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Sea of Petals

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“Wake up, old man.”

Steve opened his eyes with a soft smile. He knew that voice.

Sitting up in bed and clearing his throat, he waved Tony into his bedroom and pulled the covers around himself. Tony threw himself down on the bed and started chatting away, something about the potential recruits he’d been assessing for the new Avengers team.

Steve half listened and let Tony’s voice wash over him. He trusted Tony to make the right choices for heroes to invite to the team, and it was good to hear Tony so enthused. It felt warm and comfortable to bask in how much Tony cared about training and mentoring young heroes, how much he cared about leaving the world better than he found it.

Unexpectedly, Steve’s throat constricted and he coughed roughly.

Tony shut his mouth mid-sentence and look at Steve strangely. “You okay there, Cap? I thought you didn’t get sick.”

Steve cleared his throat again and gave a lopsided smile. “Still waking up, apparently. But don’t let me interrupt - tell me about these heroes Cannonball and Sunspot you met. Do you think they’ll be a good fit for the team?”

 


 

The team was bigger than Steve had imagined it would be, but it worked. They worked.

He and Tony had trained the new recruits hard, putting them through their paces in combat simulations and drilling them on tactics. They were good kids, and adaptable, and soon they would be ready to join the rest of the Avengers for action in the field.

“That’s good, great job today!” Tony called cheerfully as he waved off Shang-Chi, Sunspot, Cannonball and Jess, who had been helping them out. He turned to Steve, eyes bright. “They’ve got the makings of a real team.”

Steve wanted to agree, but he would have preferred more time to instill more discipline in them. Training was good, but their reactions needed to become second nature. He hummed uncertainly.

Tony took one look at him and rolled his eyes, seeming to know exactly what he was thinking. “Come on, gramps, you’ve gotta let the birds fly the nest some time. They’re good kids, and they’re going to make us proud. When I see new heroes like them… it reminds me why we started this. We’re building something that’s bigger than us. You and I, we’re fallible, but them -- the Avengers, as an idea -- that can last.”

Steve’s breath caught in his throat. He was so used to fatalism from Tony that the moments when he revealed his gentle heart took Steve’s breath away. Under the brittle exterior there was so much goodness to Tony, so much shining light. He tried to respond but couldn’t find the words. He gave a tight nod instead.

Tony clapped him on the shoulder and turned to leave the training room. “Dinner?” he offered. “There’s leftover pizza in the kitchen.”

Steve’s throat still felt tight and scratchy. “I’ll be right there,” he rasped.

Tony’s hands drew back from his shoulder and he left Steve alone. Steve felt himself shaking, his throat working hard. He coughed, harshly, an ugly hacking sensation from deep in his chest. Something dislodged in his throat and spikes of pain sparked through his lungs, and he spat something into his gloved hand.

He stared in bafflement as he drew his hand away from his mouth and found a single red petal sitting in his palm.

 


 

Steve didn’t mention his strange health issue to anyone. He had spent his formative years fighting through a horrendous variety of illnesses and had learned early on that sympathy for the sickly was only one step away from pity, and that he would not abide.

It wasn’t as if his health was a problem for the team. He was still as strong as ever, as fast, and as athletic. Could still take out a man with his shield from 200 feet. During battle, with his adrenaline singing, he barely noticed the discomfort.

But then he’d come home, and Tony would smile softly at him and say something kind, and his chest would contract like something inside him was twisting and rotting. At night, alone in bed, he would be kept awake by a painful, hacking cough that left his throat scraped and raw.

And each morning he would wake up to discover a sprinkling of bright red petals spilling across his pillows like blood.

 


 

He had thought that he was keeping his secret well. He’d thought that no one would know.

That changed on Mars. The team brokered an uneasy peace with Ex Nihilo, content to leave the red planet to him so long as he stayed away from Earth. The peace wouldn’t last, they all knew, but it was a start.

As the Avengers turned to leave, Ex Nihilo reached out an imperious clawed hand. “Captain,” he intoned. “A moment of your time?”

Steve hesitated, but curiosity won out. They walked to one side of the strange Martian glade to talk away from the other Avengers.

Ex Nihilo was regarding him closely. “It is a rare condition that you carry. I wanted to observe it for myself.” Steve narrowed his eyes, unsure what he was referring to. “I suppose that extending my sympathies would be appropriate.”

Steve was in no mood for riddles. “What do you mean, Nihilo?” he asked, wary of his intentions.

Ex Nihilo ran a claw lightly down his chest. Even through his scalemail, Steve could feel the pressure. He tried to choke back the cough that stuck in his throat, but Ex Nihilo’s eyes widened gleefully.

“This,” Ex Nihilo said, scraping his finger over Steve’s throat. “The Hanahaki. I must confess, I never expected that you, all of people, would be so affected.”

The eagerness in his voice unsettled Steve deeply. “What are you talking about?”

Ex Nihilo smiled, a cruel grimace that bore no relation to joy. “There is an old tale told by the people of your planet, the ancient tribes who have yet to be corrupted by your filthy modernity. They spoke of the blossom sickness, an encroaching malady with no known cure. Have you seen the petals yet?”

Steve tried to school his face to remain neutral, but he felt himself wince. Nihilo continued: “I see that you have. Then death is coming for you, Captain. The blossom knows your weakness.”

“I don’t have weaknesses, Nihilo. Not anymore.”

Ex Nihilo grinned wider, showing off more of his sharp teeth. “On the contrary, Captain. The blossom sickness exposes the ultimate weakness of humans. Hanahaki infects only those who are in love, and whose love is unreturned.”

“That is ridiculous. I don’t believe a word of it-”

“Your belief is inconsequential. The Hanahaki has you in its grasp now. You will sicken, and the petals will multiply, and then you will die.”

“It’s going to take more than a few petals to kill me.” Steve tilted his chin upwards defiantly.

Nihilo beckoned Steve closer with one grotesque clawed finger. “The disease will continue to weaken you so long as you experience unrequited love. Unless the object of your affections returns your feelings, you will most certainly perish. I would wish you luck, but in truth I’m rather looking forward to seeing you broken.”

 


 

He didn’t tell the team about his conversation with Ex Nihilo. It was nonsense. Just another plan to get inside his head. It would have been irresponsible to worry the others over it.

But the coughing fits got worse. When he walked into the kitchen to see Tony amid jovial chaos distributing coffee to the team, Steve had to hide his face as he spluttered and gagged. When Tony would catch him on the way back from a mission and sling an arm companionably around his shoulders, Steve’s throat would constrict and he would have to step back and retreat to his room to cough and retch. And every night, he would dream of Tony, standing by his side as they faced down the evils of the world together, and he would wake surrounded by blossoms.

The petals came at first in ones and twos, then in blooms of five or six, then eventually in huge handfuls which he would wrap in tissue paper and stuff deep at the bottom of his wastebin.

 


 

Unrequited love, that was what Ex Nihilo had said. The whole concept of a blossom sickness was so preposterous that Steve had avoided considering the cause of the disease too closely. But he could feel it now, all of the time, a weakening of his body that left him sluggish and clumsy. Not enough for anyone else to notice -- not yet -- but enough for him to know that there was something wrong.

The pain concentrated in a solid lump in his chest, sending out tendrils of ache that ignited whenever he drew in a breath. Just below his breastbone, a knot of pain and misery that seemed to tighten each day.

And when he thought about Tony, when he looked at him across a room, when their eyes met on the battlefield, the pain would intensify, and that same knot would twist deeper and harder until he could barely pull air into his lungs.

 


 

There was no time. There was no time for the team to worry about him, or whatever was happening to him, or whatever the future might hold. The Earth needed the Avengers now more than ever; it needed its heroes to protect it from threats unlike any they had faced before.

The disease would kill him, he believed that now. The minimal research he’d done in snatched moments between missions confirmed what Ex Nihilo had told him: that the disease was rare but persistent, that there was no way to stop the petals, that the only cure was having the subject’s love returned, that other than this it was invariably deadly.

Tony did not love him. Tony would not love him. He had been in love with Tony for so long that the feelings had become the background of his life, the undercurrent of his career as an Avenger. Even when they fought - especially when they fought, in some ways - his love for Tony burned deep and bright and fierce. And unrequited.

If Tony had even an inkling of interest in him, he would have expressed it by now. Tony was not a man who was shy about his affections.

What good would it do for him to tell Tony the truth now? He was dying, and Tony would only twist himself up with guilt and misery. Tony would do anything for him, Steve knew that. He would try to force himself to love Steve, try to return those feelings, and he would hate himself when it didn’t work.

Love came from joy, not from guilt. You couldn’t make yourself love someone. Tony could never love him as he needed to be loved.

But if he was going to die, then he was going to die well. He would not wallow in misery and allow this disease to consume him. He would go out in battle. He would die as a hero, surrounded by his team, sacrificing himself to save them and others.

No one need ever know about his weakness, or his loneliness, or his sad, helpless, pitifully unrequited love.

 


 

The revelation happened at night, while he was tossing and turning and coughing up petals again. He drifted in and out of uneasy sleep, dreams clouding his mind as he saw the outline of mysterious dark figures looming over him. Something was tugging at his memory, like an itch at the base of his skull which he couldn’t scratch.

There was darkness, and then there was a blinding flash of light. Somewhere, someone said, “We have no choice.”

Steve’s eyes snapped open and his head reeled. Images flashed through his mind: men he had thought were his friends turning on him, betraying him, wiping his memory. Tony standing across from him, his face blank, unable to look Steve in the eye.

Steve remembered.

He remembered his frustration with Tony, his wish that they could stop having the same fight over and over. He remembered thinking that perhaps this time it would be different. Perhaps, if he loved Tony hard enough, he could find a way to reach Tony and to persuade him. If only he were strong enough.

He remembered his shock when Tony turned on him, when he instructed Stephen to reach deep into his mind and to pull pieces out. He’d really believed it would be different this time.

He remembered the awful tearing sensation as chunks of his memory were ripped out and tossed aside. He remembered looking to Tony for signs of regret, of sadness, of shame at what he was doing -- and seeing only cool determination.

He remembered everything.

 


 

“You used me!” Steve yelled, his voice hoarse and shaking as Tony stood before him, inscrutable.

“I suppose I did.” Tony was eerily calm, and Steve was too lost to tell whether this facade was just another of Tony’s masks or whether he had truly never cared in the first place. “And I’d do it again.”

Steve replayed their interactions over the last months: Tony coming to him and asking for his help, the two of them forming the team together, the days and nights spent at each other’s sides -- and all the while Tony had known. He had known what he had done, and he had let Steve love him anyway.

The ache in Steve’s chest smouldered and fizzled, a hot coal burning out his lungs. He could barely breathe; dizziness swarmed him and the room spun and whirled around him. He gasped in a few desperate breaths, the air scorching as he choked it down. And then his whole chest constricted and he doubled over, coughing more violently than ever.

Tony took half a step toward him and then halted, frozen by indecision at something he hadn’t foreseen. Steve hacked, shuddered, his whole body convulsing as he felt something dislodge inside him.

He gagged and retched and finally, he coughed up a lump of pure pain and misery. He looked down into his hand to see a whole flower: red petals around a golden center.

He heard Tony gasp but it sounded far away, as if he was underwater. As he stared the flower wilted and shrivelled, curling up until it was nothing more than a few dried leaves.

All of a sudden, he could breathe again. He heaved in lungfuls of mercifully clear air, the pain and longing that had been lodged in his chest replaced by a pure, white hot anger.

Where before there had been a deep and hopeless love, now there was nothing but glowing rage, incinerating the petals out of him.

“... Steve?” Tony had never sounded so uncertain. “What are we going to do about this?”

A sharp and certain clarity descended. He stood and took in a deep breath of clean, uncomplicated air. He looked at Tony through unclouded eyes.

“Now,” Steve said, and not a single compunction held him back, “I’m going to beat you bloody.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Tony still had bruises in the shape of Steve’s knuckles on his jaw.

He ran a finger over the marks, feeling the ache throbbing beneath his skin. Steve’s fist was imprinted on him now; they had marked each other permanently.

The moment he saw Steve coughing up petals, he had known. He’d heard about Hanahaki years ago, though he’d laughed off the idea of a love disease then. It didn’t seem funny now.

Seeing Steve choking on the physical evidence of his doomed love had hurt Tony far more than the beating that had followed.

The idea, the very notion, that Steve could have loved him was excruciating. The only time Steve loved him was when he didn’t know the truth, when he was busy living out the exciting distraction that Tony had designed for him. He’d played his part perfectly, leading the Avengers and leaving Tony free to focus on the bigger issues. The world-ending issues. The things that really mattered.

Tony wasn’t sure when along the way Steve had fallen out of the category of things that really mattered.

Steve could never love the cold, calculating monster who would destroy one world to save another. The kind of pragmatism made for good survival but a poor life. Steve hated the dark, flawed parts of Tony that he could never understand and never accept.

Steve could only ever have loved him when he didn’t see the truth. The truth was a twisted, misshapen thing.

 


 

The end of the world arrived sooner than he expected.

Tony sat at the bar in one of his mansions, staring at a full glass of scotch. The tangy, smoky smell of the alcohol lay heavily in the air. The solid, hefty weight of the glass in his hand was beguilingly familiar.

They had done everything they could. Exhausted every option available. Condemned their souls in the bitter hunt for survival, and all of it for nothing. The incursions came anyway. No hope for rescue or reprieve for anyone. No more heroics to perform.

Other men would have gone to be with their smiling families, with their friends, would have walked through a favourite city one last time.

Tony chose to converse with his demons.

The dark liquid glowed amber in the light; it rippled delicately in the glass as he swirled it. If there was nothing else left to be done, why not drown smothered by sweet stupefaction?

There was something left to be done, though. For all his talk of preparing for the future, there was something pulling at his mind, an idea he couldn’t let go of.

Steve.

Tony had thought he had made peace with sacrificing their friendship to save the world. He had thought that he could live with Steve hating him, as long as Steve and everyone else on the planet got to live.

But now, staring down the futility and failure of all of his grand plans, all he found himself thinking of was Steve. Wondering where he was now, whether he had healed from Tony’s betrayal, whether he was happy. Wishing to see him one last time, even if Steve wanted nothing more than to kill him. He’d take that.

His fingers tightened around the glass as his chest constricted, a crushing sensation pushing down on his ribs. He doubled over with the sharp pain, only dimly aware of the sound of the glass shattering on the floor.

He throat worked as he tried to gasp in air, but he could feel something solid lodged in his throat, choking him. A fit of coughing built in his throat and he grabbed the bar to steady himself as he hacked a wheezing, sick cough.

When he looked down at the hand he had been coughing into, he could only laugh when he saw a handful of shining blue petals.

Tony thought it was a fitting punishment for what he’d done to both of them.

 


 

The world hadn’t ended that time, but the incursions kept coming. He was taken in by the Illuminati, and they’d made it clear that he was their prisoner and not their guest. The hypocrisy astounded him -- he’d been doing what was necessary, what they all knew needed to be done. But now they were playing out their crisis of conscience on him.

Tony kicked his heels and stared around the hated glass cage they kept him in. The boredom was the worst of it, leaving him alone with nothing but his racing thoughts and the endless beating drum of self hatred and blame.

He tilted his head the instant he heard familiar steps approaching. Not Namor’s imperious stride or the careful footfalls of Reed - these were firm, determined steps that shook his spine with their confidence. There was only one person Tony knew who walked like that.

“Steve.” He worked to infuse warmth into his voice, but he didn’t turn around to see him enter. It was easier not to look yet.

He heard a sharp intake of breath. Steve was trying to hide it, but Tony could tell he had been unprepared for the reality of Tony in a cell. Still a little soft for him after all, perhaps?

“Stark,” Steve snarled, voice low and rough.

Ahh. Perhaps not so soft after all.

Tony turned and observed Steve through the glass: the tension across his shoulders, hands bunched into fists that longed to finish what they’d started, lips pursed as if to keep in the torrent of words -- and eyes that no longer softened when they looked at Tony. They were cold and flinty instead.

Tony took an involuntary step backwards at the heat radiating from Steve’s glare. He felt a twinging in his chest, deep beneath the repulsor in his armor. Something twisted inside him and he spluttered, coughed, tried to hold it in.

Steve was looking at him more closely now, eyes narrowed suspiciously and boring into him. Tony opened his mouth to speak, to throw out some joke or insult that would return them to their state of mutual destruction, but instead he coughed, an ugly, deep cough that filled his hands with a torrent of tiny blue petals. Petals cascaded from his hands to the floor, flashes of color glinting as their arcing descent was reflected in the glass between them.

Steve gasped, following the flowing petals with his eyes. The seconds stretched out between them, Tony struggling for breath and Steve staring at the petals around his feet.

When he looked back up at Tony, his lip was curled in disgust. “How long has this been going on?” he asked, and it sounded like he meant the disease but Tony knew better than that. He meant how long, how long were you lying to me, how long did you think you could keep this a secret, how long have you loved me.

“Long enough,” Tony said with heavy finality. What did the details matter? There was no repairing this broken, ugly thing between them.

Their eyes met and Tony saw the smouldering anger running through every inch of Steve, the revulsion at the mere thought of Tony loving him written all over his face. Tony wallowed in it, basked in it, invited the sheer burning force of Steve’s loathing to wash over him.

He watched fury, sorrow, pain, contempt, pity flicker across Steve’s face. Then a moment of uncertainty, of self doubt. Tony always had been able to read him like a book.

“It’s you, if you’re wondering,” Tony said with another cough, petals spilling from his lips. “It’s always been you.”

Steve face shuttered until it was utterly blank. “You call this love?” he asked, quietly, voice dripping with disdain. “Then you’re even more lost than I thought.”

He didn’t look back as he walked out and left Tony alone, drowning in a sea of tiny blue petals.

 


 

The last time he saw Steve, the sky was falling.

He was growing weaker every day. It was hard to breath, hard to move, hard to stand. He never had enough air. The petals flowed from his mouth in torrents.

The armor kept him upright and walking, for what that was worth. There was no more fight left in him, no more plans or contingencies, just numb acceptance.

But Steve had demanded his presence, and he would always come when Steve called.

Steve was different now, on the surface. Hardened by loss and angrier than ever. Beneath the surface, however, was the beating heart of someone who loved too much and cared too freely. Tony had always been a dark and cruel thing next to Steve’s shining light.

He’d thought that Steve’s hatred would be the worst part of it. It wasn’t.

The worst part was when Steve told him that he had loved him once, with all of his heart and soul.

But that had been built on a lie, Tony’s secrets razing down the possibility of happiness between them ever flowering again. Now there was only regret: Steve for the softness of his heart, and Tony for the hardness of his.

After the fight, when Tony was on the ground beneath Steve, defeated, hopeless, he let the armor slide away to show his face. Let Steve see the petals that continued to pour from his mouth even when Steve rained blows down on him.

The blood from his face mingled with the petals and spilled across Steve’s hands, across his shield. Bloody clumps of ugliness staining the fabric, as Tony had always stained Steve, even with his love.

Steve looked down at him with contempt. His hand was around Tony’s neck, his pulse thready and weak between them. “Tell me, Tony,” he hissed, “knowing how this ends, what would you have done differently?”

Tony heaved in shallow breaths, his vision blacking out, his consciousness receding. He tried to imagine another universe where his decisions had been different, where he’d found a way to keep everyone safe, where they could have loved one another. He couldn’t picture such a place.

“Nothing,” he said with a twisted smile. It was only right that they should end up here.

He coughed one more time, and hacked up a whole blue flower, the manifestation of all that was sick and rotten between them.

Steve’s eyes were dark as ink as he squeezed his hands tighter around Tony’s neck.

As the light faded in the sky, the last thing Tony was aware of was the petals spilling and scattering between their bodies, carpeting the ground beneath them in blue.