His HUD flickers out with an electric buzz and his vision plunges sharply into a pitch black. Tony chokes to breathe in air that isn't recycled and can't find purchase. His brain won't tell his lungs to draw in a fill.
Neurons misfiring in a field of cold dead stars.
Dead, lulling stars.
"Tony, Tony! You need to breathe."
And god, he's trying. Don't they see that he's trying?
They. The conversation that swirls around him like nausea, spiking and dropping, white noise all the same.
"I have to get him out of here."
"You don't say anything."
"—careful. He needs calm. His heart...Extremis but arrhythmia..."
"JARVIS...safe to move him?"
Tony's stomach lurches violently at the shift in gravity, the feeling of having his ribs—because there's no wind left—knocked out of him. Whatever is usually laced between his organs is lost. No room to let anything in or breathe anything out.
He feels condensed, like the innards of a sardine can.
I'm dying, he believes.
"Not if I have anything to say about it," a voice insists near his ear, the relief overwhelming the actual words.
Familiar hands are cradling his face when he comes to again.
Tony blinks rapidly into the color of pure wheat. Soft-scented wheat. He thinks he's smiling when he says, "Hair's getting long, Cap."
The eyes are cornflower blue framed with creases of worry and exasperation. A kiss is pressed to Tony's forehead, skids sideways down along his cheek and jawline to ultimately rest against the column of his throat.
"Shh, take some deep breaths for me. Your pulse is still erratic," Steve whispers.
"Shut up, Tony."
And because he's not always an asshole husband, Tony does as he's told, lays back against the pillows and says absolutely nothing. He runs an internal status update alongside Steve's manual one while taking stock of their surroundings. First and foremost, he spots his armored suitcase in the corner of the blank bedroom that hangs about them. A plain off-white color makes up the walls and the furniture suggests minimalism as something wild. He shouldn't be surprised by the drab accommodations. It is the Baxter Building after all.
"Fucking Reed Richards," Tony comments after he's measured his blood pressure at 127 over 84.
Steve snorts, despite himself Tony can tell. "Can't say that I disagree. Between the two of you, I don't know who I want to throttle first."
"How is that even a question? Definitely Richards," Tony grunts out as he pushes himself up to a seat. "Always, always Richards."
"What were you thinking, Tony?"
"You know the plan as well as I do. You heard Quill, what Thanos is gearing up to do—that war can't be fought on Earth, Steve. The day his collection is complete, I'll have bigger worries than a panic attack in space."
"So you decide to push yourself into something you're nowhere near ready for?"
"Last I heard, that's our day job. Or should I consider faxing the throne-ridden-until-all-bling-is-in-order dark lord a schedule that's more sympathetic to my needs?" Tony asks hotly.
He feels guilty about what Steve just witnessed. He's sorry that Steve is here right now but Tony's not sorry for what he did. Destruction is on its way and it's not slowing down for anyone. Platitudes aren't going to help here and he's not about to make a promise that he'd only having every intention of breaking. That's why Tony handed off the project to Richards. He couldn't afford the luxury of building it himself in the tower only to pretend that he wasn't. He didn't have the time to try and hide it right under Steve's nose, for Steve to have a clue of what he was up to. He'd only ask him to stop. Tony is going to keep up with the simulator. Unsurprisingly, it needs some altercations but for the most part, it's sound. It terrifies him but that's its goddamn purpose.
"Then we go about it another route," Steve nods, tactician mind at work.
"I've thought of them all, Steve," Tony retorts. Revved, he doesn't quit. "This way is the most efficient. What do you want me to do? Visit a shrink? Do more yoga with Bruce? Maybe start hanging up motivational posters in the shop? This is it. The program is exposure therapy. It provides atmosphere, temperature, the actual physics of space so I don't piss my pants the minute I'm out of the stratosphere."
"No, you only suffer from irregular heart activity and lose respiratory function, not to mention the ramifications dealing with your mental health." Steve rises from the bed with intent. "I'm not letting you do this. I'm gonna tell Reed to shut it down."
Bolting up right after him, Tony says, "Don't you dare."
A wide-eyed look of betrayal is directed his way, too reminiscent of a time that's not far enough away, and it twists at Tony's heart. Albeit, in comparison to the alternative, it's not that big of a sacrifice. A marital dispute, his husband being upset with him, is worlds better than his husband being dead.
"Are you really asking me to stand by and watch you hurt yourself? Suffer over and over again?" Steve asks, incredulous sounding and searching Tony as if he doesn't know him. "You're actually serious?"
It's not right. It's not right. But neither is his life without Steve. "Yes," Tony answers. "You don't need to be here. I'm not practicing in the tower and—"
"That's not the point!" Steve snaps and speaks over him. He continues fiercely. "Are you out of your mind? Not seeing it doesn't make a bit of difference to me and you know that. It's harming you. And it's unnecessary. That's enough reason for you to quit. You've stepped over the line, Tony. You need to reign it in."
Tony laughs, short and hollow and bitter. "Well hello, Captain America."
"Don't do that, Tony. Don't throw my concern back in my face. It's not fair."
"What makes you think any of this is going to be fair? That's not the reality we live in, Steve."
"Find another way."
"It doesn't exist."
Steve raises a brow. "It doesn't or you're not willing to try at something if there's not enough flash or risk?"
"Got it one," Tony sarcastically decides.
Steve barrels on. "The lack of regard you show for your health—this need you have, to be self-sacrificing and show off—"
Tony hears the hum of anger in his ears, low at the moment but still dangerous. It's such a worn and welcoming tread but Tony manages to sidestep it. One tic in the jaw and a swallow, much better than the fury he's tempted to unleash. "That's not what this is."
Steve shakes his head, mouth shaped in an ugly form that doesn't belong on his handsome face. "Iron Man has to be the one to save the day."
And you're all about style, aren't you?
This conversation is sneaking up on them like a ghost, swift and cruel. Vernacular they buried years ago is resurrecting and Tony desperately doesn't want to go back to the shouting matches. He has a little trouble now—imagining a period when they clashed so violently, where they didn't lean on one another, didn't compromise, or make the effort of listening. When they let the volume of an argument engulf its meaning because they were so bullheaded and unwilling to relent. Whichever direction Tony would choose, Steve would vote for the opposite way. And vice versa. It feels like a stupid lifetime ago.
The lines of Steve are rigid, his body straight and braced for impact, fists curled hard against his sides. It's not a new sight but the composition is different. Attuned to every part of Steve, he sees fear in place of the aplomb that comes with confronting an enemy. His stature isn't formed behind diplomacy or anything resembling politics, despite the words leaving his mouth. It's fight or flight, the stage that Tony's pushed him to. That's desperation clouding in his gaze. This is a man afraid to lose someone he cherishes. Tony can relate.
Fingering a silver circle that has no beginning and no ending, the realization is sudden. There's no time for this either, to not say it outright and be honest. For them to hurt each other in sores that their old shadows—strangers—found and exposed. Steve's no more the enemy than Tony is. God, if there's anything he's learned, it's that. It's this: "I need to be by your side."
"Tony..." Steve utters, intimate and small. Begging, begging for Tony to leave it be.
Tony closes the distance between he and Steve in every way that he possibly can. He clutches at his arms, moves into them. His hands sweep over his husband's chest and torso until he can manage a grasp onto something tangible. It's a flurry of constant motion until the fabric of Steve's long-sleeved tee gives and Tony tugs, beyond impatient.
"I'm not stopping," he swears adamantly in a tiny space. He stares into Steve so that he understands and gets this, gets that it's not about saving the world. It is but it's not. It's about protecting the most precious thing he's found in the last decade, in midst of the blood, death, catastrophes and all of his binding mistakes. Tony knows that Steve considers him to be the same sort of redemption but there are nuances between confinement and protection. He needs to get that point across. "I cannot give up on this. If I don't learn to get over... Steve, it's not an option. There's a time constraint and I don't get to know when the clock hits zero. I need you to support me here."
"Support you?" Steve asks, agonized and desolation in his voice. "I'm loving you."
It's a clawing instinct to soothe him. Tony reaches for a hand, clasps on, and fits his fingers into the echoes of Steve's. His hand wraps around Steve's nape and he bows their foreheads together. He bumps Steve's nose gently, attempts to comfort him with skin on skin. He brushes against Steve's mouth, spoils the whimper halfway through.
"I know how messed up this is, believe me. If the tables were reversed, I don't know if I could watch you in my place." He swallows down the bile that the mere thought brings. When he's past it, he adds, "I would try, though. Baby, I would try. Leaving you behind? First, you wouldn't stand for it. Second, we don't abandon each other. Third, and incredibly relevant to the seven billion souls of Terra Firma, I'd be no good up there without my heart. What makes me thrive, makes me strong, makes me the best I can be."
He watches a mix of grief and reluctance wash over Steve. "Tony."
"I can't be on this planet without you," Tony confesses between their lips. Tony is counting on this to convince Steve because he can't be anymore bare or base. This is his last recourse. "I get nightmares. Where you go off into the dark, you and the rest of the team, and no one comes back. Steve, I can't lose you knowing that I wasn't at your side to prevent it. Do not ask me to. You think that these panic attacks—they have nothing, nothing, on just the idea of a place where I am and you're not."
A better man wouldn't take victory in the inkling of awareness that graces Steve's features, the dawning of acceptance.
The room falls silent and still for what feels like an eon.
"You're never going to lose me," Steve says finally. It's sure. A vow, as earnest and as heartfelt as the rest he's made to Tony. And Tony wants to shake him, comes so close to because Steve is not understanding and Tony, superpowered brain be damned, is not understanding Steve. Contrary to popular belief, the serum never made Steve invincible. It's hard but not impossible to kill him. In the age of aliens, wormholes, and intergalactic war, nothing is impossible.
"What happened to not telling exorbitant lies?" Tony asks suddenly. Steve saying he won't ever die definitely qualifies. He's driving Tony crazy with this new complex. Tony only wants an okay, wants to no longer go behind Steve's back.
Steve gives a laugh rough with emotion, sweeps his thumb along Tony's lower lip. "Pretty sure that was your caffeine-induced promise. There may have been Boston cream donuts."
"Gotta be kidding me," Tony quips blandly. "We don't share responsibilities here?"
"I'm not telling an exorbitant lie." Steve admits sadly, softly squeezing Tony's hand. His expression is etched with resignation. It's going to take a long while for Tony to not hate himself for putting it there but he'll be sorry in the after, whenever that decides to fucking show up. Whenever evil is no longer hot on their heels. "Saying 'I'll let you' sounds condescending and you don't need my permission just because I'm your spouse so I'll just say that I'm not going to get in your way about this. When I tell you that you won't ever lose me, that means never willfully leaving you. I'm going to be here. Every time. I'll hate it—"
"You'll hate it so much."
"—and chances are good that I'll fight you on it again."
"I expect nothing less."
A rueful smile twitches into place before Steve dips his head down. He kisses Tony like he just wants to make sure Tony's real, deep and warm and so caring. "You don't go without me either. In this or anything else."
Whatever heavy thing that has clung to Tony for the past two months, since the team received a vidcall from the cosmos, dissipates. "I promise." He hauls Steve into his arms, wraps around him tight and his heart speeds again. "I love you. And that's not some fucked up thank you. I love you so much, Steve. It's the reason for everything."
He kisses the anticipated reply out of Steve's language and his curving fingers catch the hem at the back of Steve's shirt. They come around to the front and inch up the fabric. He gets it off and to the floor where it belongs. He's leaning back in for a taste of Steve's skin when Steve puts a hand out to stop him.
"Not here. We can't. Reed's," he breaks off with a moan when Tony sucks on the sensitive skin by his clavicle. "Oh, jeez, Tony."
Tony murmurs in agreement.
"Reed is right down the hall, Tony," Steve tries, not so convincing when he's easily distracted by the sight of Tony mouthing his nipple.
Last week in the Quinjet lavatory, when they'd taken advantage of bad turbulence, says that Steve is full of shit.
Plus there's still a trace of a haunting in his eyes that Tony wants to rid of.
"Fellow scientist," Tony begrudgingly notes as he pulls Steve in by the hips. He pops the button of Steve's jeans and delights in the scratch of a yielding zipper, freeing Steve's gorgeous cock. “More than likely has invested in soundproof walls. I mean, you've seen Sue right?"
"Inappropriate," Steve says, half-strangled by the alignment of their groins.
Tony strips off his own shirt and tongues into Steve's mouth. He closes his fist around the head of Steve's cock and thumbing it, he insists, "Let me make this better for you. Can you do that for me?"
"I've been doing a lot for you," Steve reminds him in a lust-rough voice. He jerks up into Tony's hold, near slick.
"You really want to do this, though." Tony looks up through his lashes, takes his hand off Steve to only open his palm and lick it in a sinful display. That sheer want aimed his way is the first thing Tony's been proud of all day, makes him hard and puts his mind at a flight risk. It urges Tony to stretch up and in his hurry and need, he catches the corner of Steve's mouth but he kisses there fervently all the same. Makes up for it on the next and the one following that. His kisses Steve to convey what words can't. This is his thank you, how he says that it'll be worth it. After every session, every nerve-wracking fit, Tony will come back for this. He'll take care of Steve and they'll keep each other sane right here. In kisses and touches, they'll always love each other after the pain.
Steve lifts him with a growl and sets him back on the bed, Tony's legs cinched around his waist.
Tony combs his fingers through Steve's hair, admiring the other man's flushed cheeks, the black lust starting to best his blue irises. "Please, please. You have your wallet with you, right? On your rush over here. And while we're on the subject, want to tell me exactly how you knew where I was?"
"Nope. Wallet's in my pocket," Steve says. He travels and stripes a wet trail down Tony's chest and stomach. He undoes Tony's pants and gets him naked with well-practiced efficiency. He tongues the inside of Tony's ankle, biting at it. "It's always a swell treat when you forgo underwear."
Tony laughs as Steve yanks out a foil packet of lube before shedding his jeans and shorts.
Endlessly fond, he teases, "My favorite boy scout." It curls like an endearment.
Steve crawls back toward Tony at a length. Kisses are planted in random patterns along shins and up to the pelvic bone and then around near the curve of Tony's ass, creating a bloodbuzz down in the depths of Tony. Steve speaks incessantly, vibrating and causing a rash of hot-cold goosebumps. He's calling Tony unbelievable, beautiful, heart, and his. He runs deft fingers along Tony's thighs and draws the back of his hand up Tony's side; he always manages to look as amazed as he did the first time he splayed heat over crevices and smooth alike. It's this that Tony is fighting for.
Honest hunger eviscerates the playful mood Tony had been going for earlier. When Steve's within reach, Tony hooks him back in with his knees and rocks up into him, pets at him, up and over his thick shoulders. His hands span down the expanse of Steve's warm back. He shivers when Steve puts some weight on him. He sets his mouth against the center of Steve's chest, darts out the tip of his tongue to trace the strong muscle there, where it bends, and finds Steve's heart like a port in a storm.
"Want you in me, want to feel you." God, he's aching with it. Want, so much want, burning him from the inside out, as though he actually didn't perfect Extremis. This act with Steve always shreds him to his weaknesses. Loving like this is picking every fragment of himself apart and placing them in a litter at Steve's feet.
"Okay, okay," Steve whispers but he only hugs Tony to him. He buries his face in Tony's neck, breathing deeply, dragging in long drafts of air and trying to take Tony in with it. Shuddering and heart rabbiting and torn and breaking apart, "God, Tony."
And Tony is so close to taking it all back but he finds the strength, in a dark and selfish corner of himself, to simply touch a hand to Steve's face. He pulls back and doesn't let the sting behind his eyes through. He bites back a sob, brushes his lips along Steve's brow, skimming his hairline. He goes down to the shell of Steve's ear, where the words can sit. "You're alright. It's alright, Steve. It's alright."
"You don't." After a gasp, "the way you see yourself. Tony, that's not alright." He's grabbing at Tony, the purchase his fingers catch on Tony's skin is sure to bruise. And Steve has to be far gone because how he grips Tony, he's usually so careful about it and right now he's not checking himself at all. It's like he's having one of Tony's strange moments, where Tony wants to be absorbed into Steve and swim in his blood, be that close, Steve that much of necessity for him. "Love you so much," Steve cries.
"Hey, hey. I know," Tony says, repeats it over and over. Tony knows it without conscious. He nudges at Steve until they've got eyes locked on one another, until Steve's face makes up the edges of his vision. He brushes his mouth over Steve's stained cheekbones until they're dry again. "I know. Steve...Jesus." No one's ever loved Tony the way that Steve does, so wholly, visceral and atomic.
He steers Steve into a kiss that has no right being called a kiss. It's a rough piecing together, gasps leaking out of broken parts where their mouths don't catch, teeth biting and tongue a vulturous thing when they do. The sounds they make are wounded and they just return for more, need blind and unlearning.
Clutching tightly at Steve, Tony rations just enough room for him to get a hand in between them and trail wetness in between Tony's thighs. Tony is patient for a lubed finger to push into him and crook toward his stomach, a find that takes no searching. It's not steady, goes farther in on the second entrance and it's not long before it's joined by another finger and causing Tony's breath to hitch. Tony's pulse is vibrant under his skin, on fire everywhere. He pushes back on the unmeasured pace of Steve's fingers, ruts on them, no part of his body graceful any longer. He clenches on three fingers, when Steve gets the angle just right and a current sings in his blood. Howls and then strains in his cock.
Tony's unable to do anything that requires actual thought. All else is instinctual, the arch of his back and the jerk of his hips.
Steve pulls his fingers out all at once, replaces them with the head of his cock. He presses in slow, assuredly pinning Tony down, heavy and slick. A lust rushes to Tony's head like an alcohol, every bit of himself drunk on every bit of Steve he's being given. It's so good. Unbelievably heady, the best thing that Tony will ever taste. Could cure him of absolutely anything. Steve sinks in deep and he stays there, fills him until Tony can practically taste it. Each time Steve is buried in him, touching the pits of Tony, that's when a dormant and lonely part of Tony wakes up, when he realizes over and over again that's he's missed this. He misses it in every moment of his life except for right here. "God, Steve."
Steve groans above him, guttural and weighted. He moves again, hands stretched over Tony's ass. He flexes out and snaps right back in with gritting teeth, like he's pained.
Tony surges up and kisses the red of his lips, the swollen flesh. He cradles Steve's head, spans his fingers at the back of his neck and into the short, damp hairs there. "Love you, baby. Feels so good. Perfect, you're so perfect."
"Do anything for you," Steve breathes harshly, the syllables trembling, breaking bittersweet. His hips shift and then one hand is hiking up Tony's leg, causing his cock to fuck up and in, find Tony's prostate to thrust against. He fucks fast and archaic and this is Steve at his essence, in his sweat, blood, and tears. This is how fiercely he gives, how he empties himself. This is what's under the serum, what's he's been branded with his entire life, this sincere and relentless fight—Tony doesn't deserve him but he'll always, always take him. You don't get blessed enough to get the love of Steve Rogers and let it go.
Someone's going to have to pry it from his cold, dead hands.
He has no more words to say it. They're far from speech now so he just fucks Steve back, endures the ache in his spine and hugs Steve to him with his overstimulated and too fraught limbs. He fingers digs into flesh, greedy for bone. He kisses and tongues over Steve's salted and hot skin. He hangs on as their rhythm climbs in sporadic and mindless pattern—sharp, short, and uncoordinated.
When he comes, it's untouched, sudden, and the power behind it leaves him without the ability to even cry out. It almost rocks him out of Steve's possession. His climax spills between them, hot and white, feels ceaseless.
The sobs he hears aren't his own. It's Steve's violent orgasm, shaking through his person and filling him.
Tony holds him, kisses his temple and strokes his cheek until their heavy breathes sync up and turn into something that can be managed. He takes the scent of Steve in, the roots of it, beyond sweat and sex; Tony takes in everything about him. He takes inventory with his hands, over his husband's arms, along Steve's spine, feels for the rise of his flanks and counts his ribs. He gazes down to the fluttering of Steve's lashes, relishes in the grip that Steve has on his hair, the strong forearm that made its way between Tony's shoulder blades. Tony plans to do this every time that they make it to the other side, hopes that Steve will forgive him enough to let him even though Tony doesn't believe he'll ever be able to extend the same courtesy to himself.