He’s lost his breath before, probably more times than any one normal person should be able to say. But he isn’t normal, he never has been.
Before the serum, being unable to catch his breath was a common, if unwelcome, occurrence. The winter air would freeze his lungs, razor claws digging into his throat, and he'd cough so frequently there was no time to catch his breath in between. Dust from the ancient living room rug that the previous tenants had left behind in his and Bucky’s tiny one-bedroom apartment suffocated him. Sometimes the four flights of stairs up to the front door was enough to leave him gasping.
After the serum, he had more control over his breathing, and the moments that were capable of stealing his breath then were all are the more memorable for it. Seeing Red Skull’s face for the first time, the darkest parts of human nature brought to life, and feeling horrified at what the serum running through his veins could turn a different soul into. When Bucky fell from the train, reaching for Steve, reaching and screaming and always reaching. Peggy’s tearful voice when Steve plummeted into the North Atlantic.
And since his second “rebirth”, opening his eyes nearly seventy years later. Watching videos of the history he’d missed, and the wars nobody ever won or ever learned from, all of the pointless death, the atomic bomb. Standing on the edge of the SHIELD helicarrier as it lifted him into the sky. The son of Howard Stark hurling truth wrapped in insults, not afraid or intimidated by Captain America towering over him. Aliens crashing through a 3-dimensional portal, intent on wrecking his city, his home. Tony Stark, making that sacrifice play. Tony Stark, falling back to earth, surviving, overcoming once again.
And now. Tony Stark, buried in the rubble of his own home, under attack from an enemy he’d knowingly provoked to avenge his friend.
Steve watches as another explosion rocks the foundations of the Malibu mansion. Around him is silence, just him and a ramshackle hotel room in the middle of nowhere. Steve is glued to the small television with crappy reception showing the live feed from California, displaying views of fire and crumbling masonry.
There’s another explosion, and he watches as the house begins to slide off the cliff. His breath catches in his throat. He can’t think. Stark is in there. Tony Stark is inside those walls, the ones that are sliding into the ocean even as he stares, unmoving, thousands of miles away, an ocean and a continent separating him from where he really needs to be.
His mouth drops open absently as he watches a piano fly out from the ruins and smash directly into one of the helicopters, bringing it down. He wants to laugh, but he's holding his breath and he can’t move, his hands clenched onto the worn coffee table in front of him. He’s staring at the screen so hard his eyes are beginning to itch, and he sees a vague humanoid form running past the smashed floor-to-ceiling windows, followed closely by machine gun fire. Then he sees Iron Man throw something, shoot a repulsor at it, and blow up another helicopter.
Steve can’t help it; He grins. His chest is still tight with worry and helpless frustration, but this is Iron Man. This is Tony Stark. How could he forget that? The man is far from helpless, and he’s a giant pain in the ass when he wants to be, Steve should know.
The smile drops off his face as Steve watches the falling helicopter smash into the house right where Iron Man is standing, and half of the building goes crashing down into the ocean.
He’s watched the interview so many times he knows it by heart. They’ve been playing it on repeat, between footage of the house collapsing into the Pacific.
“…I know you’re a coward. So I’ve decided you’ve just died pal…”
BBC news informs him that law enforcement agents in California have arrived at the scene and are currently searching the wreckage for… anything, really. Parts of the Iron Man armor. A body. There are divers and boats and helicopters, but so far they’ve found nothing.
“…Just good old-fashioned revenge…”
What Steve wouldn’t give for some good old-fashioned revenge right now. He didn’t—doesn’t— know Stark that well, but the man is part of his team, and beneath all of the bullshit and bluster he’s a good man, he proved that when he rode that missile into outer space. And maybe, just maybe, Steve feels an attachment to him, because he’s a link to Steve’s past, when everything else is dead and gone, or fading, like he should have faded. But fate had other plans, and he’s not gone but here, and Stark is his anchor, in a way, though he hardly knows him, and they don’t even particularly like each other.
Steve wants to help, but he knows there’s nothing he can do that isn’t already being done. The agents in California will find what there is to be found, and if he’s needed, Natasha knows how to reach him.
The waiting still drives him crazy.
“…here’s my home address. 10880 Malibu Point, 90265. I’ll leave the door unlocked.”
TONY STARK PRESUMED DEAD
Steve eyes the headline of the American newspaper and tosses it back down onto the table. It’s been over 12 hours since the Mandarin attack in California. There’s been another video feed from the terrorist, and a man has died at the hands of this monster, and no one had been able to do anything about it, and Steve’s about ready to haul his ass home just to show them how to get something done.
He gets a text from Natasha, telling him to stay put, she’s found Clint and they’ve got it handled. Steve hopes so, because he’s not going to feel better until his team is back in one piece, safe and sound.
He hasn’t left the hotel room since the whole mess started, he could be seriously compromising his mission but he can't focus right now. He’s sitting in front of the TV again, watching as the news reporters bring news from Miami. There are Feds in the background, doing cleanup, a disturbing amount of body bags piled near rusted shipping containers. There are metal parts lying all over the ground, and Steve can just make out bits of the Iron Man armor. According to the news, there had been an all-out battle, dozens of Iron Man suits taking on what they’re calling Extremis-enhanced soldiers.
Steve feels numb. They are reporting that the President is okay, rescued by Colonel Rhodes in the Iron Patriot/War Machine armor, but they haven’t said anything about Tony, or Pepper.
His phone rings. He picks it up without looking. Very few people know this number.
“Cap.” Natasha’s voice is quiet, sharp.
“Tell me,” he orders.
“He’s fine, Steve,” she says calmly.
Steve exhales slowly. Closes his eyes and swallows.
“Thanks,” he says, when he can speak.
Steve feels like he can breathe again.
He spends a week in Minsk, before boarding a train to Vitebsk, a smaller city closer to the Russian border, on a tip from Natasha. This city is just as cold, and somehow even lonelier than the last, despite its green lawns and white buildings and clean streets. The people here are even more withdrawn, and he doesn’t know if it’s because he’s an unwelcome American, or because there’s something else going on that he’s unaware of. He hopes it’s the latter. For all of the problems it could potentially cause, it’s a way of knowing they’re on the right track, in the right place.
His phone is still working perfectly, despite being in a run-down city with no cell towers. Natasha had given it to him, after the SHIELD fiasco, and even if it hadn't had the name STARK embossed across the top, he would have known who she’d gotten it from. He gets crystal clear reception everywhere, and access to everything he could need, no issues with GPS or wifi. There’s always a hotel room waiting for him in each new city, and though he knows Natasha has her own resources, he suspects Tony’s behind it. Like he’s behind the extra funds in his bank account.
Sam had left him a while back, before everything went down with the Mandarin, saying he had to get home, he had a life there, a job. He told Steve to call if he needed anything at all, or if he got a good lead, but Steve hasn't called. Sam did leave him with some advice: “He’s like a hurt animal, Steve. He’s gonna hide and lick his wounds, and he won’t come back ’til he’s ready. I know you want to be there for him, but chasing him around the world might just be making it worse. Let him come to you.”
He’s just now starting to take that to heart. Steve's a stubborn guy, he knows he is, but Bucky has outsmarted him at every turn. Steve’s hardly laid eyes on him since he started searching for him, never even come close to approaching him. The closest he’d gotten was in Hungary at a market, but a bus drove by and by the time it’d passed Bucky’d vanished into thin air. It’s like Bucky was always one step ahead of him, regardless of all the help he’s been getting.
He doesn’t know if he has a home to go back to. He’s been away for months. He doesn’t know if his SHIELD apartment in Washington is even still an option. He boards a flight back to New York instead of DC and rests his head back against the seat, closing his eyes. He resolves not to think about it, or about Bucky, or about anything at all, for the next 10 hours.
He can’t honestly say he’s surprised.
Tony had half-expected the Captain to stay away out of spite, or obstinance (since the spite in their relationship has faded into something not quite so spiteful, maybe wariness, or guardedness), but he supposes even he can be wrong. Sometimes. Rarely, but anything can happen, really.
Tony squints at the screen. Rogers has a raggedy black duffel hanging from one shoulder and a very conspicuous shield-shaped bag slung over his back. He’s wearing worn out jeans and a tight-fitting (always with the tight-fitting) long sleeved shirt that have both seen better days.
“Let him in, JARVIS. Send him to the penthouse.”
Tony rises from his desk, closing the holographic windows displaying the newest Iron Man specs. He keeps them locked down because he can’t take another argument, not about Iron Man. The guy he gave up. The one he’s not supposed to be anymore. The one he’s always going to be, no matter what Pepper thinks.
He strides over to the private elevator and the doors slide open soundlessly. As JARVIS whisks him up from the basement depths of Stark Tower, he brainstorms furiously. He had a plan for the day the Captain showed up on his doorstep, but it seems silly and inadequate now and like he’s trying too hard (he’s not, he’s got nothing to prove), so he’s got to come up with something entirely different from the original red, white, and blue confetti and ‘Here, I built you an apartment in my Tower!’ idea.
Upon stepping into the sleek lounge area, he gets his first close-up look at the new and improved Captain America. He hasn’t seen him in person since the Chitauri battle over two years ago, though he’s kept tabs on him in the meantime (along with anonymous donations here and there to fund the whole My Best Friend Is A Psychotic Assassin And I’m Going To Save Him Because I’m Just That Good Of A Guy thing). Tony doesn’t really like what he sees.
All of the little details Tony couldn’t see on the surveillance footage in his lab jump out at him now: the bags under his eyes, the shaggy hair sadly in need of a trim (strange on such a put-together guy like Captain America—Tony can’t think of a time the Captain hadn’t had that ruler straight part and perfectly combed hair, even in the middle of a battle), the defeated posture and tired slope of his (insanely) wide shoulders.
The Captain turns at Tony’s entrance, super soldier hearing and reflexes still sharp. His shoulders straighten and Tony realizes he’s standing at attention. He snorts.
“At ease, Cap. Long time no see.”
Tony shoots him a patented Stark grin and saunters over to the wall-length bar opposite the recessed area Rogers is standing in. “Want something to drink? Oh, right, super serum. Can’t get drunk. But you can still enjoy it, can’t you?” Tony busies himself making a drink. A strong one. There’s something about the other man that sets him on edge, makes him jittery.
Cap shakes his head, voice soft but firm when he replies. “No, thank you. I’m actually here—“
“Let me guess,” Tony interrupts. He takes a sip of his very expensive brandy and swirls it around in his mouth, savoring the taste. Only the best. Swallowing, he continues, “Turns out your assassin friend is harder to find than you expected, and with no SHIELD resources to back you up—Good job with that, by the way, they had it coming with their secrets upon secrets thing they had going on—now you need my help. Sound about right?” He finishes, and downs the rest of his glass.
Cap’s face has gone from earnest to irritated to resigned, and now rests somewhere around determined. He takes a deep breath, chest expanding and holy hell he’s huge, his chest and shoulders dwarf Tony and Tony may only be 5’9” but he’s pretty broad and he works hard to keep his physique toned but it's still nothing compared to Rogers. It's really not fair.
“Yes, Mr. Stark, sounds about right,” he sighs. He glances at the couch behind him. “Mind if I take a seat?”
Tony waves at him indifferently as he pours out another drink for himself and fresh one for his guest. He recaps the decanter and walks across the room, sitting on the adjacent love seat and sliding the Captain’s drink across the table toward him. Rogers catches it with a large hand and makes no move to drink from it. Tony has no such qualms and takes a large sip, feeling it settle along with the first glass to warm his stomach.
Tony’s about to ask him what he wants from him, specifically, when Rogers beats him to the punch. The Captain looks up and pins him against the couch with his startlingly blue eyes.
“I just wanted to thank you. For the funds, and the information. I know you’ve been helping, and I appreciate it.”
Tony opens his mouth, to say what exactly he doesn’t know, deny it or brush it off, he’s not good with thank yous and he’s not used to people being so direct, he’s in business and politics and people saying anything but what they really mean. But before he can say anything at all, Rogers continues.
“As for you helping now…” he pauses, eyes dropping to the floor between his feet. Tony raises his eyebrows, curious. “Well, if you’re up for it, I mean, if you don’t mind… I’d just like to keep an eye on him. On Bucky. I’m done chasing him. He will come back when—if—he wants to. And I have to respect his choice. But, I’d like to know that he’s okay. If you can do that.” The Captain looks up again and catches Tony’s eyes, and Tony’s at a loss for words for a moment.
How is this guy real? He just walks in here, tired and exhausted from months of living in lovely Eastern European hostels, and he straight up thanks Tony for hardly helping at all (he should have been there, helped his teammate, but who knows how that would have gone between them, and then the Mandarin happened, and Pepper would never have been okay with him jetting off to Europe for a couple months anyway, and he’s just a coward, there’s no excuse). And then he has the guts to ask a guy he’s never liked for a favor he must be sure Tony will deny, and the favor isn’t even to find the guy, it’s just to make sure he’s okay. Like he’s going to respect his best-friend-back-from-the-dead’s space. Like it’ll be enough. And it will, he’s Captain America, he does decent things like respect people’s space, even though he clearly doesn’t want to. What the fuck.
“Sure, no problem. I mean, yeah, JARVIS already has an alert set for any time something Winter-Soldier-esque pops up, so I can just have him let you know too. It’s really not a favor at all, it’s adding another, like, three lines of code. Seriously.” Tony shakes his head. Drinks some more. “Did you need anything else? Like, an actual favor? Something I can actually help you with? I mean, even outside of the whole Barnes thing. What are you doing? You don’t even have a job anymore, do you. Do you even have a place to live?”
Cap's gaze hardens, hand clenching around his glass a little tighter. “No, seeing as SHIELD no longer exists, I am currently out of a job. Thank you for reminding me,” he snaps, voice tight.
Tony rolls his eyes. “No need to be so sensitive, Cap. It’s not like anyone could have seen it coming, international intelligence agency crumbling around their ears and all that. I’m pretty sure there are a lot of other former employees out there wallowing over the fact that they no longer have a job, too, and they can’t even list it as a reference, since SHIELD doesn’t exist to most people. Well, didn’t, until Natasha leaked everything. Not that it would be a good idea to list them as a reference now anyway, I don’t think prospective employers will jump for joy at an applicant admitting that they worked for Hydra for the last ten years or so.”
The Captain rubs his eyes with his fingers, presses steadily against the lids. “Mr. Stark—“
“Tony,” Tony interrupts. He has no idea why he says it, but there it is.
Cap looks up at that. His gaze is steady and measuring. “Tony. Thank you for what you’ve done for me, and for helping with Bucky. It’s more than enough.” He stands, readying himself to leave. Tony stands along with him.
“Cap, really, I’ve got more than enough room here, I’ve got a Tower, for fuck’s sake. Here, look—“
He grabs the Captain’s arm, probably overstepping his boundaries by quite a bit, but he’s a little out of it at the moment, he can’t really think past ‘Captain America needs me’ and some small part of him (the part that’s still ten years old and hugging a Captain America plushie to his tiny chest) wants to show him that Tony Stark is worth his time, he’s not a complete failure.
He drags the Captain into the elevator, babbling all the while. “—and I was thinking we needed a HQ anyway, and now that SHIELD’s gone it’s even more necessary, good thing I planned ahead. Genius, and all that. Anyway, Bruce is already all set up here, though he takes off whenever he feels like it so I hardly know where he is half the time. And I’m out more often than not, still picking up the pieces out in California and I’m always out of town on business and it’s really a cool set up, if you think about it—“
He’s still rambling by the time the doors open onto Cap’s floor. Tony waltzes in, clearly expecting the other man to follow behind, and he does. There’s an open living area complete with flatscreen TV and couches, and past that is a classically modern kitchen. Everything’s done in neutral colors, muted browns and tans and blues. There’s a hallway that leads to a bedroom and a luxurious bathroom, and another door that leads off to a room lined with floor to ceiling windows and a giant oak desk filled to the brim with art supplies. There’s also an easel in the corner and a closet overflowing with different types of paints, but Tony think’s he’ll leave the soldier to discover that room on his own. It might be a little much, he’s not sure. He's not very good at gift-giving. Example: the Giant Stuffed Bunny Fiasco of Christmas, 2013.
He turns around to face the Captain, arms thrown wide. “Here is it. Your very own Stark Tower apartment.” He grins at the shellshocked look on the other man’s face. “What do you think?”
Cap looks around the room, glances over to the kitchen, then looks back at Tony.
“Mr.—Tony. I can’t… I can’t accept this.” He looks overwhelmed. “This is too much. Thank you, but I can’t accept this.” He begins to back toward the elevator.
Tony rolls his eyes. Again. He thinks it may turn out to be a regular occurrence if the Captain is going to be sticking around.
“Cap. There’s a floor for everyone on the team. And a communal floor. Bruce is already here. Natasha has stopped by for a night here and there, before she leaves again to do whatever scary-ass shit she does in her spare time now. Barton, too. I haven’t seen Thor, but next time I do he’ll be getting the same offer. C’mon Cap. Don’t make this awkward, it’s a team thing.”
Tony can see the flurry of emotions running across the other man’s face, the indecision. He sighs.
“Look, they’ve been sitting here empty for over a year now, waiting for you all to show up. Just take it and say thank you, Tony, light of my life, I’d love to live here with the rest of my awesome team of superheroes.”
Cap actually quirks a smile at that. He shakes his head, then says, amused, “Thank you, Tony, light of my life, I’d love to live here with the rest of my awesome team of superheroes.”
Tony barks out a laugh. "'Atta boy," he says, slapping him amicably on the arm as he heads toward the elevator. He wants to go back down to the lab and work out those armor kinks now that he's got Captain America settled in.
Rogers runs a hand along the back of the leather couch, fingers catching lightly on seams. “And call me Steve, please,” he says before Tony reaches the door.
Tony smiles to himself, stepping into the elevator. “Sure thing, Cap," he calls out as the doors slide closed.
“Cap! What can I do for you?”
Tony’s a little bit surprised; he hasn’t seen Steve since he moved into the Tower a week ago, and now he’s here, walking casually into the lab, looking around curiously.
Tony sets down the welding torch and takes off his face shield; See? He can do the whole Proper Lab Protocol thing, despite what Bruce and Pepper say.
He continues before Cap can answer. “You’ve been getting my emails, right? I told JARVIS to assist if you needed help accessing the servers, but he didn’t tell me there was any problem.”
Steve stops him. “No, no, everything’s fine. I just wanted to thank you again for all your help, and see if you were hungry, maybe.”
Tony belatedly notices the plate of sandwiches in Steve’s hand. His stomach growls, betraying him.
A little chuckle escapes Steve and Tony glares petulantly, caught.
“When’s the last time you ate something?”
Tony scowls as he strips off his gloves and makes his way over to the lab fridge.
“Not you, too, Cap. I hear it enough from Pepper.” He grabs two Dr. Peppers and closes the door, turning back toward Steve and food.
Cap raises an eyebrow. “Maybe she has a point,” he says, and he gestures to the far side of the lab where there’s a couch and a table, and at Tony’s nod begins to head in their direction.
They settle on the old couch, burn marks and stains and worn leather welcoming Tony’s exhausted body. Standing and bending over for hours upon hours working on tiny electrical connections does a real number on his back, and he’s definitely (sadly) not getting any younger.
They tuck into delicious ham and cheese sandwiches and Dr. Peppers, and Tony wolfs down 3 sandwiches before his stomach is satisfied. He leans back and stretches with his arms behind his head, sighing deeply. Rolling his head on his hands, he looks over to Steve and smiles languorously.
“Thanks, Capsicle. You’re a regular Wolfgang Puck.”
Steve rolls his eyes and smiles. It's a nice smile, Tony thinks.
“Uh… Thanks?” Steve looks slightly bemused now, and Tony mentally kicks himself. He's talking out loud again—long engineering binges always make him do that. He suspects it's a byproduct of talking to himself and JARVIS for so long.
Steve squints slightly at Tony’s face, though Tony knows he doesn’t really have to—the Captain’s eyesight is perfect, better than perfect, thanks to the serum.
“When’s the last time you slept?” he asks, almost accusing.
Tony opens his mouth to answer but JARVIS cuts him off.
“Sir slept for approximately 54 minutes yesterday evening, following 18 hours of working in the lab.” He pauses, then states, “My apologies, sir, but you’ve passed the deadline Miss Potts has established for me to report your sleeping habits to the Nearest Responsible Adult.” The last part of that statement has the air of a direct quote about it, and Tony huffs a sigh through his nose and throws his hands up in surrender, looking up at the ceiling.
“It’s funny to me sometimes—and by funny I mean not funny at all—that everyone else seems to have more control over my creations than I do.”
“If I may remind you, sir, I may only follow protocols that you approve of.”
“J, this smacks of betrayal. Of guilt trips and betrayal, and I know you know not to execute anything when I’m being manipulated. I’m pretty sure I winked or crossed my fingers or something when I agreed to this, you saw me, don’t pretend you didn’t, you have 42 surveillance cameras on this floor alone.” He hears a chuckle from Steve’s direction. Glancing over, his mouth quirks up as he sees how relaxed the Captain is, sinking into the soft couch, smiling vaguely at the ceiling as he listens to Tony bicker with his AI. His bratty, backstabbing AI.
“Of course, sir, how could I be so remiss. My apologies.” He doesn’t sound sorry. Tony snorts.
“You’re a brat, JARVIS. I ever tell you that?”
“Almost every day, sir.”
It’s quiet for a moment, before Steve slaps both hands on his knees and stands up.
“Alright, Tony, let’s get you to bed.” He holds out a hand.
Tony stares at it. “Seriously, Rogers? You’re putting me to bed?” he asks incredulously, not moving from his spot.
Rogers stares at him, determined. “Yes. You’ve slept less than an hour in the last two days. You’re talking to yourself and you look like shit, to be honest. Let’s go.”
Tony doesn’t move. Steve starts to look concerned, eyebrows furrowing.
"I presume Sir is startled at your vocabulary, Captain Rogers," JARVIS supplies.
A laugh startles out of Steve. He shakes his head, smiling, arm still extended. “I’ve fought in a war. I’m 29 years old. I don’t understand why everyone thinks I’m some delicate flower.”
“It’s the whole All-American apple pie look you’ve got going on. Very wholesome. The plaid and khaki doesn’t help, either. It’s like cursing in front of your grandpa.”
Steve rolls his eyes, actually rolls his eyes, and Tony throws back his head with a laugh.
“Alright, old timer, you win.” He grabs Steve’s hand and allows himself to be pulled up and almost stumbles. He hasn’t realized how tired he is. Steve steadies him before letting go.
“Shut it down, JARVIS. Save progress under I-M dash 44 dash G-T-L-T.”
“Very good, sir.”
Tony allows Steve to shepherd him out of the lab and into the private tower elevator. He leans against the wall and closes his eyes as they ascend to the penthouse.
“I appreciate everything you’re doing to help me find Bucky,” he hears the other man say quietly. “And I know you’ve got a hundred other things to do. But you need to take better care of yourself, Tony. You’re going to burn out.”
“How about you don’t tell me how to do my job and I won’t tell you how to do yours,” Tony snaps, eyes still closed. Cap can’t know he’s walked directly into a minefield, but Tony doesn’t apologize. He’s too worked up. It’s the same old argument he has with Pepper every time he’s in the lab for too long, and he doesn’t want to hear it anymore.
It's tense and silent for the rest of the ride up and when the elevator dings and the doors open, Tony opens his eyes and walks out without speaking.
He happens to catch a glimpse of Cap’s face as he leaves, but he doesn’t look mad. He looks regretful, and he watches Tony wordlessly as the doors slide closed between them.
Steve starts bringing him food regularly, and at first Tony doesn’t quite know what to make of it. He brings sandwiches and pasta and fruit, and then starts bringing different types of juices when he realizes Tony only has coffee and Dr. Pepper and alcohol down in the lab. Steve seems to think Tony consumes too much caffeine, and that something a little more healthy should be introduced into his diet. By the second week, he stops questioning it and just accepts it; at least he’s not getting yelled at.
Pepper’s in town for some meeting or other (Tony should probably know which meeting, he may even be required to be there, he’s the worst, but he can't bring himself to care). She comes down one morning with a stack of papers to sign and Tony is so used to Steve letting himself in that he doesn’t rush to stop working on the HUD of the new Iron Man helmet.
He looks up when the door swishes open and he freezes, hands stilling on the red and gold faceplate.
“Pep…” he tries.
“Oh, Tony…” Her eyes shimmer for a moment, before she looks down at the stack of papers in her arms. When she looks back up her eyes are clear. Her heels click on the tile as she strides over to Tony’s workbench—the workbench that is littered with red and gold Iron Man parts. Carefully moving some out of the way she sets down the stack of forms and turns to Tony.
“I need you to sign these before the end of the day.”
“If you hadn’t left them this long there wouldn’t be so many, so don’t start complaining, you did this to yourself.”
“I’ll be back at five o’clock sharp to pick these up, don’t make me have JARVIS lock you out of the lab until you sign them,” she says as she click-clacks back to the elevator, pressing the call button with perfectly manicured fingers.
“Pepper, wait,” he finally gets out, desperate.
She turns and looks at him, eyes somehow sad and hard at the same time.
“Will that be all, Mr. Stark?”
He stares forlornly at her, knowing what she’s asking, knowing his answer here will determine a lot more than paper-signing and possibly sleeping on the couch for a few days. His answer will determine the rest of his life, their life.
He looks down at the helmet still held in his hands and makes a decision.
“Yes, that will be all, Miss Potts,” he says. He looks back at Pepper, at the woman who’s been by his side for so many years, one of the only people he really trusts. He thinks he sees pain flash in her eyes for a second before she smiles thinly and turns to the waiting elevator, stepping inside. She keeps her back turned until the doors close.
He blinks, not really seeing anything. After a minute or two he shakes his head hard and gets back to work.
By the time Steve brings his lunch down at two, Tony’s already given up on the glass and taken to drinking straight from the bottle. He’s sitting on the couch with the Iron Man helmet in his lap, and as Steve sets the tray of food down on the table he takes a long pull of bourbon.
“Heyyy Capsicle. Grab a sit. Grab a seat. Sit down,” he slurs. He’s pretty far gone at this point. He hasn’t drank so much so fast since after Obie tried to kill him. He shakes his head, vision swinging sharply. He doesn’t really like to think about that. New subject, please.
Steve sits down carefully beside him, gaze cautious as he takes in Tony’s less-than-stellar condition.
“Tony, what happened?” he asks, voice soft. He sounds slightly wary, and almost disappointed. Well, screw him. He doesn’t know anything and Tony doesn’t give a flying fuck what he thinks he knows about him. He doesn’t know anything.
“What, Capricorn, I can’t have a drink when I want to?” he asks angrily, hand not holding the bottle flying through the air and almost smacking Steve in the side of the head.
Steve dodges and grabs Tony’s hand, setting it back in his lap gently.
“I’m a cancer,” he says.
Tony stops short, stares. “What?” What?
“I’m a Cancer,” Steve repeats. “Not a Capricorn.”
Tony bursts out laughing. He laughs and laughs, hunching over, hands on his knees. It's not even that funny, definitely not funny enough to warrant his reaction, but he can't stop, he laughs until his ribs hurt at the absurdity of everything. At Cap’s stupid joke, at the pile of turkey on rye on the table, the stack of papers waiting to be signed. At Captain Fucking America sitting on his ratty old couch while he absolutely loses his fucking mind, at Pepper catching him working on Iron Man when he was supposed to have given it up for good, Pepper’s face when she realized what exactly he was working on, Pepper leaving him…
He’s crying before he realizes, sobbing messily with tears running down his face. He feels Steve’s arms go around him, enveloping him, offering comfort that he knows he doesn’t deserve.
He hears Steve say, “Oh, Tony,” so softly, exactly how Pepper said it, and part of him wants to lash out, tell Steve he doesn’t need his pity, but in the end it just makes him cry harder, holding onto Steve’s stupidly tight t-shirt with an iron grip.
It’s a long time before the tears stop, and when they do Tony stays stubbornly where he is, sniffing loudly. He’s somehow ended up sitting on his knees, face tucked tightly against Steve's chest, all but collapsed into the other man. Steve has one arm wrapped firmly around Tony’s middle, and his other hand is carding gently through his hair. He wants to stay here forever, partly because he's ashamed to show his face, but mostly because being enveloped like this, protected from the world, feels amazing.
Tony doesn’t even realize he falls asleep until he wakes up to Steve placing him gently in his own bed. He honestly doesn’t remember the last time he slept in the penthouse. He forgot how comfortable his bed is. He groans and flops his head to the side, eyes squinting open.
“Steve?” His voice is hoarse from all the crying, his throat scratching painfully. He’s exhausted and he wants nothing more than to go back to sleep, but he's got to apologize for crying all over the other man, for being so pathetic. He closes his eyes, exhausted.
“Yeah, it’s me,” he hears Steve murmur, sounding far away. Tony feels him taking off his shoes, then his socks. Hears him move around the room, the sound of a glass bring set down on the bedside table. He floats in a space between wakefulness and sleep, feeling removed from everything, from Steve and Pepper and Iron Man and the Avengers and all those fucking feelings. Distantly, the sheets are pulled down under his body and then placed over him, and he’s tucked in, warm and comfortable and two seconds from giving in to unconsciousness completely. A warm hand runs through his hair, and it’s wonderful and he wants to purr and burrow into it. It’s the last thing he feels before the darkness swallows him.
There is superheroing where they defeat the bad guy and save the innocent bystanders and the team moves together like a well-oiled machine, and then there is superheroing where Tony has to make a decision in a split second of chaos, and he weighs the options and picks the scenario that results in the least amount of death and destruction, and he spends the next quarter of an hour getting chewed out by his “Commanding Officer”, aka Captain Fucking America.
They've been working as an independent team now for about a month, after everyone finally got around to coming to the Tower. Thor still splits his time between New York and wherever Jane happens to be doing her astrophysics thing at the moment, but the assassin twins have moved in completely (or so Tony assumes, he never really saw bags but he runs into them at breakfast more often than not so he guesses they live there now), and Bruce is now a regular companion in either his lab or Bruce's, where they discuss particle physics and biology (Tony hates biology, oh the things he does for his friends) and do science-y things together.
And then there's Steve. Steve, who hangs out in his lab while Tony works, and sketches and has a sense of humor as dry as the Sahara and pretty much disproves every assumption Tony's ever made about who Captain America is as a person. Steve Rogers is stubborn and funny and clever and artistic, and a lot more little-guy in a big body and a lot less perfect than Tony's late father would have him believe.
And right now, Steve Rogers is lecturing Tony on unnecessary risks and Tony kind of wants to hit him.
“—inform the team of the situation, then we can come up with a plan!”
“What part of “there was no time” are you not getting here, Stars ’n Stripes? There. Was. No. Time.” Tony makes sure to enunciate, just in case Cap didn’t catch it the first five times he said it. “It was take out the baddie when I had a clear opening, or wait and let him kill another dozen people until you all could get your asses in gear and help me out. Sorry, but I went with Option A.” Tony stands and pushes his chair back, ready to go. He knows he's not being fair, they got there as soon as they could, but he’s had about enough of this shit, and if Steve expects him to sit there and watch civilians die when he’s able to do something about it, he’s going to be waiting a long time.
“Iron Man, you had orders. Stand down. Wait for backup,” Steve says, tone low and dangerous, command in his voice and body. His arms are folded across his chest, muscles tense, and he looks every inch the Captain America from the comics Tony grew up idolizing. Tony's urge to punch him multiplies.
He slams his palms down onto the table in front of him angrily. “Fuck orders, Steve!” He stomps over to where Steve is standing, gets right in his face, and pokes a finger at Steve’s massive chest. “Your orders were wrong. People were going to die on your fucking orders.” Steve’s eyes flash and he steps forward, uncrossing his arms and grabbing Tony’s wrist, grip tight to the point of pain. He looms over Tony, looks almost scary, though Tony refuses to back down. Not on this.
“Sacrificing yourself is not an option, Tony.” His eyes are hard chips of ice, but underneath the anger is something that looks a lot like fear. “It’s never an option.”
Tony laughs shortly. “Says the guy who deliberately flew a plane into the North Atlantic.” Steve’s eyes narrow and his mouth opens to respond, but Tony doesn’t want to hear it anymore. He twists out of the other man’s grip, and Steve lets go immediately. Blood rushes back into his hand and Tony knows there will be bruises later. Sometimes Steve forgets how strong he really is. Tony usually tries not to make him feel too badly about it, but he’s not feeling so charitable right now. He shakes his wrist, rubs it, and glares at Steve petulantly. “Jesus, Steve,” he mumbles, looking down at the red marks circling his wrist.
Steve goes from dark and forbidding to remorseful instantly. He looks like a kicked puppy. He’s even wringing his hands and stammering apologies, and Tony gives up.
“Oh my god, you’re pathetic,” he says, rolling his eyes at Steve's guilt-stricken look. “It’s fine, it’s just a bruise, shut up Steve. God, I take it back, go back to burning with righteous anger, this is pitiful.”
Steve looks mildly insulted, though still a bit contrite. He reaches out as if to touch Tony’s wrist, then lets his arm drop with a sigh.
“Tony… Just, please, try not to jump immediately to the sacrificing yourself plan. There’s always another way. We can figure it out, as a team,” he says, voice beseeching.
Tony sighs. “There wasn’t another option today, Cap. I considered the alternatives. They would have died. Twelve lives are more important than one, even if it’s mine. Especially if it’s mine.”
He leaves the conference room before Steve has a chance to respond.
He wants to strangle him. How can Tony think his life is worth any less than any of theirs? He wants to punch him and hug him at the same time, though he doubts Tony would accept the hug. Tony’s a physical guy, always a hand on the shoulder or a playful shove or a squeeze on the arm, but the second there’s emotion involved he avoids contact like it’s the plague. He’s a man of contradictions, and it drives Steve crazy, but it also makes him want to know more, learn what makes him tick, what makes him smile—the real smile, not the overused Tony Stark publicity grin. He wants to hear that laugh that gets startled out of him, like he doesn’t expect Steve to be funny and is pleasantly surprised when he is. He wants to understand how Tony can be so narcissistic, yet so self-destructive. Love his image but hate himself so much. How he can be so confident on the outside while on the inside he’s just a guy who thinks he’s not worth the effort. Steve wants so badly to understand, so he can show Tony how wrong he is.
He goes down to the gym to burn off some steam. His thoughts are all over the place, angry and sad and confused and scared. Definitely scared. Fear leaks out with every punch, every kick. He almost lost Tony today. Tony almost died because he wasn’t fast enough, wasn’t smart enough, couldn’t come up with a better plan, was incompetent as a leader. It's like Bucky all over again, and isn't that absolutely terrifying, that Tony is as important to him as Bucky? Tony, the genius billionaire playboy philanthropist he’s known for only a couple of years, who he’s really only gotten to know recently, has squeezed his way into Steve’s heart, right next to his oldest friend. And wouldn't that be the stuff of nightmares, if Steve failed to save him, too.
He pummels the punching bag but it refuses to budge, leaving him feeling wound up and unsatisfied. It’s reinforced, like everything else in the gym, made strong by Tony’s genius, strong enough to stand up to repeated abuse by super soldiers and Norse gods and everything else the Avengers can throw at them (though Tony has asked Natasha and Clint to practice their shooting and knife skills in the range and save the bags for the “gym rats”).
He pauses in his routine, exhaling explosively and leaning forward, arms resting on the hanging bag and head falling forward onto his forearms. He tries to clear his mind as he catches his breath.
He doesn't know when he started letting his emotions get the better of him like this. Actually, he's lying to himself; he does. The minute Tony Stark stepped onto the helicarrier deck and started mouthing off, looking so much like Howard and yet so different, something intangible setting him apart. Maybe his mother's influence, or maybe the product of a childhood filled with robots and butlers and a ghost of a father.
Steve knows of Tony's history, knows that Howard had turned cold and bitter after the war, had been a less than a good father to his prodigy of a son. Howard had not been father material even when Steve knew him, young and brazen and ambitious, and he'd apparently been even less so by the time Tony came around, late in his life and more a necessity to carry on the Stark legacy than a product of love. It's no trouble for Steve to picture Howard, drink ever-present in his hand, towering over his young, inquisitive son, impatient when Tony didn't understand something or pick up ideas fast enough. And later, when a teenage Tony rebelled against authority and an always disappointed father, deepening the rift between them even more.
He can see it all manifested in the way Tony is now, with his tendency to shy away from emotional situations, in the way he craves physical contact, the way he dances around questions about himself while maintaining a facade of confidence and narcissism.
He also knows about Howard's obsession with finding him, that Tony was held to impossible standards as a child. Knows that's most likely the cause for the resentment Tony felt towards him when they first met. If only Steve had known, maybe he could have prevented the blow-up on the helicarrier, maybe he could have been more tactful, more understanding. But he didn't know, and because of everything, because of Howard, Steve has had to work through all of that childhood grief to get to where he is now, and it's still not enough. He wants to know more.
Steve lifts his head from his arms and takes a deep breath, then he gets back to it. It's easy to get lost in the rhythmic thump, thump, thump thump. It's a while before he surfaces to the sound of expensive shoes clicking on the hardwood floor. He sighs heavily, reaching out to still the swinging bag. He's not sure if talking to Tony right now is a great idea, when he's been working out his frustrations about the man for the last few hours.
The footsteps still behind him, and Steve doesn't have to wait long for Tony to break the silence.
"We found him."
Steve whirls around and Tony hastily stumbles back a few steps, arms raising defensively.
"Tony, sorry," Steve reaches out to steady him and Tony nearly flinches before covering it up with a sardonic smile, lowering his arms. Steve lets his hands fall to his sides, hardly noticing Tony's reaction with thoughts like Bucky and We found him flying through his brain. He wasn't expecting this, had almost given up hope of ever finding him at all.
Tony speaks again. "He doesn't seem to be hiding... I know you kind of gave up trying to force him to come back, but it almost seems like he's waiting. He's stayed in the same place for a while now, and that's not his usual MO. Just thought maybe you'd want to know..." He trails off uncertainly, looking uncomfortable.
"Where?" Steve asks, mind already creating extraction plans and wondering if Bucky will recognize him again and deciding he doesn't care if he does, he's bringing him home anyway, he's had enough of waiting around.
"Latveria. There's a Hydra base there. Stop, Steve, wait." Tony's the one reaching out now, hand grabbing Steve's shoulder as he turns away to grab his workout bag. Steve has the urge to push his hand away, walk right through it. There's no chance Tony can actually keep him there if Steve wanted to get free, but he stops and lets Tony turn him around anyway.
"I've already scheduled a flight for tomorrow morning--"
"Tomorrow?" Steve interrupts. "Tony--"
Tony interrupts him back. "Yes, tomorrow. He's not going anywhere tonight, I promise, and you need to get some rest because I'm pretty sure we're going to jump right into this the minute we land, right, and we need to make a plan because he's not just a guy we're going to rescue, he's a legendary trained assassin we might have to abduct against his will and he's kind of in hostile territory and I'm going to have to pull out all the stops on this one, so I need at least a few hours to prepare for it."
Steve sighs in defeat but his shoulders relax marginally. Tony smiles at him, pleased. Then he brightens considerably, a playful grin stretching across his face.
"Never thought I'd be the one telling you to be patient and make plans, eh?" Tony laughs, pulling his hand away and shaking his head.
Steve smiles. "Not really, no," he says. "Guess we've kind of switched roles here." He starts to unwrap his hands and he hears Tony hiss in a surprised breath. He glances up and sees Tony's gaze focused on the hand he just finished unwrapping, knuckles bruised and bloody. Tony reaches out and takes Steve hand gently but firmly in his, examining the wounds and wincing in sympathy.
"Are you crazy, or just masochistic? How long have you been down here, mutilating yourself? Your knuckles look like hamburger meat." Tony doesn't even seem to expect an an answer, just lets go of Steve, stalks over to grab his gym bag, and then reclaims Steve's wrist and pulls him along behind as he exits the training room. Steve rolls his eyes at Tony's antics but goes along with it, wondering at how completely their roles have been reversed since this morning. He still wants to strangle the guy for putting himself in danger, but it's buried under so much fondness at the moment that the anger is just a distant memory. Now Tony's trying to take care of him, and it's nice, if unneeded.
"Tony, it's nothing, honestly. The serum will heal them in a couple of hours. They'll be good as new by tomorrow morning." Tony just shoots a glare back at him and continues dragging Steve down to the medical floor.
There are no doctors in the main treatment area, so Tony just pushes Steve toward a cot and points imperiously at it. Steve grins and sits obediently, swinging his legs, and Tony wheels over a tray with gauze and other first aid supplies. He pulls up a rolling chair and reaches for Steve's other hand, gently unwinding the wrap, mumbling beneath his breath about stupid super soldiers and their lack of self preservation and just because he heals at an accelerated rate doesn't mean he should pound his hands into mince meat. Steve bites his tongue at the "lack of self preservation" comment, not wanting to snap and break the truce they seem to have reached, but it's a struggle.
Tony gently cleans his hands and wraps them in gauze, though Steve knows it's a waste of time and effort; they really will heal in a couple of hours, tops. Sometimes Steve hates it, how fast he heals, because he wants to feel the pain in his hands and his muscles, anything to keep him in the here and now, to keep his thoughts from drifting to the war and ice and losing everyone he's ever cared about.
Partway through his ministrations Tony's grumbling has quieted down, and they sit in companionable silence as he finishes his work. There's a moment when he's done where he doesn't let go of Steve's hand, and he runs a thumb softly over Steve's wrapped knuckles, staring down at their hands like he's puzzling over some thought. Then he looks up and their eyes lock and there's so much swirling in their brown depths that Steve's nearly overwhelmed, he's lost and he's drowning but it's okay because it's Tony, and Tony would never let him drown. Tony has always had his back, even when they're fighting Tony would never let him fall.
Tony licks his lips lightly, readying to speak, and Steve's eyes are immediately drawn down to his mouth, and he feels his heart rate skyrocket instantly.
Tony is opening his mouth, and Steve wants so badly to hear what he has to say, when JARVIS speaks.
"Sir, Captain Anderson has confirmed the flight for 6 AM tomorrow morning. Mr. Hogan will be waiting to take you to the airstrip at 5:30."
Tony's whole body jerks like he's been electrocuted and he releases Steve's hand, jumping up from his chair.
"Good man, J." He turns to Steve, eyes flitting around the room but never resting on Steve himself. "See you bright and early, yeah Cap? Get some shut eye, we can hash everything out on the way."
And he's gone.
Steve's in the private garage underneath the tower at 5:15 the next morning. Happy's loading his bag into the trunk and chatting amiably about the lack of traffic and the easy drive to the airport. He seems to have taken a liking to Steve, always smiling and going out of his way to be helpful, and normally Steve would be glad to have someone to talk to but today he's distracted. He'd taken Tony's advice last night and gone to bed early, honestly tried to get some sleep, but his mind was whirling with thoughts about Bucky and Tony and the mission and the rest of the Avengers and everything that could go wrong, and he'd barely managed to get more than an hour's rest.
Happy chatters at him until Natasha and Clint come down together, matching black duffels thrown over their shoulders. Thor arrives next, smiling jovially and walloping Steve on the back, asking in a booming voice how Steve's slumber was on the eve of the day he'd be reuniting with his lost "shield brother".
Tony and Bruce walk in last, just before 5:30, and by then Steve can't stand still. He's pacing beside the car, probably wearing a hole in the concrete, ready to get to the airstrip and be on their way. Tony claps a hand to his shoulder as he walks by, squeezing lightly, and Steve feels a little bit better as they slide into the back of the limousine and exit the underground garage.
It's a short ride later and they're all boarding the plane, bags thrown over their shoulders despite Happy's insistence they let him do it. Tony obligingly lets the chauffeur carry his bag and suitcase armor onto the plane after him, and then Happy wishes them all a good flight and safe mission, and the engines fire up and they're on their way.
Steve almost can't believe it. They're on their way to Latveria on Tony's private jet, and if all goes well he'll have Bucky back in less than 12 hours. He's antsy, but he forces himself to sit still in his seat and go over plans with the team, blueprints of the abandoned office building Bucky's been hiding out in, maps of the city, escape routes, backup plans, other locations Bucky has used as crash pads in the past. Steve is slightly amazed at how much information Tony's got on Bucky's habits and hideouts, and it's just another surprise in the form of Tony Stark, genius billionaire playboy philanthropist. Steve tucks it away to analyze another time.
They finalize their plans and split off to do whatever it is they each do to get in the right frame of mind before a mission. Clint and Natasha sit together near the back of the plane, speaking in soft voices. Bruce sits a short distance from them and begins to meditate, and Thor reclines in his seat, sweeps his cloak over himself, and promptly starts snoring.
Tony's eyes are dancing as he watches Thor snuffle in his sleep, and he turns to Steve across the aisle.
"Think I should draw on his face?"
Steve grins despite his nerves and shakes his head. "What would you draw? He's already got the facial hair. Not quite like yours, but…” Steve smirks at him as Tony raises a challenging eyebrow. "Nobody's is quite like yours."
Tony flips imaginary hair over his shoulder with a prim hand. "It's because nobody can pull it off quite like me. You like it, it’s okay to admit it.” He flutters his eyelashes ridiculously.
Steve snorts and rolls his eyes. Tony grins at him shamelessly. Steve does like it, especially when he smiles like that, but he’s not telling Tony that.
Tony turns to a tablet he’s brought with him and begins to work at something that could be Iron Man designs or could be more details for tonight’s mission. Steve doesn’t really want to know either way, he’s already keyed up enough as it is. He decides he needs a distraction and pulls out his sketchpad and a pencil, and before long he’s lost himself in his art. Some time later he comes back to himself to find that he’s filled the page with Bucky Barnes. Bucky from the war, Bucky from their shared apartment together, Bucky on the Cyclone at Coney Island. Bucky falling from the train, reaching for him. Bucky on the bridge, when Steve saw him again for the first time in 70 years.
The cabin is quiet, and Steve glances around to find that everyone has fallen asleep. In the back of the plane, Clint’s head is leaning against the window with his mouth wide open, Natasha resting against his shoulder, her body curled into him, both of them tucked under a warm-looking quilt. Bruce is curled up in his seat, blanket cushioned between his head and the wall and another covering his lap. Thor hasn’t moved since he fell asleep after the briefing. Tony’s head is tipped back against the head rest, mouth fallen open slightly, hands still on the dark tablet in his lap. The rings under his eyes are more prominent when he’s relaxed like he is now, with no smiles or sunglasses to draw attention from them, and Steve wonders if he slept at all last night, despite the fact that he’d told everyone else to.
Steve stands and stretches his body out, spine cracking from being hunched over his drawing pad for so long. He’s just opening an expensive looking wooden cabinet near the exit door when a blonde flight attendant appears next to him.
She smiles prettily at him and asks in a quiet voice, “Can I find anything for you, Captain Rogers?”
He nods and answers just as quietly. “A blanket, please. And maybe a pillow?” He thanks her as she fishes some out of the cabinet and hands them to him.
He puts a pillow and blanket down on the seat next to his, then takes the others to where Tony sits across the aisle. He drapes the blanket over the other man’s still form, then gently lifts Tony’s head to slide the small pillow into place. He takes a second to reposition Tony’s head so that it won’t leave him with a crick in his neck, and because he wants to and he doesn’t know if he’ll ever get the chance to when Tony is awake and he has no self-control, he runs a hand through Tony’s hair like he did that one night months ago. It’s soft, and is curling slightly at the ends. It’s longer than Steve’s ever seen it, and he wonders if Tony’s just been too busy to be bothered to get it cut. Steve strokes his hand through the silky strands, petting him lightly, and thank god Tony’s not awake for this, Steve doesn’t know if he’d ever stop blushing.
Steve goes to pull his hand away when Tony makes a noise, a small whine in the back of his throat. He freezes as Tony’s eyelids flutter, but the other man just presses closer into Steve’s hand.
His chest tight with feelings, Steve kneels down in the aisle, lowering himself to Tony’s level, sliding his hand down to cup the other man’s cheek. He reaches his left hand up to Tony’s face, feeling weak and pathetic and wanting so badly that he doesn’t care a bit. He cups Tony’s other cheek in his left hand, runs both thumbs over sharp cheekbones. Tony’s eyelids flutter again, and Steve doesn’t pull away. When Tony’s eyes blink open, Steve wonders what he sees, if his face shows how desperate he feels, the need painted onto every inch of his skin.
Tony sits up, blanket sliding off his shoulders, forcing Steve to lean back slightly on his heels. Steve starts to pull his hands away but Tony makes a sound, a wait sound, and Steve stills. Tony reaches his hands up to cover Steve’s, looking at him, looking through him, and he must find what he’s looking for because his hands squeeze lightly and then he leans forward, lips capturing Steve’s in a kiss so tender his heart breaks a little.
It’s like nothing he’s ever experienced before, so sweet he aches with it. It’s slow and searching, lips sliding against each other, communicating in a way that spoken words can never seem to articulate. Tony’s tongue touches his bottom lip, asking permission, and Steve’s stomach jumps, lips parting unhesitatingly. Tony’s hands have found their way to his shoulders, are running across his back and neck soothingly, and Steve just wants to stay here forever, lost in this wonderful, complicated man.
When they part, panting softly, Steve rests his forehead against Tony’s and squeezes his eyes shut. Tony allows it for a minute, then reaches up to hold Steve’s face in his hands, pulling back and placing a tiny kiss on the end of his nose. Steve smiles, and it feels broken, and he feels like he doesn’t know what’s wrong with him, why he feels so shattered from just a kiss. He hasn’t felt this open, this vulnerable, since his best friend fell from a train into some god-forsaken crevasse.
Tony kisses his eyelids and Steve's throat tightens. He takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly, gathering himself. He pulls away when he feels like he’s got some semblance of control, sliding his hands down Tony’s arms as he leans back.
Tony’s eyes are liquid brown pools full of compassion and desire. They search Steve’s face, taking in everything, every feeling Steve would rather keep hidden, every thought he’s ever had about the man in front of him. Tony smiles softly, a small thing that’s so intimate Steve wonders if he’s ever smiled like that for anyone else before, and he wants to keep it, wants to hoard it and not let anyone ever see this side of the enigmatic billionaire except for him.
“Steve,” he says, voice hoarse with sleep, or maybe with want. Heat rushes through Steve’s body at the sound of it, and he wants to hear it in darkness, in the quiet of his bedroom, just the two of them with all the time in the world to get to know each other.
He takes another deep breath and lets it out, gathering his wits.
Tony growls, eyes flashing. “If you say you’re sorry right now, I may throw you out of this airplane.”
“No, I’m not sorry,” he says, smiling.
Tony scowls. “You should be. Guy hasn’t slept in days and he passes out on his plane and you maul him in his sleep?” Steve laughs for real this time. “Shame on you, Cap.”
Tony’s eyes are twinkling and Steve can’t stop himself from leaning forward to press a small kiss to his lips. Tony’s eyes widen slightly before they close in contentment, and he murmurs against Steve’s lips, “Scandalous, Captain.”
Steve smiles as he pulls away and rolls to his feet. He tucks the blanket back around Tony and sits down in his own seat.
“Go back to sleep. We’ve got a couple hours left, I know you need it.”
“Go back to sleep, he says,” Tony mumbles. “I won’t wake you by sucking your face off again, he says.”
Steve hides a grin in his sketchbook. “No promises," he says, then ignores the way Tony looks all too pleased about that. "Tony, go to sleep.”
There’s a “Yes, mom,” and then quiet, and Steve’s heart feels at once heavier and lighter than it has since he’s woken up in this strange new world.
So. Plans. He does try to make them occasionally, and follow them, but really, this is what happens. One thing goes wrong, and that causes something else to go lopsided, and Tony may be a futurist but he can’t predict when stupid supervillian henchmen are going to actually be supervillian Doombots with weapons enhanced by Hydra, and soon the Avengers are all running around trying to find the leader Doombot so they can disable all of them at once, while their erstwhile leader is off trying to convince his dead-but-not-dead best friend to come back to the side of Good.
Tony thinks plans are overrated.
It had actually started off pretty promising, Steve going into the warehouse alone to confront Barnes (not Tony’s favorite part of the plan, but Steve had been adamant that Barnes would listen to him, and that he’d run if he felt threatened, and a god, a flying suit of armor, two assassins, and a Hulk were probably a pretty threatening sight, so he’d agreed on the condition that Steve leave his comm on at all times while they patrolled outside the building, ready to go at the first sign of trouble). Barnes hadn’t even run. He’d seemed less than welcoming, sure, but he’d been willing to listen, at least, and they had even seemed to be making some progress when all hell broke loose.
Doombots had come flying in from all sides, shooting lasers (lasers, of all things) in every direction, taking out windows and walls and superheroes alike. Bucky had taken off, fleeing the fight or heading towards it Tony didn't know, and Steve had taken off after him, and now here they are on the outskirts of a shit town in Latveria, with Hydra-enhanced-Doombots doing their damnedest to take them all out. Tony’s not sure if they’re after the Avengers, Steve specifically (they’re always after Steve), or the Winter Soldier (who's been taking out Hydra bases one by one since the end of the SHIELD fiasco), but now they’re all here and they’re all under attack, and Hydra and Dr. Doom have apparently decided they have a common enemy (enemies?), and now they’re in this shitstorm.
Tony rockets his way to where he last saw Steve and Barnes, calling out on the comm.
“Cap! Where the hell are you? Jesus fucking— Barton, stop jumping off buildings!” He fires his thrusters and shoots down the street to snatch Clint out of midair just before he smashes his brains on the concrete.
“Not my fault, fucking Doombots crawling all over the roof. Put me down here!” he shouts as they pass over a crumbling three story building. Tony obliging swoops low and drops the archer onto the roof, and Clint rolls into a crouch, bow already up and arrow nocked.
“A little warning next time, please, and you’re welcome. Cap? You copy?”
“…Yeah, Iron Man, I copy. We’re…” Static. “…the river. Bucky’s… …remember… Okay…” More static.
“Cap? Cap! Fuck!” Tony swears, cursing Dr. Doom for his fucking paranoia and his fucking communications blocks. He’s grateful their comms are working at all right now, thanks to his new tech, anyone else’s would have been rendered useless the moment they crossed the border hours ago, but he needs to be able to hear his team from more than three blocks away or it’s not going to help him for much longer. The fight keeps spreading out, and the longer Steve chases Barnes the further out of range he’s going to get.
“Widow, cover Hawkeye. Thor, Hulk, keep smashing. I need to go find Cap,” Tony says shortly. Thor’s lightning is useless against the machines; Doom had apparently accounted for lightning gods in his minion planning and any kind of electrical attack only boosts their battery power. Reminds him of when he and Thor first crossed paths, actually.
Natasha’s “Affirmative” is cool and collected. Thor says, “Aye, Iron Man, consider it done!”, and Hulk roars. Tony figures they’ve got it covered.
He salutes to whoever is watching and speeds away, JARVIS guiding him toward the river. There are less Doombots here, and Tony can see Steve and Barnes fighting them off, back to back. His heart speeds up a little bit, watching them move together seamlessly, like they’ve been doing it forever, like it’s second nature. He swallows down the irrational surge of jealousy and pushes his thrusters faster, ignoring JARVIS’s warnings. He takes out two of the Doombots with repulsors on his approach, then lands and spins around, shooting a third in what he's going to label it’s head. It’s vaguely human-shaped, so he think’s he’s not wrong here.
The three of them make short work of the remaining half dozen bots, and then it’s quiet except for their heavy breathing. Surprisingly, Barnes speaks first.
“Stark, I assume,” he drawls. Tony turns to get a good look at him. He’s decked out in the Winter Soldier gear, minus the creepy mouth cage thing he had going on last year. He’s still wearing that black makeup, and in the reflected light of the river his eyes are striking. Almost as blue as Steve’s, but with his complexion and long dark hair, it’s an arresting sight.
Tony straightens, and super-soldier and semi-super-soldier may be tall, but they don’t measure up to Tony in the suit.
“Barnes. You done running?”
He hears Steve take a sharp breath, ignores him. Barnes stays silent, face unmoving, before his lips quirk up at the edges. It makes him look dangerous.
“Sure, I’m done.”
That’s it, nothing else. No thank you for finding him, possibly saving him, no tearful reunion with Steve, no breakdown, not even a What's the plan now? Just, I’m done, and the damned Winter Soldier stalks by him and heads back toward the main fight. Tony stares at Steve, who is gazing after Barnes, looking both unsurprised and nostalgic by this turn of events. He glances at Tony and shrugs, smiling slightly before jogging after his friend.
Tony growls, literally growls, and takes off, overtaking them both on his way back to his team.
He’s found the leader of the Doombots, that’s for damn sure. A big hulking thing with a massive electronic panel in it's chest that Tony’s sure he can take out the entire swarm with if he does it right. Only it’s covered by some kind of forcefield, some new thing Doom invented, and so far nothing’s been able to get past it. Everything they've tried gets fried before it can touch anything important.
“So I take it he’s on our side now?” Clint asks over the comms, talking about Bucky. “Since he just kind of scarily dismembered a Doombot that was trying to shoot me, you know, I thought I’d ask.”
Tony sees Steve swing his shield and take off the head of one bot, do a backflip over a second and then proceed to kick it’s chest plate in, sparks flying. When he responds to Clint he’s not even out of breath. Tony hates him a little.
“Yes, Hawkeye. He’s on our side. Natasha, on your six!”
Natasha drops and spins around, leg out, and a Doombot crashes to the ground before she gets her Widow’s bites in it and it spazzes to it’s electrical death. He hears Hulk roar in the distance, hopes he’s smashing these fuckers good.
“I’m hit, by the way. Not bad, but I’m not moving for the time being,” Clint announces, voice casual but strained.
“Hawkeye, status.” Steve’s voice is clipped. Tony can tell he’s worried and trying not to show it.
“No biggie, Cap. Broken leg, I think, but I’ll live.”
“Widow, get to him. You don’t leave his side,” Steve orders. "Hawkeye, keep shooting."
“On it, Cap,” Natasha answers promptly.
"Like that was even a question," Clint scoffs.
There are so many of them, and Tony takes out several as he watches his team work below him. Thor is smashing through them with his hammer but they've begun keeping their distance from him, attacking from behind and darting away, and he can't use his long-distance lightning attack. Natasha and Clint are confined to their roof, and Tony is doing his best to keep them from being swarmed. Steve is cleaving through robots one after the other, but Tony doesn't know how long he can hold out. Hulk seems to be holding up alright, but the bots are doing their best to draw him away from the main battle and the team can't afford to lose another heavy hitter right now.
Tony takes out a couple of bots as they fly by him (they’re so easy it’s pathetic, but what they lack in strength they make up for in numbers, there have got to be at least a hundred of these things), and he’s trying to work out how to get past the forcefield of the leader guy on the roof when Barnes comes out of nowhere behind the thing and jumps onto it’s back, punching viciously at it’s head and neck with his cybernetic arm.
“Bucky!” He hears Steve’s panicked yell and wants to roll his eyes, but the guy’s got a reason to be worried. Barnes is insane. Probably certifiably. He’s reaching around the Doombot’s neck now, trying to get at the chestpiece, having worked out that’s the key to shutting them down, when suddenly there’s a sizzle and a flash and Barnes crumples. Fucking forcefield. Barnes had tried to used his metal arm, but it wasn’t enough to protect the rest of his body from the shock.
It gives Tony an idea. Once Barnes loses consciousness the arm stops working, no brain impulses to tell it to keep at it. But Tony's got a suit, with a brain of its own-- well, sort of. It's kind of a reckless, self-sacrificing idea, the kind Cap hates, but he’s gotta stop this and it’s the only way he can see to do that. He switches his comm off, speaking directly to JARVIS.
“JARVIS, I'm going to go for the chest panel. I need you to push through when I pass out. No matter what my vitals say, I need you to fucking rip it apart, okay?”
“Sir, I highly disapprove of this plan of action, it will almost certainly kill you—“
“J, listen. These things are still coming. We haven’t even taken out half of them, Barton and Widow are parked, Thor's lightning is useless, and now Barnes is down. We’re not going to last.”
Tony interrupts him, voice sharp. “We’re doing this, JARVIS. Don't make me override you.”
“As you wish, sir.” JARVIS sounds angry, and worried, and Tony ignores it, because this has to happen, and it’s going to work. He’s not going to let his friends go down from a bunch of shit robots that are a travesty to modern technology.
Tony turns to the leader bot, hovering in front of it. It seems to understand that something is happening, because all of a sudden the sounds of fighting and explosions behind him stops, and he knows the thing is calling all the remaining bots here.
It’s now or never, so Tony dives in, thrusters firing at full power, hands outstretched. He smashes into the Doombot and carries it with him, over Barnes’s motionless body, and they crash into the wall of a neighboring building, four stories above the ground.
He registers the fact that his armored hands have shoved past the forcefield before he feels the first shocks running through his body. They’re sharp, horribly painful, like he’s gripped a live telephone wire tight in both hands, and the jolts run from his fingertips and into his chest, down through the rest of his body, and he can feel his heart falter with each pulse. It’s like another heartbeat, one that’s trying to overtake his own and is probably going to win the fight.
He can’t pull his hands back even if he wanted to, he’s got no control of his limbs, but JARVIS, true to his word, moves the armor around him. The gauntlets shudder and jerk, moving haltingly, but it’s working, JARVIS is pulling wires and fuses apart and the Doombot looks like it’s starting to fail as well.
That’s when the rest of the robots arrive. Tony’s seeing in snapshots now, blackness, then a shock of light and color and Doombots smashing at the armor. He thinks he can hear Steve yelling in the background, thinks he sees Thor’s hammer crashing through the rows of metal arms reaching for him, and he's on the ground now, robots crushing him beneath their weight. He thinks there’s pain, but he can’t tell where, it’s tingling all throughout his body and his heart feels like it’s squeezing so tight in his chest and he thinks he may not be breathing, but he tastes metal, so much metal, and it’s fitting, death by metal, he’s Iron Man, and then there’s only blackness.
He’s dreaming of lightning, shocks spreading through his body, dancing along his limbs. Blue-white light flashes behind his eyelids, and it’s cold and sharp, but it warms his body, almost uncomfortably warm. It’s gone, and he’s drifting back into the soothing blackness when it comes again, arcing through him. He wakes this time, and feels pain everywhere, and he gasps in a breath of cold night air, almost chokes on wetness in his throat.
“Tony. Tony, can you hear me? Tony, please answer me. Please.” It’s Steve’s voice. Tony’s missed his voice. He wonders how long he’s been asleep. Where is he?
He coughs. Wonders why he hurts. Why his mouth tastes like copper.
“Tony, it’s Bruce.” Bruce. He's missed Bruce, too. “You’ve been injured. We had to take you out of the suit to restart your heart, but now you’re bleeding pretty badly…" There's a pause, the sound of Bruce's voice murmuring to someone, then he's back. "You need to stay awake. Do you hear me? There’s an evac unit on the way, just stay awake.” Tony tries to nod but can’t move his head, or any part of himself, really. He grunts, but that just makes the wetness bubble in his throat and he chokes.
His head is turned to the side and he feels warm liquid dribble out the side of his mouth. He coughs, and it’s excruciating. The copper taste is stronger than ever, and he realizes it’s blood.
Someone is petting his head, murmuring his name, and he remembers that he likes this, this is a good thing, and then he’s out again.
He blinks his eyes open and everything is moving. It takes him a minute to place the whop whop whop sounds as helicopter blades. His head lolls to the side and there’s Steve, face pale and drawn, talking to someone over him. Everything hurts, his chest most of all, and he groans pathetically as it aches, eyes clenching shut.
“Tony? Can you hear me?” He feels something squeeze his right hand. He squeezes back, and it hurts, but it’s worth it to hear Steve’s choked laugh.
“Tony, oh my god, thank god.” He sounds close to tears and Tony wants to kick himself, but that won’t be happening anytime soon. He can hardly move. He cries out as he feels a sharp pain in his abdomen, opens his eyes to see what’s attacking him. There are people leaning over his body, pressing him down, and Tony tries to sit up, get them off him.
“Tony, no, stop. They’re trying to help you. Can you give him something? You’re hurting him. Please, stop Tony, stop, they’re helping you.” He can barely make sense of what Steve’s saying. They’re helping him? It hurts. They’re hurting him. Why is Steve letting them?
There’s a sharp prick on the inside of his elbow and the pain begins to fade away. This is better. This is nice. He opens his eyes, looks up at Steve. His eyes are red, and he’s looking down at Tony like he’s so scared. His lip is trembling. Tony tries to reach up with the non-pricked arm to rub it, smooth away the tremors, but something pulls, so he can’t. He tries to say Steve’s name but nothing comes out. Steve seems to understand though, because he reaches out to touch Tony’s face, swiping his big thumb underneath Tony’s eyes.
“Shh. You’re okay. You’re going to be okay. Just stay with me. You're going to be fine.” Tony closes his eyes, drifting. There is movement around him, pressure on different parts of his body, but he can’t feel it, not really. He lays there, content to listen to Steve’s voice as he fades slowly in and out of consciousness.
There are voices he doesn’t recognize talking about medical things, a lot of it not in English, but he’s too drowsy to make sense of any of it. There’s Steve, and other voices he knows he should remember, talking to each other and occasionally to him. Through it all, the pressure never lets up on his right hand, and he squeezes when he remembers to, because squeezing is what he’s supposed to do if there’s a hand in his, he’s sure of it.
After an indeterminate amount of time, he stops squeezing, and feeling, and then he stops hearing and he sinks into darkness.
Its not like Steve's never seen someone die before. He was a soldier in World War II after all, he's seen men shot in the head without time to even shout a warning, he's seen soldiers step on grenades that take the entire bottom half of their body off. He knows death intimately. It haunts his dreams, dogs his footsteps constantly, insinuates itself into his thoughts to the point where when he first meets people he wonders how they're going to die, and if he'll be around to see it and mourn.
He's seen death, and it always hurts, a hollow ache in his core, but there's something about seeing Tony fly into it willingly that about tears his heart out.
He's screaming Tony's name as he's running, watching the scene unfold down the bombed out street, 50 feet above the ground. He sees the armor jolt, electricity running down the limbs and causing sparks to fly at the joints. Sees the other Doombots closing in on their position. He's still a block away when Thor flies by and enters the fray, Mjolnir taking out opponents left and right. There's the sound of rending metal and then the leader drops, taking Tony with him down to the pockmarked street, minions following in their wake.
Steve doesn't even slow down as he approaches at breakneck speed, swinging his shield and downing two bots in seconds. He can see the Iron Man armor grappling with stuttering gauntlets at the leader's sparking fuse box, and the other Doombots doing their best to tear his teammate to pieces. Steve pummels robots with his shield and fists, and then there's a small explosion of light and everything stops. The army of Doombots drops to the pavement, unmoving, and Steve starts hauling them off of the dented red and gold figure lying motionless beneath them.
Thor lands next to him and helps, and soon enough they've got Tony out of the pile and they drag him a short distance away.
"Hulk, I need Bruce here," Steve shouts into his comm, voice on the verge of panic. Some part of his mind is screaming that he's too late, Tony's already dead, but he ignores it and yanks off the faceplate. Tony's face is pale and slack, and there's blood running from a cut somewhere above his hairline. Steve leans forward, checking for exhalations, but there's nothing, no breath stirring against his cheek. His fingers find no pulse, either, just clammy skin. Someone drops down to their knees next to him, and Steve looks over to see Bucky reaching for the armor's releases. He snaps out a hand to grab at his arm.
"We don't know where he's hurt, we could make it worse if we remove anything," he says, words spilling out of his mouth breathlessly.
Bucky looks back at him, eyes steady. "We have to restart his heart before his injuries don't matter at all," he says levelly.
Steve hesitates, then nods. They strip the core of the armor off, Steve's heart dropping as he throws pieces away from them. They're dented and parts are almost shredded, sharp pieces covered in blood from where they've pierced Tony's skin. He strips off his costume and his undershirt, tearing the shirt to pieces, pressing them to the worst of the wounds in Tony's abdomen and chest.
Bucky takes charge, which surprises Steve, but doesn't, really, because that's always been Bucky, having his back when he stumbles. Maybe he's slightly more dangerous, and a little (a lot) more jaded, but he's still Bucky, Steve refuses to believe otherwise.
"Hammer guy, can you control that lightning enough to shock his heart into beating, but not fry him?" Thor grunts an affirmative, and then Bucky's telling Steve to back up, and blue-white light zaps into Tony's chest with a small rumble of thunder. Steve is immediately on him again, but there's no change, and Bucky tells Thor to do it again. Everyone clears out and there's a repeat flash and Steve rushes back, and there's a pulse this time, faint but there, and Tony's breathing small, wet breaths. There's blood flecking his lips and Steve's heart skips a beat. He's got to have punctured a lung, and this is nothing Steve knows how to fix. Where is Bruce?
"Tony," he's pleading. He doesn't know when he started talking. All he knows is he's got one hand holding Tony's blood inside his body and another running through his hair in some weak gesture of comfort, for him or for Tony, he doesn't know, he's not sure it matters. "Tony, can you hear me? Tony, please answer me. Please." His voice is breaking, his eyesight is blurred. Where the hell is Bruce?
And then Bruce is there, clothes torn and ragged, and Bucky's explaining the situation to him, and he's leaning over Tony and talking to him in a calm voice, and Steve is so grateful he can't even think. Natasha is leaning over to speak to Bruce, telling him there's a chopper on the way, and she glances quickly at Bucky. Steve doesn't know if Bucky will run or if he meant it when he said he was done, but he can't think about that right now. He turns back to Tony, telling him to stay awake, and then Tony's struggling to breathe.
Bruce immediately turns Tony's head to the side and blood leaks out the corner of his mouth onto the dusty ground. He coughs and groans in pain and Steve feels so helpless, looks up to Bruce for help, and Bruce just stares grimly back, visibly struggling to keep calm.
Steve goes back to petting Tony's hair, talking nonsense and waiting for help to arrive. It's the longest ten minutes of his life, feeling Tony's blood leak out between his fingers, watching his team try to staunch the flow from half a dozen different places. Natasha and Clint run over to relay information to the EMS team when the chopper finally lands, and then there's a flurry of motion and Steve is pushed aside and the professionals take over. He stands back as Tony is lifted onto a gurney and rushed away. He feels a presence behind him and looks around to find Bucky standing there, flesh and metal arms both covered in Tony's blood. He's sure he looks just as bad.
"He your fella?" Bucky asks, face unreadable. Steve exhales a shaky breath, looking down at his hands, clenched into fists at his sides.
"Yes. Maybe. I don't know, we haven't really talked about it." Steve looks up. "Is that a problem?" He says it almost challengingly, then chastises himself. He's lashing out because he's scared, and he's pretty sure that's the last thing any of them needs right now.
"Sorry, Buck. It's just... He's in a pretty bad way. I'm just..." He trails off.
Bucky's mouth quirks up a bit. "You could do worse than a guy like Stark," he says lightly. He crosses the small distance separating them and looks indecisive about something, before he places a deliberate hand on Steve's shoulder. "It's still hard to remember how to be Bucky Barnes." He goes silent for a moment, squeezing Steve's shoulder almost too tightly. He struggles for a second, then says quietly, "But I know you, and you're my friend. I've got your back no matter what, punk."
Steve wants to cry, break down and ask why Bucky ran away from him, why he wouldn't let Steve help him all these months. He supposes it was personal, Bucky's vendetta against Hydra, but he would have liked to help take them out, feel some sort of satisfaction after everything they've done to him and the people he loves.
Instead he just bows his head, blinking back tears, grateful that he has this, at least. That his best friend is still in there, and remembers him, and seems to be willing to come back home with him.
If he still has a home after all this. The Tower will never be home if Tony's not there.
He shakes his head, pushing that thought away. He can't like that.
"If you're riding along with the medical team, you better get on board, sir," a young EMT with a strong Romanian accent interrupts. "Sirs," he corrects, glancing nervously at Bucky. Bucky says nothing, just squeezes Steve's shoulder once and lets go, turning toward the helicopter. Steve thanks the man and hustles after him.
They work on Tony for what seems like hours, but is probably closer to 30 minutes, before he starts to wake up. Steve starts to shake, because he honestly didn't know if Tony would ever wake up again, and the triage team had been unable to offer any reassurances. He's sitting between Bucky and Thor, and Thor's got a calming hand on his leg and though Bucky makes no move this time to reach out to him, his shoulder is a comforting presence against Steve's. There's a blood bag attached to Tonys left arm and an IV attached to the opposite hand, and right now they're working on sewing together Tony's stomach from where the armor tore through his skin like it was tissue paper.
He begins making pained noises and Steve decides he's had enough of staying away, so he crosses the small space to kneel at Tony's side, the medical technicians making room for Captain America without comment. He takes Tony's hand gently, careful of the IV pumping fluids into the back of it, speaking to the EMTs over Tony's prone form.
"I think he's waking up," Steve says, voice tight. He's not sure how much English they know, but he knows at least the one man can understand what he's saying. He seeks him out, talks directly to him.
Tony groans again, and Steve looks down to see his head flop sideways, almost bumping into Steve's knee.
“Tony? Can you hear me?” His voice is shaking and he gently squeezes the hand held in his, praying for a response, for a miracle.
When Tony squeezes weakly back he almost loses it, choking out a laugh that sounds perilously close to a sob. “Tony, oh my god, thank god.” He's muttering Tony's name helplessly when Tony cries out, trying to sit up. Steve firmly pushes him back down, tells him to stop, then calls out to the EMTs for some kind of drugs to numb the pain.
“Please, stop Tony, stop, they’re helping you.” It's horrible, watching Tony struggle and not being able to get through to him. Steve has never felt so useless before in his life. Finally, a technician slips a needle into Tony's elbow and depresses the plunger and he relaxes almost immediately. His eyes slide open and he looks up at Steve, foggy with the drugs. He tries to move his arm but the cord from the blood bag stops him and he lets it fall back to his side. He tries to speak but struggles, and Steve wants to calm him, so he reaches out to put a hand on his cheek, rubbing gently with his thumb. He tells Tony to relax, that he's going to be okay, keeps talking until Tony's eyes slide closed again.
Steve stays where he is, asking the medical team questions and getting stilted replies, occasionally talking to Natasha and Clint, who can translate Romanian for him. Bruce is tucked into a corner, meditating now that the professionals have taken over. Thor watches the action quietly with a sorrowful look on his face, and Bucky hasn't moved an inch since he boarded the helicopter. Steve can tell he's uncomfortable, though his posture is relaxed and nonchalant; his eyes keep darting to the pilots, then the doors, then to Steve and the rest of the Avengers, and Steve can only hope that he can hold it together until they get Tony somewhere safe.
Tony's been keeping up a constant pressure on his hand, squeezing occasionally, so when his hand suddenly goes limp Steve feels it and he panics. The EMTs assure him Tony's alive, he's just lost consciousness again, and Steve sits back on his heels, closing his eyes, tuning everything out but Tony's breathing and the hand in his. He stays that way until they land on the roof of the Romanian hospital half an hour later.
He's swimming in blackness, thick and swirling around him, colors blending like oils pressing down heavily on his mind. There are noises, soft and rhythmic, sounds that lull him back under the waves, beeping and humming and murmuring. He drifts for a while, not quite conscious, until his brain identifies the source of the murmuring. Someone is talking to him softly, has been for a while now. He tries to pull himself out of the murky darkness, but the closer the voice gets the more pain he feels radiating throughout his body. There's something in his mouth, choking him and he starts to panic, and then the voice is shushing him and there are hands grabbing his and pulling them away from his face, and then all his energy saps away and he's so tired and the current pulls him back under.
The next time he wakes up, he is able to blink his eyes open. They stick a little, like when he's been sick, and his vision is foggy. The breathing tube is gone, at least he's assuming that's what it was last time he woke up, thank god for that. He blinks a few more times to clear his vision, and then he takes in his surroundings.
He's in a hospital bed, in a small but very nice room in what looks to be a foreign country, judging from the writing on the various hospital equipment around the room. Somewhere in Eastern Europe, he guesses, trying to remember why he's here.
It floods back suddenly and he flops his head back down onto the pillow perhaps more enthusiastically than he should. He hisses in a breath as his head aches and a sharp pain flashes through his abdomen. After it passes, he pushes himself up carefully to survey the damage.
There's a wide swath of bandages around his middle, thickest on his right side, with several more on his chest. He's got a pretty large one on his left thigh as well, and when Tony experimentally tries to move his leg agony spikes from his hip to his toes and spots flood his vision, and he has to take a few deep breaths before he doesn't feel like he's going to puke up the meager contents of his stomach.
His heart monitor picks up and it must alert someone at the nurse's station, because a nurse comes in almost immediately and starts checking all his readouts, asking how he feels in stilted English.
"Peachy," he responds sarcastically, slightly breathless. His voice is hoarse and gravelly, and he coughs once, jarring his midsection. He groans and the nurse looks at him worriedly. He waves her off, panting. "It's fine," he gets out between breaths, and his throat hurts and everything hurts and he would want drugs but he wants information more.
After a couple of minutes which he spends breathing shallowly while the nurse putters around checking his vitals and charts and drips, he's finally got his breath back.
"Where am I?" He figures that's easy enough to understand. The nurse's eyebrows furrow as she considers her reply. "Hospital," she says, with a very strong accent. She pauses, then continues, "Romania."
Makes sense. "Where is my team?" She looks confused with that one. "Team?" Tony repeats. "Thor, Widow, Captain America?" At Steve's call sign she lights up and starts to babble, pointing at the gray door that separates his room from the rest of the hospital. Tony smiles charmingly, or as much as he can with chapped lips and a bruised face, and nods a bit. "Can I see them?" He gestures carefully with his hands, trying to convey bringing them into the room. She nods and smiles, finishes filling out his chart and slides it back into the plastic holder at the end of the bed, then smiles at him again and holds up a finger at him ("one minute") before she walks out the door and it swings softly shut behind her.
Tony only has to wait 20 seconds before the door opens again, carefully, and Steve pokes his head in. His eyes widen when he catches sight of Tony and he opens the door the rest of the way and then his team is piling into the room, Rhodey and Pepper trailing behind, greetings and threats all tumbling over each other and Tony grins.
It's a tight squeeze, but they all manage to fit, Pepper and Natasha sitting on the end of the bed, Bruce looking at his medical chart (he wonders how many times he's done that while Tony's been out), Thor standing by the head of his bed smiling brilliantly, Clint plopped in the single chair by his bedside, Steve and Rhodey standing near the back wall, by the lone window letting in weak rays of light.
His throat feels tight and he has to blink his eyes several times to clear them. He blames it on the drugs.
Clint is the first to speak directly to him, no surprise there.
"You're an idiot."
Tony laughs, then groans when it jostles his injuries. Pepper is there immediately, smoothing his hair back from his forehead and making soft noises, glaring at Clint. Clint doesn't look remotely sorry.
"Don't look at me like that, he is. He should have waited for backup. Guess it caught up to you this time," he says, directing the last at Tony. Pepper turns back to Tony but doesn't argue, and he wants to apologize for doing this to her, to all of them, he so stupid and he never learns and he'll always hurt the people he cares about. God he's so emotional right now.
Thor takes that moment to step in. "I for one am most happy our comrade has returned to us," he declares loudly, clapping a heavy hand on Tony's shoulder. Tony winces, but it's not too bad. Plus, he needs as many people on his side as he can get. He'll take the pain.
There are smiles around the room and murmurs of agreement. Tony breathes a (careful) sigh of relief, glad he can put off defending his actions for now. He's sure he's going to hear it later but right now he just wants to see that everyone is safe and alive and he's going to live to be yelled at another day.
They all hang out for a while, making small talk and keeping conversation light, and Tony is content to listen and chip in a smart ass comment every now and again, taking it all in and letting his body relax. The team eventually leaves to eat and rest, and Tony is left with Pepper and Rhodey. Rhodey has taken Thor's spot near Tony's shoulder and Pepper's in the chair Clint vacated, and the moment Tony turns to her her eyes fill up and she's hiccuping back little sobs.
"Pepper, Pep, no, don't do that, c'mon, I'm fine, Pepper..." He reaches out and she latches onto his hand, squeezing almost painfully, head bowed while she cries softly. Tony turns to look at Rhodey helplessly, who just shakes his head, his own eyes sad and a little misty.
"You almost died Tony." Tony opens his mouth to say this isn't the first time, but Rhodey cuts him off. "No, Tony, no jokes. Steve had to call us and tell us to fly over, that you might not make it through the night. He was a wreck. Your team probably hasn't slept since you got here. What were you thinking?" He says the last almost angrily, hand clenching on Tony's shoulder. Tony doesn't complain.
"I was thinking I had to save them, Rhodey," he says as forcefully as he can manage. He has to take a second, his throat wants to spasm and he really doesn't want to cough again. "I'm sorry I worried you, I really am, but it was that or watch them all get taken out one by one. I made a call."
Rhodey's eyes are sad but he doesn't say anything. He knows what it's like to be in that kind of situation.
Pepper chimes in softly. "But why is it always you, Tony? Why are you always the sacrifice?" Tony sees flashes of Manhattan, the nuke flying over the harbor, the portal opening wide in the sky, the explosion in space when he thought he'd never return. Then, abruptly, he thinks about Steve flying a plane into the ocean. He shakes his head, eyes shut.
"I can't let them die when I can do something about it," he says with finality. He hears Pepper sigh, and he thinks that it's a good thing they broke up, he'd hate himself even more than he already does if he'd done this to her again while they were still together. He squeezes her hand, and Rhodey's hand stays on his shoulder, a comforting weight.
They sit together for a while, Tony drifting along in a haze of painkillers, until Pepper pats his hand and tells him to get some sleep. He wants to argue but he really is tired. His eyelids are heavy and his body aches and he wants to be in his own bed, but he supposes a crappy hospital bed is better than a cave floor. Pepper stands and Rhodey's hand squeezes his shoulder once before it's gone, then Tony has to choke back tears again when Rhodey slides an arm around his shoulders and hugs him gently.
They leave the room and Tony falls back onto his pillows and closes his eyes.
This time it's Natasha sitting in the lonely plastic chair by his bed when he opens his eyes. She's reading a book in Romanian, and Tony rolls his eyes. Of course she is.
Without looking up from her book she says, "You ever do that again and I'll kill you."
Tony flinches. She's terrifying.
Natasha marks her page with a folded piece of paper and sets it down on the bedside table, next to a tray of hospital food. She grabs a bowl from the tray and raises an eyebrow at Tony. He nods, afraid to say no when she's obviously feeling so murderous. He can be hungry, sure.
She scoots closer and proceeds to scoop a spoonful of the broth (he hates post-surgery food, the broths and yogurts and jellos, everything bland and tasteless) and gives him a look that says "try to argue and I'll remove an intimate part of your body with this plastic spoon". He shudders and goes with it, opening his mouth.
She feeds him half the bowl in silence until he waves her off, feeling like he can't eat another bite without either exploding or throwing up first, and Tony is really starting to feel like he's in the doghouse here and shouldn't they be thanking him? He saved them all.
"So I'm getting the feeling you're all mad at me," he says lightly, looking directly at Natasha. He's feeling brave at the moment, after being hand-fed chicken broth, and he'll probably pay for it later but he wants them to know he did the right thing and he'd do it again.
She spits something in Russian, which he's pretty sure isn't an endearment, and puts the soup bowl down with a clang.
"Idiot," she says in English. She glares and now Tony has to avert his eyes. So much for bravery, he thinks. He waits but she doesn't say anything else, just picks up her book and settles back into her chair to read.
It's awkward, like he's 14 again and sitting in the Dean's office at MIT being reprimanded for going to class blackout drunk and still passing his exams. Then Natasha shifts her book to her lap and turns the page with one hand, gently grabbing Tony's with the other, delicate fingers twining around his.
Tony's doesn't think he's forgiven, exactly, but he also thinks he's mostly safe from losing any important body parts in the near future.
He's doodling ideas on a small pad of paper stamped with the hospital logo when Steve walks in.
"Hey, Cap, just the man I wanted to see," he says brightly. "I'm working on improvements to your uniform. Those lasers got through the suit pretty easily, so I've been messing around with the alloys weaved into the material and I think I've got something that can absorb that type of energy instead of just repel it, and if I create a kind of storage device then you can use it.. to..." He trails off when he catches the look on Steve's face. He sighs, only wincing slightly.
"What, Steve? Spit it out. I went off mission, I have no sense of self-preservation, I should wait for backup. I've heard it all already." He's so sick of all this, he did the right fucking thing and everyone's crazy if they think he wouldn't risk his life to save the rest of his team.
Steve's face crumples and he shakes his head. "Tony-- you almost died." His voice breaks on the last word and he starts to turn away but Tony reaches out and grabs his hand, pulling him to the hospital bed.
"Hey," Tony say softly. "Cap, hey. I didn't. I'm here."
Steve squeezes his hand then pulls away to rub his hands over his face, sitting heavily in the chair. He looks exhausted, rings under his eyes and hair a mess, and Tony knows super-soldiers don't need a ton of sleep but he wonders if Steve has slept at all since he got hurt. He looks so young and vulnerable, and Tony hates himself a little bit more for putting him through this. The man has enough issues as it is, he's lost everyone he'd ever cared about, and he almost lost Tony on top of that.
That reminds him. "Where's Barnes?" He asks. He hadn't really thought about the Winter Soldier since he woke up... He'd been more concerned with his team and his own injuries, the whole reason for their mission had slipped his mind.
Steve smiles slightly. "He's in Germany. Somewhere outside of Munich."
"Wait, what?" Tony asks, confused and slightly irritated. "You mean I did all that research and surveillance and we fought Doom slash Hydra's fucking Doombot hybrids and I almost fucking died to get you your best friend back and you just let him go?"
Steve looks angry now. "Tony, I never asked for all that," he says tightly.
Tony rolls his eyes dramatically. His head is starting to throb a little, but he ignores it.
"'Course you didn't. You wouldn't. But I know you wanted him back at all costs, and--"
"Not at all costs, Tony!" Steve interrupts sharply. His voice is raised but he's not yelling, probably still respecting hospital rules, and isn't he just perfect. "I never wanted this! I'd never ask for him back at the expense of you."
"Wouldn't you, though?" He doesn't know why he says it. He wants to take it back as soon as he does at the look on Steve's face. He back pedals. "Sorry, I'm sorry, I know you wouldn't, I'm being stupid, ignore me--" Steve interrupts him softly.
"You really think that? That I would-- I would trade you for him? That I'm going to give you up now that he's back?"
Tony looks away, to the open window with the thin curtains blowing softly. "I don't know, Steve. Are you?"
Steve makes a sound and it wrenches at Tony's chest and suddenly Steve's got Tony's face in his hands and is turning it forcibly towards him.
"Tony, listen to me. I love you." Tony opens his mouth to object, but Steve doesn't let him. "No, listen. I love you. Bucky is my best friend. Always has been and always will be and nothing will change that, but I don't love him the way I love you. Tony Stark, Iron Man, the guy who drinks coffee like its water, who lets me sit on his couch and sketch all day while he works on amazing, world-changing things, who sees me as more than just Captain America, who isn't afraid to stand up for what he thinks is right. I love you, and nothing's going to change that either."
Tony doesn't know what to say. He's speechless, which has happened less times than he can count on one hand in his entire life, so he doesn't say anything. He just stares at Steve's beautiful face and reads everything that's there for the taking, and he leans forward and kisses him as passionately as he can.
It's not much, he's still not fully recovered, but it's enough, and he pours everything he's feeling into the kiss, all the doubt and uncertainty and fear and worry and love, yes, love, he loves this big stupid blonde Adonis more than he thought he could love anyone, and it may have started out as resentment slash obsession but it's turned into wanting to know this man inside and out and he couldn't stop falling even if he wanted to.
He's dizzy by the time Steve pulls back but Tony follows his lips anyway, wanting more. Steve gives his lips a soft peck then pushes him back onto the pillows firmly. His face is flushed and his lips are kiss-swollen and Tony has no idea what he's getting himself into but he doesn't even care, he just wants more of it, every day for as long as Steve will have him.
"Tony," Steve says, goofy smile on his face fading as he turns serious again. "I can't lose you."
"You won't, Steve," he promises, and he's going to be smarter from now on about life or death decisions because he's not going to give this up easily. It's fucking Captain America, he'd be a fool if he let this slip out of his fingers because he couldn't think twice.
Even better, it's Steve. Dorky, artsy Steve who still prefers pencil and paper to any kind of computer or tablet, Steve who brings him sandwiches and juice, who gets up at 5 AM to run and workout and then make breakfast for their team, who tucks Tony into bed when he works himself to exhaustion in the lab. Steve, with his wicked sense of humor and drop-dead gorgeous smile and his utter determination to always do the right thing, even if it's hard, even if they disagree.
Steve doesn't look entirely convinced but he seems to accept it for now. He takes Tony's hand and Tony doesn't think this many people have ever held his hand in his life, but then again he's never had this many people care about him, either. He's not complaining. He actually kind of likes it.
"Bucky's in Germany because he's working on taking down a new Hydra base. He's in contact with me, and if he needs them, the rest of the Avengers. We're going to take them all out together." And that's kind of poetic, Captain America and the Winter Soldier, Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes taking out Hydra once and for all. With a little help from Tony Stark and the rest of the Avengers, of course, because they're not going to just sit idly by when there's all kinds of explosions and fun to be had. "The team is resting, we're moving you to New York tomorrow morning to finish your recovery, and we're going to gather some intel for Bucky. He'll be in touch."
"So what you're saying is, we're alone..." Tony grins lewdly, and Steve blushes. It's adorable. He pushes himself up, ignoring the twinge in his side, because this is worth it. "There's nobody here..." He leans forward, lips stopping inches from Steve's, breath ghosting over his lips, "to interrupt us..." He trails off, eyelids heavy, eyes flicking between Steve's.
Steve grins back slowly, sensually, eyes dark with desire, and Tony wants. He wants so much. Steve's face is mischievous as he pushes Tony back onto his pillows again. "You need your rest, you've got a long day tomorrow," he says, all helpful and innocent and so, so sexy.
Tony groans in frustration, head tilting back to glare at the ceiling, until he feels Steve manhandle him (gently, his body still hurts, though it's much better than it was before) to the side and slide onto the bed next to him. He turns Tony until they're lying facing each other, heads on the same pillow, Steve's eyes roaming all over his face, taking it in, looking like he's never seen anything so perfect. Tony puts a palm on the side of Steve's face and presses a soft kiss to his lips, whispering against them.
"I love you too."