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the way thirst holds water

Chapter Text

 

Tony kisses Steve on a day when the sky is a vivid and cloudless bowl.

They're holding back an armada of metal arthropods in the Lower East Side when Steve misjudges a flight path and his shield careens out of the way, leaving him defenseless. A metal body slams into him and his body may as well be made of cardboard for all the good the serum does him; he has time to think that his body is literally being pulverized as he goes down. He feels a rib break, and then another. He is coughing blood. His vision swims before it starts going dark around the edges.

When the arthropod lifts into the air, Steve scrambles and his limbs fight for purchase on the broken concrete. A bone in his leg trembles, then cracks; a yell ricochets behind clamped lips, tearing at the lining of his throat. When he swallows hard, a coppery taste lingers on his tongue.

Then Tony is there and Steve’s chest fills with near-delirious relief; his body wilts where it lies as he forces his vision to focus. Tony is a red blur that hurtles through, carving a path through the wreckage. A metal scream rips through the air and Steve catches a glimpse of the repulsor beam slicing through before he closes his eyes, trying to remember how to breathe around the liquid in his lungs. He can’t remember the last time he’s been in such all-pervasive pain; it pounds at him like a sledgehammer now, fresh waves breaking through with every pulse.

He feels rather than sees Tony land next to him and disengage the suit. The armor cracks apart and crashes to the ground in pieces. Then, Tony’s hands are running over his body, probing for injuries. Steve registers somewhere in the back of his mind that Tony is being as gentle as he can, and the thought forces his eyes open. Tony is crackling electric, eyes wild as he stares at Steve. A spectacular bruise purples most of one cheek and Tony has bloodied his lip. Destruction blazes behind him; Steve thinks he can see Thor and Bruce in the distance tackling the flagship.

“Are you okay?” Tony demands, words pouring from him fast and low-pitched. “Can you get up? Your ribs are broken. Your left femur too. And maybe your arm. On second thought, scratch that, don’t get up. I’ve got a couple of medi-bots on the way. Don’t move.”

Steve nods shakily, shutting his eyes again. “Okay,” he gasps.

Tony takes a ragged, broken-sounding breath and swears. Steve wonders if he’s been injured too and is about to ask—then, a shadow falls across his face and the air is suddenly full of the cologne Tony douses himself with every morning.

Tony kisses him, fevered and sharp and arrogant. It is a kiss that suits Tony.

Steve’s eyes fly open; he reels back in surprise and succeeds in lodging a couple more shards of concrete into the back of his head. He is imagining this. He must be. Maybe he is concussed.

Tony straightens then, staring down at Steve with a fathomless expression. “Don’t get up,” he orders again, and then the suit latches back onto his body with a series of heavy clunks before he speeds back into the fray.

Steve passes out.

 

 

It takes days for his bones to knit themselves back together.

Steve doesn’t know what to make of the situation. Tony isn’t his first kiss by any stretch, but this is the first time he has been kissed outside of the codes of conduct. And it’s Tony. The thought bewilders him, although not in an altogether unpleasant way; the fluttering in his stomach, he knows, has nothing to with his injuries. It's been a while since his relationship with Tony has eased into friendship, time and proximity tempering their dissimilarities. The others crack jokes all the time about how they quibble like an old married couple. It isn’t as though the thought hasn’t crossed his mind before, it’s just—codes of conduct. They haven’t even gone on a first date.

To complicate matters, the first thing Tony does when they get back is assign two robots to Steve-duty before disappearing into his lab for the rest of the day. This ends up basically meaning that Steve has two robots flanking him at all times, ready to bring him what he needs so he doesn’t have to walk long distances. It's kind of nice for a time—Steve has them fetch him some painting supplies and reading materials, and they bring him as much food as he wants.

Before she leaves to report to Fury, Natasha forces Steve down onto the couch and tells him in no uncertain terms that he is not to leave the compound. Steve isn’t a child. He doesn’t know why Natasha spends so much time informing him exactly what she will do to him if she catches him exerting unnecessary amounts of force instead of recovering.

 

 

The next day, Tony sits with Steve at the kitchen table and is more reticent than usual while he unwraps take-out for both of them. It is habit now, how Tony splits the food into quarters and keeps one portion for himself while pushing the rest onto a platter for Steve. Tony pauses, looks at Steve’s sling, then cuts his steak for him without asking. Steve feels himself soften, a curl of fondness blooming in his sternum.

The others are conspicuously absent from the compound; the familiar flutter in the base of Steve's stomach confirms that they are alone.

When Tony passes him the plate, Steve thanks him and starts eating, keeping an eye on how Tony keeps moving his asparagus around the plate without really eating. There is an unusual slant to his jaw, like he’s holding it tight.

“Are we going to talk about it?”

The question escapes Steve’s mouth before he can really think about it. Tony pushes his asparagus into his potatoes.

“About what?”

“You know what,” he says, gently.

Tony takes a bite of his dinner, chews for a long time. Steve puts down his fork. He can be patient. Tony keeps looking at him with that penetrating expression. The bruise on his cheek is already fading out into a vivid yellow; Steve wonders if it is hurting him.

“I read some articles the other day about occupational hazards,” Tony says, after a while. “Did you know that there is, on average, a seven year gap in life expectancy between blue-collar and white-collar workers?”

Steve doesn’t know what he was expecting Tony to say, but it isn’t this.

“Loggers and fishermen have a thirty-fold increased probability of dying while on the job,” he continues, distractedly swirling his straw into his drink. “Players in the NFL have an average life expectancy of 54 years. Truck drivers have it a little better. They get to be around 61.”

“Tony,” Steve says quietly. He thinks about how Tony used to be a businessman before he was Iron Man, and wonders if he regrets. He knows where this is going, can hear it in the forced wall of calm Tony presents.

“Where do you think we land on that spectrum, Cap?”

Tony is made of angles, fine and edged. When he lifts his head to look up at Steve, his gaze pins Steve like it’s made of knife points. Steve begins to ache a little.

“Tony,” he says again. He wants to reach out and fix the piece of hair that keeps falling over Tony’s forehead. He doesn’t move.

“We’ve just—had a lot of close ones lately.” Tony says. “I don’t know. Yesterday was a near thing.”

Tony goes tight-lipped after this. His fingers clench around his cup, white with tension. Steve raises his line of vision to hold Tony's and sees, for the first time there, a thread of distress. Tony is afraid of death. The realization bubbles to the surface of Steve’s thoughts, easy, obvious now he can put a name to it.

There is a brief silence, and then Tony’s voice is low and grumbly when he starts muttering things like “wasting time” and “don’t know what we’re waiting for” in an undertone that Steve barely catches. Steve realizes with some distant astonishment that this is what Tony Stark sounds like when he’s embarrassed; when it hits him, he has to fight the strange urge to reach out and hold Tony's still-curled hand around the drink now. His stomach flips as he replays those words in his head: don't know what we're waiting for.

“I don't know,” Tony finishes, scowling and a little flushed. "Are you going to make me say it?"

Tony isn’t fiddling with his tablet or dictating emails into his phone; he isn’t tinkering with a piece of tech. He is looking straight at Steve, eyes sharp and luminous. He is frenetic, larger than life. He's beautiful.

“No,” Steve says, heart jumping a little at the look on Tony’s face and settling somewhere around his throat. “I won’t make you say it.”

 

 

The second time Tony kisses Steve, Steve is ready for it.

Tony leans over the table and presses his mouth to the corner of Steve's lips, insistent and steady until Steve turns into the kiss. Steve's ribcage feels too tight for his suddenly hammering heart; Tony tastes like salt and inevitability. When Steve closes his eyes, Tony's hand settles behind his neck and he feels steady and solid and real, like something Steve could fall into.