Steve knew what this meant for Tony.
When Tony had been taken hostage, he'd made the best of it. He'd turned a weakness into a strength, a disaster into a triumph, and the arc reactor had marked a change for the better in his life. The arc reactor was the cornerstone upon which Tony had built his future, the device he'd used to power Iron Man, the reminder of everything he'd overcome. Symbolically, it meant a lot.
Physically, it wasn't pleasant. Tony worked so hard to hide any form of weakness from the world, even from Steve, but Steve could draw his own conclusions. He knew Tony was never quite able to draw a full, deep breath. He knew physical exercise of even moderate intensity put an incredible strain on him. He knew the casing itched, he'd caught Tony scratching at it more than once. Most terrifying, at least to Steve, was what Tony had told him when they'd first started sleeping together; if he rolled onto his back in his sleep, JARVIS would set off a noise loud enough to wake him—both of them, now—because if he stayed that way too long, the weight of the reactor could press on his lungs too heavily and asphyxiate him in his sleep.
Tony had played it off, said he barely even thought about it anymore, but Steve knew that wasn't true. For all the arc reactor was keeping him alive, it was uncomfortable at best and actively hurting him at worst. He was self-conscious of it, too, something Steve was sad to see in a man so at ease with the rest of himself. Well, at ease wasn't quite the right word—Tony's self-hatred was a vicious demon Steve knew he'd be battling for a long time yet—but for all the things Tony couldn't stand about himself, his appearance wasn't one of them. He knew how to dress to impress, but was just as happy in old jeans and dirty band shirts. He was comfortable in his own skin, with whatever he did or wore, and had long stopped caring about others opinions on things like his appearance.
Yet, he kept his shirt on during sex. He never slept or swam without one either, no matter how hot it got, and was always shirts when they divided into shirts and skins teams for sports with the other Avengers or at the rec center. Steve had convinced him on only a slim handful of occasions to take his shirt off when they made love, to let Steve see him as he was.
It wasn't a traditionally beautiful sight. The scarring was white and puckered around the lip of the casing, with nail marks from Tony's scratching and deeper ridges that etched out like veins. Steve understood why he might not want to show the general public, even perhaps the other Avengers, but couldn't understand how Tony thought Steve could possibly give a damn. Maybe it wasn't aesthetically appealing, but it was a part of Tony, an important part, and that made it beautiful to Steve regardless of it's actual appearance.
That wasn't to say Steve loved it. It caused Tony pain, most importantly, and it wasn't always great for Steve himself, either; it protruded a bit, enough that the edges could be…not quite sharp, but jagged, and certainly hard. It bumped against him during sex, even through a shirt, and one of the rare times Tony had taken his shirt off the reactor had scraped against Steve's chest enough to leave it red and scratched. Steve hadn't said a word about it, and once they'd finished he'd been quick to lie on his stomach before Tony could see the marks. It hadn't been painful so much as uncomfortable, certainly not enough to dull the pleasure, and not nearly enough that it was worth bringing to Tony's attention. Tony would have been miserable, would have felt horribly guilty and never, ever taken his shirt off during sex again; so Steve never told him. The serum had taken care of the superficial little scratches by morning, regardless.
So no, Steve wouldn't say he loved the reactor, or even that he was partial to it, just as a device. It kept Tony alive and well though, and anything doing that was golden in Steve's book. He'd always thought that if there was a safe way to remove it, swell, if not, fine. He didn't like that it hurt Tony at times, but it was certainly better than losing Tony altogether. Tony, however, wanted it removed near desperately; Steve hadn't quite realized how desperately until now.
Steve had been in DC when the Malibu house had been attacked. They lived together, but their schedules were busier than most people could dream of; between Steve's missions with SHIELD and Tony's business trips, they didn't see each other nearly as often as Steve would've liked. He was gone so often the press still hadn't even figured out he was living there, which, considering how incredibly invasive they could be—particularly with Tony, the most celebrated and publicly-known hero—certainly said something.
Watching the attack on the news easily ranked as one of the worst moments of Steve's life. He sure as hell hadn't had a smooth life, either, finding himself seventy years in the future with everyone he'd ever known dead being a prime example, but Tony made Steve feel like he could handle it. Tony wasn't perfect and he certainly had his own demons, but he made Steve stronger. In a world of people who saw Steve as the end all be all of righteousness and listened to his every word like some sanctimonious gospel, Tony challenged him. Tony made Steve think, forced him to look at all the angles, consider why he felt the way he felt about things. By testing Steve's resolution, Tony tempered it, made it stronger. Steve was nowhere near over the loss of his world, but Tony gave him the purpose and the clarity to see a future in this one, something he would never stop being grateful for. Tony was his shining light in the darkness, the one good thing he'd thought maybe, just maybe, this time he could keep.
Thinking he'd lost Tony, so soon after finding him, had broken something in Steve he still hadn't managed to piece back together yet.
Thing was, everyone threw around the title of Captain America like it meant something. Some used it with reverence, others with admiration, but no one said it quite like Tony did. There was reverence, there was admiration, but there was also love, and an earnest, fervent belief that didn't come from comic books or news reels or even his father's stories; it came from knowing the man underneath the mask. It came from late nights spent talking about their lives, from the secrets Steve hadn't known he had the courage to speak aloud until he'd whispered them to Tony, came from six months of communication, of trust, of dating his best friend. Tony didn't believe in Captain America because of the legends, or even because of Steve's very real track record. He believed in Captain America because he believed in Steve Rogers.
You're Captain America, baby. You can do anything.
The one person who believed in him for the reasons Steve wanted to be believed in, and Steve had let him down. He'd been across the country when it happened, and nothing in the world could have gotten him to Tony's side in time. He'd commandeered the first Quinjet he could get his hands on anyway, but had come home to nothing more than a destroyed house, a thought-to-be-dead boyfriend, and a media ready to swarm on his grief like piranha.
He'd never been any more thankful to get a phone call than Tony's from Tennessee.
Three days since, and Steve still had to force himself to let Tony go in the mornings; there were moments he wanted nothing more in the world than to simply bury himself in Tony's blissfully, mercifully alive body and never come up for air again. Yet, while Steve was still trying to catch his breath, Tony was a whirlwind working nearly day and night to perfect the Extremis serum. Steve wasn't sure at first why he was quite so fascinated with it, but that was Tony in a nutshell, passionate to the point of obsession, so Steve had only pulled him away for food and sleep and otherwise just enjoyed watching Tony home, safe, running away with his genius.
Until Tony told Steve he wanted to inject himself.
"With…Extremis?" Steve didn't need clarification. He'd heard Tony fine, and Tony knew it.
"Yes." The fact that Tony didn't make an 'old man needs a hearing aid' joke was proof enough that he was serious, that this was a genuine conversation that was actually happening, and Steve couldn't possibly imagine why.
"If something goes wrong, you'll explode—" There really wasn't enough air in the room to be talking about things like his boyfriend maybe-dying for the second time in three days, this time voluntarily.
"Nothing will go wrong," Tony assured. He was trying to act unworried, but Steve could read it all in the hard, stiff lines of his shoulders, the tenseness in his hands and expression, and knew that Tony had his concerns.
"But if it does, you will explode." Steve really couldn't stress that enough.
"Bruce and I have been testing it—"
"Are you kidding me? We just arrested Killian for the same thing!"
"—on lab rats, let me finish a sentence. I haven't tested it on people, Steve, jeez, do you think I'm insane—"
"Insane enough to be the first human subject?" Steve threw his hands up. "I didn't think so, but that's what you're telling me!"
"I don't understand what you want from me!" Tony protested, "Am I supposed to test it on people, or not?"
"Steve." Tony took a breath. "I need this. You know how much I need this."
Steve was about to reply that he really, really didn't, until he caught sight of Tony's fingers tapping along the casing of the arc reactor. It was likely subconscious, Tony wasn't actually pointing it out, but it clicked together anyway. Steve hated to admit it, but…he saw Tony's point. He knew how much the reactor hurt Tony, knew what a burden it was regardless of it's symbolic value.
"I know." Steve nodded, took Tony's hand and used it to tug Tony into his arms, a loose hug. "I understand, I do. But these odds…"
The procedure would be completely untested. The doctors would be doing intensive heart surgery while relying completely on an experimental serum that had a tendency of blowing people up for recovery. Not to mention, there were an infinite number of ways the procedure could go wrong: nicked veins, blood clots, cardiac events, on and on. Of course, the doctors would also have no experience with removing shrapnel so close to the heart, so they'd both be more likely to make mistakes as well as relatively unprepared for any complications that arose.
That was just the dangers if the serum worked.
If it didn't, Tony would absolutely die. There were reasons he'd never had the surgery before; heart surgery that invasive couldn't heal itself. The wounds opened in that kind of surgery couldn't be survived, not without something like Extremis. Hell, surviving with Extremis was only theoretical. Steve trusted Tony's theories, his intelligence and ability to predict the outcome of things, but there were extenuating circumstances here even Tony couldn't calculate for.
"Funny thing, about insane odds." Tony pulled back, shot him a grin. "I remember this great story about a guy—skinny little thing, and a mouthy punk to boot—who signed up to get injected with a serum whose only other test subject tried to take over the world and got his face melted off—"
"Alright, I admit, I don't have a whole lot of ground to—"
"—but," Tony continued, his smile far more genuine this time, "Now he's my best friend. And without that serum to keep him alive, I never would've even met him. Sometimes the reward is worth the risk."
"He sounds like a swell guy," Steve teased, tugging Tony closer, "You oughta ask him out sometime."
"Nah, he's got this great boyfriend—"
Steve hushed him with a kiss. Emotionally speaking, he wasn't alright with this. He'd never be alright with something that put Tony in such danger, but outside of his personal feelings on the matter, he knew it wasn't his call. It was Tony's body. Tony was the one who had to live with the reactor, or the consequences of the surgery. Of course his decision impacted Steve, but Steve wasn't the one who had a giant metal nightlight crammed between his lungs.
"I understand, Tony," Steve told him when they parted, hugging Tony to him tightly, "I'm not going to say I like it, but it's your decision and I'll support you whatever you choose."
Tony didn't hesitate.
"He hasn't even gone under yet and you look like you're visiting his grave," was the first thing Natasha said as she joined Steve, Pepper, and Rhodey in the observation room, and it was completely unhelpful.
"That's what I said," Pepper agreed, squeezing Steve's arm in what was likely supposed to be comfort. Steve knew it meant she was nervous too though, which meant it didn't really comfort him at all.
"Thanks for the image," Steve told them both dryly, eyes not leaving the sight in front of him.
"He'll be fine, you know." Rhodey cast a glance at him. "Always is. And believe me, he's done a hell of a lot stupider."
"It's Stark." Natasha bumped Steve's elbow. "He's going to outlive us all through sheer force of will."
"I sure hope so." Steve just sighed, watching through the glass as the doctors pulled Tony's hospital gown down to his waist.
Tony gave a reflexive inhale, likely at the cold hospital air. He glanced over at the four of them, and, when he caught sight of Steve, made a show of sucking in his stomach for Steve's benefit. Steve rolled his eyes, but couldn't help cracking a smile. Tony's grin faded to one as well, and he shot Steve a confident thumbs up.
Steve returned it, then they lowered the mask over Tony's face and put him to sleep. Steve watched as the tube went into Tony's throat, as Tony's eyes met his once more, then slid closed, and denied vehemently how horrifically final it all felt. Natasha left shortly after, but it was only to return bearing food. Steve wasn't hungry. He ignored the sharp look Natasha—who knew exactly how much fuel his metabolism required—gave him, already refocused on Tony and the shards of shrapnel collecting by his bedside.
By the time they finished, Steve was beyond impatient. He'd gone from grim silence in the observation room to pacing the length of the recovery room, and though he knew he was driving everyone else up the wall, he couldn't quite make himself stop. He'd even kept pace with the nurses as they wheeled an unconscious Tony back to his recovery room, likely annoying the hell out of them too, but yet again hadn't been able to bring himself to give a damn.
Extremis was working.
The wounds had healed already, and according to every doctor Steve grabbed and demanded answers from, the serum was holding stable. Steve knew only Tony and possibly Bruce would really know how the serum was stabilizing, but the fact that Tony's vitals were good was enough for Steve, at least for now, if only Tony would wake up—
"What're you twitching like that for? You look like you're on crack."
Steve whirled around, accidentally bumping Natasha in his haste to get back to Tony's bedside. She was going to beat him viciously into a gym mat for it later, he knew, but he absolutely did not care.
"How do you feel? Does it hurt? Do you want some water? I'll get you water—"
"Don't go anywhere, you idiot, jeez." Tony was laughing, like it was a joke, but his grip on Steve's arm was tight. Steve covered Tony's hand with his own. "I feel fine, I don't need water—"
"Miss Potts, would you mind terribly—" Steve turned to ask, just as Pepper was walking back into the room with a paper cup.
"Already on it." Pepper took the seat next to Steve, handed Tony the water. "Drink."
"Mother hens, the lot of you," Tony grumbled, "Even you, Romanov, don't try and hide it."
"I came so Steve wouldn't lose his mind," Natasha informed Tony coolly, turning on her heel and exiting the room without another word.
"I'm growing on her," Tony decided, "I can feel it. She didn't even pretend to stab me this time."
"So how's it feel, man?" Rhodey sat in the chair across the bed from Steve and Pepper.
"The removed arc reactor." Rhodey rolled his eyes.
"Oh. Well. Y'know." Tony glanced down, seeing his empty chest for the first time in…how long had it been? Three years? Something like that. Steve watched his face carefully for his reaction. "Fine."
"You don't look fine." Pepper, clearly seeing what Steve did, raised a skeptical eyebrow.
"Just thinking about all the great shirts I'm going to have to throw out." It was a diversion, obviously, but none of them interrupted. Tony needed to process. "I cut holes in too many of them. Shit, even the Radiohead one. I liked the Radiohead one. That was from our first not-a-date, remember?"
Steve squeezed Tony's hand reassuringly.
"You dance like an complete meatball."
"I know what I said."
"Shit, I'm sorry, but I have to get going." Rhodey glanced at his phone with a grimace. "Call me when you're out of the hospital, alright? We'll catch up before I ship out again."
"You got it." Tony offered a salute.
"I'm glad you're alright, Tones." Rhodey smiled, patting the foot of Tony's bed before taking his leave.
"I should get going too. And I don't want to see you at work for at least three days, you hear me?" Pepper shot a teasing smile at Tony, then a look at Steve.
Pepper-looks were subtle, but very telling; she was a lot like Natasha in that way, when Steve thought about it. She was clearly instructing him to make sure Tony talked about it, and leaving to give them space to do so. She kissed Tony's cheek in goodbye, then Steve's, then she was out the door.
"Subtle as a train wreck, those two," Tony grumbled before Steve could say anything, scooting up, "Don't bother with the whole let's-talk-about-the-emotional-impact-of-this-life -event schtick, I'm fine, really."
"Alright." Steve shrugged. Tony frowned at him.
"That's it? No questions?"
"Will you come to me if you need to talk about it?"
"Well." Tony made a face. "Yeah."
"Then alright." Steve shrugged.
"Is this a trick?" Tony narrowed his eyes. "I'm not falling for this."
"Nothing to fall for, Tony." Steve chuckled.
"I don't believe you."
"I don't have anything to talk about."
"So you said."
They sat in silence a moment, before Tony gave a loud, aggressive-sounding sigh.
"I really fucking liked that Radiohead shirt."
"You could buy another. I'm sure they're available on the line."
"That's what I said."
"You said on the line. It's online."
"Right. On the line."
Tony examined his poker face a moment, before smacking Steve's arm. Steve broke out into a grin.
"Quit trying to make me laugh," Tony ordered, though the smile on his lips contradicted him, "I don't need cheering up. I said I'm fine, it means I'm fine."
"Then you're fine," Steve conceded easily.
"I don't want another Radiohead shirt," Tony decided, "It's not even that great of a shirt. Fit me all weird in the shoulders."
"It did." Steve nodded knowingly.
"Best to just throw it away, be done with it." Tony tapped his fingers along the center of his chest, right where the arc reactor had been. A frown flickered across his face for the briefest of moments, like he'd been surprised to find it gone. The expression was gone in an instant. "Past is past, right?"
"You can keep it, you know."
"It has a hole in it, why would I—"
"We're not talking about a shirt, Tony."
Tony fell silent. Steve reached down next to his chair, picked up the box the doctors had given him to hold onto.
"Yeah." Steve opened it, pulled out the reactor.
He'd never seen it outside of Tony's body before. It was strange. The reactor being out had always been a Bad Thing; it felt like he ought to be panicking, or something. He wasn't looking at the reactor, though, he was looking at Tony, who was staring at the reactor with an intense, deep focus. It was the focus he got in the shop, when all his attention fell solely on one problem.
The arc reactor was more than a symbol of Tony's rebirth. It was the invention that had shaped Tony's future, but because of that, it also carried the weight of his past. He'd designed it at his lowest point, trapped and held captive in a cave, backed into a literal corner. He'd triumphed, yes, but not without costs. Those weren't memories he wanted to relive, and it was part of the reason Tony had wanted it out of him so badly in the first place. Steve understood that. He knew what Tony would say before he said it, but waited in silence for Tony to get there himself.
"I don't need it," Tony said at last, shaking his head as if to brush it all off, "Not anymore. What about the shrapnel, is that in there?"
"What do you want the shrapnel for?"
"For you, obviously."
"I'm sorry, 'obviously'?"
"I want to turn it into something."
"What, you mean melt it down?"
"No, like a...I don't know, a necklace or something."
"Have you ever seen me wear a necklace?"
"You wear that one all the time." Tony pointed, and Steve groaned. Not this again.
"Stop calling my dogtags a necklace, Tony, Jesus."
"I'll stop when you stop asking me to show you how to 'get on the line', I know you know how to use the internet." Tony faux-glared at him. "You're not half as funny as you think you are, old man."
"You're right." Steve, unable to resist any longer, leaned in for a kiss. "I'm funnier."
"Is that a yes?" Tony asked when Steve reluctantly released him.
"To a necklace made of the pieces of shrapnel that sat in your chest cavity for a couple years after nearly killing you?" Steve made a face. "No, thanks. Do we need to have the 'appropriate ways to show affection' discussion again?"
"I maintain that ass-grabs are completely and totally called for."
"Not in front of Director Fury, they're not."
"Admit it, his expression was completely worth it."
"He made me sit through a sexual harassment seminar."
"'Harassment'." Tony snorted. "You're handsier than I am."
"I can't help it if your ass is glorious in spandex."
"The new suit isn't even spandex."
"And that is a great American tragedy." Tony sighed forlornly. "Forgiven only because oh baby are navy and silver your colors. Speaking of—"
"For the thousandth time, I am not bringing it home, Tony."
"We've had sex in the other one!" Tony protested.
"It was retired. I have to wear this one, and I can't be thinking of sex with you while I'm trying to knock out some HYDRA agent."
"I don't know, you're a pretty good multitasker—"
"I'll wear you down one of these days."
"Keep telling yourself that." Steve chuckled, leaned forward to press a kiss to Tony's forehead. Tony, being Tony, looped an arm around Steve's neck instead, yanked him in for a proper one.
"Alright, c'mere," Tony decided after a moment, tugging at Steve's arm.
"There is no possible way I'm fitting in there."
"Chop chop." Tony just kept tugging on his arm. "You've got a traumatized boyfriend to comfort, do your duty, soldier."
"Yes, you look very traumatized." Steve rolled his eyes but attempted to climb in anyway.
The bed was far too narrow, and Steve was about to give up and get down when Tony took hold of his shoulder, yanked him, and clambered on top of him.
"Oof," Steve huffed, but he was only teasing. He could lift cars; Tony weighed nothing.
Tony knew that, of course, from abusing it shamelessly during sex, sitting in Steve's lap at every God-given opportunity, and the time he'd caught Steve by surprise, leapt on his back and demanded Steve piggyback him away from his evil boss. That was how Steve had first met Pepper, actually. Regardless, Tony knew full well he was free to manhandle his way into Steve's lap anytime, so he settled in. Steve tucked his legs between Tony's, and Tony rested his hands and chin on Steve's chest. He just watched him for a moment, before reaching one hand up to brush a thumb over Steve's cheek.
"I know this freaked you out. But you came, and I needed that. Thank you."
"I'm always going to be there when you need me," Steve said, then winced as he remembered the events of last week. He tensed, started to rephrase himself since apparently he couldn't even manage that most basic of comforts, but Tony stopped him.
"No one could've known Killian would—"
"You gave the press our address—"
"An incredibly stupid and rash decision for which I have apologized." It was Tony's turn to wince. "But you didn't know that. If you had any idea, I know you would've been there."
"But I wasn't."
"And that's not your fault."
"I just…" Steve started, then stopped with a sigh, running his hands down Tony's sides. "I let you down. You believed in me, and I—"
"I still believe in you." Tony kissed him, hard, reading his mind all too well. "I'll always believe in you. Making mistakes doesn't make you unreliable, baby, it makes you human. I love you. Mistakes and all."
Steve tilted his head up for a kiss in lieu of words. He poured everything he had into it, tried to pass along the swirl of emotions ready to burst in his chest. He wanted to show Tony just how much he loved him too, but he certainly failed; no one kiss could express how deeply grateful Steve was to have Tony in his life, how very much he desired to hold onto Tony as long as he possibly could. Oh well.
Guess he'd just have to keep kissing Tony until he succeeded, then.