From here to infinity
The first few times Steve doesn't pay attention to the man.
But the man is almost always there, every morning and every evening, and when he disappears for one day Steve finds himself noticing it with a hint of irrational worry. It's just a homeless guy – a random person, he knows – but he still feels relieved the next day when he sees the man again.
This time he actually comes up to the homeless man to drop some change into the box and read the sign. It says Will invent for food in neat sharp-edged letters, which makes Steve frown. He's seen many homeless people around but this has to be a first.
The man doesn't look up, he seems to be sleeping. But when Steve bows down to make sure the coins land in the box, the man mumbles a thank you. Steve smiles quickly, shrugging, and straightens his back in an army-drilled way before he walks away.
Everyone tells him that he's too curious for his own good and they are mostly right. Rather than verbalize his doubts, he just tends to be shy about his questions and spend coffee-fueled nights researching on his laptop or in one of the libraries open till late.
He starts to pay attention to the man every time he passes the spot, throwing a few coins into the box as he walks. The man seems pretty short – it's difficult to say as he's wrapped in blankets all the time – and very thin, with ragged brown hair and a clean-shaven face. This gets Steve's attention: he has no idea how the man keeps his face neat like that, but he's not about to ask. There aren't many bags hidden anywhere: just one dirty suitcase and a worn-out leather pouch that is never out of the man's reach.
It takes Steve several days to see the man with his eyes open.
They are brown and bright and have a magical quality to them. A soft feel that says exactly how tiresome the story is, that makes Steve want to grab his pens and sketch them to keep them alive on paper.
'Hey,' he says, pretending to look for coins in his wallet while he's holding them with two fingers, pressed into his palm. He tries to persuade himself that he's not being pathetic about this but fails because he's really not good at human relations.
'Hey,' the man replies, his voice raspy. He looks down at his lap. Steve follows and notices that there's a sketchbook with complicated-looking technical designs in it. The man's hand scribbles quick flat letters in the small patch of empty space.
So maybe the sign isn't a complete lie.
Steve wants to say something but he already knows that he won't. There are too many thoughts in his head at once and he's overthinking things again, so he just drops the money and retreats, hearing a quiet thank you before he disappears.
Curiosity is stronger than common sense, or even the awkwardness settling in Steve's gut, so after a few days of avoiding a certain way back home, he decides to stop being silly. He comes up to the man in quick steps and puts the change into the box, silently praying for the man to not notice him, but he's just not that lucky.
'Been out of town?' the man asks, looking up at Steve with an intensity that makes Steve shiver.
'Yeah,' he lies, 'for couple days.'
'Cool,' the man mutters, adjusting the blanket wrapped around his shoulders and looking back at his notebook, writing something fervently on a single sheet of paper stuck at the end, which looks as if it was ripped out from somewhere. 'Thanks,' he adds; Steve can barely hear him.
He ends up spending the night listening to old jazz and trying to get the eyes right but something is missing. The man in his drawings is simple and boring and feels just flat, compared to the real one.
He puts the sketchbook away carefully – it was expensive – and as he turns off the lights, an idea pops into his head.
'Here you go,' Steve says after half an hour of pacing behind the block and trying to persuade himself that this is a good decision. He doesn't put change into the almost empty box today, just offers the man a thick plastic-bound notebook with a paper cup of hot chocolate on the top of it.
As he keeps his hand stretched, waiting for the man to make a movement, he can feel the warm spring sunrays on the exposed part of his arm.
It's strange, thinking that the whole winter has already passed.
'This…?' the man trails off questioningly and Steve offers him a small smile.
'I noticed – I thought you were running out of space,' he explains, eying the old notebook tucked safely between blankets near the man's hip.
The man takes the gifts unsurely, puts the cup onto his suitcase at if it was a table and opens the notebook, flipping through the smooth white pages, running his fingers across them with absolute wonder on his face. Steve waits, still crouched, taking up too much of the pavement space and finding himself not caring about it at all.
'Thank you,' the man says, his voice deep and rough, and it sounds as if he really means it this time, really means it instead of being just tiredly thankful the way he usually appears to be. 'This is just what I needed.'
Steve looks away and tells him to drink the chocolate while it's still hot because the man seems as if he forgot about it. Then he leaves.
There is a mission and he doesn't come back for three weeks. The first thing he does when he's dropped the bags at his place is go and see the mystery man. He tells himself it's just because it's on his way to work and he prefers to walk rather than take a bus, even in the light April drizzle.
'Haven't seen you for a while,' the man comments as soon as Steve approaches him and then takes a few quick, shallow breaths.
'You all right?'
'Peachy,' the man says, quirking the corners of his lips upwards, in a phantom smile. Steve doesn't believe him at all but then it's not his thing to intervene so he lets it be. 'Thanks for the notebook,' he adds, lifting it up and Steve can see that it's all covered in scribbles now. All one hundred and twenty pages of tiny handwriting and he's been gone just for twenty days.
'You finished?' he asks curiously, just to confirm. The man nods.
'Had too many things in my head and nowhere to put them down, so I did just now.'
'Is it all,' Steve asks, frowning slightly, 'that you have in your head?'
'Nowhere near,' the man replies and closes his eyes, taking regular slow breaths again.
Steve comes back the next day but the man is not there.
He is worried. There are million things that could have happened and not all of them bad but knowing New York, it could be dangerous. But the man, he didn't seem like a reckless guy. He seemed… troubled, more than anything.
In the morning Steve goes to HQ his usual way and the man is still not there. But when he's going back, he sees the familiar sign and checked blanket he knows so well, so he exhales in relief and makes his way across the street, almost running in front of a car.
The man is sleeping, this time for sure, he's curled up on his side and snoring slightly. Steve makes effort to be as quiet as possible when he places another notebook on the suitcase and leaves, tiptoeing, even if it doesn't make sense as there's a lot of city noise all around.
It's signed on the first page, with Steve's phone number and ten dollar bill stuck behind the black cover, and a note saying just in case.
'I'm Tony,' the man says the next time he sees Steve. He's looking tired, more tired than usual, with dark bruises under his eyes and two day stubble. It makes him look older, even though it's hard to tell his age.
'I'm – well, you know,' Steve says awkwardly, wondering silently why he is doing this when he's obviously very bad at making contact. 'Steve.'
'Nice to meet ya.'
'Um, the same,' he replies, then clears his throat. 'The other day, the notebook? I take it was here when you woke up, no one stole it or did anything funny?'
Tony murmurs something Steve can't understand and then takes it from under his covers.
'Real nice. Useful, notebook boy.'
'What do you write down there?'
'My projects. You know, inventions,' he says, waving at the sign at his feet. 'Got hundreds of them in my head. Curing cancer, clean energy, kitten saving devices,' he stops to take another of those scarily shallow breaths and Steve freezes for a moment, but then he finishes, 'take your pick. It's all there'.
'You're joking,' Steve says casually, rolling his eyes at the way the man speaks – as if it was all a joke, it feels – and Tony's face brightens with a heavy smile.
'Not entirely – are you one of those church people?' he asks, changing the subject in the split of a second.
'No, does it matter?'
'Nah, I'd like you even if you were a Satanist–'
'Don't say that!' Steve protests. Damn it, that's not something to joke about, really. But then he takes a moment to consider Tony's position and agrees, 'Well, fair enough .Why exactly?'
'You bring me these,' Tony says, pointing at the notebooks. 'That's all I need.'
'All right,' Steve agrees, even though he doesn't understand that completely and Tony seems to know that he doesn't but neither of them makes a comment about it. 'Okay– I need to get going,' he adds, glancing at his watch. He's already late for his meeting but no one will mention it because he's Captain America. 'See you, Tony.'
Tony doesn't reply, instead he follows Steve with his dark eyes until Steve disappears around the block.
'I know you get enough change from people to buy yourself food and you never seem to eat or ask for money for food. So the sign…?'
'I never spend the money people give me on food,' Tony admits, licking the salty grease off his fingers. Steve bought him a McDonalds meal, it was the closest place, so Tony can eat something warm on this gloomy day. 'People buy me food sometimes. When they don't trust I'd spend the money on anything other than booze or drugs. That's why the sign says that, money is – it's not a priority.'
'All right,' Steve says slowly, trying to make sense out of it, but he can't quite. 'So, the money, what do you do with it?'
'Go somewhere I can shower,' Tony says with a shrug, the blanket around his arms moving sharply, 'go to a library, or internet point.'
'I talk to someone.'
That makes Steve sigh and wonder what twenty first century romantic story-book he's suddenly jumped into, but then Tony continues, 'My science buddy. He's in India. It's the only way we can communicate.'
'Does he know that you are…?' Steve trails off, feeling his ears get red as he realizes that this was a tactless question. Tony doesn't seem to mind though, his face full of food as he chews for a long time.
'No, not really. Not exactly,' he says when he finally swallows the bite.
'Is he an inventor, like you?' Steve asks, making sure the words sound genuine and not in any way mocking: He knows they could but he doesn't intend them to, it's just difficult to make others understand what he means sometimes.
'He's a doctor.'
Steve is already nodding when Tony adds, 'Physics kind of doctor. But he also treats sick people for free.'
'He must be a smart man,' Steve says and instantly wishes he didn't because that sounds wrong even to his own ears.
Tony laughs, though, and doesn't seem offended at all; after a second the laughter turns into a cough that is deep and obviously painful to Tony and Steve has no idea what's happening and what he could do to help; Tony just ignores him, closing his eyes and it seems like he's trying to just stop and calm his body down and breathe.
Steve wishes that doctor lad was around. Really, really wishes.
'Good one,' Tony says finally, his voice weak and quite breathless. When he looks up at Steve and their eyes meet, Tony looks away instantly, going back to his food, head down.
Then Steve's phone vibrates and the text says simply ASSEMBLE and Steve stands up quickly, everything suddenly forgotten, but he does wave at Tony before he runs off.
He doesn't get back for over two weeks and when he does he ignores Clint and Natasha and everyone else, ignores their curious and silly comments and doesn't grace them with a reply, just tells them he wants to go back to his place asap.
Only because he passes Tony on his way back.
Tony is sleeping. Steve debates leaving the food and letting him sleep but it will get cold and that's not very nice. He puts the box in Tony's lap and then shakes his arm gently.
'All right, I'll go 'way,' Tony mutters sleepily, sitting up a bit more straight, opening his eyes and blinking a few times at Steve's face in front of him. 'Thought you were a cop.'
'I just brought food,' Steve says looking at the box; Tony does the same and smiles.
'Of course –'
'Nah, people think it's May and sunny, so I don't need warm food – don't take me wrong, I'm very grateful but it's still nice to have something more real meal-like.'
Steve shrugs, so glad that he didn't just go away.
'So, what are you working on now?' he asks because the silence feels a little bit awkward. It probably isn't more awkward than the situation itself but it feels right to express genuine interest.
'Flying,' Tony mumbles between bites. 'Just perfecting a few things. Flying sounds like something I'd want to do.'
'Agreed,' Steve nods; he's seen S.H.I.E.L.D. scientist working on that for a long time and yet they haven't come up with a simple and doable solution yet. Steve doesn't know much about engineering or anything but he's too curious to pass on this one. 'Can I see?'
Tony blinks, looking shocked.
'You actually – you believe me?'
'I guess,' Steve agrees, suddenly wondering if this is a new level of naivety; Natasha always calls him out on that. 'Is this why you don't make money on your things, people not believing you?'
'Everyone just thinks I'm insane because the things I come up don't seem too real. They are – their minds are in the present,' Tony says, picking out one of the notebooks; they all look the same, the five Steve bought him so far, but Tony seems to know without hesitation which is which. 'I'm far in the future.'
Steve has no idea if what Tony talks to him about for the next half an hour could ever be real but he's mesmerized by the change in the man's behavior.] His eyes are sparkling with excitement instead of their usual tired dullness, he's gesticulating more and talking until he can't breathe, literally, freaking Steve out, but Tony himself just ignores those moments and doesn't offer an explanation so Steve doesn't ask.
In late May there are aliens and incredible mysteries that Steve doesn't understand at all but no one else seems to get them much either so he's not alone in that.
They fight and get hurt and Steve tries not to think about all the people out there that they couldn't save, of all the threats that Director Fury somehow manages to blow off, but everyone knows it won't be enough soon.
No one says that aloud, though, letting the media and the public make up more urban legends; superheroes aren't supposed to exist. They work as quietly as possible – if one can call portals and alien monsters quiet – letting the stories spiral and get more and more unreal. It helps with keeping S.H.I.E.L.D. and its work secret.
Steve still isn't sure how he feels about being a part of the madness; you can't call it any different after you've seen the agency and the Avengers teamwork from the inside.
So, stereotypes really aren't Steve's thing but when he sees S.H.I.E.L.D. R&D, it's hard not to think of them as of mad scientists. They seem to be able to come up with the craziest things on a whim, an endless supply of tech that keeps everyone on their toes – like the sheer variety of Clint's arrows or the almost magical blue guns that Phil loves to use – but when Thor comes by and says in hasty words that he's just learned that his mad brother might attack the earth or ask his buddies to do it from space, everyone is left speechless.
Even the engineers can't come up with something that would compare to alien technology.
Thor's words loom over everyone at S.H.I.E.L.D., almost making Steve physically sick with the tension and responsibility. It's not like they can share their knowledge with anyone, and when a week later nothing changes, he tells Fury he's taking a break.
He runs too much and eats too much ice cream and tries to shove the most obvious answer out of his head: it would be a serious breach of confidentiality.
Then after a few more headache-inducing days at HQ he doesn't care anymore. So he takes a shower, puts on some clothes fitted for the warm late spring weather, and makes his usual way, trying to think of how to word the problem for Tony. All of the versions he comes up with sound bad, even inside his head, but he doesn't think he has a choice. He texts Phil in the meantime, telling him to get a free pass for a person he'll be with, knowing that Phil will trust him enough to pull the strings and do so.
'I need your help,' Steve tells Tony as soon as he comes up to him, crouching and keeping his voice down. Tony looks tired as he laughs sharply. 'No, really – I just can't tell you what with. But it's important and I don't think I know of anyone else who could be any help.'
'It's – very important. Really, really important and I can't tell you why or what it is because that's classified, please don't make that face, it really is classified – you could do something amazing. Get money. I'll vouch for you.'
'I love how enthusiastic you are,' Tony snickers.
'It's just really important. And time sensitive,' Steve adds, glancing at Tony's stuff. 'You'd just need to walk somewhere with me, it's not far, it's right in the center of Manhattan –'
'I can't,' Tony says simply. Steve pauses.
'Don't be like that, it's your chance, we need you and I trust you, it's – you'll help with something big, we need help right now, remember that designs you told me about –'
'Wow, you're verbose when you're nervous,' Tony comments, tightening the arms wrapped around his chest a bit more, in a gesture that completely tears Steve despite being in the middle of world-saving. 'Sounds nice but I still can't,' he says again.
'Please,' Steve says, wishing he didn't have to beg, wishing Tony would be like a normal person for once, not the hurt passive man Steve's grown so fond of and so worried about; this is the chance, it really is, Steve knows. Tony knows it too.
And yet he doesn't even stand up.
'It's just a fifteen minutes' walk from here,' he adds, trying to be welcoming.
Steve stretches out his arm, palm open, and hopes Tony will take it. Of course the man has learned not to trust strangers, not to trust people in general, and it's a long shot to ask him to come over to some unknown place for a reason Steve isn't really allowed to explain, it does sound fishy, but he's known Steve for some time now.
It takes a moment but Tony finally wraps his bony hand around Steve's and lifts himself up, and a moment later he's standing close, almost too close, still holding onto Steve, looking as if he were dizzy.
'Are you all ri–'
'I can't walk there,' Tony says, his voice quieter and firmer than usual.
'It's fine, I won't let anyone –' Steve tries, but Tony cuts in again.
'No, I didn't say I can't go there, I said I can't walk there.'
That makes Steve blink and stop all his thoughts for a second. Tony definitely isn't paralyzed or something like that, he seems to physically capable, so that doesn't really make sense until he explains it with two words.
'My heart, I've got a heart thing, I just can't walk there. That far. For that long,' he explains, still looking at his feet rather than at Steve.
Steve remembers all the times when he was a boy too sick to get out of the bed, the memories feel painfully real all of sudden. He can feel the longing for the sun and fresh air and the sole possibility of touching the grass, of running across the park.
He looks around again: there's Tony's suitcase and blankets and the signs, that's all. Very few possession for a homeless person but it makes more sense now: it probably is difficult to drag everything around and whatever is in the suitcase, Tony doesn't seem keen on leaving it alone for a single second.
'No one else seems to be able to help me save the damn world,' Steve says, twisting his hand a bit so that he can squeezes Tony's reassuringly, vaguely surprised by the fact that Tony didn't pull away yet. 'You're the only person I know who I trust to. I don't care if I need to carry you,' he adds in his commanding voice, and then steps onto the street and waves at the next taxi that comes by a few moments later.
'Okay?' he asks. Tony nods unsurely, but it's definitely a yes.
The driver seems reluctant about letting Tony in – he might be a bit less ragged than most homeless people but you can still tell he's one of them – but Steve puts a fifty dollar bill into the man's hand and tells him the address which is really close by, especially by a car.
'Just please take us there,' he adds politely, trying to be as charming as Captain America can be.
It's a five minute, completely silent drive.
'I still have no idea what I'm doing,' Tony mutters when they get out of the car in front of a normal-looking Manhattan building. Steve grabs the suitcase and the rest of Tony's things in one hand and takes Tony's hand to lead him into the building with his free one.
They enter the lobby and Steve directs Tony to the corridor on their left. They walk slowly and cautiously, and yet somehow naturally, Steve listening to Tony's breaths as he presses his fingers into the reading pads embedded into the handle. The door buzzes and they enter the long hall; Steve knows S.H.I.E.L.D. system will check their biosignatures as they walk down to the other door at the end.
It opens when they are a few steps away, making Tony flinch in surprise. Steve tightens his fingers around Tony's palm just a little bit.
'Welcome to S.H.I.E.L.D.' Steve says, trying to keep the sheepish smile out of his face–he knows how cheesy that sounds.
'So it is real,' Tony mutters, wonder in his voice, as he looks around at the vast multilevel space that's open in front of them, with voices in several languages echoing around and endless data streams on all the screens, glass and metal under their feet.
'As real as we are.'
Tony smiles and then adds, seriously, 'So you weren't joking when you said it's about world saving?'
'No, I wasn't.'
'Okay,' Tony breathes, closing his eyes, and a cold chill runs down Steve's spine as he sees the now-familiar strain on Tony's face, the now-understood desperation for a damn bit of air that Steve knows so well. 'I might –'
'Sit down,' Steve says quickly, helping Tony to one of the chairs that some blessed person put in a neat row just next to the entrance. 'Do you need anything – medicine? Water? Anything?'
Tony shakes his head for no, pressing a hand to his chest where his heart is, as if it was supposed to help; Steve doesn't think it will, but he gets the need to just do something. Then he hears footsteps, a familiar set, and a moment later he can see Deputy Director Hill, Agent Sitwell, and Phil.
'Is this –' Maria starts, eyebrow raised, Steve thankful that Tony can't see the skeptic look on her face as he doesn't let her finish.
'We'll need a glass of water and a wheelchair, ASAP, please, and then we can proceed. Director,' he adds, only because Maria loves to be called that.
Sitwell is the only one who stays, leaning against the wall, playing with his phone as always, and looking at Tony sitting there with Steve crouching in front of him. Steve can imagine how Tony must look to them, even if he isn't looking very messy – he's just so tired, Steve can tell, his clothes are in terrible state and his nails dirty.
'Can we take your things to a secure place or do you need them?' Steve asks, keeping his voice friendly. He's feeling very protective of Tony tonight, it seems.
Sitwell smirks a little as he notices that.
'I,' Tony starts and then glances at the suitcase. Steve gets it: he wants to say he doesn't need it but it's literally all his has. It's his whole life.
'We'll lose the blankets though,' he says and Tony looks up at him, offers him a small smile and goes back to what Steve calls in his head breathing mode. Heart not working properly means not enough oxygen in blood, Steve knows. Each breath is a treasure.
Sitwell is already tapping something on his phone.
There's a moment of hum-filled silence, Steve can feel it making the metal construction of the building vibrate under his feet – thanks to his super-senses – and everyone comes at the same time: Maria with Phil behind her, pushing a wheelchair, and two junior agents. One hands Tony a glass of water, curiosity not too well contained on his face, and the other puts all of Tony's belongings into a big transparent bag covered with barcodes.
'Bureaucracy,' Steve explains, noticing Tony's unsure face. 'They'll make sure it's tracked and doesn't get lost anywhere or the items don't get separated.'
'Good,' Tony nods sharply. 'I still don't know what I'm doing,' he adds, looking up for the first time for real, meeting everyone's eyes. 'This adorable idiot dragged me here saying it's top secret but I could save the world or something.'
'If you can do what he claims you can do, that might be the case,' Maria says tightly, checking her watch again. 'I have a meeting in ten. I trust you to take care of this. Agent Coulson.'
'Of course,' Phil nods just slightly and gives Maria the last glance as she turns around and goes away. Sitwell makes a shooing motion at the two juniors, still standing in the hallway, and as they scramble to get out of sight he takes a chocolate candy out of his pocket and puts it into his mouth slowly.
'Tony, do you need anything else before we go to the R&D – Tony?'
'No,' Tony says tightly, clearly in pain, rubbing his hand over his chest again, but looking as if he didn't have any strength left to do that. Phil observes it all with narrowed eyes.
'We'll go to medical first –'
'No,' Tony interrupts Phil, this time his words firm and decisive. 'No. I'm fine. It's not like you can do anything.'
Steve doesn't feel persuaded by those words at all but there's something in the way Tony's suddenly all tense and sharp at the edges that tells Steve to let it go and do as Tony wants; he'll have time for questions later. And Tony would definitely walk out if they tried to force him to do something he doesn't want to do, Steve knows that much.
'We'll need your full name and all that to do a background check before we give you a high enough clearance level,' Sitwell informs no one in particular in a happy voice, still tapping at his phone. 'I'm listening.'
'To– Anthony Edward Stark,' Tony says.
'This will take a few moments, running through all databases.'
'You want to make sure I'm not a terrorist?' Tony's lips quirk; Steve agrees with that, it would be ridiculous. He just can't imagine Tony being a bad guy.
'There you go,' Phil says, coming closer and placing an energy bar on the chair next to Tony, sitting in next free one. 'You look familiar, somehow, but I can't place it –'
'I think my dad was supposed to work for you,' Tony mutters, 'He was an engineer, too. But I thought that was only stories,' he stops to take a few shallow breaths, ignoring Steve's hard look. 'Stories my mother told me to make my father something more than a genius alcoholic. I never thought,' he stops again, this time closing his eyes and taking a moment longer, 'That it could be real. Superheroes and a secret agency that defends the world.'
'We are very very real,' Phil says, his face kindly blank, as always. 'I think I remember your father's name on the sheet of contributors to a few projects. Old ones though –'
'He had me when he was old. Possible.'
'You used to work for S&S Industries, later Stane Industries,' Sitwell says with wonder in his voice. 'You seemed to have disappeared from the face of earth after a – skirmish, with the other man, is that right?'
'He claimed I was insane –'
'I can see. Access to all your medical history and background check,' Sitwell remind him, walking over to Phil and showing him something on the phone.
'You all right?' Steve asks, voice hushed, not knowing what answer to expect. Tony seems distressed, somehow, but too tired to care.
Maybe it's just too much at once.
'Like always,' he replies, shrugging slightly.
'All right,' Phil says, standing up, 'I think we can go to meet Director Fury now. Since you will be informed of Level Eight matters, it's imperative that you understand the gravity of the matters we'll be discussing.'
'And what happens when I'm bad?'
'You don't want to know,' Sitwell chips in cheerfully, still chewing on his candy.
Tony just laughs.
'This is the list of things we need but no one seems able to construct them for us,' Fury says five minutes later, shoving a print-out across the table. Tony takes it and reads it with a frown between his brows that smooths out as he goes on. Then he takes out a pencil from one of his too-many-times-repaired pockets and starts ticking things on the list.
'What is this?' Fury ask after he's handed back the paper.
'Things I've already done,' Tony replies with a smile. A radiant one, not a fake one.
'Flying cars? Coulson, if that's a joke –'
'I put it there, yes,' Phil says with an innocent smile, 'to see if what Steve's been saying was true. Besides, it would be nice, wouldn't it?'
'Futuristic,' Tony mutters under his breath, clearly not to happy that Phil would play with him like that. 'And before you say I'm insane let me –'
'I trust you,' Steve says firmly at the same time as Phil says, 'No one doubts you.'
'How so?' Tony raises an eyebrow, looking up at Phil questioningly.
'We have your medical history,' Sitwell explains, still smiling drily, eyes on the little screen, starting to get on Steve's nerves. 'We know about what you have in your chest.'
Tony immediately pales and hunches his shoulder protectively, making Steve feel too much like punching Sitwell for being damn insensitive, especially since he seems to be the only person in the room who doesn't know what the thing in Tony's chest is. He doesn't feel like asking though, it seems to be some kind of a trigger, so he just stares at Sitwell with his disappointed Captain America look until the man looks away sheepishly.
'I can show you how to do this one,' Tony says, leaning over the table and pointing at one item on the list with the tip of his pencil. 'Give me the materials, tools, and a day.'
Fury and Phil exchange a long look while Steve stays behind Tony, keeping his hands places firmly on the back of the chair, and waits for them to say yes.
'But first you get a shower, a change of clothes and a proper meal. I won't have you wander around the HQ looking like a tramp.'
'I am a tramp,' Tony says happily, scribbling the list of things he needs on the back of Fury's paper already, without a second of hesitation. 'And it's not like I'd be wandering anywhere,' he mutters quietly, presumably to himself, but Steve can hear it anyway, and it makes him feel so hollow inside.
Tony looks so different with freshly washed, still wet hair, wearing a pair of standard S.H.I.E.L.D. issue black pants with a matching shirt. He seems younger, somehow, and smaller as he sits, without any protest, in the wheelchair that Steve pushes for him.
He seems somehow dangerous, too, like a wild animal in a cage.
Steve follows Phil to R&D floor three where a free workshop is waiting for Tony with all the things he said he needs for a reflection panel – that's the thing he said he'll do and Steve can't wait to see it for real – with Natasha sitting in the corner, doing a crossword on her tablet.
'This is Natasha,' Steve introduces the woman. 'Tony,' he adds simply, as he was informed by Tony earlier that he doesn't care about his last name and he's rather not be introducing himself as a Stark.
'I'm not that person,' he just said and Steve nodded. He knows all about not being that person anymore.
'Hey,' Tony gives Natasha a small wave and lifts himself up from the wheelchair. She doesn't move, just observes them coldly.
'She's the precaution Director Fury spoke about,' Steve adds, hoping that Tony won't feel bad having someone hover around him all the time, looking at his hands, but honestly the level of trust S.H.I.E.L.D. has in him is pretty impressive.
Mostly because they're out of time and options, Steve knows, and he'd rather not know how much out of time and options; the thought makes him shiver.
Tony just nods, sitting down in the soft armchair by the working bench, and looks around, assessing everything and mentally cataloguing the items, before turning around and giving Steve a quick smile.
'I'll come as soon as I can,' Steve assures him; there's a junior agents training he's supposed to lead and he's been late too many times already, or cancelled due to world-saving, so he can't afford to miss another one.
When he's back, three hours later, it's nine p.m. and Tony is sitting in the armchair, eyes barely open, hands holding the armrests so tightly his knuckles are all white, and he breathes. Slowly. Breath by breath.
Then, after a second, Steve realizes Natasha is by the workbench, too, attaching some wires with a serious face, and she's humming something – a rhythmic melody.
Tony seems to take breaths to match the rhythm.
'Got tired,' Tony wheezes, 'she's my hands. Nat.'
'Shut up and tell me what now, idiot,' Natasha comments fondly – well fondly for her standards, making Steve wish he was here when this happened. 'He's like a puppy,' she adds, Tony makes a face at that, 'A weak, sick, pathetic puppy.'
'Red now – and I resent that,' Tony adds, but he doesn't seem too honest.
'He said he can do this in a day,' Natasha continues, ignoring him, still attaching the wires, only now she's moved to a different color, 'we can do it in five hours.'
'That's amazing,' Steve manages to say before an alarm sound drowns out his voice.
'For fuck's sake, not again,' Natasha says at him, letting go of the things in her hands, 'I need to go, too. Don't try anything funny,' she tells Tony, wiping the grease of her hands, 'you're on security feed all the time. Red button if you need assistance,' she tosses a S.H.I.E.L.D.-upgraded pager into Tony's lap.
'Sorry,' Steve says before he has to go; Tony's quiet wishes of safety follow him and Natasha out of the room.
Back at the HQ a few hours later, Steve inhales the familiar metallic scent with a pleasure he's never noticed before: it's such a nice change from the scent of blood and death. He wishes very much he didn't know that.
Natasha goes to medical with Clint – he's the most accident-prone superhero ever – so Steve makes his way to check on Tony by himself. A shower and a meal would probably be a better idea first thing in an after-battle morning, but Steve feels bad enough about leaving Tony here, alone.
He finds Tony sitting by the workbench, smiling really widely.
'You okay?' he asks, just to make sure.
'Yeah – you okay?' Tony asks in return, frowning slightly. Steve nods. 'Finished what Fury wanted some time ago,' he shrugs, motioning towards the end of the table. 'Thought I could tinker a bit. Haven't had fancy tools in my hands for too long.'
Steve hums approvingly, remembering the set of tools from Tony's suitcase he's seen once; they were surprisingly good quality but old and so worn out. Everything at S.H.I.E.L.D. is shiny and new and top-notch, like in an engineer's dream.
'So, was it a world-saving emergency?'
'You wouldn't believe how many people think they can be the evil rulers of the world,' Steve sighs, sitting in a chair next to Tony. 'You don't really hear about them in the news, not all of them, but it's crazy how often we deal with that. Or honestly mad scientists. Or –' Steve stops, exhales, and gives Tony and apologetic smile.
'Not yet,' he admits. It's not yet the time to tell Tony everything.
'So, which button do I press to have your Director come over?'
Fury is impressed.
He doesn't look impressed, he never looks anything, but Steve's known the Director for long enough to be able to tell those little things. Fury is impressed and he's observing Tony with much more concern than before, that's also difficult to pick out unless you know what you're looking for. It's the way he keeps glancing at Tony, as if he were checking up on him.
'Could you install the reflection panels all over a big surface?'
'This big,' Fury says, tapping something at the nearest screen and a picture of Helicarrier comes up. They haven't been using the ship much – it's an easy target, too easy – but it would be a tremendous facilitation for everyone.
'Yesss,' Tony all but hisses, curling up his shoulders a bit. He seems so lost when he's like this, Steve notices.
'Can you teach out R&D how to make these?' Fury asks, holding up the mini panel. Well, Steve knows that he's holding it but he can't really see the thing itself as it's very good at pretending it's invisible.
'Sleep first,' Steve cuts in firmly, giving Fury a long glance. 'Rest first. Besides, shouldn't they be able to make it on their own if they have the project you've just whipped up? They should, right?' Tony nods for yes so Steve smiles. 'You'll rest now. You haven't slept all night.'
Tony doesn't protest. Steve can imagine him physically needing the rest – with whichever heart trouble he has, more than anyone – but being too proud to ask for it. Definitely.
He looks tired and in pain and everyone knows he's just a random homeless man, even if a genius, but he's still holding his chin high and Steve loves that.
After he shows Tony the temporary room, having wheeled the man there, the suitcase with them for the whole time, he tells the man to sleep and goes back to Fury. He is a supersoldier: he doesn't need to sleep.
'I don't know where you found him and I don't know how this insanity is possible, but thank you so damn much. Maybe he'll put our R&D back in line.'
'Our R&D is great, sir.'
'But he still seems to be better, even though he's just –'
'Please call him Tony, not he,' Steve cuts in as politely as he can, 'Sir.'
'Tony, then,' Fury rolls his eyes. 'What's wrong with him?'
'Heart problems, he said. But you have his medical history –'
'That give me no information besides an unknown reason for failing heart and inability to get a standard treatment. Pretty sure he's hacked it as there isn't much in the files. He built an experimental device all by himself, they put it into his chest and that's keeping him alive, apparently, when no one predicted more than a month of life for him. It was years ago.'
'Oh,' Steve says breathlessly and nods to himself.
Somehow, even if Tony's just a homeless guy he's passes on the street and Steve doesn't know him well, it feels like something he'd do.
'I want medical to look at him –'
'He'll just run.'
'Well, Captain, then that's a job for you. Goodbye,' Fury adds, turning around and leaving the room with his leather jacket almost sweeping behind him.
'I'm worried about you,' Steve says the next time he sees Tony. It's afternoon and he's brought a bowl of hot soup for Tony to eat, it's a simple tomato, Steve's favorite food from the cafeteria. Tony just glances at the bowl, swallows, and turns back to the workbench he's sitting on, legs crossed, back hunched over whatever he's working on right now.
'If you're gonna be worried now, why did you even take me here?' he asks quietly, voice muffled. 'I don't wanna be trouble.'
'You're anything but,' Steve protests, mentally cursing himself for saying something wrong again. 'It's just – you need to stop and eat. No one is going to kick you out or anything if you take a break.'
'Come down from that table and sit like a proper human and eat,' Steve tries, keeping his voice firm but polite; he doesn't want to sound authoritative, like a commander. Tony isn't one of his soldiers.
'Okay,' Tony mutters, putting down the tools to join the neat row on his left.
'Fury wants medical to check you over. He's worried and I'm only saying this because you wouldn't be able to tell and because I made sure there's no surveillance here now that I've entered the room. He's taken a liking to you. He wants to make sure you won't die on him.'
'I'm a tough bastard,' Tony flashes Steve a grin, but it's a tired grin. Almost a perfect illusion but not quite.
'Your heart –'
'I die when I die,' Tony says between sips of his soup, making the words feel unreal, as if Steve's only imagined them because the setting is not nearly serious enough for discussing the matter. 'You can't do anything.'
'You made something that kept you alive for years –'
'It was just a life-support. Not a remedy.'
'It was experimental, wasn't it?' Steve asks softly, sitting down in front of Tony in slow motion, making sure he won't scare Tony who seems too tense, as if he was going to jump and run any second. The subject is really touchy, that's obvious, and Steve doesn't want to push, but he feels like he should for Tony's own good.
'Can't you make something again?'
Tony's head snaps up, his eyes distant. He smiles, though it's more of a grimace than a smile, and takes a moment to reply, 'Nah. No. Can't.'
Then he goes back to his soup and Steve lets him.
'I need to get out of this place,' Tony says three days later.
Staying here so far has done some good to him, he looks a bit less tired, put together, calmer. He's still wearing S.H.I.E.L.D.-issued clothes, obviously not caring about something more fancy. He lets Steve wheel him around which doesn't cease to surprise Steve, it doesn't fit with the rest of the person Steve's got to know so far.
Tony probably knows there's no other way and he's not a kid to protest.
'Why? Do you need anything? I could get you –'
'I need to go somewhere.'
'All right,' Steve agrees with a frown; it's not like Tony is a prisoner. Steve would never agree to that. 'Where exactly?'
'Library,' Tony mumbles, a wire between his teeth, making the word almost a riddle to Steve.
'Okay,' Steve says slowly, wondering what the library could have that S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn't. He'd understand a different request, even something as simple as I want to go and enjoy June sunlight because that's what Steve feels like himself, but a library? For Tony, who can barely walk half a mile, that's just strange.
'Need non-surveilled internet access,' Tony adds.
Oh. Now that makes sense. The friend from India.
Steve doesn't say that aloud though, instead, he takes his phone out of his pocket and puts it on the table in front of Tony.
'I'm sure you can ensure no one can track you. Do whatever you want with my phone, whatever you need.'
'Should you – won't you get in trouble for that?'
'You're my guest, in a way,' Steve smiles, pushing the phone to slide it across the tabletop. 'Besides, whatever the urban legends might say about Captain America, lots of the good things I did were against orders and I don't regret any of them. Go on.'
'Thank you,' Tony breathes out, obviously relieved, and lets a small smile crawl onto his face. A real smile for once, a bright real smile that makes him look nothing like the man Steve met in the streets a few months ago. 'Thank you.'
Steve leaves for a mission but he's not worried since Natasha is staying in HQ and she's taken liking to Tony in the same way you might take liking to a stray pet. She looks like she wants to pat his head all the time, being seriously concerned and pretending not to be at the same time.
Tony can see through all this, Steve has noticed, but he doesn't mention it. They both seem to be enjoying the game so Steve lets them play.
When he comes back a week later, Tony is in the workshop, hunched over his workbench as always, but this time surrounded with people. Steve recognizes a few faces from R&D but Phil is also there, and Nat and Clint. Even Sitwell came and appears more interested than his usual elegantly bored act.
'Am I interrupting something?' Steve asks even though he obviously is; he hates the sudden attention on him but that's worth the smile that Tony gives him across the room.
'Told you I could make things fly,' he says, the words pretty quiet but Steve can make them out anyway. 'Give me just a moment,' he adds, turning back to the disk thing in his hand.
'I'm going to kill you,' Steve mutters to Natasha who suddenly is on his right; he doesn't even flinch at her sudden appearances these days. You get used to that.
'Welcome to try,' she hisses, voice mirthful, making Steve roll his eyes.
'He looks like death warmed over,' Steve whispers back, trying not to engage anyone else in the conversation. Natasha sighs deeply.
'I tried to make him rest. He kept coming back here to work, I know he really needs rest with whatever's going on with him, but he kept coming back whenever I made him go. On foot. I found him slumped on the floor, barely breathing, heart racing, just a few feet from here, yesterday night. He said he couldn't wait so I just let him do whatever he wants because he's too damn stubborn to be reasoned with.'
'Well,' Steve pauses at the sudden outburst of whispers around them, everyone's attention focusing on Tony, so Steve turns his head too.
There's a moment of silence, complete silence, then the softest buzz starts, a wave of cheers and hand-clapping following, and then Steve sees it. It's a tiny car, just a toy, a red sports car that Steve can't name but he's pretty sure he's seen one before, and it's hovering almost soundlessly in the air, soft blue glow coming from underneath.
Tony moves his hand across the tablet he's holding absentmindedly, without looking down, and the car flies towards Phil. There's a note inside, Steve notices, and Phil sees it a moment later and takes it out. Steve can tell he's trying to be contained and cool like always – especially in front of all these agents – but it's easy to tell his excitement to Steve who knows him well.
'Give me a real one and I'll make it fly,' Phil reads out, then all heads turn back at Tony.
'What the fuck were you doing in the streets?' one of the engineers asks with clear wonder in his voice. Tony smiles a bit shyly and shrugs, looking back at the mess on his workbench. The car seems to move around in the air pointlessly, only so that everyone could see it from up close.
'Life happens,' he says, shrugging again, and puts a few things into a bag hanging from the back of his chair. The he stands up, ignoring everyone – most eyes are still trained on the red toy – and promptly sways, as if dizzy; he doesn't fall to the ground, though. Natasha is just behind him to hold him steady.
She whispers something into his ear as she helps him walk, staring down everyone who's staring at her and Tony, and leads him straight to Steve.
'Sorry,' Tony mutters weakly, eyes closed tightly. 'Wheelchair…?'
'I don't believe you dragged it up here with you, mister,' Steve says as lightly as he can manage given the fact that Tony asking for wheelchair makes him want to scream at someone. And Tony is still, still, refusing to let anyone help him anyway. 'Your own fault,' he adds. Tony's heartbeat is too fast to be okay and he looks slightly disoriented so Steve simply takes the smaller man in his arms in one smooth movement and makes his way out of the room unceremoniously, Natasha a few dignified steps behind him.
'He's brilliant,' Steve hears before they pass through the door, and also what's wrong with him and have you seen that body armor alloy, and he smiles.
He isn't sure it's the right moment but he's proud so he smiles.
Tony seems to feel the change of mood, opens his eyes and then smiles back, weakly, but he does.
'I'm just glad I stopped and read your sign,' Steve mutters half across the long hall.
Tony just nods.
Steve is annoyed with the constant refusal of help from Tony but he's also sensitive enough not to push. He managed to make Tony lay down on a sofa in what they call Avengers common room on the top floor of the HQ, with a beautiful view of the city line stretching behind the big windows. Tony seems to like the space, Steve notes gladly, as it's one of his favorite places to spend time, calm and bright and spacious.
'So, the superhero deal,' Tony says after a long silence, his voice echoing softly, 'I take it you're gonna use my things to save the world and things, but I wouldn't mind a word about how all that works, I mean, we're preparing for something big I understand? Right? What for though? Fury said it's Thor who told you something's coming up and you don't know when but seriously, Thor?'
'Stop and take a breath,' Steve comments amusedly, not looking away from his book.
'I mean Thor, I'm a scientist, I can't believe in Thor and all that –'
'You're right,' Steve agrees, takes a breath and makes a decision. He closes the book and stands up, 'Thor that's ridiculous but – I've been silly, too. Keeping things from you is impossible anyway, so we'd better just do this.'
'Do what?' Tony frowns, looking up at Steve, arms wrapped around his chest tightly, his eyes reluctant.
'Meet Thor. And Clint. I know you hang out with Nat and you've probably met Hawkeye, but Clint is something else.'
'Do I –'
'You stay here,' Steve says and disappears.
It's not hard to find the rest of the team, they are so predictable sometimes. All three of them are in the training room, with a multitude of junior agents watching them from the viewing section.
'My comrades like each other too much to practice real fighting,' Thor comments off-handedly as soon as he sees Steve. He has a rating chart in his hand and a gigantic coffee mug in the other and looks pretty amused with Nat and Clint's shenanigans.
'I heard you,' Clint says between heavy breaths, jumping out of Natasha's reach and doing a somersault in the air, gaining a wave of applause from the audience.
'This is,' Natasha says, throws a knife that Clint narrowly avoids, 'very serious.'
'Indeed, friends,' Thor all but laughs, his voice booming. 'Cookie, Captain?' he adds, pointing at the pastry pyramid on his left. It's the price of watching the spectacle, Steve knows. He didn't oppose much against cookies even if they are an illegal payment method.
Steve observes the fight with an amusement for a minute more and then claps his hands, getting the attention of everyone but the fighting two; he knows they hear him though.
'If you are done,' he says, giving Nat and Clint a hard stare, 'I'd like you to come with me, please.'
They know Steve well enough to stop, take their things and leave, ignoring the unhappy juniors' mutters.
'I wanted you all to meet Tony –'
'We've all met him,' Natasha rolls her eyes but doesn't stop.
'No, Natasha met him. And he's seen Hawkeye. But he hasn't met the team.'
'Is your friend planning on staying with our agency, Steve?'
'I hope so,' Steve replies truthfully. 'I really hope so.'
Tony is, as Natasha says, a small likable pitiful pet, and as much as he claims to resent the description, he doesn't seem to mind it that much. His eyes are warm every time Natasha says something like that.
'Steve totally loves you, man,' Clint says as soon as they enter the room. Steve would comment on that but he can hear the familiar shallow breaths that give him goose bumps every time, so he just gestures at his teammates to stay behind and gives Tony a moment to pull himself together.
'Guys, Tony –'
'Hey,' Tony cuts in, waving a hand at them from the armchair he's sitting in now, facing the window.
Natasha huffs and removes herself to the kitchen to make them all some tea, claiming that no one else can do it properly.
Thor takes a liking to him straight away and Steve can tell he'll end up coddling Tony and pretending to be oblivious about Midgardian customs but in truth he'll do that because he can see – can feel – how sick Tony is.
Clint frowns, waves back, and sits in the other armchair.
'You can't be a Norse god,' Tony protests several times, only gaining a wider smile each time. Then he gives up on denying when Thor, to everyone's amusement, calls a storm as subtly as possible. Just a little storm so that New Yorkers won't be too surprised.
After they've drank the tea and talked for a bit – Tony becoming more and more comfortable with each minute, seeing that they accept him completely – Thor stands up and says it is late and he would like to rest now.
'Yeah, right, you never know when your next super-secret op will be,' Clint says wisely, nodding to himself, making Tony grin. 'Better catch every bit of sleep you can,' he says as he's walking out of the room with Natasha right behind him.
'Shall I take you to your room?'
'Yes please,' Tony says, closing his eyes as he sits in the wheelchair, his hands trembling slightly. He keeps silent so Steve does, too, and when they get to the room, he notices that Tony simply fell asleep. He scoops the small man out as delicately as he can, puts him in the bed and covers him with blankets.
Walking out, he puts a do not disturb sign in the door and prays people will respect it for once.
The simple routine continues for a few more days during which the Avengers train, Tony works on more of his projects for S.H.I.E.L.D., Steve argues with Fury, and a few agents die during a tough mission went south in Africa, putting the whole agency into a mourning mood.
It's late June when Steve knocks on Tony's doors and enters when Tony tells him to, and stops in the doorway, unsure of what's happening.
'Meet DUM-E – I just call him Dummy. He likes it. Endearment. Dummy – say hello,' Tony adds and the… thing, the metallic thing, turns towards Steve and all but waves.
'You asked me what I had in my suitcase and I never answered. I had this little bud there, in pieces. I couldn't – I had to keep him. Made him ages ago, it took me this long to put him together now, I couldn't – I'm not strong enough to work as much as I'd like to, especially with all the projects–'
'I can cancel all that if you need rest, you've done so much already,' Steve cuts in, not taking his eyes away from the robot.
'Nah, don't, it's fine, he's ready now –'
The rest of the sentence is cut off by a blaring alarm. Steve sighs deeply, turns around and opens the door, saying, 'Sorry, Tony, I'll come back as soon as I can – and it's amazing.'
'He is amazing,' he hears Tony's words through the almost closed doors.
'It will happen tomorrow at morn,' Thor say as they are coming back to New York, bruised and battered but happy with the definite win.
'It will, friends.'
'How do you know?' Natasha asks, narrowing her eyes dangerously and then glancing at Clint who is the most messy one, as always.
'I just know, friends –'
'We need to let everyone know immediately, then,' Steve declares in his most commanding voice. 'I'll help Natasha pilot the jet, Clint, you talk to Phil.'
Clint nods, the happy mood suddenly forgotten, and goes to the back of the plane.
A/N: Thank you for reading & I hope you liked the story! Happy New Year, thank you all so much for the support you gave me in 2013, for making me happy with your lovely words. I hope the new year will be ever better :)