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There's A Hole Where My Heart Used to Be (I Want it Gone)

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The arc reactor is a terrible gift, a glorious burden. Tony knows that. He'd be dead without it, of course, and it gave him the chance to do something good with his life at a time when he'd made an art form out of wasting it. If you gave him to go back to that cave, he wouldn't change anything because he knows damn well his only other choices were death or surrender and he could choose those paths even less now than he'd been willing to then.

But that doesn't make him feel any less vulnerable when someone's hands come too close to the reactor core, or when someone threatens to take it away and see what he's got without his fancy suit (like he hasn't built backups into all his suits, like he hasn't considered that already). He puts the reactor on display to counter that. Lets it shine bright, even though he could easily have rebuilt the casing to cover the core. Wears thin shirts, makes no effort to hide it, puts it on display even in the armor. Fuck you, world, he might as well be shouting, this is not my weakness, this gave me strength, this was my second chance and I have taken it. Tony Stark has made himself who he is with blood and sweat and grime and grease and if he's ashamed of how long it took him to become the man he is today that's no one's business but his. The arc reactor is not his heart, but it might be his soul. It's part of him now.

Tony's fine with that. And if he sometimes wants to scream with frustration when he can't get enough air into his lungs, well. He could have died in that cave and everything is better than that.

****

It had to have been Bruce's idea.

The others looked plenty pleased with themselves, grouped together in the middle of Bruce's lab. McCoy was hanging from the ceiling and grinning, sharp canines gleaming white against his fur, and Pym was gesturing to the computer screen like Vanna White showing off a Showcase Showdown. Richards looked – well, smugly self-satisfied, which was basically his default setting, so no surprise there. But Bruce was beaming, mouth curved wide in an excited smile, eyes bright, bouncing slightly as he talked with his hands.

“We can take it out,” Bruce said, cutting through Pym's lecture and shutting down Richards' disclaimers of how easy it had all been. “It's all here. We've triple and quadruple-checked. This is going to work.”

It was. Tony flicked through page after page on the tablet Pym had presented him with, skimming charts, speed-reading through descriptions. He wasn't a medical professional but he was the world's expert on the arc reactor and this... this might work.

“How?” he asked, blinking at them.

“The shrapnel's not the problem,” McCoy said in a rumbling bass. “We've had a workaround for that for years now. It was the extensive damage to the ribs and chest tissue, the muscles, the weakened lungs. The medical technology to repair injuries that traumatic – or even keep you alive in the interim, was not available.”

There was an x-ray of his chest cavity up on one of the computer screens, the broken and missing ribs standing out like missing pieces of a puzzle. The arc reactor was stark and ugly where it pressed up against his lungs, pressing the organs against his ribs so they never fully expanded and just looking at it was enough to make Tony have to concentrate on taking even, steady breaths.

It made him feel exposed, self-conscious in a way that even nude photos wouldn't have and he resisted the urge to cover the reactor with his hands. “But the technology exists now?”

“Not even a little bit,” McCoy said. “We don't have the medical science to regrow bones and muscle the way you'd need to. Right now the casing of the reactor is replacing all of that, and removing it would leave, well, a huge gaping hole in your chest, not to put too fine a point on it. Not to mention that your lungs and heart are both going to require time to recover from the strain. So, lacking the requisite medical technology – at least on this planet – we began to examine alternative possibilities.”

The data scrolling past on his tablet had to be the product of weeks, if not months of research, and Tony wanted to shake his head that they'd managed to do all this without him ever noticing. “Healing factors. I hate to break it to you guys, but I've been tested for the x-factor.”

“Blood transfusion,” Bruce said cheerfully. He was rocking up on his toes and beaming at Tony like it was Christmas. “A sustained blood transfusion from a mutant with a substantial healing factor. It's not easy, or even painless, Tony, but it could work.”

“And we have a mutant with a substantial healing factor?” Tony asked skeptically. It would have to be Wolverine, there weren't very many mutants with that kind of healing factor. Tony's mind flashed to the image of Deadpool strapped to a gurney, his blood mixing with Tony's, and had to hide a shudder.

“Logan has been cooperating extensively with our research,” Richards said. “While he has not allowed quite as thorough an experimentation as I desired-”

“What have I told you about being a mad scientist, Reed?”

“Regardless,” Richards' said, powering ahead despite Tony's interruption, “we were able to satisfy our theory that it would work.”

“We'd do the surgery to remove the reactor first, to remove the risk that the healing factor would interfere with our efforts to remove the reactor. The surgery – it's going to be complicated,” Bruce said, his enthusiasm visibly dimming. “Not unacceptably, but we're going to be working very close to your already weakened heart.”

McCoy swung down from the ceiling. “Logan will be present for the surgery – a small transfusion should be enough to steady you if any complications arise. Then we wait for you to stabilize and carry on.”

“Logan's okay with this?” Tony brushed his fingers over the tablet screen.

Bruce stepped closer and gripped Tony's elbow. “It's no secret how much that thing takes out of you,” he said quietly. “Everyone we've asked for help has been happy to. Tony, this will work.”

For a minute he was elated, the possibility of being whole again, of being able to breathe regularly. He couldn't remember what it felt like to take a deep breath and he almost tried, pulled in breath and exhaled slowly. “I don't know what to say,” he said slowly. “This is possibly the best thing anyone has ever done for me.” The cave flashed briefly behind his eyes, the smell of electricity and burning wires, the way his heart had skipped a beat the first time the electromagnetic turned on.

And then he thought: Steve.

****

He thought about it for a few days.

It was a huge deal. The surgery would be intensive and there was never a sure thing with medical procedures. His heart and lungs were weakened by the pressure from the reactor and could fail him on the operating table. The transfusion might not work the way they thought it would.

It was a big change for him personally as well. Getting used to the reactor's presence had been hard at first. It had taken him months before he'd fully acclimated to the weight of it, the way the cold seeped into his chest in the winter, the way breathing was no longer instinctive. It's absence would be the same, he knew. For better or worse, this was a massive change to his own body and there'd be a learning curve.

Plus, Bruce and McCoy had been very, very clear that the transfusion might not fully heal his heart and lungs. They'd almost certainly be stronger than they were now, of course, but there was no guarantee he'd go back to the way he had been before. Before the reactor. Before Afghanistan.

That, Tony was surprisingly okay with. They were doing amazing things with pacemakers these days. And his lung capacity couldn't get any worse, so that wouldn't affect his lifestyle or his ability to be an Avenger.

It was that part, his ability to be an Avenger, that was of highest concern. He wouldn't give up Iron Man, not for anything.

No matter how sweet the air tasted when he sat quietly and practiced taking deep breaths.

****

He didn't tell Steve.

****

He didn't tell anyone. He'd asked Bruce and the others to let him tell people, and they'd been fine with that.

But mostly he didn't tell Steve.

****

He started to. A half dozen times. But.

Steve came back from a jog and shook rain out of his hair and as he leaned in for a kiss one hand slid over Tony's chest to palm the reactor.

Steve's fingers traced patterns into the core casing as they lay dozing on the couch (it took months before Tony realized Steve was tracing words there).

Steve woke up early and sketched in bed until Tony blinked at him and grumpily demanded coffee – the sketch, when Tony looked, was of him, the arc reactor on full display despite the fact that he'd been sleeping on his stomach.

Steve's body would be pressed up against his, warm and heavy in sleep, one arm draped over Tony's waist, his hand cupped possessively over the reactor.

They were in bed and Steve was trying to kill him, tongue and teeth and lips making a thorough map of Tony's body, moving so slowly down his chest and he stopped for a long moment to trace his tongue around the casing of the reactor, to press kisses against the seam of metal and skin, to lick every scar and imperfection. Tony combed his fingers through Steve's hair and closed his eyes and made himself breathe even and shallow.

****

Bruce noticed, eventually, because Bruce was a genius and Tony's favorite for a reason.

“I'm not trying to push you into a decision,” Bruce said firmly after cornering Tony in the lab one day a couple of weeks later. “But I was under the impression that this was something you wanted. If I overstepped a boundary on our friendship-”

No,” Tony said.

“-or brought up bad memories or embarrassed you by bringing the others in on this, you can say so. I never wanted to put you in an uncomfortable spot or make you relive that experience-”

“Steve likes it,” Tony blurted. He hunched his shoulders a little, resisted the urge to curl up on the workbench and forced the rest of it out. “He- like a kink or something. I don't know. He likes to-” he gestured vaguely toward his chest. “You know. When we're together.”

Bruce pushed his glasses firmly up his nose. “Okay, first of all, thank you for the self-censorship. It is greatly appreciated. Secondly, please tell me that you aren't letting Steve's sexual preferences interfere with your physical health.”

“It's not like keeping the arc reactor is making me sick or anything,” Tony rushed on, aware of the way Bruce's eyes narrowed and not wanting to debate the definition of the word sick. “And – look, I don't even know what he sees in me on a good day. And he likes the arc reactor. I don't-” he swallowed and couldn't help but press a hand against the circle in his chest. It felt cool to the touch, a contrast to the warm skin around it. “What if it really is a kink and it's the only thing he likes about me?”

“Then he's an idiot,” Bruce said flatly. “Tony, that thing is seriously compromising your standard of living. If you want to keep it because you want it, then it's your body and your choice and I'll support you. I promise. But if you're doing this because you think Steve will leave you... Tony, it's the wrong call to make.”

“I love him,” Tony said in a tight, breathless voice. He pressed his hand harder against the reactor, imagined he could feel it pushing even deeper into his chest. “I love him, Bruce. I can't risk that.”

There was a heavy sigh and the rustle of clothes as Bruce stood and Tony closed his eyes, not wanting to see the irritation he knew would be on his friend's face. But no angry words were forthcoming and instead Bruce crossed the room and sat down on the workbench beside Tony. He didn't reach out, just sat close enough that their legs pressed together and his arm nudged Tony's a little. “I know you love him. I know how long you've wanted this. And I am so happy for you. That you have that now. But I swear to god, if Steve Rogers has ever done anything to make you think that your health and happiness is less important than his ability to get off, I will send the Hulk up there and kill him, so help me.”

A strangled, tired laugh bubbled out of Tony. “You know he hasn't. He's better than that. This is all on me and my issues.”

“Even if Steve does have some kind of body modification kink – which I've never seen any indication of, to be honest. It's not like he's rubbing off on Bucky's cybernetic arm, or humping Cable's techno-organic leg-”

Tony gurgled helplessly. “Bruce.”

“-but even if he does, he's not a bad guy, Tony. He's a good man, and your friend. Do you honestly think he would tell you not to have the procedure done if he knew what was going on? That he'd be anything but happy for you if you told him you could take a breath again? Or that he'd put his sexual gratification over your safety – over your quality of life?” Bruce sighed. “And Tony, if you do, why are you so anxious to keep him?”

Tony leaned sideways, let his weight rest against Bruce's side. “I'm kind of fucked up.”

Bruce wrapped an arm around Tony's shoulder and pulled him in close. “Yeah. A little.”

****

He'd intended to talk to Steve about it after that, he honestly had. But the time was never right – or at least, there was never a time that seemed to fit Tony's vague notion of 'right'. At this point he was giving serious consideration to asking someone to tell Steve for him, since he obviously didn't have the balls to do it.

Unfortunately, he was doing a piss-poor job of hiding his conflict.

“Tell me what's wrong,” Steve asked him one night when the sweat was still cooling on their skin, their bodies still locked together. He pressed hot, open-mouthed kisses against Tony's throat, his chest, the side of the arc reactor. “Tell me what's going on in your head.”

Tony reached up with a shaking arm, carded his fingers through Steve's hair, fingers tangling in sweat-dampened curls. Steve looked luminous in the blue light of the reactor core, his eyes brilliant and Tony's gut ached to look at him. He wanted to tell him, knew he needed to tell him. He opened his mouth, licked his lips, tried to think of the right way to start the conversation they had to have. “Can you go another round?” he asked instead.

Steve frowned down at him, the muscles in his arms flexing as he started to lift himself off of Tony and Tony decided quite abruptly that he couldn't handle that. He hooked one leg over the back of Steve's thigh and held him in place. Steve could have gotten free if he wanted, but instead he paused, mouth pursed and Tony wanted to kiss that little pout right off him. “No. This is – more of this. I want-” he shook a little as Steve re-settled on top of him, shifted inside of him, already growing hard again, “-this, I want you, just you, Steve, please.”

A strong hand stroked his side, palmed his hip. “You've got me,” Steve said softly, and he ducked his head to kiss the center of the reactor, nuzzled the scarred skin of Tony's chest.

****

In the end, life – or fate, karma, some other higher power that Tony had thoroughly pissed off, goddamn Murphy's Law in action, that was him, that was his life – chose the time for him.

Explosions were tearing the air apart around him. There was a sick feeling like vertigo and he was aware that he should be doing something but he couldn't think past the awful tearing pain in his chest.

There were voices screaming at him through the comms, but he couldn't make out words. He heard Steve in there somewhere and it pulled him out of the pain a little. Steve sounded bad, worse than Tony could remember hearing him before. He tried to think past the pain – like he'd been punched by the Hulk and ripped apart by Wolverine simultaneously, shit, what happened – and that was when he realized he was falling.

“Repulsors,” he said through lips that felt strangely numb. His mouth was wet and he had the sudden embarrassing thought that he was drooling all over himself, but no. He'd had punctured lungs before. He knew what that felt like. “Flight systems-” The HUD was flickering in and out around him with no sign that any of his voice commands were being heard. He should – there was something he could be doing here, he knew there was, but it was slipping away from him.

Everything was slipping away. Fuzzy and gray around the edges. God it hurt to breathe.

Something slammed into him and he screamed as the impact drove daggers into his lungs. The voices over the comm exploded in a frantic babble of noise and from somewhere closer he heard Spider-Man shouting at him.

He heard the solid clunk of the armor hitting the ground, but he barely felt it. Someone was lowering him down and he closed his eyes as the vertigo made his head swim.

“Tony?” Spider-Man's voice echoed strangely over the comms. “Please, please, please don't let me have killed him.” The faceplate pulled away and Tony couldn't help the pained whine that clawed its way out of his throat as sunlight hit his eyes. Spider-Man cursed and hunched over him. “Guys, he's alive but I'm guessing this might be a temporary condition.” Spider-Man's voice was tense beneath the off-hand words and Tony wanted to pat him on the head. “Jesus, there is blood leaking out of the suit. Get Banner de-Hulked now.”

Tony faded out a little, aware of Spider-Man trying to keep him awake, of the others trying to put down the – what had they been fighting? Magneto, shit, the X-Men had put out the call for back-up and the Avengers had run head-first into Armageddon before they knew what the were dealing with. The terrorist had disarmed Cap and Pym with a flick of his finger, and then- Christ, Magneto hadn't even bothered with the suit, just ripped through the chest place and driven the reactor core into his chest while his ribs cracked and his teammates listened to him scream.

If the ground-shaking crash of thunder was any indication, Thor had not appreciated the show. Tony fully supported divine retribution on his behalf, that was vengeance he could totally get behind.

He could feel his breath bubbling on his lips with every wincing, painful exhale.

He could hear Bruce, his voice strained, his words coming too fast. None of them made sense and when a hand touched his face he realized his eyes were closed. He blinked, tried to gather his thoughts and was rewarded with Bruce's shaky smile. “Tony. That's good. I need you to stay with me for just a minute, then you can rest, okay? Just a minute.” Bruce was doing something with his other hand that Tony couldn't quite see and it occurred to him that maybe he didn't want to. There was blood on Bruce's arms and across his bare chest and Tony was reasonably sure it was his. Poor guy. They should start making sure someone had an extra shirt for him so his teammates didn't bleed all over him after he turned back.

“Tony,” Bruce said sharply and Tony snapped his eyes open again. “Okay, good. Listen to me, Magneto damaged the arc reactor. The core is failing. I can fix it but we're going to have to replace the entire unit, do you understand?”

“Steve,” he said.

Warm fingers touched his hand, curled around his fingers and squeezed gently. “I'm right here, Tony. You're going to be okay.”

He couldn't see Steve, and he wanted to, wanted to see the look on his face, wanted to look him in the eye when he made this decision. Maybe it would make up for being such a fucking coward for the last two weeks. Instead he tried to squeeze back with whatever strength he had. “Sorry,” he said and the word came out slurred.

Steve sounded wrecked, ruined. His voice shook. “Don't apologize. You're going to be fine.”

Maybe.

The taste of blood was stronger in his mouth. Tony tried to swallow around it and choked, pain searing through his chest. He gagged and fought against a swell of nausea, even as strong hands held him down. “Do it,” he gasped. “Oh, god, do it, Bruce, do it, do it.”

“Get Logan and Pym off the battlefield,” Bruce shouted. “I need them now. Steve, signal the Fantastic Four, tell Richards we're removing the arc reactor-”

Steve sounded bewildered and concerned. “But-”

“Not now! Do it.”

“Sorry, Steve,” Tony said again. “Sorry. Gotta... I've gotta.” He let his eyes slip closed and didn't even notice when Steve carefully lifted him up off the pavement.

****

He'd spent enough time in hospitals that he could recognize one even before he woke up. Bleach, mostly, it was the fucking smell of bleach, followed closely by the very distinctive sound of people walking around with little slippers covering their shoes.

Tony fucking hated hospitals.

He remembered the battle, vaguely and he winced at the thought of that much damage to the armor. He'd be weeks repairing it, and in the meantime he'd have to go back a generation. Or maybe take the Thor-Buster for a spin, except Thor always took that as a challenge and kept trying to electrocute him when Cap wasn't looking.

Cap. Steve.

It took a few minutes – and to be perfectly honest, it's possible he fell asleep again there for a bit – but he managed to get his eyes open.

Hospital room, check. There were machines lined up around the bed, though most of them were turned off. There was a heart monitor, beeping steadily in a pattern that would drive him absolutely insane before much longer, and an IV stand beside the bed, the tube feeding into the back of his arm. The TV bolted to the wall was turned on, but muted, and Tony wasted a couple of minutes sleepily following what looked like a Spanish telenovella about a lesbian couple. There was nothing about Lehnsherr and the Brotherhood conquering New York, and from what Tony could see out his window, the city didn't seem to be on fire, so score one for the good guys.

He could hear breathing, coming from beside him. It took a strange kind of effort – not like he was hurting anymore, or even especially tired, but more like his body wasn't entirely sure what he was asking of it – to turn his head on the pillow. It was worth it though, for the sight of Steve slumped in a chair beside his bed. His chin was resting on his chest and one of his hands was still holding Tony's, fingers tangled loosely together on top of the blanket.

That was probably a good sign. Even Tony was emotionally aware enough to know that.

He felt – actually he felt surprisingly good considering that his last memory was of choking to death on his own blood. And Bruce. Telling Bruce to-

He raised his free hand slowly. Pressed it against his chest.

Nothing. No hard circle of metal and crystal. No heavy weight in his bones. He tangled his fingers in the front of his hospital gown and pulled it away from his chest, far enough that he could see down the neck. No light. No reactor. Just – skin. Smooth, unmarked. New.

His hand was shaking so he let go of the gown and concentrated on breathing. Slow, shallow- God.

Steve's fingers tightened around his and Tony looked up in time to see Steve raise their joined hands to his mouth, press his lips against Tony's knuckles. “Hey there, Sleeping Beauty.”

“It's gone,” he said illogically because presumably Steve was aware, but it needed saying. “It's gone, Steve – I can-” He laughed a little, sputtering and ridiculous because he had no fucking idea how much he wanted this till it was done. “I feel like I'm cheating but I don't fucking care.”

Steve rose up from his chair and perched on the side of Tony's hospital bed. “You feel all right? No pain, you can breathe?”

He could, he could, it felt amazing, better than anything except maybe the way Steve's thumb was stroking the skin on the back of his hand. “Do you know how long it's been since I could breathe normally?” he asked dreamily. He was too busy focusing on the feeling of his lungs filling up and emptying, the heady rush of air, of not being out of breath, to remember that he'd been afraid of this.

“Why does it feel like cheating?” Steve asked, and shit. Tony knew that tone of voice.

He eyed Steve a little warily, but Steve just stared back at him. Patient. Understanding. Ready to kick his ass if he needed it and shit. He'd spent the last couple of weeks thinking pretty badly of Steve, hadn't he?

“There's a part of me,” he said slowly, choosing his words carefully so Steve wouldn't freak out on him, “that feels like I deserved the – the inconvenience.”

“The pain,” Steve said flatly, and yeah. Tony did not choose carefully enough. Or Steve knew him entirely too well. “You think you deserved to be in pain.”

“It wasn't that bad,” Tony said, but hell, Bruce hadn't bought it either. “I was a truly shitty person once, Cap. You don't know that guy. He wasn't worth the sacrifice Yinsen made, he didn't deserve a second chance when better men died. If there was a price to pay for being that lucky, I was willing to pay it.”

“You don't get to decide what Yinsen's death was worth,” Steve said flatly. “You do not get to sit there and decide he sold himself cheaply. He decided what his life was worth and you were the price. You. The man you were then was worth it and trying to say otherwise cheapens what he did for you.”

“That's not-” Shame curled sickly in the pit of his stomach. “That's not what I was saying-”

“It is, though. Every time you say you weren't worthy.” Steve was frowning, eyes tight and mouth pressed into a thin line. “Every time you do this to yourself, you're hurting the people who do think you're worth it. You're disregarding Yinsen's sacrifice. You're belittling the other people in your life who love you and would die for you-”

“No,” Tony said. “No, that's-” He tried to push himself up higher, tried to pull his hand away, but Steve was having none of that. He kept his grip firm and didn't look away.

“The arc reactor wasn't a punishment, Tony. It wasn't divine retribution or karmic debt. It wasn't what made you a hero. You know that. You have to know that,” Steve said, sounding a little less sure of himself. “You made yourself a hero. You made your life better. Yinsen saved you, but everything that makes you amazing, you did that yourself. The reactor wasn't your soul, Tony, it was a medical condition-”

“Okay, don't-”

“Bruce told me that you knew about this procedure for weeks. That you didn't want to have it done because you thought I'd be angry.”

“I don't want to talk about this.”

“I need you to tell me why,” Steve said flatly. “I can't -” He dropped Tony's hand and leaned back, scrubbing both hands over his face. “Jesus, Tony, you have to tell me what I did to make you feel like that. I have to know so I can never do it again, for God's sake.”

“It's not your fault,” Tony said. He clenched his fists in the blanket to keep from reaching out for Steve. As mad as the man was, Tony wasn't entirely sure his touch would be welcomed and being refused like that was more than he was prepared to deal with at the moment. “I didn't think you'd be angry.”

“You just thought I'd stop being attracted to you,” Steve said. “Did you really think I loved that thing in your chest more than you? What was going on in your head, Tony? Was I just using you?” His face twisted and Tony couldn't tell if it was anger or not. “If we'd plugged an arc reactor into Clint would I have taken up with him instead?”

Okay, that sounded really bad when you said it out loud like that.

“And the part that scares the hell out of me,” Steve said, exhaustion in every word, “is that you were going to take that from me. You thought I was using you and you were going to let me, do you have any idea how much that kills me? You should have confronted me, or dumped me, or at least let Bruce smack me around a little. Every time we were together,” he said hoarsely, “I was hurting you.”

Panic surged in his chest, like bile. “No, no, no.” He dropped the blanket and grabbed for Steve's hand, clutching it between both of his. “It wasn't like that. I swear. I panicked, Steve, and I latched onto an easy excuse so I wouldn't have to think about – about all the other reasons I'm fucked up over the damned reactor. I couldn't even think about Yinsen, or – or the debt I felt and it was easier to- to blame you. I'm sorry. You deserved better, I know you wouldn't use someone like that-”

“I wouldn't use you,” Steve said fiercely. “Tell me you know that. Tony, please, tell me I haven't been that bad at this relationship thing that you don't even know I love you.”

Tony's newly-found breath stuttered in his chest and took a couple of shaky breaths. “I know. Knew. It's one of the few things I'm sure of.” He gripped Steve's hand and tugged him closer, didn't let go until Steve was leaning against him, his forehead pressed to Tony's shoulder. “But that's hard for me, too, you know? I ah-” He ducked his head to press his nose against Steve's hair. “I have intimacy issues. You may have noticed.”

The snort Steve made into his shoulder was both unflattering and undignified, but Tony figured he didn't have a lot of room to complain. Then Steve sighed against his throat, breath hot against Tony's skin and yeah – he was recovering quite nicely, let's hear it for the healing factor, ladies and gentlemen.

“Tell me something,” Steve said. “Just – honestly. Whatever it is. However you think I'll react. You can refuse to tell me if you need to, but please don't lie.”

“Okay,” Tony agreed, swallowing a flash of regret that he'd made such a request necessary. “I don't lie to you. I promise.”

“You just creatively talk around the truth,” Steve agreed. He sounded kind of amused, which was probably as good as Tony could hope for. “What did I do? How did I make you think I cared more about the reactor than you?”

Tony sighed and carded his fingers through Steve's hair. “You remember what I said, like, ten second ago about how it wasn't really you, right?”

“There had to be something for you to latch onto it.”

God, he was in love with a stubborn, insightful asshole. “Okay, look. This was all on me, so don't – but you really, really like the reactor, Steve.” He pushed at Steve's shoulder until they were facing each other again and gestured toward his chest. “I mean. A lot. You touch - touched it all the time. And you – look, you spend a lot of time there when we're in bed, just, like, licking and-” He narrowed his eyes because Steve was turning bright red and starting to look guilty. “What's that face for?”

“I was trying to make you feel better ,” Steve admitted. “You acted like you were ashamed of it in the beginning. You wouldn't let me touch it for – for weeks and you kept trying to sleep with a shirt on and - I though maybe if I showed you that I wasn't bothered by it, maybe you'd be less defensive. After a while,” he said, shoulders slumping, “I guess it just became a habit. I'm sorry.”

“I thought the light might keep you awake at night.” Tony slouched back against the pillows and laughed, tired, breathless hiccuping laughs that made his whole body shake. “That's why I was wearing the shirts at first. But you can sleep anywhere so I got over it. And- you know about Stane. What he did to me. There were very few people I could tolerate touching the reactor after that, Steve. It just took a while for me to let you through the defenses. I – as fucked up as my attitude toward the reactor was, I don't think I was ever ashamed of it. Just. Vulnerable,” he finally settled on. “Exposed. But never ashamed.”

“You have nothing to be ashamed of,” Steve said quietly. “Except your dietary habits, but that's a work in progress.”

“Algae smoothies are good for you, I'll have you know-”

“When they release you I'm going to cook you a real breakfast. No algae.”

Tony made a face because Steve cooking meant no coffee either. “Philistine. Come here.” He held out an arm and scooted over a few inches so Steve could sit beside him. It was a narrow fit but he didn't mind, and he settled in with his head on Steve's shoulder. “If I had been paying some kind of penance, having you in my life would have been worth all of it.”

Steve sighed, his breath ruffling Tony's hair. “Whatever I had to pay, to be here with you,” Steve said in a low voice, “I'd pay it all again. Now go back to sleep. Bruce and the doctors will be by to check on you soon and you're exhausted.”

Tony hummed and let his eyes slip closed, listening to Steve's heart beat, and the sound of his own breathing.

****

Bruce woke them up after a while and Tony grumbled the vaguely incoherent complaints of the sleep-deprived while Steve shushed him and made him behave.

"Whatever happened with Magneto?" he asked while Bruce pressed a stethoscope against his chest and listened intently.

"Turns out magnetism doesn't work that well as a defense against magic hammers," Bruce said. "Thor apologizes for failing to properly avenge you, by the way."

"Thor's my favorite," Tony told Steve sleepily and was rewarded by a kiss.

There were flowers on his bedside, which Tony hadn't noticed before; a couple of big, extravagant displays that probably came from business colleagues or the mayor. There were also a couple of teddy bears, several bags of candy and a box of what looked like cigars along with- “Did our friends really bring me vibrators while I was recovering from surgery?”

"It was Carol's idea," Steve said. "She seemed to think flowers might be wasted on you."

“And a double-sided dildo,” Bruce said. “That one's from Peter, he thought he was being terribly amusing.”

“We already have one of those,” Tony said just to hear the strangled sound Steve made. “Oh, hey, balloons.”

It turned out healing factors took a lot out of you, so Tony spent most of the next two days alternatively starving to death and sleeping the sleep of the desperately exhausted. Bruce didn't make him eat hospital food, thank god, and the Avengers took turns smuggling him high-calorie snacks and the occasional bag of pornography because they were the best friends ever, even Peter who seemed to think the trick handcuffs he presented Tony with on the day he was released were terribly risque.

“I bet Steve could get out of those in five minutes flat,” Clint said while Steve turned bright pink and gave the ceiling his patented 'what did I do to deserve these morons?' look.

“Less,” Tony said smugly.

He'd been as healed as he was going to get by the time they'd unplugged him from Logan, so all Bruce was worried about at that point was if the bones regrew correctly, and whether the damage to his lungs was already permanent. Tony submitted to the numerous exams, even after the hospital released him, because choking to death on your own blood made your teammates twitchy and it was either this or put up with them following him everywhere he went, waiting for him to keel over.

The only complication was one they knew about before he even woke up, namely that Logan, who had not anticipated donating close to ten pints of blood to a recovering alcoholic when he woke up that morning had had several beers before being called out to the battle. Tony waited for the cravings to start while Steve was very calmly pissed that Logan went on a call after drinking, but healing factors were great about that, too, and Logan's metabolism sorted most of it out of his bloodstream before Tony even went down.

****

“I could kiss Logan,” Tony said dreamily and Steve, who was doing amazing things with his hands, pinched Tony's stomach.

“Platonically,” Tony said, waving a hand around. “Just – you know. Show my gratitude. I should probably kiss Bruce too. And the Hanks.” He hummed under his breath as Steve straddled his waist and leaned down to kiss the unmarked skin over his heart. “But not Reed. I'll buy him flowers.”

“Buy them all flowers,” Steve suggested. He splayed his hand flat over Tony's chest and stroked the unmarked skin before detouring to catch a nipple between his fingers. “If you need to kiss someone, kiss me.”

“You know the best part?” Tony asked, arching his hips up against Steve. “I can kiss you way longer now. No running out of breath.”

Steve arched an eyebrow at him. “You saying I don't take your breath away anymore?”

“Dunno,” Tony said, and his chest felt light and bursting as he dragged in a deep breath. “Kiss me and let's find out.”