have wings.”
Steve stared at him, not understanding, or not believing, or both. He reached back, his fingers fumbling against his own skin. It felt normal. “I-” He stopped. “Wings?”
Tony grabbed his wrists, dragging him away from the counter, out of the kitchen. Steve stumbled after him. “But- How?”
Half walking, half running, Tony pulled him back to the bedroom, laughter coming in quick bursts. Shoving Steve into the bathroom, Tony flipped him around. Steve stared over his shoulder at the mirror, his mouth hanging open.
There were wings on his back.
They were small, and pale gray, the lines like charcoal against his skin. They faded to almost invisibility close to his spine and the feathers themselves had no color and barely any form. But there were wings traced on his back, the start of an artist's rendition. A base sketch, still being formed, a vision still being tested and manipulated.
“I might be the Engineer,” Tony mused, his chin on Steve's shoulder, his arms loose around Steve's waist, his hands settled at the small of Steve's back, “but you will be the greatest Artist we've ever seen.”
Steve took a breath, and the lines on his back moved with his muscles. “How did this happen?” he asked, leaning into Tony's body. “How- Can this happen?”
“Too much energy poured into you, too fast, maybe,” Tony said. His fingers were tracing the soft gray lines, over and over, his eyes like gold in the mirror. “Maybe this is my fault.”
“Or maybe I've been very good.” Steve stared at the lines, willing them to be darker, to be stronger, to be real. “Does it mean I won't-” Steve swallowed. “Be left behind?”
Tony's grin died. He leaned back, his fingers coming up to cup Steve's jaw. He brought Steve's head around, until Steve had no choice but to meet his eyes. “I will not leave you behind,” he said.
Steve leaned in, rested his forehead against Tony's. “You said you woke up with the wings. The real ones, you woke up and you had the wings. And you didn't remember anything.”
“Before that, yes.” Tony gave a faint sigh. “It won't happen with you.”
“How do you know?”
Tony brushed soft lips against his mouth, against his jaw, against his cheek. “Because we have years,” he whispered, the breath of air against the shell of Steve's ear. “I have years to memorize every inch of you, to learn the sound of your heart and the structure of what your wings will be, and someday, some far distant day, when we both have our wings, when you learn to fly, when you are assigned your first file?” He grinned. “I will find you.”
Steve closed his eyes. “Promise me,” he whispered.
“I swear to you,” Tony said, his hands sliding down Steve's chest, down the flexing muscles of his stomach, down to the waistband of his sleep pants. And under. “I love you,” he whispered. “I'm going to find you. No matter what.”
“I love you, too. No matter what, I'll find you,” Steve agreed. He lifted Tony off of his feet, ignoring Tony's squawk of protest. “Shouldn't have made me this strong,” he said, heading back to the bed.
“I stand by my work, Rogers.”
Phil shut the file with a faint sigh. Mentally, he counted off the beats. Five, four, three, two, one...
“Do we want to discuss just how many rules you've broken here?”
“Hello, sir,” Phil said, opening a new file. “Good to see you in the field again.”
Fury gave a snort. “As if I had a choice.” He moved up next to Phil. “So. You have anything to say for yourself before I start handing you your own ass, Phil?”
“Not much, sir.” Phil glanced over the top of his file. “What are the charges?”
“Really? We gotta do this?”
“I'm afraid so, sir.”
“From the top, alteration of a sealed file, unauthorized stasis, arranging for a Guardian in stasis to remain within his area of expertise and within range of his previous guarded, almost assuring that he would regain memories that were never properly wiped,” Fury said, and paused. “That one's a doozy.”
“I was never particularly good at memory alteration,” Phil said, his tone apologetic.
“Bullshit, but moving on. Allowing for connected parties to come into contact with a Guardian in stasis-”
“Sir, I have to object to that,” Phil said. “I didn't allow that. I had to really work to arrange it. Getting Pepper Potts hired by StarkIndustries, then bringing her to Tony's attention, and setting up the corporate espionage that would put Barton and Romanov in his path-”
“You are the only Guardian I know who can set two people up for poorly planned theft and land them both jobs,” Fury said, rubbing his forehead.
“I know how Tony reacts to a challenge,” Phil said.
“Yeah. Badly.” Fury glanced at Phil. “Wanna explain why you chose to break almost every rule about Guardian/guarded interactions?”
Phil took a breath. “Because we've been through this before,” he pointed out. “I wiped Tony the last time. Let him reset, let him recharge, regain his wings. And he was repeating the exact same sequence of events. We did our best to separate him from Steve Rogers in this reincarnation, but that wheel grinds fine, and they were following the same pattern of behavior.”
“There are others who've been caught in a loop,” Fury pointed out.
“Not like this, and you know it. Tony doesn't just wear himself out, he bleeds himself dry.” Phil bounced the file off of his hand. “The last time he lost his wings, we barely recovered him. This time? I learned from my mistakes.”
“You tangled all of them up in this,” Fury said. “He'll be out of commission for decades now.”
“Yeah, he will, but the human lifespan is short, compared to the time we have. A few years, a few decades, what does it matter?” Phil asked. “Besides. It's a two for one deal, sir.”
“That's another thing, Agent. You've pushed the timeline up on Rogers by two or three reincarnations. He wasn't slated to join the ranks for another couple of centuries.”
“Nothing is set in stone, sir.” Phil gave him a faint smile. “He was ready.”
“Really,” Fury said.
Fury clapped a hand on his shoulder. “You know? You're right about one thing. Everyone makes mistakes. Nothing's set in stone.” He gave Phil a tight smile, and held out a file. “And I estimate they've got about forty to fifty years before they gain their wings. Good luck.”
Phil stared down at the file. He considered objecting. He hated wasting the effort, though. “Both of them?”
“Both of them,” Fury agreed. “You make poor choices, Phil. Ain't my problem.”
Phil sighed and took the file. “Yes, sir.” What was another forty or fifty years, after all?
He'd handled worse.