The sun’s setting for the eighth day now. The last golden beams filter through the city, breaking up what would have been a magnificent view, if the occupant had been awake. Tony continues to flick through his workload on a Starkpad Pepper had loaned him when he had demanded to leave, only to be strongly pressured by Pepper, and three doctors, to remain. The device forced into his hands as compensation.
He only stayed so he could be here .
Here, with Steve.
Steve, who hadn’t woken up yet. But Tony supposes that’s not unexpected given how much surgery they had to perform.
His breath hitches remembering the sight, seeing the disturbing amount of blood pooling beside him from a slumped over Steve. It’s flowing down a little incline under where they landed, trapping in a groove.
With racing breaths, the sounds around him withdraw again, and almost with grainy film quality verging on not quite right, he’s back there in this memory. With the police and the screaming crowds and cameras and all the rolling ones and zeros. Then he sees nothing but that scene playing again and again (he must have run it over a thousand times). The blood, the gunshots (three of them), the sounds, the constant buzz as he streams the live footage through his brain (again). His mind makes up the smells and the taste of the air fouled with gunsmoke and fear. Steve’s death- but he isn’t-
He lets out a breath to clear his head, and the sharp glow of the Starkpad comes back into view.
His taped-up middle is starting to itch. Tony resists scratching his healing midsection by trying to distract himself with reviewing some of the backlog of business emails and messages, but he’s neither truly focused nor in the mood to do the work. He’s not on pain meds, and he’s kind of regretting it.
He hears a faint ruffling of sheets and looks to see Steve dazedly checking his surroundings until he locks onto Tony seated beside the bed on the chair he has been in for a couple of hours.
“ Steve .”
Tony wants to touch him, but he can’t seem to make himself do it. He compromises by shuffling himself and the chair closer instead.
“Which villain was it this time?” Steve casually asks, taking no time to set events straight. Of course, Steve hadn’t seen what happened, he was too busy bleeding out-
Tony shakes his head. “Wasn’t a villain the second time. Just a regular crazy person angry at the world. Unloaded a high powered automatic rifle from across the street into the crowd from his apartment. They didn’t even bring him in. He popped shots into his own head before they got to him.”
Steve looks disturbed by what Tony says, and he wonders if Steve’s recounting the same incident his own betraying mind can’t seem to pick at, but he could dismiss it as simply being the post-waking daze.
“He shot you, that’s what I saw when I moved.” Steve says. He’s sure Steve is aware that others had been gunned down too, given the cast away expression.
Steve looks down at his exposed chest seeing a patchwork of surgical dressing, then looks quickly at Tony’s, “What’s the damage? Are you-?”
“Been in the hospital for a week. Nothing terribly detrimental long term, besides muscle damage. I’m probably gonna be walking round with a cane for a month, though.”
It’s a half-assed attempt at downgrading Steve’s fears. He still can’t smile, despite the ridiculous image. Even Steve awake can’t seem to pull his smile out.
“You’ve only just woken up, but you’ve been here just as long. Complications. I can pass you your chart.” When he looks back into Steve’s eyes he still can’t say it. Instead, he deflects. “Look, Steve, you’re probably gonna be down for a while.”
“It’s my back, I can feel it.”
“You do feel the important bits though?” Steve proceeds to wiggle his toes, but it’s obvious he’s not getting the usual sensations.
“Yeah. It’s already healing. Otherwise I wouldn’t be getting shooting pains through my toes.”
Tony remembers well after his own bout of back damage just how important pain is to nothing. The serum will pull him through, all evidence suggests so. “We can figure something out.”
“Tony, why won’t you look at me?”
He recounts the evening that started this.
It had been their first official date, well to start off. Nothing in their lives ever stayed simple.
They were attending an outdoor concert at a festival that was to go on through the evening and night. The crowd would have been perfect cover to get lost in for a couple of hours. So they could conceal all that unnecessary contact in a crowd that wouldn’t notice any subtle hand holding between Tony Stark and a certain publicly known super soldier.
Of course, the whole thing had been hijacked by a lame ass, D-grade villain he can’t even recount the name of. So, off they went and got dressed up, and Tony’s armour was called, trying to take as little time to clear up the mess for others, and get back to the event. It didn’t take long, but with their cover blown they realised they couldn’t get back to ‘date night’. Despite this, they decided to stay for the show anyway, relenting with the insistence of the hosts, after they sorted Mister D-grade embarrassment out and handed him off to the police.
No longer needing their gear, Tony sent his armour back to the tower, and Steve removed his cowl. He declined to sign some autographs stating he was just doing his job, except for some kids present, whom he did agree to autograph for.
It happened suddenly. Too fast for even Steve to have sensed. The loud thunder of cracking gunfire spread from Tony’s right. There was a vague sharpness just under Tony’s ribs, and he thought he had been kicked by someone in the now screaming and writhing crowd. He hadn’t known what happened, but Steve seemed to have seen it. Shield on his arm, Steve threw Tony down defensively behind a step in the ground. But the cracking continued for a moment more, over the screams.
He checked around in a puzzled daze to see several others besides them fall down. There was a gunman somewhere behind them. He needed to recall his Iron Man armour, cursing this one time for decommissioning his briefcase armour.
The police were still there, and he thought he heard Mister D-grade’s muffled shriek from somewhere.
He looked back at Steve, expecting him to spring up and know exactly how to contain the situation, his shield raised on his arm. That was when Tony realised Steve was bleeding profusely and hadn’t moved. Steve had been hit badly in several places.
Before he knew what he was doing, Tony started to perform the usual emergency first aid, going through the motions, until he saw. The world around him distorted and he’d then been immediately thrown back, far away from this scene to stairs. Gunshots. Blood. Steve dead. A cacophony of foreign feelings all at once. He’d been an Avenger for donkey’s years now, and had been caught out then by a terror-induced panic attack from a man 8 years younger.
His ears buzzed, his breathing uneven, the world shrinking to pinpricks of barely reminiscent machine code, fear, and need. It wasn’t just humiliating, it was dangerous and irresponsible. But Tony’s brain neither wanted his logic nor his higher functioning skills.
He wasn’t able to tell the difference between the pain in his chest and the dull ache pulling at the rest of him, leaving him startlingly foggy and uneasy. He tried to shake away the light-headedness, logically tying it back to his humiliating and entirely unnecessary emotional response, telling himself that Cap would be ashamed.
“Sir, you’re bleeding,” one of the crowd, a woman he should be protecting, told him, who had the courage to move from cover to assist, unlike himself.
He looked down, and his black dress shirt had done a mighty job of obscuring a gruesome amount of blood running down from the place he thought he got kicked. But there was no time, Steve was more important than him.
“It’s nothing. Cap here needs help. Please, I need help with him.” The woman threw a concerned look his way but thankfully followed his lead and packed up Steve as best they could. Brain kicking back on, he pulled out his Avengers identification card and triggered the backup mayday. With his other hand, he used the offered makeshift dressing and pressed it onto one of the myriad wounds, praying to a god he didn’t believe in that he would get another day to see Steve smile.
Another wave of dizziness struck him, making it impossible to fly his armour out by the point when it arrived.
Tony had pretty much passed out by the time the paramedics got to the scene. He woke up in the hospital a day later.
Blinking out of his recollection, Tony looks at Steve on a dare to prove it’s not Steve, it’s him. It’s another half of a truth.
“I’m fine, but you’re not. I should let you rest.” Steve must still be tired as he does not argue, just nods his head and receives a dejected look.
“It’s good to see you awake.” Tony’s smile feels somewhat forced, but it’s genuine.
He should leave before Steve makes a preemptive threat if he sees him in his workshop when he returns to the tower.
He bends over and quickly but gently kisses Steve’s cheek, it tastes of sweat and hospital.
“You’re not getting out of this,” Steve sighs. “See you back at the tower.”
These are Tony’s problems not Steve’s. He’s got his own problems to deal with without having Tony offload onto him as well. Not when Steve is the one sporting enough holes trying to protect people like a real Avenger while Tony’s own mind is committing treachery. He shouldn’t have to add on to that.
He walks out.
It’s been two days since he and Steve had talked in the hospital room. Straight after his waking, knowing Steve was alright, Tony had discharged himself from the hospital and found himself in his workshop, feeling far more relieved than he should have at surrounding solid reinforced walls and no one to judge him.
It also made him an easy and predictable figure to find, however. Steve inevitably came in, struggling on crutches. The sight of him churns into fresh feelings of guilt that Tony hadn’t had the motivation to meet him in his own home when he got here from the hospital. Some partner he is.
Steve does not hesitate as he walks up and rests himself on the tidier side of the work bench disregarding a chair neither of them could lift.
Tony gets the jist. “Are you here for that talk?”
“Do I get a kiss first?”
He does give Steve that kiss. A brief but honest one. He still doesn’t move though so he resigns himself on not getting out of this.
“So, have you been holed up here the entire time?”
“Why even ask that? It’s a logical fallacy.”
He can imagine Steve rolling his eyes, and he suspects that is the case when he hears a sigh as he half-heartedly reassembles some component he had lying on his desk just to look busy.
“What’s wrong?” Steve asks calmly.
“We’re both sporting extra holes, you’re not fine. Now, are you going to answer my question or not?” Steve implores.
“Yes, I have been here the whole time.” Tony says, purposely choosing the wrong question to answer.
Steve frowns but his mannerism suggests he expected Tony’s behaviour. “Seems to be a pretty safe place. Solid walls, controlled environment, no people, no unexpected gunfire-“
“Why did you grab me ?” Tony finally snaps. Steve doesn’t respond, and the absence of his voice makes Tony want to turn around just to check if he’s actually still there, “Of anyone. Instead it was me. You got gunned down for me. Others got gunned down for me.”
“Neither of us had any time to react-“
“There was a little girl there- I don’t even know if she made it.” His angry tone slips, but he isn’t sure nor game enough to check if he’d now attacked Steve personally, reminding him of his failures though few. “It should have been someone else.”
“Yes, maybe it should have been someone else. But you are the one I was next to, and I can’t change that. I made a mistake , I let people down, people died . I’m not going to tell you I regret saving you, because I don’t , because at that moment you were one of those people who needed protecting too. Unless your thousand-dollar civvies have some built in ability to repel large-calibre bullets I don’t know about? So no, I don’t regret throwing you out the way of more potentially fatal bullets. I regret not being able to get back up and continue to do the same for everyone else; stop the bad guy, save the day.”
Tony couldn’t possibly feel more ashamed than now. Even at Steve’s perceived worst, he’s at his best. Steve remains silent and it’s enough for Tony to relent.
“I keep thinking what happened and all I see is you there,” the last word cracks, “bleeding out.”
The slip infuriates Tony, and he can’t see how Steve couldn’t be disgusted with the way he is. He throws the partially assembled part back down on the bench where it scatters to bits again.
“2006,” he simply states.
Tony can see Steve almost has to think, unsure as to the relevance of the date until the familiar discomfort, old but scarred over, appears.
“I remember,” Tony almost whispers.
Steve blinks at him, and before he has a chance to speak Tony cuts him off by continuing.
“Found it in a box. Wasn’t labelled.” He can tell Steve’s shocked. “Checked it out. It was the memory backup I lied to everyone about not having, ya know, our war…when you died . When I practically killed you .”
“I thought I would learn something greater . I didn’t. It was a mistake.” Steve has visibly clenched his jaw with obvious unease, but Tony keeps going. “I mean, it didn’t really matter much when I did it, I’d already known about everything already. Most of those experiences were old. But, out there, I saw you shot up… and I was useless. I didn’t do anything. I kept… seeing you dead on the steps. I wasn’t even there. And I kept seeing that. And it’s my fault, my fault-“
“It’s not your fault. I didn’t die, then or now. You were reacting to an unprocessed fear.” And when Steve brings up psychosomatic logic, it annoys him cause why can’t he see how much Tony is a fuck up.
“Yeah. Smart. Who else purposely gives themselves acquired PTSD?” Tony snorts with pure self-deprecation.
“I, I really wish you told someone before doing this to yourself. Sticking those old memories into your head; it was a long time ago. And my back? Yeah it sucks, but I’ll heal, I’ll get better.” It is hard on him, hearing the obvious break in Steve’s voice as he bravely attempts to comfort Tony with platitudes he doesn’t believe himself.
Steve crosses his arms, “So have you. Words can’t begin to describe how devastated I was. Every time. We both live dangerous lives Tony. We’ve both have done stupid things and had stupid things happen to us.”
It’s not fair. He can barely remember anything surrounding his deaths, if you can even call them that, and he’s now coming upon terminal velocity in this one-way freefall towards Steve, not even the intended target. With his absence of opinion Steve takes it as cue to continue.
“You keep forgetting that you were injured too.” Steve gives a gentle head shake. “It wasn’t your fault. Yes, you could have handled it better, I may be angry in a couple weeks, I was angry at myself. But you didn’t shoot the gun, nor the crowd, and many others were already beyond saving. And you had a bullet through your liver and your gut, which you tried to hide from me.” Steve pauses for a breath, looking somewhat incensed by the last point, then his expression mellows. “You didn’t fail anyone.”
“Keep saying that, I might believe it one day. I got people killed. He knew it, I know it-” When Tony eventually meets Steve’s eyes he sees a weariness that has nothing to do with needing rest. “It’s probably why he hid the backup. Cause I’m too much of a coward to deal with that.” He suspects they both share that look. Maybe Steve’s not so certain of his own convictions after all.
It’s fine, it’s on Tony. He’ll just have to try harder and- “If I were only-”
“What? More like me?” With his trademark frown, Steve grabs Tony’s shoulders and brings him close with the limited mobility he can manage face to face. “Stop competing with yourself. I see no coward standing here, especially after taking a risk to find some sense of closure. Bad choice, yes. But you had the courage to pick it up and take those memories back that he rejected.” Tony takes a moment to think it through. But Steve couldn’t possibly believe that of him. He’s wrong, because there is no differentiation between Tony now and some 8-year-old memories from the worst time of his life.
Steve seems to have picked up on his reservations, for he’s filled with surprise when Steve gives him blunt honesty.
“I was angry for a long time, I was envious… for the obvious reasons, and the ones that nobody knew of. The one thing I barely told anyone about- trapped in a cycle of my own life: reliving all the bad parts, the boring parts, the pain, sadness, the ones I had forgotten, the ones I wanted to forget, the ice …” Steve fidgets briefly until Tony sees that look of resolve paint his face that always awed him. “It’s time to make some new memories.”
He can’t think of anything sufficient to add that wouldn’t sound like polluting Steve’s sweet, succinct resolve. It’s as if something opens, another path. These are the words he needs. He holds no illusions that it will be easy, but neither of them has ever taken the easy route nor would they ask each other to.
He instead acts, and so too does Steve, meeting halfway, drawing themselves into an embrace verging on bear hug. He’d forgotten how comforting a hug can be. Steve kisses his cheek tenderly, an action Tony still hasn’t gotten used to for being so new. Then his lips, which he quickly reciprocates and deepens; he can get used to that. He’s wanted this for so long.
They withdraw a couple of minutes later with Steve trying to get comfortable and Tony offering him an actual chair to sit in. With the aid of a bot.
Tony can’t decide of they’d had their first legitimate couples argument or their first couples feelings session.
“Hey, I was actually looking forward to spending time being cripple buddies together.” Steve chuckles with a gentle nudge.
Tony’s eyes scrunch in partially forced mirth at the pretty ugly attempt at humour when Steve’s been reduced to crutches at best. He reminds himself to pull out some of the leftover exo-frames. He can do so much better than a standard issue hospital device.
“Wasn’t much of a first date,” Steve says with a resigned sigh, as they rest their foreheads together.
“Sorry. I’ll make it up to you,” Tony says apologetically.
Steve gives a small frown until he brightens with a playful smirk. “Can you make me a hover chair like Xavier?” Steve asks him cheekily.
This does draw a smile from Tony, and he realises he feels much better than he had. Not great, but he genuinely thinks, for the first time, he might be able to put this aside. Make new memories.
He’s not unaware of the ghost that will forever reside in his mind from now on. But maybe new memories can ward it off.
“As long as it’s not canary yellow.”