“It never gets easier.”
Steve looks over his shoulder at the sound of James Rhodes’ voice, soft and tired in a way that he’s never sounded in all the times Steve’s met him.
“I can’t imagine it ever could,” he whispers back, and his own voice sounds rough and wrecked. He wonders if that’s how he looks, with his dirty hair and even dirtier uniform that he hasn’t changed out of since they’d first rushed Tony in.
“Sure you don’t want to step out for a bit? You could get some coffee, a sandwich--”
“If it’s all the same to you,” Steve shakes his head, “I’ll just... I’m not goin’ anywhere.”
He hears the other man step further inside, and the low bustle of the SHIELD Med-bay dies down as the door closes.
“He won’t apologize, you know,” Rhodey says, breaking the silence that Steve would give anything to hear filled with Tony’s laughter. “He’d do this for just about anyone, but for you? He wouldn’t even blink.”
Steve feels pinpricks in the back of his eyes. “He didn’t. That’s why I--” he lets out a shaky breath, and winds his fingers against Tony’s still ones. “I don’t think he knows how much I need him.”
Rhodey huffs out something that, on any other day, might have been laughter. “He’s always been like that. Always. But you should tell him when he wakes up,” he says, patting Steve’s shoulder.
“I’m gonna do a hell of a lot more than that,” Steve whispers, and times his breathing to the rise and fall of Tony’s chest.
He’s not sure when Rhodey leaves, but the next time he looks up, they’re alone again, with the heart monitor beeping steadily and the whisper soft feel of Tony’s hand in his.
“I need to tell you something, Shellhead. Can’t hear it if you don’t wake up, though. I need you to wake up. Come on... Wake up, sweetheart.”
- - - - -
“What the fuck happened to you?”
Steve doesn’t jump out of his seat at the sound of Tony’s voice, but the relief that slams into his chest brings him to tears.
“I went and got an idiot for a best friend,” he laughs, wetly and more than a little breathless as he finally meets Tony’s warm, brown eyes.
“I’d apologize,” Tony rasps, wincing as he moves each arm and leg, “but I’m just too damn tired to be sorry.”
“Maybe next time you’ll think about stepping in front of me during a battle,” Steve says softly, but doesn’t let go of the brunet’s hand. “If you weren’t so sorry lookin’ right now, I’d deck ya right in the kisser.”
“Shit, you must be really pissed if you’re going all Brooklyn on me.” Tony groans, but then his lips quirk up in an all too familiar smirk, and damn it, even half alive and bed-ridden, he’s still the most beautiful thing Steve’s ever seen. “Also, I can’t stop thinking about how hot that is, so I blame the morphine--”
"I’m so glad you’re okay,” Steve blurts, and doesn’t wipe the lone tear that finally manages to escape from the corner of his eye. “Don’t ever do that again. Please.”
“Sorry,” Tony shakes his head weakly. “No can do, Cap--”
“Why the hell not?”
“Because I am replaceable, and you’re not.”
“No you’re not,” Steve shakes his head, words falling from his mouth like a flood. “You’re not replaceable, Tony, not to me. I need you--”
“Listen to me, damn it,” he almost yells, and feels Tony bristle. “I can’t... God, I can’t do this without you. Any of it.” His voice breaks, but he holds Tony’s gaze firmly. “I need you.”
“So do I, y’know,” Tony whispers, eyes glassy and bright. “And if I have to take the hit so that you don’t have to, I’ll do it every fucking time.”
Steve swallows back a sob, and takes deep breaths until everything falls away.
Everything but Tony.
“I can’t lose you, Shellhead,” he finally says.
“Back atcha, Winghead.”
Tony’s smile is small, and more than a little weak, but as Steve returns it with one of his own, he feels warmer than he has in days.