“Shh–hh, Tony, just hang on. Just—just hang on.”
“You,” Tony rasps, and brings a shaky hand up to Steve’s face. His stubble tickles Tony’s fingertips, and it makes him smile, despite the pain. He’s always loved it when Steve lets his stubble grow out.
“Fuck,” Steve hisses, “fuck, Tony, just—don’t talk. Don’t. Don’t do anything, okay, don’t. We’re getting. Help. Help is coming. Tony.”
Tony frowns a little, because it isn’t like Steve to swear. He wants to ask what’s wrong, what could possibly be wrong when they’re here together, and when Steve isn’t pulling away from his touch. Steve has his hands on Tony’s chest, actually. He’s so happy that it’s making him dizzy. There’s nothing wrong. There can’t be anything wrong, so then why is Steve swearing?
But he has more important things to say. He knows. Somewhere in his mind, he’s supposed to be saying something…important. There’s something there that he needs to say, right now. But words are so hard. He feels like he can’t breathe. Steve stole his breath.
“I’ve never—” he starts again, and his voice sounds like breathing.
“Tony,” Steve chokes out, leaning closer, one hand on the side of Tony’s face. Tony smiles and closes his eyes, leaning his head against it. It’s nice, he thinks, having Steve be his headrest. He’s feeling a little sleepy, if he’s honest. “Tony, open your eyes. Tony? Tony! Stay with me, Tony!”
Tony opens his eyes, because how could he not? Steve asked him to. How could he not?
He draws in deep breaths, trying to save enough energy to get the words out. They’re taking so much out of him. He feels like he’s made of air, and light, and love. It’s flooding his chest with warmth. The place where Steve’s hands touch his body feels hot like fire, but it doesn’t burn. It’s pleasantly numb, but still hot. Steve does this to him. Steve steals his breath and warms his heart, and he needs to know. He doesn’t know because Tony’s never told him, and he should’ve. He should’ve told him a long time ago.
“I’ve never loved anyone like I love you.”
There. That’s it. That’s the thing he’s been meaning to say, the words that have been taking up so much space in his head that it’s like there wasn’t any room for anything else. And now it’s finally out there, and Steve knows, and no matter what happens, it’s going to be okay. It’s going to be fine. He loves Steve. It has to be fine.
“Tony,” Steve’s voice cracks, and he sounds so sad. Why would he sound sad? Don’t cry, Tony wants to say, but can’t find the breath. Be happy. I love you.
Tony smiles, and when Steve’s lips press against his forehead, he lets his eyes slip closed again. He’s exactly where he wants to be.
The darkness steals him away, and his heart beats in time to the fading sound of sirens.
Tony’s done an awful lot of waking up lately, he thinks. He just keeps on waking up, just for a moment before he slips back down to the safety of the darkness. He doesn’t dream, just slips in and out of consciousness, each time fighting harder to hang on longer, to open his eyes a little wider, to listen just a bit better.
From what he’s worked out so far, he’s in a hospital. Which is not his favorite place to be, but it’s also not the first time he’s woken up in a hospital with no idea how he got there. There’s an uncomfortable numbness to his chest, so he’s thinking he’s on some pretty heavy pain meds, and he’s also thinking that whatever happened, it involves his chest.
When he finally wakes again, he makes sure it’s for long enough to catch a nurse. She seems to fuss about for awhile, trying to get him go back to sleep, but if he’s in a hospital, something bad has happened, so there are some questions he needs answered first.
“Peter,” he croaks out, and he really wishes he had some water. His tongue feels like sandpaper, which either means he’s hungover, or has something to do with this whole hospital thing, because hospitals hate water with a vengeance.
The nurse frowns at him, pats his hand like he’s a crazy person, and begins to walk away. But Tony catches her around the wrist, gripping as hard as he can manage, until she turns back to him. She looks startled. Good, maybe she’ll actually tell him something this time.
“Where. Is. My. Son?” Tony demands, ignoring the way his throat protests at the strain.
The nurse’s eyes widen and then soften, and she draws her wrist away from his grip, but says “Your wife brought him home to get some sleep.”
Tony intends to tell her that he’s not married anymore, but it seems like too much work, and his head is swimming and heavy again. So he tries to nod and just closes his eyes, safe in the knowledge that no matter what shape he seems to be in, Peter and Pepper are alright.
The next time he wakes up, it’s daytime, and there’s a doctor explaining that apparently, he was in an explosion, and there’s shrapnel in his chest, and they had to do major open heart surgery to save him, and now there’s something akin to a pacemaker in his chest. He takes it all in stride, but he thinks a part of that must be the meds. He feels way too good for someone who just had open heart surgery.
“Where’s Steve?” He asks. He doesn’t know why his brain assumes that Steve would be in danger, but he is the only person Tony knows that regularly deals with crime…and explosions…and things. Or maybe he just needs to know where Steve is. That he’s safe. That even if he doesn’t want anything to do with Tony, he’s still out there somewhere, living, being happy.
Yeah, that’s probably it.
“Who?” The nurse asks, and Tony frowns because he can’t remember the doctor leaving.
“Steve,” he repeats firmly. “My Steve.”
The nurse arches an eyebrow at him, but he flaps his hand about weakly on the bed in deference. He doesn’t care what the nurse thinks, he just needs to know where Steve is.
“Steve,” he repeats with finality.
The nurse purses her lips in confusion but nods at him as his eyes flutter shut again. She says “I’ll ask for him.”
That’ll have to be good enough, because Tony is too damn tired to keep his eyes open any longer.
When he wakes again, (as he said, it’s been a lot of waking up lately), Pepper and Peter are there, and he feels the relief like a punch to the chest—which is in a lot of pain right now, as it turns out, so that’s a pretty big punch.
“Daddy!” Peter cries and sprints toward him. He stops himself right beside the bed, unsure if it’s okay to get closer, and Tony just smiles and pats the bed next to him. Peter doesn’t hesitate. He just vaults himself over the flimsy plastic railing and wraps Tony up in a hug, settling himself down by Tony’s side.
“Hey, spider monkey,” he says, wincing at the way his voice rasps. But soon enough Pepper is there beside him, giving him a sip from her water bottle that he’s pretty sure he’s not supposed to have. But screw the ice chips. It’s not as if they aren’t water, anyway.
“Thanks,” he gets out, stroking one hand down the back of Peter’s head.
Pepper nods. Her lips form a tight, white line, and she has a worry line between her eyebrows. He feels bad for making her worry like this. He’s done enough as it is.
He drifts off again with Peter held close to him and Pepper standing close by, and he thinks Now all I need is Steve.
Tony’s eyes snap open and he huffs out a breath and says “Well yeah, now I am.” He scoots himself to sit up, ignoring the twinge in his chest, and searches the room for the source of the voice. Peter and Pepper are gone, though probably not forever, and he doesn’t see any nurses but that’s not to say the husky voice that woke him up isn’t—
“Steve,” he breathes involuntarily when his eyes land on Steve, sitting in a chair by the side of the room and staring at Tony, looking like he hasn’t slept in a week, which is about how long the doctors tell him he’s been in the hospital.
“They told me—” he starts, worriedly, “but I wasn’t sure if…Until I saw…”
Tony nods. He gets it, even though he has no idea what Steve’s words mean. He just…gets it. His tone of voice. The way he’s looking at Tony. Everything.
Tony says “Come here,” and Steve’s already up and out of the chair, leaning over the bed, pulling him into a gentle hug with one arm as he leans over the side.
“God,” Steve croaks and buries his face in Tony’s neck. Tony breathes in deep, unsure if he’s ever going to be this close to Steve again. But Steve’s here, isn’t he? He’s right here, right beside Tony, and that’s got to mean something, right?
“Why are you here?”
Steve draws back almost like Tony slapped him, and Tony wishes he hadn’t said it. He just needs to know. Because he can’t just turn this on and off whenever it’s convenient for Steve to care. He can’t just see Steve, hold him close like this, and then watch him walk away again until the next time one of them nearly dies. If he has to move on, he has to do it on his own.
“I—You’re here,” Steve answers lamely, but he says it like it’s the only answer he needs. Like nothing else even matters. Tony’s breath catches.
This right here? This is the problem. This hurts too much. Tony has a heart condition now, he doesn’t think his heart can take much more of this. It’s all or nothing. Time to walk into the fire and see if he gets burned.
Tony looks up. “I can’t do this. I can’t keep seeing you and then just keep letting you walk away. That’s not fair to me.” It’s not fair.
“I know.” Steve ducks his head.
Tony reaches up to touch him, hesitant. “I wish—” Tony starts, but stops. He lets his hand fall back to the bed. He wishes a lot of things. None of it ever seemed to matter before. He’s got no reason to think it will now. “If we’re going to get past this, you can’t keep trying to protect me.” Like the time at the safe house. And the time with Obadiah. And the explosion. “What about your job? What about Peggy?” Steve winces and turns away, and Tony’s chest flares with self-hatred for making Steve hurt, but there isn’t much he can do about it. It needs to be said. One way or another, this was always going to hurt.
He just didn’t know it would hurt him this much.
“Do you?” Tony asks softly, trying to catch Steve’s eyes, but he won’t look up. Won’t let Tony glimpse the ocean in his eyes, won’t let Tony try to tell him how sorry he is. How much he wishes he could say it aloud. How much he’s been trying not to say out loud since this whole thing started. A forest full of words, slowly burning away inside Tony, until there’s nothing left but quiet ash. “I’m asking you to say goodbye.”
Just let me see the ocean one last time, Tony pleads silently. Just let me look before the fire consumes me.
“Tell me we can do this,” Steve says instead, his head still bowed. His shoulders are shaking. Tony feels his heart flutter in his chest, and he can’t tell if it’s because there’s a magnet in there or because Steve is scaring him.
Steve looks up then, ocean blue, and Tony feels his eyes water against the force of it. Steve steps forward, leaning over until their foreheads press together. Steve’s skin feels cool, and Tony closes his eyes and tries to remember this exact moment. Tries to remember the closeness. The love, burning bright and painful right there in his chest, soothed only by the gentle waves of the ocean lapping against the shore, but never going out.
“Tell me we can do this,” Steve repeats, his voice cracked open, raw, desperate. Tony can hardly draw breath. Everything smells like Steve. It fills his lungs, rushes up to his head, makes him dizzy. This is desire, he thinks as he feels Steve’s fingers brush against his neck, and heat burns beneath each fingertip, pouring into his chest like liquid and spreading like fire. This is love, he thinks.
“We can do this,” Tony says softly, because they can. Whatever happens, whatever falls apart, they can make it. They will, even if Tony has to hold them together, like trapping smoke with his hands, pressing his fingers together tight enough to hold on to something so fleeting, so fragile.
They can do this.
“Okay,” Steve says. “Okay.”
Tony closes his eyes, and the fire in his chest curls around his heart, protects it, keeps on burning bright, even as the steady ocean tide floods in.