Tony doesn’t know when it starts, doesn’t know how it really comes to a head, but for the last few months, they’ve been fighting, a constant stream of nonsense fighting that tears at Tony’s resolve. And it’s always centered around mundane things, like sleeping, about the right way to carry out a mission, how to fight, how to tumble, when to clean up, when to god damn fuck. The arguments were quiet at first, a simple word here and there to rub against the grain, but they’ve exploded in their intensity, something sharp and undeniable tingeing the air black with every encounter.
Their last argument had almost ended with Tony shoving his fist in Steve’s face.
They have to cut off their morning squabble to go after Doom and his silly conquest on the city again. Tony can still taste the words on his tongue, the way they bubble and burn like cheap whiskey. Steve won’t look at him, doesn’t even comment on when Tony takes an extra five minutes in the lab. That’s when Tony knows it’s bad.
It gets worse when Tony uses the reason why he spent another five minutes in the lab to scramble the bots frequencies. Yes, things go a little south due to Doom trying to counter Tony’s attack, but it isn’t his fault the things go berserk after just a few seconds. At least this way they aren’t marching in strategic lines toward the cities power grids.
Steve’s voice crackles to life, strong and sharp and there for everyone to hear. Tony doesn’t have the patience to switch them over to a private link, so tired of this take, take, take they both have running, that he just lets it all out.
“Iron Man, you can’t just implement your own strategies. You could’ve easily caused severe civilian casualties!” Steve barks.
Tony snorts. “Beautiful alliteration there, Cap. And you should know better by now. Math. I do it. It’s fine. It’s controllable. Get off the com.”
The bots screech and code scrolls across Tony’s vision and no, no, that’s not right, fuck. He slows his descent as every single bot goes on the fritz, their firing systems activating all at once. Explosions rock the street as deep grooves are carved into the concrete and buildings shudder with the impacts.
“That wasn’t math; that was reckless behaviour. Do that again and I’m benching you,” Steve snaps.
“Okay, one, there was no time to actually implement something that might’ve combated Doom’s ridiculous intellect. I’m good, Cap, but even I can’t read minds. No X-like powers here. Second, if I hadn’t done something, they already would’ve short-circuited the power grid, rerouting the electricity to power whatever Doomy device Doom has decided to make this time. And third –”
Steve cuts him off with a harsh growl. “It’s times like these that I wonder what I ever saw in you.”
It’s like a stab to the chest, right past the arc reactor and into the dead thing Tony likes to call his heart. He goes silent, because he doesn’t know what else to do. Doesn’t know how to react. His mind continues on autopilot, softly correcting the mistakes that he originally made in the plans. He can’t hear anything past the sound of blood rushing through his ears, decades of neglect crowding to the forefront. He knew it. He saw this coming. Only a year and – yes. That makes sense. Oh, oh, why didn’t he protect himself better?
“Tony, Tony, I –”
Whatever Steve was about to say is cut off by a high pitched screech, what definitely sounds like Clint shouting, and the comlink goes staticky and terrifying. Tony doesn’t remember much more then careening toward where Steve’s last known coordinates were. By the time he arrives, there is nothing but rubble, Steve’s shield curled against the rocks, and a helicopter knifing through the sky toward the Helicarrier.
Tony hefts the shield with numb fingers and rockets toward the Helicarrier at max speed.
The corridors are too many and Tony has never been able to figure out how to make them more manageable. His legs are burning from his constant running, his fingers itching to find a computer and bring the entire system down because he can’t find the goddamn med bay. He goes careening around a corner and a sign, oh a blessed sign points him in the right direction, and he keeps running, ignores the demands of rest by his own body because Steve. Steve, Steve, Steve. It was his fault, always his fault, how could he have been this stupid? How could he have allowed for this to happen? His mind whispers numbers and he wants to rip them out. Steve is hurt right now. Steve is dying right now. He cannot equation himself out of this.
Steve is dying. Because of him.
Tony can’t breathe again.
He’s panting when he bursts through the doors of the med bay, startling three orderlies circled around a chart. He looks around frantically, trying to discern which white sheet could possibly be hiding Steve, and it’s like playing hide and seek, but the prize is Schrödinger’s cat. He pushes that thought away. One of the orderlies approaches him.
“Are you looking for the Captain?” she asks.
“Yes. Yes. Where?”
She takes him by the elbow, and the touch is electric, the pain sparking along his veins like tiny pinpricks. He jerks away from her and she eyes him, shakes her head and leads him to the sheet at the very far right of the med bay. He kind of hates himself for it, but he shoves her out of the way when a doctor pushes the sheet aside to step through.
“Status report,” he says, and even his voice isn’t his anymore.
The doctor purses his lips, taking far too long in Tony’s opinion to answer him. This would all be much easier if Tony could see, if Tony could walk inside that room and make sure Steve was alive, was at least breathing. He would take anything. As long as Steve kept breathing.
“I’m afraid Captain Rogers sustained serious internal injuries. Not including the lacerations to his torso, and the damage to his right leg, most of the damage was centered around his skull, particularly the area that houses the hippocampus. The serum is doing its job, repairing most of the damage after we set many of his bones, but his brain – it’s too early in the prognosis to tell how this will turn out,” the doctor explains.
“But he’s alive?” Tony asks, begs, pleads.
The doctor eyes him. “Yes. He’s alive. Though I must stress that the damage done could be long term if the serum can’t work its way deep enough into his brain.”
“You’ve said that twice now. I know what the hippocampus does, doc, you don’t have to small talk at me. Long term memory loss or short?” Tony is honestly surprised how level his voice is at this point. He’s not entirely certain if he’s all here.
“We’re uncertain. Again, the prognosis is too early. We’ll be able to tell more once he wakens.”
There’s a bubble of words, that week old whiskey sitting on his tongue, all the things he wants to say, all the things he wants Steve to know. He looks at the doctor, at the pity in his gaze and the hopelessness in the lines of his face. Formulas indicate a high percentage that the good doctor believes Captain Steve Rogers will not wake up as Captain Steve Rogers.
The numbers feel like a death sentence. “Can I see him?”
The doctor nods. Tony pushes by him, hesitating at the sheets. His fingers twitch over the patterns, absently calling up gravity indexes and rates of decomposition. On the other side of this sheet is Steve. This morning they argued about Tony not brushing his teeth the night before. The day before they argued about Tony’s failure to keep a date. The week before they argued about Tony’s inability to differentiate between work and hobby. There is a common variable amongst all these instances.
If what the doctor says is true, maybe this is for the best.
Tangling his fingers in the curtain, he pulls it away and steps inside the room. There are so many tubes sticking out of Steve that at first Tony’s sure he’s looking at the wrong patient. The lacerations on his chest stain the white bandages a delicate pink, and the machines screech as they keep every part of Steve alive and well. Tony doesn’t bother finding a chair, just sits right on the floor beside the bed. He leans against the bedframe, forehead hot against the cool metal, and reaches up to find Steve’s hand.
He’s the conflicting variable.
“Maybe it’s for the best.”
Within twelve hours, the bandages come off, leaving pink healing scars. The cast comes off the next day, twenty four hours after Steve was brought in. But Steve doesn’t wake. He doesn’t move. They remove most of the machines, leaving only the IV to keep Steve hydrated and fed. He can breathe on his own. The doctor tells Tony that he should wake up any day.
There is a possibility that Tony has started microsleeping at this point, having not left Steve’s side. He stinks. He hasn’t brushed his teeth. The arc reactor is so much louder in this room, a tick-tick-tick that follows along with Steve’s heart monitor. Tony scrubs at his oily hair. Looks at the ceiling. Looks at the floor. He still hasn’t located a chair. And he’s okay with that.
The team has taken shifts sitting with Tony and Steve. Sometimes it’s to watch Steve. Mostly it’s to see if they can persuade Tony out of sitting on the floor. But no matter the threats, no matter the pleas, he can’t hear them over the sound of his own failure. He can’t hear them over the cynical part of his mind that has decided to take up residence where Steve’s positive influence once laid claim. He doesn’t even react to Pepper’s threats. And that’s when they know nothing can be done.
It’s around midday on the fourth day when Tony decides to talk. The thoughts that swirl in his head clamour to be let free, crying out for anything, for something, to hold onto. He doesn’t know why he talks. It’s not like Steve can hear him.
“You know, if we hadn’t fought that morning, I think I could’ve combatted Doom’s influence after the fact. But it wasn’t your fault. I picked. I’m always picking.” Tony fiddles with the empty water cup by his thigh. “And the fact that you put up with me for so long, that you managed to maintain that sense of – I don’t know what you would call it. Was it love? I thought it was. Perhaps it was misguided parenting. I’ve always needed a firm hand.
“But the fact of the matter is that this could’ve all been prevented. I should never have pushed for you to date me. I never should’ve pushed you into that corner where you had to say yes to me. I never should’ve tried at all. Maybe things would’ve been different. Maybe. But it’s done now.”
He looks back up at the ceiling, can catch Steve’s fingers hanging over the edge of the bed in his peripheral. He reaches up and cards his own between them. His voice is starting to crack, hoarse from too many days spent keeping his emotions inside.
“I know I should’ve listened more. Made time more. Changed more. And I can do that, I promise. Your body is recovered. The doctor says you should wake up. So, I don’t know what you’re waiting for. Is it me? I didn’t want to say it out loud, just in case. But. But. If you wake up, and you don’t remember anything, I won’t push. I won’t try to hold you to that standard. Because then maybe you can be happy. And I want that. I do. But what I really want right now is for you to wake up.
“Can you do that for me, Cap? Just this one time?
And Tony finally let’s himself sleep.
He wakes when his hand slaps painfully against the floor. Wincing, he rolls his neck, his tongue cottony and swollen. Smacking his lips, he looks up at the monitors again, at the fingers curling above his head, and at the splotched ceiling –
His eyes snap back to the fingers. Curling. Back and forth. Stumbling to his feet, he turns and Steve’s fingers move again, his entire arm shuddering as if coming awake. His eyes flutter, a familiar glimpse of blue before slipping shut again. Tony tries to yell, but he can’t get more than a high pitched whine to escape his throat. He’s thirsty and his lips crack as he opens to shout again. When nothing comes out for the second time, he gropes frantically for the emergency call button. Shoving his thumb into it, he picks up Steve’s curling hand, giving him something to hold onto. Steve groans.
There is a swarm of people, shoving him to the side, flashing lights and poking sticks, and Tony clings to the sheet, exhaustion catching up with him. An orderly steps forward and carefully untangles his hand from the sheet. He doesn’t want to let go, has his eyes glued to Steve’s face, to the way his eyes snap open and he struggles momentarily. Tony wants to shout, wants to tell him he’s here, he’s all right! But he’s pushed back further, the nurses and the doctors and the whole goddamn Helicarrier coming in to see that Captain America has woken.
And it’s when Steve sits up, when he finally shows them that he’s capable, that Tony manages to push his way through. He knows he looks terrible, the nurses have told him so, but it doesn’t matter because Steve. There’s a clamour behind him and Natasha and Clint shove their way inside, Thor peeking his head through with Bruce beside him. Steve blinks at them, blinks at Tony, and scrubs another hand over his eyes.
“Where am I?” he asks.
“The Helicarrier, med bay. How are you feeling? Are you okay?” Tony asks, worry making him inch closer. Steve’s hand is right there, he could grab it, he could hold it, everything is going to be okay –
“Who are you?”
It cracks into Tony like a well-placed kick, like a slap in the face, and a tug on the arc reactor. Steve looks at him with nothing in his eyes and Tony feels sick.
“You don’t remember us?” Clint asks, trading worried glances with Natasha. Tony wants to run, wants to bury himself in computers and numbers and Steve. He backs away from the bed.
“I’m sorry?” Steve says. He looks so vulnerable on the bed, still attached to the IV and dressed in hospital garb. “I don’t –”
Natasha sits down beside Steve, places a hand over his, and it’s wrong, it’s so wrong, it should be Tony doing that. Tony bites his lip, stumbles back another few paces until the sheets wrap him up and he’s almost gone, almost away from this stranger that inhabits Steve’s flesh.
Steve focuses on Natasha as she says, “Just relax, Captain. We’ll figure this out, all right?”
Tony closes his eyes and wishes he could delete it all.
The shout startles Tony out of his reverie, the code skittering over his fingers and lost amongst the other streams. He frowns and pokes around for it, worming his fingers through the thick columns of numbers until the errant code is wrapped around his fingers. Plugging it back into place, he turns on the bench, ignoring the catch in his throat when Steve smiles at him. Steve stops to scratch at Dummy’s head, whistling at him before turning to Tony. Tony puts on his best smile, the one he’s been working on for weeks now, and picks up a wrench from the bench to fiddle with.
“Cap, what can I do for you?” he asks. Steve looks good. Looks healthy. Tony wonders if the circles under his eyes are just as prominent as they had looked in the mirror. He’s lost weight again, and he can’t quite remember the last time he had a decent meal. Keeping Tony fed and well hydrated was Steve’s job, but Steve doesn’t know that. Tony avoids his room now, the sheets lacking the warmth they usually held, and the pillows hard and unyielding. The cot works for him. It’s always worked. So what if he has a few back aches every now and then, it’s better than lying awake in the dark, wishing for something he will never have. Dummy is still baffled by his return to the lab’s cot, but You brings him the wrench every time he lies down.
“I’ve been trying to jog my memory a bit more over the last few days,” Steve says. His eyes are bright, but not with that familiar mischief that he would direct at Tony. Tony gestures for him to continue. “I’ve gone over all our battle videos, all the news reports, files, streaming, and I can’t – it’s frustrating, because I know it’s there. It’s a thought and then it’s gone and well, I was talking to Clint and Thor about the relationships I have with you guys. As in where I was before the amnesia hit. And they told me that you and I – well, that you and I had a deeper relationship than I do with them. Could you clarify that?”
There’s a clang as the wrench falls from Tony’s fingers, noise filling his ears like the tick-tick-tick of the arc reactor. This is it. This is his chance. He can have Steve again. He can make everything right, can work everything back into place and rehash the formula. It won’t be like before, it will never be like before, because Tony knows now, Tony understands –
“It’s times like these that I wonder what I ever saw in you.”
The words crackle in the back of his mind like an untamed wildfire. He flinches, because it still stings, even now with Steve standing in front of him and never remembering the words he spoke in the midst of battle. It would happen again. Tony knows this. It would take a few months this time, instead of a year, that ugly resentment growing in Steve’s chest until he blurts them out again. How could Tony forget that? How could he force Steve into that corner again, give him no choice? The words stick in Tony’s mouth, trap his tongue and strangle his vocal cords. It would be so easy. But it would all be a lie.
The words he spoke in the hospital were true, even now. He would be better for Steve. He would let him lead a life where Tony wasn’t constantly fucking up their relationship, weighing Steve down and tearing apart his resolve, where Tony was just an acquaintance. He could do that. He could do that for Steve.
He looks up at Steve, at the curious glint in his eye, at the lips he would kiss and the shoulders he would cling to, at the chest he would lean against and the legs he would twine with his. He takes it all, takes the need and want and overwhelming love and presses delete.
Smiling, he says, “They were just pulling your leg, Cap, you and I are just friends, though not as strong as you and Thor. Have to admit I’m jealous at some points, but really, what can you do? Anyway, I have some complex code singing sweet to me, and Dummy, I can see you starting that Battleship game with You, you know he always wins, and really, sorry, Cap. I’ll talk to you later, yeah?”
He picks up the wrench, ignores the pull to look at Steve again, to gauge his reaction. He is Iron Man. The suit and he are one. He’s done it before he can do it again. He turns his back on Steve, on what they had, on what Steve will never remember, and looks at the streams of code that have always been a constant. His fingers twinge as he brushes through them, deleting the feel of Steve’s hand curled in his, deleting the touch of Steve’s lips against his temple, delete, delete, delete. He bites his lip and reformats another line of code.
“Oh, all right,” Steve says behind him, and he sounds confused, as if he were expecting a different answer. Delete.
The door opens and closes with a finality that rattles something loose in Tony’s chest. He bites his lip hard enough for it to bleed. Delete. Delete. Delete.