“Damn it,” Steve muttered, tossing the unopened envelope on the hallway table. This was the third piece of mail returned from Fury with no response. He didn’t understand why the man was shutting him out.
Steve needed this job. He needed to stay active, to stay busy and keep from dwelling on the past. The team helped some; everyone had been so kind and welcoming. Mr. Stark had been kind enough to give Steve a place to stay when he didn’t know him from Adam. Steve was gradually making a life for himself here but he was still struggling to stay afloat. The Avengers rarely went more than a week without some two bit villain that needed to be shown what was what but it was those days in between: those were the problem.
Those days when it was too quiet.
When Iron Man was off helping Mr. Stark, Giant Man and Wasp were doing their will-they/won’t-they routine and Thor was off doing whatever it was he did when he was off duty. They all had lives outside of the team and over time, it had become even more apparent that Steve did not. He’d tried reading up on the future he’d found himself in. Occasionally, he took walks around the city he once knew and tried to relearn it. Sometimes he entertained himself with training Rick and the Teen Brigade but he could only do that for so long before he found himself thinking of Bucky with a heavy heart.
Today was one of those quiet days.
When he was at the mansion all alone and the walls started to close in. If he listened intently, he could still hear the rumbling noises of engines, the crack of gunfire and Bucky shouting from far away. If he closed his eyes, he could still feel the sea salt on his skin, the chill of the air as the plane slices through the clouds. No matter what he did, reading, training, finding chores to do around the house, none of it quieted the voices in his head or made it any easier to breathe.
Today, he set the mail down and paced the halls, trying to come up with more busy work for himself when he heard a loud crash followed by a resounding thump. It had come from overhead and Steve spared no time grabbing his shield and heading for the stairs. It could be more men trying to break into the mansion. It could be Zemo’s squad. It could be more men after Mr. Stark. For a millionaire, he had no shortage of enemies.
Steve leapt the stairs four at a time and heard another crash down the hall. It had come from Mr. Stark’s room and though Steve had only been invited inside once, he didn't hesitate to race over to the door and slam his shoulder into the wood.
It splintered rather easily, revealing a red and gold pile on the floor. “Iron Man!” he called concernedly, leaping over the threshold and hurrying to turn his teammate on his side. It wasn’t until Steve had done so that he realized the man’s helmet was lying beside him. Steve’s insides twisted, an apology on the tip of his tongue. They’d gone so long respecting each other’s boundaries and personal lives; Steve would deal with this betrayal after he took care of his teammate.
Steve sat back on his knees, laying the man’s head on his lap and his breath caught, heart pounding because Steve knew this face. He knew that aristocratic nose, those long, dark lashes, that clever mouth... but, no matter how long Steve stared, it didn't sink in.
Tony Stark was Iron Man.
There was a soft groan and Steve blinked, shaking himself a little as he propped Tony’s head up more comfortably. “Iron – Tony, what’s wrong? What’s happened?” he asked urgently. He couldn't see the rise and fall of Tony’s chest because of the armor but his breathing sounded rather shallow to Steve’s ears. Tony eyes opened and closed dazedly a few times, his face pale as he tried to speak. His voice was faint and Steve had to lean in to hear him.
“Charge… chestplate. Have to charge,” he murmured, pointing at the far wall and Steve didn't understand.
He must be in shock, Steve thought. “There’s no time to worry about the armor. We have to get you to a doctor,” he explained gently and Tony stared up at him, eyes wide and fearful. It shocked Steve to his core; something wasn’t right here. “What are you not telling me? Did someone do this to you?” he asked, fearing Zemo had finally gotten to another one of Steve’s partners.
The corner of Tony’s mouth curled up briefly, “I did. Need… I need to charge the chestplate,” he repeated. He sucked in a breath, a soft wheeze following. “Please trust me.” Steve stared at him apprehensively for a moment and then helped pull Iron Man over to the wall. There was a black cable trailing out of an outlet, the attachment rather unusual to Steve’s eyes. Tony’s hands slid over the center panel of his chestplate and Steve got the hint.
“Can I?” he asked and Tony’s hands fell away with a grateful nod. He was weak, his fingers blue at the tips but Steve didn’t have time to dwell on the many questions flooding his mind. Tony needed his help now. Steve pried open the panel and took hold of the cable but he couldn’t put two and two together. There was nowhere visible to attach it.
“Tony, I don’t – I don’t see a way to connect it.”
Tony blinked at him like he was crazy and then propped himself up at a better angle to get a look at the chestplate. Then, Steve watched as his eyes filled with frustrated tears and he laughed mirthlessly. “Goddamn it.”
“What am I missing here?” Steve asked and Tony spared him no explanation. He pointed to the bedside table before his hand dropped to the carpet weakly.
“I need the toolset in the drawer. Can you?” he asked and Steve reached over immediately, opening the drawer and ignoring the box of condoms in the back. He grabbed the small toolkit and hands it to Tony. He tried to take it but his hands didn't quite cooperate. He huffed out a frustrated sigh and handed it back to Steve shamefaced. “You’ll have to do it.”
“Tony,” he began but the man was adamant, eyes firmer than Steve had ever seen them.
“Steve, if we waste time arguing, I’m going to die.” Steve’s heart pounded rapidly in his chest but he nodded. He followed Tony’s directions and pulled out one of the tools. “Now, one of the openings for the cable must’ve gotten dented when I was out in the field. Probably during my fight with the Mandarin-“
“The Mandarin?” Steve looked up in concern. “Tony,” he began but Tony shook his head.
“Time, Steve. I need you to use this to jerry rig another way to direct the current.” His voice was faint but sure. “You’re going to remove the outer casing, strip the wiring and I’ll help you use the existing cable to power it.” Tony explained all of this rather matter of fact, as if he wasn’t growing weaker and more ashen by the moment. Through all of this, Steve never stopped staring at him in trepidation.
Finally, Tony stopped, looking to him expectantly and Steve sucked in a deep breath. “Tony, I don’t have to tell you that this is definitely not in my skillset.” Tony stared at him blankly. “What am I missing here?” he asked once more.
“I’ll explain everything after you save my life.” His eyes bright and desperate, looking to Steve like this was the only chance he had and Steve, still uncertain, took the tool and pried open the outer covering. At the moment, he was regretting continuing to put off learning how Tony’s armor worked because he was out of his depth here. There was a mess of wiring inside, warm from Tony’s skin and, upon looking closer, a few looked to have been repaired several times. Iron Man had a habit of putting on temporary fixes in the field and apparently he didn’t make time to reinforce them later. Tony walked him through the process, guiding Steve as he took hold of the wires and joined them together. Lastly, Tony directed him to grab the cable and explained how they were going to connect it to the temporary conduit.
Then he pushed Steve clear of him with a grave expression.
“Now, no matter what happens, don’t detach the chestplate from the power source. Okay?” he asked, eyes too bright in his sallow face. Steve wanted to ask but he knew he’d get no answer. He nodded once, taking hold of the cable and pausing to look Tony in the eye.
Putting on a brave face, he said, “It’s going to be okay, Tony.” Tony smiled sadly, more sympathy for Steve than anything else. Steve took a deep breath and connected the cable to the chestplate.
The moment it joined, there was a bright spark and Tony screamed.
His hips bucked, the lights flickered and the smell of burning flesh wafted through the air. Steve’s stomach turned, his limbs locked up and he wanted so desperately to pull it back but he remembered Tony’s words. His mouth formed a grim line but he held the cable, all the while hearing Tony’s ear splitting screams and feeling like he was torturing him more than helping. The cable snapped into place, holding fast and Steve could finally let go. He knew that but he couldn't bring himself to move away.
Tony’s voice gave out, hoarse pained whimpers in place of the screaming. The lights flickered once more and stayed on.
Finally, Steve heard the transistors in the suit sound.
Tony passed out.
When Tony woke up, he was in bed in his armor.
For a moment, he wondered if he’d managed to get himself home and into bed on his own. Then he saw the splintered wood that used to be his bedroom door and sat up worriedly. He made to get out of bed when he heard a hoarse voice from the corner.
“You said you’d answer my questions. I figured that promise held true after you woke up.” Tony’s insides twisted nervously and he looked over to see blue eyes watching him intently.
“Hey, Cap. Good to see you,” he greeted weakly but Cap didn't smile. Frowning, he set down his cup of coffee. He was in civvies and Tony remembered he’d taken watch duty last night. Tony waited but Steve didn't say anything more. He crossed his arms, looking to Tony expectantly and Tony nodded to himself, covering his eyes tiredly. “Where do we start?”
“How long have you been in the suit? The whole time?” he asked, voice stern.
“The whole time,” Tony confirmed quietly. “It’s how I got out of captivity. Then, I figured it was safer if no one knew it was me. Less chance of my – Iron Man’s enemies coming after my employees and Jarvis… attacking me in my home.”
“You never thought to tell us? We're your team.”
“Rule number one: we agreed to keep our identities a secret.”
Steve’s brow furrowed. “Like this one? Why is your suit so important? I nearly called a doctor against your wishes but the longer it was connected to the cable, the more your color returned. You seemed to get better after you passed out.”
“I needed to charge my chestplate,” Tony said slowly and Steve was clearly even more confused. He was waiting, watching expectantly for Tony to continue on and Tony suddenly realized that this was the first time he was telling someone about his heart condition. “When I was taken, my heart was damaged extensively. A physicist, Yinsen… before he died, he helped me engineer something to keep my heart pumping. A magnetic chestplate that slowed the shrapnel moving towards my heart.”
Steve studied him intently before leaning back in his chair, face slackening. “So, when I connected the cable to your chest…”
“You were powering it back up. It holds a charge for about a day or so before I have to plug it back in,” he finished with a grim smile. “Made Avengers trips out of town a little difficult.”
Steve gaped at him. “How can you joke at a time like this?”
“I don’t know, Cap,” Tony said, holding out his hands in supplication. “I’ve been dealing with this for a while now. Laugh or cry, I guess.”
Steve stood, running a hand over his head as he paced. Tony watched him, the broad lines of his shoulders seeming almost too big for this room. Steve stopped, coming closer. “Someone - a doctor? They could – they could find a cure.”
“The damage is too extensive. I should have died,” Tony explained. “Still might,” he adds quietly.
Steve stared at him, back stiffening. “You hid this from the team. We deserved to know.”
“We agreed to allow everyone their secrets.”
“If they didn’t affect the team. This does. If we’d gone out one day and you nearly – “ he cut himself off and Tony cringed internally. He knew where this was going. “This has happened in the field before, hasn’t it? You’ve gone out like this?”
Tony sighed, “Steve, I can usually-“
“You’ve gone out in the field like this?” he demanded and Tony had no choice but to nod. Steve’s jaw tensed, nodding to himself like he’d expected Tony’s answer. Tony averted his eyes, clenching his hands in his comforter. It’s a long while before Steve said anything else. His words were firm. “You’re off the team.”
Tony’s heart thumped hard in his chest. “Steve-“
“You’re off the team. I can’t – I won’t tell the others but I’m not going to let you go back out into the field like this.”
“I’ve been handling it!” Tony objected but Steve had dismissed him, marching back to his chair in the corner.
“By the looks of things, you haven’t,” Steve replied bitingly.
“It took you over a year to find out!”
“Because you’ve gotten worse at hiding it or because things are getting worse?” Steve asked suddenly and Tony didn't have a response to that. From the energy output tests he’d been running every other day, things had gotten worse. He’d fallen out yesterday when his charge should’ve lasted him a few hours longer.
“You can’t stop me,” Tony said instead, eying Steve defiantly. “You’re not even a founding member. I have seniority over you and if you go in there and tell them you kicked me out, they’ll back me up.”
Steve sat down, picking up his coffee, eyes blazing. “Then I’ll tell them Tony Stark is seriously ill and Iron Man needs to look after him. I’ll lie. Just like you did.”
Tony stared at him for any sign that he was bluffing but he knew better: Captain America didn’t bluff. Not with his team. He swallowed thickly, knot in his throat. “This is the only thing I have. If I can’t be Iron Man… if none of this was for a reason, why do it? Why keep going?”
Steve sipped his coffee, voice matter of fact, “This break will be good for you. You’ll have time to find a doctor and you’ll find a cure.”
“I can’t,” Tony said. “Don’t you think I’ve tried?”
“You will,” Steve said plainly. He got up from the chair and stretches out. “In the meantime, you’re going to rest here for the day and I’m going to fix this door.”
He started to leave and Tony called out, “Steve?” The blond turns, cautious, expecting another argument. But, Tony really had been scared last night. “If you hadn’t been here last night…”
Steve heard the thanks, “You’re welcome.”
When Steve said he would fix the door, Tony assumed that meant calling someone.
To Tony’s surprise, Steve reappeared with some tools and a door. Tony stared at him in surprise, sitting up higher as Steve pulled out a screwdriver and lined up the door. “You can’t be serious,” Tony said and Steve raised a brow before returning to work.
He held the brackets up and started screwing them on to hold them in place. He moved methodically, losing himself in the task, his biceps tensing and relaxing as he worked the tools. He did most tasks this way; Tony had the pleasure of catching Steve on a day when Jarvis allowed him to mop. He didn’t mind simple housework, which was an interesting quirk Tony had been pleased to discover. He paid Tony no mind, making quick work of securing the door in place.
“You can call someone to do that,” Tony felt compelled to add and Steve shook his head.
“I broke it; I should fix it,” he replied plainly.
“Or leave it to professionals.”
“Or I can fix it myself,” Steve said breezily. He glanced at Tony, adding, “You make things for a living.”
“Yeah, important things. I would’ve called someone to fix this.”
“There’s a satisfaction in fixing things in your own home,” Steve said. “You hire a lot of employees.”
“Yes. So?” Tony asked hesitantly.
“I wondered,” Steve began, packing the leftover screws into the toolbox. “I wondered, if you did that because it was a way to have people around without worrying they’d ask too many questions.”
“If that’s what you think, clearly you haven’t met my employees,” Tony replied, affronted.
“They know about your condition?” Steve asked leadingly.
“You make it sound like I’m pregnant.” Tony sighed, falling back against the pillows. “No, they don’t know. No one else knows. I’m-“
“Handling it. Right,” Steve said. He made sure the door opened and closed without problem and picked up the toolbox. “How’s that working out for you?
Steve was angry.
He realized he was doing a poor job keeping that under wraps but Tony seemed so ignorant of how much his lie had hurt Steve. He couldn’t fathom Tony keeping a secret like this from the team. What did he think would happen?
We’d kick him out, he thought and admittedly, that was Steve’s first response. But of course it was! Tony was sick. This wasn’t a cold or a case of the measles; Tony was sick with something Steve didn’t even know how to conceptualize. Tony could barely make it down the stairs at the moment let alone go out and be an Avenger. Why couldn’t he see that?
Steve cursed, shuffling around in the kitchen, the same image running through his mind: Tony going out with the team and dropping to the ground with no warning. Every time, the image was so vivid he could almost hear the sound of the armor crashing to the ground, Wasp’s terrified scream and the hard pavement beneath his feet as he hurried to his fallen friend. Every time, his heart beat painfully hard in his chest and he wanted to race up the stairs and press his fingers to Tony’s throat to make sure his heart was still beating.
If Steve let this go on, if he said nothing, that image could become a very real possibility. And it would be his fault because he knew and he could have done something.
He had to make Tony understand that.
Steve brought Tony lunch.
A simple ham sandwich and a glass of milk but it was more than Tony had eaten in quite some time. He had trouble recalling the last time he'd ate and he was shocked to find that he couldn't eat more than Steve provided without his stomach rebelling. He handed the empty plate back to Steve with a sheepish smile.
Steve took it, eying him concernedly, “You okay?” he asked hesitantly. Almost as though he feared Tony will lie to him again and that stung.
“I’m fine, Steve,” he said gently.
“I still think I should call a doctor,” Steve confessed and Tony sighed tiredly.
He covered his eyes, feeling completely drained. “Steve, it’s no use.”
“No use – Tony, this is your life we’re talking about here,” he asserted. His eyes were fierce and determined, as though he was prepared for battle. He wasn’t going to let Tony off easy and maybe at one point that would’ve been comforting. Maybe a few months or even a year ago, having Captain America in his corner on this would’ve made him feel hopeful or protected. But it was too late for that.
He wasn’t the same man he’d been before this weight on his chest.
“Look, Steve, don’t you think I’ve tried?” he asked quietly, holding Steve’s attention. It grew harder and harder to look at him when his eyes were so open. “When I got back to the states, I exhausted every option. Every single one I could think of. I called every doctor I could find that specialized in heart surgery, war medicine, hell I even considered holistic methods. I did everything I could to try to save my life and I came up empty. This is my life now,” he said, gesturing to the chestplate.
Steve was silent, his eyes hardening before they softened and widened in realization.
“Tried?” Steve asked, his voice hoarse.
Steve swallowed, eyes welling up as he averted his gaze. The sight made Tony’s heart twist; he’d never seen Steve cry before. Tony felt helpless, ashamed he hadn't considered how hard this must be for Steve. To come from losing everyone he’d ever known to having a team again and he was about to lose Iron Man.
“You said you tried everything.” He pinned Tony with a firm look, “When did you stop?”
Tony shook his head sadly, unsure of what to say. Every answer would sound wrong to Steve’s ears. Mr. Determined, Mr. Never Say Die… face to face with the man that counted himself out in the first round. What a pair they made.
“Tony… Tony look at me,” he called quietly. Mustering what little courage he had left, Tony looked up at him helplessly. Steve’s eyes widened and he moved forward, taking a seat on the bed, his face pale. “When did you stop?”
“I don’t know, Steve,” he answered helplessly.
In some ways, this was harder than lying to Pepper and Happy. It was harder than keeping this a secret from the others. Captain America had been his hero growing up. No matter what Howard did to try to strip what little confidence and hope Tony had in his future, Tony always had Captain America. Somehow, looking up at his walls and seeing that glimmering smile and those clear blue eyes gave Tony the inspiration to keep going. Of course, life had worked out a way for Tony to meet the man when he’d lost whatever hope he’d had left.
Dying did that to a man.
“People look up to me. They want to be me and I wish I could tell them I’m not half the man they think I am. I’m a millionaire; I’m the envy of every Tom, Dick and Harry and women fall over themselves for a chance with me. None of that means a damn thing because none of that changes the fact that I’m dying.”
Steve's jaw tensed but he didn't avert his eyes. He sat there bearing Tony’s words with that same wounded expression, a tear rolling down his cheek. Tony’s voice was rough but he carried on, as much as the pain in Steve’s eyes cleaved his heart in two.
“Even with all my money, I can’t save my life. I don’t know when I stopped trying. Maybe when I lost Yinsen. Maybe when I realized there wasn’t a surgeon on this earth that could help me. Maybe when I realized I’d never be able to get close to anyone again because my time here is rather limited.”
The corners of his eyes warmed and he swallowed thickly, “The truth of it is, it doesn’t matter when I stopped Steve. It doesn’t change anything. I lost whatever hope I had the second I strapped this thing onto my chest.” Steve is quiet, his breathing labored as he listens on. Feeling particularly bitter at the moment, Tony flashed a grin and asked, “Is that what you wanted to hear?”
There’s a loud ringing throughout the mansion and Steve startled, wiping hurriedly at his eyes as he got to his feet.
Tony perked up, “That was the alarm? Give me a second.”
Steve treated him with the coldest glare Tony had ever seen from him. Eyes blazing, fierce and startling as he marched over and thrust a finger in Tony’s face. “You’re staying right here.”
“The hell I am! There’s a penalty for not answering the call.”
“Don’t hide behind technicalities with me. You know damn well there’s an exception when one of us is injured,” Steve snapped back.
Tony rolled his eyes, climbing to his feet anyway. Steve huffed out a breath and physically pushed Tony back onto the bed, gently but effectively. He pinned Tony with a stare, “If your feet touch the carpet again, I will strap you to this bed.”
This was ridiculous and Tony felt his temper start to flare, “Well, I don’t usually go for blonds but I could get into that. After we answer the call,” he spat. Steve looked like he’d very much like to tape Tony’s mouth shut.
When he spoke, his voice was grave, “You may not give a damn about your life but I do. You’re staying here. That’s an order.”
Then he gathered the dishes and marched out of the room.
Tony had never been very good at following orders.
Steve soon learned this when the Avengers were joined by their red and gold comrade in Midtown. Baron Zemo’s men were trying to release some sort of hallucinogen into the streets. It was utter chaos with SHIELD agents and panicked citizens racing in every direction. The Avengers were holding them back: the Wasp zooming between Giant Man’s legs as she hurried to disable all of the soldiers’ canisters.
Steve was taking down eight of them in front of the First National Bank when Iron Man dropped down unsteadily and nearly bowls through a phone booth. Steve gaped at him, eyes narrowing with rage as Iron Man took out two men nearby and slid over to take out more. It was Thor’s week as chairman but he’d taken to the skies, swinging his hammer through the blades of one of Zemo’s helicopters.
As personal as this fight with Zemo was and as much as Steve wanted to end this as quickly as possible, he abandoned all of that the moment he saw Tony on the field. Slamming his shield into the last soldier standing, he marched over to Iron Man furiously. He yanked the man around, face stormy and Tony knew he was in for it now.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he demanded and in his haste to confront Tony, he missed one of Zemo’s men. Iron Man acted quickly, outstretching a hand to take him out. Iron Man hovered above the ground, his voice terse.
“Saving your ass,” he replied and took off.
Cap cursed, watching him go but he certainly couldn’t bring Tony down himself and force him to return to bed. He returned to the battle on the ground and channeled his frustration into the fight. He was a little rougher than he would usually be, understanding the need to end this fight quickly. Who knew how long Tony had before his current charge ran out? God knows he wouldn’t tell Steve the truth if he asked.
When it was over and the men were rounded up, Thor dropped down and laid a kind hand on Iron Man’s shoulder. “Good to see you up and about, Man of Iron. Let us adjourn to the manor for our recap.”
Iron Man spared no glance in Steve’s direction before taking for the skies. He was steady, no sign of the clumsiness from before and Steve would be grateful except that he now knew how adept Tony had become in hiding his illness.
Steve resolved to catch a ride back with Thor in hopes of cornering the millionaire before the others arrived.
When Steve entered the meeting room, Iron Man was leaning against a wall, seemingly casual but Steve knew what to look for. His left hand was shaking, opening and closing like he was refraining from closing it into a fist. Steve strode past, listening intently but he couldn't hear if Tony’s breathing was labored. Wasp and Giant Man were sitting at the table bickering about dinner plans so Steve couldn’t confront Tony without drawing too much attention to themselves.
The meeting went on for longer than Steve would have hoped. Over time, Iron Man grew steadily quieter, dropping down the wall bit by bit. Steve tensed with every movement, his stomach twisting unsettlingly as he tried to come up with a solution.
Finally, “And next week, Iron Man will take over as chairman.”
Steve waited for Tony to object, to pass it on to Giant Man or take a voluntary leave. After all, it was one thing to join a fight already in progress; it was another to take on being first on the scene and lead the charge.
But the objection never came.
Thor started to adjourn the meeting and Steve couldn't let that happen. “Excuse me, Iron Man, isn’t there something you wanted to share with the group?”
In that moment, Steve was grateful for the helmet because the silence coming from Iron Man’s end of the table left Steve certain his glare could melt the ice caps. Iron Man cleared his throat, “I beg your pardon?” he asked lightly.
“I’m trying to keep this short because I’m sure you have somewhere to be,” Steve said pointedly and Wasp shoots him a curious stare. “Weren’t you just telling me you’d have to sit next week out?”
“I don’t recall,” Tony said, his voice mechanical and detached.
“Just last night. When I saw you at the mansion,” he began slowly, leading towards the real concern: he’d made no such promise not to force Tony off the team. He wouldn’t tell everyone about Tony’s heart condition but he could let Tony think he would. Anything to keep him out of the field. “In your room,” he added plainly and Giant Man turns an interesting shade of pink.
Iron Man’s tone was as biting as possible behind the faceplate, “Yes, I remember now. Thank you, Captain.” Steve relaxed, unsure when he’d stood up but he sat now, calmer. He waited for Tony to continue. And he did. “I moved some things around. I can take over next week. No problem.”
Steve gaped at him, blood boiling but Thor ended the meeting, treating Steve with a rather quizzical look. Everyone left and Steve fumed for a bit, gathering his words before he pushed away from the table and marched out of the room.
Wasp and Giant Man paused in their conversation as they watch Steve take the stairs four at a time, clearly in a huff. He dropped his shield in the hallway and stomped to Tony’s room, barging in and slamming the door behind him.
He found Tony in his bedroom facing away from him, his hands on his helmet to remove it. “What the hell was that?” Steve demanded, stepping forward. The helmet came off and Tony tossed it aside, shaking out his hair. “Tony? Tony!” he shouted and the man finally turned.
Steve’s next words stuck in his throat.
Tony’s face was deathly pale, his eyes dull and desperate as he fought to stay upright in his suit. “Steve?” he asked in a small voice and Steve rushed forward in time to catch him as he fell to his knees.
His face was damp with sweat as Steve leaned in and took his weight. “What do you need?”
Tony swallowed, his voice rough, “Charge… now,” he said and Steve was already lugging him closer to the wall. He helped Tony lay down on the bed and pulled the up the cable, addressing what came next.
He connected the adaptor and Tony’s scream was ten times worse than it was before. Steve’s legs locked up in fear as he watched Tony gnash his teeth together in an attempt to muffle his screams. Steve waited helplessly for the current to stabilize or for Tony to pass out again but it seemed to go on much longer this time. He started to pull the cable back but Tony jerked his head, breathing rough as his hand covered his mouth and tried to muffle his sounds. There was a thundering at the door.
Steve stared at him, eyes wide. Tony looked at him worriedly and then back at the door as the knock sounded again. Steve pulled off his cowl and hurried to the door.
It was Wasp.
She stared up at him, eyes big and concerned. “Is everything okay?” she asked but Steve knows she wouldn't be calmed by whatever he had to say.
But he went through the motions, putting on a showman’s smile that was a little brittle at the edges. “Everything’s fine.”
“You’re sure?” she asked doubtfully, trying to peek around him. “We heard screaming.”
“Everything’s fine, Wasp. No need to worry.” There was a loud thump and Steve fought to maintain his calm expression.
Wasp chewed on her lip for a minute before saying, “We know you and Iron Man have been on shaky ground with each other lately. We just wanted to make sure everything was okay,” she said slowly and Steve saw Giant Man, normal sized, standing at the end of the hall looking on.
Steve knew nothing he said would keep them from checking on Iron Man and if he let them in, maybe he’d have some support in getting the man to seek help.
Or maybe it’d make Tony more defensive than he’d been before and he’d shut Steve out in the process.
Steve swallowed, preparing to give the performance of his life. “Iron Man had a little mishap with the armor. He’s indisposed at the moment. I’m trying to help but he’d really appreciate it if we kept the embarrassment to a minimum.”
A beautiful flush came over Wasp’s cheeks as she averted her eyes. “So, no one’s hurt?”
“No, ma’am,” Steve answered solidly. “Just his pride, I’m afraid.”
Giant Man laughed, coming closer and Steve could see the suspicion had gone for the most part. “Been there.”
“We all have,” Steve said with a sheepish expression and waved them away.
Wasp called out, “You’ll call us if you need anything?”
Steve smiled grimly, “Of course.”
When he returned to the room, Tony was sitting up in bed, the cable plugged in, eyes closed. He appeared to be sleeping and Steve crept closer, reaching out hesitantly. He was aware Tony couldn’t have propped himself up if he’d passed out or… or worse but Steve couldn’t resist reaching out to press two fingers to Tony’s pulse point.
There was a beat where he didn't feel anything and his heart pounded but… there – weaker than he’d like but it was there. The steady thumping against his finger tips. Sighing, Steve sat on the bed and covered his face. One day. He’d kept this secret for one day and nearly gone out of his mind. How had Tony been doing this for over a year?
He took a deep breath and then another, his eyes warming when a hand gripped his wrist loosely. Startled, he looked over to see Tony watching him quietly, his eyes guarded. He offered a weak smile, voice soft, “We should get you a key.”
“Tony… I, I can’t,” he began, arms outstretched helplessly.
Tony shook his head, brow furrowed, “You and I both know, if you try to lock me in here, I’m going to get out. Might as well keep the property damage to a minimum.”
“So, I can’t stop you; I should just enable you?” he asked sharply.
“Steve, we’ve been through this.” He licked his lips, switching tactics. “Why lie for me if you weren’t going to keep my secret?”
Because you’d lock me out, too, he thought.
“Because I didn’t want them to worry,” Steve replied. “It’s hard being lied to.”
“It’s hard lying to your friends,” Tony said. He blinked slowly, gathering his words. Finally, he pinned Steve with a hard stare, eyes more open and honest than Steve had ever seen them. “I need this job, Steve. It’s the only thing I’ve ever done that truly means something.” He squeezed Steve’s wrist with more strength than Steve thought he could muster. “Please,” he begged.
His heart was pounding, feeling his resolve start to waver but he had to say it, “Tony, you can’t handle a week in the field.”
“I’m sure we’ll hardly get any calls.”
By the time Wednesday rolled around, they’d gotten six calls.
Three calls the two of them were able to handle in roughly half an hour. Small time criminals getting too big for their britches. Cap and Iron Man rounded them up with minimal difficulty and Steve’s blood pressure stayed within reasonable levels.
The next was the Enchantress’ best work and the others had to be called in. Tony ended the recap meeting rather abruptly and Steve helped him up the stairs afterward, aware of the team watching them closely. Steve would have to make some excuse to them later but Tony was having difficulty breathing and it would have to wait.
The next call was one of Tony’s foes, Whiplash. Should have been easy except Tony was running low on charge to begin with and Steve had to worry about him as well as Whiplash. He took a rather serious blow to the head pushing Tony aside. He got Tony back to the mansion, connected the cable and by the time it was secure, he passed out right alongside Tony.
The sixth call, they call in the team. Tony hadn’t fully charged and he knew it. Steve didn’t have to try very hard to keep him in bed while Thor and the others went after the Green Goblin.
Knowing there wasn’t a chance he’d make it past the front door, Tony was almost pleasant on bed rest. Steve brought him dinner and they ate side by side in bed.
He’d actually managed to coax Steve into telling stories of his days in the army. “So, long story short: we got two weeks of scrub duty for that one and it was entirely Bucky’s fault,” he said with a smile and Tony laughed. He had a great laugh, a loud, joyful burst of sound that warmed Steve to hear; he’d forgotten that over the past week. Steve’s smile widened and then he winced, shaking his head. “I’m sorry. Just an old man telling war stories.”
“Hey, I like them,” Tony objected firmly. “I like seeing that side of you.”
Steve stared at him for a moment before admitting, “I guess I’m not exactly a barrel of laughs these days.”
“Understandable,” Tony said quietly. “I haven’t been a joy to be around.”
“What a pair we make,” Steve said, bumping his shoulder. And even knowing he doesn’t mean anything by it, the words bring a soft flush to Tony’s cheeks. He reached for something safe to say.
His eyes landed on the unopened pie tin and he smiled around his fork. “You brought me pie,” he said with a smile and Steve returned it sheepishly. “You’re a pleasant jailer, occasionally.”
Steve’s face fell and his stomach twisted uncomfortably. “I’m not your jailer, Tony. I’m not trying to be.” He set down his plate, appetite waning. “I’m just trying to keep you safe.”
“Steve,” he began, turning to face him. “I know that. I was just foolin’. I know you’re just trying to help.”
Steve shook his head, staring at his hands. “So, why won’t you let me?” he asked, looking to Tony beseechingly and Tony didn't know what to say to that.
Steve gathered his half eaten dinner and left.
Thursday, mercifully, there were no calls.
Friday, Steve began to breathe easier. The weekend stood a chance of more callouts but Giant Man would take his shift on Saturday and Tony would have a week of bed rest least there be another call out that required everyone. Steve could rest easy.
Then the Mandarin came.
How Tony typically handled this monster on his own, Steve would never know but the others were getting knocked down with every breath. Steve didn’t have time to worry about Tony when he was dodging blasts from the man’s rings. He was moving civilians out of the way when the man aimed an electrifying blast Steve’s way and he didn't have time to get out of the line of fire.
So, Iron Man dived in front and took the brunt of it. It was powerful enough that Steve would’ve been done for had it landed. The blast overloaded Tony’s armor; he didn't even have time to scream. The feedback overwhelmed him instantly and when it stopped, Steve’s entire world went silent.
One moment Tony was in the air in front of him and the next, he was crashing to the ground in front of Steve. For a moment, just a second, Steve heard Bucky’s voice in his ears. He felt the sea salt on his skin and whip of the wind blowing salt water in his face. And in the next breath, Giant Man stood before him bellowing out orders.
Thor dropped down next to Steve, his voice calm, almost wary, “Captain, Captain,” he called. “I need to take him to get medical attention. Captain, please.”
Steve stared at him quizzically for quite some time before he gathered why Thor is here. At some point, Steve had gathered Iron Man into his arms and dragged him off to the side. He was still holding onto him, his grip deathly tight. Thor would later tell him he hadn’t simply pulled Iron Man away for fear of breaking Steve’s fingers.
Having no other choice, Steve let go, watching Thor lift the armor as though it weighed nothing. “The mansion,” he said and Thor stared at him in astonishment.
“Captain, we must get him to a hospital. Even I am unsure how much voltage he has sustained.”
“A doctor will meet him at the mansion,” he said and he hates to lie but he knew, if there was even a slight chance Tony made it out of this, he wouldn’t want the others to find out his secret. And seeing as he was a part of this now, Steve made a call. “Thor, you promised.”
Thor shook his head in dismay, clearly unhappy but he took off with Iron Man in his grasp.
When Tony woke, he couldn't breathe. It felt as though an anvil sat atop his chest and try as he might, he couldn't get any air into his lungs. His ribs felt tight, skin overly sensitive in the cool air. Without moving, he could tell his chestplate was in place, charged well enough to keep him from feeling the pinpricks of pain throughout his body. He sat up, dislodging a small weight on his chest and then he could breathe with more ease. He gasped, coughing as the air filled his lungs.
After he settled, he took in his surroundings.
He was in his room, somehow. He saw a blond head beside him. Steve. His light lashes fluttered over his cheek as he snored softly, his mouth open. He slept like he’d merely passed out instead of consciously choosing to sleep here. He was still in his suit but his cowl and boots were missing. Tony tried to remember how often Steve made it back to his own room this past week. The man was putting his life on hold for the time being to help Tony and what had Tony done except throw Steve’s efforts back in his face?
Sighing, he settled on his back and watched Steve sleep. The man truly was beautiful: his jaw square and strong, as stubborn as the man that bore it. His eyes a bold and bright blue, his lips soft and pink. A grin just as likely to be friendly as it was cocky in the middle of a fight. He was polite, ridiculously so and it set Tony’s blood ablaze to get Steve to the point where he lost some of that propriety. The times when Tony got a glimpse at the man behind the curtain: the one that hated losing at anything, card games included. The times when Tony’s flirting was just outrageous enough that Steve blushed soft and pink and stumbled over his words.
Tony played a dangerous game. He knew Steve figured he’d simply been joshing around all that time but it was nice, sometimes, to imagine Steve might find Tony one night in the mansion and lay one on him. The silly part of him that lit up whenever Steve smiled at him or teased him back. Those days were probably behind him now and Tony knew that. Still, it had been nice to pretend that he was just the generous benefactor shameless enough to hit on everyone, including Captain Boy Scout.
Steve stirred, shifting, his hand settling over Tony’s chestplate before he settled again, breathing softly. Tony watched on, throat tight.
He’d thought today was it. His last day.
And then it wasn’t and the worst part of it is: he was not relieved.
The next week, Iron Man was steadier on his feet.
Which did wonders for the fear that had been steadily chilling Tony’s blood; the fear that he was steadily getting worse and the years he’d thought he had, had dwindled down to one. His improvement didn’t do anything for the troubled expression on Cap’s face.
Some days, the only way Steve knew how to handle the stress was to go down to Fogwell’s gym and take on as many guys as he could on the mats. Six, seven, thirteen on a good day. It helped some to lose himself for an hour or two just leaving everything on the mats. He couldn’t have it out with Tony; he couldn’t make him listen or care about his life the way Steve did but every few days, he could go to the gym and take out his frustration on a target that could, and would, fight back.
Tony had taken to locking Cap in his room, slashing his bike’s tires, hiding his shield: anything he could do to delay Cap entering the field. They were temporary measures and he knew that but if it lessened the amount of time spent with Cap yelling at him, it was worth it.
They fought side by side out of necessity. Didn’t matter if the chairman that week stationed Steve elsewhere, he ended up at Iron Man’s side by the end of it. Cap took every punch he could for Iron Man. He went after everyone that got close enough to try with the wrath they’d thought reserved for Zemo alone.
Thor wondered if perhaps the Captain and their iron comrade had become fast friends but every meeting ended in an argument. Cap did everything he could to skip Iron Man’s week in charge. He tried to force Iron Man to stay close to the mansion, to stay on civilian duty, to stay out of the field altogether.
One night, Steve slammed his hands on the table and said, “We didn’t need you out there today.”
Iron Man, having had enough of Cap picking at him, stands, jabbed a finger at him and replied, “You listen to me, Captain. I am just as much a member of this team as you are. You better stop treating me like a wilting flower or-“
“Or what? Or what?” Cap asked, glaring up at Iron Man from his chair. Even at a lower height, they seemed to be on even ground and Iron Man seemed to deflate instantly. “What will you do?”
Wasp sighed, “Guys, can we stop? Just take a breath, go take a walk or something. I don’t know what’s gotten into you guys but, as acting chairman until the end of this meeting, I’m benching you both until you can get along.”
As snippy as they got with each other, Iron Man protected Cap just as fiercely. When he needed a save, Iron Man was at his side in seconds. When Zemo’s men got too close, he blasted them into the next county. When Cap took a blow to the face, Iron Man paid the culprit back in tenfold. If Cap got knocked down, Iron Man knocked them down.
It was the strangest thing the others had seen and Wasp went so far as to compare Iron Man and Cap to a bitter old married couple. It was loud enough that Iron Man overheard and stumbled over one of the steps on the way up. And Cap, following rather closely, nearly tumbled down the steps with him.
Steve was very pointedly licking envelopes on the floor in front of Tony.
Tony didn’t even know that was possible but Steve had managed it. Tony leaned back against his bed, careful to avoid the piles of his scans and x-rays.
Steve had a whole system going: he’d compiled a list of every surgeon that might be even remotely helpful. He had a list of the ones that had previously rejected Tony and he was sending them personalized letters. The man was thorough and Tony would be touched if he weren’t so busy wishing Steve would come to his senses.
Tony took up the rejection list and started scanning the names. He remembered going to some of them in person and getting rejected to his face. He wasn’t crazy and, rather than risk the media circus, he’d given them false names. The medical history was his. Right down to every disappointing test result.
“This guy, Dr. Cho,” he looked over, getting Steve’s attention as he sealed one of the envelopes. “Took one look at my scans and kicked me out of his office. Thought it was a prank because there was ‘no way this guy’s still walking around’. Dr. Okafor said going under might very well kill me. And this one, Dr. Marseille, she said there was no way to make an attempt without the patient dying on the table.”
Steve flinched; it’s minute but enough that Tony catches it. It was the first time Tony had ever seen Steve do that. But Tony forced himself to keep going; Steve needed to hear this. “This one, Dr. Chandrakar, she told me there was no way the magnetic device could be removed with enough time to remove all of the pieces. She’d seen this kind of damage before. You know what they call people with shrapnel damage this extensive? ‘The Walking Dead’ because they may be up and moving around now but they’re already dead.”
Steve picked up another envelope resolutely and swiped his tongue over it, paying Tony no mind. “Steve,” Tony tried but Steve shook his head. “Steve, listen to me-“
“I don’t understand how you can become a doctor and refuse to help people that need it. I don’t get that,” he spat. “But for every story you tell me, every rejection letter you show me, I get even more determined to find someone out there that will say ‘yes’. A doctor that will actually live up to their title and help you. There’s someone out there. I know it.”
His resolve stole Tony’s breath away, “You know it?”
Steve nodded, sealing the envelope and moving on to the next one. While intriguing at first, Steve had begun to worry him. This wasn’t a problem he could punch and Tony worried over what it would do to him when he finally realized that he’d taken up a losing fight. He didn’t want to be another casualty for Steve to ruminate over. Maybe Tony had lived with this condition long enough to be realistic about things but Steve? Steve thought every problem had a solution and a loss was simply failing to find it in time. It used to be inspiring.
Now, it was just depressing.
But clearly Tony wasn’t going to put Steve off today. So, he detached the cable and stood. “Would you like a sandwich, Mr. Postman?” he asked and Steve looked up at him in surprise.
“I’d like about 7 actually.”
Tony smiled. “Coming right up.”
Tony used to smoke. Hell of a bad habit, although most everyone did it these days. Jarvis hated it: cleaning ashtrays with pointed disapproval so Tony would wizen up and realize the things would kill him someday. Tony quit when he found himself getting short of breath more often. Ironically, he’d quit because another ailment threatened to kill him.
He’d quit over a year ago but today, he wanted one.
Today, Steve was watching him pant and stare up at the ceiling as he waited for the severe ache in his chest to recede. He felt Steve’s eyes on him and flashed a smile that comes out more like a grimace. Steve dropped down in front of him by the bed, eyes heavy. “You okay?” he asked and Tony saw him kick himself after.
“It’s okay,” he said but Steve shook his head. “Steve, it’s okay. I’m… varying degrees of okay these days. I’ll be fine, it just takes a minute.” He shifed, freezing when the ache worsened.
“It’s been taking longer than ‘a minute’ these days,” he replied worriedly. His jaw tensed, brow furrowing as he thought over his next words and that never lead to anything good for Tony. He rubbed at his brow tiredly, averting his eyes before he focused on Tony intently. “It’s getting worse, Tony.”
“You had to skip the meeting today-“
“Not a first for me.“
“You could barely make it back,” Steve said, volume rising.
“Steve, I think I know best about my own damn heart condition-“
“Apparently you don’t!” Steve shouted, eyes blazing. “You were so preoccupied with hiding it that you stopped getting regular readouts on whether or not this thing is actually working the way it should.” Tony started to respond and Steve shook his head, “Listen to me,” he said, voice firm. “This isn’t working. While you were busy worrying about keeping up appearances, I was taking notes. It’s not holding charges the way it used to and I don’t know how to fix that. But you do.”
Tony gaped at him, heart beating sluggishly in his chest and he wanted to object, to tell Steve that he was wrong but he didn’t know. He’d lived with this condition so long that he hadn’t noticed it was taking longer for the charges to slow the pain in his chest. If Steve was right… then Tony had a bigger problem than he’d realized. Before this, maybe Tony Stark could’ve solved this problem in a day or so. He was that brilliant. But like this… he’d be lucky if he could even pinpoint the problem. There was only so long the chestplate would last before he’d have to make a new one but could he survive long enough to not only make it but to switch them out safely before the shrapnel dug further into his heart?
“Say something,” Steve said, gazing at Tony imploringly and Tony didn't know what to say. Every day there was some new problem. Some new obstacle he hadn't prepared for because he hadn't even realized it was a possibility.
His eyes burned and he huffed out a laugh, “I hate this thing.” He palmed the chestplate, his eyes welling up as he turned to Steve. “I hate it, Steve.”
Steve’s eyes widened and then came forward, kneeling down and reaching out to touch the cold metal. His lashes fanned out over his cheeks as he studied the armor for a moment, swallowing thickly. “I used to think that. I used to hate it. It was the cause of all this secrecy and hiding. I’m a liar, now. I’ve gotten good at it. Lying for you and I hate that.”
“Steve,” Tony said but he didn't look up. Instead, he watched his hand slide over the chestplate, past Tony’s and up to the center, over his heart.
He breathed in deep, meeting Tony’s gaze with that steadfast certainty that still managed to take Tony’s breath away. “I used to hate it but it keeps you alive.” The corner of his mouth turned up, “It’s the reason you’re still here. It's a pain in my ass but it keeps you breathing. I don’t know how to help you but I’m gonna try.”
And though Tony would expect nothing else, he didn't want this.
Steve Rogers didn't know a lost cause when he saw one.
Iron Man slammed into the door, his elbow putting a crack in the wood. It drew a groan from Cap’s lips as he’d only replaced the door months ago. Tony nearly smiled except there was a task at hand. He marched over the threshold and hurried to the back of the room with Cap’s support. He nearly knocked everything off of the dresser getting to his knees while Cap grabbed the cable.
Having finally taken the time to fix the adapter, there was a no shock when Cap connected it and he was glad of it. Shocking Tony every day hadn’t been fun. Tony sighed, leaning back against the bed as Cap poked at a cut dribbling blood into his blond hair.
“You should get that looked at,” Tony said, closing his eyes. He hadn’t liked watching one of Zemo’s men clock Cap in the face. He’d restrained himself but expended a little more force than absolutely necessary in retaliation.
Now, Cap sighed and muttered, “It’ll heal.”
“I’m sure it will. Even so, you should let someone look at it,” he said and he could feel Steve’s eyes on him. “I’m aware of the irony here.”
Steve laughed, leaning up against the wall across from Tony. “As long as you hear it, too,” he remarked. Then, “Hey, thanks. For having my back out there.”
“Always,” Tony replied simply and it warmed Steve’s heart. For a moment.
“You should consider putting one of these downstairs,” he said, gesturing to the cable.
Tony shook his head. “No, Jarvis doesn’t need to worry about this.”
“It’d go a lot easier if we didn’t have to get you upstairs every time you needed to recharge. You could stop damaging the door I worked so hard on. Save us a lot of time and hassle.”
Tony’s stomach twisted at the word. Us? “It’d only raise more questions. Plus…” he trailed off. Plus, if he moved the cable downstairs, if he could no longer make it to his room because things had gotten that dire, it was the beginning of the end. If things had gotten that bad… why was he even doing this anymore?
“Plus?” Steve asked and Tony looked over at him. He was watching Tony closely, almost nervously and Tony couldn’t remember Steve ever being nervous around him before.
“Plus, I like it here. The couch isn’t as comfortable and I’d have to install it downstairs and worry about short circuits and the like. This way is safer. Trust me.”
Steve sighed, rubbing at the gash on his head some more and Tony had had enough. “We’re getting that looked at.”
“Tony,” he whined.
After Jarvis took the first aid kit away and Dr. Blake covered the cut with a bandage, Steve hunkered down next to Tony on the bed with a slice of pie. Tony watched him enviously but, it being the last one in the tin, Tony had graciously let Steve take it. Steve took a big bite, humming in pleasure and giving Tony rather inappropriate thoughts. “So good,” he moaned and Tony’s glare does nothing to offset the warmth in his cheeks.
Then Steve reached over and pulled out a second fork, handing it to Tony with a smile. Tony grinned, taking the fork eagerly and digging in. “You’re the best.”
Steve shrugged, “Had to repay my nurse.”
Tony rolled his eyes, “You’re a terrible patient, you know that?” He licked the fork, drawing Steve’s attention before he pointed it at him. “You like taking care of others but the second someone tries to do it to you, you pitch a fit.”
Steve thought on that for a moment, digging his fork into the slice. “I guess, I’m just not used to it. No one’s really fussed over me in a while.”
“It’s not fussing,” Tony said indignantly. “Now, you? What you do is fussing.”
Steve shook his head fondly, “You need it, though.” He touched his bandage, “This will heal by tomorrow. We never took the time to do stuff like this during the war. It’s a waste of resources.”
“Well, I can afford it, so humor me,” Tony said and Steve gave him a strange look, his eyes soft. “What?”
Steve blinked at him for a moment, and then flashed a smile, “Nothing. Eat your pie.”
Steve grabbed the mail one afternoon and curses.
Another week with no responses from the letters he’d sent out. He'd lost count of how many letters they'd sent to several different experts and clinics and none of them had responded. He’d wondered if they were truly that uncaring about Tony’s plight but the least they could do was send a letter declining to help. It was the decent thing to do. Now, Steve would face another day of Tony very carefully not asking about the mail and Steve feeling compelled to tell him it was only a matter of time before someone agreed to help.
It never got any easier and he'd started to wonder if perhaps Tony was right and he was being incredibly naïve.
The world around him had changed.
He’d been so sure there was someone out there like him. Someone who would see that Tony that needed help and actually do something about it because no matter the risk, to try and fail would always be better than doing nothing. He’d been so stubborn, so unwilling to let Tony’s experiences influence him and here he was empty handed for the fourth month in a row.
“Damn it,” he muttered, tossing the mail on the hall table. The stack shifted and he caught his name. He picked it up: it was addressed to Steve Rogers with no return label. Heart pounding, he sliced it open immediately.
Sorry for the late response. SHIELD could definitely use your help. I’ll send you the details.
He dropped the letter, looking down the hall to see if anyone else had seen it but Tony was upstairs and Jarvis was in the kitchen. No one else had seen the letter. Covering his mouth, he read the short note again. And again after that.
This was it. This was what Steve had been waiting so long to hear.
He had a job; a purpose again. He could stop feeling like an old relic way past his prime. He could stop worrying that the others simply pitied him. He could be useful again.
He slid the letter back into the envelope and folded it into his pocket. He was climbing the stairs when he hears a soft snore. Freezing, he went back down and heads into the living room. There on the couch, Tony was fast asleep, his face turned into the cushions as he snored. His hair was a mess, he needed a shave and his robe had seen better days but to Steve, he looked wonderful. His color looked good and he was breathing; he was alive. Steve watched him, warmth flooding through him and... he knew.
He’d have to write Fury a response. It was the right thing to do.
He had to turn him down; Steve had a job here and he hadn’t taken it lightly.
He dropped down and shook Tony’s shoulder softly. “Hey, Tony. Wake up.” Tony shifted, nose scrunching up adorably before his eyes opened. He blinked at Steve a few times before he smiled, eyes lighting up adoringly and Steve’s breath caught. How was he supposed to respond to one of those? He stumbled over his words, rasping out, “Let’s get you to bed.”
Tony squinted at him, teasing, “You putting the moves on me?” Steve blushed, standing and holding out a hand. Tony climbed to his feet but he was a little unsteady. Steve hoisted him up in a bridal carry. “This seems unnecessary,” he muttered but he turned his head into Steve’s chest.
“It’s faster so shut up about it,” he said fondly.
“You’re just showing off at this point.” They reach the stairwell and Steve started up, trying not to take too much pleasure from Tony’s warm weight in his arms. “You’re like Prince Charming.”
Steve stifled a laugh, pushing open the door to Tony’s bedroom. He laid him down and pulled the covers over him. “Except, if you were Prince Charming, a kiss would make everything better.” Steve’s face warmed as Tony continued. “Maybe you’re more like Prince Arthur.” Steve sits down on the edge of the bed listening.
Tony turned his face into the pillow, closing his eyes. “I was obsessed with being a knight when I was little. I wanted to do it all! Wear the chainmail, the armor, and the swords. Go on quests and fight dragons… save the princess.” Steve waited but he seemed to have fallen asleep again. He pet the covers over Tony's chest and stood, starting for the door when Tony added, “All that stuff seemed really important when I was a kid. I wanted to be a hero.”
Steve’s heart clenched, “You are a hero, Tony.”
“Yeah,” he huffed out a laugh. “Guess, I got what I wanted.”
“Output is at 87% according to the recent recording,” Steve said, running a tired hand over his face. Were he an average man, there would be bags beneath his eyes but the serum kept them away. Even so, Tony could see the strain on his face. Steve scanned the print out, voice gruff, “No improvement.”
“Well, there’s no change,” Tony said, trying to keep his voice light. Steve pinned him with a look.
“It’s not getting better, Tony.” He leaned back against the headboard with a sigh, pulling his sweat damp t-shirt away from his skin. It was ninety-degrees outside and it was only getting hotter. Which was, of course, the perfect time for the AC to conk out. Jarvis has a repairman working on it but in the meantime, Tony was roasting inside his chestplate. Steve rubbed his eyes and Tony braced himself for the oncoming lecture. He’d developed a second sense about these things.
“We agreed: I’d help you keep this a secret and give you time to find someone to fix this.”
“And by ‘this’, you mean the very extensive, catastrophic shrapnel embedded in my cardiac tissue? The damage that every single board certified cardiovascular surgeon has passed on?”
Steve pinched the bridge of his nose, “Tony-“
“We’ve sent my scans to every doctor we could find and we’re not any closer to finding a solution. No one we reached out to has agreed to help us. Two hundred and twenty doctors, Steve.”
“Then we’ll send letters to two hundred more.”
“Steve,” Tony began and Steve was sick of that tone.
“I don’t wanna hear it,” Steve said and his voice began to rise.
“After you begged me to keep trying-“
“Tony,” Steve said warningly but it was hot, Tony was tired and he was sick of Steve at the moment.
“I don’t know why you chew me out for this. I can’t control it and I’ve been-“
“I don’t want to hear it today!” Steve shouted, climbing to his feet. Beads of sweat roll down his temple where they join in the damp collar of his shirt. Tony blinked and forces himself to concentrate on Steve’s face. “You’re not getting any better.”
“I’m not getting any worse, either. You think about that?”
“Of course I do because it’s the same thing you told me when the output was at 98% and then at 93%. And then at 91% it was ‘well, Steve, it’s not getting any worse.’ Then at 90, ‘well, that’s not that far off from 91. I wouldn’t worry about it.’ Then 89% ‘I’ll keep looking, Steve, I swear’.”
Tony stared at him, his fingers tingling and he had to work them; the lack of circulation would only cause pain in a little while. The motion drew Steve’s attention and he cut himself off, eyes widening in horror. He backed away, covering his mouth. “Steve, hey, hey, come on.”
Steve shook his head, “I have to go.”
“Steve!” he called out but the door slams shut and he sighed, slamming his head back against his pillows.
The next day found Steve helping Tony up the stairs for a boost. Not a full charge; he’d lasted longer than usual this time. Largely because he’d stayed connected all morning but Steve didn’t know that.
Steve set him down on the bed and moved through the motions routinely. He opened the panel, retrieved the cable and flipped the switch to stick the adapter in. Tony watched all of this with a heavy heart. When had Steve become so resigned?
Steve kneeled by his hip, making sure the cable was secure before running a tired hand over his face. “I’m sorry,” he said quietly.
“Yelling at you,” He looked Tony in the eye, brow furrowed in regret, his eyes soft. “I know it’s not your fault. You’re doing the best you can. I know that.”
As frustrated as Tony had been with him yesterday, he found himself wanting to comfort Steve. He leaned forward as best he could and pulled Steve into a hug. It seemed to be the right call as Steve sucked in a ragged breath and enveloped Tony in his arms. He hugged Tony tight, tighter than an average man could and it should’ve felt suffocating but it made Tony feel safe.
Steve breathed softly against his neck as he held him. He pulled back, eyes fierce and so determined, they hurt to look at. He licked his lips, holding Tony’s gaze, “I’m going to do better, Tony. I promise.”
Sighing, Tony pulled him close, stroking his back as he held on.
He could take a lot of hits for Steve but couldn't take this one.
The next week brought Tony preparing for a Stark Industries gala.
He didn’t have much say in the matter. After so many absences, he couldn’t forego another one least the investors get worried. So, he had a new tux made and prayed he hadn’t lost too much weight. When he tried it on, Steve watched him from the doorway.
Tony had put off trying it on for as long as he could but it was a week before the event and he had to leave time to alter it if need be. He stood in front of the full-length mirror straightening his tie. As loose as possible as he was already having a little trouble breathing.
Steve stepped into the room, “You clean up nice, Shellhead.”
Tony smiled, happy Steve seemed to be in a better mood today. Most likely because they’d had a quiet week with no call outs for Iron Man. Which meant Steve was restless. Usually, he’d spend some time with Rick but instead, he’d been doing more and more chores around the house. To the extent that Jarvis had come to Tony to beg him to ask Steve to stop.
“You think so?” Tony asked, preening as he turned to face Steve. Steve came closer and stood before Tony, only an inch or so taller. It seemed like so much more than that when Steve was giving him his full attention.
Steve scanned Tony’s face for a long moment, clearly hesitant about his next words. “I think… I’d like to come with you.”
Tony’s heart soared for one careless moment before he remembered it probably wasn’t what he thought. “Steve, it’s just a gala. I’ll be in and out in an hour.”
The corner of Steve’s mouth curled up in a wry grin, “I know but… I’d feel better if I could be there. In case something happens.”
“In case I pass out, you mean?” Tony asked rather brusquely but, to his surprise, Steve didn’t bristle.
A concerned look came over his face as he asked, “Is that a concern? You said it was just an hour?”
“It will be,” he said calmingly and Steve relaxed.
“These things have a habit of going south. Kidnappings, robberies, explosions,” he explained and Tony kicked himself internally. Of course, always the good Captain. “I just want to be there. Just in case,” he finishes awkwardly and Tony feels like a real heel.
“Of course,” Tony said a little too eagerly. “I’m sorry. Got a little defensive there." Steve raised a brow.
“Leave me alone,” Tony replied lightly and moved to his closet. “I’m afraid there’s nothing in here that’ll fit you. You’re a big guy." He didn't miss the interesting flush to Steve’s cheeks.
“Gosh, I sure am sorry, Tony." He ducked his head and gazed up at Tony through his lashes. It was a hell of a move and Steve knew that, his grin just shy of smug as Tony’s heart beat faster and his tongue tied itself in knots. “I don’t mean to be a bother.”
“I’m sure you don’t,” Tony muttered and pulled off his tie. “Well, lucky for you, I know a fashion designer. Old friend from a past life. She’ll know just what to do.”
Janet van Dyne was nervous.
Steve wasn’t sure why exactly. Sure, he knew he looked different now. He knew objectively that he was more attractive with his thick muscles and strong jaw. A few women had gone gaga for Captain America but, for the most part, he’d been out in the field so he didn’t get to see the response to Steve Rogers. There hadn’t been many opportunities for him to meet people.
Now, watching Ms. Van Dyne gaze up at him in wonder, he was reminded that his appearance was quite appealing to women. That wasn’t to say that Ms. Van Dyne was completely star struck. She still managed to slide a few flirty comments his way. The more she spoke, the more her voice sounded slightly familiar.
He watched her circle him, his arms crossed over his broad, bare chest as she studied him intently. Then she returned to a table to shuffle through what looked like many different shades of black. Tony sat in a chair in the corner, enjoying the sight of Steve squirming a little too much.
Steve cocked a brow and Tony flashed a bright smile. Steve shook his head, shoving down the warmth threatening to bring a smile to his face. “How long have you known Tony?” he asked and Jan laughed softly.
“Now, that would reveal my age, darling,” she replied slyly and Tony stuck his tongue out at her. She winked at Steve, earning a blush as she pulled out a sample of fabric. “Our parents used to hang in the same circles. He might have given me my first kiss, now that I think of it.”
“I highly doubt that. If I had, you would certainly remember it,” he drawled and she rolled her eyes in response. It brought a smile to Steve’s face; it was refreshing to see someone immune to Tony’s charms.
“Was he always this stubborn?” Steve asked, earning a Stark patented glare in response. Jan took up her measuring tape again and moved behind him.
“Came out of the womb that way. It’s in his DNA.” She circled around and strode towards the table again, returning with several samples. “Now, this just won’t do.”
Steve gave a sheepish grin, “I’m sorry. I’m a terrible model.”
She waved off his concern, “No, he’s a terrible model,” she hiked her thumb at Tony and ignored his affronted stare. “I’m sure you’d look wonderful in anything I could make for you but they’re all dreadfully boring, don’t you think?”
Steve blinked at her before looking to Tony for guidance. Tony stood, coming in closer with a considering look. They both studied Steve in a way that makes him feel naked, even standing in his boxers.
“Are you thinking…” Tony began and Jan hummed in agreement.
“That’s exactly what I’m thinking. Those eyes?”
“Well, the best for the best, I always say,” Tony murmured and Jan scoffed.
“When have you ever said that?”
“I just did,” Tony said with a smirk and Jan shot Steve a commiserating glance.
“From. The. Womb,” she mouthed and turned around. She moved very quickly for such a short woman. Still, the gait reminded Steve of someone he knew but he couldn't put his finger on it.
Tony stood before Steve, hands in his pockets as his eyes traced Steve’s form. Steve felt that familiar, flustering warmth but with an air of something new. Something more dangerous. He uncrossed his arms, rubbing the back of his neck as he watched Tony’s eyes trace his biceps appreciatively. Steve rose a brow, a knowing smirk on his face as a light dusting of pink crossed Tony’s nose.
“What are we going to do with you?” Tony asked with a coy smile.
The night of the gala, Steve climbed out of the shower and laid out the suit Jan made for him. A shade of blue similar to the suit hanging in his closet. He sat down on the bed running his hand over it. It was soft, no doubt more expensive than Steve cared to know the true cost of. He’d offered the pitch in; he had back pay and, after all, he was the one imposing his company on Tony tonight. But Tony had refused, calling it payment for his personal nursemaid and Steve had graciously bit his tongue and refrained from giving a snarky response. Tony was having such a good day and Steve didn’t want to ruin it.
He stood to get dressed when there was a knock on the door. Tony called out, “Cap, I hope you’re decent because I have something for you.” He opened the door before Steve could respond and, to be honest, he would’ve let Tony in anyway. He was wearing a towel; he wasn’t completely naked. Still, Tony’s eyes widened like the towel was nonexistent.
He audibly swallowed, taking in the miles of Steve’s bare skin before jumping up to his face. He stuttered out a stilted, “Sorry, I was joking but you really are naked. I’ll – I’ll come back when you’re not… naked.” Steve blinked at him, moving closer to the door and Tony covered his eyes immediately. Steve choked down a laugh.
“It’s fine,” he insisted, pulling Tony’s hand away from his eyes slowly. “Come in.”
Tony followed, moving as though Steve was marching him off a plank. There was a bundle of red fabric in his hand. Once inside, he presented it to Steve with an excited flourish. “Tony,” Steve whined but he took it, so as not to be rude. “You’ve gotta stop buying me things.”
“Yeah, well, I didn’t buy these. They’re mine,” he confessed shyly. Steve unwrapped the handkerchief to see small replicas of his shield. He looked to Tony in surprise and he couldn't tell if he was red-faced because Steve was still half naked or because he was sharing these with Steve. “I, uh… I was a big fan back in the day. Thought you could wear them tonight.”
“Isn’t that a little on the nose?” Steve asked but he set the handkerchief down on his suit jacket. He pulled out the dress pants and pulled them on. Tony turned around with a curse and Steve laughed. “You’re a strange fella.”
“So, I’ve heard,” Tony said, planting his hands on his hips. He added, “Now, the sooner you get dressed, the sooner Happy can drive us to the gala.”
“I’m not a dame, Tony. Won’t take me but a minute.” He tugged on his shirt and once he had the jacket on, he grabbed the handkerchief and came to Tony for assistance. Tony took them, a gleam in his eyes as he took hold of Steve’s cuffs. There was a spark in his eyes Steve had seen in Jan’s shop, the corner of mouth curling up as he poked one of the cufflinks through Steve’s sleeve. Steve watched his dark lashes flutter over his cheeks as he focused. His bottom lip caught between his teeth as he worked and Steve felt a flash of heat run through his body as Tony tugged at the finished sleeve and started on the other. He released his lip from his teeth, soft and red and Steve wanted to cover it with his own. He focused on the wall behind Tony instead, his hand shaking nervously at his side.
Tony stepped back, straightening Steve’s jacket and tugging on his tie with a satisfied smile. Steve blinked at him dazedly as he whispered, “Perfect. Shall we?”
Steve watched as Pepper stole Tony away for a dance.
He didn’t really have a choice. After all, Tony had come partly to alleviate some of Pepper’s worrying. He hadn’t been into the office much over the course of the last few months and she’d put in a call to the mansion nearly every day. This appearance was as much for her as it was the investors.
So, when she’d pulled Tony off his arm, Steve headed over to the bar, content to hang back for an hour. Happy was grumbling in the corner, chewing on ice. Steve followed his gaze to Tony and Pepper spinning around the dance floor. At first Steve didn’t quite understand but then he tried to see what Happy saw. The worried lines on Pepper's face had fallen away to a beatific smile, her head inclined towards Tony as he held her tight. He held her close, his eyes closed as they swayed. Steve’s breath caught, having never seen Tony that relaxed since they’d started this charade.
Tony loved her.
How had Steve missed that?
He watched as Tony held her like spun glass, her hands small in his as he guided her around the dance floor. Everyone else seemed to have disappeared; Tony only had eyes for her as one song turned to two. Steve felt a painful tightening of his chest and he lowered his eyes, turning around. He looked to Happy who had done the same and realized with a start that they were in the same boat. Steve hadn’t known that.
He’d thought he was keeping this secret to help Tony. Being Iron Man seemed to be the only thing left that he truly valued and Steve was being a pal in trying to help him. He’d kept this secret and he’d spent his weekends getting hand cramps writing letters to more uncaring bastards around the globe only to get nothing back. But he’d grinned and bore it; he’d kept the faith Tony seemed to have lost ages ago because Steve was helping. He’d thought he was doing the right thing but he’d been keeping Tony from someone that cared about him.
Someone that cared as much as Steve.
He’d been selfish.
He’d been covetous.
He’d made a mistake.
He turned, jealously seeking them out and finding Tony looking straight at him. Steve gave a weak smile and Tony’s eyes became a little panicked as Pepper’s hands drop to his waist and he nervously pulled them back up. Steve swooped in for the assist to Happy’s muffled, “Oh, thank God.”
He stopped beside them, heart in his throat. “Sorry to interrupt, ma’am. May I borrow my friend for a moment?”
Pepper treated him with an amused smile, “To dance?”
Steve’s eyes widened and Tony offered no assistance, clearly intrigued. “Maybe?” Steve said with a beaming grin and it was just genuine enough that Pepper gave a bemused shake of her head and walked off.
Steve stood in front of Tony with nervous hands. He lowered his head, gathering his thoughts as he shot a nervous smile at him through his lashes. Tony’s eyes softened and then he straightened, holding up his hands with an expectant look. “Well?” Steve blinked at him in confusion. “You cut in. This is generally what comes next.”
Steve blushed, looking around at all the couples, men and women, dancing around them. A few shot them interested glances and Steve started to sweat. “You sure about this?” he asks Tony.
Tony nodded and then shook his head, “Not really but I’m tired and dead on my feet and if I leave now, there’s a very real chance Pepper will corner me on my way to the car so this is pretty much my only way to be social without answering more well meaning questions with lies.” Steve’s face fell and he stepped forward, taking Tony’s unsteady hands in his sure grip. Tony shot him a grateful look and stepped forward.
“This looks strange, doesn’t it?” Steve asked and Tony laughed softly.
“Little bit. Let’s pretend you’re foreign and this is common where you’re from.” He let Steve lead, moving gracefully with his movements, even as tired as he was.
“A few fellas danced with other men in my time,” he said and Tony looked to him with renewed interest. “My friend Arnie, he was like that.”
“I learn more about you everyday,” Tony said, moving in closer.
Steve’s heart pounded, stomach twisting nervously as Tony let his head fall on his shoulder. Tony sighed, breathing evening out and Steve tried to be a comforting pillow but it was near impossible. He'd been close to Tony, he'd been at his back countless times and slept beside him quite a few times. But he'd never held Tony this close before. Where he could smell his scent, his expensive cologne and the sweet scent of his shampoo. Where Tony's warmth seeped into his skin and he melted into Steve as they danced. Steve knew how this looked and he didn't care; he wouldn't let go for anything.
“You could just ask,” Steve said, his lips brushing the shell of Tony’s ear and he shivered in response.
“I could, but where’s the fun in that?” he countered. Steve’s his hands started to sweat but he held fast. He held Tony even closer, swaying softly as the rest of the party faded away.
Tony fell asleep the second they get in the limo, his head on Steve’s shoulder. Steve nearly smiled when he felt Hogan’s eyes on him. He waved nervously and the man’s eyes return to the road. Happy cleared his throat, voice rough and matter of fact, “I don’t know what you’ve got him mixed up in but if you hurt Ms. Potts, I’ll come after you.”
Steve blinked at him, “Excuse me?”
“A cold? In all my years, I ain’t never seen a cold like that. Either he’s really sick and the two of you are being really cruel leaving Ms. Potts in the dark, or he’s faking this to get out of coming to work. And a man with stacks like Mr. Stark’s has no need to fake a reason to get out of work. So, which is it?”
Steve stared at him, glancing down at Tony for guidance but he was fast asleep. “You better tell me or I’ll pull this car over. And I ain’t foolin’.” There. Steve heard it; buried beneath Hogan’s gruffness, his blatant threats… worry. He was worried about Tony.
Like Potts had been.
Steve didn't have the heart to lie to him. But he couldn’t betray Tony’s secret.
He leaned forward carefully, just enough so as not to dislodge Tony from his shoulder. “He’s sick, Hogan. I can’t get into it but we’re looking for a cure. I promise.”
Hogan eyed him, frown deepening before he cleared his throat and replied, “Thank you… for sayin’ somethin’ when he wouldn’t.”
Steve nodded, falling back and feeling Tony nose into his throat. He must’ve been really tired to sleep through that. Steve reached up and ran a hand over his hair. He watched over Tony for the rest of the ride home.
Tony woke when they arrive back at the mansion and Steve followed him up the stairs.
Tony sat and Steve pulled off his suit jacket. Grumbling, Tony tried to help and made a bigger mess of things. Steve sighed, reaching out to take Tony’s hands, placing them on his knees. “Let me?” he asked and Tony nodded, eyes open and honest the way Steve only ever saw when he was exhausted.
With a start, Steve realized that he knew Tony’s moods now. He knew when he was tired and putting on a brave face. Knew when he was biting his tongue to keep from screaming at Steve. Knew when “I’m fine” really meant “I’m fine” and when it meant “I’m two seconds from passing out”. He knew when Tony was truly happy and he knew when he was giving his showman’s smile. Getting to know the man behind the armor meant knowing a man better than he’d ever known anyone else.
Some days Steve was okay with that.
Some days... “You’re looking at me funny. What’s wrong?” Tony asked concernedly. “I drool on you in the car?”
Steve smiled against his better judgment, “No, not tonight.”
He set the shirt aside and started folding it. Tony reached out for it, murmuring, “Hey, hey, I can do that. You don’t have to fold my clothes.”
Steve shrugged, folding the shirt anyway and setting it down on the dresser. Tony huffed at him, looking a lot like a petulant child in his boxers, hair in disarray. Some day, Tony looked nothing like the man on the magazines and every bit like a scared little boy.
Because he was scared.
Steve ran a hand though his hair, hiding his face. When he spoke, his voice is rough, “Why didn’t you tell Potts and Hogan?” He turned just enough to get a look at the surprise on Tony’s face before he set about folding his pants. “You have people that worry about you.”
Tony stood, shifting his from foot to foot before moving forward. “That’s the thing: I don’t want to worry them.”
“If you…” Steve had to try several times to force the words out, “If you die… and you never told them… don’t you think that would hurt them?”
Then, “Because it would’ve hurt you?” he asked, his voice sounding over Steve’s shoulder.
Steve turned, his eyes on the floor, heart pounding nervously in his chest. And it was the sight of Tony’s bare feet that brought tears to his eyes, as strange as that was. He’d seen so much of Tony over the past few months: his bare arms, his thighs, his hindquarters one enlightening morning but never his bare feet. They were a reminder that beneath the chestplate, beneath all that armor, Tony was just a man. And Steve had slowly been coming around to one simple fact: a man could die.
Tony could die.
And there was nothing Steve could do about it.
“If I hadn’t found you that night, would you have ever told me?” he asked and Tony’s breath quickened. Steve could't look him in the eye, couldn't let him see the that bravery he’d put on for the past few months was nothing more than a false face. He wasn’t brave at all. He was scared. And he was losing. “Would you have told me?”
“No,” Tony said quietly. “No, I don’t think so.”
Steve nodded slowly. “I figured.” A beat. “You should tell them.”
Tony sighed, turning away, “Steve-“
“They’re your friends. They deserve to know.”
“I can’t do this to them. They were just starting to move on,” he says, holding himself tight. “Happy, he’ll be okay. He’s a fighter. And Pep… she doesn’t know it now but she’ll be better off without me.”
“She’s in love with you,” Steve said plainly and he expected Tony to react with surprise or denial but instead, his face twisted in pain.
“I know that.” He shrugged helplessly, adding, “I tried everything to push her away.”
“Why?” Steve asked desperately. “Why do that? You do nothing but complain about how lonely this is-“
“I do not!”
“Yes, you do!” Steve insisted, “Maybe not in so many words but the few times I leave, you complain about how bored you were when I was gone. You told me I was the first person you’d told. You locked yourself away and they were right there. You have people and you’re shutting them out!”
“I’m dying, Steve! What do you want me to say? You – you want me to go to her, to pull her into my arms and tell her I love her?” Steve heart clenched, the admission everything he’d known but hadn’t wanted to hear. “Do you think me so selfish as to do that only to die on her in a year, a month, hell a few weeks later? Do you think me that cruel?” Steve stared at him, his chest heaving. “I tried once. I thought, if this was my last night on earth, if I knew it’d be over tomorrow what’s the one thing I would do and I took off my chestplate.”
Steve went cold, stomach twisting as he watched Tony trace a hand over the chestplate. “I nearly told her. I was going to end it, Steve. One last hoorah, no more hiding. No more prolonging the inevitable. I got halfway to her place,” he finished quietly.
“Then what?” Steve asked, voice hoarse. His eyes were locked on the hand slowly stroking the cold, red metal and Steve wanted nothing more than to rip Tony’s hands away.
“Then the Avengers called… you did, actually. I had a job to do. No time for me to be selfish,” he said with a sad smile. “Then it was: I can’t die, I have employees. I can’t die, the Avengers need me. And then, and then, and then… now I’m trapped here.”
“You’re not trapped. We’re – we’re looking,” Steve said in a small voice and Tony smiled grimly, his eyes brimming with tears. “We are,” Steve insisted brokenly and Tony felt compelled to move in closer.
“We are.” Tony shouldn’t say it, not tonight but he’d spent the last two hours lying to people he cared about and he couldn't bear to do it any longer. “They can’t help me, Steve.” Steve’s eyes widened in question and Tony went on, “I’ve been hiding the letters. From the doctors.”
Steve froze, mouth opening and closing a few times before he asked, “Why?” And as much as it hurt to see Steve so lost, Tony told the truth.
He smiled, his eyes spilling over. “They turned me down,” he answered brokenly. “Two hundred and twenty.” He lowered his eyes, “And I knew that. I did, but… but, I guess some part of me thought… maybe? You know?”
Steve took his hands, his own shaking as he asked, “You opened all of them alone?” Tony looked up at him in surprise. His eyes wet, but sincere, “I should’ve been there. I could’ve helped.”
“I didn’t want you to lose hope.” Steve shook his head in disbelief, mouth trembling. “That’s who you are, Steve. You don’t take ‘no’ for an answer and I love that about you.” Steve stared at him wondrously but Tony was past caring, past worrying what this sounded like. He was done lying to the people he loved. “You needed to try so I let you.” He tapped his chestplate drawing Steve’s attention. “Maybe this thing gives me another few months, a few weeks, a day or two. Maybe I ride this out for another year but I’m tired,” he finishes with a brittle smile.
Steve stared at him, tears spilling down his cheeks, “Tony-“
“I’m tired, look at me,” he whispered. Steve refused, even as Tony held fast to his hands and pulled him close. “Really look at me, Steve. Steve,” he pleaded and Steve couldn't deny him this. Not when Tony was looking at him like Steve’s face was the last face he would ever see. “I’m so damn tired of all of it. Being cooped up here tied to this cable. For the rest of my life? What is that?”
“It’s a life,” Steve said brokenly. “You’re alive.”
“What kind of life is this? Never being able to get close to anyone. To touch anyone, or – or have them touch me. I’m more man than machine. It is lonely; you were right about that. I’ve kept this secret for so long that I’d almost forgotten that. And then you came along and you were so nice, so sure that someone would help me. And you needed to try... so I let you. I let you get invested and that was selfish of me,” he admitted bitterly. “And I shouldn’t have done that but I was alone and I made you keep my secret. I begged you to and that couldn’t have been easy on you. I’m sorry.”
Steve took hold of his face, wiping his tears away with his thumbs. “Don’t be.”
Tony’s face crumpled, his voice wavering, “I just thought... I just thought, if this is all I have left, at least I have this.” Steve kissed his forehead, his cheeks. “I thought, if it’s not getting any better, at least I have you,” Steve swallowed his next words in a kiss, the taste of salt on his tongue as he held Tony close. His chest heaved, breath coming too fast as he crushed their mouths together. He tried to slow down, tried to gentle it but he couldn't loosen his grip, couldn't keep from clinging to Tony like he’d disappear between one breath and the next.
Every kiss felt like drowning, like he was falling further and further in, burrowing his way inside something he couldn't ever come back from. But Steve couldn't stop, couldn't pull back longer than it took for Tony to pull his clothes off and lead Steve over to the bed. Steve had always thought, if this ever happened between them, it would be soft and gentle. Lots of back and forth, teasing, one-liners, something sweet.
Instead, Steve buried his face in Tony’s neck and writhed against him, finally allowing himself to cry where Tony coudln't see it. Tony sucked in gasping breaths, taking hold of both of them and taking over. He was sure, where Steve had lost his certainty. Steve shook in his arms, panting in Tony’s ear as his hand worked. Tony came first with a low keening sound that makes Steve shudder and buck into his grip. He followed soon after, choking on a sob as he spilled over Tony’s hand. Tony nuzzled into Steve’s cheek murmuring, “It’s okay, I’ve got you. I've got you.”
Steve shuddered, riding it out with a low groan as he shook apart. When he came down, Tony cleaned them up with his shirt and tossed it to the floor. He nudged Steve onto his side and tossed an arm around him. The chestplate was cold but Steve didn't mind, holding Tony’s hand and praying for sleep to take him soon. Tony dropped a kiss to the back of his shoulder, a slight tickling as his lashes brushed his skin. He murmured something into Steve’s skin and held him tighter. His words were quiet but Steve had heard them all the same.
“I love you, too," he whispered into the dark.
When Steve woke, he felt as though his eyes had only been closed for minutes. But it was light outside. Clearly he’d overslept and Tony was still warm at his back. His lips brushed softly over Steve’s skin and Steve turned to find him wide awake.
“Hi,” he said shyly and Steve almost smiled.
“Hi,” he responded quietly.
Tony's mouth worked for a moment, thinking over his next words before his nose scrunched up a little and he lead with, “You must be something special, Rogers. I never put out on the first date.”
“Lucky me,” Steve said with a smile and after some time, Tony returned it.
“What you said last night… I won’t hold you to it,” Tony said, eyes guarded. “Emotions were high and I didn’t want you to feel like you had to say it back. Maybe it was that or pity or-“
Steve’s eyes were firm where his voice was soft, “It wasn’t pity. Not from me. Never from me.” He took Tony’s hands and held them up to his mouth, kissing his palms. “I meant it.”
Tony’s eyes widened wondrously and Steve would never tire of seeing that look on his face. “I did, too.”
Steve nodded, lowering his eyes before returning to Tony, his face grave. “About what you said last night… don’t ever do that. Don’t take away what little time I have left.”
“Steve,” Tony began, his heart heavy. “We can spend the rest of my life," he choked, trying again. "We can spend months searching… there isn’t a doctor that will take me on. The science just isn’t out there.”
“Maybe the answer hasn’t been found yet but don’t skip to the ending,” he said quietly. “Please.”
Tony watched the careful way Steve cradled his hands and he nodded slowly. He took his hands back and pulled Steve in close. “If the answer’s out there, we’ll find it, Steve.” He held on tight and he promised, “We’ll find it.”