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we pick ourselves undone

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The thing about Alzheimer’s is that the odds of developing it under the age of 65 are only 4 percent.

That’s it: 4-fucking-percent. Meaning that of the 5.4 million Americans suffering from the disease, 200,000 of those poor bastards are closer to Tony’s age than his grandfather’s (if he were still alive, anyway) and isn’t that a kick in the face.

But the worst part, the worst part is that it doesn’t matter who you are or what you do, there’s no way to avoid it. What you eat, how much you exercise, none of it fucking matters.

Tony Stark sits in the high-backed visitor’s chair with its tacky floral upholstery, one of his legs thrown over the other and foot bouncing up and down. He drums his fingers against his knee and searches for something to say.

“So…I got a call from mom yesterday. She’s doing well. Says she’s going to come by to drop off some of the books you asked for…so that’s good, I guess…” He fixes his gaze somewhere over his father’s shoulder. The visiting room is surprisingly empty, only a few families take up the available clusters of seats and Tony imagines, for a moment, what they’re talking about. Whether their conversations feel as stunted, how they feel about looking their friends and relatives in the eyes and seeing no recognition there.

Tony’s learned to cope with this, the blankness in his father’s gaze when he looks at him, even on his more lucid days, when he starts rambling about his friend Obadiah and fiancée Maria, and the good old days when he’d revolutionised Shield’s neurology department and invented the ‘Stark Method’ to fight brain tumours. Most of the time he still doesn’t recognise Tony.

It serves as a harsh reminder of Tony’s lack of impact on his father’s life.

“How’s Nick?” Howard asks, jarring Tony out of his reverie. Tony is surprised to see a rare light in Howard’s eyes as he asks about his old friend. This is Howard taking an interest in somebody in a way he rarely does in Tony.

“Fine,” Tony says, wondering how much longer he has to be here today to keep up the pretence of being a caring son.

“You’re lucky to be doing your internship at his hospital, he’s a great surgeon. There’s a lot you can learn from him,” Howard says, still oddly enthusiastic. Tony doesn’t know how to tell him that he isn’t doing his internship anymore and that there’s really nothing left for him to learn from Nick Fury.

His father’s lucid days are few and far between, now.

He doesn’t let anyone see it, the fear he feels when he sees the legendary Howard Stark reduced to this. This old man with the messy hair and frightened eyes, asking ‘where am I? What am I doing here? Who are you?’

Not that he and his father have ever been close. Tony’s finally reached a point where he can admit that Howard’s eternal disappointment in him had been the driving force behind the success of his own career, always pushing him to try harder, desperate for a little speck of his father’s approval. He’d never got it, only a clap on the shoulder when he got into Harvard Med at 16 and a handshake when he graduated. He’d lived his life in his father’s shadow, gone into medicine because it’s what his father, what everyone, expected of him.

By the time he became head of Neurosurgery at Shield—the youngest department head ever—it was already too late. Howard didn’t even know who he was anymore. So this is what he does now: comes by once a week to stare into his father’s unrecognising eyes and wonder how long he’ll be able to endure this before he can’t anymore. Because Howard had left him with one more responsibility, as though he’d had any right to ask Tony for anything. But, of course, he hadn’t asked, that’d never been his style. On one of his rare lucid days he’d grabbed Tony’s arm, his grip surprisingly strong and his dark eyes—the same ones Tony sees in the mirror every day—frantic, “you can’t—you mustn’t tell anyone that I’m here. I won’t be that charity case that everybody feels sorry for. I’m Howard Stark and I won’t be pitied.” Faced with no other options, Tony had agreed.

That doesn’t mean it isn’t weighing on him. Every time someone asks him about his father he mumbles out another lie—he’s travelling with doctors without borders, he’s writing another book, he’s planning his next clinical trial.

Tony’s sick of it. Sometimes he wants nothing more than to tell someone, promises be damned. He doesn’t owe Howard anything.

He glances back over at his father, sitting there in his striped old-man cardigan, and knows he isn’t going to tell anyone.

Well, maybe.

Probably.

You know what they say, he thinks bitterly and not for the first time, you can’t choose your family.

*

There are some days when Tony desperately wishes he’d grown up wanting to be something other than a surgeon. He could have been anything, done anything. Could have been a lawyer or the CEO of a multinational company or an engineer…Man, he would have made a great engineer. He’d have been the best damn engineer in the world; built fighter jets and flying cars and invented a sustainable, pollution-free energy source that saved the whole fucking world.

Instead, he stands in an operating room day after day, armed with a drill and a scalpel and the thought that he could make a difference.

On days like today he wonders why he even bothers.

“How many times do I have to repeat myself, Fury? I’m sick of saying this, and I’m sure you’re sick of hearing it.” He faces down the Chief’s infamous one-eyed glare and wonders if today will be the day he finally causes the pulsing vein in the other man’s forehead to burst. “I don’t know if this is because you lost your hearing along with your depth perception, but this is the last time I’m saying this so you better listen: if you want that patient operated on today you’re going to have to find yourself another surgeon because I’m not doing it!”

For the first time since their argument started, the third time they’ve had this particular discussion today, Fury’s expression flickers. “I’m sorry,” he says, looking momentarily taken aback and Tony wonders, only for a second, if he’s finally won. It doesn’t last. “Did I ever give you the impression that I was making a request? You seem to be under the impression that I care what you want. This is an order, Dr Stark.”

The laugh escapes before Tony has a chance to rein it in.

“An order? Who the hell—I am the best neurosurgeon in this country—fuck that, the world! Do you know what it means when I say it can’t be done?” Tony is entirely aware that he’s shouting so loudly he’s drawing the attention of everyone in the long corridor they’re standing in (not to mention the neighbouring rooms), but can’t find it in himself to care. It isn’t like anyone’s going to be surprised, Fury always manages to bring out the best him. “It means it. Can’t. Be. Done. So if you want to send your patient to execution, that’s fine, but I won’t be his executioner.”

He takes a breath, fortifying himself against the storm that’s brewing, hands balling into fists.

Something seems to shift in Fury’s expression. “Now here’s a day I never thought I’d see, going to have to mark it in my calendar,” he says, tone calculated, mocking. “The great Tony Stark admitting defeat.”

Tony finds himself caught momentarily off balance, and though he knows that it’s a deliberate manoeuvre on Fury’s part, feels his hackles rise.

“That isn’t what this is, and you know it,” he grits out.

“No? You just told me that you can’t do it…Or was that a lie?”

He tries to keep his voice level, “look, even if there was a slim chance that I succeeded, that I got the worms out of there, anything could happen in surgery! He might not survive anyway. I don’t want to do it.”

“Well, I’ve got some news for you, Doctor,” Tony’s never heard the word uttered so scathingly before—if it hadn’t been directed at him, he’d be impressed—but Fury never raises his voice and fuck if that doesn’t just piss Tony off more, “I am the Chief of Surgery and I don’t care what you want. If I tell you to operate, you’re damn well going to operate.” He straightens, as though only just noticing that he’s let Tony ruffle his feathers again. “And if you don’t like that, then you can get the hell out of my hospital.” He turns then, striding away with his custom-ordered black lab coat fluttering about his legs.

Tony stands frozen, his body shaking with rage and a roaring in his ears. Then, for a moment, one shining moment, he wonders if he could do it: just walk out the door and never have to deal with Fury and his thoughtless manipulations, or look at his stupid fucking eyepatch ever again.

The moment is broken by Steve. Steve, with his gentle hands and soft words and his tendency to take on everyone else’s problems as though his own aren’t heavy enough; those strong shoulders of his braced against the world.

He places a hand on Tony’s arm, the touch firm and grounding, bringing Tony’s focus back to the busy hospital hallway filled with doctors and nurses rushing around, each of them with somewhere to be, someone to save. And Steve. Steve with his kind eyes, watching Tony warily.

“Tony?” His head is bowed, a lock of blonde hair falling out of place onto his forehead.

“Yeah,” Tony says, his voice almost a croak. “Yeah, I’m okay.”

“Are you sure?”

The last, lingering effects of his tunnel vision dissipate. He pushes away the rising uncertainty and doubt, and looks up into Steve’s blue eyes, plastering a fake smile on his face.

“You know me,” he claps Steve on the shoulder, dislodging his hand and dismissing the obvious concern in his gaze, “I’m always okay.”

He pushes past, resolutely ignoring the stare he can feel sitting across his shoulder blades. He has more important things to worry about, like a set of MRI results with his name on them. It seems he’s got a surgery to prep for.

*

The problem with Steve is that Tony has never quite been able to work out where he stands with him. The two had met when Steve had transferred to Shield from an obscure, little hospital in the middle of Bumfuck, Nowhere. The rumours had started up shortly beforehand; about Dr Erskine’s golden boy, the unknown kid who’d taken his hospital’s teaching programme by storm, shooting through his internship and residency with flying colours before he enlisted and went off to treat soldiers in a war zone. Almost the second he got back he returned to his previous employers who immediately offered him the job of attending cardio surgeon and fuck but that never happens. A few years of establishing himself as a veritable cardio god and picking up every award in the medical community followed, before he made the move to New York and Shield where he spent months clashing with the local head of Neuro.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Three years later, and Steve and Tony have traded in wanting to stab each other with scalpels (Tony can’t say he never considered it) to simply wanting each other, falling into this weird on-again-off-again relationship pattern that Tony’s best friend (and occasional psychiatrist) Pepper thinks is a direct result of Tony’s inner self-loathing and commitment issues and Tony maintains is because neither he nor Steve are looking for anything serious.

And Tony’s fine with that. Really. He isn’t cut out for a serious relationship anyway.

The truth, of course, is infinitely more complicated. Somewhere along the way, probably on some occasion when he and Steve had been wrapped around each other, when he'd been pressed up against Steve's warm skin and miles of muscles that had no place on a surgeon, a small part of Tony had started hoping that maybe this could be more than just a tumble with a co-worker in an on-call room.

*

His brain is a mess of statistics and surgical procedures when he arrives at the radiology department to find Bruce waiting for him.

With his lab coat, salt and pepper hair and glasses, Tony has always thought of Bruce as the most visually suited to this profession of theirs.

“I take it you’ve heard,” Tony says.

“There are only three hallways between here and the location of your big showdown…and none of the doors are soundproof,” Bruce smirks.

“You know me and Fury,” Tony says. “He loves giving orders, I love throwing them in his face.”

“Didn’t sound like you got your way this time,” Bruce says, expression softening. “I’m sorry.”

“Shit happens,” Tony shrugs. Hoping to change the direction of the conversation, he gestures around the room. “You got some MRI results for me?”

Bruce points wordlessly at the display closest to where Tony’s standing.

“You always know what I need, Brucie-pie,” Tony says, clapping him on the shoulder and settling in front of the computer.

Bruce wrinkles his nose slightly at the nickname but refrains from commenting. It’s hardly the weirdest thing Tony’s called him over the years.

“What do you think about these?” Tony asks, inclining his head towards the screen.

The cysts sit, heavy and inflated, almost entirely blocking the third ventricle of the patient’s brain

Bruce squints at the scans, considering.

Bruce Banner, head of radiology, is probably Tony’s closest friend in the hospital. They had attended college together where they’d discovered that they shared a similar outlook on medicine, pursuing it in the name of knowledge and science, more than the human element that draws so many others. They challenge and complement each other in their work, which makes Bruce Tony’s preferred sounding board. Not to mention one of the few doctors whose opinion he’d accept without question.

“I think you have to step away from the problem”, Bruce offers, pushing his glasses a little further up his nose. He squints through them before thinking better of it, pulling them off and rubbing them against his shirt. “Break it down a little. What would you do if there was only one cyst?” He puts his glasses back on, seeming satisfied with his clearer vision.

Tony barely keeps from rolling his eyes. “I’d deflate and remove it.” Obviously.

“Then what’s the problem?” Bruce asks, attention shifting from the screen to Tony.

This time Tony does roll his eyes.

“Are we looking at the same results here? There are eight of them. There’s no way to surgically navigate through that minefield. If I accidentally nudge even one of them it could rupture and let that worm out into the man’s brain.”

“Well, yeah, but I don’t see how it’s any more difficult than just the one.” Bruce says, turning away when the computer at his desk makes a sound. He doesn’t return to Tony’s side after checking whatever it was, apparently declaring the discussion over.

Tony holds his tongue and thinks about it for a moment. He considers the scans again. He uses the computer to highlight the cyst closest to the surface and judges its proximity to the subsequent one. Then he removes the highlighting from the first one and shifts it to the next. Technically, Bruce is right. There is very little difference between one and eight, if you don’t factor in the time difference. He’s going to be stuck in surgery for a few hours at least with the level of care and precision he’ll have to exercise, but that’s not exactly unusual for him.

Maybe he can do it.

Shit, if anyone could pull this off, it’d be him. He wasn’t exaggerating when he told Fury that he was the best. It was simple statement of fact. Most of the neurosurgeons he knows wouldn’t even go near a case like this. With good reason too.

But Tony…

Never in a million years will he admit this to the man, but Fury was right, too. He’s never backed down from a challenge. And like it or not, he’s this guy’s best bet.

*

He stops by the attending’s lounge on the way to his patient’s room and finds Thor, Clint and Natasha sitting at the table and snacking.

“Don’t you people have patients to treat?” He asks, dropping down into the seat opposite Thor and stealing a chip off Barton’s plate. They stare back at him with similar expressions, that all seem to say ‘look who’s talking’.

Well, he never said he was a model employee.

“I hear Fury’s making you cut into parasite guy’s head,” says Clint, displaying his usual amount of tact, popping another chip into his mouth with an audible crunch.

“Has anyone ever considered doing an experiment to study out how fast news travels around here? Because this is like, scary fast,” he leans back in his chair and briefly considers stealing a pudding cup off Natasha’s tray before thinking better of it. She’s almost certainly got a scalpel hidden somewhere on her person and Tony’s hands are way too valuable to risk a stab wound. The woman is the genius with a blade when you put her in the OR—Fury himself chose her to take over his position as head of general surgery when he stepped down the year before—but outside the OR she’s a little terrifying.

“Maybe if you stop giving people so much to gossip about…”

“Hey, hey! How am I getting all the blame here? What about Thor and that resident—Jane? Or Bruce and Betty and their ‘forbidden love’,” he makes sure to punctuate the statement with air quotes. “Or you two!” He points accusingly towards Clint and Natasha, who stare stonily back at him. “Don’t pretend they aren’t whispering about you and all the secret trips you’ve been taking to on-call rooms! There’s no way they’re talking about me!”

“I’m sorry, my friend,” Thor says, clapping him on the back with one of the massive paws that he uses to break and reset bones down in ortho, “but I fear that you are mistaken.” Thor always speaks as though he should be living in a regency-era aristocratic family—it’s one of the things that Tony secretly likes about him. “While they do indeed speak of all those that you mentioned, they undoubtedly prefer to focus on your affair with Steven.”

And because the universe loves him—before Tony can even give voice to the indignant reply sitting on the tip of his tongue—the door to the lounge opens and Steve walks in.

Great.

“Oh, Steven! Come, join us, we were just speaking of you!” Thor turns a large grin on Steve, beckoning him over and Tony takes it back. There’s nothing about Thor that he likes. Absolutely nothing.

Steve walks over and Tony carefully avoids looking at him.

“What did you say you guys were talking about?” He asks, settling down between Thor and Natasha. Natasha pushes her tray over, silently offering Steve his pick of the food on it. Steve picks up the pudding Tony had been eyeing and Natasha doesn’t even care. Figures.

Those two had hit it off pretty much right away. Up until that point, Tony had suspected that Natasha was incapable of being nice to anyone but Clint, and theirs was a history he hadn’t even attempted to parse through. Sure, she was always civil and he’d even seen her smile at Thor a few times, but Tony had never been on the receiving end of one.

But then Steve had arrived and Natasha had pretty much welcomed him with open arms. Of course, it isn’t that unusual that someone would take a shine to Steve—Tony suspects that it’s physically impossible to dislike the guy (his own initial feelings notwithstanding), but that even Natasha had warmed up to him right away, when Tony had been incapable of carrying a proper conversation with her, is more than a little disconcerting. (Not to mention that she was close to Steve back when he and Tony couldn’t even be in a room together without sniping at each other.)

“Well, my friend—” Thor begins.

“So, bird brain,” Tony kicks Clint’s leg under the table and Clint scowls at him from beneath his bird-patterned scrub cap, “what’s the latest in the world of the tiny humans?”

The paediatrician obviously sees right through Tony’s attempt at subterfuge but goes along with it anyway, “I’ve got this patient, 15-year-old girl, came in today, keeps having seizures. Apparently had one right in the middle of a performance—she plays trumpet in her school’s marching band” he clarifies at their questioning looks. “Trying to diagnose her now so if you have any ideas off the top of your head…”

“Have you checked her heart?” Asks Steve, drawing Tony’s reluctant attention. “It’s rare but an arrhythmia could cause seizures.”

“Now, I want you to know, Captain Cardio,” Clint says, kicking his chair back to balance on two legs, “that normally I’d be rolling my eyes at you trying to turn everything into a heart issue,” he says, a fake reprimanding look on his face as he points at Steve. “But, in this case I might have to agree that that’s actually a good idea.”

Steve smiles at the acknowledgement, then his gaze shifts—finally, unfortunately—to Tony.

“So what are you going to do about your surgery?” Steve asks, and Tony shrugs, kicking his legs up onto the table. A little crease of disapproval appears between Steve’s eyebrows.

“Don’t worry about it.”

Steve, of course, presses the issue. “Do you have a plan?”

“Sure do. Bruce and I talked about it. Piece of cake.” He waves a hand dismissively, but Steve still looks unconvinced.

“Wow, try to rein in the amount of info you’re heaping on us there. I don’t know if our little brains can handle it,” Clint says, eyebrow quirked.

“Well I know yours can’t,” he snipes back.

“Such children,” Natasha sighs, pushing her seat out, and getting to her feet. They all throw questioning glances that she doesn’t see. Instead, she pulls her copper red hair away from her face and picks a slice of apple off her plate. Only then does she note their silence.

“I’ve got my interns prepping a patient for an appy so I might swing by and subject them to a bit of fear and humiliation,” she says, and Steve looks absolutely horrified at her admission and Clint snickers openly. “If I publicly eviscerate one of them every once in a while, the others fall in line a lot quicker,” she offers, by way of explanation, before sauntering out the door.

“That woman is terrifying,” Tony announces into the sudden emptiness.

“You can say that again,” says Steve, reaching over to drag her plate the remaining distance towards him. He begins snacking on the leftovers and Tony looks on, with no small amount of bemusement. Steve looks over and catches Tony watching him.

“What? I don’t like to waste food.” Tony raises an eyebrow, unconvinced.

“Well,” Clint says, interrupting the not-quite moment Steve and Tony were having. “Now that Tasha’s gone to play dedicated surgeon and my reputation as a lazy bastard is intact, I’m going to have to break up this little gathering. I’ve got a patient to test for an arrhythmia.” He takes a step away from the table before turning around.

“You coming, big guy?” He asks and Thor stands to join him.

“Aye, I have a patient who should have returned from the x-ray I sent him for. It appears he has fallen from a tree to break every one of his limbs,” says Thor, ruining any illusions Tony has of not being left at the table with Steve. He cracks the knuckles on those hammer-like hands of his in what looks oddly like glee and Tony is hit by sudden relief that he isn’t the unfortunate soul about to be subjected to Thor’s (albeit extremely skilled and professional) ministrations.

The others are about to clear the room and the last thing Tony needs is to give Steve the opportunity to get all judgemental about his approach to the surgery. He looks at the clock over the door, desperate for an escape. “Hey, wait up, you two,” he says, dropping his legs back to the floor and heading to his locker for his scrub cap. He picks his favourite, the one covered in little robots that Pepper once bought him as a joke after he told her about how he almost went to MIT to study engineering. It’s become a sort of good luck charm and to be honest, he could really use some extra luck today.

“Tony,” Steve says, but Tony slams the locker door shut a bit too loudly, drowning out the sound.

He doesn’t try again until Tony is out in the hall, his path diverging from Clint and Thor’s, leaving him alone again.

“Can I talk to you for a moment?” Steve asks, and Tony checks his watch, hoping that if he appears short of time, Steve might change his mind.

No such luck.

“I guess I can spare you a few minutes,” Tony says, moving away from the centre of the busy hallway and resting his back against the wall.

“Are you sure about this?” Steve asks, refusing to dance around the issue at all.

“This being…?” No one said Tony had to be as forthcoming.

A muscle twitches in Steve’s jaw. “You know what I’m talking about. The surgery. Are you sure it’s a good idea?”

There are a number of ways Tony wants to respond—wants to tell Steve that it isn’t any of his business, wants to be thankful that he’s looking out for Tony, wants to be mad that Steve doesn’t have any faith in his abilities.

He does none of those.

“Look, I stand by what I told Fury,” Tony admits. “The odds aren’t good. He might live for a while with the cysts, but if I do the surgery, and he dies…” he can feel the same choking anger rising in him again. “It’s Phil, you know? What do you think Fury’s going to do if I kill—what I think is—his only friend?”

“Nothing, Tony,” Steve says, his hand twitching in an aborted movement towards Tony. “He’s not going to do a damn thing because he’s ordering you to do it. It’s on his head, not yours.”

“Sure,” Tony scoffs, “it’s easy to say that, but we all know that I’m going to be the one left holding the knife.” He feels himself deflate momentarily, the confidence he’d been riding since his talk with Bruce waning. He refuses to meet Steve’s eyes, because the last thing he wants right now is to be forced to deal with the understanding he knows he’ll see there.

He hates Steve for always doing this to him, for chipping away at his walls until he wants nothing more than to bury his head in the warm juncture between Steve’s shoulder and neck and pretend the world doesn’t exist.

But that isn't who he is.

He builds his walls back up.

“Maybe if you calmly explain to Fury that you can’t do it—”

“I never said I couldn’t do it,” Tony snaps, straightening up to push away from the wall. Steve takes an instinctual step back. “I said I didn’t want to do it. Look up the difference. I only didn’t want to do it because if that guy drops dead on the table it’ll be my reputation that gets dragged through the mud.” There’s a surge of anger colouring his words and he knows that it’s irrational. He just doesn’t care.

“I don’t care whether you think I can do it or not,” he says.

He tells himself that he doesn’t care that Steve looks hurt by his words. What right does he have to feel hurt when he doubts Tony’s judgement?

“Tony, you know that’s not—”

He bulldozes right over Steve’s defence. “But I’m going to go in there and rock that goddamn surgery, and then I’m going to tell Nick Fury to go fuck himself.”

He leaves Steve standing alone in the corridor.

*

“Parker!” Tony barks, startling the intern loitering by the patient’s room. A tall, gangly kid in glasses, Parker’s the best of the hospital’s latest batch of interns and the only one Tony’s decided to take under his wing. Unfortunately for Parker, the kid has all the grace of a baby giraffe learning how to walk. Parker fumbles with the files he’s holding and Tony has to keep from rolling his eyes.

“Yes, Dr Stark?”

“How’s the patient doing?” He pushes open the door, entering the room ahead of the intern.

The patient is lying in bed, conversing quietly with his sister, who is seated in the chair by the bed. Phil Coulson is pale against the dark navy bedclothes that are standard on this floor of the hospital. The dark bruises under his eyes and his thinning hair combine to make him appear much older than he is. His hands repeatedly clench and release the blanket covering his legs.

His sister stands when Tony walks in, her lithe form unfolding gracefully. He realises that she’s almost as tall as he is. Her features are much more striking than her brother’s; her straight brown hair is pulled back from her face, highlighting the sharp cut of her cheekbones. “Dr Stark,” she begins, “I—I wasn’t expecting you to come back.” She glances over at the bed and sadness softens her expression. “I thought you said the surgery was impossible?”

There’s hope wavering in her expression and he’s careful to meet her gaze head on. He’s confident, and wants her to know that. Steve’s words have been banished to the back of his mind.

“I’m…” he weighs the word in his mouth, “reconsidering.” He turns back to Parker: “Dr Parker, present.”

“Patient Phil Coulson, 49, admitted for a serious case of neurocysticercosis,” Tony tilts his head toward where the patient’s sister, Maria, still stands. “Er…parasites in the brain,” Peter explains, glancing towards her, sheepish. “MRI shows eight cysts in total, almost all of which are blocking the third ventricle, patient has already suffered one seizure and diagnosis indicates that without immediate surgery, the frequency of the seizures could increase and lead to elevated ICP, which could lead to a coma and...” One look at the horrified expression on Maria’s face is enough to halt the words in Peter’s throat.

“Thank you, Peter. Maybe next time you can try not terrify everyone in the room,” Tony says, turning towards the patient. “I’m not going to sugarcoat this for you, because that’s not what I do. I have reservations about this surgery, so I make no promises. I have an idea of how to proceed but that’s just what this is, an idea. There’s really no precedence for this.” He takes in the look on their faces, the steely determination on Phil’s and the concern on Maria’s. “But if anyone is going to pull this surgery off, it’s me.”

“Alright, Doctor,” Phil sits up straighter and interlocks his fingers, “what’s your plan?”

*

The call comes in when Tony’s on his way into surgery and he really should have learned to turn his phone off by now.

“Hi, sweetie,” his mother greets him, her voice soft and brittle, made that way over years of being talked over in conversations, of giving way to the two dominant personalities in her home. Even on the phone she remains as unobtrusive as possible, always defers to the other side of the conversation. Tony hates it.

“Hi, mom,” he replies, already devising a way of cutting the conversation short. She’s developed this uncanny knack for calling him at the most inopportune times.

It isn’t that he dislikes his mother, he just doesn’t know how to talk to her most of the time. When he was growing up Maria Stark wasn’t exactly the maternal type. Sometimes he thinks that the only reason she had a kid in the first place was because Howard wanted to be sure there’d be someone around to carry on his legacy. Quite the family man, his father. That isn’t to say that Maria was a bad mother, but Tony always felt like there was somewhere else she’d rather be, that he and Howard were tying her down, and a sense of duty was all that was keeping her there. Sometimes Tony thinks that him getting a life of his own and Howard getting Alzheimer’s might have been the best things to ever happen to her.

Needless to say, they don’t talk much.

“I just got home from visiting your father,” she continues, “the nurse said you were by earlier…”

“Yeah, I dropped by to see how Howard was doing. No big deal,” Tony shrugs, the movement automatic although she can't see it.

“How…how was he? When you saw him?” She asks, voice unsteady enough to make him nervous. He thinks about the visit, about Howard’s behaviour.

“He was fine. No different than usual, anyway,” he says. There’s a hitch in her breathing, as though she’s muffling a sob. “Mom?”

“He’s taken a turn…” Tony freezes, knees seeming to lock in place. He moves to rest against the wall. “The nurses at the facility, this is beyond their capabilities, and you know your father’s rule…”

Hatred surges through him where it should be sympathy, hatred towards his father for making his mother sound so helpless, for making them feel obligated to keep his secret.

“Screw his rules!” He growls in frustration, kicking the wall with the heel of his foot, “Screw his stupid pride! We have to tell people, I’m sure he doesn’t want to die in that place when he could have been saved.” The sob he hears this time is louder. “Stop crying!” He snaps, then immediately feels guilty. It isn’t his mother’s fault, she’s as much of a victim of Howard’s ego as he is. He flicks a glance at his watch and starts at the time.

He’s going to be late for his own surgery.

“But how are we…”

“Sorry, mom, I really can’t deal with this right now, I have to go. We’ll talk later.”

“Oka—” He hangs up the phone.

*

Afterwards, Tony can only recall disjointed fragments of the events in the OR. The uncharacteristic tremor in his hand as he made the first cut; securing and deflating the first cyst; his unrelenting grip on the forceps; watching the fourth scolex die in the petri dish; one at a time, Tony. One at a time; thinking maybe he’d succeed after all.

The eighth cyst deflating too soon; the scolex slipping through his grasp.

“This is an order, Dr Stark.”

The patient crashing.

“Your father’s taken a turn.”

Panicked voices.

“Asystole!”

Where the hell is that worm?

“Get the crash cart! Start compressions!”

Come on, Tony. Come on, you can do it.

Tearing away his gloves and scrub cap with the continuous beep of the heart rate monitor filling his ears.

*

He watches Maria’s face crumple when he gives her the news. The taste of bile sits heavy in his throat.

*

It takes all of a few seconds for Tony to get from what was Coulson’s room to the closest on-call room. He barges in, slamming the door behind him and feels the adrenaline rush out of his body. The result leaves him dropping back against the hard surface and sinking to the floor, knees pulled up to his chest.

“Tony?”

Great, he thinks, face hidden behind his knees, just the person I need to see right now.

He looks up and Steve is leaning up on his elbows in one of the beds, blinking away the last dregs of sleep. As a doctor you learn to get what little rest available to you whenever you can, it’s simply Tony’s bad luck that he happened to come into the room Steve had chosen for his nap.

His body is churning with the sick realisation that he's just killed a man, a nice guy who’d fallen victim to Tony’s ego and inability to stand up to Nick Fury. The worst part is that, despite his burgeoning guilt and rage, he can’t help but notice how adorably sleep-rumpled Steve looks.

Of course, that only makes him feel even more awful.

When he sees the state Tony’s in, the lingering fatigue clears from his expression and Steve sits up, looking concerned. Tony spends a second staring at Steve’s bedhead, wanting to run his fingers through the blonde strands.

Steve’s voice jars him from his silent contemplation. “What happened?”

Tony rubs at his eyes with the back of his hand.

“Nothing,” he plasters a fake smile on his face, “nothing at all.” Forcing himself to his feet, he throws his hands out in what he hopes is a placating gesture.

Steve has already moved forward to encroach on Tony’s space and he knows that if he lets Steve in too close, he’ll pull Tony’s secrets from him. He keeps his hands up in a half-hearted attempt to ward off that inevitability and they press up against Steve’s chest, the t-shirt under his hands warm. He watches with an odd sense of detachment as his fingers bunch in the fabric.

“It’s Phil. I uh—he’s—” he trips over the words, his tongue suddenly feeling heavy and inarticulate in his mouth. “You were right.”

Steve reaches forward, his hands cupping Tony’s elbows in silent support. Tony refuses to look at his face.

“Sometimes I wonder where the line is, you know? What makes us any better than murderers?” His fingers tighten in the cloth and feels Steve’s grip mirror his. Tony wonders if he were to let go, stop holding himself up, whether Steve would catch him.

“We spend years reading books and call ourselves surgeons—as if that means something—we pick up knives and cut into people in the name of science, as though we have any right to— we should call ourselves butchers and be done with it.” He won’t look Steve’s way but he can feel his gaze like a physical sensation, a weight he isn’t sure he can bear right now. He pushes away from Steve’s hold, arms thrown out wide. “We try and we try but—People die, they do it all the goddamn time and nothing—fuck! Nothing we do matters.” He lashes out, fist impacting with the wall, the drywall crumpling beneath it. He can’t even muster any relief that it wasn’t a load-bearing wall, that his two-million-dollar-a-year hand isn’t a mess of blood and broken bones.

The truth is, he almost wishes it had been.

He’s leaning against the wall, breathing hard, when Steve speaks again. “Did you know that I wanted to be an artist?” Tony looks up at the non sequitur to see that Steve is coming towards him, his movements slow, as though Tony is a wild animal he’s trying not to spook. He pads across the room silently, his sock-clad feet noiseless on the floor. Tony makes a small sound of encouragement, and he continues, “I was a little kid, got sick a lot, wasn’t strong enough to play outside with the other kids, so I spent a lot of time indoors. Mostly, I filled my time with art.” He reaches forward to pry Tony’s hand away from where it’s cradled against his body, his touch feather-light. Tony tries but fails to swallow down a whimper of pain. “Shhh,” Steve soothes, turning Tony’s hand over to examine it for serious injury.

Pain sparks throughout Tony’s hand, the ache shooting through the limb to leave his whole arm tingling. He needs a distraction. “Why’d you change your mind?” he croaks.

“Well, the other place I spent a lot of time, was in hospitals,” as he speaks, Steve moves the hand not cradling Tony’s to Tony’s side, drawing him away from the wall and back towards the bed. “I don’t know if you know, but my mom was a nurse, so on days when I was too sick to stay home alone, she’d take me to work with her. I’d sit in the nurse’s lounge and watch as nurses and doctors went about their work.”

Tony watches Steve’s long fingers as they deftly manoeuvre his hand back and forth, testing ease of movement to determine whether anything is fractured or broken. He watches for so long that his hand gradually grows more and more numb and he’s overcome by a sense of disconnection. He wonders, idly, watching one hand expertly examine the other, which hand is his. Steve’s voice remains a pleasant murmur in his ear. “Later, my friend Bucky—my only friend really—got in an accident. He was on the roof, I can’t even remember why now, some stupid game probably—and he fell off. I’d never been so scared in my life. He had all these internal injuries and his arm was completely crushed. I’d never felt so helpless,” he pauses and Tony only has a moment to consider asking him why when an unimaginable amount of pain rockets through his hand. Tony screams.

He opens his eyes—when did he close them? —to find his face pressed against Steve’s shoulder, and Steve’s other hand running up and down his back. “What the hell did you do?” he asks, feeling slight spasms of pain still running through his hand.

“I had to see if you could straighten it,” amidst the lingering ache, Tony can feel Steve’s thumb running softly over the back of his hand. “I think it’s safe to guess that it’s at least fractured. We’ll get you down to x-ray and take a look, okay?” He moves as though to stand and Tony bears his weight down to keep him in place. Steve looks at him, confused.

“Can we just wait? For a bit?” He lets his body tip over sideways so that he’s lying on his side, his hand cradled in the curve of his body. Steve looks down at him for a moment, something inscrutable in his expression, before he stands and walks over to the door. Tony bites down on his disappointment, only to be pleasantly surprised when Steve merely turns the lock on the door before coming back to lie down beside him, stretching an arm out to rest over Tony’s waist.

The room is silent, and Tony’s more than a little bit afraid of what he can see brewing behind Steve’s eyes.

“Can you finish your story? If you don’t mind, I mean…” He almost doesn’t recognise the timid person who voices the question. He’s Tony-fucking-Stark, not this uncertain, weak shell of a man.

Steve smiles then, and warmth blooms somewhere beneath Tony’s ribcage.

“Right, so Bucky got hurt and suddenly, the work that doctors and nurses did, it mattered so much more. I mean, I know it’s selfish, but everything they’d done up till that point, even what they’d done for me, with all my weaknesses and illnesses, it didn’t matter. They were helping Bucky and that mattered. I didn’t know how anyone could survive after a fall like that, he looked so small on the stretcher. I thought he’d broken his back or something, not to mention the state of his arm. But they saved him. He even kept the arm. I remember thinking that they were like superheroes.” He ducks his head to catch Tony’s gaze, the negligible distance between them narrowing even further.

When Steve talks again, Tony can feel the little puffs of air against his skin. “I realised that’s what surgeons do, Tony. They’re not butchers, they’re artists. And even today, I can remember that feeling of helplessness. That was when I decided that I never wanted to be in that position again.” His hand brushes against Tony’s again, light enough to avoid hurting him. “To watch someone I love in pain and not be able to help them.”

There are so many ways Tony could react to Steve’s admission. So many ways he wants to react. He could dwell on the terrifyingly soft, earnest look in Steve’s eyes when he says the word ‘love’ and looks at Tony, or he could brush it off as nothing more than a coincidence.

Instead, he shifts on the bed, his body sliding forward until it is pressed up against Steve, the bulk of his form is familiar. Tony feels his muscles relaxing in response. Although both men are of a similar height, the sheer width of Steve’s upper body is enough to make Tony feel sheltered, something Tony often (secretly) relishes.

Steve has his eyes open, watching, waiting for Tony to make the first move. They’re sharing air now and Tony knows that if he were to shift an inch, or open his mouth to speak, their lips would touch.

He acts with more intent, slanting his head to press his mouth firmly over Steve’s. His mouth is warm and pliant under Tony’s, giving up control and letting Tony take whatever he needs. Tony winds his uninjured hand into Steve’s shirt and attempts to draw them closer together; when his hand only gets in the way, he presses it to Steve’s back, their bodies firmly slotting together. He catches the slight hitch in Steve’s breathing with his mouth.

Steve’s hands remain steady on Tony’s waist, bunched in the fabric of his scrub top, which gets rucked up with every movement. Steve’s hand is impossibly warm (and god, what is he, a furnace?) when it finally touches Tony’s skin, tracing up his side. Tony’s considering the logistics of freezing time and having this moment stretch on forever when Steve takes back some of the control, pressing him back into the bed and draping part of his weight over Tony’s slighter form. The shift of their bodies is enough to jostle Tony’s injured hand and his groan of pain is muffled against Steve’s mouth. Of course, Steve hears it anyway and pulls back.

Tony makes to follow him. “No, no, where are you going?” His hand is locked on the back of Steve’s neck to keep him from moving too far away. Not that Steve couldn’t dislodge Tony’s grip if he wanted, but he’s banking on Steve’s desire to alleviate, not cause him pain.

A desire that Tony resents with the next words out of Steve’s mouth: “You’re hurt, Tony, we can’t do this now.” His voice is faintly reprimanding, even as Tony leans up to latch his lips onto the pulse point below his jaw. He listens to Steve’s breathing stutter and relishes the victory. It’s a short-lived one when Steve refuses to resettle his weight.

“Come on, my hand’s fine,” he lifts it up into their eyesight and has a split second to consider the intelligence of his decision before he’s stretching his fingers to straighten it out. Son of a bitch, he thinks, as the pain shoots through it again, fire searing through his nerves. His vision whites out for an instant and he blinks to keep the tears from his eyes. “See.” The word is much more choked than he’d have hoped. “Just fine.” Steve shakes his head, a faint twitch of his lips belying his amusement even as his eyes betray his worry.

“Okay, it’s definitely time for an x-ray,” Steve shifts his weight away before reaching his arm behind Tony to pull him upright into a sitting position.

“I’m not an invalid,” Tony complains, even as he lets Steve pull him to his feet.

“I know,” Steve replies easily. “Maybe I just like taking care of you.”

And Tony doesn’t know what to do with that, so he wraps his arms around Steve’s familiar, reassuring form, and takes whatever strength he’s willing to offer.

*

They’re half way to radiology when Fury catches up with them. His expression is thunderous as he moves to block their path, everyone else in the corridor giving them a wide berth as they pass. Tony wonders if they shouldn’t have taken the alternate route.

His mind is working a mile a minute, shooting through possible ways to tackle this problem, before the decision is taken out of his hands altogether.

Steve steps forward to obstruct Fury’s view of Tony. He cuts an imposing figure, back ramrod straight as he glares down his commanding officer (or the closest thing he has to one) all in defence of Tony.

Tony would be lying if he said he wasn’t more than a little turned on.

“Dr Rogers,” Fury says, visibly staring down his nose at Steve. “Don’t you have anywhere else you have to be right now?”

Steve doesn’t even blink, “No, sir.”

“And why is that?”

“I don’t have another surgery scheduled until tomorrow morning and all my post- and pre-op patients are under the care of residents and interns…” Well, it’s really Fury’s own fault that he decided to ask that question to the only organised member of his attending staff. A muscle ticks in Fury’s jaw, “sir,” Steve adds, almost as an afterthought.

“What is it that you want, then?” Fury asks through clenched teeth.

“To tell you that you made the wrong call.” The difference between Steve’s demeanour earlier and now is enough to give him whiplash. “And to make sure you aren’t thinking of punishing Tony for something that was obviously not his fault.” But yours, though left unsaid, they all heard Steve’s accusation.

He watches surprise dart across Fury’s face and the carefully constructed mask seems to flicker.

Tony scrutinises the expression and realises that Fury’s most likely fighting to keep all his pain at losing his friend buried behind a façade of anger, that blaming Tony is probably the easiest solution for him right now.

“Steve,” Tony says, nudging Steve’s considerable form aside and stepping towards Fury. Tony may be having a shit day but that doesn’t mean he needs anyone to fight his battles for him. Steve moves aside without argument, but Tony can see him in his peripheral vision, watching them closely. “It was my fault, Fury,” Tony offers and Steve makes an unhappy sound in his throat. Tony shoots him a look, both eyebrows raised, that he hopes says ‘will you let me finish?’

“It was my fault because I didn’t stand up to you. Because I let you push me into a surgery that was against all of my better judgement, and the patient died because of the risks that I knew were there. Tony watches Fury’s jaw clench tightly as he continues speaking, softening his tone because that’s what you do when comforting a patient’s loved ones and though he refuses to admit it now, that’s what Fury is. Tony’s done with lashing out at people. “And I am sorry about Phil.”

Tony knows that the odds he’s actually rendered Fury speechless are slim, so he doesn’t have any plans to wait around for the chief to recover his wits and decide to punish Tony regardless.

“Come on, Steve. Wouldn’t want my broken hand to fall off, what with all the money it rakes in for the hospital.” He grabs Steve’s hand and pulls him further along down the hall. He watches Fury’s one eye flick towards his injured hand as they pass, and he must decide that Tony has a point, despite the exaggeration, because he lets them go without comment.

*

He’s nursing a boxer’s fracture encased in brand new cast and under the influence of some rather heavy painkillers when the page comes in from the ER.

The patient is a teenage boy—Tony guesses about 16—with sweat matting his black hair to his forehead and a piece of rebar jammed through his abdomen and, evidence suggests, his spine.

The sight makes Tony suck in a breath through his teeth.

“You gonna stand there all day, Stark, or you gonna help make sure this kid can walk?” Natasha barks, tendrils of red hair escaping her scrub cap, which appears to be covered in—spiders? That’s it. Tony is officially giving up on trying to understand the woman.

“Well?” She prompts.

He springs into action then, shouting orders at interns and deftly moving between residents as they go about their duties.

“Someone get me some gloves and a surgical mask,” he demands. Only then does Natasha notice the cast that reaches half way up his forearm.

“Wait, are you on anything? Should you even be working?” She asks, eyes flicking down again.

“I’ll be fine, I’ll just coordinate with my buddy Parker, here. Right, Parker?” he grins and hears what he’d bet the use of his remaining hand is Peter dropping a tray in the corner. “Isn’t that right, Peter?”

“Uh…yes, sir?” Parker stammers.

“You sure about this, Stark?” Natasha asks with what is definitely amusement playing around her lips.

“Yep, definitely,” he says, giving her a bright smile. “Now, you, Parker, get over here!” He demands, and the intern hurries over to his side.

Once he’s set Parker a task that he’s rather sure the intern is capable of, he turns to the patient, keeping himself on the kid’s right side while Natasha stays on his left and the rest of the team flit around like worker bees in the hive. He stays out of their way as best as he can; aware he’s not capable of physically practicing medicine right now.

“So what happened, kid?” He asks, examining the wound, trying to visually judge its trajectory and the odds of it having pierced the spinal column.

“Dunno,” the kid winces. His skin has a grey cast and his pupils are dilated, only a small ring of brown remaining of the iris and leaving his eyes looking almost entirely black. “One second I was walk—” he grimaces, “walking through this abandoned house—ow!” he shouts, as Natasha does something to the injury site.

“What the hell were you doing in an abandoned house?” Tony asks, trying to bring the patient’s attention back to him. He can see others moving around, getting ready to remove the rebar and pack the wound so he doesn’t bleed out before they get him into surgery.

“Was a dare,” he groans, despite the painkillers now pumping into his body. “My friends, they dared me.”

“Well, I’m afraid to break it to you, but you might need some new friends, uh…?” Tony trails off, keeping an eye on what’s happening in his peripheral vision.

“James,” he coughs, “but my friends call me Rhodey.”

“Those friends that you’re replacing you mean? Alright, Rhodey,” Tony says, reaching forward to clasp the kid on the shoulder, careful to avoid jostling him. His eyes are wide with fear, and Tony’s mind flashes back to Phil for a moment. To the there-one-second, gone-the-next look in his eyes that Tony still doesn’t entirely believe that he saw, before the anaesthesiologist put him under.

“Tony, we’re ready to go over here. It’s time to put him under now,” Natasha tells him, voice surprisingly soft. He looks over to find her watching him. He’s trying to decipher the expression when she reaches over and clasps his uninjured wrist, giving it a light squeeze.

It’s a struggle to keep his surprise at the support from showing on his face. Instead, Tony takes a deep breath, pushing all thoughts of his earlier surgery from his mind. He’s going to save this kid.

“Let’s get this outta you,” he says, as the general anaesthetic takes effect. Watching the kid’s eyes close, he vows that he’s going to be there when they open again.

*

It takes over three hours, but they get the rebar out and the patient in stable condition. He’ll be under surveillance for a while to make sure he doesn’t begin haemorrhaging internally or infection doesn’t set in, but things are looking good.

The best part is that Tony is confident he’ll walk again.

He leaves the OR feeling an odd sense of clarity.

*

When he sticks his head into Fury’s office he’s surprised to find the chief there—surely he should be off terrorising some poor unsuspecting intern somewhere in the hospital…or just at home. He tells Fury as much and receives an unimpressed scowl for his troubles.

It seems, for now, everything’s returned to normal.

“What do you want, Stark? I know you think my life revolves around you, but you’re sorely mistaken.”

“Keep telling yourself that,” he says, throwing himself into the seat opposite Fury’s. “But in the interest of letting you maintain your delusion, I’ll be brief. Not like I want to spend any more time in your glowing presence anyway.”

Fury leans back in his chair, letting out a sharp breath. Stop stalling. Right.

With absolute perfect timing, the indecision takes the opportunity to rear its head again, and the doubt rushes back. He’d been grappling with it the entire walk over and though he’s almost certain he’s about to do the right thing, there’s a lingering sense of obligation that scratches away at the back of his mind. Unsurprisingly it’s his father’s voice telling him he’s a disappointment, that I gave you one job to do, Tony, and you couldn’t even manage that.

But maybe it doesn’t matter. This is hardly the way that he wants to earn his father’s approval anyway.

“Howard—my, er—my dad. He’s sick,” Fury straightens and tips forward towards Tony, who puts his hands up to stall the oncoming questions. “It’s early onset Alzheimer’s. He’s in a care facility,” Tony says, forcing himself to maintain eye contact with Fury. He remembers the first time they met, how he’d opened the conversation with ‘so do I look at the patch or the eye?’ To this day, he’s never quite figured it out.

“He doesn’t want anyone to know…which now you do, I guess…”

Howard Stark’s great secret is out now, hanging in the air between them, and Tony lets out a long breath he didn’t even realise he was holding. “I’m telling you because my mom called earlier and she says he needs to be hospitalised. I don’t even know what’s wrong. I didn’t really ask for details. Sure, I have some pretty serious reservations about him coming here, but I’ll leave that to you…” Yep, son of the year, Tony. “Maybe you can call in Xavier or something if you need a decent neurosurgeon…” It goes without saying that Tony can’t be the one to treat his father.

It doesn’t seem like Fury’s going to reply, but maybe that’s just as well.

“Well, it looks like my work here is done,” Tony says, putting his hands on the chair’s armrests, and pushing himself to his feet. He can’t help but note that he’s suddenly feeling lighter, no longer weighed down by secrets he has no obligation to keep.

He leaves Fury’s office with an ease to his gait, the other man’s gaze heavy across his back.

Just one more thing to do.

*

Unfortunately for Tony, it takes a great deal longer to find Steve than he’d originally anticipated and by the time he does, the speech he’d been putting together in his head has all but fled, and the confidence that remains is a weak facsimile of what it was. The search itself is rather more arduous than he’d expected it would be, too. He asks everyone he can think of, receiving varying reactions including an eye roll from Natasha and a thump on the back from Thor, before glancing at the board and finding Steve’s name scribbled next to an emergency valve replacement. Fucking great, he thinks, checking the surgery time against that on the giant clock above the board. The numbers written beside the procedure list their start time as two hours earlier which means that Tony’s stuck waiting for anything from one to four hours and how the hell is he supposed to wait that long? He slumps back against the wall.

*

It’s almost an hour into Tony’s wait that Clint finds him. His only response is to raise an eyebrow at Tony’s position on the floor before settling down beside him.

He only manages to wait five minutes—Tony suspects it must be a personal best—before he cuts a sideways glance at Tony, “so, who are we waiting for?”

“I don’t know who you’re waiting for…me, I’m just…enjoying the scenery,” he replies, stretching his legs out and forcing a passing nurse to swerve to avoid tripping.

She shoots him a glare and he hears her mutter something that he isn’t certain, but definitely sounds like it might be ‘fucking surgeons’.

“My bad!” Tony calls after her, not entirely sure whether he means it or not. She doesn’t look back.

“Right…” Clint says, reminding Tony of his presence, “any plans aside from ‘enjoying the scenery’ and maiming hospital employees?”

“Have you always been this nosy?” Tony gripes, considering drawing his knees up when yet another person complains about having to dodge his roadblock. He decides against it.

“Of course, it’s all part of my charm,” Clint grins. It reminds Tony of the first time he’d met Clint.

It was only a year after Tony had started working at Shield and he’d gone into a young cardiac patient’s room to find a man in there already. Young and blonde, wearing a ridiculous mask with a quiver of arrows strapped to his back and a bow clutched in his hand, he was regaling the little boy with tales of his work as government spy, and the kid was enraptured, eyes wide as Clint bounced around the room.

It was only later, after a lot of shouting and confused questions that Tony found out Clint was the new head of paeds and that he came highly recommended. Sure, he’s snarky and a bit eccentric, but Tony hardly has a corner on the market of “normal”.

“Did you figure out what was wrong with your patient?” Tony asks, tipping his head so he see Clint’s face more clearly. He’s dressed in dark purple scrubs and Tony ponders what kind of self-respecting surgeon would wear such an atrocity.

“Well, you won’t believe it, but Steve was right,” Clint says, catching Tony’s eye, his eyebrows raised.

Tony makes a noncommittal sound, turning back to the board on the opposite wall, not really surprised. The floor beneath him is hard and cold and Tony would die before admitting this out loud, but he might be getting too old for this shit.

“Yep, was an easy fix, I installed a pacemaker so now she’s good to go. Yet another kid saved by my brilliance,” Clint says, eyes still fixed on Tony.

“Don’t you mean Steve’s brilliance?” Tony asks, just to wind him up.

“Please,” Clint scoffs, waving away Tony’s words, “like your opinion on the matter would count for anything,” he rolls his eyes, head tilted back against the wall, and Tony sputters, outraged.

“What? I’ll have you know that my opinion always counts, no matter the situation,” he says.

“Except when the situation involves Steve, and your brain flies out the window, leaving a pining, love-struck teenager in its wake,” Clint says, pulling his scrub cap off and running a hand through his hair, leaving it standing up in spikes. Tony won’t admit that the words hit a bit too close to home.

Clint disregards his silence and pushes on, a definite teasing note in his voice. “Look, Stark,” and though the two of them are friends, Tony can count on one hand the number of times he’s heard Clint call him by his first name. “I know you’re emotionally stunted, but can you do something about the tension already? The rest of us are over it, I don’t know how you’re not.”

“Tension? I’ll have you know, Steve and I work out our tension all the time,” Tony says, waggling his eyebrows for unnecessary emphasis. Clint rolls his eyes.

“Not what I mean,” he says, knocking his body sideways into Tony, making him throw out a hand to stop himself tipping over to lie on the floor. “It’s the obvious hearts in your eyes every time he’s around—not to mention the way you’re pretending your feelings for him are just casual.” Had he really been that obvious? Tony schools his face into a blank mask and hopes his mortification doesn’t bleed into his expression. Clint’s next words, however, surprise him with their sincerity. “Why don’t you just talk to him?”

“About what, exactly?” Tony asks warily, because it’s better to play dumb than make a fool out of himself by misunderstanding (or giving away too much).

Clint’s look takes on a speculative note, his eyes narrowed as he searches Tony’s expression for something. “Unless that’s what you’re doing sitting on the floor and watching the clock while Steve's in surgery…”

He considers Tony for about 20 seconds during which Tony has to fight to keep himself from either making an offhand remark about how ridiculous that suggestion is (something that will surely give him away), or simply getting up and making a hasty retreat down the hall. Tony does neither of those things and Clint seems to find what he’s looking for.

“You’re really going to do it?” There’s little point to pretending now, so Tony tips his chin down a fraction in confirmation. “Well, good for you,” Clint grins, clapping him on the shoulder. Tony’s fingers bunch in his scrubs, tightening and releasing as the weight of what he’s about to do comes back to him, suddenly seeming much more daunting. Is he really ready for this?

Keen observer that he is—and there have been instances where Tony’s considered the possibility that Clint may actually have once been a spy—Clint must notice Tony's uncertainty. He lists sideways again, this time keeping his weight pressed against Tony’s shoulder. Tony feels the stress start to bleed out of him.

They remain that way for another ten minutes, watching as people hurry around, the constant activity of the hallway reminding Tony that in the grand scheme of things, his little problem isn’t much compared to all the life-changing activities going on in the hospital right now.

Their moment of silent camaraderie is only broken when Clint’s pager goes off and he straightens to take a look at it. “That’s my cue,” he grins, jumping to his feet, a great deal more agile than Tony could ever be. “Don’t worry so much, Tony. He might surprise you.” With a squeeze of his shoulder, Clint is gone, whistling as he saunters down the corridor.

*

Tony falls asleep slumped over sideways on the sofa in the attending’s lounge and jolts awake some hours later, the echoes of his dream (his hands coated in blood, thick and dripping) still running on a loop behind his eyelids. He looks at his hands, breathing a shaky sigh of relief when he finds them clean. Only then does he realise that there’s a body pressed snugly up against him, a heart beating against his back and an arm flung over his side. Warm puffs of air ruffle his hair and he lets himself enjoy the sensation for all of two seconds before he remembers why this might be a problem.

He glances up at the clock to find that it’s 2am, meaning that Steve’s surgery must have run later than even Tony had anticipated, considering he hadn’t given up waiting in the hallway and come into the lounge till 11. It gratifies Tony to know that it mustn’t have been long after his surgery finished that Steve climbed in with him. Unfortunately the sofa boasts hardly enough space for one grown man, and with the two of them—well, Tony’s sure that he’d have fallen right off if Steve hadn’t been holding him in place. Which, in itself, just won't do. Tony has an important talk to have with Steve and sleep is an easily overcome obstacle, though it’s going to come with a heavy dose of guilt.

Tony is considering the pros and cons of waking Steve when he feels the other man moving against his back, the arm around him tightening slightly.

“Steve?” Tony ask, just quiet enough that if Steve is, in fact, still asleep, then it’s unlikely to disturb him.

The only response he receives is a puff of air against the back of his neck but that’s really all he needs. He twists himself around so that he’s facing Steve and only after he’s executed the rather difficult manoeuvre does he realise the problem with having only inches between their faces. Steve’s eyes blink open sleepily and Tony wonders if maybe he should just leave it till the morning. It’s the little smile that creeps onto his face that makes Tony’s mind up for him.

Steeling his resolve, he ducks forward to press a soft kiss to Steve’s lips (resolutely not thinking about how what he’s about to say could make this the last one), before forcing himself to sit up and climb to his feet. There’s no way he can say what he has to say with Steve right there.

Steve blinks up at him, confused as Tony grabs a chair from the table, dragging it around until its opposite where Steve is now sitting up, and settling in.

“What is it, Tony?” Steve asks, his voice roughened with sleep.

Tony drums his fingers against his knee for a moment, wondering how to start. “I love this hospital,” he announces, apropos of nothing.

“Okay…” Steve says.

“It’s my home, you know. In a way my parents’ house wasn’t, boarding school definitely wasn’t, and college…” he huffs a sigh, aware that he’s rambling but unable to make his thoughts more coherent. “I grew up here, you know. Following my dad around, running up and down the halls, falling asleep in employee lounges,” Steve raises an eyebrow and Tony chuckles, conceding. “Okay, I guess I’m still doing that…”

“But here’s the thing,” he says, steering them back to the point, “I think maybe that’s changed…”

The expression on Steve’s face tells Tony that, despite his best efforts, he’s not having any more success in the coherence department.

“I don’t do this. This talking about your feelings stuff, I’m no good at it.”

“Tony, that’s fine, I don’t—”

“No, no, no,” Tony steamrolls right over anything Steve might be about to say. He needs to get this out or he might never try again. “It’s my turn, you can talk later,” he says, waving a hand dismissively.

Steve’s eyebrows rise towards his hairline, but he keeps quiet.

“Okay, so you know I’m not great at the whole relationship thing either,” he says, even as he’s preaching to the choir. “I mean, this is already the longest relationship I’ve been in since…well, ever, and it’s hardly what you’d call a relationship…”

Tony suspects that if Steve’s eyebrows rise any higher they’re going to disappear into his hairline.

“Not that I’d know why anyone would want to get into a relationship with me—beyond the obvious.” He gestures up and down to his body, a smirk plastered on his face. It slips off quickly. “But even if they did, my bucketload of issues would probably chase them away pretty fast,” he says, and he isn’t being self-deprecating, just honest.

He’s up and pacing the room now and he doesn’t even know how he got there.

“And with my dad’s Alzheimer’s crap,” and wow, Tony, raking in all the sensitivity awards today, aren’t you? “There’s a 50/50 chance that if we stuck this out, one day I’ll look at you and not even know who you are,” Tony says, uncertain of where the conversation took a turn from talking about a hypothetical person to Steve himself. He doesn’t dwell, better to get to the point faster. “And I don’t want to do that to you. But you know what? I’m selfish. That’s what I am, I’m selfish and narcissistic and I’m so sick of pretending that I’m not. So I’m not going to be selfless about this, because that’s not who I am.”

He takes the two steps needed to bring him to Steve and drops one leg to either side of the other man’s thighs, leaving Tony straddling his lap. Steve’s hands come up to bracket his hips reflexively, his eyes searching Tony’s.

Tony takes it as a positive sign, lifting his hands to rest against either side of Steve’s neck. “What I’m trying to say, I guess, is that—” Tony stalls for a moment, the words suddenly dying in his throat. He scrambles for something else to say, because he can’t seriously be thinking of doing this, can he? But his brain—his fantastic, infallible brain, is failing him. Then he’s looking at Steve and there’s something that might be hope warring with fear in his expression and dammit, Tony can’t back down now.

“I love you.”

Tony feels like he’s standing on relatively solid ground as he waits for Steve’s response. Sure, there’s a part of him that’s holding its breath, just waiting for Steve to turn away, but that’s neither here nor there. Most of him is confident. Fine, at least 67% of him is confident. Then Steve does something that sweeps Tony’s footing out from underneath him; he laughs. Tony feels it rumble through Steve’s body, and if Tony couldn’t see the delight in Steve’s expression he’d start worrying that maybe Steve was laughing at him.

Instead, he lets Steve have his moment before he interrupts. “Okay, I’m glad that you find my emotional distress so amusing, but—”

Steve claps a hand over Tony’s mouth, amusement still evident in the easy curl of his lips and softness in his eyes. “No, you’ve said your bit, it’s my turn now.” He waits until Tony nods his acquiesce before removing his hand.

“Yes, sir, Captain, sir,” Tony performs what he’s sure is a sloppy approximation of a salute, and pretends to zip his lips in response to Steve’s unimpressed (yet amused, Tony notes gleefully) glare.

“You are, without a doubt, the most ridiculous man I’ve ever met.” He huffs a laugh and Tony can only gape indignantly when Steve lifts a hand in warning. “No, my turn,” he says.

“I never agreed to subject myself to this kind of abuse,” Tony complains, crossing his arms across his chest.

The smile on Steve’s face is indulgent, as though he’s humouring a petulant child and Tony would feel insulted if he didn’t know it was just Steve making fun of him. And that he was going to get him back for it later.

“How many people have I dated in the time that you’ve known me?” Steve asks, and Tony can only blink in response.

“You didn’t think it was odd that I never talked about or introduced you guys to anyone else? In all the years we’ve known each other?” Steve shrugs, fixing his look somewhere over Tony’s shoulder.

Tony wants to interject with names of people Steve’s dated over the years, but all he can ask is, “what about Peggy?” Thinking about the gorgeous brunette who Steve met during his tour and convinced Fury to hire as the head of trauma. His throat feels suddenly dry.

“Peggy?” Steve is definitely surprised by the suggestion. “Peggy and I realised that we were better off as friends even before you and I ever started this…thing. Is that what you were worried about?” Tony will never admit to breathing a little sigh of relief in response, but it’s possible that Steve sees it anyway. “I was always ready, Tony.” He fixes his gaze back on Tony, who can’t help but think that maybe he’s still a little uncertain. “I just wasn’t sure you were. Or that you wanted that…more…with me.”

Tony tries to formulate some kind of response but there’s nothing to properly describe how stupid they’ve both been. How could they have wasted so much time thinking the same thing about each other?

For lack of a better alternative, Tony wraps a hand around the back of Steve’s neck and smashes their mouths together. It’s hard at first, their teeth clack against each other and Steve makes a startled sound against Tony’s lips. Only when he’s gotten past his initial surprise does he get with the programme, his mouth hot against Tony’s and his hands slipping up Tony’s back under his shirt. Tony hates to end it when he does, but it’s more important that he knows Steve understands that he’s ready for this, for the next step, whatever that may be. He pulls away to rest his forehead against Steve’s.

The room they're in is dark, so Tony doesn’t know how it's possible, but Steve’s eyes look shockingly blue in that moment.

The yawn, when it comes, is completely unbidden.

“If you laugh at me now, Steve Rogers, I’m climbing off you and going to go confess my love to somebody else.” Tony warns as Steve’s lips, still red and far too inviting, quirk into a smile.

“I don’t know about you,” Steve interjects, bringing his lips up to Tony’s ear, voice dropping into a whisper, “but I’m pretty tired.”

Tony doesn’t know what he was expecting Steve to say, but it sure wasn’t that.

Apparently he’s only informing Tony as a formality because he hooks an arm around Tony’s waist and settles back into the couch, pulling Tony down with him and rearranging them into a more comfortable position as he goes. His body is heavy and relaxed, his head tucked into Tony’s neck and Tony can feel his own muscles loosening in response.

The cushions are soft under his body, despite the cramped space they’re sharing. He briefly considers the merits of moving to an on-call room, but even the closest one seems so far away, and Steve is right there, soft and sleepy. It’s a no-brainer, really, so he wraps his arm around Steve’s back, slipping his hand under the neckline of his shirt to rest against smooth skin. Steve shifts to press a kiss to the skin under Tony’s jaw and he feels a smile slip onto his face.

It’s only minutes later that Tony feels his body dropping off, his eyelids heavy and the steady beat of Steve’s heart lulling him into slumber, so he almost doesn’t catch the words that Steve breathes into his skin, his voice heartbreakingly earnest: “You’re my home, too, Tony.”

Tony falls asleep, with Steve a comfortable weight against his side.