The day Tony fell from the sky and hit the Hudson was the day Steve Rogers realized how wrong he was, how he’d misread all the signs and thought what everyone else did; that Tony was okay, that Anthony Stark was okay.
But he wasn’t.
When the Iron Man suit sank and kept sinking, Steve couldn’t do anything but scream into his comm link and pray. He hadn’t done a lot of praying recently, but the way Tony had fallen, less like a feather and more like a huge diamond, sparkling and perfect in the sky and heavy, without grace as it fell, he considered the notion. He considered folding his hands in prayer as it tumbled towards the dark water. As he tumbled from his perch in the clouds, watching Steve’s back as they battled more aliens from God-Knows-Where.
It was the Hulk who finally got him out, just like it was the Hulk that had screamed after Tony flew a nuke into another universe and brought the still man back to life. Steve had yet to save Tony, and the thought was gnawing at his brain as he screamed for a sign of what to do, how to react as water poured through the fine cracks in the suit, and the chest plate glowed hollowly, almost imperceptibly. Barely there.
Steve hadn’t read Tony’s file.
He told himself he didn’t want to intrude, but really it was something else, something that had to do with Howard and not wanting to know what could have screwed up his kid so much, how his old friend could have changed so much to make Tony, someone who grated on his nerves and set him on edge and made him angrier than he’d ever been. And he told himself that he hated Tony and it was okay because Tony was selfish and manic and crazy. But Steve didn’t know him.
Hadn’t wanted to.
But when they pulled the helmet off, Tony’s skin was white and his eyes were wide, all pupil, blown completely and he wasn’t really seeing them. Steve leaned in closer, trying to figure out what to do, what the genius needed him to do.
“Don’t!” It was the first thing Tony’s said since his comm went offline eighteen minutes ago, when Iron Man had vaulted towards the mouth of the huge, archaic looking alien and been swatted into the murky water. “I’ll do it; I’ll build you whatever you want just don’t do it again!”
Steve had no idea what he was talking about, but Natasha got a pinched look on her face, more emotion leaking through than he’s ever seen. She looked sad, leaned down, maybe to brush her gloved fingers over his cheek and draw him back to reality, but he jerked away, his metal-covered shoulder scraping on the concrete and smearing dead alien goo over the flashy red and gold.
“I need Yinsen, I need tools, I need to not be hooked to a fucking car battery, just don’t do it again. Please, don’t. I’ll do whatever you want if you stop and let me get to Yinsen.”
An endless string of verbal nonsense escaped Tony, and he was so far away, none of them were going to be able to pull him back. He was too far gone and the afternoon felt cold. Steve wondered who Yinsen was, and what a car battery had to do with anything.
Hudson water was dripping across his skin, probably toxic, definitely smelly, and it left dark trails behind, like it was marking Tony as their own, dragging him back down to the water, where no one could hear him scream.
“Ohmygod, that smarts like a bitch, you guys are crazy, crazy fucking terrorists in fucking caves. I hate caves. So much. Don’t put me in the water again, I already said I would do what you wanted!” And that was a scream and Steve couldn’t keep watching this, this hurt. Tony was far away in a cave somewhere and he was hurting and this pain in his chest wasn’t stopping.
He reached out, gloves touching the skin of Tony’s bruised cheek. He tried to jerk back, an animalistic fear in his eyes that Steve had seen in the eyes of the people he’d liberated from Nazi internment camps, the tortured, the broken. He held on, shouting Tony’s name until there was a spark of recognition, repeating it over and over again and Tony.
Steve breathed out a laugh, strained chuckled that verged on hysteria as his head bent over Tony’s making eye contact, holding the moment, making sure Tony was really there. The genius stared back at him as if he were crazy, as if Steve was the one who had just had a mental breakdown in a pile of alien goo in the middle of the street.
“Why am I wet?”
Everyone was laughing, Steve was infectious and Tony was confused, staring up at the Star Spangled Man and wondering why his gold-spun hair was so out of place, the usually immaculate strands haphazardly strewn about his dirty forehead, cowl pulled back and whole face visible.
Silence, laughter died out slowly, leaving their bodies in little curls of cold air that looked like smoke. He wasn’t dead, not gone beyond repair. But it was a cold day in New York City and Tony was beginning to shiver in the metal encasement of his suit. Steve helped him up, because Captain America did things like that, even if he wasn’t the one who dragged the sinking tomb of Iron Man up from beneath the waves.
“Did that nasty alien throw me in the goddamned Hudson? Ew. Call the Hazmat team, I need to be disinfected.”
Tony was rambling, that good kind of ramble that fills up all the empty spaces and doesn’t require a response, and he was standing straight and that was more than Steve could ask of the man right now. Tony leaned against the super soldier heavily, and Steve slipped an arm around his back to keep him steady, feeling the hissing and constantly moving metal beneath his fingers.
“—and I’m tired and I really just want to go home. Steve, can you just take me home or something? I need a shower before I become some freaky mutant,” Tony nearly pleaded, looking at Steve with eyes that were a little too earnest and a little too desperate. And Steve thought that Tony remembered every second, every flash of memory that no one else understood, trying to cover it up in some show of pride and failing. Breaking. Split down the center and Steve had seen through the cracks, couuld finally read the bravado for what it was.
So Steve nodded, helped Tony into the SHEILD vehicle, closed the doors behind him, silently instructing the other members of the team to take another car, any other car. Tony wanted to be alone; it was clear from the set of his shoulders and the haggard look on his face.
The doors closed, the van rolling out. Steve didn’t speak, didn’t want to make the first move as Tony sagged in his suit, the heavy metal keeping him upright. Halfway to the Tower, and Tony would undoubtedly be aware when they were exactly half way, with the way his mouth was moving, gentle equations passing in whispers through his lips (Steve was far too used to this), Tony spoke.
He didn’t say anything else, wouldn’t, couldn’t. Steve didn’t know.
Steve hadn’t read Tony’s file but he’d heard enough talk around SHEILD to understand that. Three months in a cave in the middle of the desert, terrorists. No one talked about what had happened to him, apparently there was next to nothing in the reports to begin with, Tony refusing to speak on the matter at all, but Steve had seen what Nazi’s had done to Bucky, seen the drool crusted on open lips and the dead look in dark eyes that had been so sparked with wit and confidence. He'd seen an empire of self crumble into nothingness by the hand of another human being. He could guess what happened to Tony.
“Do you need someone tonight?” Steve asked, aware that Tony would usually make a joke, say something that would turn Steve red, blushing all the way down his neck, but not this time. The man only nodded, looking up at the Captain as if from far away.
“You don’t have to.”
“I want to.”
When Tony made it to his bed, sans armor and plus a shower, slack, empty on the inside with his chest giving off an ominous glow, Steve settled down next to him, above the sheets with a thin blanket over him. Tony opened his mouth, about to say something about them not being ten and him being perfectly okay with the Captain beneath the covers, but didn’t say anything. His mouth shut with an audible snap.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Steve asked, because he was Captain America, and he did things like that.
“You probably don’t even know what water boarding is,” Tony grumbled, rolling over onto his back, so the ceiling flickered with new shadows cast by the reactor. Steve winced, because no, he didn’t. But he wanted to understand, more than anything. He stared at the ceiling, not meeting Tony’s eyes because that wouldn’t help him. “Water boarding is simulated drowning, carefully controlled if done with any sort of professionalism in mind, but the people that had me were not exactly Gustapo. Fuckers were cave-dwelling sycophants, and they stick your head, or most of your upper body, into this disgusting water, gross, smells like, like, like you can’t even imagine. They hold you there until you’re sure you’re going to die. And if you happen to have a car battery hooked to your chest to keep you alive, then you spend that time being electrocuted until all you can do is babble incoherently at the crazy fuckers who think it’s cute to hold you down a little too long.”
Steve let him talk, let the words wash over him with a sense of horror and agony Steve had never really known, catching on his bloodstream and swimming with an anger he’d only known distantly. He wanted to kill something, rip apart the entire desert and destroy every single person who’d ever hurt Tony Stark.
“And when you get back everyone just assumes you’re fine, takes you back and proceeds to rip you to shreds all over again and no one stops to ask if you’re really alright, if you want to slow down, stop for burgers, catch up on sleep, take a vacation. No one asks you if you’re okay. No one.” Tony’s voice hitched, broke, cracked on the end and suddenly he was in Steve’s arms, a horizontal hug, trying to communicate something, anything that might give the man comfort.
And some secret part of him hoped things were changing, hoped these words would keep filling up the spaces between them and give them something new and lit brightly with some untold trust for the two of them alone. Steve traced his fingertips absently over Tony's forearm and hoped tonight wouldn't be the end of this strange new beginning, the start of his unfolding of Tony Stark.
“Are you okay?” Steve whispered, his voice hushed and his face cast in that strange blue glow he’d already become used to, looked to as a constant in battle, sure that its light would never go out on them. Tony shook his head, his face buried in Steve’s chest, fingers curling in his shirt, not wanting to let go, the insistance of a child that just wants to be held. For once.
“Do you want to take a vacation?” Steve asked, voice lighter, because Tony wouldn’t want him to try and fix it, to repair him in any obvious way because that wasn’t what Tony needed. He needed the assurance of a friend, the constant touch of someone who wasn’t going to hurt him, like the men in that damned cave, someone who wasn’t going to leave him, like Pepper had. Someone who would stay because they understood that all the little broken pieces made this man.
Someone who would listen to the broken ramblings of a man who'd never given voice to his pain, given weight to the fluttering wings of panic and anxiety he'd harbored in a chest filled with water.
“No.” His voice didn’t break then, and he sounded stronger. Steve let a smile light the corners of his mouth.
“God yes,” Tony nearly moaned, and Steve thought he could feel the smile pressed into his chest. The genius yawned, curled up in a tight ball, half on Steve, half off. “As soon as I wake up.” Steve let his hand trail along Tony’s spine, lazily making patterns as Tony began to drift away.
“You don’t have to do this.” Tony was trying to warn him off, trying to keep Steve from getting too lost inside of the mess of Tony, from seeing too far in and realizing that he hated everything that he was. Steve curled around him awkwardly, the difference in sheets making it impossible for him to tangle his legs with the smaller man’s.
“Yes I do.” Steve sucked in a breath, wondering what Bucky would think if he told him he might be falling for this man, for Anthony Stark. He couldn’t tell yet, too wrapped up in the need to make Tony feel at ease, to assure the man that he had people to rely on. He had Steve to rely on. And maybe seeing Tony fall from the sky had knocked something loose in Steve’s brain, but this felt good, Tony’s weight in his arms and his breathing against his chest and the light of the arc reactor glowing strongly, safely. “I need you to know that you’re safe. You’re okay, I’ve got you. I’m not leaving.”
Tony made a noise half-way between a whimper and a groan, and Steve could take the hint.
“It’s okay, don’t worry. I’ve got you. I’ve got you.” The words were repeated on an infinite loop, whispered into Tony’s hair as Steve’s arms locked around his back, pulled him flush against his body and the sheets were uncomfortable, but neither of them moved. Didn’t think they could handle any closer. Not tonight.
When Steve felt wetness pool on his shirt, he didn’t say anything, just held tighter and kept repeating it. Not going anywhere, I’ve got you.
He wondered if Tony believed him.
He pressed a kiss to his temple, barely a whisper of Steve’s lips on Tony’s fevered skin, the smell of Tony’s soap lingering, enveloping him. Tony didn’t pull away.
“How are you-you even a real thing?” Tony questioned, stumbling over his words as he struggled to speak around the thick feeling in his throat. Steve smiled, a small chuckle breaking through the silence and lifting Tony up and down in small, shuddered movements. “How are you even still here?”
“Because you’re letting me,” Steve answered softly, threading his fingers through his hair. “Because you don’t want to be alone and I don’t want to leave you alone. Because I want you to understand that I’m here for you, and that nothing is going to change that. You can’t scare me off, Stark.”
Tony thought he was the only one allowed to ramble here, and when the words finally reached his cluttered mind, pushed past the equations and the variables and the twisted memories, he smiled. He wasn’t okay, and maybe tomorrow would be no better, and the wounds would feel raw and ripped open, but tonight, this was more than enough. This was good, even if he wasn't alright. Because someone had finally really seen that. And they hadn’t run away. Steve hadn’t run away.
“Wouldn’t dream of it, Rogers.”