“Owowowow,” Tony muttered in vague annoyance as much as actual pain as Natasha helped him slowly sink onto one of the metal benches that lined the inner hull of the Quin-jet.
“Careful. You’ll tear that open again,” Natasha warned, giving a quick glance over her shoulder to the open ramp. Tony swiveled his head in the same direction, wincing as the sudden movement sent a stitch of pain through the side of his chest.
“Never hear the end of it from Cap if I messed up his field dressing,” Tony replied, dropping his gaze to the dark red stain that spread over the front of his shirt. Steve had made some kind of bandage for it out of what looked like part of his uniform and belt. He studied the makeshift bandage for a moment, then huffed out a burst of air at the irony. It was truly a tragedy that Steve had apparently ripped his uniform off only to patch Tony up with the scraps, and, to top it off, Tony couldn’t even remember it happening. The universe was thinking up some truly creative ways to punish him.
He’d been out cold after they hit the ground or maybe a little before that, he couldn’t quite get the sequence of events to work in his head. When he woke, they were in that shack however long it had been later---God, how long had it been? Hours? He couldn’t remember, and when he tried to dig up the shards of lost time, he managed to get flashes of red on a white so bright it made him almost glare-blind thinking about it, the sense of movement and accompanying nausea and a vague, dreamlike perception of hands cradling his head that came with a concordant sense of absolute security. It all just gave him a giant headache, to be honest, like trying to focus on one of those stereograms you had to stare at until the image appeared.
Natasha ignored him and peeled the makeshift bandage off, though Tony shot her a disgruntled look for her effots. Tony took the bandage from her hand without thinking about why, turning it over and staring at it, a fissure of unease run down his spine. The underside was a deep, reddish brown where it had been pressed against his skin, and the thought of Steve’s hand holding it there slipped in like a rush of air, filling him all at once until he thought he might burst with the almost-pain of it. He’d felt safe, despite the shitload of trouble they’d actually been in, all things considered, and that, well, hell, that was probably an answer to a question he wasn’t really ready to ask. Love is a safe place to be, or some Oprah-esque bullshit, right? He couldn’t even muster the urge to mock the triteness of it, not while he held part of Steve’s blood-soaked uniform in his hand.
The jet had been hit, Tony remembered that much. It had been in stealth mode, so that should have been impossible, but the bits and pieces of it strewn over the side of the mountain begged to differ. One minute, Steve had been standing behind where Tony sat in the pilot’s seat telling Tony with a completely straight face that Wanda seemed to have taken an interest in computer programming and asking if Tony had any books on the subject he could recommend, the sly, little shit with the aw-shucks, innocent routine down pat, and the next minute the jet was in pieces, and they were falling.
It was all blurry in his head after that. He’d gotten enough of the armor to him in time to grab Steve and use the one repulsor that made it out of the jet to avoid hitting the side of the mountain at something less than terminal velocity, but it had been close. Too close, but his memory went black right around that time, until he woke up in that cabin, Steve hovering over him with an expression that told Tony he was clearly going to die, either from his wounds or Steve lecturing him to death for doing something stupid again.
Tony traced the jagged edge of leather where shreds of thread and material dangled haphazardly and realized with a jolt that Steve hadn’t had anything sharp to use. He rubbed his thumb over it and thought of logs torn apart, a scrape of a shocked, vaguely embarrassed laugh escaping him. Reading way too much into a little aggressive first aid there, Stark, he thought to himself, though a frown deepened his face as he ran his thumb over the torn piece of dark blue.
Honestly, he should be far more hurt than he was. One gash. Not even that deep, according to Bruce, though the fucker stung like holy hell. A few scrapes and bruises. That…that didn’t seem quite right, he thought with a flicker of disquiet snaking through him. He wasn’t even in that much pain, all things considered, though he supposed that could still be the morphine. Finally managed to get Steve’s hands on his ass and it was to inject him with morphine, which he could use as an excuse for any actual feelings he might have revealed. That was somehow incredibly fitting, Tony thought dully.
God, what had he said up there, Tony wondered, rubbing a hand over his face and through his hair in a frustrated gesture. Something about—fuck, coming back to the Avengers and, Jesus Christ, inkwells and ponytails? Damn Bruce and his stupid Little House on the Prairie analogies getting all in his head up in that cabin. At least Steve had seemed to blame the drugs for most of it, Tony thought with a slight jerk of what was trying to be a laugh and failing miserably.
“Try to lie down so I can strap you in. We’ll be wheels up as soon as they’re onboard,” Natasha urged, finishing up where she was poking his wound with a hot stick of salt or whatever the fuck she was doing that burned like hell.
“What’s—ow!—stop that, God, you’re—hey, hey! Seriously, you could have just asked me to move---what’s taking them so long?” Tony asked around a grimace as Natasha rearranged him on the bench until he was laying on his good side. “Your beside manner leaves a lot to be desired, you know that right? Steve was a far better nurse, I’m just saying.”
“I’ll bet,” Natasha agreed, almost humming the words. He saw her look down the open ramp again and followed her gaze, but from his vantage could only see snow and dirt and the hint of sky above.
“I was working my way up to a sponge bath when you and the Rescue Rangers showed up,” Tony mumbled. “Honestly, if Bruce and Thor are playing doctor in there, I’m going back in, even if I have to crawl. Friday!” Tony called out, craning his neck to look over her shoulder as Natasha turned her head to the side in what he assumed was disgust.
“Yes, Boss?” the AI’s voice sounded in the jet, the lighter, feminine voice not as much of a shock as it once had been. The wrongness of it had been lost over time, but what was left was an almost-rightness that would never quite get there. He’d almost managed to make himself stop noticing. Almost.
“What’s our ETA to the Tower?” Tony asked.
“Five hours, Boss,” Friday answered.
“We’ll get there faster,” Clint said from the cockpit where he was running through the pre-flight checklist, an oddly strained note to his voice. Clint cast a look over his shoulder at Natasha, some understanding passing between them that caused Tony to roll his eyes. He’d given up trying to decode their Moose and Squirrel routine long ago, right around the time Clint’s merry band of mini-agents put in an appearance at the old McBarton Farm.
The farm…Tony felt a flush of heat creep up his neck. He couldn’t say that had been the beginning, not exactly. He wasn’t sure if there had been a beginning. This thing with Steve, it felt like it had always been there and maybe it had, filling the dark places that would’ve been empty otherwise. Instead, they were full of longing and jealousy, bitterness and hope, and something that met in the middle of all that, a steady, constant beat of if-only that hadn’t been dulled by the years between boyhood and now.
But the farm had been some kind of turning point, when he’d been forced to acknowledge that he had seen his friends dead or dying, his world falling to destruction, but it had been Steve’s death that he had felt, that left him carved out and gutted and desperate enough to risk everything. He hadn’t told Pepper. Just Fury, really, and even that had been the barest sketch of what it had felt like. What was there to say? I saw the end of the world, and it looked a hell of a lot like losing him? It would take a lot more than an apology farm to fix that. Tony sighed and rested a hand over his eyes for a moment, letting his head fall back against the bulkhead.
Clint had given them his daughter’s room, probably on purpose. She had a double bed covered in pink and white sheets with horses running across them and one of those nightlights that projected glowing greenish stars on the ceiling. Tony had unplugged it without a word. Steve had graciously offered to take the floor, and Tony let him because he couldn’t come up with an objection that didn’t sound pathetic. Then—then. Then he’d woken up, shaking and soaked in sweat, body clenched in a rictus of muscles, panting for air.
Tony! Wake up!
Are you—are you okay? You were dreaming. You—you said my name.
Sorry. Sorry. Fuck. Jesus-- I’m—I didn’t mean to wake you, Cap. It’s nothing.
Didn’t seem like nothing. Are you sure—
I’m fine. Forget it.
Here I thought I was a terrible liar. You’re not fine. None of us are fine. And you—
I said I was fine, Rogers. Don’t get your star-spangled panties in a twist. Just a bad dream. Not all of us can lie back and think of liberty.
What’d she show you, Tony? What was all this? What scared you so badly you couldn’t argue me into it?
Everything I cared about was gone or about to be. And I’d lost the chance to stop that from happening.
That isn’t going to happen, Tony. We’re going to stop him.
Yeah, well. We’re doing a real bang-up job so far. You gonna pony-up, Cap? What’d the little witch show you? Something truly horrifying to your patriotism and basic decency, like Congress?
I think…I think maybe she showed me the same thing.
“In time for dinner then,” Tony said with a slight nod as he frowned at the pouch of electrolyte fluid Natasha shoved in his hand. “Okay, now you’re just doing that on purpose,” he accused with a hiss when she pressed a clean bandage over his wound. “Friday, have, let’s say…two of everything on Gianetti’s menu waiting when we get there. A triple order of the manicotti and that goat cheese ravioli. And whatever their dessert special is. Better make it four of those,” Tony said. “What? He’s got a sweet tooth. Just guilts you into not eating the dessert so he can have it. Hand to God, I saw him creating a flowchart of strategies to convince Clint not to eat the last of the birthday cake, and number one was ‘Fake food poisoning.’ He doesn’t’ mess around, I’ll give him that.”
“Tony—“ Natasha started, voice low, a hint of something like a warning in it.
“Sorry,” Tony said quickly, waving a hand in the space between them. “This evening’s revels are only for those whose last meal was reconstituted from a packet with the slightly overreaching label of ‘beef stew.” As excuses went, it was a shitty one, he knew. Would you like a side of ‘I Want Time With Steve’ with that, Boss? Friday’s voice echoed in his head. Why yes, yes I would, thank you very much.
It wasn’t a date, of course. He knew that. He really, really did. First and foremost, because Steve didn’t consider it a date, so there was that hurdle. It—it just had date-like qualities. If you looked at it a certain way. If you, you know, thought about it, at some length, say, while a couple of hundred pounds of super-soldier was wrapped around you, and you got to the hundred and forty-seventh digit of pi before you finally managed to not seem exceedingly happy about the taste of formerly-powdered stew.
Natasha was watching him, eyes wide, something like pity there, and he found himself looking away, out the ramp again, gaze flicking over anything but her. It wasn’t like he didn’t know what she saw. What Bruce saw. Hell, they probably all did, except Steve, who remained blissfully unaware. Steve’s ignorance managed to be something he was grateful for and frustrated by, never quite able to settle on which one to feel, so he just felt them both at the same time, which, admittedly, did not lead to his best decision-making when it came to Steve, but now they were having a not-date, and it was going to be the best Goddamned not-date that had ever been seen.
Then, he would build Steve something, and maybe that would be the thing that tipped the scale. You never knew. It could happen. He could be one uniform upgrade away from getting what he wanted. Best not to take the chance on missing out, so it clearly made sense to spend the next week or so holed up in his lab. Yep. Another brilliant plan from the resident genius. It was all working out so well, he thought, as his face twisted into a grimace. He raked his hand through his hair again, then patted it down, because…fuck, where were they anyway, he wondered, peering around Natasha at the ramp again.
“Look, it’s just—he—Steve—he took care of me, you know? I may have given him a bit of a hard time about it. Not the best patient, here. You may be familiar with that particular personality quirk,” Tony acknowledged when she rolled her eyes. “So, he gets some ravioli, okay? It’s not metaphorical ravioli, for Christ’s sake. Hell, I bought you donuts that time you stabbed me in the neck. It’s a thing,” Tony grumbled. “Don’t look at me like that,” he protested as her gaze went hard and knowing.
“Tony, Steve—“ Natasha began again, then her head jerked to the side as heavy footsteps thudded against the metal loading ramp. Tony bent at the waist and pushed himself up enough to see over her shoulder, one hand clutching at the slash that split his chest. He winced at the movement as the skin tugged, the dull ache that had settled there turning into a sharp sting of pain, but it wasn’t as bad as it could have been, he knew that much. Thanks to Steve, and damn if that didn’t send a flood of warmth through his chest, wrapping itself around the wound like a sponge. Steve would have done the same for any of them, Tony’s mind supplied, less than helpfully. But he hadn’t. He’d done it for Tony, and that, Tony thought with a grimace, well. Damned if that didn’t have the annoying by-product of making all these feelings bubble far too close to the surface.
There was a clamor at the back of the jet, the heavy thudding clank of boots on the ramp, and Tony’s head swiveled around fast enough he felt a moment of disorientation as his vision caught up with the movement.
“You all stop for snacks or---or---“ Tony stuttered to an abrupt halt as his gaze snapped to the scene filling the back of the jet.
The world tilted on its axis, blurred, then formed into almost too-sharp relief, everything crashing into him at once, but none of it made sense. It was there, in front of him. He could see it. Right there. But his mind couldn’t make any sense of it. His vision blacked for a moment, everything seemed to dissolve, then reform. When it did, it was wrong, distant somehow, like he was above it, not fully present, watching it happen through a long lens.
He could see them, the way Steve’s blonde head hung listlessly in Thor’s arms, hear it, in the heavy echo of Thor’s steps on the jet’s ramp as he carried Steve inside the jet, but there was an unreality to it, like his mind couldn’t process what he was seeing fast enough. Bruce was barking orders that registered only as background noise behind the ringing in his ears, one hand squeezing at a plastic bag that seemed to cover Steve’s nose and mouth. Natasha was asking quick, rapid-fire questions and grabbing various things from their medical supplies, but it was all happening out there, in some other place, because it couldn’t quite gain purchase in his mind, which just kept repeating the same mantra over and over.
This isn’t happening. This isn’t happening. This isn’t happening.
He wanted to scream it out at them. He could feel the words burn through his chest, making it expand until he felt ready to burst with them, but he couldn’t get them out because this wasn’t happening. It was like his ability to form words had been sucked out along with all the air in the room, and he was choking on words that wouldn’t come. The words wouldn’t get out of him, and he needed them out of him, so that they would know, so this would stop. This was some kind of terrible joke or a dream he couldn’t wake up from or something—something--anything, because this could not be happening.
“Get him on the table!” Bruce shouted, point towards the medical table near the center of the jet. “Thor, on his side. On his side. Careful, careful. Nat, I need—God—I don’t know—I’m not—shit,” Bruce said, running both hands through his hair, gripping huge chunks of it tightly in his hands. “I’m not this kind of doctor. I’m a biochemist for fuck’s sake.
“The serum…” Clint said nervously as he stacked bags of plasma and fluids from the cooler on the table next to Steve. Exactly, thank you, Clint, Tony mentally shouted. The serum. This is nothing the serum can’t handle. “He’ll be okay, right? I mean, this—this isn’t---” Clint trailed off, because no one was correcting him like they should be doing. Someone should be correcting him. Steve was going to be fine. The serum would fix this.
Someone really needed to say that. He needed someone to say that, but no one did, and the God-damn silence was the worst sound Tony had ever heard.
“It—he’s lost a lot of blood,” Bruce said carefully. Too carefully. It was the caution, that beat of hesitation that burned a crater through Tony’s gut. In that second, he thought he might hate Bruce. Really and truly hate him and his willingness to give in so damn quickly. Tony wanted to rage at him, demand he stop being so fucking careful and just say it. Say Steve was going to be fine.
Someone please say it. Please.
“Tell us what to do,” Natasha replied, as calm as any of them, though her voice quavered, and maybe it was that, the fissure in her armor that broke through whatever it was clawing itself around Tony like a vice, holding him in place, holding him together, keeping what he was seeing at some kind of distance that his mind could allow. “Bruce. You have to tell us what to do here.”
“I know! I know!” Bruce shouted, gripping the side of his hair with one hand while the other kept up compressions on the ventilation bag. “Okay. Um--IV kit. Give me the blood bags. And, ah, fluids…you’ve got them. Okay, good. Clint, get us in the air,” Bruce yelled over his shoulder as he started cutting off Steve’s uniform and pulling clear plastic tubing from a bag. There was a needle in his right hand, and Natasha was plugging one end of the tube into the bag of blood.
“On it,” Clint called back in response.
“How many of these are his?” Bruce asked, holding up one of the bright red bags of fluid from the table.
“We all did three per person,” Natasha replied. She had a plastic tourniquet binding Steve’s upper arm just above where Bruce was probing at the veins that webbed beneath Steve’s skin. “He hasn’t needed any.”
“That’s not going to be enough,” Bruce said. “Someone take this,” Bruce ordered, handing off the compression bag to Natasha as he threaded the needle into the vein in Steve’s arm. “Who’s got O neg?” he asked, looking around. “Tony, you’re the only O-neg, right?”
“I--what—what??? No—yes---no—this—he was fine!” Tony heard himself nearly shouting, though his voice came out raw and hoarse. He knew he shouldn’t be yelling, but it was like he was at the end of a tunnel, his voice sounding tinny and hollow. Everyone was moving too slowly, too calmly, asking questions and making decisions, making this real, and he wanted to tell them to hurry and to do more and to stop and wait because this wasn’t right. It was all jumbled in his head, and nothing made sense, because they were supposed to have ravioli. He’d already ordered it. And dessert. Steve had a sweet tooth. It wasn’t a date, but—
“Tony!” Bruce shouted, breaking his reverie.
“He—he was fine,” Tony repeated, looking around dumbly as Thor placed Steve carefully on his side on the medical table. There was some kind of tube coming out of Steve’s mouth connected to a bag that Bruce was slowly squeezing in and out. “This isn’t happening.” He didn’t realize he’d spoken aloud until he heard Natasha reply.
“Tony, no,” Natasha ordered, slamming something long and slivery metal on the medical table. “Stop it. Panic later. Help or sit down.”
Tony just stared at her numbly, then his eyes went back to Steve laying on the table, not moving. One hand hung limply over the side and there was blood dripping from it, a slow, thin stream of red running onto the floor of the jet.
Come on, Cap, you’ve got blood all over your uniform.
It took Tony a long beat of staring at Natasha’s hand where it rhythmically compressed the bag to realize, to understand or to let the understanding sink in, anyway. Natasha was breathing for him. Natasha was breathing for Steve. Steve wasn’t breathing. These were facts that flowed through Tony’s head, but it was like they had nothing of truth connected to them. It just was. Those things existed. It was right there in front of him. But for the space of time it took Bruce toget the needle into Steve’s vein and Clint to get the engines going, Tony’s mind went completely blank.
This was happening.
It was like being punched in the gut when the realization hit. The world slanted, grew hazy, voices dulling to a distant echo, and there was a darkness creeping into the edges of his vision. He tried to suck in a breath, but it was like his body had forgotten the process for doing so. How could he breathe when Steve wasn’t? When Steve wasn’t breathing?
Steve wasn’t breathing.
Steve wasn’t breathing, and Steve was bleeding, even now, hours since the crash, even with the serum, and none of this could be happening because they’d joked, and Tony had teased, and Steve had made him a bandage and gotten that stupid little fire going somehow, and they’d played twenty questions and Tony hadn’t thought to ask if Steve was dying and they were having the ravioli Steve liked, so none of this could be happening.
It was like a tether being cut, leaving him flailing for purchase and finding only air beneath him. He was reaching for something that wasn’t there, some way that this wasn’t happening, but there was nothing left to grab onto.
“Don’t, Tony,” Natasha told him, gentler now, the pity that he’d heard earlier was back, and he looked down, almost surprised to see that he was standing next to where Steve lay on the medical table, one hand reaching for the bag she was pumping. He pulled his hand back into his chest, recoiling from the scene in front of him, like if he didn’t touch it, it would be less real somehow. It could still be taken back. He could wake up. Someone could shout, ‘Gotcha!’ and they could all laugh. Anything. Anything, but this.
“Move,” Bruce snapped. “Tony, move out of the way. Clint, get us home.” Tony stared at him, blinking slowly, before stepping back. He could almost feel a physical strain, pulling himself away, but there was a strange relief in having someone tell him what to do because he had no idea what to do with something that wasn’t supposed to be happening.
““Wind’s bad up here. Gonna be bumpy,” Clint warned from the pilot’s seat as he hit the buttons to initiate the take-off sequence. No one moved from their positions, though everyone braced themselves and grabbed for a handhold.
Tony felt the vibrations shake through the jet as it took off. He grabbed onto the side of the medical table, leaning a hip against it for balance. Bruce was holding onto the IV pole where the bags and lines shook against it. Over the roar of the engines, he couldn’t hear the steady susurrations of Natasha pumping air into Steve’s lungs. He had to watch her hand instead. In and out. He could see her mouth moving slightly as she counted between ventilations. Bruce reached down and adjusted Steve’s head again, trying to keep the airway at the proper angle, and shifted the mask that covered Steve’s nose and mouth, which had jostled loose on the ascent.
“As soon as we’re clear of this, get him on the automatic transport ventilator,” Bruce said, with a nod towards Natasha. “Tony, we’re going to need your bags.” Tony stared at him stupidly for a beat, wondering what was in his bags that they might need, before it hit him that Bruce meant they needed his blood. They needed his blood to give Steve because the amount of Steve’s blood they had onboard wasn’t enough, even though they’d all banked enough for a worse-case scenario at Bruce’s insistence.
Tony nodded jerkily and walked over to the refrigerated storage unit on unsteady legs, though the floor beneath him had stopped shimmying as Clint leveled the jet out. He punched in his code and leaned forward for the retinal scan. Unless you lived on the Hellmouth, probably a bit more than your standard bloodbank security, but Tony had designed the system himself. You didn’t just leave Steve’s blood sitting in the cooler, after all. Steve’s blood, he thought, dully, looking over his shoulder at the pool of red under the medical table. Someone had stepped in it where it puddled beneath the medical table. There was a bloody shoe print off to one side, and another lighter one next to it.
Tony pulled one of the bags of his own blood out, held it for a moment, then grabbed for the others. He remembered putting them in here with Bruce, going over the security protocols while Bruce checked to make sure they were stored properly. He’d looked down at the bright, red bag and thought that of all the things his old man had smuggled out of Europe during the war, that vial of Steve’s blood had been the thing he cared about the most and the thing that had belonged to him the least. And now it was leaking onto the floor like waste. Someone would have to clean that up. He looked over at the shoeprint again.
Someone really needed to clean that up.
The wrongness of it, the incomprehensible wrongness of the whole thing, soured his stomach, making it roil and turn over. He looked up and stared at the blank metal of the jet’s hull in front of him, one hand gripping the bags of blood while he tried to make some sense of something that refused to compute. 404 Error, he thought, with an edge of hysteria. There was a low ringing in his ears. He could hear it, drowning out the voices behind him, saying things he didn’t want to know. He forced a deep, shaking breath into his lungs, and braced a hand against the side of the jet above his head, letting his weight lean into it for a moment.
He knew he should be dealing with this better. He’d seen it before, after all. Of course, that had led to a murder-bot with a God complex. How that vision had ever frightened him seemed impossible to understand now, faced with the in living color version. This was a thousand times worse. That had been the end of the world, but this was the world falling apart, tearing at the seams, piece by piece. That had been a fight. This…this was a prayer, a plea coursing through his veins, asking something he didn’t believe in to intercede when he had nothing of any value to offer in trade. It was the powerlessness of it, he realized, the utter helplessness, that left him reeling. He held the only things he could offer that might help in his hands, the basest part of himself that had no business standing between Steve and death.
Steve was not going to die. He just wasn’t.
It had the feeling of a decision, like he was making a choice and marking it with some kind of invisible mental line, though he knew, objectively, that he was virtually powerless to control the outcome here. But, telling himself that was enough to drag his eyes back open and let him breathe without thinking through each of the steps involved, so that was something.
Tony turned around and saw that Natasha had the ATV hooked up. It was making a beeping noise as it compressed air into Steve’s lungs. Bruce was working to get Steve’s uniform off, carefully cutting away where the material had been…oh God.
It had been burned into his skin. Melted through into a deep swath of Steve’s side that was just…gone.
“Tony,” Bruce said gently. “Don’t…this isn’t as bad as it looks. The repulsor actually cauterized most of the wound. This isn’t the problem. I mean, it’s not good, but—ah,” he cut himself off at Natasha’s sharp, annoyed look. “Um, he’s got a puncture through his back. That’s where the blood loss is coming from, and I think it might have nicked the liver. Maybe the spleen, too, I don’t know. Whatever it was, it wasn’t anything to do with you. Something either from the explosion or on impact, I don’t know.”
“Bruce,” Tony breathed out. His voice was shaking. He was shaking. Everything was moving, and his eyes couldn’t quite keep up with it, like he was a second behind every time he tried to focus on anything. “I—“
“He said you saved him,” Bruce continued.
Tony stared at Bruce a beat, then promptly burst out laughing. It was truly a terrible habit, he knew. But it was just…this was too much. How was he supposed to process this? Steve was bleeding out, needed a machine to breath for him for Christ’s sake, and Tony had spent the past few hours playing for attention and planning not-date nights. “Saved him? Saved him. Yeah. Yeah, I did great,” Tony husked out. “Here,” he said, handing the bags of blood to Natasha. “Does he need more? I can give some. I can—I should—in case. In case he needs it.”
“That’d be good, Tony,” Bruce said. “That would help. But, first, get Dr. Cho and an emergency medical team to meet us at the Tower. I’m going to do my best to stabilize him, but he needs…he’s going to need more.”
“The Captain is strong. This magical potion that runs in his veins…it will help, yes?” Thor asked, looking around at all of them in turn. No one answered. It was the quietest silence Tony had ever heard, the kind that is waiting for someone to speak and say what no one wants to say. He wanted to shout into the quiet, roar out his pain and fear and anger, throw things for good measure, make some God-damned noise, anything that would break the silence that seemed to echo with too much of what wasn’t being said.
He got on the comm instead, and radioed ahead to make arrangements with Dr. Cho and to have their on-call medical team meet them. It took awhile, with Natasha relaying vital signs and other information so the teams could have something to go on. Cho was inconveniently located in Seoul, and even on one of Tony’s jets, it would be too many hours before she could arrive with the new prototype cradle, though she promised to leave immediately. SHIELD had once had protocols for this, for a—he mentally stumbled. For a downed Avenger. Damn. Damn. Keep it together, Tony admonished himself harshly. Granted, at this point, he wouldn’t trust them within ten miles of Steve, but there could be something out there. Some contingency plan. Something.
Pulling together Cho and the trauma team had given him something to do, at least temporarily. Now, he sat and watched Bruce detach an empty blood bag from the IV and hook a full one up to it. One of Tony’s. He watched the IV line light up red as it threaded through it, down into Steve’s vein. His blood was going into Steve’s body, which was…he didn’t know what it was. Wrong. It was wrong. The whole thing was wrong, but he loathed the sight of that for some reason. He didn’t really want to think about why it bothered him so much. This…this offering…this was all he could do. Pump out a few pints of O-neg and have some orange juice. He could create an artificial intelligence or build a miniaturized arc reactor in a cave, but he could never seem to save the people who mattered, no matter how hard he tried. He just ended up saving himself. He got to live.
He always got to live. Living just felt a lot fucking like being left behind.
He took the sponge Natasha handed him and squeezed as she tightened the strip of flexible plastic around his upper arm. “You okay there, Shellhead?” she asked softly. “Sure you’re up for this?” Tony just looked at her dully and ignored the question, though he supposed that was answer enough. “Okay, then,” she said quickly, bending her head to her task. Tony felt the bite of the needle slide into his arm, and fisted his hand.
“I can do more,” Tony said after what was both interminably long and far too quick. She slid the needle out and capped the bag, still warm with his blood. “Come on,” he said, tapping his knuckles on his knee.
“You’re hurt, and you haven’t eaten properly. You need fluids and to lie down,” Natasha insisted.
“I had beef stew,” Tony spat out bitterly. “And I slept like a baby. Because he—he—“ he stuttered, choking back the sound that kept wanting to escape his throat. He could hear the slurriness of his words and grimaced, waving a hand at where Steve lay on the table instead. Bruce was bent over him, doing God only knew what, though it looked to Tony like most of it involved staring at various readouts and frowning indecisively.
“I know,” Natasha replied, running a soothing hand through the top of Tony’s hair. “You’re no help to him if you pass out, Tony.”
“Not sure that’s the line of demarcation. I don’t get it. Why? Why would he—I don’t get it. He was hurt, and I was being an ass because I had his attention and can’t seem to stop myself from acting like I’m six and need to poke him on the playground and run away—that’s what Bruce says, anyway. God, cheap tricks and cheesy one liners, right? I mean, that’s it. That’s me. That’s what I—I can’t seem to stop myself. Not around him. I want to, and then I can’t, and now. Now,” Tony nodded, bobbing his head forcefully like the motion could keep him from shattering. “But he…he took care of me and talked to me and joked and gave me the fucking medicine and food, and I don’t understand why. Why? Tell me why,” Tony pleaded, the last coming out in one long, shaky breath. “Please. Please tell me why. I need…I need someone to tell me why. I need something here to make sense because none of this—none of this makes any fucking sense!”
Across the interior of the jet, he could see Bruce peer up at him from under his glasses. Tony realized he’d been steadily raising his voice, but was spread too thin to care. Thor was still standing beside Steve, watching the machine that was breathing for him with something like horror. Right there with you, big guy, Tony thought harshly. This was happening, and none of it made any sense, and someone really needed to clean up that blood. It was Steve’s and it was—it mattered. He was starting to truly, deeply hate seeing it there on the floor of the jet, smeared by too many footsteps.
“I know,” she repeated, gentler this time, with something like sadness etching across her face as he caught her gaze again. She pushed herself off the bench and braced a hand on the bulkhead that jutted out over Tony’s head. “He likes it, by the way. When you poke at him,” she said, giving Tony a measuring look.
“I feel like I should make a remark here, but literally nothing is coming to mind,” Tony grumbled with a pent-up sigh, letting his head fall back against the side of the jet in resignation. It made a dull, thudding noise and left him with a bright burst of pain at the base of his skull that somehow felt good. He wanted to do it again and keep doing it until maybe things made sense, but he forced himself to still.
“He met up with Barnes at the Stark Expo, did you know that? Just before Barnes shipped out. Barnes had gotten a couple of girls, dames Steve called them. He slips, sometimes. When he’s remembering. The one that was there for him, she was so disappointed. You can imagine, right? Ninety pounds of spit and piss and nothing else to his name. Wouldn’t give him the time of day, not with Barnes around and Howard Stark up on stage with his flying car,” Natasha continued.
“Hope the idiot got the clap, but so what?” Tony asked.
“You’re not the only one who learned he was a disappointment, Tony,” she said cryptically. She left him there then, and took the bag of donated blood over to Bruce, who hooked it on the IV stand for later. Tony tried to sit up, but a wave of dizziness and nausea hit, and he closed his eyes against the darkness creeping into the periphery of his vision.
“What’s—“ Tony started, then cleared his throat when the word came out ragged. “What’s that even supposed to mean?”
“It means you’re more alike than either of you want to admit. It means that he’s going to give you the best chance to survive because he’s a good guy, and you’re his teammate. It means he’s going to joke with you and distract you and keep you warm for the same reason you keep finding things wrong with every apartment in Brooklyn he looks at, trying to build him things he might like and helping him find Barnes, even when he is probably literally the last person you want to welcome back into Steve’s life,” Natasha told him.
“How much blood did you take because none of that makes the slightest bit of sense,” Tony muttered, swiping a hand across his face.
“It’s actually the only thing about this that makes complete sense. Might surprise you what you see if you stop trying to not watch him die long enough to see anything else,” Natasha offered with a shrug of her shoulders, her eyes flicking to his, then sliding across the jet to where Bruce and Thor hovered over Steve. “He’s stable. Ish. You can sit with him, if you want.” She said it like there was some question to it, but Tony was in motion fast enough that the sound of the words followed him across the interior of the jet.
Steve was partially elevated on the medical table, lines and wires winding in and out of him like an elaborate web, telling the monitors how close to alive he was. He was pale, but not the usual kind. It was more the absence of color, an almost translucency that made the blue veins under his skin seem all the brighter. The blood loss, of course.
“How is he?” Tony asked, immediately hating the way his voice sounded. Hesitant and forced, like he was trying to speak a different language, and maybe he was, at that. One he still couldn’t comprehend, or didn’t want to. Same difference, he supposed.
“Stable. For now,” Bruce responded carefully, not taking his eyes off Steve, as if saying it out loud could jinx it. “Everything arranged with the medical team and Dr. Cho?”
“She’s in Seoul,” Tony replied, and saw Bruce’s face drop. “She’s already on one of the jets with the prototype cradle, but it will take awhile. Medical team will meet us there.”
“Good,” Bruce said. “Tony…look, none of this was your fault. Whatever happened, it happened when the jet blew. He got winged with the repulsor, but that actually may have helped keep the blood loss from being worse.”
“Why didn’t he—God, Bruce, I just lay there! I could’ve done something! I could’ve helped—patched him up--something! Why didn’t he tell me?” Tony asked bleakly, gripping his hands around the rounded edges of the medical table.
“Honestly, the burn probably hurt so badly, he didn’t even realize the other was even there. He didn’t want to pull the uniform off and take a chunk of skin with it, which is smart, but that kept him from realizing how much blood he was still losing,” Bruce replied. “The body does strange things when it is dealing with trauma. And we have no idea how the serum affects things, not really. It could shut down pain receptors so he could keep functioning, who knows? They did some tests after Rebirth, but nothing that would prepare us for this. No—don’t look at me like that, Tony. We’re in science fiction land, here. You want to be mad at someone, be mad at the people who shot down your jet, not me because I don’t have the answers you want to hear.”
“I’m not pissed at you,” Tony protested.
“Yeah. You are. You want someone to fix this. I get that, Tony. I wish to God it was that simple, but it isn’t,” Bruce argued, voice going tight and brittle. “It just isn’t, Tony. This is a risk we all—“
Is this the first time you’ve lost a soldier?
“Don’t!” Tony shouted, banging a fist against the metal table so hard the instruments on the nearby tray clattered and clanked. “Don’t start rationalizing this.”
“Stark. We all share your concern for our Captain,” Thor said, low and calm, but with a hint of warning behind it.
Tony looked down at Steve, eyes tracing over the sweat-darkened hair and bluish shadows under his eyes to where the mask covered his mouth and nose for the machine to force air into his lungs. He dragged his gaze back up to Thor’s for a long moment, then caught Bruce’s quick look before the other man dropped his eyes.
“You really don’t,” Tony said finally, wrapping a hand around one of Steve’s. It was warm and heavy where it sat limply in Tony’s. Nothing had ever felt better or worse, which he knew made no sense, but it was true. The worst kind of comfort, but the only kind to be had. He could feel Thor and Bruce watching him, but ignored it.
Bruce looked like he was going to object, then caught himself, gaze sweeping down and away, not quite an apology, but close enough. Thor just stared at him, eyes wide and so knowing that it was almost painful.
Tony opened his mouth, then closed it again, and forced himself to swallow past the lump in his throat. He wasn’t sure what he was going to say, except that he wanted them to both understand and absolutely not speak it out loud. He blinked against the sudden stinging behind his eyes and looked up, trying to keep whatever emotional breakdown he wasn’t having at bay a little longer, then swiped across his eyes with his other hand and sucked in a shaky breath. Tony looked down at Steve then, and the rest of them and their thoughts, whatever they were, faded away to background noise, existing only barely, somewhere in the distance behind the whoosh of air in and out of Steve’s lungs.
“It was soil, by the way. Animal, plant and mineral. Soil. Just so you know,” Tony whispered, tracing his thumb back and forth across the ridge of Steve’s knuckles. “That’s the answer. In case you were wondering. I’ve always got an answer for everything. You know that. You don’t know that. You don’t actually thing that. Maybe you’re the only one who doesn’t expect it, I don’t know,” Tony husked out, watching the way the air ghosted through the mask covering Steve’s face. “I was trying to be clever. I do that around you. Want to impress you, I guess. Show you how smart I am Poking at you until you like me, or so I’ve heard. Stupid, I know. I should’ve just picked puppy or, I don’t know, freedom or something. Should’ve done a lot of things--but you—you like it. You like it, and I don’t know what that means, but I need you to wake up and tell me. I need you to do that for me, Steve. I don’t think I can do much of anything else until you do, so. I’ll just wait. Until you’re ready,” Tony said breathily, voice shaking so hard he thought the words themselves might break apart. “Then I’m going to give you hell. Yelling, recriminations, the works. Just so you know. Lots of manful tears. Like Brian’s Song level of manful tears. Not the first time that’s happened, I know, but you should be ready. So. Fair warning.”
“Tony,” Bruce started, then seemed to have nothing else to add when Tony didn’t look up at him.
“He’s never walked away from a fight. He’s not walking away from this one,” Tony replied, keeping his eyes on Steve’s face, thumb running rhythmically back and forth over the back of Steve’s hand. “He wouldn’t do that,” Tony finished with a firm nod.
The rest of the ride back to the Tower was a blur, punctuated by these seemingly random, but vividly clear moments that Tony would later be able pull out of his memories as time slipped in and out without really grabbing hold. The huff and hiss of the ATV machine breathing for Steve. The way something strange and sickeningly desperate swam through his gut every time Bruce hung up another bag of his blood on the IV pole. The pieces of Steve’s uniform where Bruce had cut it away that looked like they would make good bandages. In a pinch.
That fucking bloody footprint.
Someone should clean that up.
By now, Tony supposed someone had. Cleaned everything up, silenced the machines, done…something…with Steve’s uniform that bothered him to think about for reasons he couldn’t quite put into words. It was all gone now, though there was an air of wrongness to that, even though he knew life spiraled on whether it should or not. Granted, he would probably see those images behind his eyes for years, but they seemed both far removed from him now, almost like things he’d dreamed or made up in his head, and hovering too close, entirely too real, at the same time. He’d stopped trying to make sense of it. Seven days. Seven was supposed to be a lucky number. Tony decided sometime around the time they fed Steve’s lunch to him through a tube into his stomach that seven was a God-awful number. Seven days of utter hell, Tony thought dully, scrubbing both hands over his face. He brought the coffee cup to his mouth, then wrinkled his nose at the tepid liquid, but swallowed it anyway.
Bruce called it stasis, something like what happened in the ice, which left Tony unable to sleep without the heat ratcheted up, blankets wrapped around himself until he sweated through them, though he never felt warm enough, or not the right kind of warm, but he couldn’t quite shake the cold running through him, so he gave more blood and hoped the cold would leach out of him, too. It didn’t, but it felt good to do something. Anything. Tony didn’t think Steve actually needed the blood now. Crisis over and all that. But, Bruce didn’t say anything, though his silence probably said plenty these days.
The other doctors called it comatose and talked about scales and neurological responses, scans and MRIs. They spoke in hushed tones, as if by saying it quieter, it would help soften the words themselves. It didn’t, but Tony supposed there was really no good way to speak words that no one wanted to hear, so you might as well do it quietly.
It was quiet now. Of course it was. Everything was quiet here. All the better to hear the machines. Wouldn’t want to miss any of that completely useless information they were providing. Tony was the only one who raised his voice in here. Hell, maybe the only one talking above a whisper in the whole damn city for all he knew. They all just stared at him when he did. God help him, if someone patted him on the back and told him to hang in there again, Tony thought he might give Skynet a go just for shits and grins.
Tony hated them. He hated their uncertainty. He hated their fear, which occasionally skittered across their expressions before they could school themselves. He hated their answers, couched in phrases like, “There’s just so much we don’t know about the serum,” and “The brain is an extremely complex organ, Mr. Stark.” He’d done his homework.
At this point, he probably knew about as much as they did, though Bruce had stopped responding to what he’d started calling, ‘Tony’s Helpful Medical Hints Volume 3,’ somewhere around the memo on proper airway elevation. At least Steve was breathing on his own now, which was something. Not much, since breathing was automatic, but it was something. His organs were healing. He was getting better. Improving. Improvement was important. That’s what all the doctors kept saying. These were good signs.
Tony was pretty sure they didn’t have the first fucking clue what they were talking about. But, Steve wasn’t going to die, so there was that. Tony had decided that, back on the jet, mainly because he had been incapable of dealing with any alternative.
In retrospect, Tony felt he really should’ve been more specific with the universe. Steve wasn’t going to die, but no one seemed ready to say if he was going to live yet. Seven days of no response of any kind, not spontaneously, not to pain, not to anything. Seven days of waiting and hoping and being disappointed over and over again until Tony honestly couldn’t say if he even felt anything other than numb to it at this point, like he’d slammed his hand in the car door over and over again until he wasn’t sure if he felt pain on the next slam or just the memory of it.
It was the middle of the night now, sometime between really late and really early, Tony wasn’t even sure. The room was dark, save for the too-bright light above Steve's bed that gave off a low buzzing sound that apparently only Tony could hear because no one else seemed to notice. He wasn’t technically supposed to be here, though he suspected the visiting hours imposed by the so-called experts were more to keep him from annoying them than bothering Steve. They’d be in soon enough to shoo him out so they could change bags, run more pointless tests and scatter their bag of bones onto the ground in the hopes it told them something useful. For now, Tony had the chair pulled up next to the bed, his head resting on the mattress next to Steve’s hip, his hand curled around Steve’s because he didn’t seem to know how to let go anymore, if he ever had. Maybe that was what Pepper had seen, long before Tony ever did, when she’d started distancing herself so slowly, he hadn’t even realized what was happening until he was looking into agricultural land, and she was calling him from Shanghai.
Tony sighed and buried his face against the bed. The sheets smelled vaguely medicinal, which was impossible, because the bedding was new, and this wasn’t a hospital, but he couldn’t get the scent out of his head. Camphor and disinfectant over something almost too sweet. When Steve woke up and got out of here, Tony thought he might take one of the suits for a spin in this room, salt and burn the whole fucking place.
“Okay. Twenty questions. I’ll start,” Tony mumbled, twisting his head to look up at where Steve reclined. Good angle of elevation, Tony thought, mouth flattening into a thin line. When had his first thoughts when he looked at Steve turned into these things he didn’t want to think? “Is it animal, plant or mineral? Animal? You don’t say. Bigger than a breadbox? Sometimes? Interesting answer. Fur-covered? No. Okay, let me think. How many legs? None. Well, now you’re just being technical about it. Tentacles? You’ve been on the Internet again. I warned you about that. Don’t tell me about how helpful it is. You know Clint runs those searches on purpose so Google will auto-fill, don’t you? Of course you do. It’s an octopus, and you are not very original, Cap. An evil Nazi octopus? Fine, if you want to get political about it. I still win, which means I get…” Tony stopped and cleared his throat, letting his eyes fall closed for a moment before he forced them open again and stuck his fingers in the door one more time. “I get…can you just move your hand? Just a little. No throwing things, no punching, no hand-jive or God forbid, the Macarena. Just move your hand a bit for me, Steve. Please? Can you do that? Just move your hand. Right here. Feel that? Can you squeeze my hand? Come on, Steve. Please. Please, just—just a bit. For me. Please, Steve.”
Nothing happened, which made it predictable, at least, Tony supposed, blinking rapidly against the bitter disappointment that kept trying to claw its way out. He sucked in a shaky breath and wiped the hand not holding Steve’s across his face, swiping away at the moisture there. He wasn’t crying. Crying would be some kind of admission that he wasn’t ready to make. He gripped Steve’s hand harder, bringing it up to his cheek, because it was warm and felt like movement, some desperate pantomime of what he wanted.
“You said you weren’t going anywhere. You promised,” Tony breathed out, voice raw, words so torn apart it was as if they were barely held together. Maybe they were. Maybe he was. Everything felt pulled so thin, so close to tearing in two, that he thought maybe it had already begun fraying and that was why he couldn’t seem to let this go. It might not be there when he came back, like it could slip away when he turned, and that, maybe of all the outcomes, was the thing he couldn’t handle. “You fucking promised me.” Don't let me be the one who lives, Tony silently beseeched a power he didn't believe in.
“Fine, so that was one for me. Now, your turn. It’s a plant this time. Yes, you can eat it. Is it from Star Trek? Now, Steve, do you really think I’d—okay, fine, yes, it’s from Star Trek, but we never said we were restricted to terrestrial choices. Let me point out that you picked an animal that doesn’t actually exist in nature, so I think Kaferian apples are fair game—hey,” Tony cut himself off abruptly, sitting up so fast the room spun for a moment before righting itself. There had been a…a twitch. Something. He was almost sure. “Steve? Steve, can you—can you do that again?”
He definitely felt it that time. A slight squeeze of his hand, just the barest press of Steve’s fingers against his, but it was something, then it was something more, as Steve moved his other hand, jerkily grabbing at the wires and leads that flowed in and out of various parts of his body. Two of the electrodes attached ot his chest popped free, and the IV pole tipped forward before settling back on its wheels again as Tony reached for Steve’s other hand.
“It’s okay, it’s okay. I’ve got you. You’re fine. You’re fine. You’re gonna be fine,” Tony rambled, words on top of words tumbling out of him. “Bruce!” Tony shouted, then immediately realized Bruce wasn’t up yet and probably couldn’t hear him through five Tower floors anyway. He hit the emergency call button instead, then brought both of Steve’s hands together. “You’re okay, Steve. I’m here. I’ve got you.”
Even like this, Steve was probably stronger than he was, but the motion and whatever Tony was babbling about seemed to be enough to calm Steve down. He was caught between some wild desire to laugh like a maniac and simply break down and sit on the floor in a heap, so did neither, just kept his hands wrapped around Steve’s, repeating some version of assurances over and over.
“Figures that cheating at fucking Twenty Questions is what gets you riled up,” Tony groused. Steve’s lips moved the barest fraction of a motion, and Tony almost missed it as one of the machines that had come undone in Steve’s struggles beeped insistently that Steve was flatlining. “What? What is it, Steve? Can you say something? Tell me, Steve. What is it?” Tony asked, leaning his ear over Steve’s mouth to hear.
Bruce came barreling in the door behind them, out of breath and panicked by the sound of his voice. “Oh my God, is he—“ Bruce started, eyes going immediately to the machines.
“No, no, he’s fine. He’s fine. God, he’s fine, Bruce. He’s going to be okay, which is great, because I’m going to need to yell at him. A lot. You hear that, Rogers? A fucking lot,” Tony said with a huge grin.
“Tony, how do you—he’s—this says—“ Bruce stammered.
“He moved. Squeezed my hand when I asked him, then started freaking out, pulling at the wires and stuff you’ve got in him,” Tony explained giddily. It was adrenaline and relief animating him now, he knew, but it felt like flying. Better than flying. It was the moment of acceleration after the freefall, everything snapping back together in an instant.
“That’s great, Tony. That’s—I mean, yeah, that’s great, but that happens in cases like this. The limbs may move. It may even seem purposeful when we—when we want it--I mean we don’t know—“ Bruce began.
“He spoke. He said a word, Bruce,” Tony laughed. Or cried, he wasn’t sure. It seemed to him it was the same thing.
“Tony, sometimes, patients will say things, and it doesn’t really have to with anything. Just sort of a spontaneous regurgitation of some past information floating around—look, I just don’t want you to get your hopes up. There is so much about the serum we don’t know.”
“He’s going to be fine,” Tony said, nodding his head firmly. “He said a fucking word, Bruce.”
“What—what did he say?” Bruce asked hesitantly, looking over Tony’s shoulders to where Steve lay still again against the white sheets that smelled of nothing and death that Tony was going to burn soon.