Tony’s first, incongruous thought was that his ass was cold. It was a strange feeling, one that didn’t fit with the warmth of his body on the other side, the steadiness of the support around him—and then he opened his eyes a little more, and he remembered where he was, and realized he must have fallen asleep, somehow, unlikely as it had seemed. He still felt hot and feverish, his skin pulled too tight all over and painful to the touch, and he could feel the chills that were going through him. His skin still felt damp, and his hair was only just starting to dry from its soaking earlier, so he couldn’t have been asleep long.
His head was pillowed on Steve’s shoulder. He could feel his breathing, the steady beats of his heart, under it, where his cheek pressed against Steve’s chest. Steve’s hand was in his hair, still, holding his head up. Tony swallowed, but Steve had been the one to say that he hoped Tony could sleep; he wouldn’t have minded him dropping off like he had. It must have been hours that they’d been here, and for most of them Tony had been useless, uselessly awake, eyes shut tight and jaw clenched against the shakes and shivers and pain, Steve just holding him through it all so Tony was managing to make him useless, too. He was still holding him, his other hand on his knees, Tony’s body cradled between Steve’s legs, his calf and knee holding him up on the one side, Steve’s leg stretched out beneath his bent knees on the other. Tony was still, humiliatingly enough, naked. Stark naked, Tony thought, with a wry sort of loopiness. Pfft. Steve at least had his briefs and socks on still, while the rest of his clothing dried slowly from the downpour that had soaked them, but with Extremis offline and his brain too fuzzy and thick with delirium for him to isolate the problems with it, there wasn’t exactly anything Tony could do about his own nudity; he couldn’t even access the undersuit. Steve’s shirt, the one he’d generously given Tony to cover himself with, was the only blanket they even had. He could feel it now, soft and a little scratchy over his tight skin the way he was clutching it close to his chest. At least it covered his chest and his groin gracefully enough. Of course it did, he thought with a little bit of a smile, Steve was such a giant. Very few people ever made Tony feel small.
“You’re awake,” Steve said, softly, and Tony jolted a bit with the surprise, then swallowed, nodded, and almost groaned at the way it sent agony leaping through his head like it was ringing a bell, the dryness of his throat.
“Y-yeah,” he managed. His voice sounded so scratchy and rough, God. “Guilty.”
“Easy,” Steve said, and his lips brushed, barely noticeable, against Tony’s forehead. He shifted, pulled back a bit and reached behind them, and then moved his arm to settle around Tony’s neck, pillowing his head in the crook of it. A moment later he was holding a metal lip to Tony’s mouth, and he blinked and realized it was a canteen. “Water,” Steve said, unnecessarily, and touched the side of Tony’s cheek with the backs of his fingers on the other hand, brushing softly, gently, almost caressing. Tony felt extra heat, on top of the fever, crawling up over his cheeks, into his forehead and his ears; with the weakness and illness already he had no self-control to fight off the blush at the sweet, soft way Steve was touching him. He opened his mouth, let Steve tip the water slowly between his lips, in careful mouthfuls, slow enough not to be overwhelming. Steve gave him four of them, then asked, “More?”
The water tasted incredible to his dry mouth, cool on his hot lips and down his throat. Tony nodded, and so Steve just kept at it until Tony managed to knock his fist—as lightly as he could, but God, his control was shot to hell on everything—against Steve’s chest, and he must have understood his meaning, because he pulled the canteen away and recapped it.
“You—you’re gonna have enough?” Tony managed to croak out.
“Yeah,” Steve said. “There’s plenty. And if we have to be here for a few days, I’ll refill it from that stream from before.”
Tony made a face. Days. Holy shit, no thank you. His ass was cold enough. He shivered just thinking about it—though Steve’s body was blessedly warm, his chest and thighs wonderfully searing against his skin as Steve pulled him back in against them, slid his arms back around him to their original positions. “This is not,” he managed to get out, “my idea of a romantic vacation. Next time I’m taking you—” he had to grind his teeth, clench his jaw, as a wave of shivers swept over him, “you to a place where they do hot stone massages and you can get sugary fruit drinks with umbrellas in them and—and we can have sex on the beach. The—the real thing, not the booze, I’m off booze, you know that, I swear—”
“I know that, Tony,” Steve said, evenly. He smiled a very little, a little wry and crooked, Tony thought, and pressed a kiss gently into his hair. “And that does sound better. But this wasn’t supposed to be a vacation.”
“I hate it when things go wrong on the extraction,” Tony mumbled. “Everything done but the relaxing after the clean up. But you don’t get to do that because the goddamn dinosaurs and I catch a measly little cold and screw up and strand you here with me like a dumbass because I can’t even get my superhuman new biology to work right, like a fucking moron, I’m a—”
“Sick man who’s too hard on himself?” Steve suggested.
Tony scowled. “I guess that’s one way to look at it,” he said. “But I’m leaning more toward—”
“Shh,” Steve said. “I don’t want to hear it, Avenger.” He moved his knuckles down, gently, to rub against the back of Tony’s neck, ran his hand down over his shoulder, then back up to support his head again.
Tony sighed, but let it go. “I’m still sorry,” he mumbled after a moment, more quietly, into Steve’s shoulder, letting Steve tilt his head forward, cup it there gently and stroke his fingers through the short hair at the nape of his neck.
“I’m not,” Steve said. “I’m right where I’m supposed to be.” He stroked the back of Tony’s neck a little more, put his head down a little, into Tony’s hair, so that his cheek rested on the top of his head.
“You’re supposed to be at home,” Tony said miserably, shivering again. “Enjoying a movie with the team or drawing after your run or—”
“I’m supposed to be right here, with you,” Steve said. “Jeez, Tony.” He brushed another soft, soft kiss against Tony’s temple and murmured, “Get it right, darlin’.” He squeezed the back of his neck gently. “I thought you were a genius.”
“Steve . . . .” Tony said helplessly. Damn it, he knew that endearment had been supposed to disarm him, but his head was too fuzzy and slow for this, and it had worked like a charm.
Steve smiled, he felt it against his forehead, and traced his thumb gently over Tony’s knees.
“But if you’d flown with someone else—” he started.
“First of all, why would I do that?” Steve said, not letting him finish, his voice a little tight. “Second, then you might be alone out here, and I can’t think of anything worse than knowing you were alone and sick and not being here to help.” He took a deep breath, blew it out, and Tony felt it. “Anything. So. Shh. Easy, Tony.”
“Mmm,” Tony said, unsatisfied.
“Mmm,” Steve said. He moved his hand up, pressed the backs of his fingers against Tony’s forehead, the others on the back of his hand against Tony’s neck. He didn’t say anything about his diagnosis, but he didn’t have to. Tony knew perfectly well how bad his fever was, could feel the galloping beat of his own heart. Extremis wasn’t cooperating with him any longer, and he couldn’t quite figure out if that was because he was too feverish to focus, or a problem with the operating system itself, but before he’d lost track of it, it had been telling him his fever was dangerously high.
“Well, I’m sorry I took your shirt,” was all he could think of to say.
Steve shook his head a little, smiled just a bit. “Tony,” he said, and then reached down, tucked it further in around him, smoothing it gently over his skin, his ribs, his hip and thigh. “I gave it to you,” he said, smoothing his thumb gently over the curve of Tony’s hipbone, back and forth, slow and easy. Tony shivered at the touch, but it was so careful it didn’t even hurt against his aching skin. “Not that you don’t look good naked,” Steve added with soft a bit of a smile, curving his other hand around Tony’s neck.
Tony choked on a bit of a laugh. “Is that a come-on, Steven Rogers,” he managed, to get out, looking up at him.
“Not at all,” Steve said. “You need to rest. But it is the truth. You have a beautiful body.” He squeezed the back of Tony’s neck, gently. “How are you feeling?” he asked. Tony opened his mouth, and Steve gave him a stern look. “No funny business,” he told him. “Tell me the truth.”
Tony sighed, caught out. “Like my fever’s through the roof,” he said ruefully. “I don’t know . . . what else is wrong with me. It’s clearly interacted with Extremis . . . .” he sighed, turned his head in toward Steve’s shoulder, forced himself to trail off, even though he wanted to keep talking; the whole thing was frustrating, even more frustrating that he couldn’t figure it out, and it was second nature to let himself ramble his thoughts on it, what he’d managed to scrape together between his fever and all the rest of it. “You probably don’t want to hear the details,” he mumbled. Steve still didn’t . . . like Extremis. Was uncomfortable with it. The shivers shook through him again.
“I don’t know if I’ll be able to follow them,” Steve said. “That’s all. If they have to do with Extremis.” He gently rubbed his thumb against the back of Tony’s neck. So gently. “But why don’t you tell me, anyway? Just in case.” Tony made a noncommittal noise. “You still feeling nauseous?” Steve asked.
Tony made a face, hating the memory of throwing up as soon as Steve had gotten the suit off, then almost landing in it when his arms and legs had given out, collapsing so that Steve had to catch him, figure out a way to carry him and the armor because he couldn’t stand . . . God, he’d been such a pain. “A little,” he said, unwillingly. “It’s because my equilibrium’s all . . . shot to hell. It’s fine if I don’t move much.”
“All right,” Steve said. “Your pulse is fast. Heart’s racing.”
Tony nodded. “Could be the fever,” he said.
“Hmm,” Steve said. “Yeah. Your heart . . .”
“Is fine,” Tony told him, soothing, looking up at him from his position with his head on his shoulder. “Really fine. Extremis fixed it right up. I’m not about to have a heart attack and die on you, Rogers.” He frowned. Steve didn’t like Extremis, but he had to like that part of it, right?
It had been supposed to make Tony stronger—less pathetic. Less prone to this, to weakness, to error. He sighed.
“I’m grateful for that,” Steve said, though, softly, and his voice might have been a little thick, moving his hand down Tony’s chest, stopping with his rough, blunt fingertips just over his heart. He rubbed there, gently, in a little circle. Tony sighed, because that felt good, even with the achy heat and tightness of his skin. “It’s just . . .” Steve said after a moment. “The thought of it. And after you stopped your heart . . . .” He squeezed Tony’s knee with his other hand hand, blew his breath out.
“I know,” Tony said. “Sorry.” He turned his face in toward Steve’s neck, let himself nuzzle in, meaning it to be comforting, laid soft kisses against the curve of Steve’s neck despite the dryness of his lips. “I’m sorry about this,” he said. “I’m going to be all right. I’m pretty tough now, you know.”
“You were always tough,” Steve said with a smile. “Still are. Just a little more . . . resilient, I figure.”
Tony smiled at that. Okay, he’d take that one. “Yeah,” he said. “I’ll bounce back. Just fine. Just you watch.”
“I will,” Steve said. “I’ll keep a good eye on you.” He tugged his shirt up over Tony a little more, laid one hand over his heart.
“That wasn’t exactly what I meant,” Tony murmured against Steve’s shoulder, with a bit of a rueful laugh. Trust Steve to turn it around on him.
“I know,” Steve said, smiling back. “Either way, I’m sure you’ll impress me.”
Tony shivered again, sighed. He knew Steve was just trying to make him feel better, but he didn’t have much energy to resent being coddled. It was hard to forget how weak he felt, his muscles jellied and rubbery, his body tight and hot and painful like his skin was too tight. He was still damp, too, from the rain earlier, and wet with sweat, and the bruises from when they’d fallen still stung, tender and painful. His damp hair clung to his forehead and scalp and he couldn’t seem to stop shivering. Steve’s warmth, and that of the fire on their other side, made him feel less chilled to the bone, but there was no helping how vulnerable he felt nude in Steve’s arms, bare ass on the cold ground. But Steve’s arms around him felt good, and at least he didn’t feel too ridiculous letting Steve hold him up against his shoulder, using him as a pillow. The way Steve was curled in around him they were kind of using each other that way. Symbiotic cuddling. Or something. They were both in this together, at least.
“It could be the flu,” Steve said, after a moment, his fingers rubbing gently at Tony’s skin again.
Tony sighed, frowned. “The flu?” he said. “God, I hope not. Talk about typical.” Steve raised his eyebrows at him, and Tony could practically feel the lecture coming on about how a lot of good people had died from the flu, and he wasn’t going to disrespect that, was he, and hurriedly added, “I’d like to think I wrote the code a little better than that. At least something exotic gunking it up, not a disease that should be in my immune system already. I shouldn’t be able to get sick, anymore, not like a normal person.”
Steve’s lips flattened together, and he sighed, but he didn’t say anything about that. “Well, you’ve got something,” he said.
“Thanks for that,” Tony said, trying not to smirk at him, but his lips quirked anyway. “I did notice. It sucks.”
“If you can’t get sick, normally,” Steve said, “will it wear off, normally? Will you . . .” he swallowed, ducked his chin down, face very sober now, “get better like normal?”
“I guess,” Tony said with a sigh, “we’ll find out, huh?”
Steve winced. “You probably need to—go to medical, or run a diagnostic on yourself, don’t you,” he finally said, low.
“I’m not saying that’d hurt,” Tony agreed, but Steve hated that, the idea of that, Tony running scans on himself like a computer, so he tried to be as gentle about it as he could. “But we can’t do that right now,” he said, “so that’s okay. I’ll try to rig something up with the armor later. Get my strength up for it so I can focus.” He sighed.
“That’s a good idea,” Steve said quietly. “Rest for now. Yeah?”
“You just like holding me in your arms,” Tony said, bracing himself for another shudder that wracked him, making his stomach ache and his head throb.
“You caught me,” Steve said, still in that quiet tone. “That was my master plan all along.”
“Naked, too,” Tony pointed out, shifting a bit, adjusting the shirt where it lay over him, pulling it up a bit. “I’m at your mercy.”
“Sure are,” Steve murmured, letting his lips rest in Tony’s hair.
“It was a diabolical plan,” Tony told him. “You’re not a master strategist for nothing.”
“I know,” Steve said. “Not bad, if I do say so myself.” He moved his hand up, stroked at Tony’s throat, gently. “Got you all alone here.” He smiled a little.
“I’m all yours,” Tony told him, honestly, now, honestly enough.
Steve smiled at that. “Yeah,” he said, and kissed Tony, very gently, just a soft brush of their lips together. Tony opened his lips, leaned up into it, feeling his fingers clench in Steve’s shirt as he tried to chase the touch of his mouth. Steve made a sound, moved his mouth gently over Tony’s bottom lip, letting their mouths stay together, warm with breath and touch, even as he nudged him back down, then slid his tongue, soft and hot, into Tony’s mouth, dipping in, keeping the strokes slow and gentle. He pulled away after a moment, but Tony let himself subside, satisfied with the deeper, wetter kiss for now. “Goes both ways, you know,” Steve said, after a moment, moving one hand up to support Tony’s head again. “I’m all yours. Got me all to yourself.”
“That’s true,” Tony observed fondly. He felt flushed now, too breathless considering how simple the kiss had been, panting a bit, and his head still throbbed, he was a little dizzy, but it had been worth it. The sound of the rain meant it was still coming down outside, he realized. Steve lifted his head for him, rearranged him gently.
“Are you warm?” he asked.
“Mmm,” Tony said. Steve was like a furnace, and there was the fire on his other side. He was still a little chilly, but both sources of heat were warming him, and it wasn’t bad at all. “I’m doing fine.”
“Yeah,” Steve said, stroking his shoulder, resting his cheek on Tony’s hair again, “you were getting worse and worse for a while, but I think you’ve evened out now.”
“Doing my best,” Tony mumbled, smiling at him.
Steve smiled back, just as fond and a little sadly exasperated, Tony thought. “Yeah, you work hard for me,” he said.
“I’ll be better in no time,” Tony promised, still a little woozy, his head spinning, but Steve was there, holding him steady, even when more shivers shook their way through him.
“You bet you will,” Steve said. “But you know, there’s no rush, sweetheart.”
Tony frowned. “Sure, we’ll just stay in this cave,” he said.
“There are worse romantic vacations,” Steve said, smiling so his dimple showed in one cheek.
God, he was beautiful. Enough to take Tony’s breath away. He scowled anyway. “I like sex on the beach and fruity drinks better,” he said.
“I promise we’ll go to a place where they do the hot rocks after this, Tony,” Steve said, grinning at him still, like that.
Tony frowned a little more. The point would be that Steve would relax there, too. He’d never been to a spa, as far as Tony knew, and he had a place in mind, a tropical resort, with white sand and pools and all the quiet corners you could ever want. It would rock Steve’s world, he was sure of it. But he’d been wondering how to get Steve not to refuse the expense . . . maybe this would work. “Deal,” he said. “It’s a deal.”
Steve raised his eyebrows. “Really?” he said, and then his face fell, just a bit. “You’ll just work with Extremis the whole time, won’t you?”
“Hey, no,” Tony said, stung by that. “No way. I wouldn’t do that to you. I’d be there with you, Steve, that’s the—the whole point of a vacation. Especially a—a romantic one.” He broke off, shivering again.
“I’m gonna need your promise on that,” Steve said, pressing his lips to his forehead. “Solemn promise. On your honor.”
“Scout’s honor,” Tony said, gasping through the shivers.
“You weren’t a boy scout,” Steve said.
“I actually was,” Tony said. “For about five minutes. You weren’t a boy scout.”
“That’s true,” Steve said, looking amused. He ran his hand up and down Tony’s neck, over his shoulders. “Swear on something else.”
“You’re so demanding,” Tony told him.
“Hmm,” Steve said. “Also true.”
“Well, then there’s only one thing I can swear on that really counts,” Tony said, leaning in to rest his head a little more on Steve’s shoulder. Steve’s arm curled around his shoulders in return.
“What’s that?” he asked.
Tony swallowed. But it was so clearly important to Steve, and he couldn’t think of anything else to say, and what else was there, anyway? “The fact that I love you,” he said softly. “And I’d put down the work for five seconds to have a good time with you. Because I want to. And I do.”
Steve swallowed himself, ducked his head down and holding Tony a little tighter, and when his voice came again it was thick. “That is a good thing to swear on,” he said. “Thank you, Tony.”
“Sweetheart,” Tony sighed, leaning a little closer, despite the way Steve’s tighter hold made his aches go brighter. Steve loosened his grip almost immediately, though. “I take you for granted.”
“No,” Steve said, quickly. A little too quickly, Tony thought, and sighed more heavily. Steve’s hand pressed flat, gentle, against Tony’s back. “It’s . . . not that.”
“Oh?” Tony asked, unconvinced. He wasn’t about to let go of that guilt that easily. “What is it, then?”
Steve shook his head. “Not right now,” he said, sounding uncomfortable. “Tony . . . .”
“What?” Tony asked. He could feel his mouth set in stubborn frown, but he wasn’t about to give up now. He raised his eyebrows at Steve, tilted his head at the cave around them despite the way it made his head ache. “You’ve got a meeting? Someplace else to be? We’ve got time to kill. Enlighten me.”
“You’re sick,” Steve said, his voice very soft, quiet. “You were delirious half an hour ago. It’s not a good time.”
Tony set his jaw. “Steve,” he said. “Come on. What’s up?”
Steve sighed, touched Tony’s back again, gently. His own jaw set. He took a deep breath, looked down, then straight ahead. “I don’t want you to leave me behind,” he said, after a moment, his voice very steady. Stoic. Even.
“What?” Tony said, shocked and baffled. He pushed himself up and realized it was a really bad idea at the same time his head spun and a wave of nausea swept over him, leaving him gasping and dizzy.
“Tony, don’t,” Steve said, sounding alarmed, arm tightening around his shoulder, the other going to his waist, coaxing him back down. Tony let him, but didn’t move his eyes away from Steve’s face.
“Steve, what the hell,” he said.
Steve sighed, looked up to meet his eyes, touched his face gently with his open palm, leaning forward to tilt their foreheads together. “This is why I didn’t want to talk about this now,” he said.
“Yeah, okay,” Tony said, “I’ll be good.”
“Be good, Tony,” Steve said, smiling slightly.
“I’ll be good,” Tony promised, let Steve pull him in, adjust him where he wanted him to be. He could play along, if that meant Steve was going to play ball in return. “Just . . .” he looked into Steve’s face, studying him, trying to figure out what was going on by the look in his eyes, the little twist of his mouth, something was wrong, and . . . leave him behind, what the hell had he meant—“what’s up?”
Steve swallowed, ran his fingers up behind Tony’s ear, tracing his jaw, gently, not looking away from his face, playing his fingertips through his hair. Tony felt his skin prickling again, waves of heat rising wherever Steve’s fingers touched, and had to swallow, tense with the look on Steve’s face. Steve let out a long, soft breath. “I started out so far behind you,” he said after that moment. “All the way in 1945. You were already in the future. I’ve always been playing catch-up. And these days . . .” he swallowed. “These days, I feel like you’re going faster.”
Tony blinked. “I—” he started, and realized he didn’t know what he was going to say. His throat hurt, suddenly. His chest hurt. He wasn’t sure what his face must have looked like, but he was sure it wasn’t good.
“Shh,” Steve said, and looked away. “You don’t have to say anything. It’s not fair, to burden you with this when you can’t think straight. I’m sorry.”
Tony felt like he was gaping at Steve like a complete idiot. “I . . . how . . . I’m not,” he said. “Ahead of you, I’m not. That doesn’t make any sense.”
Steve’s forehead creased. “Maybe not to you,” he muttered.
“Aren’t you the futurist?” Steve said, smiling, a little forced. A little sad. Shit, shit, shit. Steve was right, he wasn’t in any shape to deal with this; his head was all over, but Tony wasn’t about to admit defeat and just let it go, let it slide on past him, either. Just . . . no. He had to find some way to . . . explain, explain why that didn’t make any sense to him. Get Steve to see, and not . . . not take it like this.
“I am,” he said, “but . . . I . . . it’s not about finding the future on my own, Steve.” He swallowed, leaned forward, was the one to tilt their foreheads together this time. “I want you to be there with me,” he said. His breath felt hot over his lips, his head throbbing and everything was too warm, his eyes hurt, he felt so terrible, and it was so ridiculous—but this was important.
“You move quick, though,” Steve said, and sighed.
“I’ll come back for you,” Tony whispered. “And everyone, I—I want to make the future real, Steve. Not leave you all stuck in . . . in dullsville plodding along, or whatever you’re thinking. It’s for everyone, it’s not—not for me.” His head hurt. “I love you,” he finally said, his throat aching even worse.
“Oh, Tony,” Steve said, and his mouth twisted a little. “I know. I love you, too.” He laid one hand on the back of Tony’s neck, pushed his head down into his shoulder.
Tony resisted this time, lifting his head to look up at Steve. “I’m messing it up,” he said, frustrated. “I know I am. You hear what I’m saying?”
“You don’t take me for granted,” Steve said, and smiled, though it still looked a little forced. He brushed Tony’s cheek with his fingers. “I told you you didn’t.”
Tony sighed, let his head rest on Steve’s shoulder and looked down, tightening his arm across his stomach. He sighed, tried not to let his breath tremble too badly, and told himself that feeling battered and bruised by that conversation was stupid. Steve had every right. It—he just—
“Tony,” Steve said, and he was stroking his shoulders again, rubbing gently, as if that would help, as if that would soothe all the aches and the bruises away. “We’ll talk about this later, all right? It’s not . . . it’s not that big a deal.”
“It feels like a big deal,” Tony told him, ragged, worn down. This was . . . him they were talking about. Who he was. And that Extremis was part of him now. And Steve was apparently . . . really freaked by that. And so he was making Steve miserable with who he was, because there was no way Tony wouldn’t have made that choice, to use Extremis, right then, so that was who he was, and who Tony was was making Steve unhappy, and . . . .
“Well, it’s not,” Steve said. He sighed. “I’m sorry, Tony. I really didn’t want to hurt you.” His hand came up, settled over the top of Tony’s head. “But I did, because I have about as soft a touch as . . . .”
Tony smiled slightly. “Your shield?” he suggested. It was true. Maybe. A little. Steve laughed a bit.
“Sure,” he said. “That. Exactly.”
“You don’t have to run yourself down to make me feel better, honey,” Tony murmured.
“Okay,” Steve said, and shrugged. “But I’m not running myself down. It’s true. Just like you have an awful mouth on you, and you’re full of yourself, and insecure as hell at the same time.”
“Ow,” Tony said, and swallowed. Jesus. He tightened his arm over his stomach, against Steve’s shirt. Okay, that . . . that had hurt.
“I wasn’t finished,” Steve said. “Knowing your faults isn’t the same thing as running yourself down, that’s all.” He smiled a little at Tony. “I know you know them already,” he said. “Don't take it so hard.”
“Easy for you to say,” Tony muttered. Steve was practically perfect, after all. Steve was wonderful. Not like him. Who made Steve feel inadequate and slow and alone, apparently, who had turned himself into a computer that his boyfriend hated, who was arrogant and insecure and obnoxious and prickly and difficult and . . . awful. Hard to put up with, let alone love. He knew it, he’d known it already, but . . . . It hurt to have it rubbed in like that. To realize that Steve knew perfectly well what he was settling for. And right now, of all times . . . . It was hard to face it with equanimity.
“Shh,” Steve said, and tightened his hand at the back of Tony’s neck, kissed his forehead again. “I just told you, I love you. Faults and all.”
“For some reason,” Tony muttered. Another entry in the column of things about Steve that just didn’t make sense, whether Tony was a genius or not.
“Hey,” Steve said. “None of that. There are lots of reasons.”
“Well, you could have fooled me,” Tony said, and he couldn’t quite keep the tension, the testiness, from his voice, but he let Steve draw his head back into his shoulder.
“Well . . . why do you love me?” Steve asked. “I’m making you miserable. You’re sick as a dog and here I am, making you feel inadequate, and terrible, and . . .”
“Steve, there are so many reasons,” Tony mumbled into his neck. “You’re wonderful. I don’t know how to . . . I can’t think to . . .” he sighed. “I can’t talk about this now. My head hurts.” He frowned. That had sounded . . . . “Not to whine.”
“The same goes for you,” Steve said, his voice soft but sincere, stroking the back of Tony’s neck with his palm. “So many reasons.”
“Huh,” Tony said. He nudged Steve a little with his shoulder, his chin. “Don’t do that,” he said.
“What?” Steve asked, sounding confused.
“Say bad things about yourself,” Tony said. “I can’t handle it in my weakened condition. It isn’t fair. It makes me want to—have to—explain how it’s not true, and I can’t think, so it’s all going to come out stupid. Also, you’re trying to trick me. But it won’t work.”
Steve looked at him, and his face was strange, more than one expression at once, sad and surprised and amused and full of affection and a little twisted, a little painful. “I didn't expect you to call me out on that,” he said, after a moment.
“I know,” Tony told him. He wouldn’t have done it, probably, but his head felt so heavy and thick, and he hadn’t been able to think of anything else. Desperation tactics. “I thought it might get you to stop.”
Steve made a face, half-frowning, half still affectionate. “Okay,” he said. “I hear you. But you have to stop doubting me. There are lots of reasons to love you. And I do love you. You get that?”
“You have such horrible taste in men,” Tony muttered. Steve’s brows drew together thunderously and his mouth flattened. He took a breath, and Tony hurriedly finished with, “Yes, I get that. I get it, Steve. I don’t doubt that—that you love me.” But his voice broke and fumbled over the words, and he knew that sounded bad, and was frustrated with himself, because it hadn’t been . . . hadn’t been because he doubted Steve. And this was so—it was embarrassing, saying it all out loud. Naked and feverish and . . . God. He was humiliating himself.
“Do you?” Steve demanded. “Do you really?”
“Yes!” Tony burst out, hunted. “God, Steve, yes. Can you just . . . leave it alone?”
“Yes,” Steve said, immediately. “Of course. God. I’m sorry, Tony.” He drew him close again, let Tony lay his head against his shoulder, in the hollow of his neck, and not look at him.
“I’m the one who’s sorry,” Tony mumbled, choked. “I just can’t do this right now. I’m sorry. Just talk about it—talk about it later?”
“We don’t have to do that,” Steve said. He laid one arm around Tony’s back. He sighed, and his voice sounded rueful. “I was just trying to reassure you. That I do love you. That I don’t feel . . . neglected. That’s all.”
“But you do,” Tony said against his neck. “I’m so damn sorry.”
“I’m all right,” Steve said. “Shh. It’s . . . leave it.” He sighed. “I’m sorry I brought it up,” he said, moving that hand up to slide it into Tony’s hair again, fluffing it up at the back of his neck. “I’m the one who’s worried about this, not you. I shouldn’t have tried to change that. I just don’t want you to feel like you’ve been taking me for granted. I don’t think that.”
“You just think I’m going to leave you behind,” Tony muttered unhappily.
“Shush,” Steve said. “Forget about that.”
“I can’t forget about things like that,” Tony said. He wasn’t going to forget about anything, anymore. That was one of the things Extremis did for him. Now his memory was even better than eidetic. Even if it wasn’t working, or he could access it right now, or whatever was wrong with it, it had changed the structure of his brain. He wouldn’t forget this, no matter how out of it he was right now. That information had been logged, registered.
Not like he would have forgotten, anyway. Steve was upset. About something he had done. No way he was going to forget that. He shivered again.
Steve blew his breath out explosively, sounding frustrated, but his fingertips didn’t stop their gentle movements at the back of Tony’s neck. “Then cut me a break,” he said. “I’ve been sitting here for hours worrying over you, feeling helpless, and—and angry, that I couldn’t do anything. I was. All right, I was feeling insecure myself. And . . . I was afraid. Am afraid. That Extremis is what’s wrong with you. That it would . . . would hurt you somehow, or mean you couldn’t get better, or something.” His voice was halting, stumbling clumsy over the words.
Tony knew how much Steve hated to talk about that kind of thing. He was wrong about Extremis, but it clearly scared him, and it just as clearly had cost him a lot to admit that.
“So I said some things I shouldn’t have said,” Steve said, swallowing a little thickly. “I wasn’t thinking.” He curled his hand against the nape of Tony’s neck, held it there, steadying and warm. “And I want you to forget about it, and try and rest.”
“Uh, no,” Tony said. He swallowed. He still felt a bit bruised from the conversation, a bit tender, and his stomach still hurt, but . . . but he could understand that. What Steve had said. And now he could just see Steve, sitting with him in the dark, and worrying, and . . . thinking about how Tony was going to leave him behind. Listening to the thundering of Tony’s heart, galloping along. God. “Leaving you here to worry over me in the dark, like you just said you’ve been doing? Feeling helpless?” He smiled a little, turned his face in toward the warm, velvety skin of Steve’s chest. “I’m going to stay awake and distract you,” he said. He knew Steve wasn’t going to love that.
“Tony,” Steve said, and then laughed. “You have got to be the most . . .”
“You shouldn’t have told me the truth,” Tony said, chuckling.
“I wanted you to leave it alone!” Steve said.
“And now I’m worried about your mental state,” Tony told him. “I’m allowed. It’s my right, as your boyfriend.”
Steve laughed, almost reluctantly. He brushed hair back over Tony’s ears, away from his forehead, and said, “I love you, you idiot.”
“Mmm,” Tony said. “Right back atcha.”
“And I want you to feel better,” Steve said.
“Working on that one,” Tony said.
“And I do want to go on that vacation with you,” Steve said, and Tony smiled.
“Yeah?” he said. “I’ll—” he hissed out his breath as another series of shivers shook him. “I’ll make the reservations as soon as we get back to the Tower.”
“Do I get to know where we’re going?” Steve asked, leaning in toward him until his breath was warm against Tony’s cheek, his lips moving gently against his cheekbone, one hand moving gently over Tony’s knees, down his cold shins and back up over his thighs. Tony tried to resist the urge to squirm under the gentle touch along his aching skin, the tender places of his bruises, because it was warm and comforting, wonderfully so.
“No,” Tony told him. “It’s going to be a surprise.”
“Well,” Steve said, “I’m sure it’ll be a nice place. You know all the nice places.”
“That’s true,” Tony allowed. Mostly because of business retreats over the years, or meetings with important investors, but that didn’t mean the places were any less nice. They were nice. And it would be . . . it would be something totally different to share a place like that with Steve. The place he had in mind was discreet, quiet—it was easy to pretend you were the only people there. That was the whole point of it. It would be perfect. “You don’t believe in spending money to relax,” he observed.
“A man can relax for free,” Steve said, smiling.
“And yet,” Tony told him, “you don’t. Maybe you need help. Professional help. I know good people.”
“And yet,” Steve said, and kissed the side of his nose gently. “You don’t. Pot, kettle.”
“Yes, but I have observed the phenomenon,” Tony said. “Carefully. For science.” Steve’s lips covered his, gently. He gasped, and Steve sucked lightly on the bottom one, moved in as Tony opened his mouth, tilted his head for it as best he could. Steve kissed him a moment longer, then pulled away. “What was that?” Tony asked, panting.
“A kiss,” Steve said. “I wanted to see if you could relax.” He smiled a little. “Or if you were just full of hot air.”
“Ha. Ha,” Tony said. His head still felt hot, dizzy. “That was terrible. A terrible pun.”
“Good,” Steve said, grinning now.
“What’s the verdict?” Tony asked. “Can I relax?”
“Seems so,” Steve said. He ran his fingers back through Tony’s hair, looking at him fondly. “But you might need a little help to get there.”
Tony snorted a laugh. “Yes,” he said. “Probably. You volunteering, soldier boy?”
“Anything you need,” Steve said, and touched his lips to Tony’s forehead, still smiling, his fingers curling in against his neck, his eyes squeezing shut, scrunching up a little with emotion despite the smile.
“Big promise,” Tony pointed out, a little breathless, something in his chest twinging at the expression on Steve’s face, but not in a bad way.
“Mmm,” Steve said. “Sure is.” He moved his arm, curved it against Tony’s thigh, snugging him close, laid his hand on his hip, the fingers of his other hand sinking into his hair. Tony sighed, felt his body relax, couldn’t help himself. His head tipped back against Steve’s shoulder, his hand, and Steve caught it there, cupped the back of his neck, held him steady. “I’ve got you,” Steve breathed.
“You do,” Tony said, quietly, looking up at him. “Same goes for you.”
“Mmm,” Steve said. His thumb brushed lightly against Tony’s neck. “You’ve got me, or anything I need?”
“Both,” Tony murmured, still gazing up at Steve. His face looked tired, set in heavy lines, but he was still beautiful, and Tony . . . he just . . . he did love him. So much it hurt in and of itself sometimes. “I’m sorry I worried you,” he said.
Steve’s mouth quirked in a half-smile, and he shrugged. “I worry because I care,” he said. “It’s not your fault.”
“I got sick,” Tony pointed out.
Steve frowned. “We don’t even know how that happened,” he said. “Besides, that’s still not your fault.” He shook his head at Tony. “Don’t start with me on that one, mister.”
Tony scowled at him, but Steve just looked back, unmoving. Tony sighed and tilted his head down, giving in. Steve rubbed his fingers against Tony’s neck a little more, then smiled and kissed his forehead again.
“Smug,” Tony muttered.
“Hmm, well, it’s not every day you admit that,” Steve said. “I’ll take it.”
Tony sighed. “I’ll figure it out,” he said. Sure, he hadn’t been able to predict getting sick, but it was his fault, kind of. He must have screwed up somehow—Extremis wasn’t fixing it, and it should be. He must have missed something.
“I know you will,” Steve told him. He hesitated, then added, rather sternly, “And it’s not your fault even if you don’t.”
“Okay, I get it,” Tony told him.
“Good,” Steve said. “The quickest way to do that is rest.”
“I am resting,” Tony informed him.
“Hmm,” Steve said.
Tony closed his eyes, leaned his head in against Steve’s shoulder again. “See,” he said, smiling a little.
“I do see,” Steve said. Tony thought he was probably smiling, too, from the tone of his voice, and smiled a little more at that. “Are you feeling any better?”
Tony shifted uncomfortably. “Not really,” he admitted finally, and winced as Steve sighed, sounding disappointed.
“Working you up probably didn’t help with that,” Steve said ruefully. He moved his hand gently over Tony’s shoulders again. “The bruises look pretty rough,” he said.
“I’ve had softer landings,” Tony said with a smile to lighten it, rolling his shoulders. They did hurt. Everything hurt, all shading into one big bruised mélange of ow, whether it was from the fever or from everything else. His thigh felt like it was bruised from knee to hip on the side facing the fire.
“You were protecting me,” Steve said, quietly.
“I couldn’t stop the fall,” Tony said with a sigh, “but I could do that much. Of course I protected you. I was carrying you. That’s my thing. And really, I’m fine. Just bruises.” He smiled. “Like you said, resilient. The armor’s really good for that kind of stuff, okay?”
Steve brushed his hand lightly along his shoulders, curled it in a little more, not firmly enough to hurt. “I just wish I could do more to help,” he said, and sighed. “And . . . don’t you start,” he said, cutting Tony off just as he was opening his mouth. Tony scowled at him. “I know,” Steve said. “It’s not my fault, either. I just . . . .”
“It is definitely not your fault,” Tony said hotly. “You got us here. You took care of me while I lay here like an old i486 in my lab, got all this stuff set up. You were great, Steve. I’m only doing half as well as I am right now because of you, and you know it.”
“Yeah,” Steve said, his voice still quiet. “But I wish I could do more.”
Tony sighed, deflating at that. He knew that feeling. He couldn’t deny it. The feeling that no matter what he did, it wasn’t enough, there was still more he could have, should have been able to do, still something not right, something he had to fix—“Okay,” he said. “I—I gotcha, honey.”
Steve’s lips tightened, but he nodded, and pressed his face in against Tony’s hair again. Tony reached up, touched his cheek with the backs of his fingers, and Steve squeezed his eyes shut, pressed his face in against them a bit.
“I’m doing fine,” Tony whispered after a second, rubbing his thumb gently against Steve’s cheek, along his jaw. Steve swallowed, kept his eyes closed. Everything was silent for a moment, except for the sound of the rain. It made Tony feel cooler to listen to it, and desperate for some of the coolness of that water on his skin, but he knew that was a bad idea. It would be cold out there; he’d get chilled all over again. Steve turned, reached one hand up and took Tony’s in his, linking their fingers, and pressed his lips to the base of Tony’s palm. Tony’s palm was all sweaty, and he could feel how fast and hard his pulse was pounding in his wrist.
“You’re pretty warm,” Steve said, after a moment.
Tony shrugged. “Fever,” he pointed out.
Steve frowned, squeezed his hand, and brought it back down to rest across Tony’s stomach. He reached behind them and picked up the canteen, then dragged his utility belt across the floor toward where they were sitting. Tony blinked, and then he was opening up one of the pouches, drawing out a bundled up cloth. Steve sat back. “Put your head down,” he said, and gently pushed Tony’s head back into his shoulder. Tony was bemused enough, and his head felt heavy enough, to let him, watching whatever Steve was doing.
“Hey,” he said, when he poured water from the canteen onto the cloth in his hand, getting it nice and wet, “aren’t we going to need that? There won’t be enough for you.”
“I have water sterilization pellets in my belt,” Steve said. “I can just refill it, like I said before.”
“It’s a big pain,” Tony said doubtfully.
Steve shook his head, smiling back at him. “Nah,” he said, simply. “You’ll feel better. Not so hot. Scoot up a bit, closer to the fire.” He laid one hand on Tony’s side, helping him. Tony moved obediently, but it made his head spin and his stomach lurch, his bruises flaring as he shifted. His ass felt numb, his thigh and shoulder where he’d landed hardest tender and painful. The heat of the fire felt very warm against his skin, a strange contrast to the sound of the rain outside, the draughts of wind coming in through the mouth of the cave. Steve was there behind him a moment later, and Tony gratefully let him draw his head back down to his shoulder before he fell over, as quickly as he could and still have some dignity. He closed his eyes and tried not to pant against Steve’s skin too obviously. His head was spinning, and even with his eyes closed he felt as if the world was whirling dizzily around him, and colors were too bright and hot to bear.
“I’ve got you,” Steve said, again. He touched one hand to the back of Tony’s head, ran his fingers into his hair, and Tony let his breath out, because it felt good. Steve touched the cloth to his forehead, next, and Tony gasped at how that felt, cool and wet, refreshing and so very welcome against his hot skin. Steve ran the cloth over his nose, over his cheeks, down over his beard, then under, along his throat, and Tony let him tip his head back, the touch of the cloth so wonderfully cool as Steve gently brought it down over the hollow of his throat, where sweat had gathered, then wet it again, brought it over his shoulder. Tony sighed at the feeling of the cool wet softness of the cloth against the bruises. It felt incredible, the relief of it, despite the tenderness of his skin. He let his eyes slip closed, and Steve kept at it, moving the cloth across his shoulders, the back of his neck, down over his spine, the muscles of his back, then back up, over the bruised muscle of his arm, his neck again. It was incredible how soothing it felt. The fire was drying him off quickly enough that he wasn’t getting cold, but the water cooled his skin just enough that it was an immense relief.
“’S nice,” he mumbled. He curled his fingers a little more in the shirt over his stomach, brought his knees in, turned in toward Steve a bit to give him better access to his back.
“I thought it might feel good,” Steve said, bringing the cloth up over the back of Tony’s neck again.
“It does,” Tony confirmed. He sighed when Steve wet the cloth again, balled it up, pressed it to Tony’s cheek, then his forehead, holding it there. It felt so perfect against his hot, tight skin he almost groaned. “God, it feels amazing.”
“Better than sex?” Steve asked. There was definitely a smile in his voice now.
“Not quite that good,” Tony grunted as Steve held the cloth to the back of his neck. “But almost.”
“I’ll have to step up my game in the bedroom after this,” Steve said. “To compare.”
“Don’t do that,” Tony mumbled, “’s mind-blowing enough already.” He thought if Steve ‘stepped it up’ he might actually die of pleasure the next time, and it wasn’t exactly how he wanted to go. Though there were definitely worse ways.
He felt Steve grin, somehow. “You’re buttering me up,” he said. “Just playing to my pride.”
“Would I do that to you?” Tony asked Steve’s skin where his face was pressed in against Steve’s neck.
“You’re generous with the compliments,” Steve said. He stroked the cloth down over Tony’s arm again.
“All true,” Tony said. And, well, they were.
“You’re not bad yourself,” Steve said. “I thought I’d died and gone to heaven the first time, and that’s a fact. Couldn’t keep up with you.”
Tony surprised himself by the heat that warmed his face. Blushing again. Jesus. “Well, I had to give a good show,” he said. “First time with you in my bed and all. Had to make you want to come back.”
“Tony, you could have laid there like a piece of cod and I’d have wanted to come back,” Steve said.
Tony laughed. “Are you saying you’re a sure thing, Rogers?” he asked, turning his head slightly to pillow it on Steve’s shoulder a little more.
“For you? Sure as shooting,” Steve said. He laid the cloth against the side of Tony’s neck so the drips slid down over his skin. “Still feeling good?”
“Mmm,” Tony said.
“Good,” Steve said. “You just take it easy.” He kept at it, for a while, slow and easy, lifting Tony’s head and wiping the other side down, then letting him rest it on Steve’s shoulder again and smoothing the cloth in slow, easy circles over his back. Tony felt himself starting to doze and didn’t fight it. Steve kept telling him to rest, and he was still half-aware, aware enough to keep an eye on Steve for a little bit longer. It was actually kind of nice—he didn’t know what the last time he’d been treated like this when he was sick was. Even if Extremis shouldn’t have let him get sick at all. Usually he kept working and tried to hide the symptoms as much as possible, push them out of his head, but obviously Steve had been pretty keyed in on them since the beginning, so there was no point to it now, and doing this kind of thing seemed to make Steve feel better about it, too, so the easiest way to help them both out was to give in, Tony figured. It wasn’t his typical style, not how he’d have preferred to handle it, but there it was. Steve didn’t seem upset about him being a lazy-ass, so he figured it was okay with him. Besides, he needed to rest, get his strength up to work with the armor, figure out what was up with Extremis. There was nothing else to do, anyway, besides talk to Steve, which would have been great, normally, except that with his head so fuzzy he was hardly a scintillating conversationalist, and even talking too much made him feel like he’d been running laps. And when moving made him feel like puking his guts out, he’d rather just stay still like this and save them both the trouble.
A while later, Steve stopped, set the cloth aside, then went back to stroking Tony’s neck and back with his hand without it, fingers gentle over the back of his neck, up into his hair. He pulled the shirt up over Tony a little more, adjusting it over his side, making sure it covered him as much as it could, Tony thought, and he wanted to tell him it was just fine, but the words drifted away as he lay there. After a while longer, he shivered a little and turned in toward Steve, and he felt Steve’s arms come down around him, enfolding him in warmth, it felt like, and he relaxed on a sigh, even as Steve brushed his thumb gently against his back through the edge of the shirt. That was nice. He didn’t feel so overwhelmingly hot anymore, so the warmth of Steve’s arms around him was perfect, kept him from shivering. It was the last conscious thought he had for a while.
He woke up the next morning, surprised he’d slept the whole night through, to find himself dressed in Steve’s shirt and dried out pants, the ones Steve wore underneath his uniform. They were a little ridiculously big on him. Tony picked himself up, scrubbed the sleep out of his eyes, and realized he felt only about half as feverish as he had the night before, the nausea at manageable levels. He was working on the armor, trying to rig up an easy way to double check Extremis, by the time Steve came back from refilling the canteen—and apparently searching out tropical fruit for breakfast—in nothing but his boots, his briefs, and the shield, which was an image Tony wasn’t going to forget for a long time. It almost made the whole thing worth it, sickness and all.
He did give Steve his pants back, after, even though he was a little tempted to keep them just to preserve that sight a while longer, but Steve wouldn’t take the shirt, so they both ended up half dressed. The shirt easily covered Tony down over his thighs, which might have been a little embarrassing, but it was nice to have something to cover his ass while he sat on the floor this time. Steve came and sat behind Tony, and Tony let him put his arms around him and pull him back against his chest even though he did feel stronger. Steve put one hand on his forehead, tested his temperature, which was still elevated, and offered him water, but he let him keep working, so Tony didn’t make a fuss about it. Instead, he leaned his head on Steve’s shoulder while he worked, enjoying the warm, sturdy strength of the broad chest and shoulders behind him, the warm valley Steve’s thighs made for him to occupy. After a while, Steve pressed his lips into Tony’s hair, slid one hand up under the shirt to stroke gently along Tony’s side, but he didn’t speak. It was soothing, and Tony cast a glance back at him at first, but then settled into it, enjoying the gentle, easy movements of Steve’s hard palm and callused fingers against his side.
After a while, Steve did say something, his fingers swirling over Tony’s hip, thumb rubbing lightly just beneath the curve of it. “You have a few bites here,” he said, soft against Tony’s ear.
“Hmm?” Tony asked, lifting his head and looking back at Steve quizzically.
Steve tapped his finger very gently against Tony’s hip. “Just here,” he said, and pressed a soft kiss to the curve of Tony’s jaw, just beneath his ear, because he felt like it, it seemed like. His finger slid gently over the skin at the crux of Tony’s hip bone. “They’re a little swollen, can’t you feel that?”
“No,” Tony said, glancing down at his own side. “I mean, I feel your fingers just fine.” He wasn’t feeling much else except that hot, feverish tightness, the ache that felt like it was everywhere inside him, barely contained by his skin.
In response, Steve pulled his shirt up over Tony’s skin, revealing his bare hip. Tony frowned. Sure enough, there were three angrily red, slightly swollen bites dotting it. Tony reached down and brushed his own thumb over them, considering. They felt a little sensitive, tender, now that he was paying attention, but it didn’t stand out that much from the bruises covering his thigh and hip already and the raw aches from the fever, so no wonder he hadn’t noticed, really. “Huh,” he said.
“Huh?” Steve asked. He curled his other hand around Tony’s waist, resting his palm on his stomach, and tugged Tony a little more solidly into his chest.
“I didn’t feel a thing,” Tony said. “You’d think I’d’ve noticed the kind of mosquitoes they have here. And how did it get through the armor to bite me?”
“You were out of the armor a few times,” Steve said. “It must have happened then.”
Tony frowned. “Or it bit me through the underarmor, which is kind of terrifying,” he said. “It’s the Savage Land, so I guess I should have seen that coming.” He frowned at his own skin for another moment. “Huh,” he said again.
Steve ran his hands up over his sides, under Tony’s—well, Steve’s—shirt, traveling over his back, and Tony could tell he was checking for more bites. He let him do it, bent his head and let Steve push the shirt up his back, then check each arm, and skim his hands over his chest, exploring by touch. Steve was thorough, exploring every inch of his body, but Tony was so exhausted and felt so terrible and Steve was so gentle and undemanding and not at all teasing in his touches that it didn’t even occur to Tony to make a sex joke, let alone think about it that way, even as Steve spread his legs with his hands to run them up the inside of his thighs.
“You have about ten of them,” Steve said, after he was done tilting Tony’s head forward and combing his fingers gently through his hair, against his scalp. “I don’t know if they’re all the same kind.”
Tony sighed. “I just hope they don’t start to itch,” he said. That was the last thing he needed, something else to distract him from what he was doing and make it even harder to concentrate. “There probably isn’t much more we can do about me getting eaten. Warm human blood probably feels like a gourmet buffet to them, at this point. I wonder if Ka-Zar ever had trouble with mosquito bites.” He wiped sweat away from his forehead with his upper arm, and Steve made a noncommittal noise and picked up the canteen, uncapping it and offering it to Tony again. He kept offering him water throughout the day, but wasn’t too annoying about it, except the holding him thing, which . . . it wasn’t annoying. Tony did find himself drifting off to sleep in Steve’s arms at one point, waking up a little frustrated to discover he’d apparently dozed for about two hours, according to Steve. Who had apparently just sat there and held him the whole time.
He was a saint, but Tony felt a little guilty about all the boring hours he’d been putting him through, just sitting there with Tony passed out on top of him. Steve said he didn’t mind, but he was full of it. It had to be boring, and it wasn’t getting them any further ahead, either, just wasting their time and leaving them stuck there. They’d eaten breadfruit and papayas for breakfast, or fruits that looked enough like breadfruit and papayas that Tony was comfortable calling them that, along with the protein bars Steve carried, but they couldn’t live on that for long.
“I could try hunting,” Steve suggested when Tony pointed out the food situation.
“What,” Tony said, “dinosaurs?”
“There are mammals around,” Steve said mildly. “Besides, don’t tell me you’d mind getting a chance to say you’d eaten T-Rex.”
Tony laughed. “You just want bragging rights over Fury, you can’t fool me,” he told him, and Steve laughed. “Promise me you’re not really going to try and hunt a T-Rex,” he said later, into the side of Steve’s neck, and Steve promised (though he still sounded like he thought it might be interesting—a little too interesting, from Tony’s point of view).
They spent two days in the Savage Land before Tony got a temporary fix that worked for more than a few hours. Steve did not hunt any dinosaurs, to Tony’s eternal relief. He was still sick, feverish and prone to bouts of nausea, but the fix he’d found seemed to circumvent the issues with Extremis. Steve didn’t want Tony to carry him when he was still feeling sick, and Tony couldn’t blame him, after the spectacular crash that had resulted the last time, though he couldn’t help the pang he felt at that objection—Steve had always trusted Tony to fly him before—but he swallowed against it and convinced Steve they had no other choice, and he wanted to get back.
So they ended up back at the Tower—after running into the others on their way back to look for them—days after they’d expected. Tony was still a stumbling mess, flushed and queasy, and he hated every second of it, and he didn’t really enjoy the others’ gleeful hilarity at his nudity either, though he did his best to own it with a grin and the right amount of nonchalance to make them shut up about it. Steve wanted Tony to stay in bed. Tony wanted to figure out what the hell was wrong with him, but the first night, Steve won, because Tony just didn’t have the energy or the strength to put up much of a fight after the trip back, and Steve helping him into his own bed with the soft cotton sheets and fluffy pillows, dressed in his pajamas, after taking ibuprofen and drinking a whole glass of water and eating a sandwich, felt like heaven. Steve got into bed a moment later, when Tony lifted his head to look for him, and then it really was perfect, as Steve curled his arms gently around him and said, “hey there,” softly into his hair. “Go to sleep,” Steve said, a moment later, running one hand down Tony’s arm and curling his palm over Tony’s hand, fingers cupping his.
“I’ll get working tomorrow,” Tony said on a yawn, and fell asleep in what must have been only a few seconds.
The next day, Tony won. Steve ended up spending a lot of time glowering at Tony while he worked, with his arms crossed, like he thought Tony was about to fall over where he stood and was prepared to catch him when it happened. However, he didn’t get his precious chance to tell Tony, “I told you you’d collapse like an idiot,” because Tony did not, in fact, collapse like an idiot. He did have to take a few breaks, and pace himself a little, which wasn’t exactly ideal, but he didn’t collapse and that was what mattered, right? Aside from finding the answer, obviously, and to do that, he needed to not collapse and have Steve try to sit on him to keep him in bed.
The problem was that he still didn’t know what the virus was that was doing this to him. He was pretty sure how the process had worked now—it had been introduced to his system, and his new immune system (Extremis) had read it similarly to a computer virus, so that it had affected him pretty much the same as it always would have, but taken those processes offline, too. He just didn’t know how the disease—which didn’t match anything he ran it by when he took a blood sample—had gotten into him in the first place. “God damn it,” he said, stopping in the middle of his work at a sudden realization. “The bites.”
It had been obvious. Hell, from what he’d been saying, Steve had probably suspected as much. Tony’s thoughts must have been really scrambled by the illness not to have thought of it before now. But it made sense. Tony frowned, and set the system to run a comparison between his blood and insect borne viruses. He figured mosquitoes for the most likely, but you never knew.
Sure enough, once he’d started looking in more detail, and at other indicators, the searches turned up similarities to West Nile. Not the same disease, but definitely the same sort of thing, it looked like. Tony sighed—he was still a little insulted—and started to recalibrate the system to account for that, trying to rewrite the response protocols to address unusual illnesses instead of running into the exact same problems a computer would with a virus.
It took him a few days, but he started feeling noticeably better on the second day, and he could see Steve’s relief, the smoothing out of tension in his forehead and around his eyes, the looser set of his shoulders, and then he realized that he hadn’t really been aware of how worried, even terrified, Steve had been for him, and felt a little guilty. He told him about the bites being the vector, because he thought it might relax him, that it was something so . . . normal, as much as it pissed Tony off himself, and Steve managed to not be too smug about it. Well, halfway smug. He didn’t say anything about it, at least. But smug was better than that heartbreaking look of relief, so Tony would take it.
“I’m going to make those reservations today,” he told Steve the next morning, while he was putting on his tie to get ready for work. Steve was sitting on the sofa and supposedly reading over the report on the Savage Land mission, but actually watching him get dressed and not being shy about it.
“What’s that?” Steve asked.
“My eyes are up here, darling,” Tony said, and grinned as Steve looked flustered. “Vacation? Remember? Hot rocks, sex on the beach—the non-alcoholic version?”
Steve’s cheeks were starting to turn pink. Tony grinned.
“You’re gonna love it,” he said. He finished with his tie and picked up his jacket. “How do you feel about Tahiti?”
“I’m sure it’s a nice place,” Steve said.
“You’d prefer somewhere else?” Tony asked. Steve shrugged, looking at him rather blankly. “C’mon, Steve,” Tony said, teasing now, “speak now or forever hold your peace.”
“Tahiti is fine,” Steve said. “Aren’t all those resort places . . . kind of the same?”
“Oh, honey,” Tony said, leaning down to brush a kiss against his forehead. “Honey. Please.”
Steve frowned, his brow wrinkling. “What?” he said.
Tony smiled a little more. “Just wait and see. I promise, you’ll have a good time.”
Steve smiled up at him. “I’m sure I will,” he said, seeming to feel like he was back on familiar ground, confidence in his voice. “I’ll be on a vacation with you, after all.”
That gave Tony a moment of pause. He had to swallow, felt himself turning a little warm, blinked and looked down. Trust Steve to turn it into something sweet like that. “Likewise,” he said as he looked back up at Steve. “That’s the important thing, right?”
Steve looked pleased now. “Exactly,” he said. His hands came up, settled at Tony’s hips, fingers curling against the loops of his belt. He tugged Tony in a little. Tony cooperated, leaning down, resting his arms behind Steve on the sofa’s back.
“We can’t take off for too long,” Steve said, still looking up at him. His fingers moved up, stroked along Tony’s back under his jacket, warm against his skin even through his shirt. Tony let his breath out with a smile at how it felt, easy against his skin, welcome. “Have you got the timeframe figured out?”
“Two weeks,” Tony said. He could see the objection forming on Steve’s lips, so he just kept right on going. “There’s nothing pressing right now. It’ll be fine. We have to seize our chance, or we’re never going to go—and no one needs us that badly right this second.”
Steve frowned. “I guess,” he said.
“I know,” Tony said. He wasn’t about to take no for an answer on this one, not this time. He was going to show Steve he could make time for him, even if Steve wasn’t buying it, even if Steve was the one balking at time off now. When his guard had been down, he’d wanted it. That was enough for Tony. Steve had just gotten back into the swing of things, remembered all the reasons he shouldn’t take a vacation, the same ones they always had. “No one freaked out while we were lost in the Savage Land, did they? Everything’s good—the team’s coming together, and the others could use some experience on their own without feeling like we’re looking over their shoulders, or there to fix whatever they get into. Take the training wheels off.”
“You have a point,” Steve said.
“I know I do,” Tony told him. Again, he wasn’t about to take no for an answer. Steve smiled, looking up at him, his palm smoothing over Tony’s back.
“You’re feeling better,” he said, still smiling. “Full of energy.”
“Didn’t I tell you?” Tony told him. He smiled a little, leaned down just a bit more. Steve had mentioned that a few times, but if Tony needed to repeat it to convince him—well, he wanted him to be convinced. “Good as new.”
“That’s all I need,” Steve told him, his voice soft and low, a little serious, still looking up at him like that, his hand settling at the back of his waist.
Tony swallowed at that, smiled back in an automatic response at Steve’s words. It was so emotional, so . . . simple and sweet. It didn’t feel like the force of that emotion, that quiet sincerity, should be directed at him. But it was, and he still wasn’t sure how to handle that. “Thanks,” he said. “But let me spoil you with the vacation anyway.” He smiled at Steve a little more. “You did promise me.”
“I did,” Steve said, softly, still smiling just a little. “It’s a deal.”