The world is pitch black and just on the comfortable side of cold. The only sense he has a grip on as he comes to is touch. He can feel the duvet piled at his feet where he kicked it away in the middle of the night. As he comes to a bit more, he can smell the telltale scent of Eggos being burnt, which means that Natasha is making herself breakfast. The smell wafts up from the kitchen a floor below and through the crack under his door, and now his stomach is grumbling. Damn supersoldier senses. He claps and the blackout curtains retract to let in a near blinding light, meaning it’s already afternoon.
Yeah, that’s another part of the twenty-first century that Steve will never get used to. He never even slept in past eight AM before the ice.
He remembers the events of last night all at once, and it makes his cheeks blush cherry red. That’s another thing he’ll probably never adjust to. Men like him and - apparently - Tony were never quite so bold in the 40s. Not that Steve had any of those men - or anything else at all - on his mind while Tony was in his room last night.
He whips his gaze to the side and frowns when he finds that the left side of his bed is empty. He and Tony made love last night, and though the memory is slightly hazed by the Asgardian mead he consumed, he knows he didn’t imagine it. So why isn’t Tony here now?
Well, things have certainly changed a lot since Steve lost his virginity to Sylvie Lawrence in 1936. Tony is so cavalier about sex, so it’s possible that he just wants something casual. And, God, last night was so good, but Steve can’t do casual when he’s been in love with Tony since the day they met. He hopes it wasn’t just a drunken one night stand.
Steve rolls over with a groan and pushes himself out of bed. He doesn’t even bother to put on a shirt. He’s too hungover, and his stomach is growling angrily. The smell of Natasha’s burnt toaster waffles isn’t particularly appetizing, but maybe he can make some eggs and bring them to Tony in his workshop. Maybe last night was nothing romantic, but Steve Rogers is nothing if not a gentleman. Besides, Tony always seems happy when he has someone to eat with him down in the garage.
“Morning, Nat,” he greets when he walks into the kitchen. “Morning, Sam.”
“It’s two PM, Rogers,” Natasha teases. “Some soldier you are.”
As he’s digging through the cabinets for a skillet, Bucky enters the kitchen behind him.
“Jesus H. Christ, Natalia. I thought I smelled your cooking,” Bucky grumbles. Steve straightens up in time to see Bucky plant a kiss on her cheek. She doesn’t even flinch defensively, which is a wonder in and of itself. “What the hell are ya tryin’ to do, doll?”
“If burning an eggo in the toaster is what you call cooking…” Sam grumbles, then takes another sip of his coffee.
“I think she’s trying to burn the tower down to get revenge on Stark for force-feeding her too many shots last night.” Clint slides into one of the barstools and lies his head in his folded arms. “I know I’m considering it.”
Steve chuckles as he sets the skillet down on a burner. He turns it on medium and pulls out the eighteen-carton of eggs from the fridge. He cracks all of the eggs into the large skillet one-by one and stirs them around until they’re scrambled and fluffy. While they cook, he pulls out a large bowl. He dumps the finished eggs into the bowl and leaves his teammates in the kitchen. He takes the private elevator to the workshop and knocks on the door. Tony has said that he doesn’t need to knock, but he still does.
“Steve,” Tony says curtly. He’s absorbed in his work, his full head of messy black hair bowed over his workbench, but there’s the most minute twitch of his neck when he hears Steve knock. It’s as though he’s trying to restrain himself from acting too excited to see the Captain.
“Morning, Tony. I brought you breakfast.”
“It’s almost two PM.”
“I brought you eggs,” Steve amends. ‘I thought you might want to eat something?”
Something about the situation makes him feel nervous, like that first time he met Peggy and she told him he didn’t know a damn thing about women. It’s ridiculous. It’s not like he’s here to propose to Tony. He just wants to feel things out - decide if Tony might want to try something more than sex.
“Thanks,” he says, and this time he does look up from his workbench, beaming with a genuine grin.
“I, uh… I had fun last night.”
“You know, most people don’t discuss their drunken one-night stands the morning after.” Tony’s grin falters, and when he regains control over his face, the smile has turned into the kind manufactured for the press. He drops his head and goes back to tinkering. When he swipes the sweat off of his forehead with the back of his hand, he smears motor oil across his face.
Steve doesn’t know what to say, so he just stands there awkwardly. Tony doesn’t even look up.
“Okay, then.” Steve clears his throat uncomfortably.
“Okay, then.” He thinks he catches the tiniest flinch in Tony’s voice, and he frowns.
“Did you get enough sleep last night?” Steve asks, and he’s answered with a shrug. He really shouldn’t be using that soldering iron if he didn’t sleep, he thinks.
“I wasn’t tired,” Tony says, even though he knows Steve can clearly see the exhausted circles under his eyes.
“Have you been here all night?” Steve rephrases his question.
“It’s really not any of your business, Steve.” He sets down the soldering iron and leans against the workbench with his head hung forward. It strikes Steve that it’s out-of-character for Tony to be so short and unfriendly. He may be a stranger in this century, but being subtly asked to leave hasn’t changed much since the 1940s.
“Get some sleep, Tony,” he says through gritted teeth. He sets the bowl of eggs on the workbench with just a bit too much force. “We might need you on a mission later.”
Tony practically balks as Steve storms out of the workshop. And he thinks I didn’t get enough sleep, he thinks. He looks at the bowl left on his workbench and almost laughs.
“He’s being petty, right, FRIDAY? I’m not imagining that?”
“In my opinion, the Captain is being a bit of a drama queen, Boss,” she says. He frowns at the bowl and shakes his head.
“A full carton of eggs,” he mutters incredulously. “Is he trying to tell me something?”
“I believe that Captain Rogers was planning on sharing the eggs with you.”
“Yeah, right,” Tony scoffs. “He thinks I’m not prepared for missions. DUM-E, put that fire extinguisher down or I swear to God, I’m donating you to a city college.”
A deep frown settles on Steve’s face as he takes the elevator back up to his room to grab his sketchbook. It doesn’t waver the whole time as he packs art supplies in his messenger bag or the whole time as he makes his way back down to the team garage where his bike is parked.
He tears out of the garage at almost sixty miles an hour, and his frown settles even deeper. I should never have slept with Tony knowing how I felt about him, he thinks. The love of my goddamn life and the only satisfaction I’m ever going to get is a drunken one night stand.
He parks on the east side of Central Park and sets his sights on a nice tree with a lot of shade, but before he can even dismount his bike, he’s hunching over the handlebars and coughing violently into his palm. When the coughing fit ends, he looks down at his hand, and his breathing practically stops altogether. His palm is covered in red.
His ma is coughing again, and there’s blood staining the handkerchief all over. The sounds of women’s violent coughs fills the room. Steve sits beside Ma in a guest chair, adjusting the mask on his face, and rubs her back soothingly. Ever since Pop went and joined the 107, this has been his job. He visits Ma every day in the hospital and stays as long as the doctors let him. When she dies, he tries to keep a straight face. He’s been going home to an empty apartment for months anyway.
Steve can’t even think at first as he stares at his hand. Panic blurs the red in his palm together, and he thinks, for a painfully long moment, that it’s blood. Oh, Christ, he thinks as his heart slows. How is that even possible? He didn’t even think people got tuberculosis anymore, and he’s not supposed to be able to get anything , period.
Then he does a double take.
Are those flowers? he thinks.
He cranes his neck to look above him, but there’s no clear answer as to from where the flowers could have come. He looks back at his hand, and he recognizes the flowers now. He read about oleander at the botanical garden last month, and he’s certain that it doesn’t grow this far north. It could have come from nowhere but his throat, which feels raw and sore from his coughing fit. His tongue feels like it’s coated with a fine film, and he doesn’t even know what to think.
Steve is starting to feel a bit woozy, maybe from pure confusion. He knows, though, that oleander is poisonous. He’s immune to most poison, but he doesn’t want to see the day that he relies on that immunity only to find out that he’s wrong, so he starts his bike again and tears off to the nearest hospital.
“Stevie, where are you?” Bucky’s voice sounds panicked over the phone. “What did you get yourself into? JARVIS just told me someone tweeted that they saw you going into the ER at Mount Sinai!”
“They must not’ve mentioned that I was walking in all by myself and not being carried on a stretcher. I’m fine, Buck. Just a precaution.”
“A precaution?! What the hell?!”
“I just accidentally swallowed some poisonous flowers. I wanted to make sure everything was okay, but you know how the serum works. The doctors just left to do some tests, but I’m sure it’s fine.”
“How do you accidentally swallow flowers?” Bucky asks incredulously, and then Steve hears shuffling in the background. “I’m coming down there. Don’t move.”
“Don’t make a big deal out of nothing. Please.” Steve rolls his eyes, and Bucky sighs.
“Fine. I’ll wait here, but if you’re not back in an hour, I’m coming.”
“Deal. See ya soon.”
Bucky, true to his word, doesn’t come to the hospital. It turns out, though, that he’s not the only one JARVIS thought to notify of Steve’s alleged hospitalization. Tony, unlike Bucky, doesn’t have the foresight to call ahead and let Steve know he’s coming. Instead, he barges right into room 201 approximately five minutes later.
“Steve! Are you okay?” he worries. “What the hell? Is this revenge for me snapping at you?” Much like his mother or Bucky used to do when he was small, Tony walks right up to Steve and grabs his chin, tilting it from side to side to examine for any bumps or bruising. “You look pale. What happened?”
“Tony, really,” Steve says, leaning away from the touch with a roll of his eyes. If it takes him a bit longer than it should to do so… Well, that’s between him and God. “Stop. I’m alright.”
Steve doesn’t get a chance to explain what happened before a doctor is coming into the room dressed in a lab coat. She’s got on one blue latex glove, and she’s pulling on a second one. She looks at Steve, and then Tony, and then back at Steve. Her eyebrows raise slightly, and the latex of the second glove snaps into place against her wrist.
“Hello,” she says. “I’m Melissa Snow. I’m a toxicologist here. I’m assuming you’re Steve Rogers?” Steve nods, and she smiles kindly at him. “Mr. Stark, may Steve and I have the room?”
Tony looks at Steve, and Steve nods. He sighs and looks at the doctor, and then back at Steve.
“You know, I could’ve just checked you out back at the tower,” Tony says. It really is cute how worried he is, Steve thinks, but it’s also rude. Steve glares at him, but there’s no real anger behind it.
“You’re not that kind of doctor. I’m fine. Just go, okay?”
“I’ll be right outside.” Tony turns and leaves the room. Doctor Snow watches him go, and doesn’t speak again until the door closes.
“Alright, Steve, I just want to clarify a few things about your medical history and what happened today. Is that alright?”
“Sure,” Steve says, sitting up straight on the bed.
“Okay, so you said you swallowed the flowers by mistake?” she asks. He nods. “And how did that happen?”
“I had a pretty bad coughing fit, and when it ended, there were a bunch of them in my hand. I don’t know how that could’ve happened, but I think maybe my teammates played a prank on me while I was asleep last night. I guess I don’t know for sure if I swallowed any, but I figured I must have if they came out of my mouth.” By the end of the story, her face has become somber. Steve’s own face pinches, confused, and he frowns. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
“How long have you been… unfrozen?” she asks instead of answering his question. “I’m sorry. I can’t really think of a more polite way to phrase it.”
“Um? About three months. Why does that matter?”
“You were on ice for a long time, Steve,” she says cautiously, like she’s getting ready to break some terrible news to him.
“Yes, ma’am, I was. What does that have to do with anything?” He doesn’t mean to sound rude, but her condescending tone is making him impatient.
“I’m assuming you haven’t heard of Hanahaki disease?” Steve sits up straighter and frowns. That certainly doesn’t sound like a good thing. He shakes his head. “It emerged in the late 1990s in Southern California, and we don’t know much about its origins. We do know, however, that it’s brought on by unrequited love, and it causes flowers to grow in the sufferers lungs until they eventually lose the ability to breathe.” Steve is silent, and he does feel like he can’t breathe. “Steve, do you understand what I’m saying?”
Steve can hear a heart monitor beeping in the next room, like the one he’s seen Tony hooked up to after a few of the Avengers’ worse battles. Will he have to use one soon? The room is so silent that he can hear birds chirping outside.
“Is that what I have?” he finally says, and his voice squeaks.
“Yes, I believe so. We could do an MRI to be sure. I would like you to consider having surgery to remove the infection.”
“There’s a surgery?”
“Yes, and I would highly advise it, but it is your choice. The surgery is highly invasive, and the risk involved is incredibly high. You could die during the procedure, but if it works, you will live a long and happy life, and you will have little to no risk of ever experiencing the symptoms again. All feelings you have toward the person who caused this will be gone. I would -”
“ All feelings?” Steve cuts her off, frowning.
“Yes. There have been cases were people have remained friends with the objects of their affection after the surgery, but it’s uncommon. Your relationship would most likely be changed significantly or ended altogether,” she says, and Steve pales. “Of course, you can take some time to think about it. A lot of people decide not to go through with it, but they usually don’t live longer than a month or two. Maybe discuss it with someone you trust and weigh the pros and cons. If you’d like, we could schedule an MRI so that we can determine your prognosis if you decide not to have the surgery.”
“Yes, let’s do that. I’ll have to think about it for a few days, if that’s alright,” he says, trying his best to keep his voice level.
“Of course, that’s fine. Radiology will most likely be ready for you in about half an hour. Do you need anything while you wait?"
“Can you tell my friend to come back in?” Steve’s voice trembles now. He doesn’t know how he’s going to talk to Tony without being painfully obvious, but he’s going to have to do it at some point, so it might as well be now.
“Sure thing. I’ll come and get you when it’s time.”
The doctor leaves the room, and it’s less than a minute before Tony comes back into the room. Steve plasters on his fakest smile. He hopes it’s convincing. He doesn’t think he’s ever been any good at lying.
“What did she say?” Tony asks. “Are you gonna tell me what happened?”
“I just ate some weird food at that cafe off 96th this morning. I felt really dizzy afterwards, so I was worried it might be poisoned. I just came here to make sure everything was alright,” he says as smoothly as he can. “Really, Tony, it’s not a big deal. The doctor wants to keep me for some quick tests, but you really don’t have to stay. I’ll be back home in an hour, two tops.”
Tony frowns, like he knows something is off. Like he knows Steve is lying. He stares him down for a moment, then sighs.
“Okay. I know when I’m not wanted,” he teases, but there’s still a hint of worry in his voice. “Please call me when you find out anything, okay?”
“Of course.” Steve is honestly taken aback by the sincerity. Tony is usually so cavalier about just about everything, and he’s definitely sure he doesn’t look bad enough to warrant this kind of reaction. “I promise I’m fine, okay? I’ll meet you at home."
Tony nods and sways forward, like he wants to hug Steve. He seems to catch himself, and his face falls flat again - all earlier signs of concern gone. He doesn’t say anything else before he turns on his heel and leaves.
After the MRI, Dr. Snow tells Steve that he has two months left to live, and she sends him home with an informational packet on the surgery. She tells him that she really thinks he should consider it, but he throws the packet away before he even reaches the door. He has already decided that he’s going to let himself die for Tony.
Things go back to normal, for the most part, after his trip to the hospital. Steve assures Bucky and Tony both that he’s fine, and he thinks that he might be a better liar than he gave himself credit for, because they don’t ask him about it again for a week afterwards. His coughing fits have started to pick up, and the trash can in his apartment is filled to the brim with oleander blossoms, but he manages to keep it to himself.
Well… He manages to keep it between himself and Natasha, because only Sharon Carter has ever been able to keep a secret from Natasha. She finds out a week after he does, while they’re sparring in the gym. He swings a right hook at her just a second too slow, and she catches him right in the ribs with her foot. He hunches over immediately, coughing violently and spreading his secret all over the boxing ring. She takes a step back, and he shuts his eyes tight. He doesn’t move, and she doesn’t move.
Finally, the silence becomes too much. He could turn tail and run, but then Natasha might tell Bucky. He knows he needs to face this, so he stands up and looks her right in the eye. He missed her with his fist, but she looks like she’s just been punched in the gut.
“Steve,” she says, and her voice is calm and collected as always, even if her words betray panic, “please tell me this isn’t…”
“I haven’t told anyone,” he blurts, and she nods slowly.
“Who is it?” Steve doesn’t answer. “Is it Sharon?”
So maybe Sharon isn’t the only one who can keep a secret from Black Widow. Maybe, in his desperate efforts to hide his affection from Tony, Steve had managed to hide it from everyone. Does she think he’s straight? She must. He thinks for a moment that maybe it would hurt less if he just told her it was Sharon. He knows that she’ll take a secret to her grave, but he feels like he’s exposed his soul enough for one day.
He also knows that he’s good at keeping secrets, but he’s not good at telling lies. If he confirms what she’s asking, she’ll hear it in his voice. She’ll know he’s not being honest. Everyone has heard what Captain America sounds like when he’s being honest.
“No,” he says shortly, and he struggles to maintain eye contact. His eyes dart back down to the mat - to his shame laid bare for the world to see - and he doesn’t say anything else.
“So who is it?”
“You don’t keep secrets from Bucky,” Steve whispers, and he feels so, so ashamed. “I don’t want him to know.”
“Is it Bucky ?” she asks incredulously, and he almost laughs.
“No, it’s not Bucky ,” he says humorlessly.
“Okay, you don’t have to tell me, but you can if you want to.” They’re silent for a moment, and then Natasha speaks again. “You know he would never forgive me if I kept this from him. You’re dying, Steve. How long have you known?”
“About a week.”
“When you went to the hospital…?” He nods, and she sighs, sinking down to sit on the mat. He thinks he sees the glimmer of tears in her eyes. “You’re not going to have the surgery, are you?” He shakes his head, and she bows hers. “Jesus Christ.”
Her voice is muffled. It’s the most upset he’s ever heard her sound, and it’s his fault. I’m Captain fucking America, he thinks angrily. Where’s my goddamn sense of duty now? He thinks that maybe letting his friends suffer so he doesn’t have to live a life without Tony is incredibly selfish.
“I’m sorry, Nat,” Steve says, and he sits down across from her with his knees folded to his chest.
“No,” Natasha says. “I understand." And she really does look like she understands, he thinks. "It’s Tony, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” Steve answers, frowning at the floor. “Will you please just let me tell Bucky myself?”
“How long do you have?”
“Then I’ll give you a week. Tell him, or I’m going to.”
“I will,” Steve says, and he stands up to flee.
“You should tell Tony, too, you know.”
“I’m not going to tell Tony,” Steve says. “But thank you.”
Steve must have been so caught up in his conversation that he didn’t hear the door open. When he turns to leave, Tony himself is standing right there, leaning against the doorframe.
“Goddammit,” he mutters, and he ducks his head to slyly wipe away the stray tears in his eyes.
“Not going to tell Tony what?” Tony asks, smirking. “Something you gotta say, Cap?”
“It’s nothing, Tony. It’s a personal matter.” It’s kind of true, at least. Tony's face seems to fall.
“Yes, I’m sure. Now, if you’ll excuse me.” Steve pushes past Tony, and that certainly isn’t subtle, but he can’t bring himself to care.
Steve waited almost the full week Natasha promised him to finally talk to Bucky, but now there are two people in the world that know how much of a joke Steve’s life is. Not to mention, there are two people now who have, for almost a month, been begging him to get the fucking surgery. They may understand why he doesn’t want to, but that doesn’t mean they’re not going to bargain with everything they have. To be fair, the fact that he is going to die in just a few weeks hasn’t really sunk in yet, even if he has to stay in bed some days because he’s coughing up so many flowers.
He hasn’t seen Tony since that day in the gym. Something in the back of his head nags that maybe he wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place if it weren’t for his own terrible communication skills, but it’s not like Tony is any better at communicating. Steve is pretty sure he’s been sleeping in the lab. Our fight wasn’t even that bad, he thinks.
Steve starts to think that maybe there’s something else going on when Tony does emerge one day, and he looks downright miserable, his fists clenched tensely at his sides. He thinks that this cannot possibly be a result of their barely-an-argument. Tony looks pale and tired and so sad.
“Tony,” Steve says, sneaking up behind him in the kitchen. Tony seems to flinch with his whole body, and Steve puts one hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you. Are you okay? You look sick.”
Tony turns around and narrows his eyes at Steve.
“You know, Cap, you’re not lookin’ too hot yourself,” he spits, and it sounds like there’s way more going on behind that statement than meets the eye. “I’m fine. Just a cold.”
“Is it just a cold?” Steve argues, glaring at Tony. “You’ve been avoiding me. How long has it been since you went outside? What the hell is going on?”
“I could ask you the same thing. Where have you been the past few days, huh? You’ve been disappearing a lot these past few weeks,” Tony accuses. Steve doesn’t answer, and he looks down at the ground. He’s been in bed the past few days, coughing up oleander and blood. It’s a wonder he hasn’t lost his voice. In fact, Tony’s voice sounds a lot worse than his own. He looks so anxious, with his hands balled up tight at his sides. “You've been in bed all the time, Steve. Do you the Hanahaki?”
Steve stands stock still for a few moments, and then he deflates.
"How did you know?"
"It doesn't matter how I know. I don't know if you remember, but I'm a genius. When were you planning on telling me?"
“I didn’t want you to worry,” Steve says softly. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you, but there’s nothing you can do. I just didn’t want you hurting, or trying to talk me into the surgery. I’ve gotten plenty of that from Bucky and Natasha, and I’m not going to do it.”
“Who is it?”
Steve is almost surprised. He expected more than the one quiet question. He’s silent for a few long moments, and then he almost lies. He waits a few more moments before he decides that there’s been enough dishonesty between them to last a lifetime. He’s going to die soon anyway. His eyes fill with tears against his will, and he wipes them away frantically. When he looks back up at Tony, he’s got tears in his eyes as well.
“It’s you,” he whispers.
Tony’s reaction seems to be on time delay. He’s completely still for almost thirty seconds, and then he takes a step back like he’s been shot. His eyes widen and the tears actually fall down his cheeks. Steve thinks that maybe it was a mistake to tell him. He’s going to feel guilty, because he’s Tony Stark, and what if he never gets over that guilt?
But then Tony’s eyes light up, and his lips turn up in a wide smile. Before Steve can even think, he’s being tackled in a hug. He frowns in confusion, and then Tony takes a step back and opens his fists to reveal hands full of yellow and red marigolds, fully blossomed.
“It’s you for me, too,” he says, and Steve just stares. Then, he bursts into uncontrollable laughter.
“Jesus, that’s fucking morbid,” he mutters, and now Tony is laughing, too. All of a sudden, laughing and even breathing feels so much easier, and they collapse into one another again. Their lips meet, and Steve thinks that he’s never breathed so well in his life.