“Is this thing on? Can you guys hear me?”
“Tony?” Steve stared up at screen mounted on the wall of their cell. He hadn’t even known that it was possible for Tony to patch a feed through into the Negative Zone, but if anyone could do it Steve supposed it would be him.
Tony ignored him, smoothly rolling into updating them on his actions despite his attempts to interrupt. According to Tony, there was only one gem left for Reed to collect, the one that Hydra lost in the earth, and now they had a way to get it. Steve reeled at the new flood of information. Where had Tony learned all of this?
Where Tony's voice was usually loud and clear through the comms, as though Steve were standing in the room with him, now he sounded sharp and tinny. Distant, like he was far away from the speaker.
He couldn't explain why, but it put him on edge. "Tony, where are you?"
"Oh, y’know… Around," Tony said.
"Give me a location and we'll come find you," Steve said. He wasn't sure how they were planning to do that. As far as he could tell, they wouldn't be escaping from this cell any time soon.
He may have sounded a little bit desperate.
"Steve, just listen," Tony said, managing to sound breathless without actually breathing into the mic. Suddenly the sound switched from the screen to the comm in Steve’s ear. Steve stilled at the unusual somberness of the request, at the use of his first name with none of Tony’s usual flippancy.
"Yeah. Yeah, I'm listening," Steve said. He glanced over to Thor and Clint, but their curious expressions told him that neither of them was hearing this.
Steve could only imagine why Tony would opt for a private channel, and the thought twisted in his gut like a knife.
"I've destroyed the armory…all except the Hulkbuster, but, y’know, work in progress. I don’t…you’re not going to have any back up on this one, or at least no quality backup, Fury and his men are on the move… just, I'm sorry," Tony said, his voice sounding far away. Steve could hear static crackling in the background, and Tony should hate that; he's always prided himself on having only the highest-grade equipment. "I can't—can't keep this up. I'm sorry," Tony repeated.
Tony’s apologies did nothing to quell the dread coiled in his stomach. "Just tell me where you are," Steve demanded, pleaded.
"I'm already—" Tony paused, the words crackling sharply, and then said, "It doesn't matter. I’m going to open the cell for you now.” A pause, a hydraulic hiss. “There's, uh, there's one more thing, just. Steve, I—"
The words cut out abruptly with a loud fizzle of static, then nothing. "Tony, wait. Tony?" Steve raised his voice, "Iron Man?"
Steve cursed and ripped the ear bud out as though to check that it was still working (it was, it was brand new, Tony had just upgraded) and then shoved the comm back into his ear.
"Hello?" he asked, receiving only silence.
Steve felt raw, a cold ache he hadn’t felt since…well. He clenched his fist tight, trying to ground himself. Now wasn’t the time.
Reed had gleefully told him where he’d found the infinity gem. He’d seemed somewhat sad to admit it, how he’d dug it out of Tony’s skull, severed his spinal cord and left him to die, like he was simply being wasteful, like he hadn’t just murdered a man strung up in his lab.
He told him what Tony had said, when he’d realized just how crazy Reed had become—that he didn’t want to die.
Thinking about it made bile rise in the throat, left him feeling cold. Tony had been living with a terminal brain tumor. Steve watched Tony come to terms with his own mortality a long time ago, but there was a big difference between embracing what God gave you and watching someone rip it from your vulnerable fingertips.
It couldn’t have been painless. Reed had cut off his oxygen, forcibly severed the connection from his brain to his lungs, his heart. He’d known it then, that Tony was dead (he had to be) and that whatever Tony had been trying to tell him earlier, he’d missed his chance. Steve had missed his chance, too.
The battlefield was no place for those kinds of thoughts, so he shoved them to the back of his mind and got to work.
He didn’t think about it again until one brief moment, when he’d seen Reed with the Infinity Gauntlets and thought what if…
In the end Steve didn’t get the option. The Infinity Gauntlets were gone in a wink, and maybe it was better that way, because the kind of desperation he’d felt when the gems disappeared only convinced him that the Gauntlet couldn’t have given him what he’d wanted—altering reality was a dangerous game. It was only days later, when the fighting had stopped and reconstruction had begun, that he stood numbly in front of Monica Chang as she ran through her debrief and finally built up the courage to ask.
Her expression pinched, mouth forming a thin line. She sighed through her nose, like she was trying to put the words right in her head. “He’s…not good,” she said.
Steve felt a laugh bubbling up in his chest, because of course he wasn’t good, how could any of this be good?, but then the weight of her words settled, and he saw the edge of worry in her expression, not worry over how Steve was going to react, but—
“But he, he’s…” Steve could hardly bring himself to say the words.
“Alive,” she confirmed, the slight tilt of her head showing that she was wondering if he hadn’t known, “but Steve, barely—”
“But he’s alive,” Steve repeated.
She frowned. “That might be an overstatement, but yes.”
Steve could feel the heat prickling behind his eyes, and he blinked it away. Dead there was nothing he could do, no treatment, no serum or magic or technology he could turn to. Alive he could work with.
“I need to see him,” he said, no room for argument in his tone. They were finally out of danger; his duties could be put on hold for a little while. Tony had waited long enough.
Monica studied him for a moment, and then set her debriefing packet aside. “This can wait. I’ll have someone take you to him.”
She left him there, in the middle of SHIELD’s temporary base, and it was only minutes later that he began to wonder if he was supposed to follow her. She should have just given him the name of the hospital—he was more than capable of making the trip on his own, regardless of whether or not she thought he needed an escort, but Monica hadn’t actually told him where Tony was.
Eventually, someone did come to collect him—a wiry young agent who seemed almost too calm and collected. Steve was directed to a civilian hospital. It felt odd that they would have brought him here, but the Triskellion was leveled by the Hulk’s escape from his cage, and with it any medical facilities. The arrangement still made him nervous, though the SHIELD agent posted in front of the hospital room put him somewhat at ease.
A knot had settled into the pit of his stomach some time on the ride over. They hit heavy traffic on the way (the roads were still a mess) which slowed them down considerably, and Steve felt like he was going to vibrate out of his skin by the time they arrived. Still, Steve eased the door open quietly, because despite his eagerness this was a hospital.
The walls weren’t white like Steve would have expected, but instead light blue with a discreet floral pattern around the edges. The room was somewhat on the small side, not nearly as nice as Tony’s usually were—most likely because Tony wasn’t awake to complain about it. The room was still a single, however, and though the bed was small it commanded the room, with little else in way of furniture.
Despite the oxygen mask over his face, Tony looked like he was moments away from cracking an eye open and leering at Steve, his expression completely relaxed, all handsome lines and sharp edges. He looked a bit worse for wear. His pale complexion and the stubble around his goatee betrayed how long he’d already been here, while Steve still thought he was dead.
Steve crossed the room in three long strides; his hands were shaking. There was a folding chair set up on the right side of the bed for visitors, but Steve didn’t want to sit just yet. He felt too restless.
Lying in a hospital bed, Tony looked…well, small wasn't the right word. No matter where he was, he’d always had a sort of presence about him, like he could command the attention of an entire room just by entering.
It was Steve who felt small. He felt like she should do something—but what could be do? He couldn’t fight a brain injury. There were no villains to defeat here. There was nothing for Steve to do but sit and wait and wring his hands together uselessly, and meanwhile Tony looked so vulnerable, pale and gaunt like he already had one foot in the grave (and it was true, he did, but Steve didn’t want to think about that.)
Steve had known for quite some time that eventually Tony would die before him. That should have made it easier, but somehow it made the whole situation so much worse. It just…it had seemed less real before. Steve had thought that the talking brain tumor was just another one of Tony’s quirks. Just another thing that made Tony who he was—is, he couldn’t afford to think like that, it had to be is.
He’d seemed so healthy, so happy, and even when he was drinking himself stupid he never actually acted like he was dying. It was easy for Steve to push it to the back of his mind, then, when Tony was smiling at him and calling him Cap in that private way of his, like the nickname meant so much more than just a codename. It was easy to pretend this day wasn’t going to come.
And he was so quiet. It was hard to imagine Tony ever being this quiet before. Tony was noise and energy; Tony was one of the liveliest people Steve had ever met.
Steve wanted to hold his hand, like maybe that could ground him somehow, and bring Tony back out of his own head. He resisted the urge. Tony’s hand was tucked away under the blankets, anyway. It would be silly. It would be selfish, to jostle him around for Steve’s benefit, even if he so desperately wanted to reach out and touch him just to prove that he was still alive. He didn’t have the right.
Tony had nearly died, and he was shirtless, hooked up to a heart monitor and a myriad of other instruments while the mask over his nose and mouth forced him to breathe, steady if anything, but much too shallow for Steve’s nerves. He was probably cold. Dying always made you cold.
(Steve would know).
A light tap on the doorframe drew Steve’s attention, and he looked up as the doctor entered the room. She was short, at least a head shorter than Steve, with her dark hair twisted up into a bun. In her hands was carrying a clip board, probably Tony’s chart, and Steve’s gaze flicked down to it before looking back up to meet her eyes.
She smiled at him, tired but not unkindly, exuding all kinds of professionalism Steve was sure was meant to put him at ease. “I’m Dr. Saha,” she said, reaching to shake his hand.
“Steve Rogers,” he said. The introduction wasn’t necessary—he hadn’t even bothered to change out of his uniform—but she nodded politely, anyway. He cut right to the chase. “How is he?”
“Stable, for now, but it will be touch and go for a while,” she responded. Steve tried not to let his dissatisfaction with that response show, but she gave him a sympathetic look anyway. “I’m sorry if that’s not what you wanted to hear.”
“No, it’s—I’d rather you didn’t sugar coat it,” Steve said.
She nodded in approval. “We can go over the extent of his injuries and what we’ve done so far later, if you’d like, but in my experience you’re more interested in the prognosis than anything else.” She looked at him, encouraging the question that had been on the tip of his tongue since she’d entered the room.
“Will he wake up?” Steve asked.
“We can’t be sure,” the doctor explained. “At this point, it could go either way.”
“Well, can’t you test for that? Scan his brain or something?” Steve asked. When she answered it was with measured patience, and Steve felt equal parts sorry for being snappish and set even more on edge.
“He has to heal first. Mr. Stark came in with major head trauma. He needs to recover from the reconstructive surgery before we can think about further testing his brain function.” He probably didn’t look satisfied with that answer—he certainly didn’t feel satisfied with it—because she placed a hand gently on his arm. “These things take time. All we can do now is wait and see.”
“There’s more,” she said while Steve nodded in understanding. “He’s suffered an incomplete spinal cord injury, between the C1 and C2 vertebrae.” She touched the back of her neck as she said it, to indicate the location of the break. “That’s not something to be taken lightly. Sometimes there’s limited motility even after an injury like this, just sometimes, but…it’s not likely.”
Something cold and roiling settled into his chest as Steve processed the words.
“Limited motility meaning… he won’t walk? Or—”
“It’s possible,” she hedged, “that he’ll be unable to move at all without assistance. There may be sensation below the injury site, but no function. Or the reverse may be true. It will be difficult to tell before he regains consciousness. We’ll be running more tests throughout the week, after he’s had more time to recover.”
Steve felt his throat tighten at the news. He’d been expecting something like this, and while it was still better (so much better) than the alternative, it wasn’t anything Steve wanted to hear.
“Do you—can you explain? What you’ve done so far, or what comes…next.”
Dr. Saha nodded. “I have other patients to attend to,” she said apologetically, “but if you’d like, I could send a nurse by to explain in better detail?”
Steve nodded. “I would appreciate that.” She smiled, and after assuring him that a nurse would be by shortly, hurried out of the room. Steve hovered in the middle of the floor for a long moment, feeling out of place, feeling like he was going to crawl out of his skin. Eventually, he sat down heavily in a chair.
The nurse came by fifteen minutes later, to answer all of Steve’s questions. He didn’t stick around after they’d finished talking, for which Steve was grateful. At this point, he really needed a moment alone to collect himself.
The machine over Tony’s torso was the only thing keeping his heart beating, the tube down his throat forcibly inflating his lungs. Wires and electrodes stuck out in all directions from his bare chest. The doctors were keeping his core temperature low in an attempt to minimize the swelling in his brain.
It took nearly fourteen hours of surgery to repair the damage that Reed had done, and even then they were only doing the best they could. The doctors put him in an induced coma to help him heal, but Steve could tell that they weren’t optimistic.
The nurse had explained everything they were doing for Steve, which he appreciated even though he still felt like they were dumbing it down for him. Normally this would be the job for next of kin—and god, Tony was such a moron sometimes, that role was still listed as Gregory Stark—but the doctors were willing enough to make the exception for Captain America. It wasn’t like there was anyone else.
They didn’t expect Tony to wake up. The doctor made it very clear, almost every time she had the opportunity. She didn’t want Steve getting false hope, he supposed.
Tony’s head was wrapped in a loose bandage, and the top was already faintly spotted with blood. The doctors had stabilized him—miraculously, he’d survived even after technically dying twice on the operating table.
That was it, though. There was no way of knowing if Tony would wake up but to wait.
Steve brushed his fingers through the short hairs poking out through the bottom of Tony's bandage, as lightly as he could manage, as though even the slightest touch might break him. They’d had to shave a spot off the top of Tony’s head when they operated. It seemed to Steve that there was more metal plate than skull now, and Tony looked, frankly, ridiculous with the lopsided haircut he’d been given. Tony would be furious, when he woke. If he woke.
Steve prayed he’d get to see his reaction.
Steve stayed as long as he could. Long after the nurse had come and gone again, and long after another nurse had dropped by to warn him that visiting hours were almost over. She’d never bothered to come back to remove him, so he’d just stayed.
Steve had other duties to fulfill, however. He wasn’t the president anymore, but he was still a symbol of leadership and unity, and that meant he couldn’t hide himself away forever.
The world had been left in the lurch after all of the changes that Richards had made fell apart, and repairing the country’s infrastructure took no small amount of regulation on SHIELD’s behalf.
Steve visited Tony during those days he had free, and always in the evenings as well. He was a supersoldier—he could lose a few hours of sleep. In a way the nights were best, where there were few interruptions other than the nurses on the night shift making their rounds, or the guards outside the door checking in when they changed shifts.
But then, when it was late and he couldn’t force himself to sleep no matter how hard he tried, there wasn’t anything else to distract him. It left him quite a bit of time with his thoughts.
"What were we doing, Tony?"
They had (have!) been—well, Steve wouldn't just say friends, but something for a while now, and Steve...he'd known what he wanted. He was positive that it was what Tony wanted too. So why hadn't either of them acted on it?
Because Steve was stubborn, and too focused on his work to see when he had a good thing going for him. Neither of them really had the luxury to be obstinate, either. Tony had been dying. Despite whatever deals he may have struck with his tumor, his days were numbered. Steve was as well, though less imminently, because superheroing was dangerous and there was only so long he could go as a national icon before his luck ran out.
And now Tony was tumor-free, but it didn't even matter because he might not wake up, and Steve was failing to see the logic behind waiting so damn long.
"You're an idiot," Steve said. He wasn't sure who he was talking to.
In a way he was grateful that Tony was in a private hospital and not some medical ward at SHIELD. The nurses had been every shade of accommodating, and Steve didn’t imagine that the SHIELD doctors would be nearly as indulgent as the hospital’s staff has been. They certainly wouldn’t have been dazzled by Steve playing the Captain America Card, or insisting that he needed to stay past visitation hours for reasons of national security.
The nurse on the third shift was onto him, he could tell, but whether she had better things to do than argue Steve’s right to be there or was just taking pity on him, she never said anything. After a while, he’d lost track of when visiting hours actually started and ended.
Steve was startled from his thoughts by a light knock on the door. Sam Wilson was leaned against the doorframe.
“Hey,” Sam said. “I’ve been looking for you.”
“I’ve been here,” Steve said.
Sam’s gaze shifted from Steve to Tony and back again. “How is he?”
Steve shrugged, because he didn’t want to have to explain that he didn’t know, or that they’d had to put him into a coma just so that he could heal properly, and even then no one seemed to believe he would wake up.
“Why are you here, Sam?” Steve asked instead, because he found it hard to believe that Sam was here to sit at Tony’s bedside.
“I could ask you the same thing,” Sam countered.
“You know why I’m here. Tony is—”
“Not going to notice whether you hold a vigil at his bedside or not,” Same pointed out. “You can’t stay in here forever. You shouldn’t stay in here forever.”
“I know that,” Steve snapped.
“Do you?” Sam asked. “Look. As much as I’m sure that he appreciates the attention, you need to look out for you, too.”
“Did you need something?” Steve challenged, because he wasn’t in the mood for this conversation at the moment.
“Just checking in,” Sam said, though he thankfully didn’t press the issue any further. “Stark was in pretty rough shape when we found him.”
That caught Steve’s attention. A question had been niggling at the back of Steve’s mind since he’d learned that Tony was alive. He glanced over at Sam. “Were you the one who brought him in?” Steve asked.
“Stature, actually. She wasn’t too happy about leaving the fight, but our options at the time were her or Abomination.”
“And did you have to resuscitate him? When you found him, I mean.” He didn’t want to think about the times he’d died after arriving at the hospital. Steve had needed to sit down after the doctor had told him that.
“No. I mean, he was unconscious and he’d lost a lot of blood to the floor by then, but he was still hooked up to the lab’s life support…why?” Sam asked.
Still hooked up to the life support? “When we were fighting, Reed told me he’d killed him. Unplugged his life support,” Steve said.
Sam shrugged. “The machine was on when we found him—but maybe it shouldn’t have been. At first I thought that Tony had hacked into it himself, with his little brain tumor trick. At least, until I got a good look at him, anyway. Everything was powered down, but it was like…like it had been sparked back to life by accident. I guess someone up there likes him, God knows why.”
So Reed had lied? That didn’t make much sense; in the grand scheme of things, with what Richards had been planning, it wouldn’t have mattered whether Steve thought Tony was alive or dead. It wasn’t that much of a stretch—villains did irrational things, especially when they were as far gone as Reed was.
Maybe Reed had honestly believed that he’d killed Tony. Steve suddenly recalled a conversation he’d had with Tony, weeks ago. Tony had assured him that he and the tumor—Anthony, he’d named it…or it had named itself? Steve didn’t know—had come to an agreement. Anthony had promised not to kill Tony.
Steve had thought it was moronic at the time, and said as much. Now, though, he looked at Tony, at the bandage on his head where an Infinity Gem, the white blood cell of the universe had remained hidden and talked with Tony and fought battles with Tony and promised not to hurt him, and he wasn’t so sure.
It was in the morning, three days later, when Dr. Saha pulled him aside while the nurses went about adjusting the instruments Tony was hooked up to.
“We’re going to start to bring his core temperature back up very slowly, at about half of a degree every hour. At that rate he should be back up to normal tomorrow at eleven in the morning.” She nodded slowly, casting a quick glace down at Tony’s chart. “The slow-going will prevent any shock to his system, and hopefully let us catch any problems as they arise. This also means that there will be doctors in and out all night to monitor his progress, so if you’d like we can find you somewhere more comfortable to sleep, where you wouldn’t be disturbed…” She trailed off, giving him the chance to take her up on her offer. She didn’t seem surprised when he refused. “Assuming everything goes smoothly, we’ll schedule an EEG for tomorrow morning.”
That would be the test to determine if Tony had any chance of waking. Steve swallowed thickly. “And if there’s nothing?”
“We’ll hope it doesn’t come to that. But…you may need to determine whether or not Mr. Stark has a living will,” she said.
Steve nodded. He wasn’t sure if Tony had one or not. Tony was probably more prepared for his own death than most, but with the way he’d been living his life—as a superhero, steadily killing himself with alcohol—Steve wasn’t sure if he’d have expected things to come to this. Steve couldn’t imagine Tony wanting to live this way, in any case, if you could call it living. This was the last thing Steve wanted to think about; it felt like a betrayal, as though preparing for him to not wake up could somehow make it happen. Steve didn’t want to believe that.
It seemed like Steve was the only person who hadn’t given up on him yet.
“But we hope it doesn’t come to that,” she repeated, like she was sensing what Steve was thinking, but he could tell the words were only platitudes.
Steve spilt the hours after speaking with the doctor between pacing the length of the room and staring at the monitors, looking for any sign of change. Vaguely he recognized that someone had stepped into the room behind him, but he took several long seconds to tear his eyes away from the display.
Carol Danvers crossed her arms, quirking an eyebrow at him. “The phrase a watched pot never boils comes to mind.”
Steve narrowed his eyes but didn’t say anything, not willing to rise to the bait. Her tone was light, in any case, if somewhat sad. She wandered over and patted Tony lightly on the knee, the touch lingering almost imperceptibly. Steve knew their relationship was…complicated, but her concern for him betrayed her even through her attempted casualness. A long-suffering look crossed her face, and Steve knew that feeling all too well. Carol straightened suddenly.
“Come eat horrible hospital food with me,” Carol said. “I think I saw a sandwich that only looked a little soggy on the way up.”
Steve didn’t even consider turning her down—he was going absolutely crazy, staring at Tony’s vitals and wondering when it would tick up another degree, wondering what the results would be when the nurses did finally bring him back to normal.
Steve followed Carol through the maze of corridors—and that was one thing that never changed, no matter how many hospitals he visited—until eventually the scenery started to become less clinical and more geared toward the visitors.
Carol seemed to know where she was going, at least, despite the fact that of all the signs that were posted on the walls Steve had yet to spot a single one indicating a cafeteria.
She pressed the call button for the elevator, and then turned to him with eyes far to evaluating for his liking. Steve knew that he probably looked terrible—he didn’t sleep well normally, the last few days had been a lost cause all together.
Thankfully, she didn’t voice whatever it was that was on her mind, although Steve was certain that that had less to do with her minding her business and more to do with her choosing a good time, tactically, to bring up whatever question she had.
The elevator doors opened, and Steve was instantly assaulted with the smell of hospital food. The food selection was miserable, but Steve was used to it. He wasn’t really hungry, but he hadn’t eaten much today, so he bought himself a sandwich and an apple anyway. Carol spent a few minutes deliberating over which meal looked the least disappointing before she joined him in one of the corner tables.
They talked about inane things—“how are yous” and what was new with each of them, mostly to fill the silence between them, and it felt surreal that they could come up with anything so mundane to say in this situation. They talked about SHIELD somewhat, too, about the plans to rebuild the Triskellion, about the Ultimates and the Commandos. Eventually the conversation died down, but Carol didn’t look up from her food, twisting her napkin between her fingers with a sour expression.
Steve could tell she had something to say, so he waited. Sure enough her expression smoothed into determination, as the words formed and she looked up.
“You know, normally I’d stay out of it. It’s not my business. But,” she punctuated the word by stabbing her fork though one of the less sad looking grapes in her bowl, “you’re stubborn as hell, Steve, so I’m going to lay it out for you. Tony likes you, a lot. He’s not exactly subtle about it. He doesn’t…well, he doesn’t really do subtle. And this is…at lot. For him. For anybody.”
She set the fork down and looked at him then, expression grave. “You need to figure out where you stand when it comes to him,” she said, “because if—when he wakes up, indecision is the last thing he’ll need.”
He’d been thinking about that nearly nonstop, between the worry about whether or not the revelation would even matter. Steve sniffed.
“You’re right. It isn’t your business,” he said, but Carol deserved more credit than he gave her, because she looked satisfied.
“I think that’s all the soggy bread and fruit that I can stomach for one day,” Carol said.
Steve didn’t actually think the food was that bad, but he recognized the excuse to wrap things up when he saw one. He was anxious to get back to Tony’s room, anyway.
They threw their trash in the bins and headed back upstairs. The elevators were always overcrowded, so they took the stairs.
He was about to say goodbye to Carol when he was urged gently to the side by a nurse dressed in purple scrubs. Steve turned and watched another nurse rush by with a crash cart, and he couldn’t help but tense. It wasn’t until he saw them turn in to Tony’s room, that he broke into a run. He brushed Carol’s arm off and pushed his way into the room.
"Nurse? What's going on?" Steve asked. The nurse pursed his lips but didn't look up, filling a syringe and injecting it into the IV. "Is he--"
"I'm sorry Captain, but I need you to step out into the hallway." On the monitor, something started beeping as it flashed red. The nurse swore under his breath, quiet enough that he wouldn’t have heard if he weren’t a super soldier. "Get Dr. Saha in here, now," he said as he peeled back Tony’s bedding. He turned back to see Steve still standing there, and his face softened for a brief moment before he turned to another nurse. "Get him out of here."
The moment they'd jostled Steve into the hall he paced up to the window to watch, but one of the nurses stepped over to drop the blinds, so that he could just barely see Tony through the cracks. Steve could still hear them calling out orders through the door, and he stopped to listen long enough to learn what was happening.
He wished he hadn't.
A blood clot. He felt a sick sense of dread settle into the pit of his stomach. When Tony had finally come out of surgery, it had been one of the possible complications the nurse had mentioned. Head wounds are tricky, and we'd deemed the tumor inoperable for a reason and all we can do now is wait. They'd said that this was a risk—that there'd been so much trauma, the likelihood of a blood clot dislodging and causing complications was high. Steve had been watching for it from the moment they'd let him into the ICU.
“Steve,” Carol said, but he wasn’t really listening.
He felt a hand on his shoulder, pulling him back, and for a moment he resisted, tried to stay at the window. A nurse stepped between him and Tony, blocking his view, and when Carol tugged him back, this time, he went.
He paced outside Tony’s room for almost an hour. It was…less eventful than he expected. He wanted something to do—anything other than waiting for someone to break off from the group inside the room and come talk to him.
Carol stayed, though she didn’t say anything. He wasn’t sure whether that was because she felt he wouldn’t want her to, or because she had nothing to say, but the extra presence was a comfort. He always felt better with backup.
For the first half hour, Steve had fully expected them to whisk Tony off to surgery. The fact that nothing aside from the occasional nurse entered or exited the room set him on edge. He felt like screaming, but after the first few attempts at cornering a nurse to explain the situation he’d given up and retreated to lean against the wall.
Carol joined him. What else could they do?
Finally, a nurse emerged who didn’t just rush past him again, and Steve was on his feet before he could speak.
“What was that?” Steve demanded, letting the years of commanding bleed into his voice and not caring.
“Mr. Stark suffered a minor embolism in the brain. A blood clot,” he explained, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose with his knuckles. He spoke as though reading from a cue card, like he’d memorized his explanation beforehand. “We administered a Thrombolytic agent, that’s to break down the blood clot, which seems to be working. As it stands, we’re lucky we’ve waited this long to try to raise his body temperature—an anti-clotting drug would have caused quite a bit more complications before his head injury had healed—”
“Just—” Steve cut in, because the man seemed like he was preparing to break down the logistics of the medical decision, “is he okay?”
The man blinked at him, like he’d been caught off guard by the question, before clearing his throat. “Um. Well, he should be fine for now,” he said. “We’ll slow down the process of raising his core body temperature, but yes.”
Steve’s shoulders sagged in relief. To his left, Carol let out a long breath.
“Can I…?” He edged toward the door, but the nurse caught him before he could get too far.
“Better not, just yet. Wouldn’t want to get in the way. Someone will be out once we’re sure we’ve got a lid on any other complications that might arise. This kind of thing is tricky business, you know, it—”
“Thank you,” Steve cut him off again, gaze still fixed on the door. The nurse cleared his throat, looking unimpressed by being interrupted mid-explanation, and quietly excused himself.
Steve settled back against the wall to wait.
They finally let him back in around two in the morning—out of pity or maybe because they’d finally remembered he was there. They offered him a cot, but he declined. He wasn’t going to get much sleep anyway.
The procedure resumed as scheduled the next morning, and despite the doctor’s confidence Steve’s stomach was in knots the whole time.
The worry was unnecessary; the next several hours passed without a hitch, even with the nurses checking in on Tony far less often than he would have liked. Steve stood from his chair when they finally wheeled in another chart carrying a tangle of electrodes and a small monitor.
The doctor carefully removed the bandage wrapped around Tony’s head and replaced it with a smaller one, this one just covering the stitches. The nurse wheeled the cartload of equipment closer after she stepped out of the way, detangling the wires from themselves to hook them up to Tony. His head was peppered with electrodes, and it looked like something out of science fiction.
“This will take a while,” the doctor warned. “You may want to go get yourself something to eat and come back a little later.”
Steve thought of the last time he’d gone to get something to eat. “I think I’ll wait,” he said.
After about an hour, the doctor glanced down at the screen and made a small noise in the back of her throat. Steve stood from his chair carefully, trying to catch a glimpse at the readouts. It certainly looked like there was activity.
The rush of hope through him was like a vice in his chest, squeezing until he felt like his heart was going to pop from the force of his relief. Then, he caught sight of the doctor’s expression, carefully neutral, and the bottom dropped out.
“So he’s not braindead?” Steve asked, hopeful.
“There is some activity,” she hedged, “but the readings aren’t normal. We have plenty of older brain scans to compare these to, and there are definitely some major differences in activity levels. We’ll need to run more tests, of course, and monitor any changes as the healing process continues, but for now I’m willing to say that it is possible that he will wake up—”
She raise a hand to stop him from interrupting. “—but,” she insisted, “you need to understand that the brain is a tricky thing. With the extent of his injuries it’s likely—probable even—that he won’t be the same person you remember. It’s really impossible to tell the ramifications and the extent of brain damage at this stage.”
“I don’t care,” Steve said, and he gave in to the urge to grasp Tony’s hand then, just the lightest of touches. He might have imagined the little blip on the screen at the touch, but it made his heart clench anyway. Tony would wake up. He would.
He probably should have been embarrassed by the heat prickling at his eyes. The doctor kindly didn’t mention it.
Steve blinked awake, thoughts still muddled with sleep. It was still dark outside the window, but the lights were still half on as they always were during the night shift. At first he didn’t get up, listening to the hum of the machines and trying to locate whatever had woken him. Then he froze, all at once registering the weight resting on his hand.
Tony’s hand was half on top of his, fingers slightly curled like he’d tried to cover Steve’s hand with his own and only managed half way. Steve was out of his seat like a shot, the cheap plastic chair wobbling precariously before setting back on all for legs.
“Jesus, Tony?” Steve murmured. “Jesus.”
He searched Tony’s face for any signs that he was awake, but his expression was as peaceful as ever.
Steve called the nurse in immediately. He and the doctor both confirmed it—Tony had come out of his coma, though he was still stubbornly unconscious. Steve insisted that Tony had been awake, but the nurse just looked politely dubious.
“Captain, he’s suffered a spinal cord injury,” she reminded him, ever so gently. “It’s very unlikely that he’ll be able to move without assistance.” Steve felt his jaw tighten, the urge to argue almost impossible to ignore. Instead, he nodded once tersely, and she seemed to get the message that he no longer wanted to be disturbed.
It was another two days before Tony showed any sign of waking. Steve hardly slept at all.
Of course it was when Steve finally did manage to sleep that Tony chose to finally wake. Leave it to Tony to be difficult.
Steve wasn’t sure if it was one of the machines that alerted him, or if Steve had just somehow sensed the change, but he was pushing himself up into a sitting position from where he was leaning on the bed before he was even fully aware of what he was doing.
Tony’s eyes were open, his gaze fixed on Steve. He smiled somewhat dopily even beneath the bulky oxygen mask, and it was the most beautiful thing Steve had ever seen.
“Tony,” Steve whispered, like speaking his name too loud might cause the moment to shatter. He snatched up Tony’s hand in both of his, squeezing gently. “Thank god.”
Tony squeezed back.