Tony wakes in chunks. He's aware of warmth. The blanket underneath his hands is soft. Microfleece, maybe, like the blankets he hides in his closet because Howard doesn't approve. He hears beeping. It's loud but steady, familiar. Heart monitor. There's something in his nose, forcing in a steady stream of air and helping him breathe. He's in the hospital but he doesn't remember why. Howard, he assumes. Maybe Howard tried to kill him, like he'd threatened after his mom's death.
He doesn't want to wake up. He's terrified that he'll open his eyes and Howard will be there, waiting for him with that damn possessive smirk on his face. Unconsciousness pulls him under again and when he comes back up, he's not alone. He hears a voice. It takes a while to pierce the fog filling his brain. It comes into focus like tuning a radio station. He registers the tone of it first, a low mumble. It's soothing. He drifts, half-awake, listening to that voice. It sounds familiar.
Words come next. A passage of text that he recognizes. It's from his favorite book series. He smiles. JARVIS is the only one who knows that so who had he told?
"And there were his mother and father smiling at him again, and one of his grandfathers nodding happily. Harry sank down..."
Steve. That's Steve's voice. He wants to see Steve. His fingers twitch on the blanket. He tries to open his eyes but it's hard. His body fights him. He moans. Steve's voice cuts off and a warm hand squeezes his.
"Hey, Tony." Steve sounds sad and maybe a little relieved. "You're awake. How are you feeling?"
It hurts to open his eyes. Breathing hurts. Every part of his body hurts, but in a muted sort of way that speaks of heavy painkillers. He says as much, or tries to. All he can get out is, "Hurts."
"I know, sweetheart. It's going to hurt for a while, I'm afraid. The doctors have you on some pretty strong stuff right now but it can only do so much."
He doesn't fully parse what Steve's saying. He can tell he's injured but nothing Steve says registers past the word 'sweetheart.' It makes Tony's heart swell with the kind of happiness he hasn't felt since his mom died. He wants to hear Steve say it again, over and over until Tony's memorized the sound of it. He wants to record it and set it as his ringtone.
"What?" Steve smiles at him, soft and warm and so full of obvious affection that Tony wants to cry.
Tony's thought about this moment so many times. He's rehearsed it, over and over in his head, planned how he was going to tell Steve how much he loved him, to make it clear that he wanted to be with Steve and that he'd wait until he was old enough for Steve to be comfortable dating him. What comes out instead is a hacking cough.
"Right. Let's get you some water." Steve releases Tony's hand. The loss of contact hurts like a bucket of ice. He feels cold and alone without Steve's touch. Steve isn't gone long. He grabs a bottle of water from across the room and returns to Tony's bedside. "I'm going to adjust the bed for you, okay? Let me know the second anything hurts."
Tony nods obediently. Steve presses the controls to raise the bed. He goes slow but the change in position still causes something in Tony's chest to burn with muted agony. It isn't bad, though, as far as Tony's skewed scale of pain is concerned. Definitely not enough to risk Steve calling for a doctor. Tony doesn't want to deal with strangers right now. He wants to be left alone with Steve.
Steve cracks the bottle and presses it to Tony's lips. The water is blissfully cold. It takes everything in him not to moan at the feeling of it washing down his throat, soothing away the pain he hadn't even noticed. He tries to get Steve to tilt the bottle, to give him more than the thin, steady trickle but Steve resists.
"I know you want more," Steve says, "but you gotta go slow."
He feels parched, like he's gone weeks without drinking instead of hours. He's greedy for it. For a second, he wants to dump the water over his head and feel the cool wetness against his skin but the thought of water touching his face makes his stomach roll in panic. He's afraid and he doesn't understand why.
Steve pulls the bottle away just in time. Tony's stomach roils. He doesn't think drinking more would be a good choice. He searches for something to distract him and remembers the endearment Steve had slipped in. He smiles, shooting for suave but probably coming off more goofy than anything. "Sweetheart?" he says, hope making the word light on his tongue.
"Sorry. I shouldn't have. I just... I mean..." Steve is honest-to-God blushing and it's about the sweetest thing Tony's seen in his entire life. He can't help grinning back.
"Steve?" He slides his hand across the covers to close the distance between them. Even that minimal movement is a near-Herculean effort but he desperately needs to feel Steve's skin against his own.
"Yeah." Tony can't believe Steve's looking this bashful because of him.
"I like it." He grins wide, too happy to let his current condition temper it. He knows he'll have to deal with Howard soon, but that's for future Tony. Right now, he's going to bask in the knowledge that Steve likes him. Honestly likes him.
Impossibly, Steve's blush deepens. He looks like a bashful cherry. Tony finds it incredibly endearing.
"Okay," Steve says. "We can talk about it later. Now's not really the time and you're young and-"
He really needs to cut off Steve's rambling before he works himself up. "Steve?" He lets Steve's stammering peter off before imparting knowledge that Steve's obviously forgotten. "I'm eighteen."
Surprise washes over Steve's face. He really hadn't remembered. Tony doesn't blame him. They both were obviously preoccupied. There'd been the assassination attempt, and then Howard and the sudden trip with Obie. He hadn't wanted to mention his birthday in the midst of all that. He's going to celebrate with Rhodey when he sees him. Was Rhodey here? That doesn't seem right.
Steve rubs his thumb over the back of Tony's hand. "I'm sorry we didn't get to celebrate."
"Make it up to me later." He wants to throw some kind of double entendre in there but he doesn't think he's going to be up for much of anything intimate for a while. He can barely breathe, so anything strenuous is out for a while. There's nothing sexy about invalids.
He squeezes Steve's hand. His brain is fuzzy. "I dreamed Rhodey was here." He misses Rhodey. It's been so long... or has it? He was supposed to meet up with Rhodey after the Jericho demonstration. Did that happen already? He can't remember.
He's saved from spiraling into panic over missing time by Steve saying, "He is." Tony's eyes go wide in a mix of surprise and excitement. "It was his turn-" Steve cuts off with another blush. The tips of his ears turn pink. Tony tugs on Steve's hand when it seems like he's not going to continue. "We're taking turns sleeping."
Laughing hurts. Movement makes his chest feel like it's on fire. He presses a hand against his sternum, though that doesn't help. He can feel a mass of bandages underneath his thin hospital gown. He's not sure if he wants to see what's beneath the bandages. It can't be anything good, judging by how awful he feels.
"What happened?" Steve pales. His eyes get this wild, panicked look to them, so Tony hastily elaborates. "While I was gone." He's pretty sure he went to Afghanistan with Obie like he'd planned. "I remember the-"
Afghanistan. The Jericho missile demonstration. Rhodey had been there and he'd teased Tony about... about something and it'd made him mad. When they were leaving, he'd jumped into a different Humvee, closer to the front of the caravan, and made Rhodey ride in the back. The soldiers in his vehicle hadn't been much older than him. They'd taken a photo for Tony's Instagram and he'd tagged them in it. It'd just finished posting when....
Gunfire. Explosions. Dead eyes and blood everywhere. Scorching sand. A missile.
In a blink, he's back there, in that cave that he wants so much to forget. He never wants to see it again but it's there right in front of him like he's stepped out of the hospital into the desert. He can hear voices shouting in a dozen different languages. He can only pick out bits of what they're saying. He used to consider himself exceptionally talented with languages but he doesn't know most of these. Hungarian and Ukrainian and Arabic. He picks out Russian and French words. None of them mean anything good.
It's too hot in the day and freezing at night. They don't give him anything to keep warm. Yinsen builds a fire when they can and makes Tony wear his coat. Says Tony needs it more because he's injured. The shrapnel. Yinsen had cut out what he could but there was still damage to his heart and lungs. He blacked out when he got too stressed, which was almost every hour.
They'd beat him until he passed out. Hit him. Throw rocks. Burn him. None of that compared to the water. Seeing the bucket was enough to make him scream and that was before they forced his head in. He was going to drown. They were going to push too far and kill him. He wanted them too. At least then it'd be over and he wouldn't have to make them weapons.
"Tony?" He flinches away from the hands that touch his face but they are persistent. The touch is gentle, so unlike what he was expecting. He doesn't want to hurt anymore. He can't take anymore. "Come on, Tony, darling, sweetheart. Come on, breathe for me."
Sweetheart. He was just.... There'd been something.... Sweetheart. Who'd called him... Steve. Steve called him sweetheart.
He blinks and he's back in the hospital, staring into Steve's concerned face.
"Hey." Steve brushes his thumbs over Tony's cheeks. The gentle touch makes something shift loose inside of Tony. "Hey, you're safe. I'm here."
Safe. He wants to believe that. He wants desperately to finally be safe—from Howard, from the terrorists, from whoever tried to kill him. He wants to believe it but he can't. He knows safety is a dream that he'll never have. Steve pulls Tony into a loose embrace and he gives in to his tears. He sobs against Steve's chest. He's so scared that he'll be hurt again. He knows it's inevitable. He knows it will never stop but he's so, so tired of fighting.
He can't do it anymore. Not on his own. He can't.
There's a commotion outside the door. Tony stiffens, expecting to hear Howard's harsh voice but it's a woman.
"This is official Stark Industries business. It can't wait any longer."
His curiosity wins. He tugs Steve's sleeve to get his attention and nods toward the door. Steve studies him for a moment, as if judging his fitness for company. After a few seconds, Steve raises his voice. "Let her in."
Steve pulls away. Tony hates the woman in that moment, for making Steve let go. Steve returns to his chair as the door opens. A slender woman with red hair pulled into a severe ponytail marches in. "Good afternoon, Mr. Stark, Mr. Rogers. I'm Virginia Potts." Her heels click against the tile. She crosses the room and holds out her hand. Tony can't make himself let go of Steve to shake Potts's hand. He doesn't think he can bear to have anyone else touch him right now.
She takes Tony's hesitance in stride and pulls her hand back. "I'm from Stark Industries' legal department. I'll be your assistant until such time as you choose a replacement." Tony doesn't understand. He's never needed an assistant before. Is this some ploy by Howard to spy on him? "I need your impression." She holds a tablet out toward him.
"I like you," he says, words flowing out his mouth unbidden. "You're sharp." She has a no-nonsense attitude that's refreshing.
She hides a smile and steps forward, bringing the tablet closer. "I need your fingerprint. For the transfer of ownership."
Tony stares. Those words do not compute. He's pretty sure he's hallucinating again. "I'm sorry, what?"
"Mr. Stark and Mr. Stane's criminal status forfeits their share of Stark Industry holdings. Mr. Stark's shares fall to you, leaving you with the controlling interest in the company." She says all of that like it's a fact of nature. He knows they'd talked about seeing what SHIELD could do to protect him from Howard but he doesn't understand what Obie has to do with any of that.
He turns to Steve, expecting to find matching confusion but Steve's calm. None of this is a surprise to him. "What!?"
How long had he been missing? What the hell happened?
Steve looks apologetic. "I haven't had a chance to fill him in," he tells Potts.
Potts steamrolls right over his confusion. She thrusts the tablet into his hands. He's too surprised to freak out about being handed something. Maybe it's her no-nonsense nature that does it. He feels like she'd be up-front about any attempt to kill him, rather than using something in the tablet to do it. "The legal ownership of the company has been in flux for weeks. I need your approval now."
He obeys out of reflex. It simply doesn't occur to him to disagree. She flips through documents and points and he presses his thumb when she tells him. She takes the tablet back when they're done.
"Thank you, Mr. Stark. When would be a good time to discuss your transition into the CEO position?"
What? What!? He turns to Steve as panic restricts his breath. "I can't be the CEO. I just turned eighteen."
Steve puts himself in front of Tony, gives him something to focus on while Steve negotiates dates with Potts. Steve gets Potts to agree to come back tomorrow which feels way too soon for Tony to be dealing with any of this but it's not like he's being given a choice.
Potts turns to leave and the craziest thought comes to Tony. "Can I call you Pepper?"
She arches a delicate eyebrow but smiles. "Why don't we stick with 'Ms. Potts' for now? Will that be all, Mr. Stark?"
"Yes, that will be all, Ms. Potts." As soon as she's out the door, Tony collapses back against the pillows. His head is swimming. Panic looms, ready to strike. "What the hell just happened?"
Steve frowns at the curse word but Tony's injuries give him a pass. He smooths the blankets over Tony and tucks them around his sides. "You should get some rest."
Tony's protest is cut off as a doctor walks in, followed by a pair of nurses. They start talking to him, asking him how he feels and what day he thinks it is. There are hands on him. Steve moves out of the way to let the nurses get close. Tony's breath hitches. It's too much. His brain is reeling from what Potts had said and the implications of what she hadn't said. He doesn't understand what's going on.
His heart monitor sounds a shrill warning. Tony doesn't try to fight it. He's glad when unconsciousness pulls him under. He can't deal with anything else today.
* * * * *
When he wakes a second time, the room is dark. Someone is speaking, soft and soothing, but the words cut off before Tony can process them. He blinks at the ceiling.
"Hey," Rhodey says. He closes the book he'd been reading out loud—the third Harry Potter—and sets it aside.
Tony turns his head and smiles. He twitches his hand toward Rhodey, who takes the hint and wraps both of his hands around Tony's. "Hey," Tony says back.
"You gave us a bit of a scare there, Tonnes. You should have stayed with me."
"Sorry." His voice is hoarse from sleep. He coughs, then regrets it as his chest reminds him of his injuries.
"Not your fault."
He's not up to debating that right now. He should have listened to Rhodey. "Steve?"
"Sleeping in one of the empty rooms. He didn't want to but he needed it. Your boy charmed the nurses into letting us crash here outside visitor's hours. He'll be back in a bit. It's impossible to keep him away."
Tony smiles. "You just want me all to yourself," he teases.
"Guilty as charged." Rhodey leans back in his chair. He takes one hand back but leaves the other holding on to Tony.
He doesn't want to ask, but he knows he needs to. Better to get it over with before he's mobbed again. "What happened?"
Rhodey quirks an eyebrow. He sits forward, balancing his elbow on the side of the bed. "Do you remember the weapons demonstration?"
He nods. He'd been so excited. It'd gone so well.
"We were attacked on the way back to base. They were targeting you. I thought-" Rhodey shakes his head and looks away. "I thought you were dead. When the explosions started... I thought there was no way. But when we... we couldn't find... so we knew you'd been taken."
Tony squeezes Rhodey's hand. "'m tough to kill. Like a cockroach."
Rhodey barks a short laugh. "Something like that." His grin is tempered by unshed tears. "I'm really, really glad you're not dead."
He tries a smile on for size. It mostly fits. Enough that he can pretend. "Me too."
"You've made some cool friends since we last talked."
Tony's smile softens. He melts a little inside as he thinks of Steve. "Yeah. Steve's great." He tugs Rhodey's hand until Rhodey leans closer. Tony drops his voice to a whisper. "I think I'm in love."
Rhodey drops a quick kiss on Tony's forehead. "Good. You deserve it. He seems pretty gone on you too."
"Really?" His smile must be absolutely ridiculous.
"Yeah. Yeah, I think so." Rhodey sighs and shakes his head fondly. "I can't believe my best friend is dating Captain America."
Tony blinks. "Huh?"
"What do you mean 'huh?'"
Tony frowns. "Steve isn't Captain America."
Rhodey stares at him with wide eyes and then takes his hand back so he can cover his face and groan. "Oh, fuck, he didn't tell you. You don't know." Rhodey looks at the ceiling like it holds the answers to life and the universe. "Only you, Tonnes."
"What?" He's so confused.
Rhodey takes his hand again and stares at Tony, suddenly serious. "Tony, Steve Rogers is Captain America. After you were kidnapped, SHIELD sent the Howling Commandos to find you. Way I hear, they volunteered. You didn't see... Man, Steve was frantic. He was going out of his mind while you were gone."
Tony's heart is so full of emotion, he feels like he's going to burst. "He... Steve is...." He blushes and groans. God, he's such an idiot. "I can't believe he let me fanboy. The first time we met I showed him my shrine. God, Rhodey, he saw the whole stupid thing and I just kept talking about how I'd made their equipment like it was something cool and the whole time he was there and he just..." He cuts himself off with another groan.
"At least you didn't do that in front of Bucky or Dum Dum?"
Tony is going to die from embarrassment. Absolutely die. "Don't fucking tell me...."
Rhodey laughs at him. Traitor. "You don't know about them either? Did you tell Bucky about the cool arm you designed for the Winter Soldier?"
He groans and sinks against the mattress. He totally had. He'd been drunk at the time but he vaguely remembers geeking over Bucky's prosthesis and telling him about the one he'd built for the Winter Soldier. And he'd practically begged Dum Dum for stories about the Commandos.
"I'm never going to be able to face them. You have to hide me, Rhodey. Ship me off to Peru so I can change my name and live in horribly embarrassed exile."
"Nope." Rhodey says the word with enthusiasm. "I'd much rather watch you squirm."
Tony groans again. He hams it up to get Rhodey laughing.
It's so easy to fall into the familiar comradery he shared with Rhodey. It was like they were back in the MIT dorms again. It'd honestly been the best time of Tony's life. He could forget about Howard and Stark Industries for a while and just be Tony. He could be a kid.
"I'm guessing they didn't fill you in on the other stuff as well?"
Tony lets out an explosive sigh. His chest hurts from his antics but he doesn't want to call a nurse. "There was a woman from SI earlier. I... I'm CEO, Rhodey. Who thought that was a good idea?"
"It is a good idea," Rhodey says. He's always had more faith in Tony than Tony had in himself. "You'll do great." He shrugs. "They also don't have many other options."
"What happened...?" He almost doesn't want to know.
Rhodey leans back in his chair and narrows his eyes. "Why didn't you tell me, Tony? I would have helped you."
Tony tries to pull his hand away but Rhodey won't let him. He finds a corner of the room to stare at. "He'd hurt you. I didn’t... I don't want anyone else to get killed because of me."
"It wouldn't have come to that," Rhodey says. Tony doesn't correct him. He remembers the long night waiting for his mom too well. "They arrested him. Howard. He went to jail and everything. Not for long, though. Bastard. He got out on bail and then some cronies spirited him away. No one knows where he went."
Tony shudders. Not knowing where Howard is terrifies him. He can only imagine what kind of revenge Howard must be planning.
"Hey." Rhodey squeezes his shoulder. "You're safe. You've got Captain America, the Howling Commandos, and all of SHIELD watching out for you." Rhodey grins. "And you've got me. I managed to swing a bit of leave. No one's getting past us."
He licks his lips. The heart monitor is beeping a little faster but Rhodey doesn't comment. He needs a shiny new change of topic. "What happened to Obie?"
Rhodey's face darkens. He hasn't seen Rhodey that angry in a long time. "Stane was behind it all." Tony opens his mouth to ask what Rhodey's talking about but Rhodey beats him to it. "That sniper, the terrorists. He paid them, Tony. That viper was smiling and pretending to be your friend while plotting to have you killed."
He pulls his hand out of Rhodey's grip to clutch his chest. It hurts to breathe. It hurts so much. He's not sure if the sob that breaks out of him is because of the pain or the sharp despair knowing that his only remaining parental figure secretly despised him. He squeezes his eyes shut to hold back tears. It doesn't work.
Rhodey climbs into bed with him and pulls Tony against him. His chest burns from the change in position but he doesn't care. He needs this. He needs Rhodey's arms around him while he sobs into Rhodey's shoulder.
"W-Why?" Tony forces out what feels like an eternity later. "What's wrong with me, Rhodey? Why does everyone hate me?"
"Hey." Rhodey rubs circles on his back. The wounds there are so heavily bandaged that Tony barely feels the touch. "It's not everyone. Just those two pricks. You know I love you and my family's crazy about you. I had to talk mom out of driving up while you were unconscious. She sent five care packages. Five. And it's pretty obvious Steve's over the moon. You've actually had a bunch of visitors while you were out. Just you wait, you're going to be smothered in love."
Tony doesn't point out that it's different. That he knows there's something wrong with him to make his father—one of the two people who were supposed to love him unconditionally—hate him. Obie had filled that void for him but it was the same in the end.
"Where is he? Where's Obie?"
Rhodey's arms tighten. "We don't know that either. He disappeared after the weapons demonstration in Afghanistan. Someone must have tipped him off that SHIELD was looking for him. Coward."
Tony presses his face against Rhodey's chest. He's scared. Howard and Obie are two of the most powerful people he knows. If they want him dead, then it's only a matter of time. The only question is how many people they're going to hurt to get to Tony.
He can't let anyone else die because of him.