Tony had always seen the world in vivid hues. From his earliest memories the sky had been a crisp, clear shade of cornflower-blue, the grass a shade of green that nothing else ever quite matched. It was enigmatic and indescribable to him – even before he knew that it was just one more thing that made him strange.
Children simply did not see in color. With the very rare exception where they happen to meet their soul-mate at such a young age, it just didn't happen. Even those who fell into that category knew who had triggered it. Everyone who has met their mate remembers every detail about their meeting, where they were and what was going on, how they felt and usually what they were even wearing. From that point on they could pick them out of a crowd of thousands, were drawn to wherever they happened to be, and always knew, somewhere down in their heart, their partner was safe.
But Tony was different. Tony was different in a lot of ways and after a few years he learned that that was one thing he could keep to himself and no one would have to know about. Son of Howard Stark was bad enough. College freshman before he truly hit puberty had just exacerbated things. Orphaned too young and a genius celebrity living on the edge… no one gave much thought to Tony Stark's love life beyond which socialite was draped pleasantly on his arm every other night. Some of those he bedded had claimed to still see the world in black and white, others were more forthcoming that his eight-hundred dollar silk tie was a simply stunning shade of emerald.
Tony never batted an eyelash at that, or responded in kind. He learned from his parents that while soul-mate may have technically meant 'forged from the same spark of life' – it was not synonymous with easy, smooth, or even always worth it.
Every now and then he would find himself with his body pressed against another's – watching the rise of crimson as their skin flushed, the slowly growing shades of blues and purples where his mouth had lingered perhaps just a little too long, the deep red of their kiss swollen lips, and he would blanch, his heart stuttering in his chest. The knowledge that this was wrong, that he should not be privy to these sights, to any of these hues, a bitter taste like bile in his mouth. Tony would almost be ready to run before collecting himself, commanding the lights off and their world falling into darkness, color forgotten and mind lost in the physical sensations of lust.
He always spent more time in the bottle after nights such as those.
Pepper knew. Pepper knew everything. She knew when to push and she knew when to let things go. She knew how to run his company better and more ruthlessly than he did and yet could still perform the somewhat delicate procedure of changing his arc reactor. She knew Tony literally inside and out and never actually left him to his own devices for longer than he could handle. Tony loved her. He tried to tell her, once. But Pepper had seen the world in color for two, brief, wonderful years in college before it had been snuffed out by the bright orange and red flames of a house on fire.
She had fallen asleep that night in a world of brilliant hues and full of life of all sorts of shades and woken up to the heartbreaking grey stillness of death.
As long as Tony still saw the world as he did, she knew he would never give her all of himself.
And, painfully, Tony knew she was right.
New York City: June 29th, 1970
"Tony. Look at Daddy, Tony." A bubble of a sound that was quite possibly a burp rumbled through the tiny infant in Howard's arms. Maria was upstairs, resting for once. Howard had been talked into wandering the mansion with his insomniac of a one month old son. They keep telling him all babies stay awake most of the night, but he's not so sure about that idea. Needs to be studied.
Tony's eyes were bright and everywhere, darting around the room, settling on something for a moment before moving on. He did look at Howard for a brief beat, making another burping sound then looking for something else. Howard walked slowly, but with purpose, until they were down in the sub-basement. He punched in a code to one of his storage units but instead of the latch releasing and the door swinging open, a hidden panel on the other side of the room slipped free.
"I want you to meet someone, Tony." He spoke even more quietly than before, as if his voice would disturb more than just the sensitive ears of his son. "He's a big hero, you know. National icon and all that. Though in his slang you would just say 'all around swell guy'." Howard let the panel slide closed behind him before pulling the small chain to flood the room in light. Computers lined the room, small indicators of green and red blinking in and out of existence.
In the center, encased in a box of thick, riveted metal, was a massive block of ice, kept frozen by the generators above and with backup generators for the backup generators.
"We found him about two months before you were born, son. Don't have anything to do with him yet, though. I don't have the technology to thaw him out and guarantee he'll survive. And I can't lose him twice." He looked up at the box with a wistful smile, missing a friend but willing to wait. He could wait, until it was safe. The one indicator that had a sound, a slow, steady beat, slower than it should be but ever present, seemed louder in that moment.
He looked through the tiny rectangular window into the box. "Tony, meet Steve Rogers. Steve, my son Tony." Howard held Tony's delicate form up a little higher, making his hand wave.
He almost didn't see it – the way Tony's eyes seemed to instantly focus the second he said Steve's name, wide eyed and staring with what almost seemed like intent and awe at the metal box where his friend rested. But he wasn't that unobservant to his son – not yet – and Howard smiled.
"I knew you'd like him."
Later, after checking a few more readouts and altering a few settings with a fine touch, Howard and Tony left as quietly as they had come, Tony's eyes never straying far from Steve's icy tomb until the panel was shut one last time.
Tony slept through the night without issue from the next evening on.
Steve and Bucky had once stayed up late, listening to the quieting sounds of the city outside their tiny apartment window, arguing over what a world in full color would be like – what an experience it would be, what kind of a punch in the gut actually meeting your soul-mate must feel like.
They both spent their meager twenty something years in various shades of grey.
Steve liked to imagine that he dreamed in color, that one day the images he saw in his head he would be able to recreate on the pages in front of him as they were meant to be seen rather than in the hard contrasts of charcoal and the pressed fibers of his paper. Sometimes, when he drew, he would pause in his shading, feeling like it wasn't complete, that nothing he ever drew would be complete until he could really bring his images to life.
But there were more things in their lives to worry about than the 'what if's' of something they didn't actually need to survive. Because survive was what they did. Through poverty and death, through health problems that nearly brought them both to their end and then the terrors of the war they fought apart before they fought together – they survived.
Until they didn't.
Sometime after Bucky fell – he doesn't really remember how long – Steve found himself sparing a thought that somewhere out there a person he had never met was going to spend their whole life in the dark. They would never know what it was like to experience the world as it was meant to be seen. But worse than that they would never get to have that exasperated yet fond eye roll directed at them, feel the strength of his arms in a hug or the warmth of his soul in his laughter.
Because Bucky was gone, and his other half would never know.
Maybe that was a good thing. Less painful that way.
But he didn't have long to dwell on any of it, after that.
The sun that day, the day Steve died – thought he was going to die – had been a bright white sphere in the constant dull grey of his sky. The horizon didn't exist. The ice blended seamlessly with the clouds in the distance until it was impossible to tell one from the other. Peggy, beautiful, strong Peggy, who he admired and dreamed about and had more than once regretted hadn't been the one to open his eyes, spoke to him through it all.
And the last thought that crossed his mind, before the impact into the frozen landscape and before the ice would drag him under, was that he would have liked to have known what the shade of her lipstick would look like against the crisp white of a linen collar.
"I thought you were going to get rid of that thing years ago. Donate it or something Tony." Pepper's voice was exhausted and pinched in Tony's ear as he drove through Manhattan. "You were the one who suggested that it would make a great museum. We can still do that, you know. It would be really good for our image, especially after the expo."
"The expo was not our fault. Everyone knows that." He swerved around a car going too slow and sped up just as the signal changed from the green triangle to a yellow circle to give his next turn just a little bit of oomph.
Pepper's sigh was long suffering. "What are you even doing Tony? You haven't been there in decades. No one has even stepped foot in the place in years."
"Don't you have a meeting to go to?"
Tony could hear the pinched look on her face all the way from Malibu. "When you're done digging up ghosts, send me a message. I'll see you when you get home, Tony. And please, don't bring them back with you."
The line fell dead and Tony tossed the ear piece into the passenger seat just before taking the last turn onto Fifth Avenue.
As it had been for decades, the mansion was eerily silent. He hadn't stepped foot in the building since a few months before his parents had died, forced home by his mother on a holiday of some sort or another. She had loved this place, and her touch was still everywhere. Even under the inches of dust that clung to every surface, Maria Stark shone through. The red and gold jacquard fabric of the couch was a familiar texture beneath the drag of his fingers. The 70's and 80's had never really invaded her tastes and any updates she ever had done were simply because she wanted a change in the color of her classical décor. Or from Howard making it 10 years ahead of the current technology available to the general public.
Pepper was not wrong. He had thought about getting rid of it at one point. Maybe sometime in his mid-thirties – he couldn't pin point exactly when, most of his life in that time frame had been a blur of booze and women – there had even been paper work drawn up to make it permanently no longer his problem. But as he picked up the pen to sign it away, Tony had really thought about the place for a moment, its massive size and truly ridiculous amount of excess. But though he didn't have many fond memories, something kept his hand still, kept walking him through the images of hallways and stair wells in his mind. The strange feeling of a room all in grey, coming alive with color.
An icy chill had gone down his spine and Tony could not bring himself to sign the contract.
This was his first time spending any length of time in New York since Afghanistan. Since Iron Man. Since slowly trying to poison himself and unable and unwilling to ask anyone for help. The city had always been such a turmoil for him. Malibu was what he considered his home but New York was peaceful. Even with the bitterness and bad taste in his mouth the memories left him with, something always drew him in, made him feel welcomed and warm.
His world was a little more vibrant in the city.
But the moment he had stepped into his old penthouse – overlooking the construction of his latest project – something just felt wrong. It no longer felt like he was walking around wrapped up in a warm blanket on a chilly day and the sky line seemed a little duller than normal.
He was halfway to the mansion before he realized where he was going.
Twenty minutes of aimless wandering and Tony found himself walking down the stairs to his father's old private labs.
Now THAT was something he had never done.
Even as a teen, proving time and time again that he had the brain power to keep up with (and surpass) his father, Tony had never been allowed further than the first level of Howard's labs. The ones he shared with other visiting scientists, brought the cameras in to share with the world whatever he was working on at the time – that was where Tony was allowed and no further, just like everyone else.
The door pushed open easily and Tony wondered what he would find down there. Would he find something half-finished that would revolutionize the world or the old prototype of a flying car that Howard could never really get off the ground? Maybe he would find his old man's porn collection.
Tony paused at that thought and had to shake it away before going any further.
Disappointment was a familiar feeling in Tony's chest, settling in and taking a firm hold at the empty room he found beyond the entrance. It certainly looked like there had once been many mad ideas tinkered with down here, like it could have been an older version of Tony's own workshop just picked clean down to its bones. Along the wall at his right a series of doors with advanced-for-their-time but way out of date now security locks were shut tight. He tapped a few random codes into the first couple, not really expecting anything to happen and not so curious that he bothered actually taking the minute or two it would take to hack into them. Just as he was about to turn around and head back out something on the far wall caught his eye.
A seam, mostly likely once undetectable but now easy to spot with the time worn age of the walls, ran from the floor to just and inch below the ceiling then made a sharp turn left.
Curiosity finally piqued, Tony smirked. Only his old man would hide something so deeply – in a secret room, in a private, heavily locked lab, below an already fairly exclusive part of his home that just so happened to be the most secure building of its day for hundreds of miles.
Fuckin paranoid, is what he was.
Apparently Tony came by it honestly.
He ran his fingers along the edge of the seam even though it was pointless. He wasn't going to be able to pry it open with his hands. A cursory look around the lab and he was able to find an old tool box laying half open and counted his lucky stars there was a heavy crow bar buried in it. There still wasn't any reason for any of this. He had no idea what he would find, it was stupid and pointless, and…
Air hissed through the crack after a minute of prying and Tony threw all of his strength into it, encouraged. He bit his bottom lip through a groan of exertion that finally gave way to success when something snapped. Even once the latch was free it was another minute of work to slide the thing completely open and Tony was met with darkness.
With trepidation he stepped in, hoping his eyes would adjust but hesitating from actually looking for a local light source.
This was stupid. Whatever was or was not in there Did Not Matter. Whatever Howard was hiding from the world either should stay hidden or had long since lost its significance. Tony was just chasing ghosts. Pepper was right. He should just turn around and forget it. There wasn't anything down here for him and there never had been.
Tony ran into something dangling from the ceiling and reached up, giving it a quick, hard tug.
Hope he hadn't known he was clinging to – and for what he was clueless – shattered in his chest as light flooded the area.
The room was empty.
New York, May 2008
"You know he hasn't actually been declared dead yet, right Director?" Coulson stood at the front gates of the Stark mansion staring up at the true monstrosity of a building. Behind him, waiting for his signal, was a small team loaded down with equipment and a fair number of heavy duty dollies.
"I am aware, Agent Coulson. But we have to take this opportunity to retrieve the package without raising suspicion. If Howard's records are reliable, then he's still down there, waiting for his wake up call."
Admittedly Phil's heart was racing and his skin tingling down to his fingers in anticipation. Hell would freeze over before he let any part of his countenance betray that. "Understood sir." He said flatly before he turned to glance at his team. "Let's go get the good Captain, boys. Fury thinks he's been asleep long enough. Take him back to HQ and see what we can do."
The room he woke up in had been dull and muted. His senses hadn't come on full alert yet so Steve hadn't really noticed anything out of the ordinary. When the woman walked in with a military uniform that was just a touch not right, shades of something he'd never seen before and soft brown hair he assumed he was still dreaming.
He had been dreaming for so long.
It was outside, running among the mass of people and sights and sounds that it all hit him so hard. Harder than the strange place, the odd vehicles, the sounds and building all around him so strange and new and wrong. It hit him like a punch to the stomach from a battering ram and he nearly couldn't breathe again.
Everything was so vivid.
Yellows and greens, purples and reds, browns, golds and colors he didn't have names for and would spend the rest of his life learning and cataloguing into their own categories and various shades of hue overloaded his senses as he came to a halt in the middle of the street, cars suddenly surrounding him.
When Steve looked up, the sky was blue.
Everything that happened after was a haze of debriefing and questions, people he would have to remember, names to put with faces and information that, piece by piece, would fill him in to just what the hell was really going on. But he was so damn distracted.
Blue was the only color he could place so far. Everyone knew – the sky is blue, grass and leaves are green, the sun is yellow and your first sunset is going to be the most beautiful shade of orange you will see in your entire life. But there hadn't been any grass or leaves or trees of any kind yet. Just an overabundance of everything and all at once. It was all overwhelming. The sheer number of colors he'd been inundated with, piled high with everything that was going on, meant that it was laughably easy to shove aside the ache at not knowing who had caused this.
Of course, that only lasted until he was alone again.
Laying in his room – a new one, none of the farce they had tried to force on him – staring up at the ceiling, Steve was drowning. Everyone he knew was gone. Every thing he knew was gone. This was a new world and there was no one here waiting for him. He hadn't crossed the ocean and could simply go home when this was all over. Home was gone. Never before had he felt an ache like this, a loneliness that would not cease. He felt like a piece of himself had been torn away and he hadn't even known it existed before it was gone. Steve's hands were shaking. His lips trembling.
In the all-encompassing darkness of his first night in a new century, Steve cried until he was numb.
When he had no more tears to shed, he stared blankly up at his ceiling until the light of dawn peeked through his window.
Then he got up, and faced the next day.
For all of Tony's life he never could quite figure out how he could operate with such little sleep. Conditioning, probably.
Then again, when he really thought about it, the world probably wouldn't like what he could do if he was always one hundred percent rested. That's it. He was throwing everyone else a curve. Can't be too far ahead right?
And at three a.m., rubbing his eyes and reaching for his coffee, that's what Tony always tells himself – and he's sticking to it.
He'd been reading the files Coulson left with him for hours, pouring over energy read outs, incident reports, personnel evaluations, statistics, styles, aptitudes, strengths, weaknesses. When he finished one file he took a break and read up on thermonuclear astrophysics before starting the next one. Each hour that passed he knew everything SHIELD had given him about another possible member of their team, and another large chuck of information about the tessaract and how to find it. But he kept sitting one of them aside, sure he knew quite enough thank-you-very-much about Captain America. It wasn't like he didn't know they had found him and woken him up. (What kind of genius could he call himself if he didn't have a little fun poking around the easier layers of top secret servers every now and then?) It was just that he'd heard everything he thought he needed to know about the perfection of Steve – fucking – Rogers while he was growing up. Any time the icon with the red white and blue shield came across his screen he would idly flick it away, off onto another part of his workstation. Out of sight, out of mind.
But by the time the sun came up, it was the only one left.
The image of old, true black and white news reels flickered across his vision but he tried not to focus on the pictures. There were stories and narrations of different battles, various incursions and rescues Captain Rogers and his company had successfully performed. Most of them were rather vague, but transcripts of actual mission reports had so much detail Tony had to blink a few times, rub his eyes and re-read some of them.
Suddenly the next thing he saw after the report of his crash was a grainy image of a large container. A thick, gunmetal grey crate with a single viewing slot and hundreds of wires coming from it filled his projected screen. It looked oddly familiar.
Tony felt cold.
The next image showed Steve laid out on a high tech bio-bed, IV's and monitors everywhere and a breathing tube secured around his mouth. Tony had to wonder why they still had him so bare, the man would probably never feel warm again.
One more image crossed the projected screen and Tony bit his bottom lip. The caption told Tony it was taken just a few days after he woke up. It was the first time he'd really looked at the guy's face since he'd started reading all of this mess. It wasn't the first time he had seen Captain America without his mask on, seen Steve Rogers as he was meant to be seen. Not many photos of him like this had been public but there were a few. And then of course, there had been Howard's collection.
What struck Tony so much about this one though was how somber he looked. The icy blue of his eyes looked haunted – empty – and even though he'd been asleep for decades there wasn't a doubt in Tony's mind that Steve was exhausted in it.
It took him longer than he thought it would to tear his eyes away from the image.
Tony tapped the casing of his arc reactor when he noticed the tightness in his chest.
Beneath the various photos of Steve's recovery was a short, undetailed summary. The Psych Eval information contained a link to the whole report (and that was the longest one he'd ever seen and almost even more detailed than his own – though, when Tony thought about it, Rogers had probably been a willing participant in the whole procedure whereas Tony, well, wasn't).
Recovered from 74.05, -20.27 –
Retrieved and returned to S.H.I.E.L.D. 18th of May, 2008.
Regeneration Process Began: 15th of October, 2011.
Psychological Evaluation Grade: Level C.
Return to Active Duty: Not Recommended.
Tony blinked. That wasn't right. He flicked his hand across the surface in front of him and a keyboard projected itself. His fingers went flying. Long archived files on his private server cascaded across his field of vision as he cross referenced dates and important key words, mission reports, and agents of record. He chased the inconsistency like a cat with a laser pointer. And he felt like it too because just when he thought he'd gotten something it was gone. Not the information of course, but the link he thought he'd seen. He just didn't have enough information on his own servers. Tony would have to go straight to the source.
The problem was, these reports were always pristine. Especially Coulson's and this file had his smarmy, straight faced sense of perfection all over it.
Except that information was missing. The Recovery information should have a date, or why else would it have been separated? Why was there a gap between Recovered and Retrieved?
What was supposed to go there?
"Not now, JARVIS." Tony snapped, already at the end of his patience with the information available to him.
"My apologies, Sir. However you asked me to inform you when it was 6 a.m. so that you could take the rest your body will need before piloting Iron Man."
Tony dropped his head and cursed, feeling the exhaustion pulling him under even where he sat despite his rapt attention on the file before him. He'd forgotten which day he'd managed to sleep last and the safety protocols he'd installed in the suit after his last birthday meant that wasn't good enough.
With one last, long look at the picture of Steve Rogers, Tony waved a hand and shut the whole mess down. "Fine. You win." He stood and stretched, glaring up at the closest camera so JARVIS would know it was meant for him. "I'm going to bed, mom. Wake me up in three hours."
"Your compliance is appreciated and protest duly noted." There was a pause. "Sir." JARVIS added almost as an afterthought. Tony vaguely mused that he should re-program that attitude out of his AI and dismissed the thought almost as soon as it came.
The discrepancy in Steve's file was not forgotten even if Tony wouldn't think about it again for a very long time.
Late summer was an entirely new kind of experience for Steve.
"You want me to get used to the world, Director? Used to what this country is now? Then let me go see it." He'd been trying to push this idea for weeks before the invasion.
The second he brought it up after, Fury just signed a piece of paper and sent him on his way. "I hope you aren't too disappointed in what you find." He heard before the door snapped shut behind him.
New York had been… well it had been something else. From the moment he and Iron Man had captured Loki in Stuttgart and all the way through till they watched Thor return him to their home, Steve had felt alive again. Despite the situation, he had felt more whole – as if he had a purpose once more. On the field of battle they did what they had to, he did what he had to. He kept his cool, analyzed the situation at hand as the threat it was and reacted accordingly – and he was good at it. That's what Captain America did.
How Steve Rogers dealt with the aftermath was something else entirely.
No one likes to talk about after.
Driving away from that park had felt like rolling down a steady decline into just another empty pit, waiting to swallow him whole.
When he was in his own time he had no doubt there would be hurdles to overcome as a soldier going home from war. But he hadn't come home from war. Oh, he'd left the war alright, but there was no home waiting for him any longer. Nothing and no one to catch him, not even the familiar old neighborhood to return to so there would at least be buildings to remind him of what he had gone over seas to protect.
The night mares were worse than he'd ever thought they could be. And now there was a word for that tight clench in his chest when something innocuous triggered his fight reflexes. Panic attacks - he had been told. Luckily they didn't knock him off his feet. Steve managed to breathe through even the worst of them and do what he had to in order to get out of a situation or fix it, but damn it they hurt.
And if they happened while he was alone, he just let himself succumb because there wasn't any point in fighting himself.
Almost a month after the Avengers parted ways Steve found himself sitting on a beach somewhere in central California, arms around his knees, on the outermost edge of a long, rocky jetty and waiting for the sun to go down. The salty breeze gusted through his hair, chilling his skin and stinging his face and he just lifted his head to accept every touch the sky had to offer.
Though he tried hard, harder than ever, to put the past few months out of his mind (not forget, just, set aside, for now), there was one thing he kept coming back to.
For a while Steve had tried to tell himself that none of them had gotten along that well off the field. But that was a lie. It was just the two of them who seemed to have it out for one another. They were nails on chalk board to each other and Steve could still remember the sense of complete disappointment at finding out Tony was not what he had expected. Which was strange of course, since there was nothing to expect of him before their meeting, not really.
Steve had been wrong. He was almost upset with himself over how wrong he had been.
He has nightmares about falling now. Two distinctly different ones, each just as painful as the other for a host of different reasons.
But he's never the one in the air.
All Steve can ever do is watch.
The hues shifted across the horizon and Steve looked up just in time to see the sun touch down and light the sky on fire with oranges, red, and soft pinks in the curves of the scattering of clouds. The sky directly overhead had been slowly changing since he sat down, from a soft periwinkle into a brilliant shade of royal blue. Every color was either a blend into the next shade or such a perfect contrast that it looked outlined in ink. The reflection of each color danced in the waves of the water that stretched on infinitely before him.
It was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen, and all Steve could do was feel bitter.
He'd been awake and seeing in full color for eight months and Steve still hadn't picked up a colored pencil, a marker that wasn't a shade of grey. Honestly he hadn't even thought of anything other than charcoal and pencil's when it came right down to it. He still preferred the hard and rough strokes the charcoal gave him, the feel of it in his fingers, the way it could look almost dirty on the page if he was letting himself go. Everything he'd drawn in the last few months had looked like he felt, jagged and sharp. Real, but just this side of not quite complete.
Steve hadn't shed a tear over himself and his situation since the first night he woke up but the hollow pit eating away at his stomach out there on the jetty pulled him precariously close.
In his pocket, Steve's phone buzzed. The sharp, clear sounds of a single bell broke through the white noise of the waves around him.
Message Received: Tony Stark:
You back in New York yet?
Steve frowned at his phone. Natasha had taken a long time going over all of the basics with him before he had left, and as was usually the case, Steve had caught on quick.
But he was fairly certain he hadn't put Tony's number in there, and yet….
He couldn't help the smile, as he lifted his phone up high and carefully went through the steps Nat had shown him.
Message Received: Tony Stark:
Damn. Jealous. When you get back, I have something to show you too.
Instead of responding Steve let out a soft sigh and slipped his phone back in his pocket.
There was something warm settling in his chest at the idea that, even if it was just through the gift of technology, he was able to share this view with someone – anyone.
For a while Steve felt a little less lonely.
Tony fidgeted absentmindedly, his right hand tapping out pointless code on the clear polished wood of the conference table. In his left he held his phone open to a the latest picture Steve had sent him, eyes flicking to it every few seconds while his mind danced between four different ideas at once.
"Mr. Stark. Since you actually decided to show up to this meeting for once it would be a nice change of pace if you were actually with us."
Five. Five ideas.
From beside him Pepper simply raised an eye brow and stared him down along with the rest of the boardroom, not even bothering to defend him. Traitor.
He focused all of his attention and a tiny, half lipped grin at Mallory and his gruff, vexed face. "The armor project for the military contracts needs another set of eyes. Hire that kid that just published his thesis… what was his name." Tony snapped his fingers for effect even though he was perfectly aware of who he was talking about. "Breland or something or another. Anyway, he's done more work in his three years in grad school toward a workable alloy than we've done in a decade. Pick him up, give him more money than he deserves and sit back and wait. The media problem is nothing new. I've put together my own PR team for the Avengers so you guys can drop it and never touch it again. Problem solved. As far as Fujikawa goes, forget about them. They talk big but I've seen their tech and I know who they've got leading their teams. We'll worry about them if they ever replace their current leader of R&D. The S5 isn't ready yet and I don't care if Apple is launching in three months. We won't put out a sub-par phone that has to be revamped and upgraded once a week for half a year. Send it back to development, make sure there are no bugs left and then we'll put it out after Apple's hunk of cracked glass garbage, charge 200 dollars less for it, and sell four times as many." He tapped his own phone – which was technically made from the S5 base though nowhere NEAR what the public would have – on the table a couple of times before casually picking it up and throwing it as hard as he could against the wall. It fell to the floor with a satisfying thunk, still in one, solid piece.
Not so surprisingly, only a quarter of the people in the room flinched. Pepper just looked tired. Most of them were used to Tony's errant behavior from before his days as Iron Man. To be honest he hadn't changed that much in the meetings, just less… intoxicated.
To his credit, Mallory didn't bat an eye. He spoke in smooth, even tones. "I highly doubt anyone here is going to vote to let a 22 year old lead the project that happens to be our biggest contract. We are also all perfectly aware of the fact that you've hired a personal PR department for your little pet project – you took most of ours." His eyebrow twitched at that. "For you to come in and act like you have somewhere better to be for the entire meeting, throw out answers you think will magically solve all of our problems when you're called out on it and then put on a display like you're 22 again yourself? Childish and uncalled for, Mr. Stark."
Tony balked when the man actually tutted, as if his disappointment in Tony would get anywhere. Tony's own disappointment in himself didn't make much headway, fucking hell if this guys was.
All he had in answer was a laugh. As he shook with it, Tony stood, walked over to where his phone lay on the ground and bent low in a bow as he picked it up. "Boys and girls, its' been swell. Super fun. Let's do this again sometime yeah? And Mallory?" He paused after opening the door, looking back at the red flush of anger that had started creeping older man's face. "If you can't get with the program that the fresh, young minds are where we're going to find our breakthroughs, I'll make sure we replace yours with one of them."
Tony barely caught sight of him standing in a flash, his chair thrown behind him against the plate windows. "How DARE YOU!" But Tony was gone, halfway down the hall way. "I still don't see why you let him get away with any of this!" He could still hear his voice billowing down the hall.
"Because, Louis, as I'm sure you are perfectly aware it is still his company. Besides, it's not as if anything he said was…" Tony didn't hear anything else Pepper had to say as the door finally fell closed behind him.
And this was why Tony doesn't go to board meetings.
They make everything out to be more convoluted and unnecessarily complicated than they need to be. He has never been able to fathom how they can't see the logical answers. The patterns and paths to the conclusions Tony always gives them are so obvious they're practically tangible.
But maybe that's just him.
He was in the elevator heading back to his temporary apartment (the penthouse was still being repaired and a number of levels below that completely renovated) when he leaned against the wall and flicked his screen back to Steve's sunset.
The image was an excellent quality but given that Steve's phone was almost an exact copy of the one in Tony's hands, well, that was to be expected. He moved his fingers along the smooth surface and scrolled through all the other pictures Steve had sent him. Portland. Seattle. Some place in Idaho. No pictures for almost two days and then Minneapolis. Chicago. Toronto. Montreal. Images of beautiful sites and all the stupid tourist traps, skylines that went on for days and every now and then, a sunset – though none as brilliant as that first one. It was as if Steve had decided to continually answer that first text – especially since Tony hadn't ever responded back.
He found himself on the original sunset picture again, zooming in on the details in the swirls of the clouds that Steve probably hadn't even known the phone could capture.
"This is the definition of overkill, Tony."
"I have a feeling Steve Rogers doesn't do anything in baby steps. Show him the basics teach him how to take a picture, maybe listen to some music. He'll figure the rest out on his own."
Natasha had leveled Tony a flat look that very clearly said 'you are right but I'm never admitting that out loud' and held out her hand.
Tony slapped the phone into it with a smile. "Besides, this one won't break if he finds himself saving the world again anytime soon."
She had been walking away before she responded so Tony couldn't see if the softness of her voice had made it to her face. "Hopefully the world can wait a little while."
"For all of us." He said to the memory among the emptiness of his apartment as the doors slid slowly open.
"Welcome home, Sir."
"Never left, J." After taking a deep breath for seemingly no reason and shaking out his fee hand, Tony stepped out of the elevator, immediately tapping his phone and flicking the image so it was projected on the crisp white wall of his living room.
"I am aware. However I have found the employees of Stark Industry consider it disturbing that you have a disembodied voice that follows you almost everywhere."
Tony smirked and let out an amused, quiet sound. "Disturbing like, can't get their work done because you can be kind of obnoxious or disturbing like, disturbed in the head and they should be scared?"
"Take your pick, sir." And if Tony didn't know any better he'd say his AI sounded exasperated.
With a wave of dismissal JARVIS fell silent and Tony turned his attention to the projection on his wall.
For days this had been his phone's background and he was constantly pulling it up just to admire the view. Something about it seemed… odd. And of course he'd thought about why to great extent. Maybe even a little excessively. Late nights in the lab it was a background thought while tinkering with another suit. During the day he'd find himself staring at it, eyebrows knit in confusion.
And at night, in between the nightmares….
It was breathtakingly beautiful.
But why had Steve sent it to him. And then all the others, too. To Tony, of all people? It wasn't like he couldn't have answered a simple 'no' to his text. Had anyone else gotten this? Or something like it anyway. He found himself hoping that no one else had.
The thing that nagged at the back of Tony's head the entire time though – a thought he had early on and then just kind of stuck there – was if Steve understood just how breathtaking the picture was.
Because Tony couldn't come up with any fathomable reason to sit on a beach and just watch the sunset if you couldn't properly enjoy it.
And if he could enjoy it does that mean he was enjoying it with someone? Had he met them since waking up, or did he have to go steal them from the nursing home? The image of Steve driving his bike with an actually properly aged nonagenarian clinging to his waist had Tony chuckling. That seemed unlikely – though not impossible.
But even worse, what if he couldn't see color – anymore. What if he went into the ice and woke up to the muted tones of a black and white life and was trying desperately to remember what these images he kept sending Tony would have looked like if he had never been frozen.
Though Tony consciously hoped he was sharing it with someone important, with his partner, something deeper disagreed…
This was a problem. He couldn't tell you why it was a problem, just that it was. He should not care about any of this, and he had much more important things to be doing with his time than pondering the love life of Captain America, to focus his attention on.
Tony's phone buzzed along with the opening bar of 'Star Spangled Man with a Plan', effectively snapping him from sinking into the couch with a scowl on his face and making Tony toss the projected image into digital oblivion.
Message Received: Cap:
Ask me that question again.
Speak of the devil.
He blinked at his phone for a minute, surprised that Steve had actually used words for once.
Tony stood and tapped out his response on his way to his bedroom. Almost a month had past and he didn't even need to look up what he had sent.
You back in New York yet?
There was enough of a wait before he received a response that Tony was able to shed the outer layers of his suit and was standing in his boxers, cuffs undone and just getting to the buttons of his shirt when his phone buzzed again.
Message Received: Cap:
Message Received: Cap:
Almost. Pick me up at LaGuardia?
Tony stared at his phone after sending the message, trying to figure out why he had sent that response so fast. Didn't he have shit to do? There was the aftermath of the board meeting he had just walked out on to deal with for starters. And he had simulations running down in his lab. Bruce had a brand spanking new mass spectrometer being delivered in a couple of hours. He's fairly certain he had promised SOMEONE he would be at a thing about… something.
Fuck it. He thought and tossed his shirt onto the bed before heading to his closet and finding a comfortable, yet snug, pair of dark jeans and a clean t shirt.
He'd done worse things than skipping out on his responsibilities to go pick up Captain America.
Tony would make it up to Pepper later.
Steve thought he knew what a crowd looked like, growing up in the 'big city' and all.
New York of the 1930's had NOTHING on the big cities of 2012.
He wasn't quite sure what to do with the MASS of bodies that could accumulate in the 21st century though. Maybe it was left over from spending most of his life so damn fragile but even at his current size Steve was constantly trying to shrink away from others in a crowd. He didn't consider it nerves and if he did get caught in a bustle of people he could take it in stride it was just – reflexes, really. So far on his trip he had managed to avoid the worst of them.
But then, just as he was about to hit the last leg of his journey, his bike had to go belly up.
S.H.I.E.L.D. had offered to pick him up but he refused, compromising by letting them get his bike. He certainly could have had it fixed, maybe even fixed it himself, but since the only planes he'd ever been on in his life had been strictly military he'd wanted to give commercial flight a shot.
Looking back on it – possibly not the best idea he'd ever had.
The airport terminal had been the most voluntarily packed enclosed space he'd ever seen. Even with all of the open area of the atrium he'd felt cramped. There were people stretched out in chairs, camped out against the walls, huddled together over electrical outlets, and going every single direction imaginable.
He'd thought he would get a break once he was on board.
But that was an entirely different kettle of fish and so… so much worse.
It hadn't started out so bad, of course. The plane was full – six people across, three on each side of the aisle – and the seat a bit tight, but comfortable enough. He'd struck up pleasant conversations with another passenger and one of the flight attendants while they idled on the tarmac. But someone had recognized him – which seemed to be happening more and more and he wasn't sure if he was okay with that or not. Fifteen minutes after takeoff everyone in the plane seemed to be trying to make an excuse to come see him. He blushed a lot and got a little fidgety but Steve was going to stick it out. He liked people, after all.
He'd thought he was saved when the attendant asked if he would be willing to meet the pilots.
A quiet conversation with two or three people seemed much more preferable than the barrage in the fuselage so he quickly agreed.
The cockpit was small, as he'd expected, and covered in a sea of switches, buttons and indicator lights. They were flying high enough when he stepped in that the expanse of white clouds below them was more of an underline to the vast field of blue out ahead. After Greg, the pilot, and Pete, his co-pilot, introduced themselves Steve sat in the empty seat behind them and stared at the controls.
"Why are the lights in different colors?" It wasn't what he had really meant to say, but the shock of the concept kind of overtook him. Greg looked over his shoulder at him with a knowing smirk while Pete stared at Steve with almost as much surprise as Steve was staring at the controls with.
"Different types for different functions, sir." Pete, who had dark skin and looked young, younger than Steve – well, younger than he used to be… actually, that train of thought was going nowhere fast so Steve shook it away. Pete, who was very young for a pilot responded as if he wanted to follow that up with a question.
Apparently Greg had heard the inflection too. "Years ago all indicators were red, kid. Had to know what went where to get a handle on what was going on or a speed reader." He turned to Steve and tapped a lit up blue light. "But then Stark tech came out with these so that even young-uns like you who still haven't gone through the change can tell the differences. Course, they still aren't' allowed in the big chair but…" He shrugged "It has certainly improved reaction times. Especially for our boys out in combat."
Steve was fascinated by them, and by about a dozen other changes they pointed out to him over the course of the flight. Though he hadn't been an actual pilot he could tell by the inflection and excitement in their voices how big of a deal each improvement had been in its time.
And apparently at least three of them had been born from inventions of Tony's.
He made a mental note to ask him about it all sometimes. Steve really wanted to know how those lights worked.
"We're going to be making our descent here in a few minutes. May want to go ahead and strap in." Pete nodded towards the straps at Steve's shoulders before turning to fully face his instruments.
"Shouldn't I go back to my seat?" Steve frowned, gesturing behind him. He could certainly put up with a few more minutes of the public figure treatment and he had no desire to be in the way.
"Not at all! That seats only used on long hauls so you sit back and enjoy the best view in the house." As Greg spoke the plane had already been descending at such a slight angle it had gone by almost unnoticed.
That is, until Steve looked up from fastening the harness to see an endless field of white right below them. The bright blue of the sky above ended abruptly in a sharp horizon of white and there wasn't a gap to be found among the clouds. To anyone else, it would have looked serene. Peaceful.
In his chest his heart beat faster and his fingers clinched involuntarily tighter around the arm rest until he heard the plastic start to crack.
His spine shivered from top to bottom.
To Steve, it all looked like ice.
He did everything he could to keep his breathing steady, chiding himself for reacting in such a way. He was being ridiculous. The plane wasn't even noticeably angled. And he knew those were clouds out there. How many times had he been in the air – in actual dangerous situations including since he woke up? Of course, he doesn't consider the fact that this is the first time since the crash that he hasn't had other things to occupy his mind while in the air.
Just before the nose of the plane dipped below the surface of the clouds Steve sucked in a lung full of air.
Closed his eyes.
Held his breath.
Though the impact never came the tingle of ice crept up from the tips of his fingers and his toes, enclosing in on him, even if he wanted to he probably couldn't breathe.
Somewhere in the distance he heard a voice, muted and muffled beyond the pounding of his own pulse in his ear.
"Is he alright?"
There was silence again.
Then a different voice, louder.
"Would you look at that sky line?" Whoever was speaking whistled, impressed. "I see those buildings every day of my life and the sight never gets old. It's changed a lot though, even since I started flying this baby."
Something in Steve's brain kicked back into gear and he managed to get his eyes open.
"Bet there's all sorts of new stuff for you to see, Captain?"
The ice was gone. No. The clouds were gone.
Buildings stretched out all across his field of vision, separated by the bay and cutting into the grey overcast of the sky.
Slowly Steve's fingers uncurled from their death grip around the arm rest, knuckles popping from how tightly wound they had been. His skin still felt cold all over and his chest absolutely ached as if he'd been slammed into the ground by Thor. It was as if he still couldn't quite get enough air but he wasn't drowning in ice. He wasn't going to blink and miss another eternity.
"Yeah." Steve coughed, trying to take another breath. "Yeah, bit different."
Greg nodded to him before turning his attention fully to their landing. Once or twice between communicating with Control Pete looked back at Steve with a worried expression.
But neither of them said anything else to him until they were safely on the ground.
Landing was kind of blurry for Steve. His heart never really calmed down. At least, if it was it was doing it in such tiny increments that it was really hard to track. He tried hard to focus on the buildings, on the sounds of the engine, on the words being spoken around him. But his skin could never feel warm enough, and the ice kept pricking at his bones.
Focusing on his breathing seemed to get him through though. So he did that. He did that a lot. And if he had to remind himself to breathe every now and then, well, no one else needed to know.
Finally on the ground again, and after what seemed like the longest taxi in ever, Steve forced a smile as he left the cockpit. He could tell by the way Greg and Pete looked at him – the way a lot of people in SHIELD looked at him – that they were worried. But they didn't bring it up, instead letting him disembark before the rest of the passengers and giving him a pleasant send off with a smile. The attendant had his bag waiting for him and as soon as he was around the corner of the docking tunnel, out of sight of the plane but before he could see the door to the terminal, Steve stopped and tried to catch his breath again.
He pressed his hand against the rough texture of the wall, fingers moving in small, tiny motions not for the support but for some kind of tactile reminder. He was safe. He was on the ground. His body could stop over reacting any second now please and thank you. The sound of chatter behind him got Steve moving again, though he desperately wished for more time alone. He thought that maybe, if he could just not have to interact with anyone for a little while, he could get this all under control.
When he crossed the threshold into the terminal, Steve's hear rate skyrocketed once more. Though he'd thought it impossible, the scene before him was busier than Boston.
If Steve were a cursing kind of guy – which he could be when the situation called for it – he might have just gone off the deep end. He paused long enough to straighten his back, square his shoulders, let his face fall into a neutral expression, and then pushed forward. After walking out of the tunnel and into the busy walkway he paused just long enough to get his bearings, resolutely ignoring the roar of the crowd in his ears and the strain he was putting on the strap of his pack by holding onto it so damn tightly. He was about to turn left, to follow the signs toward where he thought he should go when for some reason, he looked down the right side of the area.
Hundreds of people filled the corridor, walking, running, idling, but off in the distance, leaning against the edge of a wall, reading something on his phone, was Tony. Steve could only catch a glimpse of him here and there and it was difficult to actually SEE that it was him. He was wearing a plan black shirt and dark jeans, wore oversized sunglasses (inside, really Tony?) and was so engrossed in whatever he was looking at that no one gave him a second glance.
Steve walked toward him with new found purpose.
He hadn't gone very far, maybe a quarter of the distance between them when Tony looked up, immediately found his gaze, and smiled.
Even from his distance and after Tony had tried to rein it back, the smile was warm and excited and exactly what Steve needed. Because after months of new experiences, strange faces and even stranger places, Tony was something – someone – he knew. It didn't matter that he didn't know him all that well. He was a memory Steve could have and not have to cling to and hope he wouldn't forget. And then of course the way he smiled – however briefly – well, that was something else altogether.
Odd thought, that one. Steve tried not to dwell on it.
"Last I was told your plane was going to be another ten minutes." Tony stuck his phone in his pocket and looked out at Steve from under his sunglasses when he approached.
"Really? And how long ago was that?" Steve raised an inquisitive eyebrow while Tony moved his glasses up to rest in his hair.
"Obviously a hell of a lot longer than ten minutes." Somewhere in Steve's peripheral vision a flash went off. Just barely he managed not to flinch, but clung to the strap at his shoulder a little tighter. Tony, looking Steve over curiously, didn't seem to notice the intrusion on their personal space. "Here." He said suddenly, reaching for Steve's bag. "Let me, no, really…" They struggled for a moment, Steve of course protesting, "No, don't hand it, yes. There, we…." But Tony eventually winning. "Oh my god what are you carrying in this thing?"
Together they started walking side by side, Tony guiding them to the exit. "Is it Avengers paraphernalia? Pieces of a shield prototype, which, by the way, would put you so off my Christmas list forever if it is and you saw anybody but me for it." Steve glanced down at his hand and slowly uncurled his fingers, still stiff and cold, then immediately closed it again to hide the deep purple nail marks in his palm. As they walked Steve heard his and Tony's name over and over in the otherwise white noise of the crowds, whispers and murmurs blended together. More and more flashes came and went, people looking, longer stares, and the unmistakable sounds of unmuted camera phones surrounded him.
Tony just kept walking while Steve's stance became all the more tense.
"I'm really kind of hoping for Avengers shit though. Not like, useful stuff but toys or something. Because I could totally see you getting a little bobble head of everyone on your team. Except for yourself, of course. Because that would be a little overly narcissistic and I'm going to need you to forget I ever said that when you see my Iron Man collection."
Steve snorted a laugh.
The more Tony talked the easier it was to ignore all the attention around them. "But seriously?" He adjusted Steve's pack again with exaggerated exertion. "Is it pieces of your bike? And while we're on the subject, what did you do to the thing anyway and what did it ever do to you that you would let SHIELD techs of all people take it? I could fix your bike. I could SO fix your bike."
Truthfully Steve hadn't even considered that. But at the boyish gleam in Tony's eyes he knew he would make the same call anyway.
"You fixing my bike would result in flight, at minimum." No probably, or more than likely. He was dealing with Tony here and even in the short time he had known him Steve had learned that a couple of things were just absolute.
Tony Stark didn't do anything halfway.
They paused just outside of the doors leading out, Tony leveling Steve a blank stare. "And your point?"
For a brief moment both Steve and Tony stared at each other in silence.
Steve broke first.
He laughed. It started low in his gut, bubbling out through his chest, loud and abandoned, and it felt good. The good humor pushed at the pain that lingered there, mixed with it and saturated it until it was hard to tell that there had ever been any to begin with.
The ice still clinging to his skin began to melt.
Tony rolled his eyes when Steve clutched at his chest and shook his head, but his smile was bright enough to give away his own amusement so Steve didn't think too much on it.
It wasn't until they were standing at Tony's car, bag tossed in the trunk and about to part to their respective sides that either of them spoke again.
Tony turned to Steve, a little hesitant, and grabbed him by the arms. The reluctance in his face vanished and Steve watched him curiously, welcoming the touch and feeling strangely warmer for it.
"Look, Steve." It was the first time in as long as they had known each other that Tony had called him by his first name and it made Steve's breath catch in his throat, the way it sounded – so sure and easy. "I know you wanted to experience this whole, thing, and all. But I gotta tell you. I have no problem putting my life out there for these people, for Joe Schmo and doing whatever I can to keep them safe. But that doesn't mean I…" He paused and made a face somewhere between wary and disgusted. "That doesn't mean I want to actually interact with Joe Schmo. You know what I mean? This place is dirty, and crowded and… dirty. Only a slight level up from public transportation and like hell am I ever going to step foot into that again."
Steve could be angry at what Tony was saying, should be, but there was something in his tone that made him hold his ire back. "What are you getting at?"
"Don't ever make me come here again. I have a perfectly useable private jet with its own private entrance I can send for you to avoid this place, hell I'll pick you up with Iron Man if it means we don't have to do this again anytime soon. And by that I mean, ever." He patted Steve stiffly before dropping his arms.
Tony's words were harsh, but there was a hint of a breadth of subtext there that Steve caught on to pretty quickly. Combined with the crease of concern in Tony's brow, it all made Steve's insides twist up in a way he couldn't quite describe.
"I'll do my best, Tony." Steve nodded, trying to thank him with the silent gesture, between his own words. He wasn't ready to talk about any of this, and highly doubted Tony would even want to hear it. But he seemed to understand, and take the burden of admitting his issues off of Steve's shoulders. He was beyond grateful.
Tony smiled, eyes wide and full of wonder and Steve's world got a little brighter.
"So where are we headed?"
"Honestly? Anywhere but SHIELD."
His smile turned to a laugh as he pulled open the driver's side door. "You have no idea how happy I am you said that."