The flight back from Europe was long. Steve was exhausted from the mission, which had stretched from one week to almost four, depleting even his reserves. Bucky slept, splinted arm cradled in its sling against his chest. But Steve couldn’t turn his brain off, replaying the battle for the Hydra base that they’d taken in his head again and again, picking it apart tactically, mentally writing and rewriting his report for Hill.
The mission had been, almost from the beginning, what Tony would’ve called a “clusterfuck.” The intel had been shaky at best, and it’d taken much longer than expected. A lot of it had been deep into Hydra territory, on a total communications blackout. They hadn’t talked to Tony in two weeks.
Half the prisoners they’d hoped to save had been dead when they’d finally gotten to them. They’d gotten the others out, but it weighed on Steve. So much effort, and he couldn’t really bring himself to consider it a success.
God, he missed Tony.
The last two hours of the flight, Steve finally managed to doze off, head on Bucky’s shoulder, out of sheer exhaustion. He woke when his ears popped during landing and sat up, yawning and working his jaw. He looked out the window, expecting to see Tony standing on the landing platform, hand raised in greeting.
But Tony wasn’t there. Natasha was. And the look on her face made Steve’s blood freeze.
He glanced at Bucky, who had gone from asleep to awake in a fraction of a second. Bucky had seen Natasha’s face, too. He looked back at Steve, eyes going dark and jaw visibly tightening.
“Hey, guys,” Natasha greeted them as they came off the jet. “Welcome home. You okay, Barnes?”
“Just a sprain,” Bucky said.
“Nat, where’s Tony?” Steve asked. “Did something happen while we were gone?”
She took a deep breath. “Okay, first of all, he’s going to be fine, all right? I want you both to hear that.”
“Nat –” Steve started impatiently, because if she didn’t tell them right then what the hell was going on, he was going to do something drastic and possibly destructive, and whatever Bucky came up with was going to be a hundred times worse.
“His appendix ruptured.”
Whatever Steve had thought she’d say, that wasn’t it. “What?” he said blankly. Bucky had gone very still beside him.
“His appendix ruptured,” she repeated. “About a week ago. He’s been very, very sick, but the doctors told us this morning that he’s turned a corner and they think he’s going to be okay.”
“Just this morning?” Steve said. “Before that, they thought – for the last week, they weren’t sure if –”
Nat bit her lip. “Let’s just say there were moments when I thought I might be giving you much worse news.”
“Jesus,” Steve said. Bucky swore softly in Russian. “How did this – no.” Steve straightened. “Where is he?”
“He’s in the medical suite downstairs,” Nat said. “I’ll take you guys down there. Do either of you need food or fresh clothes?”
Steve shook his head. He was out of his uniform, at least, and he wanted to see Tony as quickly as possible. He was going to need to eat something sooner than later, but he couldn’t fathom stopping to do that right now. “I’m okay. Buck?”
Bucky cleared his throat. “I’m fine.”
“You don’t have to come into the medical suite,” Steve said, because he knew how Bucky felt about hospitals in general. The medical suite in Stark Tower, which Steve had become intimately familiar with after Tony’s heart surgery two years ago, didn’t look like a hospital so much as an upscale apartment with state-of-the-art medical equipment. But it still smelled like one. “I can go in and be with him for the both of us.”
Bucky shook his head, jaw set stubbornly.
Steve didn’t argue. If Bucky had to leave, he had to leave, but he wasn’t going to stop him from trying to see Tony, at least.
The elevator ride down was silent. Steve had dozens of questions, mainly: How did this happen? If Tony’s appendix had actually ruptured, he must have been sick for days beforehand. Had no one noticed? Why hadn’t JARVIS said anything? He couldn’t even think where to begin, and most of the room in his head was taken up by a blaring need to lay eyes on Tony and see that he was, if not well, then at least alive.
They stepped off the elevator into a thickly carpeted hallway. “He’s on heavy-duty antibiotics,” Natasha told them as she led them down it, “and painkillers. His fever is still pretty high, though it’s down from where it was. He can’t really stay awake for more than a few minutes at a time.” She stopped outside a door – a familiar one, Steve realized, recognizing it as the same room Tony had recovered in after his surgery. “But he’ll be really glad to see you.”
Steve nodded. Bucky’s shoulder brushed against his, for solidarity or comfort, Steve didn’t know. Steve reached out and took his hand. Bucky let him.
The room was cool and smelled of antiseptic. The faint whir of the white noise generator that muffled all sound tickled Steve’s memory. He remembered coming in here after Tony had gotten out of surgery, dressed in a paper gown, a mask over his face, gloves on his hands, paper booties over his shoes. He remembered leaning over Tony and watching his eyes blink open, remembered lifting his hand and pressing it against the paper mask over his mouth. Tony had squeezed his hand weakly and smiled.
That was before they’d found Bucky, when it was just the two of them. Steve had hoped never to be back in this room again, or at least not for a long, long time.
There was no giant chest tube this time. Tony had a machine running his vitals: heart rate a little too fast, oxygen a little too low, temperature way too high at 102.6 – and if that was down, then Steve was afraid to ask what it had been. He also had an IV in the crook of his left arm and probably a catheter hidden under the blankets. Tony himself looked shockingly similar to how he’d looked after the surgery. He was gray beneath the stubble, with dark shadows under his eyes. His cheeks were hollowed out in a way that bespoke unhealthy weight loss, and his hair was limp and greasy from going unwashed.
Rhodey was sitting by the bed, holding one of Tony’s hands. Bruce was asleep under a blanket on the sofa in the corner that Steve had slept on a lot the first week after Tony’s surgery.
“Oh, thank God,” Rhodey said upon seeing them.
Rhodey looked wrecked, Steve realized, sparing a glance for him. He looked like he’d been up for a week. He looked like his best friend had nearly died.
“How is he?” Steve asked, stepping closer to the bed. He still had Bucky’s hand in his, he realized, but Bucky wasn’t letting go and neither was he.
“Better,” Rhodey said, looking down at Tony. “The fever isn’t cooking his brain anymore, and he was awake for a whole six minutes a while ago. The conversations seem to be sticking a little better, too. He actually remembered that you two were away on a mission but you’d be back soon.”
“What?” Steve asked.
“He was delirious,” Natasha said. “He kept asking for you two, and we kept having to tell him you weren’t here.”
“Jesus,” Steve said, imagining how that must have gone. He closed his eyes, gathering himself. “I have to ask: how did this happen? A ruptured appendix doesn’t just come out of nowhere. How come no one caught this?”
“An unfortunate confluence of events,” Bruce said, voice thick with sleep. Steve glanced over to see him sitting up. “I was in the middle of an experiment and didn’t come out of my lab for three days. Nat was in and out of the tower on business for Hill during the same time. It took us a while to realize that no one had seen Tony recently.”
“What about JARVIS?” Bucky asked, the first he’d spoken since they’d come downstairs. Steve relaxed a little, reassured that Bucky wasn’t quietly suffering through a dissociative episode or a flashback.
“Sir overrode my safety protocols,” JARVIS said. “Normally I would have alerted someone when Sir’s temperature reached 101 degrees, but he disabled that failsafe.”
“Why the hell would he do that?” Steve asked.
There was a brief pause. “You will have to ask Sir that,” JARVIS said finally. “It does not fit any rational explanation I myself can construct.”
“As far as we can tell,” Bruce said, “and bearing in mind that this is all speculation, because Tony hasn’t been in much shape to confirm anything, he was probably sick for at least seventy-two hours before I went downstairs to see if he wanted Indian food and found him unconscious in the bathroom off his lab. We got him care immediately, of course, but his appendix had already ruptured.”
Steve nodded. “Okay.” He took a deep breath. “I think – if you all would like to get some rest, Bucky and I can sit with Tony for a while.”
“I’m fine,” Rhodey said instantly.
“Rhodey,” Bruce said gently, “he’s going to be fine, and you need to get some sleep in an actual bed. So do I. Though if anything changes, you had damn well better call me,” he added to Steve. “Not that Tony doesn’t have the best medical staff money can buy, but –”
“We’ll call you if anything changes,” Steve promised.
Bruce had to almost physically drag Rhodey out, but they both left. Natasha paused in the doorway and said, “Steve. You and Barnes are both post-mission and need to take care of yourselves.”
Steve knew she was right, but he couldn't even begin to think about it. “Thanks, Nat.”
“Do you want me to –”
“We’re okay,” Steve said, hoping he didn't sound as sharp or impatient as he felt. “I'll let you know if we need anything.”
She left, with one last backwards glance. Steve sat down in the chair Rhodey had vacated and took Tony’s hand in his. He squeezed it gently.
Bucky vanished briefly to walk the perimeter, check the doors and windows, survey the ventilation shafts – his usual patrol whenever he settled into a new space, even within the tower. Steve had long ago stopped arguing about it with him. It made him feel better, and as coping mechanisms went, it was harmless.
Bucky returned after only a minute or two to drop down into the chair beside Steve. The two of them were silent for several minutes, until Bucky swallowed, audibly.
“He could have died,” Bucky said. “We wouldn’t have known. A week ago – we were deep inside.”
“I know.” Steve struggled to keep his voice even, to not let on how vividly he was imagining what it would have been to like to walk off the plane to very different news from Natasha. “But that didn’t happen. He’s going to live, and we’re going to be there until he’s so sick of us, he kicks us out. Right?” Steve looked at Bucky.
Bucky nodded. His lips quirked. “Bet he kicks you out first,” he said, with a trace of humor.
Steve gaped. “What? No way.”
“You talk too much. And you lecture.”
“You’re already thinking about the lecture you’re going to give him about caring about his own personal safety and asking for help when he needs it.”
Steve opened his mouth, then shut it. “Well, not right away,” he finally said grudgingly.
“Yeah, he’s definitely kicking you out first,” Bucky said, and sat back with a smug air about him.
It would have been annoying if it hadn’t made Steve feel infinitely better about everything.
Normally after a mission, Steve would’ve eaten about ten thousand calories in one sitting and then crashed for three days straight. Instead, he and Bucky split the three rations bars they had on them and drank a bunch of water. It took the edge off, at least. Steve ended up dozing on the edge of Tony’s bed, head pillowed on his arms, ignoring the gnawing hunger in the pit of his stomach.
He slept until Bucky’s hand on his shoulder woke him. “Steve,” Bucky said quietly. Steve lifted his head, wincing, and realized that Tony was blinking awake.
Steve was instantly alert. “Tony?” he said, sitting up and leaning forward to cup Tony’s face in his hand. “Hey, Tony.” Bucky sat behind Steve on the bed, one hand resting on Tony’s knee over the blankets.
“Steve?” Tony whispered. And then, looking behind him, “Buck?”
“Yeah, sweetheart, it’s us,” Steve said. The endearment was unlike him – unlike any of them – but Steve didn’t care. Not when Tony was looking at him like he wasn’t quite sure Steve was real. “We got back just a few hours ago.”
“Oh,” Tony said, and started to cry. Not great sobs or anything; Steve honestly didn’t think he had the energy for that. But it was almost worse than if he had. His eyes just filled with tears and spilled over, leaking down into the hair at his temples. “Sorry,” he said, voice cracked and thin.
“No, no,” Steve said, and leaned over to rest his forehead against Tony’s. “Don’t apologize.” His own throat was tight. He fumbled behind him, reaching for Bucky, and Bucky caught his hand, tangling their fingers together. “It’s okay.”
Tony tucked his face against Steve’s shoulder for a few seconds. “You’re both okay?”
“Yeah, we’re fine. Bucky sprained his wrist, but that’s the worst of it.”
“All healed now,” Bucky said. Steve glanced over and saw that he’d taken off the sling and splint while Steve was asleep.
“We missed you the whole time,” Steve said, “and we were so worried when we got back and found out what had happened.”
Tony’s eyes cut away. “Wasn’t that bad.”
“I don’t think anyone else would agree with you about that.”
“Can’t imagine why,” Bucky said.
Tony cracked a tiny smile. Steve couldn’t help beaming, just so glad to see it, even though his eyes were red from crying.
Tony’s doctor showed up – probably alerted somehow that his patient was awake – and to Steve’s annoyance shooed both him and Bucky out of the room. Steve leaned against the wall outside, knees weak with the relief of seeing Tony awake and alert.
“You okay?” Bucky asked, frowning at him. “You look like you’re about to fall over.”
“I’m tired,” Steve admitted. “I’ve been running on adrenaline for days, and I’m crashing. But I’m fine,” he added, straightening. Because he wasn’t about to leave Tony alone, and he also wasn’t about to leave Bucky here by himself. “How are you doing?”
Bucky actually seemed to take some time to consider the question. “Same,” he finally said. “But okay, otherwise.”
Steve nodded. Bucky leaned against the wall next to him so their shoulders bumped, and Steve let his head rest briefly on Bucky’s shoulder.
The doctor took his time with Tony. By the time he let Bucky and Steve back in, Steve was starting to feel pretty weird. Kind of dizzy and weak and like he really wanted to be horizontal on a flat surface and he wasn’t going to be very particular about what kind of surface that was. The couch was looking pretty tempting. So was Tony’s hospital bed, which was definitely wider than regulation. He and Tony had shared it a time or two after Tony’d recovered some from his surgery. He’d probably have to flip Bucky for it now.
The doctor was talking, but Steve wasn’t really following what he was saying. His head was buzzing, and his knees felt rubbery. The next thing he knew, he was sitting in a chair with his head between his knees, and the doctor was shoving a bottle of orange juice into his face, telling him to drink it.
Steve took it with a shaking hand and drained half of it in one go.
“Let that kick in,” the doctor said. “That should help your blood sugar stabilize.” He had Steve’s wrist in his hand and was watching his watch. “Your heartrate is elevated.”
“I’m okay,” Steve said, but he knew it didn’t sound convincing. Bucky, damn him, looked pale, tired, and worried, but hardly as though he was about to collapse. He was probably pretty hungry, but his metabolism didn’t burn quite as hot as Steve’s.
“You don’t look okay,” Tony said, watching him worriedly. And that was just wrong, Steve thought. Tony shouldn’t be worrying about him.
“Fine,” Steve said with a sigh. “I’m exhausted and starving, and I’m worried about you. But this is just a blood sugar thing. I’ll drink the rest of the orange juice, have a sandwich, and lie down on that couch over there.”
“You should be sleeping. Both of you.” Tony paused, eyes closing briefly. Then he took a ragged breath and continued, “Should both spend the next three days sleeping. And eating.” Tony’s head lolled on the blanket. “Doc says I’m out of the woods. Right, doc?”
“Far be it from me to intervene,” the doctor said, “but medically, Mr. Stark is much improved. We’re keeping him here for a few more days for observation, to make sure his body has fully fought off the infection, but he’s definitely turned a corner, and I’m confident in his recovery. And, to be honest,” he added, “I would recommend food and rest for both of you, so soon after returning from a long mission.”
“See?” Tony said, finally looking at them.
“Are you fucking joking,” Bucky said.
“Yeah, no,” Steve agreed. “No way, Tony. I can’t believe you’re even making the suggestion.”
Tony sighed. “Just gonna sleep more. And I haven’t...” He paused and drew another deep breath. “Haven’t been alone in days. Could use some time to myself.”
“You weren’t alone because they thought you might die,” Steve pointed out through gritted teeth.
“But I didn’t. And I’m not going to,” Tony replied.
Steve felt his jaw clench. He wanted to remind Tony that twenty minutes ago, he’d cried when he’d realized they were there.
And that, Steve realized, might be part of the problem. Tony had never done all that well with emotional vulnerability, and that had been him, cracked open and laid bare.
“Tony,” Steve said, unsure.
“Go,” Tony said, looking up at them, weary but implacable.
Steve looked at Bucky, who shook his head. Bucky didn’t want to go. Steve didn’t want to go. But he wasn’t sure what Tony really wanted. He wasn’t quite looking at either of them, but he also looked like he was struggling to stay awake.
“Steve,” Tony said quietly. “Go. M’okay.”
“You’re not okay,” Steve replied, a little desperately. “And I don’t want to leave you. You can’t tell me you really want us to.”
“Yeah, I can,” Tony said. Steve set his jaw stubbornly, and Tony sighed. “Steve. You don’t always know what I need better than I do.”
It was a slap in the face. Steve took half a step back, suddenly hurt and furious and exhausted and possibly close to tears himself, he wasn’t sure anymore. “Well, maybe if you were better at knowing what you needed, you wouldn’t almost have died,” he snapped.
Silence. Steve suddenly remembered that the doctor was still there, frozen and staring at all three of them. Tony didn’t say anything, just looked away and closed his eyes.
“Fine,” Steve said, feeling all the anger drain out of him, not leaving much in its passing. “Fine, if this is what you want.” He stood up – too fast, he realized, when his head swam. Bucky had to grab his arm and help him stay up.
“S’better this way,” Tony said wearily. “Come back tomorrow. I’ll be here.”
Tomorrow? He couldn’t be serious. But Bucky was tugging Steve away, and Steve was just too tired to fight anymore. He did want to sleep in a real bed, and he was starving to the point of nausea, and he’d have dealt with all of it just to be where Tony needed him to be, but Tony wouldn’t let him.
“Guess I was wrong,” Bucky said in the elevator. “He kicked us both out at the same time.”
“This feels so wrong,” Steve said, bending over to put his hands on his knees. “You can’t tell me you feel right about this.”
“No,” Bucky said. “But we can’t force him to let us be there.”
“But,” Steve said, and stopped, frowning. “Why wouldn’t he want us there? I don’t understand. If I were that sick, I’d want you both there.”
“I’m sure he did,” Bucky said quietly. “But we weren’t, were we?”
Steve shut his mouth abruptly.
The doors opened on the penthouse floor. “JARVIS,” Steve said, as he let them into the apartment, “can you tell whoever is awake that Tony kicked us out of his room? He says he wants time to himself, but I don’t think he should be on his own for more than a couple of hours.”
“Of course, Captain Rogers. And after your blood sugar episode downstairs, I took the liberty of placing a double order of your usual at Pizza Suprema. It should be here in twenty minutes.”
“Thank you.” Steve stumbled again, and he didn’t resist as Bucky steered him toward the bathroom. “Oh man, a shower. A shower.” As upset as he was about Tony kicking them out, he couldn’t regret the chance to rinse off weeks of dirt and a mission that had been so much worse than he’d ever anticipated.
Clean and wearing fresh clothes, Steve felt almost human. He felt better still with two large pizzas in him, just completely exhausted. He didn’t like the idea of sleeping in their bed without Tony, but Bucky wouldn’t let him pass out on the couch. He herded Steve into their room and put him to bed, actually tucked him in, and then crawled in next to him.
Steve wanted to stay awake. He didn’t want to fall asleep when Tony was downstairs, probably alone. He shouldn’t be alone right now. He’d been alone enough already. But Steve’s body had other ideas, especially with Bucky’s curled around it, and he was too worn out to fight it anymore.
Tony turned his head to watch them go, Bucky almost physically pulling Steve out of the room. His chest felt tight in a way that had nothing to do with scar tissue from where the arc reactor used to sit, or low oxygen saturation, or anything else medical. His throat felt tight, too, and his eyes were burning.
Sometimes he really was an idiot.
The doctor cleared his throat, interrupting the perfectly good bout of self-flagellation that Tony had brewing. “Mr. Stark, here’s the call button,” he said. “If you need anything, just let the nurses know.”
“Will do,” Tony said, and the doctor left.
He was alone for the first time in – Jesus, he actually wasn’t sure how long it had been. His phone was plugged in by his bed, and he fumbled for it, just to see. He’d lost a week. His last clear memory was from eight days ago. He’d been in his lab when he’d gotten sick, realizing all at once that the pain and nausea he’d been stubbornly ignoring for a couple days wasn’t indigestion.
Things got pretty blurry after that. He remembered puking his guts out in the bathroom off his lab. He remembered feeling horrible and alone, knowing that he couldn’t call for Steve or Bucky. By that time, it'd been ten days since he'd heard from them, and he didn't know how long the communications blackout would last. He’d known that there were other people in the tower, but he’d been so fixated on who wasn’t there.
At some point, he thought wearily, someone was going to ask him why he hadn't told anyone else he was sick. He'd locked himself in his lab, even after he knew it was serious – hell, he was pretty sure he remembered turning off JARVIS’s fail-safes. He was definitely going to have to explain that. And he couldn't, not really.
He thought he could pinpoint, at least vaguely, when the actual rupture had occurred. He’d been in a lot of pain and then it’d just...stopped. He’d fallen asleep on the bathroom floor, too weak with exhaustion and relief even to crawl over to the sofa, but when he’d woken up he’d felt worse.
He must’ve passed out – from exhaustion or dehydration or pain, take your pick. And at some point after that, someone had finally come down to the lab and found him.
This was why it was stupid to get dependent on anyone, he thought. He really should've learned that by now. Because when you really needed them, they were halfway around the world and you couldn't even be mad, because it wasn't like they could help it. They hadn't known. They couldn't have known. It would be stupid for Tony to hold it against them. It would be really stupid for Tony to be pissed at them now for how relieved he was that they were back. And it would be the height of stupidity for him to be angry at them for leaving him alone when he'd basically shoved them out the door.
Tony was a lot of things, but he wasn't stupid, and he definitely didn't feel any of that.
He slept again, eventually, because his body was exhausted from the ordeal of the last ten days. He dreamt of cold tile against the side of his face, the smell of his own feverish sweat. He was horribly thirsty, and there was no one to bring him water. He was in the desert. He was searching and searching for Steve and Bucky, but he couldn’t find them, and he didn’t think they were looking for him anymore, anyway.
He woke to find Bruce by his bed.
“Hey,” he said blearily, and coughed weakly on a dry throat. Desert dry. Tony flinched at a flash of the dream. Jesus Christ, his unconscious wasn’t even subtle. Bruce leaned forward, offering him water through a straw. Tony sucked gratefully and tried again. “Hey.”
“Hey yourself,” Bruce said. “How are you feeling?”
Tony took stock. “Better,” he said, which was even mostly true. He still felt like hell, but he thought he might manage full sentences once he’d woken up a bit more.
Bruce nodded. “Your temperature’s down almost a full degree from this morning; your pulse, blood pressure, and oxygen are all within normal range. Congratulations. I'm almost certain you aren't going to die on us after all.”
Tony forced himself to look at Bruce. “That bad?”
“You were in septic shock, Tony. I thought you were either going to die or end up brain damaged from the fever. And I was going to have to explain to your partners how we let that happen.”
Tony looked up at the ceiling. “I'm sorry.”
“Is it worth asking why you didn't tell me you were sick?” Bruce asked. “I'm trying really hard not to take it personally, but it's tough.”
Tony swallowed. “Please don't. I just – I didn't want anyone to worry.”
“Well, if that was your goal, then you really fucked up. You scared us all to death. And I'm still worried about you,” Bruce added. “You're not about to die on us, but you apparently kicked out the two people you'd been asking for constantly for the past week.”
“Steve called you?”
“JARVIS called me, and then I talked to Bucky – as much as anyone who isn't you or Steve ever does, anyway. Steve apparently passed out the minute his head hit the pillow.”
“See, that’s why I made them leave,” Tony said, relieved at such a perfect opening. “Steve almost collapsed. They were both exhausted.”
Bruce stared at him for a few seconds. “Yeah,” he finally said, “I'm not buying that.”
Tony frowned at him. “What the hell.”
“I mean, I buy that you might think that’s what it was,” Bruce said. “But I’m not buying that that’s actually what’s going on here.”
“I thought you weren’t that kind of doctor.”
“I'm not,” Bruce said with a gentle, wry smile. “But occasionally I play one for this band of misfits, since none of you will see a therapist unless you're forced to.”
“Oh, like you're any better,” Tony muttered.
Bruce cocked his head at Tony. “Where do you think I go every Tuesday afternoon?”
Tony blinked. “Really?”
Bruce nodded. “But that's beside the point.”
He looked at Tony steadily, unflinchingly, until Tony had to look away. “I don't know what you want from me.”
Bruce sighed. “I would like you to avoid self-destructing for the second time in two weeks. The first time took years off my life.”
“Yeah, well,” Tony said, “that's never been a promise I've been able to keep very well.”
“Try,” Bruce said flatly. “As the person who found you passed out in your own vomit, I'm asking you to try.” Bruce spread his hands. “Look. You know I'm here if you want to talk, but I'm probably not the ones you should be talking to.”
Tony looked away, unsure how to respond. The thing was...Bruce had been there. When he’d needed him, Bruce had been there. He remembered his voice, tired and a little desperate, telling him he had to hold on, because Steve and Bucky would be back soon and they’d want to see him. Tony didn’t think he’d really believed him, but he’d latched onto Bruce’s voice, Bruce’s hand, Bruce’s...Bruceness.
“You were here, Bruce,” Tony finally said. “More than half the times I woke up, you were the one who was here.”
Bruce opened his mouth, closed it. “And they weren’t.”
Tony’s head was suddenly too heavy for him to hold up. He let it rest on the pillow. “It's not fair, I know.”
“Emotions don't have to be fair.”
Tony grimaced to let Bruce know exactly what he thought about that.
Bruce sighed, but not like he was exasperated – and Tony knew what that sounded like from all his teammates. This was more thoughtful. His hand found Tony’s and squeezed. “So, you know that my childhood was...not great.”
Understatement. Bruce’s childhood made Tony feel like an asshole for complaining about his. “Yeah.”
“But it wasn’t like every minute was terrible. My grandmother – my mother’s mother – she didn’t come around much, because she didn’t like my dad and he hated her just as much, but when I was sick and my parents both had to work, my mom would drop me off at her house for the day. She had all these old records, big band music, stuff Steve might’ve listened to back in the day. I’d curl up in her lap and we’d listen to them all day. It was the safest I ever remember feeling as a kid.”
“That sounds nice,” Tony said with a sigh. “I didn’t have any grandparents,” he offered after a few seconds. “Just nannies. And Jarvis – the first one, I mean. Our butler. He was always around when I got sick.”
“But not your parents?”
“You kidding me? Howard barely had time for me when I was at my most presentable. He wasn’t going to stick around when I was snot-faced and puking. And my mom was...not the nurturing sort.” To say the least. Tony picked at a speck on the blanket where the thread was coming loose. “When I was like eight or nine,” he finally said, “I started getting tonsilitis a lot. Every few months for a while. They took them out after a couple of years, and it stopped.”
He'd read a lot during that time, too sick to do anything else. It'd helped later, when he was at boarding school and didn't have anyone to talk to. He’d known how to distract himself with books – fiction, nonfiction, it hadn’t mattered. He’d read everything.
“Yeah, um.” Tony shook his head. “I mean, it's the sort of thing that a lot of kids go through. I had the best doctors my dad’s money could buy.”
“But your parents were there when you had surgery.” Bruce said it almost like a question.
Tony shrugged. “My dad definitely wasn't. My mom was, though she probably didn’t stick around – she always had something to do for her charity work. But Jarvis let me eat ice cream for three meals a day for about a week,” he added with a faint smile. “I remember that being pretty awesome.”
It was half true. Jarvis had let him eat ice cream, but he couldn’t for the life of him remember if his mom had been there for the surgery or not. There was no point in upsetting Bruce with that information, though. Tony’s mother had been the definition of benign negligence; his father had always made sure Tony knew his affection was contingent on Tony meeting expectations that were, in hindsight, completely impossible. But no one had ever hit him, and that was not something Bruce could say.
Still, this time it was Bruce who was looking at him incredulously. “What?” Tony said, annoyed.
“Nothing.” Bruce put his hand on Tony's arm and squeezed it lightly. Tony braced himself, but after the briefest hesitation, Bruce just said, “You need anything before you fall asleep again? Water, painkillers? No food yet, but if you're good, you might graduate to applesauce and toast tomorrow. No ice cream for a few more days, though, it's too hard to digest.”
Bruce gave him some more water, and then he asked JARVIS to put on some soothing music.
Tony had given up on keeping his eyes open by then, but the opening chords made him smile.
“What are we listening to?” Bruce asked, after a few minutes, frowning. “Not sure I’d call this soothing.”
“S&M concert,” Tony mumbled.
“The San Francisco Symphony in concert with Metallica,” JARVIS supplied.
“Oh,” Bruce said. “That explains a lot.” His hand landed on top of Tony's and squeezed. “Sleep, Tony.”
Tony dozed fitfully. He was exhausted, but his mind wouldn't settle, and when it finally did, he fell into a series of restless dreams that were almost but not quite nightmares. Flashes of being alone in his lab and waking to realize that Bruce was still with him, his hand covering Tony’s. Falling asleep to the phantom echo of Steve’s voice, telling him he’d found Bucky and was leaving. Waking to realize that hadn’t happened.
It still could. Sometimes Tony even thought it should. If he was a better man, he’d have told Steve to be happy with Bucky. But he was selfish enough that when Steve had suggested that they try it with the three of them, he hadn’t been able to say no.
Someday, Steve and Bucky might leave him to be with each other. But it hadn’t happened yet.
He fell asleep again and dreamed this time of his mother’s face – not as she had been when she’d died, but as she had been when he was a kid. Sometimes she’d let him come into her dressing room while she got ready to go out. He’d watched her put her make-up on in the mirror and thought that his mother was the most beautiful woman in the world.
That was the face he dreamed of now.
The third time he woke was the worst. He was aware of nausea before anything else, and then the fact that he was soaked in sweat. His stomach roiled, and for a few seconds he feared he’d be sick. Which would seriously suck, so he fought it, lying back and swallowing until he thought the danger had passed. Bruce had told him the heavy antibiotics he was on might make him nauseous.
When the nausea had passed enough for him to think about anything else, Tony realized the room was empty. It was the first time he’d woken on his own since the surgery. Bruce must have gone upstairs to sleep in his own bed, which Tony could hardly fault him for at this point. Pathetic that being on his own made him feel so uneasy.
It was fortunate that after his parents died, Tony had gone to great lengths to make sure he was never really alone again. “J,” he said, and had to stop to clear his throat. He reached for the cup on his bedside table and sipped. “Where is everyone?”
“Sleeping, sir. Dr. Banner made me promise to wake him if you needed him. Would you like me to do so?”
It was tempting as hell, but Tony shook his head. “No.”
There was a brief, almost hesitant pause, as though JARVIS was unsure about what he was about to say. “Would you rather I woke Captain Rogers and Sergeant Barnes?”
Yes. “NO,” Tony said, too loudly. He took a deep breath. “No, that’s – that’s not necessary, J.”
“You’ve said that to me before, sir. And then you overrode my safety protocols.”
Tony winced. He didn’t think he was imagining the reproach in JARVIS’s voice. “I’m sorry about that, J. When I’m back on my feet, I’ll rewrite the protocols so I can’t cut you out again.”
“Thank you, sir,” JARVIS said, heartfelt. “Are you quite sure you don’t want me to call someone?”
“Yeah, I’m sure.” He was an adult who could take care of himself, even if he hadn’t been doing a fantastic job of it lately. He didn’t need to wake anyone up to come downstairs and hold his hand.
Tony closed his eyes and tried to relax, even if he didn’t think he’d be able to fall back to sleep right away. His mother’s face had been so clear in his dream. He had a hard time conjuring it up sometimes, but it lived in the back of his mind, perfectly clear. He couldn’t quite summon it now, though.
He thought he remembered waking up after his tonsillectomy and seeing her leaning over him. But the more he thought about it, the more he thought the memory might be false. He thought there’d been some kind of event in...he wanted to say that it was Barcelona, but after so many years he knew he couldn’t trust those details. He might not have even known where it was, he’d been so young.
He didn’t think she’d been there at all, because what he did remember, with total clarity, was asking her – begging her – not to go. He’d been terrified of the surgery, even though he’d also been really sick of being sick all the time, and he’d badly wanted her to stay.
She’d looked at him like she had no idea what to do with him. He didn’t remember what she had said to him, but he supposed it didn’t matter. She hadn’t stayed.
His head hurt. His stomach hurt. And now his throat was aching. Goddammit, but he wanted Bucky and Steve. He wanted Bucky and Steve so badly he could almost taste it. Idiot, he thought, but he wasn’t even sure what he was more angry with himself about – having sent them away or wanting them at all.
Tony fumbled for the wireless earpiece on his bedside table and slipped it into his ear. “J, you mind reading to me for a bit? Treasure Island?”
JARVIS’s voice was just in his ear now, soft and soothing. “Sir, wouldn’t you prefer the audiobook in my files?”
“No.” Tony closed his eyes. “You read it. Please.”
There was a beat of silence. “Of course, sir,” JARVIS said, and began to read.
JARVIS’s voice was not quite a match for his namesake’s. Tony had been working off of imperfect audio files when he’d created it, and he hadn’t wanted it to be an exact duplicate, anyway. But it was close enough for comfort.
Bucky jerked awake, jaw locked to stifle any noise he might’ve made. Usually it didn’t matter how quiet he was; Steve woke up anyway, because he had a sixth sense for that sort of thing. But not tonight. Steve had fallen asleep about eight o’clock, after eating a ridiculous amount of pizza, and he’d probably sleep straight through till morning.
Bucky hardly ever slept straight through till morning, and he’d been marginally less exhausted than Steve, having a slightly less demanding metabolism. At the moment, he was the only one of the three of them that wasn’t a mess.
Fucking terrifying thought, that. Steve was supposed to be the functional human being in this relationship, and if Steve wasn’t available, then Tony did a decent impression of someone who had his shit together. This wasn’t supposed to fall to Bucky. But last night it had.
He actually didn’t think he’d done too badly. He’d gotten Steve fed, watered, and put to bed, and then he’d talked to Banner. Or rather, Banner had talked, and Bucky had listened. He thought he had some idea of what was happening in Tony’s lizard-brain. He guessed that a childhood spent being pawned off by the people who should have cared about him the most, especially anytime he got inconveniently sick, would leave a mark.
It was four in the morning. Bucky got up to walk the perimeter of the penthouse apartment. Windows were shut and locked, all entrances were secure. JARVIS reported no incursions. They were safe. But he still had the feeling he wasn’t going to get back to sleep anytime soon.
He paused in the kitchen, wondering if maybe he wasn’t the only one awake and restless. “JARVIS?”
“Yes, Sergeant Barnes?”
“Is Tony awake?”
“Sir is awake.” JARVIS paused briefly and then added, “He indicates he wouldn’t mind company, if it isn’t an inconvenience.”
Bucky took the stairs down to the medical unit, because the elevator felt too confining when he was in this kind of mood. The medical unit was dark and quiet. Bucky did a quick patrol up and down the corridor, just to bring his blood pressure down. No dangers. He slipped into Tony’s room.
“Hey, Buck.” Tony sounded tired and rough. He didn’t lift his head off the pillow when he turned it to look at him. “What’re you doing up?”
“Can’t sleep,” Bucky said. “Same as you, I guess.”
“Yeah. Been doing nothing but sleeping. Think I might be slept out.”
Bucky doubted it. Tony looked and sounded like he should sleep for two or three more days. But he didn’t argue the point.
“Steve feeling better?” Tony asked.
“Yeah. Out like a light.”
“At least one of us is, right?” Tony smiled, but it faded quickly. “How upset was he?”
“Pretty upset. You were right,” Bucky added, and Tony glanced at him sharply. “When you said he doesn’t always know what other people need better than they do.”
Tony nodded, relaxing slightly.
“But in this case, he called your bluff.”
Tony looked at him, eyes narrowed. “Meaning?”
“You didn’t want us to leave.”
Tony shook his head. “Don’t be stupid, Bucky. You and Steve needed some R&R, and I needed some time alone.”
“You’re lying,” Bucky said, certain of it. Not only because of what Banner had said, but because of how Tony wouldn’t look at him. “You didn’t want time alone.”
“Now who thinks they know what I need better than I do?” Tony said irritably. “Jesus Christ, Bucky, lay off. I’m starting to regret letting JARVIS tell you I was awake.”
Bucky decided he needed a strategic retreat if he didn’t want to end up out on his ear. “Sorry.” He took Tony’s hand in his, squeezed it. “You’re right that we needed to eat and sleep. But we could’ve done that here.”
“What, both of you on the couch? I don’t think so.”
“One of us on the couch, and one of us with you.”
Tony blinked. “On the bed?”
“It’s not exactly a normal hospital bed.” It wasn’t as big as their bed in the penthouse, but it was definitely big enough for Tony and either Bucky or Steve. “I would’ve had to flip Steve for it this afternoon, but Steve’s not here now, so that’s his loss.” Bucky hitched himself onto the bed, wedging himself in by Tony’s hip. “You’re gonna have to move over.”
“Oh, I am, am I.”
Bucky stared him down. He could tell that Tony wanted it, badly, but felt the need to argue for some reason. This time, Bucky had no intention of giving in.
Tony shifted over a couple of inches, then froze and hissed.
“Sore?” Bucky asked.
Tony nodded, grimacing. “Opioids aren't a great idea for a recovering alcoholic. I've been trying to cut back, but if we're gonna share the bed, I might have to hit the magic button.”
For a split second, Bucky hesitated. It hadn’t occurred to him that there might be valid reasons to not share the bed. “Then you're lucky it's me and not ‘Starfish’ Steve Rogers,” he finally said. “You know I don’t move much. Let’s try it. If it doesn’t work, I’ll sleep on the couch.”
Tony looked away. “You don’t have to, you know.”
“Pretty sure I can make this decision for myself. You can’t get mad at Steve for being overbearing and deciding he knows what you need and then do the same thing to me.”
The corner of Tony’s mouth quirked up. “Touché. All right. You’re gonna have to help, though.”
“Of course.” Bucky could have just picked him up and moved him, but he didn’t think that’d go over very well. But Tony did let him help him move over a few more careful inches and get settled again.
Bucky did a circuit around the room, checking the ventilation shafts and air vents, and then one more patrol of the hallway.
“All clear?” Tony asked when he returned.
“All clear,” Bucky confirmed, and climbed up beside Tony.
Tony was warm – still running a fever, according to the monitor beside his bed, though no longer a very high one – and unusually pliant. Bucky was careful in how he moved him, not wanting to aggravate his incision, but he still ended up with Tony’s body tucked against his, cradled in his metal arm. “Okay?”
Tony’s eyes were just barely cracked open. “Yes,” he whispered.
Seventy years ago, Bucky had been a talker. That wasn't true anymore. Some days the words came out all right, but some days they just stuck in his throat, and he was lousy at hard conversations. In a strange sort of psychological symbiosis, Steve had gotten better at tough conversations, and Tony – well, Tony talked constantly. Bucky had learned early on that that worked to his advantage. If he stayed quiet, sometimes Tony talked himself into a corner and actually said something.
So Bucky kept his mouth shut and stroked Tony’s hair with his flesh hand. Tony held himself stiffly at first, but Bucky just kept at it, and eventually Tony relaxed.
“So tired,” Tony mumbled.
“Go to sleep, then, dummy,” Bucky said fondly.
“Can’t sleep. Brain won’t turn off.” Tony sighed. “You really don’t have to be here. Probably more comfortable for you upstairs with Steve.”
Bucky snorted. “Had enough of his ugly mug for a while. A month in close quarters with anyone gets annoying. I’d rather be here with you. If you want me here.”
Tony was silent for a long time. “I want you here,” he finally said. “You were right, before. I didn’t want you and Steve to go.”
“Well, that works out, then, doesn’t it?” Bucky tucked a strand of dark hair behind Tony’s ear. “Because Steve and I don’t want to go anywhere.”
“For now,” Tony said, with a listless one-shouldered shrug.
“Not just for now,” Bucky said, frowning at him. “This was bad timing, but we’re not going anywhere.”
Tony looked away, and Bucky wasn’t sure what to say. Tony looked so fucking sad. Shit, he was not equipped for this. Where the hell was Steve when he needed him?
Sleeping. Sleeping and decidedly not here.
“I, um. I don’t remember much from – early on. After I fell,” Bucky finally said, haltingly. Tony looked at him sharply, but Bucky avoided his eyes. He hardly ever talked about his time with Hydra. He hoped Tony realized how much effort this was taking. “But I remember when they told me that Captain America was dead. Until then I thought Steve might come for me, the way he had before. But they showed me the newspaper and told me I was alone. No one was coming for me. I don’t remember a lot, but I remember that.”
“So then, I look up one day, and I see him, and I realize he isn’t dead. Don’t know how that’s possible, but he isn’t dead. And I couldn’t have told you his name, or even my own name at that point. But somewhere deep down, where Hydra never touched, I felt betrayed. Because he was alive and he didn’t come for me.”
Tony’s mouth fell open. “Bucky...”
Bucky trained his gaze on a scratch in the doorframe. “Please don’t ever tell him I told you this. He feels guilty enough as it is. I don’t feel that way anymore. I’m just saying – maybe I get it. We didn’t choose not to be here, but that doesn’t change that we weren’t.”
Tony shook his head. “I feel like a jackass even hearing you make that analogy. I was sick, but that’s not – it wasn’t –”
“Stop, Tony,” Bucky said firmly. “You didn’t have a cold. It kills Steve and me that we weren’t here.”
“It was my own fault it got so bad. I was an idiot about it.”
“Yeah, you were,” Bucky agreed bluntly. “And don’t think we won’t be having that discussion later, pal. Steve has been writing that lecture since we got off the Quinjet. But...I’m sure you had reasons. Lizard-brain reasons, but reasons.”
Tony didn’t answer for a while. He’d been so uncharacteristically quiet since they got back, Bucky thought. Quiet and subdued. Part of that was probably the pain and the drugs, but part of it was something else. Finally he said, “Bruce talked to you, didn’t he.”
Tony grumbled. “For someone who claims he’s not a therapist, he sure spends a lot of time asking me about my childhood.”
“Yeah, well, your childhood is kind of relevant.” And probably not something he and Tony should talk about. Bucky didn’t know what it’d taken for Tony to get past the fact that the Winter Soldier had killed his parents, but by the time Steve had found him and brought him back to the tower, Tony had been accepting enough to let him live there. Bucky suspected that over time, as the extent of what Hydra had done to him became clear, Tony somehow managed to separate out the Winter Soldier from Bucky Barnes, as though they were two separate people.
They weren’t, of course. Bucky worried even now that the right words might wake the Soldier up. But if that was what let Tony live with him, let Tony love him even, then Bucky was willing to let him think that way. Sometimes he thought that made him a bad person. But he was too weak, and too in love with Tony and Steve, to do anything else.
Still, this was a minefield, and not one that Bucky thought he and Tony should try and tread without Steve.
Tony must’ve felt the same way, because he didn’t say anything more. He rested his head against Bucky’s chest and closed his eyes. Bucky could tell from his breathing and heartrate that he wasn’t actually asleep, but he didn’t push Tony to keep talking. He held Tony close and watched the clock, until eventually Tony stopped faking it and slid into real sleep.
Even then, Bucky found himself wakeful and restless, recalling the resignation in Tony’s voice as he’d said, “For now.” He’d said it as though it was a foregone conclusion that someday, Bucky and Steve would leave him. It’d bespoke very old pain, and Bucky knew there was a lot he couldn’t change. But he wondered if there was something he and Steve could do. Well, mostly Steve, in this case.
It was just the germ of an idea. Bucky wasn’t sure either Steve or Tony would go for it. But it was enough to let him lay his head down beside Tony’s and close his eyes. It’d keep till the morning.
Steve stared at the image on the TV screen in their bedroom. He’d woken – fourteen hours after he’d fallen asleep – to find Bucky gone. He wasn’t sure what he’d expected when he’d asked JARVIS to show him where Bucky was, but he somehow hadn’t expected to see him and Tony curled up together on Tony’s oversized hospital bed, both sound asleep. Bucky wasn’t even twitching.
It made him feel both better and irrationally jealous at the same time. Or – not jealous, just a little excluded. But also relieved. He often got the feeling that Bucky and Tony were each circling him, like moons around a planet. It always made him happy to see them with each other. He’d have been unequivocally thrilled about this if he hadn’t been so worried about Tony and still a little pissed about being kicked out the night before.
Steve grimaced and got up. He was starving again.
There was nothing at all edible in the fridge in the penthouse, so Steve went up to the kitchen on the communal floor. He found it already occupied by Rhodey, Bruce, and Natasha, who were making breakfast.
Bruce took one look at him and pulled another dozen eggs out of the fridge. “Thanks,” Steve said, slumping at the kitchen island.
“Feeling better?” Natasha asked.
Steve nodded. “Have any of you seen Tony yet today?”
“JARVIS said he and Barnes are still sleeping,” Rhodey said. “We figured the second one of us set foot in the room, Barnes would be wide awake, so we’ve been staying away.”
“I did have a chat with Tony late last night,” Bruce said.
“And?” Steve said when Bruce didn’t go on.
Bruce and Rhodey exchanged a look. “I think he’s not used to having a lot of people around when he’s sick,” Bruce finally said. “At least, not a lot of people who aren't paid for it.”
It didn’t take a genius to read between those lines. It wasn’t the first time since Steve had gotten involved with Tony that he’d wanted to go back to 1944 for the express purpose of punching Howard Stark in the nose. “But he let Bucky stay with him last night,” Steve said.
“He did,” Rhodey agreed, “and that’s a big deal. Just...go slow, and don’t take it personally.”
Steve sighed. “Yeah.”
He ate about the same amount as everyone else put together. Once, that would have embarrassed him, but he’d gotten past being embarrassed by the demands of his body a long time ago. He fried up the remaining eggs and bacon for Bucky, and toasted and buttered a couple slices of bread, since Bruce said Tony could have solid food this morning if he felt like it. He put everything on a tray, along with coffee for Bucky and himself and tea for Tony, and took a deep breath. He felt unaccountably like he was steeling himself for battle.
Rhodey was right: The minute Steve set foot in the room, Bucky was awake and alert. He saw Steve and relaxed. “Hey, Stevie,” he said, tipping his head back against the pillows.
Steve smiled. Bucky rarely called him ‘Stevie’ anymore, but it always felt like a gift from their past selves when he did. “How was your night?”
“Interrupted, but okay.” He looked down at Tony, who hadn’t stirred at all so far. “I think he’s doing better. He feels a lot cooler.”
“The monitor agrees with you,” Steve said, nodding at it. Tony’s temperature was just over a hundred and one degrees – still too high, but much less worrisome than the night before. “You hungry?”
“Starving. Is that bacon I smell?”
“Yep.” Steve took the cover off the plate to show Bucky. “Swap?”
Bucky eased himself carefully out from beneath Tony and slid off the bed to sit in the chair. Steve took his place almost seamlessly, tucking Tony beneath his arm. Tony did stir then, turning his face into Steve’s side. He sighed softly, and his eyelids fluttered. Steve went still, hoping Tony would go back to sleep, but after a few seconds, Tony’s eyes opened.
“Hey,” Steve said gently, cupping Tony’s cheek in his hand.
“Hey,” Tony said sleepily. “Buck?”
“Eating breakfast. Bruce said you could have something, too, if you wanted it.”
“Mmm. Not yet.” His eyes slid shut, and Steve breathed an almost silent sigh of relief. He looked at Bucky, who was shoveling in bacon and eggs with a single-mindedness that Steve recognized all too well. He felt himself settle in a way he hadn’t since he’d gotten off the Quinjet the previous afternoon. Both his partners were in eyesight. Both were letting him take care of them the way he wanted to.
Bucky had finished eating and was lounging on the sofa with Steve’s phone – since his own was upstairs in their suite – when Tony stirred again, humming happily. “Super soldiers make the best body pillows.”
Steve raised his eyebrows. Bucky chuckled. “S’true,” he said, when Steve looked at him. “Better if they don’t have metal arms, of course.”
“I dunno, you were pretty awesome last night,” Tony said, turning his head to look at him.
“How’re you feeling?” Steve asked.
“Okay. Kinda queasy, though, not sure I’m ready to eat anything.”
Steve frowned. “Do you need me to get Bruce? Or your doctor?”
“No. The antibiotics that are saving my life are also messing with my stomach, that’s all.” Tony sighed and looked up at Steve, visibly steeling himself. “I owe you an apology, Steve.”
“No,” Steve said firmly, “you don’t, Tony.”
Tony dipped his chin. “An explanation, then.”
Steve hesitated, then nodded. “I’ll take an explanation.”
Tony licked his dry lips. Steve offered him water from a straw, and he accepted it. Bucky was watching them with interest, but he wasn’t trying to intervene. Apparently this was for Steve.
“My parents were never great at being around,” Tony said, once Steve had set the cup aside. “They were especially bad when I was sick. Having a kid was barely their thing. Having a sick kid was just – boring, I guess. And gross, and inconvenient, and a bunch of other things. So, um, they mostly let other people deal with me.”
“Tony,” Steve said, “you know that Bucky and me – we would’ve given anything to be here, right?”
Tony nodded. “I know. I do know. I just – I don’t – I have a history of...hiding it, when I’m sick. It’s not smart, it’s bitten me in the ass before, and this time around it was really stupid.” He stopped, swallowed. “I was disoriented and delirious half the time, but I missed you. Both of you. And then you were finally here, and I – I didn’t expect to react the way I did.” He drew a shaky breath. “It was easier to shove you out than it was to wait for you to decide to leave.”
“We wouldn’t,” Steve said, throat unbearably tight. “Tony, we wouldn’t. We’d never.”
Tony’s voice cracked. “I know that. I do. I just –”
“Lizard-brain reasons,” Bucky said. Steve looked up, startled. He’d been so focused on Tony that he hadn’t heard Bucky approach the bed. “Hard, though. I know I don’t have to check the perimeter, windows, doors, air vents. JARVIS is watching over us. We’re safe. But I can’t stop myself.”
“Sometimes I have to remind myself that there’s enough food,” Steve said. “I don’t have to save anything, or stop before I’m full. We all have these issues.”
Tony nodded. But he didn’t look much comforted, and Steve didn’t know what to say to make him believe them. If that was even possible.
“Would it help if we put a ring on it?” Bucky asked suddenly.
Steve and Tony both turned to stare at him. “What?” Steve asked dumbly.
Bucky shrugged, apparently unfazed by their astonishment. “I’m asking Tony if it’d make him feel better if we – well, you, actually, since threeway marriages still aren’t legal – put a ring on it.”
“I – would it?” Steve asked Tony.
Tony blinked. “I don’t...know. I haven’t thought about it. Wait, who the hell taught you ‘put a ring on it’?”
Bucky raised an eyebrow. “You have a super computer with access to all human knowledge. JARVIS considered Beyoncé one of the top ten most necessary popular culture references. And what do you mean, you haven’t thought about it?”
“Haven’t thought about it ever?” Steve added, because sure, the three of them hadn’t talked about it, but that didn't mean he hadn’t thought about it.
“Not since you found Bucky,” Tony said, looking away. “I always assumed that if any of us got married, it’d be you two.”
Flummoxed, Steve glanced at Bucky. Bucky looked sad but not surprised, and Steve wondered just how the hell he’d missed this grain of insecurity Tony had apparently been nurturing all along. “Why would you think that?” Steve asked.
Tony shrugged. “Epic romance across time and space. Waiting seventy years to be together again. That kind of thing. Seemed like the logical conclusion.”
Steve looked at Bucky again. “Do you want to get married?”
Bucky shook his head. “Not particularly. Besides.” His eyes softened. “I don’t need a ring to know you’re mine. I knew it when that wasn’t even an option. You and me, till the end of the line, right?”
“Right,” Steve said.
“Now, Steve here,” Bucky said to Tony. “He’s definitely the marrying kind. Great husband material.”
“You’re not selling me!”
“No, he’s just proposing for you.” Tony’s mouth quirked up.
Steve rolled his eyes. “But seriously, Tony. I’ve thought about it. I thought about it before we found Bucky, and I’ve thought about it since. I didn’t think you wanted to get married. And I didn’t think it’d change much with us, anyway.”
Tony shook his head. “I didn’t think it was an option.”
Steve covered Tony’s hand with his and squeezed. “And that’s our fault.”
“Lots of dumb assumptions all around,” Bucky agreed. “What do you think, Tony? I’ll officiate.”
Steve snorted, picturing the ceremony Bucky would come up with for them. “You’ll have to arm wrestle Natasha for it.”
“Natasha can’t officiate, she has to be your best man. Hmm, or Sam. Tony, do you want Rhodey or Bruce? You could both have two, I guess.”
Tony smiled, even if it was quick and fleeting. “Neither, for now.” He shook his head. “I don’t know if a ring would help. Or if it’s what I want. But I do like knowing it’s on the table.”
“It’s always on the table.” Steve cupped Tony’s face in his palm. “Even if you don’t think it’d help the lizard-brain, it’s on the table.” He kissed Tony and pressed their foreheads together. “We love you. We're not leaving. I know we weren't here, and I can't – I can't change that, no matter how much I want to, but I can promise you that, that –”
Steve stopped. He wanted to promise that it wouldn't happen again, but he didn't think he could. The three of them were going to split up sometimes for missions. Though not for a while after this, he thought. Fury and Hill were going to have to deal with that.
“– that we won't ever pawn you off on anyone else if we can help it,” Bucky finished, while Steve was still trying to find the right words. “No more than we would each other. We're till the end of the line, too, ‘case you didn't get that memo.”
Tony's eyes, when Steve pulled back far enough to look at them, were suspiciously bright. “Missed you both,” he managed, reaching for Bucky to draw him in. “I thought – fuck.” His voice cracked on the fricative, and he stopped without saying what he’d thought. But Steve was pretty sure he could fill in the blanks just from the pain in Tony’s voice. He could only imagine how it had felt to be that sick, to feel that alone, and to know that his partners were out of reach.
But even the pain was good to hear. It was better than Tony insisting he was fine, pushing them away, cutting them off. The pain, strangely, made Steve feel better. It made him feel like they might be all right.
“We missed you, too,” Steve said, pressing Tony’s knuckles to his lips.
“This whole experience was...” Tony stopped and took a deep, shaky breath. “It was terrible.”
“I know it was,” Steve said gently. “But, Tony – it was worse than it needed to be.”
“Here comes that lecture,” Bucky said. Steve glared, but Bucky shrugged unrepentantly. “Don’t argue with the man,” he told Tony. “There’s no point. Also, you deserve it.”
Steve shook his head. “I’m not going to lecture. I’m just gonna say – look, I know you were scared, and in pain, and not thinking clearly, but for God’s sake, Tony, you scared the hell out of everyone. We promise you that we’ll try to make sure this doesn’t happen again, but I need you to promise us that if we aren’t here, you won’t hide yourself away from the rest of the team. You have to ask for help when you need it. Please.”
Tony looked away. “My track record on this is pretty awful. But I definitely don’t want a repeat. It sucked.” He looked up, first at Steve and then at Bucky. “I’ll try.”
“That’s all I’m asking,” Steve said. “There. Lecture over. Now.” He looked Tony in the eye. “What do you need from us? You said you don’t want toast. I also brought tea. Or I could get you Gatorade? Ginger ale?”
“Just let him bring you something,” Bucky said to Tony. “Anything. He’ll be like this until you do.”
The corner of Tony’s mouth tilted upward. “I used to make a hangover smoothie with bananas and strawberries and ginger. That sounds...not terrible.”
“JARVIS?” Steve said. “Do we have everything for that?”
“We do, Captain Rogers,” JARVIS said. “All the relevant ingredients can be found in the main kitchen. I’ll send the recipe to your cell phone.”
“Thanks.” Steve leaned over to kiss Tony, then Bucky. He swung his legs off the bed and gathered up the breakfast dishes, including Tony’s uneaten toast. “I’ll be right back. Try to stay out of trouble.”
Bucky was already sliding into the spot on the bed that Steve had vacated. “No promises.”
“I promise,” Tony said, yawning. “God, I don’t even have the energy for trouble. How sad is that?”
“I bet I can come up with trouble we can make without ever leaving this bed,” Bucky replied, just a hint of flirt in his voice. Steve shook his head and went to let himself out. But he lingered in the doorway for just a few seconds more, watching Bucky and Tony. Bucky murmured something in Tony’s ear; Tony laughed and then groaned, hand going to his abdomen. Bucky ducked his head apologetically and pressed his lips to Tony’s forehead.
Steve shut the door and went to make Tony’s smoothie.