The hospital lights turn Steve’s hair brassy, his skin sallow as he bends over the room’s single bed. Tony watches him from the doorway, and thinks I’m definitely in love. For all the good that’ll do them.
For the first time in months, James Buchanan Barnes is not moving. He’s not hooked up to much, which is a sight better than expected considering the beating he took. But then, Steve’s bruises are practically invisible already, and Tony didn’t break anything. They got off easy; Tony’s sure fate will use it to slap them in the face at a later date.
But honestly, he’s tired. He’ll take it.
“Saved your life,” Tony whispers, watching Barnes’ still face.
He said those exact words to Steve, can even hear his own voice as though he’s just spoken them aloud in the moldy damp of that cabin. But that was nothing like the thready, boneless sounds he’s just uttered. Steve brushes a hand over Barnes’ forehead, eyes tracking the length of him and back. Taking stock, making sure everything’s in order before he lets things be for the night.
Tony leans in the doorway, crosses his arms, and makes himself see.
They’ve never discussed what Bucky Barnes was to Steve. It was not necessary to catch Barnes, not necessary to the nights Tony and Steve spent tangled up in each other—and those were shockingly frequent, even for Tony. When the chase finally swept up and shut even that down, leaving them too exhausted, crowded together in too-small beds where all they knew how to do was sleep, Tony didn’t have time to think. He didn’t want to, and that was fine.
There are other things he remembers, crystal-clear: Steve’s face flickering in candlelight, and what he said: Already asking too much of you. It was such a Steve thing to say. It didn’t need an explanation, except now maybe it does.
Tony’s in love. But that’s all he’s sure about.
Steve steps away from the bed, straightening with a wince, and works a kink out of his shoulder as he comes back to the doorway. Tony moves aside to let him exit, and they stand there bracketing the door in an empty hallway. Steve looks old, hollow around the eyes and mouth. But there’s a new hush there, too. It turns that age into awareness. It’s something that, Tony realizes with a tumble in his gut, he’s never actually seen in Steve before.
Steve smiles at him, slow and tired. “What time is it, anyway?”
“Godawful o’clock, Rogers.” Tony shifts his weight, cocking back against the door frame. The hospital’s a ghost town, all other visitors gone for the night. The only reason they’re still allowed is because of how late it was when they brought Barnes in.
Steve drags a hand over his face, then stretches both arms above his head until his spine pops. Any leftover drive sags out of Tony, as if the sound of Steve’s joints are actually his own body deflating. He’s been on his feet too long; they both have.
“You staying?” The tower is only twenty minutes away, but he doesn’t think he could stand to be there right now, in a space he hasn’t seen for almost a year. He needs to get a room, with or without Steve. His mind is too flat to ponder the implications of the latter. If he starts down that road right now, he won’t be able to stop rolling, and he’ll damn well roll over all of it at once: Steve, himself and Steve, Barnes and Steve, what it means that for the first night in months, he’ll be—
“Doubt they’d let me.” Steve blinks rapidly, eyebrows rising high as he forces his eyes wide. He yawns, choking it back in a strange constriction of face and neck. “Hill’s on her way with another agent.”
That’s good. They can watch the assassin that time forgot, and Tony can go to bed like a normal person for once.
“Hey.” Steve’s peering at him, slumped against the wall, arms crossed like Tony’s. He looks exhausted. His hair is sticking up, his skin shines from not having washed in two days, and his lips are chapped. He has stubble free-ranging across his jaw, gold catching the light. Each breath is audible through his nose, as though Steve can’t be bothered to quiet it.
“You hurt?” Steve doesn’t sound worried. He sounds efficient. Tony starts to shake his head, then shrugs.
“Sore.” And having a hard time keeping all the other words back. He spends precious seconds being appalled over what almost came flowing out. Does he really need to know the answer to this question right now, when he’s bound to take it in the most graceless way possible? “If you want to stay with him…” A nurse passes with an IV pole, and they both track her progress. Tony waits until she’s gone, but by then, his nerve has gone with her.
Steve shifts, restless. “Don’t want him to wake up alone.”
Oddly, neither does Tony. Barnes is the worst kind of unknown, but Tony doesn’t want that for him. He’s been there, and it’s one of the ugliest feelings he knows.
But Steve huffs a sigh and heaves himself off the wall, tugging at the ends of his jacket. It’s dirty, mud in splotches, tears in the leather. Even now, a clod of dirt falls off Steve’s heel to the shiny floor. Steve grimaces and crunches it with the toe of his boot. “ETA for Hill is an hour,” he mutters. “I’m going to pass out.”
This must be what Steve was like before the serum, Tony thinks, half dazed, half panicked. Saying things as though he’s a normal person who could pass out from exhaustion, whose body won’t just continue to toe the line as it stretches onward away from him, upping the ante every moment. Steve will keep going until the end of time if that’s what’s demanded of him. Tony knows he can’t keep up. Knows he’d try his damnedest anyway, and probably succeed for a lot longer than he expects.
He loves Steve in spite of the serum. He loves that the serum makes no difference to the fact that Steve will stay for as long as he has to for someone he cares about, and Tony is so, so miserable with that knowledge.
“What are we?” he chokes out. There’s no one close enough to notice them. Steve goes utterly still, hand half over his mouth where he was rubbing his face again, eyes fixed on Tony.
But he doesn’t say anything, and Tony’s nerves spike over, making his muscles convulse. He shoves his hands into his pockets and knows there’s no way to pass off what he just did as anything but the spasm it was. New concern touches Steve’s features and he sways forward. Tony can’t help it: he leans back.
“I just.” Tony flings a hand out at nothing, then returns it to his pocket. God, when he’s tired, he’s an unprecedented idiot. He’s pretty sure Steve knows this. He can’t tell what’s a legitimate concern and what isn’t anymore. “You know, I may have thought about this too much. I do that. But I really just need you to outline it for me or, or tell me how it’s going to change because I can’t figure it out for myself right now.”
“Tony.” Steve’s forehead furrows, the exact opposite of understanding, and Tony’s pulse hops another notch. Damn it, this does not warrant this kind of reaction; at this rate he’s going to be taking up another hospital bed, but—He looks into the room, and Barnes looks so alive, skin a healthy flush, lips parted around each breath. He’s nowhere near the sepia pictures of a man belonging firmly to the past, and sure, the metal arm is completely out of place in any frame, but his humanity has returned. It came back out there in the frigid night, all at once. It’s still apparent, even in sleep.
Once upon a time, Steve belonged just as firmly to Tony’s past, gone before Tony was even around to realize it. Now he’s alive, carved permanently into Tony’s heart, and Tony is incapable of just letting him go again.
“He’s back,” he blurts. He swings his hand again in Barnes’ direction, then finds himself staring, driving the tableau into his memory. It’s easier than looking at Steve. “Do you want to, should I make up a floor in the Tower or—” Foregone conclusion: there’s nowhere else Barnes is going in the end. “Or there’s room on... your floor.”
He can’t even verbalize it: Asking Steve Rogers if he’d like to stop sleeping with Tony now that they’ve finished what they set out to do is the most ludicrous, amorphous question in the universe.
“I can ask him.” Steve sounds uncertain. Tony spits a laugh and looks skyward, dismayed at his inability to get a simple point across. Is he the only one thinking about it? Is it just that trivial an issue for everyone else?
“No, I don’t—” The only way this gets out of his mouth is on the heels of jealousy. Steve just got his best friend in the world back. This is not the impression Tony wants to inscribe on this moment. He takes a deep breath. “Steve… Damn it.”
Steve stares at him, and then, suddenly, he’s staring harder. Tony keeps the recoil from showing in his face, but Steve has always had the irritating ability to bypass the walls. Steve glances into the room too, eyeing Barnes on the bed, then flicks his gaze to Tony without turning his head. His expression bends in a very strange way, and then he’s reaching for Tony.
“I know, I know,” Tony says immediately, both hands raised between them, “I’m over-thinking and making no sense—”
Steve drags him in, his grip firming around Tony’s elbow, and kisses him silent. He takes his time, keeps pulling Tony in until they’re both in the doorway, all dirty, chilled skin. Tony expects the kiss to end, but Steve goes the opposite direction, tilting his head, dipping his chin and coming up at Tony from underneath, tonguing into his mouth. His hands slide down Tony’s sides, over his flanks and around behind, cupping his ass with shocking blatancy, hitching him right in. Tony exhales in surprise, and gets even more kiss than he bargained for. Steve continues his trek over Tony’s body. It’s like there’s no one else in this hospital, like someone couldn’t just walk by right now and see Steve all over him, flattening all doubt about his intentions.
When he finally pulls back enough to breathe, Tony is rock hard and dizzy.
He takes a deep breath, then another, and—they’re kissing again. It feels like the natural order of things. Steve’s hands never cease their movement, gripping tighter this time. Tony feels him tense, his whole body going tighter. His mouth, his kiss, gets more aimless, as though Steve is losing himself in it.
A devilish part of Tony’s mind pipes up: Last one for the road! Tony lets out an incredulous huff. It is funny. If you look at it a certain way. Steve grips his nape, turns the kiss absolutely filthy, and when it ends a second time, Tony’s ears buzz.
Oh, hell, that was... He doesn’t know words. Tony runs his tongue over his teeth, catching the taste of Steve there, unable to connect anything. It’s all just a soft, cozy jumble and... he realizes Steve’s speaking.
“...changes nothing between us.” Steve’s words slur. His mouth is swollen, cheeks beautifully pinked and hair mussed up. Tony doesn’t remember grabbing it. But he keeps tripping back to Steve’s face, lips to chin to eyes. He feels inebriated, so tired that he’s wired again. He stares at Steve long enough to see his expression shutter, uneasy. Steve leans back. “Unless... you want it to change.”
Tony fists his hands so suddenly in Steve’s shirt that Steve rocks forward. “No,” he breathes, with emphasis. “I do not.”
It’s already changed, is the thing. And he, Tony Stark, elicits change all the damn time with gusto, but that’s when he’s in control. This, this is not. Despite the nerves jittering through him, he makes himself relax his grip. It’s hard. Steve’s breath rushes over his face, and he’s so close, enough to press their mouths right back together again with a mere twitch.
Tony leans in, Steve shifts at the same time, and their noses bump. Steve’s eyes are closed, the relief plain on his features. His arm tightens, perhaps inadvertently, around Tony’s waist.
“Thank you. For doing this.”
“For… this?” For kissing Steve? God help him, he’s lost. He laughs. “Little weird to thank me.”
Steve gives him a quick but gentle shake. “For him.” He looks into the hospital room, and his expression is, for the first time in a while, utterly helpless. “I dragged you into this.”
“You didn’t drag me anywhere.”
“—Tony, and you didn’t have to do anything, but you did everything.”
Tony stills. He waits until Steve looks him in the eye, except all he can do then is shake his head. Steve did everything that needed doing, Steve was the prepared one, Steve had the plan and the intel, the motivation to do what was right instead of getting fed up with it all and leaving Barnes to a much bigger pack of wolves. All Tony’d had was the clothing on his back and the piss-poor machinery he’d accidentally knocked together the day before.
All Tony’d had was the overwhelming need to be of use to Steven Rogers.
“I didn’t do everything, Steve.” But he wants to have been indispensible. To have been necessary. He wants more than anything for Steve to tell him he made all the difference.
Steve peers at him for a long, silent moment, then slowly shakes his head. A wry look clips over his face and then shudders off as weariness finally catches up. Steve blinks and sways; it’s instinct to grab him, reel him in.
“I’m so glad you came.”
It’s nearly frantic, crammed together and in a tone Tony has never heard in his life. Steve looks around again, that vulnerability sneaking back over his features, and Tony takes his face in hand, turns him back.
“Of course I came,” he states. He strokes Steve’s cheek, his hair, and looks away, feels his own face heat. “Course I did.”
And when did he end up the strong one, he wonders. When Steve doubled over inside and made it necessary? Suddenly Tony doesn’t know who has been supporting whom throughout this wild adventure. But it’s served them well.
“Stay,” Steve utters into another kiss, “stay with me?” His hands are back on Tony, roving, clutching. Everywhere. And what on God’s green earth is Tony supposed to say to that?
He’ll get Steve back into his bed. He’ll welcome it, his room and his sheets, a place that has rarely felt like home save for the other people in it. He’ll take Steve home when all this is done and christen the monument of that moment properly, and they won’t have to leap awake after it’s over or plan intimacy around a swift departure or smother every breath under discretion. They’ll sleep, heaped against each other and worn to the bone, aware that any minute now, they can just do it again.
But he’s not tired anymore.
Stay with me.
He laces his fingers through Steve’s and nods toward the two chairs in the room, the second sitting by the wall, just outside the circle of light. “Was always the plan.”