“I’m not breaking up with you, Tony. I just––I just can’t be with you right now.”
It was stupid, but half of Tony’s brain was listening to Steve, and half of his brain was noticing there was a leak, somewhere in the shop. He could hear the water dripping. Maybe in one of the sinks.
He let five drips go by before he answered Steve. Because he’d known this was coming, but being braced for a blow didn’t always make it hurt less, and he kind of wanted to be a dick. “Right,” he said, crossing his arms over his chest. He kept his eyes fastened on the schematics for the suit that were spinning slowly in the center of the workshop. “And why is that, exactly?”
“Bucky is... a mess,” Steve said, the little catch in his voice belying the multitudes contained in the word “mess.” Tony had a vivid imagination, though. He could fill in the gaps. “He’s going to need a lot of help. And I––I have to be there for him. I owe him that.”
“Okay.” Two drips. “And why does that mean you can’t be with me?”
He knew why, of course. But he was a little curious to see if Steve knew why.
“I’m––you––we’re a lot,” Steve said, with difficulty. “When I’m with you, I don’t think about much else. And I can’t––I can’t be thinking about you, about us, when Bucky needs me.”
“Right.” Tony wondered if that was supposed to be a compliment. “So... you’re not breaking up with me, but you can’t be with me, because we’re too much for you to handle while you’re trying to help Barnes with his recovery.”
“Yes,” Steve said, sounding relieved. “Yes. Exactly. But I don’t––I don’t know how long it’s going to be. The doctors say it could take... a long time. Or...”
Or never. Barnes was pretty fucked in the head. He wasn’t catatonic, and Tony had read the files, he had to give the man credit for that. But he’d need a lot of help, for a long time.
Tony just nodded. “So... do you want me to wait?”
Steve sucked in a breath like Tony had punched him in the stomach. As though Tony was the one hurting him, and not the other way around. “It’s not fair of me to ask that of you,” Steve said.
“That isn’t what I asked.”
“Do you want to... see other people?” Steve finally asked, four drips later, sounding as though the words were choking him.
“Not really,” Tony said, trying to make the admission as nonchalant as possible. Even though he thought that ship had sailed a long time ago. No one who knew him operated under the delusion that he had any chill at all about Steve. Or that Steve had any about him, for that matter. “I think you know what I want. But it doesn’t seem like I’m going to get it, so I’m trying to figure out what the rules of this arrangement are.”
“I’m sorry,” Steve said roughly. “This is so unfair to you. Maybe we should just––”
“No,” Tony said. He tore his eyes away from the 3D schematics of the suit and looked at Steve. “No. Look––I get it, I guess. You don’t know how long it’s going to take. And I don’t want to see other people, not right now. Maybe we just wait and see. And if I want to start seeing other people, I’ll tell you.”
Steve nodded. He ducked his head. “Yeah. Yeah, okay.” He sucked in a quick breath. “And it’s still okay for us to stay here, in the tower? I know you offered, but that was before––”
“The tower is your home,” Tony said, as gently as he knew how. “It’s Barnes’s home, too, if he wants it to be. I think you’re both safest here, anyway.”
Steve nodded. “Thank you.”
Silence. Tony listened to the dripping pipe. “Was there anything else?” he finally asked, after five more drips.
Steve swallowed audibly. “No, just. I’m sorry. I know this is painful. I wish I thought it could be any different. But I just––I let go of Bucky once before, and this time I––I have to hold on as hard as I can. And I don’t––I don’t think I can do that if––if we’re together, too.”
Steve’s wording there was telling, Tony thought. Steve had insisted that he and Barnes weren’t like that, but Tony had always suspected otherwise. And clearly there was some reason that Steve’s relationship with Tony and his relationship with Barnes were mutually exclusive in Steve’s head. Tony didn’t really buy that it was just that his relationship with Tony took up time and energy. It was that maintaining both at the same time didn’t seem possible to him. So Steve had to choose.
Tony wasn’t sure if it was better or worse that Steve wasn’t walking away altogether. In some ways, a clean break would be easier. But Tony had been telling the truth when he’d said that he wasn’t interested in seeing anyone else. Because––and this was what fucking sucked––he loved Steve. He loved Steve. And he couldn’t let go of the tiny bit of hope he had that someday, when Barnes was better, Steve might come back to him after all.
Tony lost count of how many drips passed before he finally spoke again. “I understand,” he said. “It’s okay.”
Steve sighed. “It’s not. But thank you for saying so.”
Tony didn’t say anything. Steve turned around and left the workshop.
Tony sat down heavily on a stool, feeling as though all his strings had been cut. “JARVIS, lockdown.”
He should get up. He should find the faucet that was leaking and fix it. It was a waste of water, a waste of resources. Starks didn’t let leaky faucets just... leak.
“Sir,” JARVIS said after a while, “do you want me to ask Dr. Banner to come down to the workshop?”
“No,” Tony said. He stood up, already reaching for a wrench. He was going to fix that damn leak. “No need. I’m fine.”
Tony was bone tired.
It’d been a long week––a long month, a long three months. After Steve had not-dumped him, he’d asked Pepper to keep him busy with Stark Industries stuff, and she had obliged. She ran the company, but his name was still on it, and sometimes investors liked to see him. “Just to confirm you’re still alive,” was Pepper’s standard not-quite-kidding line about it. Plus they had some new products launching, and the annual Expo. None of it was dying for want of Tony’s attention, but it made Pepper’s job easier when he showed up, and he hadn’t been showing up much recently.
So he’d done some globe-trotting, some glad-handing. Not much baby-kissing, thank God. Pepper was happy. The investors were happy. The board was happy. Tony was... well, truthfully he was fucking exhausted––and he still missed Steve like a shot to the gut every goddamn day. If he’d been hoping to get out from underneath the weight of that, then he’d failed. So, not happy.
Under those conditions, it was probably only a matter of time before his shitty immune system caught up with him. At least his body had the decency to wait until he was home to give out on him. He arrived back at the tower at 3AM, crashed for ten hours, and woke up feeling like hot garbage.
“Fuck,” he breathed, opened his eyes. His head was pounding. He buried his face in his pillow and groaned. “J, stats.”
“Your temperature is 101.8 degrees, sir,” JARVIS said. “Your blood pressure is a little low at 110 over 70. You are more dehydrated than usual.”
“Yeah,” Tony said. His mouth was desert dry. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d drunk anything that wasn’t caffeinated. He coughed, curling up on his side. He ached miserably, and his stomach was not happy.
“My protocols indicate that I should contact Captain Rogers,”
“No,” Tony said, shoving himself up. “No, no. Not Steve. Override. Where’s––where’s Bruce?”
“Dr. Banner is away at a meditation retreat, returning in ten days.”
Tony groaned. “Of course he is. Bruce, you fucking hippie.”
“Agents Romanoff and Barton are both in residence, as are Staff Sergeant Wilson and Sergeant Barnes.”
“Yeah, no,” Tony said. “Tell ‘em––tell ‘em I’m working.”
“Sir,” JARVIS said reproachfully, “your symptoms indicate that you have the flu. While not yet serious, your condition could worsen without proper care.”
“I don’t need care,” Tony muttered. “I just need sleep.”
“You should have fluids before sleeping, sir.”
Tony knew JARVIS was right. He was thirsty, and the headache was probably at least partly dehydration. But getting up felt so hard, and the bathroom seemed so far away. He was so tired.
And he couldn’t help wallowing a little in imagining what might’ve been if this had happened three months ago, during one of the periods when Steve was at home and not out looking for Barnes. Steve would’ve been in Tony’s bed with him when Tony woke up, and he would’ve known something was wrong immediately. Tony wouldn’t have have even had the chance to hide it, because Steve would’ve seen it. And it might’ve been hard, because Tony wasn’t used to letting other people take care of him, but he thought he might’ve let Steve bring him tea and mop his brow. He might have even let Steve cuddle him and rub his back while they watched Tony’s favorite movies all day. Having the flu was never fun, but it would have been... not terrible, with Steve.
But that was then. This was now. And now was Tony alone in his room, with no one he wanted to ask for help in the tower.
“Sir,” JARVIS said.
“M’okay,” Tony mumbled, letting his eyes slide shut. “Don’t worry about me, J.”
“Would that I could do anything else,” JARVIS said quietly, but Tony didn’t hear him. He was already asleep.
He felt worse the next time he woke up. His head throbbed in time with his heart, and he was the sort of nauseous that made him think throwing up was inevitable. JARVIS was trying to talk to him, but he could barely concentrate. He lay very still, trying to convince himself he wasn’t going to be sick, but he could feel the burning in the back of his throat that said otherwise. He lurched out of bed and managed to stagger the distance to the bathroom. Fuck, why was his bedroom so goddamn big? And why had he put the toilet so far from the door?
Tony had an embarrassing amount of experience puking. He gave himself two points for not being in public, and two more points for not puking on the floor or in the sink or the bathtub, even though they were closer. He didn’t have much in him; he hadn’t eaten in at least a day. He’d meant to the night before after he got in, but he’d just been so tired. His stomach didn’t seem to realize there was nothing left to bring up. It just spasmed on nothing over and over again.
He did not feel better afterward. He felt sweaty and nauseous and shaky and weak, so horribly weak. He let himself fall back against the wall, barely able to hold his own head up.
“Sir,” JARVIS said, “if you let me call Captain Rogers––”
“No,” Tony mumbled. “No. Steve––Steve can’t. He told me. Bucky needs him more.” Tony swallowed. His throat was sore from vomiting, but that wasn’t why it suddenly hurt.
“Sir, there is an overwhelming probability that Captain Rogers will come if I tell him you’re ill.”
“No,” Tony said, shaking his head. “No. I can’t––if he doesn’t––I can’t, J.”
“Then allow me to call Staff Sergeant Wilson.”
“No.” Tony slid down to lie on the floor. “No. I’m okay. S’ just the flu.”
He didn’t quite sleep again after that. His stomach wouldn’t let him. He drifted in and out between bouts of puking, chilled and sweating and shaking by turns. He kept trying to throw up but mostly he just dry heaved. Painfully.
“J, talk to me,” he mumbled after bout number three.
“Sir, your fever is over a hundred and three degrees. Please allow me to call—”
“Talk to me about anything else.”
JARVIS paused. “Sir, you should know that Captain Rogers has frequently asked me about your well being these last three months.”
Tony managed to open his eyes. “What?”
“Good morning, JARVIS.”
“Good morning, Captain. It is the 23rd of April, 2017. It is currently 62 degrees and is likely to reach a high of 68, with rain possible after four o’clock.”
“Thanks. Where’s Tony today?”
“How is he?”
“Mr. Stark is well, though jet lagged after his overnight flight from London.”
“Five espresso day?”
“Perhaps even six or seven.”
Steve chuckled. It faded into another recording, from two days later. Tony had still been in Beijing, his throat bothered by the polluted air. Then he’d gone to Japan, where he’d met up with Pepper. He’d met with some partners, then spent a couple days at a hot springs resort.
“We talked about going there.” Steve sounded, even to Tony’s cynical ear, rather wistful.
“So Mr. Stark mentioned to Ms. Potts.”
Steve sighed. He didn’t ask for any other information. Probably he knew JARVIS wouldn’t give it to him.
Tony wasn’t sure how long he lay there, listening to Steve ask JARVIS about him. JARVIS always found something impersonal to tell him. It was always true, but never anything Tony would have objected to him knowing. It was soothing, at least until his stomach turned over. “Stop, J,” he groaned, rolling over to his hands and knees again. God, he was exhausted. He ached all over.
Tony didn’t ask for the recordings back, even once he stopped throwing up and crumbled down to lie on the floor again. He wanted Steve so badly that the recordings could all too easily become a crutch. That was the last thing he needed.
“Sir,” JARVIS said, sometime later. Tony had no idea how long it had been. He’d lost track of how many times his stomach had tried to wring itself out. “You are severely dehydrated. You need fluids.”
Tony wanted to answer, just as he wanted to drink a few glasses of water and put himself back to bed. He couldn’t get off the floor. He couldn’t even roll over.
An alarm blared. Tony’s body flooded with adrenaline and suddenly he found he could get to his hands and knees. He even managed to scramble to his feet. His head was swimming, and he had to cling to the door jamb to keep himself upright. He blinked, trying to think through the misery.
It was a call to assemble, he realized. Fuck.
“Sir, you can’t possibly think—“
“Sir, Captain Rogers will never—“
There was a brief pause. “It will be waiting for you in the Quinjet hangar.”
That wasn’t the usual protocol, but Tony was out of energy to spare for arguing with his insubordinate AI. He had to put one foot in front of the other. He had to get upstairs. To the Quinjet. To the suit.
Fuck it, Tony knew what he was aiming for.
He had to get to Steve.
Later, he didn’t even remember the trip up to the Quinjet hangar. He remembered dragging himself off the bathroom floor, and then nothing until he was standing next to the Quinjet, trying not to collapse. JARVIS was taking his sweet fucking time getting the suit to him. It was raining and cold and windy––it was always windy that high up––and Tony couldn’t stop shaking. He thought he might throw up again.
And Steve was there. Looking at him. Staring at him, actually. “Tony,” he said. “You look––you look terrible.”
Tony would’ve laughed if he didn’t think it would’ve made him double over in pain. It wasn’t what Tony had imagined hearing from him after three months of radio silence, but it probably wasn’t inaccurate. “Thanks, Steve.”
“No, I mean it,” Steve persisted. “Are you sick?
“I’m okay,” Tony said. “I just need the suit.” The suit would help with things like standing and walking, and if he puked in the suit––well, it’d be horrific, but at least no one would know.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.” Steve stepped closer, holding his hands out. “Are you running a fever?”
“No,” Tony said.
“Yes,” JARVIS said.
“Traitor,” Tony muttered.
“Mr. Stark’s temperature is 103.8 degrees, and he is severely dehydrated from sweating and vomiting.”
“It’s not that bad,” Tony said. “I just––I’m tired. Too much travel.”
“You’re not running a hundred and three degree fever and throwing up from too much travel,” Steve said. He was standing a lot closer all of the sudden. “How long has he been like this, JARVIS?”
“Nearly twenty-four hours.”
“Jesus, Tony.” Steve’s eyes were so blue and so worried, and Tony wanted to cry. He might have been crying. He couldn’t really tell anymore. “Why didn’t you have JARVIS call me?”
Tony opened his mouth to prevaricate and the truth fell out. “Wasn’t sure you’d come.”
Steve’s eyes widened.
“Shit. Sorry.” Tony looked away. “It wasn’t that bad.”
Steve shook his head. “Dammit, we can’t do this now. We’ve got Hydra to deal with. You are not coming,” he added, before Tony could say a word. “You are going to bed.”
“No, Tony,” Steve said firmly. “You look like you’re about to collapse, and you’re running a fever.” His eyes softened. “Come on,” he said, quietly. He stepped a little closer, and this time he reached out and grasped Tony’s arms. His hands felt like firebrands against Tony’s skin. “You know you’re not well enough to come. You’d be a danger to yourself, and the rest of us would be so busy worrying about you that we wouldn’t be able to worry about the mission.”
Loath though he was to admit it, Tony knew he was right. He nodded.
“Good.” Steve stepped away, taking his heat with him. Tony sucked in a breath, feeling the cold all the more acutely. “Bucky!”
Tony’s head came up. He hadn’t even noticed, but the rest of the team currently in residence was in the hangar as well––ostensibly doing pre-mission checks but probably listening to his and Steve’s little melodrama. That included Natasha, Clint, and Sam, plus, off in the shadows, James Buchanan Barnes.
“Bucky, this is Tony. Tony, this is Bucky.”
Barnes was wearing all black, some sort of tac suit. His hair was a little too long, but his eyes were less crazy than Tony had expected. They flicked over Tony, assessing. “Stark,” he said.
“Barnes,” Tony replied, warily.
“Okay,” Steve said. “I have to say, this was not how I pictured this going, but I guess we’re gonna make do.” He shook his head, then drew a deep breath. “Bucky, you’re not coming. Don’t start,” he added, when Barnes opened his mouth, clearly ready to argue. “You’re not ready, and you know it. What I need you to do is stay here and take care of Tony.”
“What,” Barnes said.
“What?” Tony said.
“Please,” Steve added, looking mostly at Barnes. “You used to take care of me all the time. Do you remember that?”
Barnes looked momentarily lost. “I... I don’t know. I remember... boiling water and worrying.”
Steve looked inordinately pleased by this. “Yeah, you used to make me tea. And you’d bring me hot water bottles if it was cold. You were good at taking care of me.”
“I don’t need to be coddled,” Tony said.
Steve didn’t appear to be very impressed by that argument, which, Tony had to admit, probably wasn’t supported by his... anything. “JARVIS just said you were severely dehydrated. The only reason you’re on your feet at all right now is that you’re stubborn as a mule. Not that I have any stones to throw there,” Steve added, saving Tony the trouble. “You’re sick, you need someone to look after you. This mission could take a couple of days, and I want you in one piece when I get home.”
Tony sighed. “Why do you care?”
Steve’s mouth twisted unhappily. “I hope that’s the fever talking.” He stepped closer. “When I get home,” he said, so quietly that Tony didn’t think even the nosiest of their nosy friends could hear it, “we’re going to talk, all right? Until then, please let Bucky look after you. Consider it me looking after you, through him.”
Tony didn’t know what to say to that. He was still staring at Steve when Clint yelled, “Cap! We gotta get a move on!”
Steve leaned in and pressed his lips to Tony’s forehead. Then he grabbed his shield and swung himself up and into the Quinjet. Seconds later, the engines fired, and they lifted off.
It was still cold and windy and pouring rain. Tony felt sick––and confused, but mostly sick, now that he didn’t have anything distracting him. He was suddenly dizzy and nauseous. Getting horizontal seemed like a good idea. The ground seemed nice. It was harder than his bed but also much, much closer.
“So,” James Buchanan Barnes said. Tony tried to get his eyes to focus on him. “You’re the great and powerful Tony Stark.”
“That’s me,” Tony said, right before his legs went out from under him.