The Commander is in Liberia with his SHIELD team waiting for extraction when his sat phone turns itself on and rings.
“Where the fuck are you,” he barks into the speaker, because they’re over an hour late, no call-in, nothing.
Except it isn’t SHIELD, it’s Happy, Happy sounding like he’s shouting into the receiver, and then Rhodey with a give me that and speaking in that voice he reserves for his men, and for Tony when Tony has done something unforgivable.
Rhodey says: “When are you coming back?”
“Whenever my support team shows up,” Steve snorts. “This isn’t secure, Jim, you know that-”
Rhodey says, “Ok, you need to listen to me,” and Steve puts down his assault rifle and sits on a moldy wooden crate and braces himself.
Rhodey won’t tell give him specifics beyond ‘Tony is in the hospital’ and ‘potentially serious’ before he backpedals and tells him it’s probably nothing, he’s always had an arrhythmia, even when they were at MIT, pretty common, just doing some tests.
Steve has been seeing through people’s bullshit since 1918, and tells Rhodey so.
“I think this is between you and Tony,” he keeps saying, but Tony won’t take the fucking phone call, so Commander Stark just stands there on the sat phone while his team waits, just looks at the useless piece of plastic in his hand.
He wants to scrap the mission, but Steve has never really gotten what he wants, so a few reckless decisions and accidental deaths later, their recon is done and there are no AIM prisoners to interrogate. Steve gets home a day earlier than expected and Tony meets him at the door, hospital tag still around his wrist, shuffling his feet, his face sallow and quiet and ashamed.
“What the hell,” Steve says. “What the hell, Tony.”
Tony doesn’t stare him down, doesn’t fight, doesn’t even tell him he was inordinately shitty to Rhodey.
“Yeah,” Tony says, his voice breaking on the end of it, and Steve’s anger melts away, because Tony toes up to wrap his arms around Steve. “So I have this heart thing.”
Steve’s anger doesn’t evaporate, just stacks and folds and collapses into a tight parcel that settles deep in his stomach. He can table the ugly things he wants to shout at Tony, why didn’t you fucking call me and why didn’t you tell me and why aren’t you ok.
Tony grasps at his shirt, weakly, fits his head into the crook of Steve’s neck.
Steve goes mad with it.
Tony is talking, explaining about the valve that regurgitates blood and the way the walls of his heart aren’t thick enough and Steve is back in the cold, back on the train, back feeling his hand go from tight in Bucky’s to empty, because that’s how his life happens, he loves people and they leave, his mother left, Bucky left and if it’s one thing this century has given him it’s the clarity to know he doesn’t deserve it.
He feels like drowning but that’s impossible, there’s solid ground under his feet and a man who loves him just as much as Steve loves him back.
His chest is a vise, because how is he expected to do this? He knows what it feels like. The all-alone, the forever stretching on and on in front of him, alone, again.
There’s no ice this time, but he’s freezing and cold and he can’t do that again. He won’t, he won’t, he won’t –
“Steve,” Tony is saying. “Steve, hey, it’s gonna be fine. I’m fine.” Steady as a heartbeat.
- - -
If he tries, Steve can still smell the antiseptic of the room where he woke up after the ice, can smell the heady wash of Tony Stark’s cologne. The dumb way his mouth smirked up into a grin, the eyes. The eyes. Tony sharpened the world for him and washed the past into a dull blur, a faraway dream.
Maybe he shouldn’t have let this happen. Maybe he shouldn’t have let himself fall in love so quickly. He twists his wedding band on his finger and wonders if there’s anything he can do to quell the burgeoning resentment curling in his belly. Did the serum do that, too? Has he gone soft? Was he always sharp edges or is this a consequence of existing out of time?
Tony was so willing, so beautiful and strong and cocksure and he was so lost, and there they were, two opposite polarities orbiting around each other until they snapped together.
Tony says “I’m fine,” and there was a time Steve would have been able to decide to believe with all his heart.
“Where the hell is Captain America,” Tony screams at him. “Where’s the hero, Steve, work up some fucking optimism because I am fucking scared.”
Steve puts on a face and smiles. You’re right, he says, even though all he has left of Captain America these days is a bitter shell that Tony has somehow managed to crawl inside and warm. You’re right.
The second time, Steve is home. He works from a desk now. He thinks he should want it more than he does. He would have killed for the safety of a walnut-paneled room, mounds of paperwork, scads of bureaucrats to manage when he was bullet-catching in Nazi-occupied Germany. And that was another life, Howard likes to remind him. Long ago, far away.
His life is Tony, now, and Tony’s life is being stolen out from under him.
Steve has to carry Tony into the elevator and sit there, Tony’s head in his lap on the helicopter pad while he nudges aspirin into Tony’s mouth to chew.
The rest of it, the ride in the helicopter, the way Tony’s face gets paler and paler, the way they have to drain one of his lungs and his hand goes slack in Steve’s fades into a nightmarish blur.
He’s so cold.
He doesn’t even remember most of the hospital. He’s miles away, years away and back, he is thinking of all the times he’s had to hold someone as their body failed. The memories crawl up like worms, the smell of blood and the desperate feeling of not enough and too late. Tony is being wheeled through sliding doors and Steve can run a two minute mile but he staggers against the wall because all he can think about is the soft sound someone’s heart makes when it slows and dies and stops beating for good.
This isn’t that. This is sterile, there’s no mud, no rubble, no stinging smell of gunfire, no bleeding into an ice floe in the perfect stillness of the Arctic wasteland. It’s 2012. There are solutions for this now. People don’t die from heart attacks. They can fix him. They have penicillin and machines and nanotechnology.
Howard tells him hope is easier to come by in this day and age. Sky’s the limit.
Howard’s never lost a fucking thing in his life.
- - -
“I get it,” Tony snaps. He’s picking his way through an enormous plate of sushi. He orders the entire menu every time they order in. The delivery girl has to balance the bag under her chin just to get in the door. He tells Steve he’s entitled; his pleasures are fewer and fewer with the DOD breathing down his neck and his heart –
“If you don’t want to be there for my appointments, it’s – whatever, Steve. Would I like you to be there? Yes. Will I live if you don’t shuffle your missions around?” He runs a hand over his face and it seems all the will rushes out of him at once.
Steve still smells like the plane, like the airport, like the AIM base he’s been building his cover in for the past 3 months. It’s true; he can’t call Tony selfish for wanting him here. Pepper isn’t his partner. Pepper can run his company but no one can make Tony do anything.
At least, that used to be the case.
“I have work,” Steve says evenly, and if it’s a half-truth, Tony’s been telling him half-truths from the start, hasn’t he. He has people to extort. He can’t even help himself from looking at his watch; he’s due back at the airport in 2 hours. “We said that we would make the distance thing work, Tony–”
“Yeah, I know,” Tony sighs. He sits down. He’s not even going to push the point.
Steve blinks. “That’s it,” he says incredulously. “That’s – really?”
Tony pushes his sushi around and finally just sets down his chopsticks entirely. “What do you want me to say, Steve,” he sighs.
“I want you to get angry about the tear in your heart,” Steve says, because he is, because it’s been brimming in his bones and seething in him and he can’t fucking stand it, Tony sleeping until noon and outsourcing his contracts and Tony sliding into this pathetic wan shade of himself. “I want you to be pissed about this, Tony, I want you to decide that you’re gonna beat this, ok–”
“I’m tired,” Tony says. He steadies himself with a hand on the back of the sectional, leans over the back to kiss Steve on the cheek.
Steve has a thousand barbs for that: for someone so concerned with appearances, he’s doing a shit job of sticking himself together with glue. Where’s his genius now. Where’s the guy on the cover of Forbes. Why won’t he fix himself, why won’t he let them install the pacemaker? Why doesn’t he work with that asshole Richards on a solution instead of fucking away every waking hour playing chess like a useless old man?
Tony’s not chasing a solution. Steve thinks he would take anything at this point. A fight. Sex, though that happens less and less these days the way it used to. Tony won’t do it, won’t tell him he’s being an asshole, won’t tell him to leave, won’t work up the energy to walk out of the room himself.
“Of course you are,” Steve says under his breath.
Tony’s face flickers into hurt for an instant before he spackles a tired smile over it. Just like that, it’s gone.
“Go back to work, Steve,” Tony says. “People need you.”
Steve is working on how to tell him he doesn’t know how to exist in a world without Tony when Tony collapses in the hallway.
- - -
Steve smells like body odor and hasn’t shaved in two days and goes into the hallway to listen to some asshole doctor tell him that Tony needs a new heart and there’s a goddamn waiting list. Survival rate, she says. No alcohol. She says other words, exertion and stress and The Best Care.
“He’s Tony Stark,” Steve all but screams, which is a line he’s never used before but god help him, he’s going to be using it for the rest of Tony’s life. “He’s – fuck,” he says, more to himself than to her. He scrubs his hands over his face. He’s so tired of this.
“Lower your voice, Mr. Stark,” she snaps right back. “As important as he is to you, so are all the other people on that list.”
“Why can’t you do anything,” he says. “There’s always something else, what else is there-”
She smiles a sad smile. “This is it. He needs the transplant, he’s not in a good place for eligibility unless you can get him to go through with the apheresis. Not unless you have a clone up your sleeve,” the doctor says. She stands on her toes to pat him on the shoulder.
Something in him comes permanently untethered.
Steve smiles. He manages actual tears. “Thank you,” he says, without argument or rancor.
She leaves. Her errand is done; she has other people to douse with sobering news.
Steve throws his coffee in the trash and goes home to take a shower.
- - -
At some point it gets away from him. Most things do. It’s why he was so effective. Why he has so many ribbons on his dress uniform.
“You’re chipper,” Tony says, and Steve laughs, giddy, kisses him on the cheek.
Why stop at a heart? Why risk it? Somewhere, Reed Richards tells him over a cup of coffee, there’s a Steve that died in the war. There is a Steve that lived to marry Margaret Carter. There is a Steve and there is a Tony and somewhere, in some universe, they’re fine.
“I just love you,” Steve says.
They can be fine.
- - -
Tony can’t go too fast, can’t gorge himself on the shit he used to eat, can’t fly across the country to Malibu whenever he has an itch. There’s a wire sticking out of his stomach now, with a controller and a battery pack.
Tony hates it. He puts up a good show for about a week and then he won’t take his shirt off anymore. He designs a special pouch that sits around his waist and hides the fact that his life is resting in a little box.
Steve catches him sometimes, watches him looking down at his stomach cradling the thing in his hands. Watches him cry and rage and stare out the window like he’s evacuated temporarily.
The SHIELD contracts pile up.
What are you doing, Steve wants to scream. He doesn’t understand. I’ve been dead, he wants to snarl. He knows what a death sentence looks like. Don’t you dare make me watch, he thinks. Not you, too.
“I’m leaving, Tony,” Steve says, his voice carefully neutral, poking his head into their bedroom. The helicopter is landing in 10 minutes. He shrugs into his holster, tugs at the shoulder strap. It’s 4 p.m. Tony hasn’t been out of bed today. “Shouldn’t take more than a few hours, ok?”
Tony just watches him from where he’s curled on his side.
“Be safe, Steve” Tony says, his voice weirdly flat. He closes his eyes. Slips away to wherever it is he goes now.
- - -
It’s a bad week. One of Tony’s missiles blows up an entire squadron of Special Forces in Afghanistan, and Tony takes the opportunity to take it personally. The tower is crawling with reporters, so Tony’s response is to sleep it off and hope it goes away.
Rhodey stops by and almost immediately defaults to “call Pepper.”
Pepper shows up and strides right past Steve with nothing more than a glare, into their bedroom. She sits on the edge of the bed and pets his hair or whatever the fuck it is she does at times like these.
She ends up staying the rest of the month, and Tony makes the decision to dissolve SI West entirely.
“It’s not because of this,” he insists. He signs the legal documents that transfer most of his shares in the remaining conglomerate to Pepper. He keeps what Howard left him last year.
It’s a setback. Tony’s access to SHIELD is more limited, now, but he’s clever enough that he’s irreplaceable, for them. The number of contracts he takes plummets, but he’s still thick as thieves with Maria Hill. Tony manages to work up some of his erstwhile charm and talks her into a deal for one of their training facilities in Florida that they abandoned when their budget got slashed along with everyone else’s.
“Why do we need this,” Tony says now, as he looks at the specs. “It’s in the Everglades, I hate Florida.”
“They’re not making more land,” Steve parrots Howard, working his hands around Tony’s shoulders. He’s never tense anymore, just as limp as he’s becoming spineless. “How about Indian for dinner,” Steve says.
“Yeah, whatever you want,” Tony says.
Tony hates Indian.
Pepper frowns at them from the couch. Steve winks at her, kisses the corner of Tony’s mouth.
- - -
It’s been some time since Steve has seen Tony in a suit. He’s thinner now, less bulky. He can’t train like he used to. Steve will never flip him onto a gym mat again. He’s no less attractive, objectively. He’s wearing a red shirt, some dark grey 3-piece thing. It’s an event. Steve’s noticing now, the way he actually showered, did his hair so it flips, dabbed cover-up under his eyes because the paparazzi drift around them like a gathering storm.
And dinner still goes poorly.
“I’m going to a support group,” Tony says, and Steve slips up.
“That’s great,” Steve says, and Tony wipes his mouth and puts his fork down.
“Could you possibly be any more patronizing,” Tony says.
It did sound patronizing.
“I’m not,” he says. “I mean it, Tony, that’s good, you should –”
Tony sucks in a shuddering breath.
“You know, I might believe you if you pretended to give a damn about me lately,” Tony says.
Steve almost chokes on the cauliflower he’s wolfing down. “Excuse me?” He’s better than his impulse control. He is, but the urge to say someone’s gotta pay for your treatment does over his tongue before he clamps his mouth shut. “There’s a lot going on right now,” he says instead. “I’ve been gone a lot, I know. They have me - A.I.M. is planning som–”
“Yeah, I know, 'the mission,' you’re addicted to adrenaline, whatever,” Tony says, and Steve is reminded that Tony is one of the smartest men in the world.
He has to do better.
“Wow,” Steve says, and angry isn’t a hard thing to conjure up. “Patronizing,” he repeats.
“You know what,” Tony says. “Fuck you.” He fumbles with his wallet, the beds of his nails paler and paler every day, comes up with a few hundreds, throws them on the table. Marches out to where Happy is parked, holding the wall for guidance as he goes.
Steve eats his Vindaloo. When he finishes, Happy hasn’t come back for him. He walks the nine blocks back to the tower.
- - -
He understands, now. He can’t treat him like a child; it’s too much of a tip-off. He never would have done that before, he can’t do it now. Explosive anger has never solved anything for him, either.
“Tony,” he says, and Tony is huddled into the sectional wrapped in a quilt. He’s been crying, because he does that often, now. Steve never knows what will trigger it, the torrent of helplessness he doesn’t know how to shut off.
“Do you want a divorce?” Tony asks.
Steve carefully pulls his suit jacket off, toes off his leather shoes, and leaves them under the coffee table. Slides in next to Tony, worms his arm around him under the quilt. He rubs Tony’s shoulder and kisses the crown of his head.
“I’d have to be crazy,” he murmurs. He thinks he passably pulls off repentance. “Talk to me,” he says.
Tony presses a hand over his belly, where his sleeve is, where his little controller sits and runs his heart.
“I don’t want to have the surgery,” he whispers. “I don’t, don’t be mad at me, just–”
“Tony,” Steve says, “You have to have the surgery. You have 34 days left on the list, you could get a match any day–”
“It just buys me time,” Tony says, for the thousandth time. They’ve talked it to death, and the conversation always ends the same way, because Tony’s fire is slowly burning out. It’s too easy to capitulate. Who could possibly argue with you, Steve, Tony had said once, when Tony still said things like that and he had the lungs to double over in laughter or shout at Steve until he was hoarse.
Steve is quiet for a long minute. “It’s your decision,” he says, and holds his breath.
Too amiable, maybe. Would he say that? Would Tony expect this from him? God, he doesn’t know.
Tony’s snuffling stills. “Do you actually mean that,” he says, low and sharp, “or are you just telling me what I want to hear again?”
So that’s it, then. Keep Tony happy, but not too happy. Just until – just until.
“I have an idea,” Tony says, tentative like he never used to be, it’s horrific. “I think – Reed had it, actually.”
Tony leans into his side; his hair still sticky-soft and his face smooth shaven. He tells Steve about Reed’s exploration, about what really happened to change his biology permanently. Parallel dimensions, Tony is saying. Some of the wonder comes back into his voice, just for a moment. He sounds like Asimov, he sounds like a dreamer again. They could have anything, Tony says. Think of the technology we don’t even know about. What if, he says, but he says it like he only half-believes it himself, like he wants to be closing his hand around something solid but all he’s getting is mist.
“You’re brilliant,” Steve says, and leans in to brush a kiss against Tony’s lips.
Tony tastes like cardamom and, faintly, curry. He kisses back, clumsy and slow and soft. There’s no room for fervor in their sex anymore. Tony would probably still call it lovemaking. No more Tony with his filthy mouth jumping Steve in the elevator. He’s mostly still, mostly quiet. His mouth is dry from the meds he’s on. He tries to catch his breath between Steve’s tongue nudging at his bottom lip and Steve’s rough hands stroking down Tony’s neck. Feels like claustrophobia, Tony had told him, once. Like he’s always drowning and there’s a 50-pound weight resting on his chest.
Steve doesn’t have the heart to tell him he doesn’t have a clue what drowning feels like.
Steve eases them to the wider part of the couch, one hand carefully on the small of Tony’s back, dips him like a woman and lays him down while Tony is still reaching for him. “Steve, ah,” Tony says. “I don’t, I don’t know if I can.”
He’s so bashful, now. Turns his head away, barely looks at Steve when they do this. Once upon a time it was like what you see and at attention, soldier, and tell me what you’ll do for me.
Tony lies there on the couch looking more apprehensive than enthusiastic, so Steve just strokes his hand down Tony’s thigh. “You don’t have to do anything,” Steve says. Tony’s face is still wet.
Steve’s good as his word. He undoes his tie while Tony watches, pulls it out, frees the first few buttons on his shirt. He slips down to his knees on the floor, bends to press an open-mouthed kiss to Tony’s neck, feels the flutter of his pulse under his tongue. Slides his broad hands down Tony’s sides – never his front, never his wretched chest or his stomach where the line emerges like some alien thing. He lets himself run his fingers through the wiry curls at the base of Tony’s cock, well shy of the wire where it dips down almost to his groin and curves up again.
Tony looks at the ceiling, searches blindly to thread his fingers through Steve’s hand. “You don’t have to do this,” he says quietly.
Steve nudges his cock out of the way, presses his mouth to Tony’s balls, sucks one of them into his mouth. Tony’s breath hitches. He passes a hand through Steve’s hair.
He’s had so many chances, Steve thinks, as he rolls Tony’s sac around in his palm, as he licks his way up to the head of Tony’s cock. He hasn’t been inside Tony for weeks. Months. The most they do is roll themselves together, if Tony is feeling up to it, if Tony can get over his issues long enough to hike up his shirt. No more fucking Tony on his hands and knees or over the counter or up against the wall, no more physical resolutions to their altercations.
Maybe it will be better to live like this, until. Until Steve can find a way to fix it. In carefully-fabricated bliss. Cohabitate, CEO Tony Stark and Commander Stark in the same space, ignoring the same holes as they gape wider and wider.
Tony doesn’t warn Steve when he’s coming. Steve keeps it in his mouth, crawls back up Tony’s body, carefully holds himself over Tony’s prone body without touching, without weight, kisses the taste of him right back into Tony’s mouth.
“I love you,” Tony says, when he’s caught his breath.
Steve isn’t even hard.
“I know,” Steve says, and hushes him, kisses him back until his mouth is red and swollen and Tony is falling asleep on his shoulder, still hanging out of his pants. He fixes that, pulls Tony’s underwear back up, eases his pants off, undoes his tie for him. That’s the tricky thing, these days, making sure his hands are always gentle. Conjuring Tony as he used to be, braver and stronger and less pathetic.
Steve pulls the quilt over them and nudges the temperature control up a few degrees.
“Can you please get Nat to take your mission,” Tony says without meeting his eyes.
Steve’s jaw clenches.
“Yeah, Tony,” he concedes. “I’m sorry. I’m here.”
“I miss you,” Tony says, shaking. “If I – I want you to be here. I want things to be like they used to be.”
Steve sighs, and does the only thing he knows how to do. Tony’s willing and somnolent, his mouth open and plush and made for Steve’s.
It won’t be like this in the morning, for either of them. It’s not going to be how it used to be.
- - -
Steve presses a kiss to Tony’s forehead. Creeps off the couch. He gathers their clothes, digs his dress shirt stained with Sue’s blood out of the hamper and pads through the suite, out the double doors, down the hallway and into the laundry room. Sits at the kitchen table and eats days-old cold lo mein out of the carton. Waits.
Maria calls him at two. “We got it,” she tells him, the roar of a copter in the background. “Your portal thing.”
- - -
“I don’t know how to do what you’re asking,” Reed says, his hands up, his monitors abandoned, the blue glow spooling over his face in the early hours before sunrise. “I don’t, AIM has been working on it for years, there’s a sizeable difference between looking at another universe and getting to it–”
Steve looks at his watch. The blackout gives him seven more minutes. More than enough. “Sue’s not on vacation, Reed,” he says, and digs in his pocket.
He pulls out the capsule, tosses it to Reed.
Reed slides it open and stares at the three fingers that roll out into his lap. One with Reed’s wedding band still on, two tiny thumbs.
“Proof of life,” Steve says. “As long as you lend your assistance to me with this project, I make sure they stay alive. Tony has some ideas about the portal. Of course, I trust you’ll keep this between us. SHIELD clearance, red tape, you know.”
Reed starts to cry, but he’s nodding.
“This is important, Richards,” Steve snaps. “Look at me.”
Reed looks at him, all fathomless hate and onerous betrayal. Steve thinks it’s more emotion than he’s ever seen from the man.
“Why is this so important,” Reed says.
“Because he’s Tony,” Steve says, stepping up, drawing himself up to every one of his six-foot-two inches. “He’s all I’ve ever had since I woke up in this fucking nightmare of a world. And I will burn it all down to save him.”
He thinks it’s convincing. It’s not technically a lie. Reed starts to cry.
Tony’s tears are intolerable enough.
Steve leaves. He’ll let this world burn.
There are others.