“Ow!” Tony growled sharply, twisting away from Steve’s hands, a flash of pain marring his features at the effort.
“Oh, for the love--I haven’t even touched you yet,” Steve snapped back as he glared down at where Tony lay on the cot, his head pillowed on a dark green Army blanket that had clearly been providing nesting material for various animals for quite some time by the frayed edges and carefully chewed holes that covered it. “Would you be still?” Tony grunted in response, but stopped trying to turn himself into a human pretzel, whether because Steve asked it of him or because it just hurt too damned much, Steve wasn’t sure.
He looked Tony over again, noting the fine sheen of perspiration on his brow, the way his mouth was clenched tight, eyes wide and hands balled into fists. Steve let out a frustrated puff of air and rubbed the bridge of his nose between two fingers. It was clear Tony was in pain, though that in and of itself didn’t give Steve a whole lot to go on.
Tony had been able to get the suit on just before the jet went down, thank God, enough to save his life and Steve’s, but Tony had borne the brunt of the impact, and suit or no suit, hitting the side of a mountain at that speed had done some damage. Steve just hoped it wasn’t more serious than what he could see.
Not for the first time since he’d woken up face down in the snow a few feet from Tony’s prone form, he wished Bruce was here to tell him what to do. He had basic field medicine training, but he honestly wasn’t sure if he was helping or making matters worse. Tony was wavering between insisting he was perfectly fine and claiming to see a bright light and Jerry Garcia waving him through.
Steve sighed and rubbed a hand up and down over his face, trying to get his mind to clear. He let his head dip to his chest for a moment, watching his boot scuff a streak in the dirt that covered the wood floor, disrupted now by their movements, making the place look like one of those how-to dance instruction sheets with the little feet making the steps all over the page.
“I swear, Stark, if you don’t keep still, I’m gonna tie you down,” Steve muttered half under his breath as he forced himself to look up and reached again to prod at the purpling skin around Tony’s ribcage where a large, red slash opened his skin from under his arm nearly to the center of his chest. The wound was still oozing blood, not a good sign in these temperatures, but they’d had to move quickly and the makeshift dressing Steve had cobbled together from his utility belt and part of his uniform hadn’t held as well as he would have hoped.
“Wouldn’t have,” Tony grunted and coughed a bit, then bowed into a curve as the pain of the action wracked though his body. “Wouldn’t have pegged you for having a kinky side, Cap,” he managed to gasp out after forcing several deep breaths to fill his lungs.
Clear, full breaths, Steve noticed. Good. At least it didn’t sound like a lung had collapsed, something he had been worried about as he carried Tony back to the tiny cabin he’d found clinging precariously to the side of the mountain. He’d listened to the wet, wheezing sounds of Tony’s breaths in time with each dragging step he’d taken, and had wondered if he shouldn’t just turn around and wait for Hydra to find them. Tony alive had to be worth more to them than Iron Man dead. He wasn’t so sure about his own value to Hydra, but he’d found the shack and his desperation had given way to something like a plan, and letting Hydra play doctor with Tony started to take on a probably far more accurate nightmarish quality.
“Well, let’s just say you haven’t seen it yet,” Steve replied, trying to find some humor in the old joke, but it just came out grim and tired sounding.
“My…loss,” Tony panted around sharp intakes of breath and a pained smile that was more a grimace than anything. There were flecks of blood on his lips and teeth that Steve hoped was from where he’d bitten his tongue or something equally innocuous and not internal damage about which Steve could do nothing at this point.
“I’m just going to look at it, maybe clean it up a bit. Bruce can decide what more to do when they find us,” Steve assured him, hopefully sounding more sure of that scenario than he felt.
The jet had been in stealth mode for the flight, which meant the team couldn’t track them, and they weren’t technically due back until early tomorrow. Since the op was covert, no one would question it when they didn’t check in. No one had expected anything near those kinds of perimeter defenses, not for something that was supposed to be a simple grab and go of some Shield tech that had fallen into the wrong kind of hands. Hell, the team probably wouldn’t panic until they were at least a few hours overdue, which meant another fourteen hours or so before a rescue mission would even be considered, let alone successful.
A lot could happen in fourteen hours.
Tony rolled gingerly from his side onto his back and let his arms fall to his sides, seemingly in silent agreement with Steve’s plan. Honestly, Steve would have preferred Tony giving him a hard time about this, making some of his ridiculous comments. At least it was a distraction. Too much of a distraction of late, he’d freely admit, but right now, he could use it.
Steve sat down on the cot, keeping his expression carefully neutral. He pushed the tattered blanket down and looked again at the wound he’d only gotten a quick look at earlier before deciding that wrapping it tightly would have to do until he found them some shelter. Steve could see Tony’s eyes tracking his movements as he got the small pot of boiled snow and what passed for the cleanest strips of the lining of his uniform that he could find. Steve dipped one of the strips into the warm water and tested it against the back of his wrist, then dabbed gently at Tony’s wound. Tony let out a hiss of air, though he didn’t pull away again or otherwise object.
He took his time, making sure to get as much debris cleaned away from the area as he could before placing a few other strips in place over the ripped skin. When he pressed against them, small bubbles of red appeared, but not as much as he worried he might see. Tony’s eyes drooped closed, but he otherwise kept quiet and blessedly still while Steve finished up his attempt at a bandage. Even though he’d been the one to tell Tony to keep still, the suddenness of it unnerved him, like all the oxygen had left the room. He blinked against the feeling, waiting for it to pass before he finished up.
Steve sighed and forced himself to focus on Tony’s wound. It seemed to have clotted for the most part, though there was a wider, deeper rent in the center, slashing just between two ribs that was still sending a thick runnel of blood down Tony’s torso. He looked up and caught Tony’s eyes, then watched with some chagrin as the other man coughed out what might have been trying for a laugh, but came out as more of a wet, hissing sound.
“That bad, eh, Cap?” Tony asked carefully.
“No,” Steve replied, too quickly. “No,” he repeated more firmly at Tony’s dubious look. “It looks like it missed anything vital. But. Well, it’s still bleeding. Just a little. I don’t have much of anything to pack and wrap it with though. Nothing remotely sterile at any rate.” The first thing he’d done after getting Tony settled was inventory the cabin, which had taken a depressingly short amount of time. “Your kingdom for some duct tape,” Steve said with a shrug of his shoulders that he should have instantly regretted, but Tony smiled at that, and Steve decided it was worth it.
The cabin, if one were being charitable with the definition of cabin, was little more than a shack, with only the barest essentials. The cot Tony was laying on, what was left of the blanket, the stove, which would have probably worked fine except for Steve’s certainty that if he lit that decades-old propane, it would likely incinerate the entire place, a small table and two chairs, and a few pots, pans and other wares, most of which were useless to them. Some old hunting cabin, maybe, though whatever this place had once been, it had been abandoned, well, before Tony was born anyway, if the stack of Life magazines he found yellowing in the corner were any indication. At least that might mean it wasn’t something on any maps of the area Hydra might have.
Of course, hiding out in a place no one knew existed did tend to complicate any rescue scenario he could think of, but he was too tired to let that thought settle too long. There was nothing he could do about it anyway. The team would find them or Hydra would, and no amount of thinking through those possibilities helped Tony right now.
“So, I’ll be bleeding out slowly, instead of quickly, then,” Tony said, a spasm of pain contorting his features as he shifted to look down at the gash. “You ever think the things we’re grateful for leave a lot to be desired these days?
“Don’t talk like that,” Steve objected, too loudly, he knew, and winced at his tone, more accusatory than he’d meant. “You’re not bleeding out.”
“Come on, Cap, you’ve got blood all over your uniform. It stings like a sonofabitch. How bad it is really?” Tony demanded softly.
“It’s just a flesh wound,” Steve replied, trying for a smile, though he was pretty sure he missed the mark by the knowing look on Tony’s face.
“I never should’ve let you watch Monty Python,” Tony groaned, but it was half-hearted. Steve could see the lines of pain around Tony’s eyes evening out, his face relaxing a bit. “What was I thinking?”
“Really, it doesn’t look that serious. You sure this is all there is?” Steve asked, then continued at Tony’s nod. “Look, I’m going to give you these,” Steve said, holding up the one morphine shot they all carried with them. Tony’s had apparently gone down with what had been left of the suit when the jet blew. In his other hand, he held out a small plastic package with two antibiotic pills that Bruce insisted they carry. He took those from the package and handed them to Tony first, along with a small cup of the boiled snow he’d set aside earlier. Tony tossed the pills into his mouth, then drank down the water.
“Slowly,” Steve warned, though Tony ignored him, of course, and ended up spluttering around the water, coughing against the back of his hand as he tried to swallow. “Alright,” Steve said, after Tony caught his breath. He nodded at Tony’s hip and uncapped the syringe. “Ready?” Tony just eyed him steadily as Steve pulled down the undersuit enough to plunge the shot into Tony’s hip. It was probably a mark of just how much pain Tony was in that he didn’t make some kind of innuendo, Steve thought, as Tony stiffened at the jolt.
“I gotta pee,” Tony said after Steve pulled the syringe out. “Before this stuff knocks me out.” He was looking off to the side, not at Steve, obviously uncomfortable.
“Here,” Steve said, handing a small, metal kettle that was missing its lid to Tony. “Use this.” Steve turned to the side to give Tony a moment of privacy, then back around when Tony cleared his throat. He took the kettle from him and made his way to the cabin door. Once outside, he poured the contents into the snow, noting that there wasn’t any blood in the urine that he could see anyway. Since he was up and outside anyway, he relieved himself, carefully not looking at what he was producing. Ignore the issue. Always a good plan, Rogers.
At least it was snowing in earnest now, Steve noted, which should cover their tracks. He only hoped that anyone Hydra sent out after them would be conveniently stupid or lazy enough to assume they were buried under whatever remained of jet and not go looking too much further in this weather.
He was also fairly sure that was the definition of giving himself false hope, but he couldn’t think of a better option at the moment. Tony could. Tony would have known what to grab from the bits and pieces of plane parts and would probably have weaponized the cabin’s sad looking portable stove by now.
But Tony had been unconscious and bleeding, and Steve had managed to get him out of the suit and behind a boulder just in time to watch what remained of the jet blow itself to dust. He’d have to remember to tell Tony the auto-self destruct feature worked just dandy. He readjusted his suit and went back inside. Tony was laying on his back on the cot, arms at his side, staring up at the ceiling.
“How’d I luck out to get the pretty nurse? You make house calls?” Tony asked without looking at him. Steve let it go without answering, willing to give Tony the cover for his discomfort that he needed.
Steve walked back over to the cot and sat down heavily. He could hear the rusted metal springs creak beneath him and wondered if they weren’t both going to end up on the floor, fighting tetanus on top of everything else, but the ground was cold and the temperature was dropping, and he wasn’t going to mention the two of them breaking the bed to Tony because…because he just didn’t want it to be a joke. Best not to think much about that, he thought dully.
“I’ll keep pressure on the wound while you sleep. Should stop bleeding soon,” Steve told him. He tried to sound confident of that, as if he could somehow infuse Tony’s body with that certainty and maybe it would be enough. He slid a hand under Tony’s head and gently lifted it, pulling the decrepit blanket out from underneath him. Steve shook it out, sending dust and God only knew what else scattering into the room, then spread it over Tony.
“They say body heat is best,” Tony informed him, voice already sounding slightly slurry from exhaustion, the medicine, the reprieve from the pain or some combination of all three. Steve looked the small cot over, then took a deep breath and picked Tony up enough to maneuver himself underneath, settling Tony between his legs and against his chest. He closed his eyes and breathed out a long, low breath once he had Tony settled.
“Jesus. Didn’t think you’d take me up on it,” Tony said into the darkening cabin. His voice sounded like he couldn’t quite get the right amount of air, either too much or too little making the words sound breathy. Steve shifted Tony’s position a bit to straighten out his airway and keep him at a better angle, in case there was any fluid building up on his lungs.
Steve leaned back against the wall and trying not to wince, though he thought he may need to be more concerned with how much it didn’t hurt to move than how much it did. As he watched the shadows grow to giants on the floor of the cabin, he reached over and rearranged the jerry-rigged bandage on Tony’s stomach, touching it experimentally. It was dark red with blood, but at least it seemed to be half-dry. He splayed his hand wide and pressed down. “Let me know if that’s too hard,” Steve said.
“Should we discuss safewords?” Tony rasped after a moment.
“You could let one go every now and then, Stark. Like, when we’re stuck in the middle of nowhere and you’re bleeding on me. That might be a time to just let one fly right past,” Steve suggested evenly.
He didn’t mind, not really. Well, not exactly, anyway. He wasn’t sure what it made him feel, except that he knew he should probably have put a stop to it a long time ago, but hadn’t for some vague reasons that never quite held up to scrutiny. He wasn’t sure how to explain it, except that it wasn’t like he didn’t get the jokes. He’d been in the Army, after all, where long stretches of time with nothing to do usually meant conversations about food or fucking or both. There was something about the way Tony teased him though that always left him feeling like the kid who needs to have the joke explained to him though he was laughing along, trying to pretend he understood.
Steve used his other hand to tear an ad for Acme coffee out of one of the Life magazines stacked on the table next to the bed. A smiling woman held out a steaming cup over the tagline. ‘Husband Pleasing Coffee,’ it read. He balled it up and tossed it into the metal stew pot on the floor by the cot in which he’d built a small fire with one of their precious matches. It wasn’t much. They couldn’t risk too much light, but even the small glow seemed to offer some warmth, though he suspected that might be the suggestion of warmth more than anything.
“You never tease back,” Tony mumbled, letting out a huff of air that sounded more chagrined than pained.
“Wouldn’t know what to say to you,” Steve agreed.
Tony was quiet then, and Steve could almost feel the other man’s muscles going liquid as the morphine took effect. Tony slumped a bit against Steve’s chest, like he’d been trying to hold himself up a bit and finally gave up. “Anything,” Tony said, and it took Steve a minute to catch the thread of conversation. “You could say anything, and it would be fine. If you just, you know. Wanted to talk. Or something.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Steve replied, shifting Tony’s weight slightly while he pressed firmly against the wound on Tony’s chest.
“Beginning to think you don’t like me much,” Tony said vaguely.
“I like you just fine,” Steve admitted carefully. Tony was suspiciously quiet at that, though it was probably the narcotic finally kicking in. “Now get some sleep.”
“You’re the boss,” Tony replied, though for once it didn’t sound teasing, just tired, Steve noticed.
Steve snorted in response, then clamped his eyes closed and bit down on his lip, immediately deciding that stillness was the best course.
“You could try remembering that more often,” Steve suggested half-heartedly. Truth be told, Tony’s tendency to challenge him made him a better commander and they both knew it. Tony wasn’t and didn’t want to be a leader, but he was a damn fine second, because he’d push and push until he was satisfied, and when Steve managed to accomplish that, he knew he had something. In a world where he had to make split-second decisions that could cost thousands of lives, certainty was a rare commodity, and nothing made him feel more sure than looking over and seeing Tony’s small nod when he was done arguing them into something better.
“I do try,” Tony said after a long pause in which Steve thought he had fallen asleep. “It’s just never enough. Or not the right kind of enough.”
“I don’t even know what that’s supposed to mean,” Steve responded wearily.
“I know,” Tony said quietly. “Bruce says you’re my inkwell. No. Wait. That’s not right. You have a ponytail.”
“So, that’s probably enough conversation, then,” Steve replied, caught between a confused frown and a grin at the rare instance of a drug-addled Tony who could barely string words together.
“Okay,” Tony agreed readily, voice thick and rough and half-asleep. “Don’t go,” he said suddenly, tilting his face up to look at, well, Steve’s chin, Steve supposed. Tony’s eyes were wide and glassy, shifting over Steve’s face like they couldn’t focus, which was probably true, considering.
“Not going anywhere,” Steve assured him. He could feel sleep and probably something else pricking at the back of his eyes. He wasn’t entirely certain that he wasn’t lying to Tony or himself or both.
“I came back, so you have to stay,” Tony blurted out, seemingly apropos of nothing. “She told me I couldn’t stay away, and she was right. I think she meant the Avengers, though, because she saw before I did, but not really. So, now you have to stay.” He wasn’t making sense, but Steve could hear the agitation in his voice, so he just nodded and, well, petted Tony’s head for lack of a better description. It seemed to soothe the other man, so he didn’t allow himself to over think it.
“I’m not going anywhere, Tony. I promise,” Steve said more firmly into the silence. “Now, sleep,” Steve ordered, though it came out gentler than it had sounded in his head. This time, Tony obeyed, or the drugs made the decision for him. Either way, Steve could see Tony’s eyes close and mouth slacken as his breathing evened out.
It was silent in the cabin, except for the small crackle of the paper burning and Tony’s soft, raspy breaths. Steve let his own eyes fall shut, careful to keep enough pressure on Tony’s wound to hopefully staunch the bleeding. He couldn’t feel any more seeping through the strips of uniform lining, and decided to take that small boon for a positive sign. God knew, they could use one.
Steve wasn’t sure how long he dozed before Tony’s movements woke him. Tony was rarely still in life, and Steve had watched him nap enough on the jet between mission to know that not even sleep could keep Tony’s body from finding its way to motion. He leaned over Tony’s shoulder to peer down at the bandages. As he peeled his hand away, he saw that they were thankfully dry. At least the bleeding had stopped.
Though he had lost track of how much time had passed, Steve could see that it was full light out now, and their stew pot fire had dwindled to little more than embers. Morning. They’d slept through the night, apparently. He reached over to the table and tore another page from the Life magazine, then tossed it into the pot, hoping some tinder would help, though the ball of paper just sat there, the edges idly blackening without really catching. Not that the small flame had been giving them much warmth, but it bothered him that he couldn’t even manage that much for them.
“Nice shot, LeBron,” Tony wheezed, voice high and tight, so the medicine must be wearing off, Steve thought, though he sounded stronger than he had before, at least to Steve’s ears.
“How are you feeling?” Steve asked.
“Like I tried to chew my way through a really sweaty woolly mammoth,” Tony answered, smacking his lips together a bit as he ran his tongue over his teeth.
“Well, that’s an image,” Steve replied, trying to keep his voice even. “Hungry?”
“No,” Tony said.
“Great, you’re going to love the—“ Steve started, picking up the MRE that had been in his utility belt from the table and looking at the packaging. “The ‘beef stew.’”
“Yum,” Tony spat out, his mouth curling into a grimace of distaste.
“You might be wishing for the mammoth in just a minute,” Steve conceded. He pulled the top of the pouch apart and started doling out the contents. A packet labeled beef stew was first, along with the flameless heater that came in the kit. He put the stew on the heater to warm, while Tony eyed the packet that swore it was coffee. “Electrolyte drink,” Steve said, reaching for the bright green pouch and beverage bag to mix it in.
“Heathen,” Tony muttered, but he took the bag when Steve handed it to him. He drank it down without complaint, at least not an out-loud complaint, though Steve saw him making a rather horrified frown of distaste as he swallowed. “What about you?” Tony asked, waving a hand at the packets of food.
“Not hungry. I ate one before I patched you up. You were still out from the trip up here,” Steve replied, the lie falling easily from his lips. He wasn’t hungry, that much was true. That should probably concern him, since he was usually in some kind of suspended state of hunger nearly all the time, but it was hard to muster the energy to care. To be fair, that could also pose some kind of concern.
“Here,” Steve urged, handing Tony the pouch of stew and packet of crackers. “Try to eat. It’ll help.”
“When we get back to the Tower, I’m ordering the entire menu from Gianetti’s,” Tony vowed, staring balefully at the plastic spoon full of what purported to be beef stew.
“Count me in,” Steve replied. He nearly missed the measuring look from Tony, gone before he could fully register it, like Tony had been caught at something.
“Good. Good,” Tony repeated, more firmly. “Gianetti’s for two—well. Four,” he amended, looking speculatively over at Steve again. Tony surprised himself more than Steve by finishing most of the MRE. Truth be told, the new ones weren’t actually half bad. He told Tony that, then found himself reminiscing about C-rations, small cans with something that claimed to be meat and a vegetable, as Tony sank back against his chest.
“The labels would fall off the cans,” Steve explained. “So, you never knew what you were going to get, not that it much mattered. They basically tasted the same. Bucky said he liked the beef and potatoes best though. He’d always try to hoard those, and Fallsworth would give him hell about being responsible for the next potato famine.”
“Tweety got any new leads for you?” Tony asked as he picked at a loose thread on the blanket. Steve suspected one good pull would unravel the whole damn thing, but made no move to stop him.
“No,” Steve replied, leaving it at that. He’d learned from experience that Tony didn’t really want to talk about Bucky, at least not finding Bucky and what that might mean going forward. He couldn’t blame Tony for that. He’d told him his…concerns…about what Zola had shown them. Tony had dug far enough into the files Natasha uploaded to the Internet to figure out the rest. He really had no idea how he was going to choose and wondered again when his mind had decided to set that up as a choice when there really wasn’t anything to choose between. It was really easier that way, he told himself.
Absolutely easier that way.
“You should try to sleep some more,” Steve suggested when Tony tossed the last packet, someone questionably called simply ‘dessert,’ on the table.
“We could play twenty questions,” Tony offered.
“We don’t play that,” Steve reminded him.
“Come on,” Tony all but whined.
“Fine. Is it animal, plant or mineral?” Steve asked.
“All three,” Tony replied, almost sounding delighted.
“And this is why we don’t play twenty questions,” Steve said sourly. “Last time, you picked quark. How is anyone supposed to guess that?”
“Bruce got it in eighteen,” Tony argued.
“Well, I’m not Bruce,” Steve said tiredly, running a hand through his hair and almost settling it on top of Tony’s head before he caught himself. “I’m sure he’d have figured out a lot of things if he were the one here with you. You two could’ve just done science and gotten out of here, solved global warming and fixed all the plot holes in Interstellar.”
He really didn’t mean that to sound as bitter as it had. After the debacle with Ultron, he’d been…concerned about how much time Bruce and Tony spent together. That was a completely logical explanation of his feelings on the matter, he was mostly certain of that. He shouldn’t be thinking about any of that now, but it was like whatever barriers he’d had in place were thinning up here, chipped away by worry and exhaustion and the rest of it that he currently wasn’t allowed to let himself think about.
“Sure, but those last two are easy,” Tony was saying. “Admittedly, Bruce does have the annoying habit of figuring things out when he should just shut up about it already, like he’s one to talk.”
“Hmmm,” Steve murmured. Normally, he would probably feel something entirely too much like hopefulness at Tony’s seeming annoyance with Bruce, but it was hard to muster that at the moment. It took effort to care, and he’d spent what energy he had left for effort on Tony. Now, he just wanted to rest. “Sleep, Tony.”
Tony sighed, but didn’t protest any further. At some point, Steve felt him relax against his chest again, his deep, even breathing soon filling the cabin. Steve told himself he could have thirty minutes to rest, and usually, his internal clock would wake him nearly on the dot, but he opened his eyes to the sound of a swarm of insects filling the room and sat up too quickly, pushing Tony to the side and leaning over him before he realized it was the engines of a jet.
“Whashappnin—“ Tony spluttered, coming away with his usual lack of urgency to meet the day.
“You know, when I told you two to get a room, this wasn’t quite what I had in mind,” Natasha observed mildly from the doorway. Bruce brushed past her, medical bag in hand, and knelt down next to the cot. He peeled back on the corner of the makeshift bandage and then nodded perfunctorily.
“How bad is it? Terminal, right? Tell me, Brucie-bear. I can take it. I once binge-watched the odd numbered Treks. I can handle the pain. Lay it on me,” Tony demanded.
“You’ll live,” Bruce commented dryly. “We found your shield, by the way,” he told Steve.
“Really?” Tony asked, twisting to look up at Steve. “I magnetized the thing for you! It’s like you’re just trying to challenge me. Drop it to the bottom of the Potomac, leave it on the side of a mountain, hey, no worries! It’s not like it’s that important or one of a kind or irreplaceable or anything like that.”
"Had other priorities," Steve responded evenly, remembering Tony's blood, eerily bright against the white snow once he got the suit off. Tony looked like he was on the verge of saying something else, then gave Steve a measuring, confused look and clamped his mouth shut hard enough to rattle teeth instead.
“I think he’s more broken up about it than you, Cap,” Natasha remarked with a smile, which quickly dropped off her face. She nodded towards the floor under the cot, her eyes darting to Bruce’s, who followed her gaze. “Okay,” she continued. “So, Clint and I will get slightly-broken Shellhead here to the jet. Bruce, we’ll see you onboard.”
With that, Clint came around in front of Bruce and slid his arms underneath Tony’s, lifting him up from the cot and to his feet, while Natasha slung an arm around his waist for support. Tony let his arms dangle over their shoulders and limped along towards the waiting jet. Bruce’s gaze was fixed on the open door, watching as they reached the jet’s ramp and got Tony inside.
“So,” Bruce started. “Can you even walk?”
Steve looked over at him for a long moment, then let his head fall back against the cabin’s wall with a soft thunk. There was a sticky wetness behind and underneath him. “Not likely.”
He could feel it now, the low, steady throb of pain in his chest and gut, like relinquishing Tony had opened a valve and let it rush in, all at once.
"How serious are we talking?" Bruce questioned, pulling the dark green blanket from Steve’s hands. He hadn’t realized he’d been holding onto it, and had to force his hands to open to let it go.
“I didn’t look,” Steve replied, suddenly queasy. Now that Tony was in someone else’s hands, it was easier to let himself feel the pain, or else it had just gotten worse, and he wasn’t sure which one of those choices was more of a worry. “The suit was stuck to the skin, and I didn’t want to pull it off.”
“Good call. Repulsor burn the worst of it?” Bruce asked, eyebrows raised in question.
“I think so. Don’t tell Tony,” Steve mumbled, his eyes drifting closed. “He saved us.”
“Natasha said you had need of me, Doctor?” Thor said from the doorway.
“Yeah, help me with him,” he heard Bruce say, but it was distant, like the sound was coming through water. Steve felt Thor’s arms moving under him, lifting, and then there was a bright, cold flash of pain and his stomach heaved, but there was nothing in it. He heard someone shouting to turn his head to the side, and he tried to comply, but there was no air that way, there was no air anywhere, and he’d felt this before, except it had been cold then, so very cold, and the air had been freezing and wet and had filled his mouth and nose and pressed on top of his chest until he thought he would burst from it. Someone was yelling next to his ear, and he gagged as something was shoved in his throat, and reached for it, but his arms were pinned and he couldn’t move, couldn’t get free, and there was no air here.
“I am sorry, brother,” he heard a deep voice say from someplace far away, and then there was a sharp pain. And then there was nothing.
The next time he woke up, or, at least, the next time he woke up with his head clear, Steve silently amended, he was in a hospital bed, a familiar enough place for him to identify it immediately. Monitors beeped next to him, and there was a half-empty bag of fluids hanging from a metal stand, connected to his arm by the IV line. Bruce was sitting in an armchair that had clearly been dragged from somewhere else and placed in the room, tapping away at a tablet. He must have made some kind of noise because Bruce’s eyes snapped up to his, and he stood up in a rush, glancing between Steve and the monitors.
“Hey,” Bruce finally said, bracing one hand on the side of the bed and leaning over him. “Well. Welcome back to the land of the living.”
“What happened?” Steve asked. Or, he meant to, anyway. He was pretty sure it came out as a croaky sort of w-sound and some random vowels. Bruce seemed to understand though.
“Something went almost clean through you. The repulsor burn actually helped cauterize it, but you still lost a lot of blood. A lot. So much that the serum was having a hard time of it. Collapsed lung. Major damage to the liver and spleen. Third degree burns. Five broken ribs. Shock. Sepsis, which was the big problem. And you broke two toes,” Bruce finished, the corners of his mouth turning down.
"Hwlng?" Steve questioned, garbling the words, but at least they were starting to sound like something approaching words. He worked his mouth around them again, trying to force his brain and tongue to cooperate at the same time. "How long?"
"Nine days," Bruce replied, and Steve could hear a lot left unsaid in those words. "Steve, you and I both know the power of the serum. Can you please try not test its limits again?” Bruce asked, though there was a trace of what must have been true worry still tightening his voice.
“Sry,” Steve mumbled.
“Not me you’re going to need to get to calm down about it,” Bruce said. “That would be our resident insane asylum patient, who will no doubt be here any minute because he’s been hacking my medical files since before the jet touched down at the Tower. I swear to God, if I get one more text telling me the proper angle for airway elevation—Anyway. I’ll keep him out of the way as long as I can. You need some rest before you have to deal with that.”
“Is he okay? Was—was he here?” Steve managed, though the effort of actual words was far more than he would have thought. There was something playing at the edge of his mind, like watching a home movie before it came into full focus. A dark shadow moving around the room, circling the foot of his bed, talking, sometimes, sometimes just moving, back and forth, close but out of reach. Sometimes just standing there, and he’d liked those times, felt safe. And once—once he remembered thinking someone was upset, and that he should comfort them, and he’d tried to get up, but he’d been tied down or—no. Not tied down, he realized. The wires and IV lines running like a cat’s cradle from his body to the machines and medicines that were trying to help keep him alive, or tell Bruce what was killing him, he wasn't sure.
“He's fine. The gash looked way worse than it really was. And to answer your other question, while all the video of the room will likely show he wasn’t, yeah, he was here,” Bruce acknowledged with a somewhat exasperated look at Steve.
“We didn’t really know what was happening. Your vitals were all over the place. Probably the serum, but,” Bruce shrugged. “We had to intubate you at the cabin. You stopped breathing. When we got you on the jet like that, I thought Tony was going to have a heart attack. I’m not saying this so you’ll, you know—whatever. I don’t know. Whatever it is with you two. Just bear with him a bit, okay? He’s a little--he was worried. We all were, but Tony’s—well. You know how he is with you. So, when he comes in here and yells at you for being an idiot, cut him a little bit of slack, that’s all I ask,” Bruce finished, holding up his hands as if to ward off any objection Steve might be able to form.
“How he is with me?” Steve repeated, blinking in confusion, though he wasn’t sure if he was still sluggish from whatever concoction of drugs Bruce had come up with or just the fact that nothing Bruce was saying made much sense.
“Well, last time he watched you die, we got Ultron,” Bruce reminded him. “To say he doesn’t handle that possibility all that well is pretty much the understatement of the century.”
“That was a vision,” Steve said. He wanted to ask more questions, but everything was already dulling, fading into the background. He could feel his eyelids growing heavy.
“Yeah, and now he just got to see it up close and personal,” Bruce replied grimly, then shook his head slightly, as if that would dislodge whatever concerns he was clearly having. “Look, you just rest for now, okay? When you wake up, we’ll see if you’re up to visitors or if I need to put Thor on the door.”
When he woke up again, Tony was asleep in the armchair, and Thor, Steve could only assume, was enjoying either his lifetime supply of Pop-Tarts or a sudden visit from Jane. Bruce never stood a chance on that one, Steve reckoned with a slight smile.
“Hey,” Steve said softly. Tony stirred in the chair, blinked, then sat up like a jack-in-the-box.
“You’re awake,” Tony observed. “Good,” he continued, standing up, taking a deep breath and seeming to gather himself as he stared down at Steve. Well, this isn’t going to go well, Steve had just enough time to think. “You shit. You utter and complete idiot. What the hell were you thinking? You were—you were bleeding all over the fucking bed. It was on the floor, Steve. You—you were hurt, and you—how could you not say anything? You let me lay there like a fucking invalid, when I was the one who—it was me—it was me who--and you just let me lay there and make stupid fucking jokes and play games and eat the only food we had, and yes, I checked, you asshole, and you were dying, Steve!”
“We’d both have died if you hadn’t gotten us out of there. Pretty sure not even I can survive a plane exploding. By the way, that auto-destruct might need some tweaking,” Steve tried for humor, and apparently missed, because Tony’s expression was thunderous.
“You were dying, and you were just, what, going to let me figure that out after you stopped breathing?” Tony shouted down at him. He threw his hands wide and spun around, letting his hands settle into fists at his sides, as if he couldn’t bring himself to look at Steve.
“There was nothing you could’ve done, Tony. The medicine we had wouldn’t have done much of anything for me, and I couldn’t have kept any food down anyway. There was no point in telling you,” Steve tried, he thought rather reasonably, but he wasn’t sure by the way Tony’s whole body stiffened. It had seemed reasonable at the time, stuck up there in the cabin with no idea of what to do, but even now, only a week or so removed from it, it had already taken on some kind of a hazy, dreamlike quality, and he wasn’t sure how much had been his mind telling him what he needed to hear to handle the issue of Tony being injured while his own body systematically shut itself down.
“No point in telling me,” Tony repeated dully. “Well. Here’s the fucking point for you. If I’d known that I might not get to yell at your dumb ass again, I might have laid off the sexy nurse jokes and told you that I am swelling music, meet on the top of the Empire State Building on Valentine’s Day, eat one long spaghetti noodle together, carry you up the staircase, read from your stupid notebook, hold a boom-box over my head outside your window, you complete me kind of crazy in love with you. So, there. That’s what I could’ve done.”
“Oh,” Steve gulped. “Oh.”
“Yeah. Oh. So, now you know, and you’re going to be fine, and you’re still an idiot, and—“ Tony started babbling, moving towards the door.
“I understood those references,” Steve called out. Tony came to a halt, one hand on the door to Steve’s hospital room.
“Great. Clint’s movie night choices have finally paid off,” Tony interrupted, voice bitter and raw.
“I understand them about you, Tony. That’s—that’s how I feel about you, too,” Steve confessed quickly, before Tony could bolt. Tony’s hand fell form the doorknob, and he turned slowly to face Steve, disbelief and something like hope warring for prominence on his features. “And if I’d realized I might not get to see you again, I would have told you that I am drag you to safety, give you the medicine, keep you warm, let you have the food, pray for rescue, want to wake up and see you kind of crazy in love with you. Tell me you would have done any differently if our positions were reversed.”
Tony stared down at him for a long time, but Steve could tell the moment he seemed to accept what it was Steve was offering from the way his shoulders slumped and the lines of his face relaxed, eyes going soft before he caught himself and smiled wickedly. “No worries, Cap. I got nothing against reversing positions.”
“Couldn’t just let that one go, could you?” Steve huffed out in exasperation, trying to keep from smiling because Tony would count that as some kind of a weird win.
“I don’t do so well at letting go of the really good things,” Tony murmured as he traced a finger over the bright red numbers displayed on one of the monitors that showed Steve’s pulse. It was slowly counting up, he noted, as did Tony by his speculative look. “The ones that really matter.” Steve could feel his face heating, and there was nothing speculative about the look Tony was giving him now, dark and filled with a promise that made Steve’s mouth go dry.
“Me neither,” Steve said.
“Good,” Tony replied, low and fierce.
“Um, guys?” Bruce said as he poked his head in the door, looking slightly satisfied and not remotely surprised. “I need to change Steve’s IV bag and Tony, you need to explain to Jane about how there is no Einstein-Rosen bridge in Central Park, and you both look like giant dorks, by the way, though at least Steve has the excuse of being on something.”
“I’d like to be on—ow, ow, okay, I’m going,” Tony smirked as Bruce grabbed him and dragged him bodily towards the door.