He could hear the steady beep from the heart rate monitor, the whoosh, click, and hiss of the ventilator. Feel the patterned cotton of the blanket beneath his cheek, Steve’s fingers cool and still under his. Taste the disinfectant in the air, the chill of the air conditioning. He didn’t open his eyes because he didn’t want to see. Didn’t want to see what was already ingrained behind his eyelids. Steve’s body, battered and bruised, neck braced, torso encased in plaster, right leg swathed in bandages and clear gel of burn cream tinted pink with blood. He just wanted to keep his eyes closed and pretend it had never happened.
Tony could hear the rev of the 600 CC engine, the wind as it whistled through his visor. Feel the undulating ground beneath him, the slight sway of the rear tyre as it pushed through the sand, the engine vibrations through his knees, feet and hands. He could taste the heat, the sand, the dryness of the air, the adrenaline. He could see Steve’s blue with accents of red and white in front of him, perhaps half a kilometre. He opened the throttle a fraction more, feeling the bike lurch forward, could almost see the distance closing, before Steve disappeared over the crest of a sand dune.
He dug his knees into the petrol tank, keeping himself steady, and loosened his shoulders, relaxed his elbows, but kept his fingers tight around the hand grips as the bike dropped off the ledge into a hollow, tyres hitting hard packed earth and pushing forward with new traction that was lost as soon as the sand was back under the tyres. He dropped back down onto the seat, giving his legs a moment of respite as his stomach settled back into the right place. He loved the moments of weightlessness that came with the sudden drops, even the small ones.
His fingers stretched out and curled around the clutch and loosened on the throttle as his toe clicked down a gear, then another, the engine revving at the sudden shift. Eyes behind dust smeared goggles picked out the best path of ascent up the dune and he dropped his left shoulder, leaning out, to steer towards it. The bike lugged and he dropped another gear, but finally he reached the crest, having a moment to appreciate the vastness of the red sand, before he started the slide down the other side. He could see the wide, sweeping tracks left behind by Steve’s bike, the distance between front and back tyre tracks suggesting a sideways slide and he couldn’t help but grin.
In the distance he could see the late afternoon sunlight reflecting off of glass and he knew they were nearing the next checkpoint and the pit stop for the night.
The kilometres slipped past and he could make out the hi-vis whip flags of the support vehicles and hoped that someone already had a Coke with his name on it ready and waiting. Then hopefully a litre of water.
He crossed the checkpoint line in neutral and circled once around the officials’ tent to slow down and bring his bike to a stop next to the vehicle with his colours on it. Steve’s bike was stopped a few metres away.
Steve was there, off the bike already, helmet off, blond hair dark with sweat and sticking up all over the place. There were indentations around his eyes from the goggles that hung around his neck, and dust darkening the skin that was exposed, sticking to sunscreen, teeth glaringly white as he grinned. “Thought you were never coming!”
He rolled his eyes, the effect lost behind his goggles, and finally killed the engine. Dragging his hands out of his gloves, he worked the buckle loose beneath his chin, pulling the helmet off and feeling the air rapidly cool the sweat in his hair and on his skin. “Nah, Blondie, I was just breathing heavy.”
Steve blushed, even after years of knowing him, but chucked him one of the cans of Coke he was holding. “Maybe you’d better quit smoking then, old man.”
He dragged his goggles up over his head and made a point of raking his eyes over the younger man. “Not the only thing I should quit.”
“You should get some sleep.”
He didn’t look up, didn’t need to, to know that Rhodey was standing the doorway of the hospital room. He didn’t even need to see Rhodey’s face to know he was getting the look of authoritative concern. But he still didn’t lift his head up from where it rested on the edge of the bed. His neck ached, the muscles between his shoulder blades gave a spasm of protest every so often, and the nearing forty-four hours awake was making his body ache more than a thousand kilometre ride. His eyes felt like he’d been riding at one hundred and thirty kilometres per hour without his goggles on.
“Tony, they’ve got a room made up down the hallway. Happy and Sam are already asleep there. Bucky is just grabbing some food, then he’ll come and sit here for a while. We’re not going to leave him alone.” Rhodey gripped his shoulders and pulled him to a sitting position.
He couldn’t help the whimper that escaped as his body protested the move, and the cotton blanket pulled at his skin when it came unstuck. His fingers tried to clench around Steve’s hand, but he was being tugged into a standing position and being led out of the room. The beeping faded and someone made a noise that sounded like a wounded animal, panicked and hurt.
It might have been him.
Somehow he ended up in the shower, mildly impressed that he was naked, but Rhodey was closing his hand around a washcloth for him, and he hoped he remembered to thank his friend later for putting up with him. It wasn’t the first time Rhodey had picked him up, cleaned him up and put him to bed, and it wouldn’t be the last. At least this time he wasn’t drunk.
Fuck, he wanted to be drunk.
The bed felt too soft beneath his body, even though the sheets were heavy and a little stiff, and the mattress thin and rubber lined. It hurt how comfortable it was.
He didn’t want to sleep. Didn’t want to close his eyes and replay the images there. Didn’t want to see the sand being dug up and thrown by the back wheel that spun uselessly on its side, as grit ground between the chain and the gears, until the engine finally spluttered and died. Didn’t want to see the leg pinned beneath the weight of the bike, exhaust pipe slowly working through protective layers and searing skin beneath fire retardant clothing. Didn’t want the smell of exhaust, petrol and blood. Didn’t want to hear the way Steve mumbled and cursed and pleaded for him to get his helmet off. But he hadn’t taken it off of him, he knew not to.
He didn’t want to sleep, but Rhodey came back with one of the nurses, put pills in one hand, water in the other, and told him to swallow.
“You won’t be any good to him like this, Tones. Get some sleep. Bucky and I will watch him for a few hours, then you can go back.”
He wanted to reply, say he was no good anyway, but the words wouldn’t form, and he drifted off dreaming about sand and sweat and Steve. His beautiful blue eyed Steve. His beautiful broken boy.
“Fuck you’re gorgeous.”
Tony could feel strong muscled thighs beneath his hands, the tremors in the wake of his touch. Hear the excited rapid pull of air into lungs, and the frustrated groan when he deliberately missed his mark again and pressed a kiss to the cut of muscle just above one hipbone. Taste the lingering sweat, and the soap from the hasty wash they’d had behind the tent sharing a bucket of water, just enough to take off the sweat and sand in hope of a better sleep.
He could feel fingers twist in his hair, curl around his shoulder blade, trying to urge him closer.
“You going to actually do anything? Or just—” Steve hissed as Tony scraped his teeth against the inside of his left thigh. “Or just gonna talk to it?”
He could feel the weight of Steve’s erection against his tongue, the way his lips and jaw stretch around it. Taste the skin and sweat and Steve. Hear the rapid intake of breath, the moan muffled by the palm of one hand. He could feel the slick on his fingers, the spasm and protest of muscle against his fingertips as he pushed in. Could hear Steve curse and complain that that wasn’t fair, that he played dirty, but he was pushing down onto Tony’s fingers and making needy little noises. Grinding down onto his fingers, fucking up into his mouth until he was coming and panting, fingers clenching around hair. He swallowed, pulled away only enough to collapse between Steve’s legs, head resting against his thigh. He needed to get up, go back to his own tent, but when he tried to get up, Steve’s hand closed around his wrist.
He grinned, but leant down to press a teasing kiss just beneath Steve’s jaw. “Aren’t you worried that I’ll make you sleep in so you miss your start time?”
Steve didn’t respond in favour of tugging his sweat pants back up, and shifting over so there was enough room on the mattress for Tony to settle onto the bed beside him, back to Steve’s chest and one beautiful muscled arm looped around his waist.
“I’m more worried that if you go back to your own tent, you’ll wake in a couple hours and take off before your time like the sneaky cheat that you are.” Steve’s hand trailed over his stomach, down to palm him back into full hardness through his pants.
He didn’t dignify the accusations with a response, settling instead for fucking himself to completion into Steve’s fist, as lips ghosted kisses across the back of his neck and shoulder.
He could taste the bitterness of the coffee, and the perpetual tang of disinfectant that only reminded him how much he hated hospitals. He could feel the weight of the phone in his hand, the heat of the screen as it pressed against his ear. He could hear Pepper’s voice on the other end of the line, tinny over the distance, but he clung onto it like a lifeline.
“...putting together some stuff to send over, Tony. Happy said he had no idea how long you’d be there, so I’m trying to organise some better accommodation for you, somewhere for you all to stay. A house, maybe.”
“How’s Maddie?” He didn’t want to think about leaving the hospital, not without Steve, so he thought of his goddaughter instead, with her freckles and red hair like her mother’s, but her father’s dark eyes and natural curls. Her brightness and enthusiasm and the unwavering devotion that only an eight year old could manage.
Pepper sighed, the sound of a mother who wished she could shelter her child from the harshness off the world, but knew she was failing. “She’s upset. Doesn’t quite understand what’s going on, how bad it is, but she knows Steve’s hurt.” There was a slight sniffle and hiccupping sob. “She’s made a stack of get well cards. A new one each day, I’m going to send them over too. There’s a stack of pictures too. She didn’t want his hospital room to be too boring.”
“He’d like that.” It hurt to talk, his voice catching in his throat as it closed like a vice around the words. He tried not to remember Steve hunched over the table with Maddie as they both ‘made art’. Maddie being super careful as she handled Steve’s good pencils which he was letting her use to colour in her My Little Pony colouring in book. Tried not to think of the devotion with which she followed him around, the way she’d latched on to him when Steve first came home with him for a visit, only six months before.
“She wants to send over her Binky Rabbit, to help him get better.” Pepper’s voice wavered, and he wondered briefly how Steve had become such a huge part of all their lives in such a short time.
“She knows it’s serious then. She never parts with Binky.” He could still remember putting the pink toy rabbit in Maddie’s crib when she was a month old, and he’d never seen her without it since. It even went on holidays with her, and there had been many a tearful frantic search for it before she’d go to bed at night.
Pepper’s tearful smile was almost audible across the phone. “She wants to come see him.”
All he could think about was the ventilator and mess of tubes and lines and Steve looking so small amongst it all, despite his height and the width of his shoulders. It would be terrifying for Maddie to see him like that, but he couldn’t bring himself to say it. “He’d like that. He’d deny it, and tell me off later for letting her see him like this. But she means a lot to him. He... He said he wants kids one day.”
He couldn’t stand the pity in her voice, that edge of fear that made his own all the more real. The fear that Steve would leave him one day, find a nice girl and settle down with and have a family. And the new fear that he’d never get a chance.
The door opened behind him, and Happy stepped out onto the balcony with him. “Hey, think your husband is here to tell me to stop hogging all your time.”
He didn’t wait for her protest, just handed the phone over to Happy, and stepped back towards the door.
“Hey, how are my two best girls?”
He didn’t stick around to hear the relief in Happy’s voice at the knowledge that his loved ones were safe and sound.
He could taste the bitterness of the coffee, laced with grit from the sand. He swore again but sculled the last half a mug, turning his back to the wind and the sand it flung at them. “Fuck this wind. Fuck it five ways to Sunday.”
Steve chuckled at him, shoulders shaking with it, as he hunched in the shelter of the four-wheel-drive. Even as he laughed he tried and failed, Tony noted with sadistic satisfaction, to keep his egg and bacon sandwich grit free. “Few extra minerals never hurt anyone.”
He kicked the moulded guarding on Steve’s shin. “You’d probably say the sand blasting is good for us too.”
Steve grinned at him around a mouthful of bread and egg, and somehow still managed to look too adorable for his own good. “I’m sure people in your swanky circles pay big money for exfoliation treatment like this.”
“Stick around long enough and you’ll become one of them. Before you know it you’ll be tittering with all the other trophy wives about shoes and pedicures and how your men are more interested in sports and pit chicks than you.” The words were out of his mouth before Tony had a chance to stop them, and he cringed, just waiting for the repercussions.
Steve blushed, shoved the rest of his sandwich in his mouth and chewed it hastily. He straightened up, brushing his hands against his thighs and swallowed. “Figured myself for more the manicure kinda gal, but I’m glad you think I’m pretty enough to be classed as a trophy wife.”
He smirked, almost disappointed that Steve was getting so used to him that he had rebuttal, rather than indignant stammering, but the blush still happened, much to Tony’s delight. “Yep, dress you up all fancy. I’m thinking a nice blue silk number, floor length, tasteful cut, can’t have anyone thinking you’re one of those easy dames, then I can parade you around and make everyone jealous.”
Steve’s blush darkened, a slight frown creasing his forehead, but he stepped closer and leant in to kiss the very corner of Tony’s lips. “If that was a proposal Stark, it’s the most cockeyed one I’ve ever heard. Gotta do better than that if you want me to say yes.”
It took him a moment get his brain back online, by which point Steve was already making his way over to his bike. But it didn’t stop him from getting the last word in. “Best offer you’re ever gonna get, Rogers.”
Steve turned, taking the last few steps to his bike backwards. “How about another wager then? I win this stage, you come up with a better offer. Gotta sell yourself a bit more Tony. I’m the white picket fence kinda guy, remember, want it all, house, kids, dog, big-arse SUV.”
He recalled spitting those words at Steve not long after they’d first met, back when they were rivals, before they became friends. Before Steve had kissed him that first time. The idea of proposing to Steve, even after nine months together made his heart jam in his chest. He deflected, distracted, not because that level of commitment terrified him, though it was slightly scary, but because there was no way that Steve could actually mean that. He couldn’t want that, not with Tony Stark, notorious billionaire, genius, playboy, motor cross racing extraordinaire. “And if I win, I get to bend you over your bike and fuck you ‘til you can’t sit down tomorrow.”
Steve laughed, but it sounded a little brittle. “Save that for the victory celebration Stark, otherwise the officials will accuse you of cheating again.”
“Fury can blow it out his arse, those modifications were within the rule book. He just hates me on principal, because I don’t need sponsorship.” He caught up with Steve, hooked his fingers under the edge of his chest guard and tugged Steve down to give him a proper kiss. “There, for luck. You’ll need it. I’ll think up something else to collect as my prize for when I win this leg.”
“The doctors want to take him off the ventilator.” Bucky’s voice sounded drawn tight, fragile, like at any moment it would shatter into a thousand sharp tiny pieces.
Tony didn’t look around, he couldn’t; just stood there beside the bed, letting his fingers trail along Steve’s forehead, brushing soft hair back out of the way.
“They took him off the drugs yesterday, say he should come back out of the coma in the next day or two, they think the swelling has subsided enough. The last MRI looked normal enough.” Bucky continued despite Tony’s silence.
He wasn’t a doctor, had no background in medicine, but he had seen enough accidents and injuries over the years. Read enough in the weeks since the accident to have a fair idea. The crash had rattled Steve’s brain, rotating it within his skull, and the doctors had induced a coma until the swelling went down, in hopes that the brain would right itself again.
“He’s going to get better Tony.” Bucky had moved up to the end of the bed, hands almost automatically starting to work Steve’s feet, toes and shins in the massages the nurses had shown them.
“We don’t know that. What if he doesn’t wake up?” His voice didn’t sound like his own; he hadn’t planned to voice all his doubts.
Bucky’s hands didn’t falter at all, just kept kneading flesh and muscle. “I’m not a doctor. I probably don’t know nearly enough to make that call, we aren’t all geniuses, Stark. But I know Steve. And he’s always been an obstinate little shit, and he’ll get better just to prove people wrong. He’ll wake up in a few days and lecture you all for pulling out of the race and letting that dickwad Hammer win.”
It was meant to be a laugh, but the choked sound that came out sounded more like a sob. “Stubborn. Yeah. Sounds like Steve.”
“Pay up Stark.”
Steve was waiting there, sitting astride his bike, helmet off and resting on the seat in front of him, his arms folded and leaning on it.
He pulled his own helmet off, killing the engine, and mentally cursing the last dune that had slowed him down too much; he’d almost caught Steve in the last hour of the leg. He scrubbed a hand through his hair then tilted his head and peered at Steve through his goggles. “Marry me and I’ll build you the biggest damn picket fence you’ve ever seen. It’ll come with a robot guard dog, because you don’t have to feed it, and it’ll probably shoot lasers. The fence. Not the dog.”
Steve blinked at him for a moment before howling with laughter, hand smacking against his chest as he tried to breathe. “You, Mr Stark, are not a romantic at all.”
“Fine the dog can shoot lasers too.” Tony grinned back, feeling the tight coil of nervousness in his stomach relax a little. They could joke about this. He’d figure out the right way to ask eventually, but in the meantime, if he could make Steve laugh like that more often, he’d be a happy man. “And don’t call me Mr Stark, makes me feel old.”
Steve swung his leg over his bike, stretching for a moment before unbuckling his chest guard and shrugging out of it, setting it down on the seat of his motorbike. The jacket followed, and he couldn’t help but appreciate the way Steve’s white t-shirt he wore underneath clung to him in all the right spots, damp with sweat.
“You are an old man though. Oh so old at thirty-eight. Positively geriatric.” Steve grinned at him, wandering over to his bike, standing in front of it, one leg either side of the front tyre, hands on the handlebars.
“Don’t remind me.” He muttered, possibly a little too darkly, but Tony hated being reminded that he was getting close to forty. It seemed impossibly older than Steve’s twenty-three. He’d had reservations about their age gap in the beginning. Pepper, Happy and Rhodey had all had reservations about it, until he pointed out that Pepper and Happy weren’t exactly the same age, and they’d toned it down a bit. Steve was young, and innocent by comparison, but he was stubborn. And knew what he wanted. Which, apparently, was Tony Stark.
“C’mon, Tony, let’s go grab food, I’m starving, and get cleaned up.” Glancing around quickly to make sure there was no one around, Steve leant closer, voice dropping low and quiet, cheeks flaming red from more than just windburn. “Then come to my tent. I want you inside me. See if you can make me come without touching my dick.”
He made love to Steve that night, because Steve actually called it that, fucking into him slow and deep with Steve’s thighs clamped around his waist, feet locked together behind his back. Steve’s hands were splayed over his back, fingertips slotting along his spine, as he trailed open mouth kisses along his neck and shoulders.
He knew he loved Steve, but it was moments like that that he really felt it, when Steve was needy and panting beneath him, kissing him without reservation, and eventually coming undone from his touch.
They lay together afterwards, Steve’s head on his chest and when he tried to move, the blond issued a sleepy protest.
“I should go back to my tent.” He whispered, pressing a kiss to sweat damp hair.
“Stay.” Steve murmured, nuzzling into his chest a little more, arm tightening around his waist.
“You’ll sleep better if I’m not hogging your bed.” He tried again, half lifting his torso up until Steve’s weight proved too much.
Steve smiled against his skin. “Sleep better with you here.”
He sighed, looping his arms around Steve and earning himself a contented hum. Yeah, Steve Rogers was a stubborn bastard all right.
He could hear the steady beep of the heart rate monitor pick up, increasing and frantic, and he wanted to yell at them to stop, to reattach the tube, to give Steve back his oxygen, but Rhodey’s hand was painfully tight on his shoulder, holding him in place. Steve’s arms jerked slightly and he wanted to yell, scream at them that couldn’t they see they were killing him, the heart rate spiking across the screen. Then it was like a moment of stillness, and Steve’s chest expanded, pulling in air, then let it out again, and everyone in the room breathed with him. Another breath, and the beeping started to settle down.
Tony hadn’t realised he’d been holding his breath until he let it out, his hands relaxing from where they’d twisted around his shirt.
“Told you he’s a stubborn little shit.” Bucky’s hand gripped his other shoulder, voice wavering and cracking, and he was half sure that Bucky was holding himself up, it being very possible that if he let go he’d fall to the ground in relief.
He watched carefully, still shutting out most of the world, as a nurse untied the mouth fitting, one holding his head steady as another started to withdraw the endotracheal tube. Steve’s chest jerked once then settled again.
“We should let them clean him up, come on Tony, we’ll get some food and come back in half an hour.” Rhodey tugged on his shoulder slightly, but he held his ground.
“I want to stay with him.” His voice sounded ragged and he wondered vaguely if it was the first time he’d spoken that day. The only person he wanted to speak to was lying still on the hospital bed, finally breathing for himself, but not conscious.
They left him there in the end, sitting beside the bed, fingers curled around Steve’s after the nurses had gone. He looked peaceful, like he could be asleep, just asleep, nothing else. That was ignoring the plaster that encased a broken back, the healing burn on his right leg, and bruises that had since faded, but he remembered where they’d all been.
He didn’t want to think about what would happen if Steve could never walk again. The doctors said there was a slight possibility that he’d regain the use of his legs. But it was only slight, and would take hours, days, weeks, months of physiotherapy and rehabilitation work to achieve that outcome.
He’d drawn up plans for it, to convert a large part of the gym at his house into a rehabilitation area, taken the designs from the most renowned in the world, and could, would, have a construction team come and install it the moment Steve agreed to come live with him. He’d looked through piles of résumés to try and find the perfect rehabilitative physiotherapist, and narrowed it down to ten people he’d contact to meet Steve if that was what Steve wanted.
He’d do anything for Steve, whatever he wanted, even install a white picket fence—sans lasers,—if Steve wanted him to. If Steve would just wake up and tell him.
He’d let Steve go, so he could find a nice girl and start a family, even though it would kill him to see his beautiful blue-eyed boy leave.
But he’d do it, if Steve would just wake up.
He could hear Steve moving around the tent, shuffling around pulling clothes on and he wanted to tell him to get his gorgeous arse back into bed, to come back and cuddle up with him, but Steve’s hand was gentle on his shoulder, slowly shaking him to wake up.
The hand disappeared and there was a moment of stillness before he felt Steve’s breath against his neck and the scratch of stubble against his shoulder. He could feel that Steve was already wearing his motorbike pants and a t-shirt, but he still settled back onto the mattress and snuggled back up to him.
“You should get up.” Steve mumbled against his shoulder, arm looping around his waist, fingers splaying out over his stomach. “I have to start in half an hour.”
He laid his hand over Steve’s and laced their fingers together. “I want to stay here with you.”
Steve’s lips curved into a smile against his shoulder. “C’mon, you can’t. Time to get up.”
“Stubborn little shit. Alright, alright.” Despite saying it he didn’t move, and it was half a surprise that Steve didn’t either. He was awake, he just didn’t really want to be, because being awake meant his brain was already working overtime, churning over and over all the data it had been fed lately, and it kept going back to one point, well two points, but one pushed more urgently at his mind than the other. The proposals were becoming a bit of a lark, so he could deal with that. “Do you really want the picket fence and all that? I mean, kids, is that something you really want?”
Steve tensed beside him, not breathing for nearly a minute before exhaling all in a rush. “I don’t know, Tony, it was always a one day thing. Get married, have some kids, look after my mum. She’s gone now. Still, it’d be nice, wouldn’t it? Having someone to take care of. Don’t you want kids?”
It hadn’t been something he’d ever thought about, not in any depth. He’d never settled down long enough, never had the chance. There’d been women occasionally, who he thought he could make a life with, but all those relationships had come to an end. And he didn’t really need a family of his own, not when he could live vicariously through Pepper’s family. “I’ve got Maddie.”
Steve rolled over, leaving him suddenly cold as he stood up. “It’s not the same. But she’s a beaut kid. She adores you.”
“She adores you too. Think she likes you more than me. She’d adopt you first chance she got, if she knew that you wanted a kid. Could be part of the family too.” As the words left his mouth, he realised that that was what he really wanted. Steve, with him, for as long as he’d stick around. It wasn’t just a joking proposal. Those words, that sentiment, was probably the most sincere proposal he’d ever come out with.
“She the only one?” Steve dropped back down onto his knees beside the bed, shoving Tony a little more harshly in the shoulder. “C’mon, time to get up for real now. Only twenty minutes now.”
He rolled over, trying to grab Steve’s hand, but he was back on his feet again. He was getting too old for this; it was getting harder and harder to get up each morning, feeling the aches and pains from the previous day. It was better once he was on the bike, but those few minutes before getting up were the hardest. In those moments he’d do anything if Steve would just get back into bed and go back to sleep.
He barely had a chance to brace himself before he had an eight-year-old ball of red curls and freckles launch herself at him, arms around his neck, legs around his waist, clinging like a limpet.
“Hey there, Munchkin. How’s my best girl going?” He looped his arms around her and tried not to cling too tight in return, looking over Maddie’s shoulder to see Pepper walking towards them, looking so perfect and amazing in the world of tired, drawn out people they’d created around Steve’s hospital room. It’d been two and a half months since he’d seen either of them, and he hadn’t realised how much he’d missed Pepper, how much he needed her, until she was right there in front of him.
“How is he?” Pepper asked, leaning in around her daughter to press a kiss to his cheek. “I’d ask how you are but I don’t need to now that I’ve seen you. Look like you haven’t slept in a month.”
He hadn’t, not really. Fitful nights in the hospital bed, long hours hunched over in a chair beside Steve’s bed, and maybe a handful of nights back at the house Pepper had organised for them, but nothing substantial. “He’s still out. But he’s breathing by himself. They say the swelling on his brain is going down. But it could be a day or two more before he wakes up.”
He’d only stepped out of the room for a moment, when Happy had called him and said that Pepper and Maddie were on their way up, but now he was itching to get back into the room and make sure that Steve was still breathing. Pepper must have seen it in him, because she placed her hand on his shoulder, gently turning him around and letting him lead the way back to Steve’s room.
He tipped his head to rest against Maddie’s, shifting his grip to hold her a little more comfortably, and hoped his voice wouldn’t waver. “Hey sweetie, want to go see Steve?”
Maddie leant back, looking him in the eye and nodding jerkily.
He missed the innocence of childhood. “I just... Maddie, Munchkin, you need to understand that Steve’s been hurt. He’s still sleeping.”
Maddie’s brow creased, and not for the first time he thought how much she was going to look like her mother when she grew up, and she clutched the battered looking pink rabbit to her chest with one hand. “Is he going to wake up? Danny’s mum went to sleep last year and never woke up, she died and Danny cried a lot. I don’t want Steve to die.”
The words, from his gorgeous little god daughter, who should have been sweet and innocent, made him realise that it didn’t matter how much you tried to protect someone from the world, everyone was eventually effected by reality. He hadn’t been able to protect Steve. Hadn’t tried. He’d let it happen. Let the person he loved endanger himself, and didn’t even stop to think that something like this could ever happen. He was a genius, he had been in the game for nearly twenty years, he’d had his fair share of falls and broken bones, and seen plenty of others come and go. But Steve, Steve was something different. He had life in him like he’d never seen in any other rider, the natural instinct and reflex that stopped him from coming off the bike when even a more experienced rider would. He was young, but he’d been a natural, and fearless. Tony had resented that in him at first, that natural ease with which he could ride that others had to work for. Then he’d admired it, begrudgingly, until he forgot why Steve had gotten on his nerves in the first place, and instead he wanted him. Didn’t want to be Steve, he just wanted him, and somehow he’d gotten him. Only he didn’t take good enough care of him, and nearly lost him. He could still lose him.
“No, sweetie, he isn’t going to die.” Pepper stepped up beside him, catching both him and Maddie in her arms and holding on, and he knew he’d been falling. “Steve is just sleeping. He’s hurt, and once he’s better, he’ll wake up.”
He felt like he was on autopilot after that, letting Pepper take her daughter back and lead them both into Steve’s room. He stood back and watched as Maddie stood close to the bed and tucked her Binky Rabbit in next to his pillow. He watched and listened as Maddie whispered to Steve, after Pepper had encouraged her to do so. She told him stories from school, and about all the pictures she’d drawn him. They were stories just for Steve, and it wasn’t until Pepper took his hand in hers that he realised his were shaking. He felt like an intruder, but more than that, he knew that it wasn’t only him that was going to suffer if Steve didn’t wake up. And that hurt more than it should have. He’d brought Steve into all their lives. And because he hadn’t taken good enough care of him, they all might lose him. He hadn’t warned Steve of the deceptions of the sand, hadn’t prepared him for it. Hadn’t thought to, because Steve was so strong, so invincible. So perfect. So broken. And it was his fault.
“See you at the next camp.” Steve whispered, helmet in hands, pausing just long enough to quickly kiss him before pulling it on.
“Not if I see you first.” He couldn’t resist smacking Steve on the arse as he turned towards his bike. “Though I think I’m keener for the showers than anything else.”
The next stop marked the halfway point of the race, only a hundred and sixty kilometres and they’d be at the makeshift town that represented the halfway point. Showers, proper dining halls and one night surrounded by something more solid than a tent.
Steve waved absently over his shoulder and said something that was muffled by the helmet. He didn’t bother catching up to find out what it was, just set about finishing preparing for his own start time.
The air was still as he cut through it, 3000 RPM sounding louder without the side wind to drag it away. There was only one set of tracks in front of him, snaking between marker posts, but he couldn’t get a good enough look at the how much sand had fallen back into them to determine how far behind Steve he was. They’d left fifty eight minutes and thirty nine seconds apart, and he had been pushing it a bit harder than usual in hopes of catching the younger man.
There was another marker post atop a dune about a kilometre north east of him, but he studied the flow of the dunes, gauged the possibilities and dropped down into the gully that ran east between two dunes. The bike jolted forward as the tyres found better traction on the hard packed earth between the ridges of sand. A few hundred metres up the gully curved to the north, and while he might have travelled further, he estimated he gained about five minutes overall, by the time he’d gotten a run up on the hard earth and hit the sandy incline with enough momentum to climb. He crunched the gears down a little too roughly when the revs dropped too quickly and his bike gave a splutter of protest.
The bike finally struggled over the crest of the dune, and as he let it get into slide down the other side, knees dug in tight, arms braced, elbows and shoulders locked and leaning back against the steep decline. He opened the throttle up on the last metre, relaxing his arms and letting his torso roll forward again with the motion of the bike. Fifty kilometres left, if the marker was in the right place.
As the ground levelled out again for a few dozen metres, he gave the bike’s petrol tank an affectionate pat. He couldn’t wait for a decent workshop with a cement pad to do a proper overhaul on his bike. The poor thing could do with a once over with compressed air, just to get all the dust out. He promised the bike a new air filter before the next leg, before leaning forward, low, and clicked up another gear.
The odometer had clicked over another ten kilometres when he spotted Steve stopped and off his bike. As he drew closer he could see the younger man hunched over the back of the bike, helmet off and slowly rocking the bike back and forwards as he tried to work the chain back onto the sprocket.
The camaraderie between riders begged him to pull over and help, but help was time, and time he didn’t have. He’d been at the top the game until Steve came along, and while he begrudgingly admitted he was past being as good as Steve, he’d take any little victory when he could.
He waved as he went past and he was pretty sure he earned a one finger salute in response.
He let Steve reassert his dominance that night, or maybe it was how much he liked getting manhandled by the younger man that lead to Steve fucking him in the shower, pinned against the wall, legs wrapped around hips, hands clinging to broad shoulders. The water cascaded down over them, making grip and balance precarious, but Steve had one hand hooked under his left thigh, the other braced against the wall, muscles strained and defined. It wasn’t the first time that he really had to appreciate having a younger, stronger lover. He knew he’d feel it in the morning, but the hot water and endorphins were doing wonders for all his aches. He held on, feeling the shift and drag of Steve inside him, the sharp wave of pleasure that rolled through him with every brush of his prostate. Steve’s eyes fluttered closed and he couldn’t help but get mildly distracted by the way his eyelashes fanned across his cheeks, clinging together damply, until he was brought back to the moment by the change in Steve’s pace, and he knew it’d be over soon. He held tight, mouth against Steve’s shoulder, teeth worrying skin and sucking bruises there to stake his claim. Steve was his, his beautiful blue-eyed boy, and he was Steve’s.
He could hear Steve breathing, by himself, after a six weeks on the ventilator. Hear his heartbeat through the mechanical beep from the monitors. He could smell the faint traces of soap on Steve’s forearm from where the nurses had bathed him half an hour before. He reached up, brushing fingers over Steve’s cheek gently, feeling the soft, freshly shaved skin. He’d shaved Steve before, under the nurse’s supervision, careful strokes with the razor, terrified that he’d hurt Steve again. Pepper and Bucky had encouraged him, telling him over and over that Steve would want him to do it.
He wanted Steve to look nice for when he woke up. Because it was going to be a when, not an if. It’d been two days since they’d taken the ventilator off. Two days of Steve breathing on his own, and he wasn’t sure when the little achievements had become such huge milestones. And it would stay that way when Steve woke up. The physio, the rehab, the possibility that Steve would never walk again. He didn’t want to think about Steve never getting to ride again, never walk, never get to piggyback Maddie around. There’d be no more early morning runs together, no supporting each other staggering back to the hotel celebrating the end of the racing season. No more sex.
It felt terrible to think that, to make that important, his own wants and needs important when Steve was lying there, still in a coma. It was Steve who might never walk again. Not him. It was his fault anyway. Steve had been going too fast because he wanted to win the next leg, regain his lead. If he’d stopped and helped him with the chain Steve wouldn’t have been pushing it so hard.
It was his fault. He didn’t get to feel sorry for himself.
Steve’s cheek twitched slightly beneath his fingers, and he was up out of the chair so fast his head spun. There was no movement, not that he could see, Steve’s eyes were closed, face relaxed. But it wasn’t the same as though he was sleeping, no matter what Pepper had said to Maddie, it wasn’t the same.
“Hey gorgeous,” His throat hurt when he pushed the words out, he’d hardly spoken in the six weeks since the accident, something he was sure Steve would never believe. They kept telling him to talk to Steve, but he hated doing it when other people were around. “I miss you, sweetheart, fuck I miss you. You’re right here, but it’s not right. I need you to wake up and tell me that I’m being stupid, but I miss you.”
There was a slight tremor in Steve’s fingers, the smallest movement against the palm of his hand. It was marginal, but it was the first movement he’d felt from Steve the whole time. He thought he was imaging it at first, the fluttering of Steve’s eyelids, wanted to see it so much his eyes were deceiving him. But it happened again, not opening, but a rapid blink.
Steve’s fingers curled, catching his and holding on, grip weak, but that didn’t matter.
He could hear himself calling out to Bucky, Pepper, anyone, because he couldn’t make himself move away from Steve’s side. There was that tiny spark of hope, for the first time in over a month, that it’d be over soon, that Steve would wake up and they could tackle the next hurdle together.
Bucky skidded into the room, with Pepper and a nurse close behind. He turned to tell them what happened, but the words wouldn’t form. Steve’s fingers tightened on his and when he turned back Steve’s eyes were open, barely focused, but he still knew he was watching him.
He could hear the rev of the bike’s engine, thrumming and pulsing like a heartbeat. The energy of the bike, tyres gripping and pushing through the sand didn’t compliment the ache in his legs and shoulders. He could still see the haze of Steve’s dust in front of him, from when he’d roared past, pushing it too hard to try and regain the lead he’d lost the day before. He grinned at the memory. One stage out of the whole race was a victory against someone like Steve Rogers.
He crested another sand dune, and he wasn’t sure when it hit him exactly how wrong the scene before him was. The bike was sliding freely down the other side of the dune, out of control because he couldn’t get his hands and feet to work, couldn’t brake, didn’t have the presence of mind to.
He could see Steve’s familiar colours up ahead, but they weren’t moving. It was wrong, so wrong. The angles weren’t right, and he was still over a kilometre away when it sunk in what was wrong.
He could hear his voice, calling over the radio, barely audible over the rev of his engine as he pushed the bike harder. He was talking, calling the emergency support vehicle, calling Happy and Bucky over the radio without even knowing what he was saying.
He killed the engine with a jab of his thumb on the button, and dropped the bike carelessly, not even thinking about the hours he’d spent cleaning her out the night before. Steve’s bike was five metres away, engine still spluttering, back wheel spinning, spitting up sand but going nowhere. The front forks were bent, spokes crumpled and rim flattened from impact.
“Steve?” The name wrenched itself from his throat, helmet thrown behind him as he forced his legs to comply and push him through the sand. “Rogers, c’mon, talk to me!”
He wanted to hear Steve’s voice, hear him tell him to stop panicking and just pick the bike up off of him, but no voice answered him. The bikes engine finally spluttered and died, cutting off and the chain locking up the tyre to stop its senseless spinning.
Five metres felt like kilometres, every step never getting him any closer to Steve’s bike, then he was stumbling over gouged out sand, tripping over his own feet and tyre tracks. Steve was there, right leg pinned beneath the bike, left hooked over the rear mudguard at an old angle. His torso was twisted, back almost flat against the sand, one arm trapped beneath him.
His hands fumbled, gloves discarded onto the sand as he searched frantically for apulse on the wrist he could reach, fingers snaking beneath the face guard of Steve’s helmet, desperate for the exhale of air against his skin. “Steve, baby, can you hear me?”
Steve groaned, fingers of his free hand flexing, and he couldn’t help the flood of relief that washed through him, already calling over the radio, taking coordinates from the GPS on Steve’s bike and relaying their position.
“Help’s on its way, Steve, it’s okay, you’re okay, it’s all going to be okay.” He couldn’t keep the frantic, desperate tone out of his voice, couldn’t stop the way his heart was hammering.
“Fuck… Tony?” Steve’s voice was barely there, thin and pained. “It hurts. Helmet. Get it off.”
He couldn’t, knew not to, the risk of a neck injury was too great. “You got to keep it on, sweetheart, you know that. Should get this bike off you though.”
Steve’s hand curled around his wrist, fingers gripping tight as his breathing shallowed. “Can’t feel it. Tony. Bike. I can’t feel. Fuck. I can’t, legs.”
His heart froze in his chest, the cold gripping his whole body. “No, no, don’t say that Steve, don’t say that shit. You’re okay, you’re fine, you’re not allowed to be not fine. Steve, keep talking to me. I need to move your bike, just keep talking to me, sweetheart, just let me know you’re alright.”
Steve’s left leg moved like there was no life left in it, loose and boneless, and he was almost grateful that Steve said he couldn’t feel it, sure that he was only hurting it further as he manipulated it until it wasn’t hooked over the bike any more. Sand skidded beneath his feet, muscles straining in his back and shoulders as he tried to lift the bike off of Steve. He couldn’t just lift it part way and expect Steve to move out from underneath it, and not for the first time, he cursed the fact that the younger man had to have a bigger and heavier bike than his.
The smell hit him as he finally got the bike upright, the smell of hot engines and exhaust and burning fabric. The gut churning smell of seared flesh. The inside leg of Steve’s pants was scorched through, ragged charred edges outlining angry red blistering flesh where the heat of the exhaust pipe and the weight of the bike had combined to defeat the purpose made reinforced fabric. Blood seeped through the less damaged skin, too burnt to bleed at the centre of the damage.
He couldn’t hear Steve’s voice anymore, although he was sure he was still murmuring curses and quite gasps of pain. He couldn’t hear the sound of the chopper approaching, even though he could see the sand whipping up around it. He could only hear his heart, pounding in his ears, choking him as it lodged in his throat and it wouldn’t end.
“It’s not so bad is it, Uncle Steve? You might have wheels all the time now, Uncle Tony said, said you might end up in a wheelie chair, and they’re pretty cool, right? Like being stuck on your bike all the time.”
He heard Maddie’s voice as it escaped through the partially opened door, excited chatter probably too much for Steve to even keep up with. He stood just out in the hallway, catching glimpses of Pepper’s hair as she moved about the room, efficient and ruthless in organising and reorganising Steve’s flowers and get well wishes every few moments, because she couldn’t just stand still and listen to her daughter talking. He watched and listened, but couldn’t quite bring himself to go back inside that room.
It had been a week since the moment Steve’s eyes had first opened again. A week of tests and doctors, scans and three hourly observations. A week of getting in the way while he refused to leave Steve’s side, of watching Steve slip in and out of consciousness again and again; alert and lucid one moment, before his eyes would close again and he’d sleep for hours. A week of talking all the time, even when no one was there to listen to him, telling Steve over and over that he needed to stay awake a little longer, that he was sorry, that he just wanted him to stay awake and be okay.
It had been a long week, of Rhodey and Happy manhandling him out of the room and into a bed so he’d get some sleep of his own. Until Steve was awake more often than not, and other people were in and out of his room to visit him. Until the press started camping outside the hospital wanting a statement from someone, and they’d gotten more than they’re bargained for when Bucky had finally approached them. Until the guilt and the panic of seeing Steve awake but still bed ridden was too much from him to handle and he’d slipped out of the room the night before and hadn’t been able to bring himself to go back in there again.
Hearing Maddie’s words didn’t lessen his guilt. Didn’t make the panic unclench from where it was trying to strangle his heart.
The doctors said that there was a chance that Steve would never walk again, but they couldn’t determine one hundred per cent either way until Steve was able to start extensive rehabilitative physiotherapy.
“Guess four wheels wouldn’t be so bad.” Steve’s voice was still too light, too frail, but the layer of happiness he’d spread over the words was almost seamless, good enough to fool an eight year old.
He jumped when an elbow dug into his side, jerking around to look at Bucky who stood there glaring at him. Words bubbled up this throat, snide remarks and the fight reflex strong, but he squashed them back down again, knowing full well that he deserved the look he was getting.
“Thought you’d done a runner, Stark.” Bucky kept his voice low, obviously not wanting the occupants of the room to hear them. “You stuck around the whole time only to flake when he was finally awake enough to realise you weren’t there. He asked for you, you know, last night. Woke up several times, and it was you he was looking for, and instead he had to make do with me and Sam.”
He didn’t know how to answer that. He knew, when he’d left the hospital, that he was abandoning Steve when he most needed him. That hadn’t stopped him from going back to the house everyone had been staying at and locking himself away in the garage with the bent and broken remains of Steve’s bike. He’d wanted to drink so badly, but there wasn’t anything in the garage and he wasn’t desperate enough to start drinking methylated spirits. He had wanted to destroy the bike even more than it already was, punish it for so very nearly taking Steve away from him. But it hadn’t. Steve was in hospital, alive, breathing, awake. He couldn’t bring himself to destroy it, so he ended up working through the night trying to restore it, with the very basic tools that he found in that garage.
“Didn’t think you’d have anything to say for yourself.” Bucky shook his head, clearly disappointed, before knocking lightly on the door and beckoning to Pepper.
He could hear Pepper and Maddie saying goodbye to Steve, but he felt like he was on autopilot as he smiled at Pepper when she passed and patted Maddie on the head when she wrapped her arms tightly around his waist.
He should have expected it when Bucky gripped his shoulder too hard and pushed him harshly towards the open door. “You make him wait any longer, or have Sam come up with another excuse as to where you are, Stark, I’ll have no hesitation messing up that pretty face of yours. I don’t care how much he loves you.”
He stepped through the door because he didn’t have a choice; Bucky’s hand on his shoulder was insistent until he was inside the door and then let go with one final sharp push. He wasn’t going to run away, even if Bucky hadn’t been there, he wouldn’t have run away from Steve, not again.
Steve lay in the bed, face turned towards the window, eyes closed and for a moment he thought Steve was asleep, if not for the tension he could see in his jaw. He walked across the room, stopping short a few feet of the edge of the bed. Half of him wanted to surge forward, to touch Steve and hold onto him for fear that he’d slip away. The other half was still screaming at him to get out of there, that somehow it’d be better for everyone if he did.
Steve’s eyes cracked open, blinking once, then twice, opening wider the second time. The corners of his mouth tugged up, expression artificially relaxed in a way that only morphine seemed to achieve. “Hey Stark.”
The sound of Steve’s voice made something crack inside his chest, a strangled whine hitching in the back of his throat as he blinked rapidly to try and clear his eyes. Dragging a hand over his face and back through his hair, probably a complete mess and filled with grease and dust, he tried to let himself smile, feeling it fragile and wavering on his lips. “Hey Rogers. Had ‘em all worried there for a while. Wilson cried.”
Steve’s smile slid off his face, eyebrows pulling down, face becoming pinched and pained that he wanted to reach out and smooth away. “You weren’t here.”
The accusation hung in the air and he didn’t know what to say to make it better. He left; there was no two ways around it. He left after Steve woke up, when Steve probably needed him the most.
“Bucky said you were here the whole time, they had to drug you to get you to sleep, you hated being dragged away.” Steve’s voice hiccupped over the last word, emotions running riot over his face. “And then you left.”
He wanted to protest that it had only been for a night, but the words wouldn’t come. The guilt still roiled inside him, reminding him with every heartbeat that he’d abandoned Steve the night before. There was a half resorted bike and oil stains around his fingernails to attest to that. Different words choked in his throat, tasting like heat and sand and exhaust fumes. Like disinfectant and bad, cold coffee. “I’m here now.”
Steve nodded in acknowledgement, fingers twitching against the cotton blanket and he had to suppress the urge to reach out and take Steve’s hand. “Yeah, you are.”
Silence stretched out, broken apart with the steady beep of the heart rate monitor, the slight buzz of the overhead lights and the snatches of noise and voices from outside the room. He wanted to say something, to fill the silence, to reassure Steve that he wouldn’t leave again, that he was there for good, that whatever came next, they’d do it together. He even opened his mouth a few times, but there weren’t any words, because part of him was still frozen in fear. Fear that Steve would blame him for what happened. That Steve might not want him to stick around.
“Did you mean it?”
He snapped his gaze back to Steve, finding blue eyes staring at him intently, questioning and a fraction nervous, and he had to try to drag up memories of what he might have said that Steve was referring to.
Steve glanced away, eyes sliding over to the window, before they came back again, almost involuntarily. “What you said in the helicopter. Did you mean it? Seriously. Not just joking that time?”
He nodded, remembering exactly what he’d said since the words had been rattling around in his head since he’d said them.
Steve didn’t look away that time, naked fear etched into his expression, eyes a little too wide but filled with a fierce determination. “That offer still open? Given everything, I’ll understand if it’s not. I’m not that much of a catch anymore, not like this.”
It felt like something cracked open in his chest, his heart pounding, vicious and alive and desperate to prove to Steve that it didn’t matter what happened, what the outcome was, the offer would always stand. His throat was empty of words, so he just nodded again.
The relief on Steve’s face was instantaneous, lips curling into a shaky smile, blinking too rapidly for it to be anything but an attempt to not cry. “Before you get any ideas, the answer is yes.”
“C’mon Steve, sweetheart, keep your eyes open, you need to keep your eyes open, just keep looking at me, please?” The words tumbled out of his mouth, like the hundreds before them along the same vein. Begging and pleading and sometimes bribing Steve to keep looking at him. The noise of the chopper drowned out half of them, the thrum of the engine and the revolution of the rotor steady and constant and vibrating through his body until he felt almost numb.
They’d taken the helmet off of Steve, his neck braced instead, and they let him sit at Steve’s head and keep talking to him while he tried to be useful by holding the bag hooked up to the IV. He held the bag up and stroked his fingers through Steve’s hair and tried to ignore how much his hands were shaking.
They’d arrived with a backboard, shifting Steve off of the sand and on to that while he whimpered and groaned and kept asking for them to take his helmet off because he couldn’t breathe. The paramedics and emergency response team members said that it was shock, mostly, and his childhood of asthma, rather than anything constricting his airways. They’d removed the helmet all the same, but only once his neck was in a brace, and Tony’d had to bite his tongue and stop himself from asking what was the fucking point when Steve had already pointed out that he couldn’t feel his legs. That was just the fear and panic talking, so he bit down on it and ground it between his teeth like sand grit and tried not to think about the sounds Steve was making or the smell of burnt flesh.
“Steve, baby, babe, come on, keep talking to me, I need to know you’re going to be okay. You have to be okay.” He could taste the salt of his own sweat, and probably tears too, if he was going to be honest. The heat and grit of the sand and wind as it buffeted around the chopper. His own panic tight in his throat. The last thing Steve had said was a mumbled protest when they’d cut away his pants, complaining that they were expensive and he couldn’t afford another pair.
“Steve?” His throat closed around the words that he wanted to say, but he pushed on, ignoring the fact other people where there and he needed to talk loud enough for Steve to hear him. “Steve, sweetheart, you need to open your eye and let me know you’re okay. You need to be okay. I love you, you stupid reckless bastard. Don’t you get that? Stay with me, Steve, and I promise I’ll marry you, no joking around this time, serious, I promise, I mean it. You be okay, and we’ll get married and have the picket fence and everything. You won’t ever be treated like a trophy wife because you’re so much more than that. Marry me, Steve, please? I don’t want to do this without you.”
Steve’s eyes didn’t open. It felt like his heart had cracked open in his chest. It tasted like the desert. Like sand and heat and exhaust fumes and regret and desperation. It tasted like sweat and tears, tight and painful in the back of his throat. And he prayed to a god he didn’t believe in to look out for Steve and that he couldn’t have him just yet. He focused on Steve’s breathing and prayed that it would all get better.
He could taste the disinfectant in the air, the cool of the air conditioning. Hear the slightly heightened beep of the heart rate monitor and his own pulse pounding in his ears. He could see Steve, lying there, encased in plaster and so much uncertainty around whether he’d ever get to walk again. But Steve was staring at him with wide blue eyes, blush starting to creep up his cheeks, waiting and expecting some sort of reaction, and he thought he never wanted to look away again.
“Thank Christ.” The words tumbled out, desperate and relived, half a laugh, half a sob. “Was starting to think you’d never say yes. Wasn’t even sure you heard all of that.”
Steve’s face relaxed, the tension draining out of him and the noise he made was strangled relief and excitement. “I heard. Told you, you just needed to come up with a better proposal.”