Stephen's voice was barely a whisper and he hadn't even opened his eyes. Tony swallowed, hard, and looked at the restraints he was holding. The thought of putting them around Stephen's fragile wrist almost made him throw up and to have Stephen telling him to do it…
No, he couldn't do it. He put the metal cuff, inscribed with ancient runes, aside and cradled Stephen's face instead. "Look at me, baby."
It took him a moment or two but Stephen managed to do it. His beautiful eyes were swollen and bloodshot, squinting even in the dim light of the hospital room in the compound. "Please, Tony. You have to." Every word hurt and it just about killed Tony to look at Stephen struggling to speak. "We don't know what else I'm going to do otherwise."
Not much, Tony guessed, not as weak and depleted he was after his latest round of fireworks, but that didn't mean that the danger had passed. The downside of being a stupidly powerful sorcerer.
"We'll find a way to neutralize it," he promised once again, just like he had over and over again in the last few days. Ever since Stephen had become infected with a variant of Extremis that proved to be fatal for magic users by forcing their bodies to devour themselves in exchange for raw power. "FRIDAY's close, the latest test results from Wanda are looking promising and Bruce said that…"
"Tony." Stephen raised his right hand to grab Tony's and gently laid it atop the restraints lying abandoned beside him. "I almost killed you and destroyed half of the Sanctum when the latest attack hit me. No matter how close they are, I have to be kept under control until they have some kind of treatment."
What a nice euphemism for the brutal treatment that was in Stephen's future. As if something nice and gentle like an injection could cure him. God, how Tony wished for it to be so easy. Please, hold on. For the hundredth time he shoved the thought away that Stephen was too far gone to survive the eventual cure.
Stephen closed his eyes again and his already weak grip got even weaker and Tony took his hand and carefully straightened out the fingers before laying it on the bed. "I don't like this."
"Not what you told me the last time you tied me up," Stephen whispered back, a smile in his voice. "That was nice," he continued, sounding half-drunk. Which meant that the virus was building up for another violent discharge of wild magic. Fuck. In half an hour or so Stephen would convulse again and his magic would run amok and try to destroy everything around him.
Tony choked on air. "Bastard," he gave back, trying to keep the tears down. He once again took Stephen's right hand. The trembling was worse than usual; two weeks of barely any food and way to much magic use taking their toll. Tony could easily span the delicate wrist with his fingers and still had room to spare. "I'll never tie you up again after this."
No answer and that was scary. Tony closed his eyes and sent a prayer to whomever might listen.
Let's do this. He picked up the cuff and, after taking yet another deep breath, let it snap shut around Stephen's wrist.
Stephen flinched when the harsh sound echoed across the room but otherwise he didn't react except for offering his left arm.
"No. Absolutely not."
"They won't work otherwise."
"I don't want to hurt anyone. Please, just do it. They have to touch my skin. Do it."
No. No. Nonononono. He didn't even try to contain his tears when he took Stephen's left arm and carefully began to unwrap the thick bandages hiding the damage beneath from view. "Let me clean it up first," he begged and Stephen answered with a single nod.
"There's still a little bit of time left, I can feel it."
"I know." Tony, along with Stephen, had paid attention and knew how long it took from the first signs until the attack hit.
"How does it look?"
Tony forced himself to look at the ruin of Stephen's left arm. "No change," he choked out and nodded his thanks at the Cloak when it brought him the heavy first-aid kid from the bathroom.
"Don't lie to me."
"There really is no change. Promise. It can still be…"
"Don't say it. I don't want to hear it."
Tony ignored him. "It can still be saved. As soon as we have the virus under control we can take care of your arm and…" He stopped speaking to concentrate on cleaning the once again bloody mess of Stephen's arm. The spot where he'd been infected with Extremis after being wounded in battle looked like a crater and the skin around it was dying. Lines of infection where spreading out from the infection side but so far everything was contained to a relatively small area, thanks to Stephen's continued fight against the intruding virus.
Where Stephen had already resigned himself to losing at least his arm if not his life Tony wasn't ready to give up yet. He would fight until the very last second and beyond.
"I can't hold it back when the cuffs suppress my magic." Ah yes, that. Tony had hoped against hope that Stephen was too out of it to think about that. "And if you don't restrain my magic the next discharge will probably kill me anyway."
"Don't say that!" Tony protested once again.
Stephen forced his eyes open once again. "My body can't take another one of the attacks, I can feel it. If you don't put this on me I'll be dead inside the hour."
Tony carefully cleaned blood and pus away. "And if I put this on you the virus will devour your body so much faster." He put a light bandage over the wound, small enough to leave space for the damn cuffs. He let his hand linger atop the bandaged wound, as if he could take virus and pain out of it through sheer willpower alone.
Tony looked up in alarm when there was no answer.
Stephen had fallen unconscious from one second to the next. Tony automatically searched for his pulse on the scarred wrist under his fingertips before he bent down to kiss Stephen's hand. "I'm sorry," he choked out and closed the cuff.
Without Stephen awake he didn't get any feedback if it really worked or not but he could see the tension leaving Stephen's body as the truly relaxed for the first time since he'd fallen sick, thanks to not being able to access magic anymore. His breathing became more regular. Good signs - if not for the fact that the Extremis virus had now free reign over his body.
"I'm sorry it came to this. Sorry that I wasn't better, couldn't find a cure in time." He bent down and pressed a kiss against Stephen's unresponsive lips. "Don't die on me or I will follow you and haunt your ass for all eternity. This is a promise." He brushed a tiny bit of lint from Stephen's face an straightened up. "FRIDAY? Give me an update."
"One moment, boss."
Please, please, please. Without looking down he took Stephen's right hand between his, careful to keep away from the metal of the cuffs. He didn't want to know what might happen if he broke the contact between them and Stephen.
"Miss Maximoff has woken up again," FRIDAY finally announced. "Doctor Banner says that the cure is working but it still has to be modified for Stephen. It shouldn't take longer than a few hours. They're already preparing the operating theatre."
This time it was tears of relief, mixed with a healthy dose of fear for Stephen's survival chances under the knife. "Thank you," he whispered and went down on his knees, his face pressed against Stephen's arm. "Hold on, baby. They came through. Just a little bit longer."
When Stephen woke up again he found Tony at his left side, their fingers entwined, the other hand on his arm, above the entry wound.
He could still feel Extremis coursing through his veins and his magic was beyond reach. Even without the weight of the cuffs around him he'd know that it still wasn't over.
"Hey," he whispered and Tony looked up from his contemplations and smiled at him. Happy. Hopeful.
"Hey," he greeted back. "Nice of you to honor me with your presence." He squeezed Stephen's fingers gently and Stephen tried do squeeze back. He aborted it after moment when a painful spasm tore through his hand.
"What's the status?"
Another smile, tinged with fear. "Bruce will be here any moment now to put you under. Wanda's woken up again and she's weak but coherent. Vision's with her." Tony brushed a strand of stubborn hair out of his face. "It's going to be okay."
Stephen decided to say nothing to that. "My arm?" he asked instead, already knowing the answer.
Tony's grip got tighter - too tight - but Stephen didn't protest. This might very well be the last time he would ever feel it. "It'll be decided during the procedure. It depends on how well your body takes to the cure."
His depleted, weak, aging body which had endured so much before and now had to undergo heavy invasive surgery. He would go into this in a much worse condition than Wanda and without magic bolstering his system. "It's okay." He swallowed. "It's not my dominant one and the weaker one overall. I'll adapt."
He wouldn't, he knew. Despite the pain, despite their limited mobility - the thought of losing one of his hands scared him more than anything else. They were such an integral part of him and no matter what bio-technological wonder Tony would come up with for him he would never be able to get over that loss. He knew his weaknesses and this was one of the big ones.
Tony's put his fingers on his lips to silence him. "Shh. Don't be so morbid. We don't know. There's still a chance." A long pause. "And if not… we cross that bridge if necessary."
"If necessary," Stephen repeated, trying to sound not too defeated. "You will be there?"
"When I wake up."
Tony looked at him as if he was insane. "Of course! When you wake up you'll find me by your side, holding your hand. Promise." He didn't specify which hand but Stephen just knew that he would now how everything turned out the moment he opened his eyes and saw Tony on either his left or his right side.
Tony pressed a kiss against his forehead. "It's time," he whispered the moment the door opened and Banner came in. "Stay strong. Stay with me."
The whispered "Please" tacked on a little bit later followed Stephen down into unconsciousness as the sedative did its job and carried him away from the pain and the fear.
"It'll be a while before he wakes up," Helen told him gently and at her side Bruce nodded in confirmation.
Tony swallowed, not looking up from where he was busy staring at Stephen's pale face, half obscured by an oxygen-mask. There were so many cables and Stephen was hooked up to so many machines that he seriously doubted that he could keep his promise.
"How did it go?" he asked and scared himself with the hollow tone of his voice.
"Not as good as it should have but better than anticipated, considering his overall condition." Bruce let himself fall into the chair on the other side of Stephen's bed while Helen vanished with a encouraging smile and a pat on his shoulder.
"He was in a horrible state even before Extremis got him."
"I know," Tony said absently, still trying to find a way to Stephen's hand. "I've been working on that, trying to get him to eat more and sleep more but…" Finally he found his way through the sensors to the soft and cool skin beneath. "Something always came up and destroyed any progress."
"Well, that's over now," Bruce said carefully. "He's in for a long, slow recovery and he'll be in no shape for displays of the magical variety."
"Will he recover completely?"
Bruce shrugged and looked sadly at them. Tony was still busy finding a way to actually hold Stephen's hand to fulfill his promise. "Going by his stubbornness? Yes. Thanks to his friend Wong bolstering his strength during surgery he's got a rather good chance, actually."
"How's Wong?" Tony could have kicked himself for not asking sooner.
"Resting. The whole thing took a lot out of him but he mumbled something about Stephen's soul being in a good state or something. I don't even pretend to understand half of what your boyfriend and his BFF are saying."
Tony smiled at that. "You'll learn of you spend some time with them, it's inevitable." He bend forwards and whispered into Stephen's ear: "Did you hear that, my love? Wong says you're doing good. There's no greater compliment in the multiverse, right?" He rested his forehead against Stephen's, careful to not dislodge the oxygen mask. "You're going to be okay."
Bruce stood up and put a hand on his shoulder. "He won't be okay for a while. He'll be weak and disoriented when he wakes up and it'll take him some days before he can move again. We had to go really deep to clear the rest of the virus out of his system and he's going to feel that, despite the drugs we can safely give him."
Tony, with his head still resting against Stephen's, sighed. "He's used to pain," he murmured sadly. "Said more than once that they are old friends and that he doesn't know who he would be without it."
"That's a horrible way to live."
"You tell me. I've been working on that too, have a whole department of SI's medical division trying to find a way to regenerate damaged nerves."
"That'll help a lot of people."
Tony gave Stephen's hand a gentle squeeze, feeling the scars and the tremors. "I just want him to be able to pick up a cup of tea without thinking about it and without fear of burning himself." The took a deep breath. "I just want him to be healthy and happy. Everything else is just a nice bonus."
"Get some rest, Tony. He'll be out for hours yet."
"I have a promise to keep."
Bruce squeezed his shoulder again in silent support. "I'll tell the others how it went."
A moment later Tony was alone with an unconscious Stephen and way too much medical equipment to be hooked up to one single person.
"We'll get through this," he promised once again and settled down to wait for Stephen to wake up.
Stephen woke up in pain, his senses dulled by the familiar feeling of drugs coursing through his system. The threatening flashback to waking up after his accident however was averted by the sight of Tony sitting next to him, looking at him as if he was the most precious and wonderful being in the world. For a moment he was gifted with blissful ignorance but then the memories hit him and stopped his breathing for a moment.
"Shh. Relax. It's okay, baby, really." There was some feeling of pressure as Tony squeezed his hand. His left hand.
Thank you. He closed his eyes, relieved and so, so tired. He could feel magic tingling under his skin, already trying to repair the damage to his body. Tony was holding his left hand and the Cloak was spread out over him and stroked his neck soothingly.
He was safe and protected.
"Go," Tony encouraged him softly. "Go and meditate or whatever you need to do to convince yourself that the virus is out of your body and to jump-start your healing magic. Wong said you should start gently but as soon as possible. He'll be here a little bit later to help you. Right now he's still resting from keeping you alive during surgery."
Wong had…? Of course he had, stupid of him to not think about this before. He'd have to thank him as soon as possible and try to repay him and Tony with getting as well was possible as soon as possible.
"Tony," he managed to whisper. Suddenly there was a hand on the right side of his face that helped him to move his head so that he could see Tony's face better. "My arm…"
Tony smiled while his eyes shimmered with tears. "Still there. Not quite in its original state anymore, I fear, but nothing anyone will notice, except for a big scar."
Tony shook his head. "It does but we're both too wiped to argue about that right now. Go, rest and recover."
"You?" Speaking became even harder and his eyes were already closing again.
"Me? I'll stay here, hold your hand and reassure you that everything's okay when you wake up again. In the meantime I'll try to rest myself."
"Sleep in a bed, please. Don't hurt yourself." Sleeping in a chair would be hell on Tony's chest and shoulder. "Love you."
Tony laughed. "Always taking care of me, you're really something. Love you too. Don't worry about me."
Stephen forced a tiny bit of his consciousness to stay awake while the rest of himself sank into a trance to discover what happened inside his body, now that the virus was gone. He could feel Tony stroking over his ring finger over and over again and smiled internally.
He had a pretty good guess what Tony would ask of him as soon as he was halfway recovered. "Yes," he thought, not realizing that he'd spoken the word out loud, unfortunately completely missing the look of complete joy on Tony's face.
But he felt the kiss that Tony pressed against his lips and smiled for real before allowing the last of his consciousness to fade into the trance.