A whole bouquet worth of flowers ends up on their bed the night of the wedding, the colours almost sombre.
“Well,” Steve says and stops unbuttoning his shirt, “I guess we married for nothing.”
He leaves the room, careful not to touch any of the petals, not looking back when Tony’s breathing becomes laboured.
There is nothing he could do anyway. Love cannot be forced, not even for a dying man.
Tony is a special case. Once he is old enough to realize that, it does not even surprise him anymore. Starks are always held to a different standard.
His mother takes him to a doctor when he develops breathing problems at just five years old. The inhaler does not help but being away from Howard does.
He is eight the first time he coughs up a flower. It is the day he finally begins believing his father when he says that someone as brilliant as Captain America could never love someone as pathetic as Tony.
Tony knows what is happening, but he is not yet cynical enough to laugh about it. Instead, he locks himself into his room and cries, cradling the perfect blue forget-me-not.
People have always been saying he is special. He just did not think that would mean he would die from unrequited love for a dead man.
Tony turns ten and physicians call him a miracle. He turns twelve and fifteen and eighteen, and people call him an abomination.
His lungs do not get progressively worse. Some days he can barely breathe, choking up flowers of every colour. Some days his throat barely scratches.
Once he moves out of the mansion, Tony almost feels like a normal boy, not meant to wither before he has managed to grow roots. It is the little things that throw him back; nightmares or anniversaries or articles about World War II. Sometimes the American flag is enough to steal the air from his lungs.
He does not make sense. His chest is growing ever tighter, but he fights it. He gives up just as often but this disease has never been about what he wants.
Tony has always been Death’s favoured child. It is life that does not seem to know what to do with him.
The day they find Captain America in the ice, the air has never tasted sweeter. Tony feels like soaring, only marginally worrying about the crash. His heart beats strongly, pushing enough oxygen through his veins that he has the energy to smile, to hope.
The next morning, he reads an article in the newspaper, showing a picture of Howard and the Captain shaking hands. Howard is staring directly at the camera. His smile is happy enough, but his eyes seem to look at Tony alone, holding the familiar disdain.
This is not for you, he seems to say, and while Tony’s brain fights that thought, his lungs feel already on the verge of collapsing.
If only Tony could have gotten there before Howard. If only he could have managed to make his own first impression. Howard likes to say that Tony ruins everything he touches. This time, it seems, he will not even be allowed to touch.
Well, he is equally good at ruining himself. And it would be a shame for all that practice to go to waste.
“That is one hell of a favour, Howard.”
Tony does not mean to eavesdrop, but Captain America is in their house, and the physical need to catch a glimpse or at least to hear his voice is overwhelming. He has been wheezing all evening, unable to get enough air into his lungs. He is so used to the lack of oxygen that it is the easiest thing in the world to hold his breath as he lingers outside his father’s office.
“I know, and I wouldn’t ask if –” That is Howard. Tony would know his voice anywhere, if not this tone. It holds the usual annoyance it does when it comes to discussing Tony, but it is also so much gentler than Tony has ever heard it.
“He’s your son, I know.” Captain America sighs. Nothing good has ever come of people reminding Howard that he is related to Tony.
“It’s more of a hero worship thing anyway,” Howard scoffs, as if it is nothing. “This has been going on forever. But it’s getting worse lately.”
Captain America hums, and Tony wishes he could see his face, just to know how bad the contempt is. “Since you found me.”
Tony thinks of finding out that Captain America has been found alongside the rest of the public, although his father must have known. He thinks of all the mornings spent wheezing and clawing at his chest, and that he cannot get to the second floor of the mansion without taking a break halfway up.
It is getting worse, indeed. Even now, he feels his insides congealing and spreading roots locking his diaphragm in place.
“He is the reason I never stopped looking,” Howard says, revealing the only reason he suffered Tony’s antics at all. “It meant you couldn’t be dead, yes?”
A long moment of silence follows, in which Tony wants nothing more than to sneak forward and catch a glance. He does not know exactly what favour Howard is asking for, but it cannot be good, it never is when it involves Tony.
“I’ll talk to him tomorrow,” Captain America finally says but sounds like a man sent to his execution.
It is funny, how Tony’s lungs react to that as if someone has reached out to strangle him. All his sneaking around will not save him if he gets into a coughing fit right now, so Tony turns around to hurry back to his room, both satisfied to have at least heard the man he somehow loves, but utterly dejected that everything is already in ruins.
“Don’t force anything,” Howard says right before Tony is out of earshot. “He’s an entitled brat, he’ll have to get over it.”
He has tried so very hard. That has only ever made everything worse.
Steve does come to see him the next day, his face hard and his shoulders tense. It is obvious he is only here as a favour for Howard, and as much as Tony is thrilled to actually meet Captain America, he does not like pity. He might be dying, but he is not a charity case.
It is no surprise then that he ruins his own chances, whatever little there had been.
The first thing he tells Steve is, “My, those World War II posters did not exaggerate your shoulders-to-waist ratio.”
That just speeds up their never coming together.
Death is what they make their money with. They put weapons into people’s hands and they complain about the way the earth gets stained red. There is always a bigger stick to be had, though, and they have a knack for building that.
Tony is not afraid of dying. Death has always been a part of his life. He is afraid of dying alone, although that is what he has always known. Mostly, he is afraid of waiting for it.
It has been almost a decade since he has couched up his first petal, and he has long since given up on collecting them. He could have filled his room ten times over with that collection of tangible grief.
He has once laid out Captain America’s shield, life-sized and blood-specked. At the sight of it, he could not help but laugh. Long enough and hard enough that he could almost convince himself he was choking on laughter instead of love.
Half a year into their ill-advised marriage, Howard does Tony the favour of getting himself killed. There is some poetic justice to the fact that Tony outlives him after all, despite having been declared all but dead by Howard the moment he was diagnosed.
This way, he can stand next to his father’s grave and enjoy the way the air flows freely into his lungs. Tony has not contributed a single petal to the dozens of bouquets brought in Howard’s honour.
Less satisfying is the actual grief on Steve’s face, who is at the very front of the men volunteering to carry Howard’s body to its last resting place. That red-eyed expression holds more love than Steve ever showed for Tony. He can only imagine how different his own funeral will be.
It does not matter. He has outrun fate for so long already, he does not mind it coming ever closer anymore. For now, life has become so much sweeter.
“You really are heartless,” Steve hisses to him later, when the guests are gone and Tony is ready to fall into bed for the rewarding sleep of the fatherless.
“If I didn’t have a heart, I’d have so many less problems,” Tony replies lightly, looking his husband up and down to make it clear what he means. “So I’m all for getting rid of it.”
For a moment, Steve looks ready to help him with that. And he could. Those hands would be able to pry Tony’s ribcage open. He is already turning the inside of his chest into a wasteland. It is all just taking too long.
“You disgust me,” Steve says, facing him square-shouldered and unmoveable.
“I know.” That has been obvious from the very beginning.
With a shrug, Tony turns away. He has more important things to do. He now has one father-shaped problem less. At the same time, however, he gains a new one: the Winter Soldier.
He is sure that is going to blow up in his face.
“I found your friend,” Tony blurts out one night.
He is on his way down to the workshop and has not seen Steve in over a week. Tony makes it easy to avoid each other, which is in both their interest.
“What?” Steve grunts, not happy with being stopped in the hallway. Living together is only bearable when they pretend there is no one else in the house. “Who?”
Immediately, Tony curses himself. This is not something he actually wants to get into with Steve. It is not exactly his secret to keep, but things are easier when they do not talk.
“Barnes?” he asks more than tells. “Well, he’s calling himself the Asset these days. You know, the guy who tried to kill you?”
Steve is on him without warning, cutting off Tony’s babbling with an angry arm against Tony’s throat. “What did you do?”
Tony barely even flinches. This is the closes he has been to Steve since the wedding ceremony. He hates himself for it, but it feels good, like coming home, even with Steve’s anger pushing all the air out of his lungs.
“Careful with the throat, husband,” Tony says. Sometimes it seems like sarcasm is the only weapon he has left against the world, and even that is quickly fading, since his voice is giving out. “Didn’t anyone tell you I have breathing problems even without you threatening to beat me up?”
“I’m not in the mood for jokes,” Steve snarls, coming even closer.
“Funny, neither am I.” Black spots appear in Tony’s vision, but he has fought past that before. He goes limp in Steve’s hold, signals defeat, because he is going to end up being beaten down anyway. If not by Steve, then by his own body betraying him. “Barnes is in a secure facility. He was wounded. And I’m vetting psychiatrists to help him.”
This is obviously not what Steve expected him to say. In his surprise, he backs up a bit, enough to release the pressure on Tony’s windpipe. Breathing does not get any easier.
“Why would you do that?” Steve asks, staring down at Tony as if he is the reason for everything bad in his life.
Tony smirks. He knows that look and latches onto it with all he has. It is better than that wounded expression in Steve’s eyes, that fragile hope that has never been for Tony. Never will be either.
“Because, in my all-encompassing love for you,” he shows his teeth, mocking himself, “I can’t stand the thought of you withering away once I’m dead, so I thought I’d give you your best friend back.”
That is enough to destroy whatever goodwill Steve might have momentarily had for Tony, for he leans down, hand hovering threateningly over Tony’s throat again.
“If you’ve harmed a single hair on his head –”
Tony has heard so many variants of what comes after the pregnant pause that he chokes out a laugh. He is unbelievably glad when no petals come up with it.
“My, you don’t sound grateful,” Tony says with fake cheer. His voice is too high to pretend that he is not half-suffocating.
“Where is he?” Steve asks, his breath warm on Tony’s skin. It flows so freely, making Tony stare in wonder.
“I’ll send you the coordinates,” he promises quietly. As much as Tony yearns for Steve’s presence, being this close to him is unbearable. “Pack something warm, honey.”
In the early days after being diagnosed, Tony was interested in the science of all this. How can he be dying from something inevitable? A dead man cannot love him back. It does not make sense.
He should be dead ten times over by now. Unwanted, unloved, never good enough.
He wants to be dead, too. Dead people do not need to breathe. He has practiced that for most of his life already.
For a ghost, Barnes looks good. He has long washed off any visible traces of having been in HYDRA’s care. His hair is cut, his clothes are neat, his arm is repaired. The terror still sits deep in his eyes, but time will deal with that.
“Who’re you?” Barnes asks when Tony strolls into the room.
He sounds curious more than defensive, and Tony revels in the anonymity.
“Tony,” he says shortly, waiting for recognition that never comes. Perhaps Steve has not told his best friend about his pathetic excuse of a husband. “I helped working on BARF.”
That is the simplest explanation he can give without saying that he pulled Barnes away from HYDRA and then stayed up day and night to create something that could deal with both their nightmares, imagined and real.
“So you’re here to collect some data?” Barnes shifts uncomfortably but makes no move to stop Tony when he sits down on the couch, a good few feet away.
“No.” Tony shrugs. The data he needs is not something he can measure. It has more to do with how much Steve loves this man, enough to be almost civil to Tony, even though he can usually not stand to even look at him. “I can see that it worked. I wanted to ask if you need anything.”
Barnes’ face darkens. Somehow, Tony has managed to upset him within moments of meeting him. That truly is a specialty of his.
“People are asking me that all day.”
Tony shrugs, pretending that it does not become hard to breathe already. “Must be because you look so lost all the time.” He knows a bit about that, but he is not here to bond with Barnes, even if that were possible. Steve would never forgive him.
“Do you –”
Three things happen simultaneously. Barnes’ face grows soft and guarded at the same time. Tony’s windpipe fills up with dread and flowers. Then steps grow loud and Steve comes into view, his expression pinched and ready to start shouting.
“What are you doing here?” Steve asks, sidling up to Barnes, ready to jump in front of him.
What do they think? That Tony would go to all this trouble only to harm Barnes right in front of Steve? People say he is petty, but all Tony has ever been trying to do is to survive. Hurting others on purpose has never helped with that.
“Hello to you too, darling,” Tony greets with burning sweetness. “I was just having a chat with our guest.”
He leans back in his seat, making it look like insolence instead of a means to hide his trembling muscles. Steve’s hate is always making him so weak.
“How about you stay away from him?” Steve snarls. Tony would not be surprised if Steve reached out to throw him bodily out of the room.
Ironically, it is Barnes who saves him. He reaches up to lay his hand on Steve’s arm. That touch works like a miracle. “Steve, what is going on?”
When they look at each other, Tony barely recognizes Steve. He has never seen his face so open, vulnerable, loving. If he would look at Tony like that even one time, Tony is sure he would be cured. At the very least, he would die a happy man.
“Stark has a habit of ruining everything he touches,” Steve explains in a dismissive tone, reducing Tony to nothing more than his failures – not that there is much more to show anyway.
Barnes frowns and glances at Tony briefly. “I heard he found me and brought me back.”
That sounds close enough to someone standing up for Tony that he misses his chance to speak up.
“And I’m still trying to find out why,” Steve says, ruining whatever first impression Tony might have made with Barnes.
Tony’s anger is a living thing, much like the grief growing in his lungs. He does not attempt to hold it back when it roars.
“Is that how you won the war?” Tony asks, voice cutting. “By suspecting everyone is the enemy and simply punching anything that moved?” Sometimes all the derision he has for himself can be channelled against whoever is in his way. It does not help making him feel better, but he does not need any more scars either.
Getting to his feet in as smooth a motion as he manages with how weak his legs are, Tony adds, “I don’t mean Barnes any harm. Otherwise I would have hardly gone to all this effort.”
It is simple logic, but Steve is naturally immune to that. “You’re desperate,” he spits out, almost causing Tony to laugh.
Desperation is for those who still have hopes to be stripped away from them.
“Why? Because I’m dying?” Tony questions gently. He is not quite sure how he remains steady on his feet while being numb all over. “I’ve known that for over two decades. I’m just waiting for my lungs to hurry up and give out.” Oh, how long he has waited.
Turning, Tony fixes his eyes on the door. He will leave. He does not know where he will go, but it does not matter. There is no such thing as a right place to die in.
“Who are you?” Barnes’ voice stops him just before he can escape the scene.
“Tony Stark. Sorry for omitting the last name.” Just about everyone would be happier if he had a different one. If he were a different person or simply no one at all.
Barnes clears his throat, clearly aware of the minefield he is navigating. “I mean, who are you to each other?”
Steve opens his mouth, but Tony cannot bear to listen to him.
“Captain Spangles and I? Nothing,” he hurries to say. “We’re married, but Howard did that most likely so Steve could inherit.” Tony straightens. He has always met his fate with his head unbowed. “Smile. Once I’m gone the two of you will be dizzyingly rich.”
Sooner rather than later now. Then again, Tony has been hoping so for years.
Once he is in the privacy of his own room, Tony coughs up enough flowers to drown himself in them. He buries his face in them, smells their sweetness, and wishes he could disappear.
For all that they can go weeks without seeing each other, Steve on a warpath always finds Tony. There is no hiding from Steve’s temper. It is almost as if they are connected after all, pulled together but only when emotions are running high.
Tony has his own alarm system, though, and for once he does not mean JARVIS. A whole minute before the door to his study is thrown open, Tony’s throat constricts and he knows he will not get any more work done this evening.
The knee-jerk reaction of Tony’s body to Steve’s presence is immediate and terrifying. As soon as Steve fills out the doorway, Tony’s spine straightens and he leans forward, as if one inch less of physical distance will actually bring them closer together. Tony’s head might be yelling at him to call it quits, to leave and try to save of himself what he can, but his life has not actually been dictated by his head for a very long time.
Even with fury filling his eyes, Steve looks glorious. Lately, Tony has been looking more again, because Steve’s qualities are only enhanced with Barnes there to balance them out. The more often he shows himself, the more time he spends coughing up his lungs piece by piece. He used to be better at secluding himself, but something about Steve and Barnes together makes it impossible to stay away.
“What are you even still doing here?” Steve spats after glaring at Tony for long seconds.
Tony wonders what prompted this – and, a bitter voice in his head adds, whether Steve means what he is still doing here in the house or why he is still alive. Tony only has an answer to one of these questions.
“This is still my home, darling. I’m not yet dead,” Tony answers. He would be proud of how calm his voice is, if it were not due to the sudden dryness of his mouth, courtesy of the mounting pressure inside his chest.
Steve takes a step forward but then thinks better of it, as if Tony is contagious, and remains hovering in front of the only exit of the room. “You have other houses.”
Tony’s lips pull up into something that wants to be a smirk, but he is too exhausted for it. “And I like the view from this one.”
He likes the view inside it much more, but he does not say that. The fastest way to stop his lungs from cooperating at all, is to make Steve even angrier at him. Funny, how that works.
“We don’t want you here,” Steve argues stubbornly, as if want has ever made anything right. Tony is the walking definition of want gone awry.
“First off, you should stop talking for Barnes as if he doesn’t have a voice of his own. HYDRA did that long enough,” Tony says, although defending Barnes should not be at the top of his priorities. He knows what it is like to not be able to make decisions for himself. “And second, you agreed to living with me in the marriage contract you made with Howard. That means here, in one house. Deal with it.”
Right in front of him, Steve becomes livid. His hands curl into fists that Tony imagines he can already feel sinking into his flesh. It might be nice to feel some pain that does not generate from the disease growing inside his chest, to blame his misery on something not of his own making for once.
“Stay away from Bucky,” Steve orders, the words coming out flat and threatening.
“Perhaps you should tell your buddy to stay away from me,” Tony says, somehow managing to make his tone mocking, despite being almost out of air. “I’m hardly in running shape.”
“I mean it,” Steve says darkly, taking that step forward now as if he needs to loom over Tony to prove his superiority. “Leave us alone.”
Tony smiles, feels the skin stretching over his bones. “Patience is a virtue, Captain, and it’s not going to be that much longer.”
Without missing a beat, Steve says, “You’ve been promising that for a while now.”
Tony cannot help but flinch. As much as he has been waiting for release for years now, it hits much harder to hear the man he somehow loves wish him dead. “Get out.”
“You have to –”
The pressure inside Tony’s chest becomes unbearable, but he does not want to break down in front of Steve, does not want to cough out the proof of his unmet desire for Steve to see. Eyes watering, he bites down on his lip hard enough to draw blood. The taste is familiar enough to ground him a bit.
“Get. Out,” he snarls. Maybe it is the ferocity in his choked voice or the blood staining his lips, but Steve turns around and leaves.
He does not have the courtesy to close the door behind him, allowing everyone passing by a perfect view of Tony dissolving into a wheezing bundle of pain.
Death should definitely hurry up, Tony decides as he lies on the floor of his study, a sea of petals around him, because this life is not one he cares to have anymore.
Barnes has been sitting in Tony’s workshop for hours now. Allowing him in might not be the best idea Tony ever had – his ears are already ringing from simply imagining Steve’s shouting about it – but there was no way he could turn Barnes away when he came down here, shoulders slumped and exhaustion radiating off him in waves.
Tony can immerse himself in his work easily enough to ignore someone else’s presence, but that it is Barnes of all people is just as unnerving as the fact that his throat is already scratching with the threat of coughing, even though Steve is nowhere in sight.
“You built my arm, yes?” Barnes asks after what could have been hours of simply watching in wonder – or judgement. Tony is not sure which.
Tony nods and wipes sweat from his forehead, using the motion to rub at his sternum, willing the building pressure away. “Your old one was shit.”
“That’s not –” A frown flickers over Barnes’ face. “Why?”
This is a loaded question, and Tony is not getting into that with Barnes. “Building is about the only thing I’m good at. So why wouldn’t I?” he asks flippantly, hoping to deflect.
The frown is back, harder now. “You don’t like me.”
“Wrong,” Tony says but allows himself a small smile. “I don’t know you enough to like or dislike you. Steve loves you, though. He usually has a good instinct where it comes to people.”
With some serious exceptions, of course. Howard is not a good person, no matter who says it. He might have been once, but something turned him into a mess. Perhaps that is Tony’s fault too. He is so good at that.
“And yet he doesn’t seem to like you,” Barnes says, sounding contemplative.
“Your point being?” Tony asks, turning away to hide the irritation on his face. He does not need to be reminded of that. “Anyway, does Steve know you’re here?”
To Tony’s utter surprise, Barnes’ answer is prompt and firm. “No.” It almost sounds like he is running from something too.
When Tony looks at his expression, though, it does not betray anything.
“Don’t mind me denying all responsibility for your coming here,” he says slowly, hoping to not offend. “I might be tired of living, but I don’t want to go out being crushed by a supersoldier.”
Instead of reacting with a smile or simply more of that blank expression, Barnes looks unhappy, staring at Tony like he wants to decipher him but does not know where to start.
“You love him.”
Laughter bursts over Tony’s lips, scratching as much on the way up as the flowers do that he coughs up so regularly.
“I guess so,” Tony says, mouth stretching into a dead man’s grin. “I mean, otherwise that whole suffocating from unrequited love thing would be even more ironic.”
Barnes does not say anything to that, although he looks like he wants to. Then he lowers his head and stares at the metal fingers curled in his lap.
“Do you mind if I stay for a bit?” he asks an eternity later, sounding small.
Tony knows all about sanctuaries, about safe places to hide away in. He cannot begin to explain why Barnes would choose this, meaning he has to put up with Tony’s presence, but he would not deny it to him. “Knock yourself out.”
For the entirety of the time that Barnes spends down in the workshop with him after that, Tony does not have trouble breathing even once.
Tony finds them making out in his living room. He does not need to see Steve’s face to recognize the shape of his back, and Bucky’s arm stands out darkly against Steve’s bare skin.
The thing is, Tony thinks first about hygiene and the poor staff that might be stumbling over the sight, before he realizes his husband is cheating on him right in front of his eyes. It is not unsurprising, nor does it hurt him worse than a thousand other things Steve has done ever since they married. The shock slams into him with unforeseen strength, though. Where he has just been breathing, his lungs are now filled with the scratching stuffiness of a sea of flowers.
The practical part of Tony’s brain finds the reaction a little exaggerated but the rest of him is rendered helpless, unable to turn his stare away from the two men moving in perfect synchrony. They compliment each other so well, it belies all of Tony’s little fantasies about being a good counterpart to Steve.
The scene before him makes him obsolete. Neither of them needs him. Nobody does in the whole wide world. Anthony Edward Stark, heir to the greatest weapons manufacturing company in the world, genius in his own right – and nobody will even notice once he is gone.
“Wanna join?” Bucky’s voice washes like dark velvet over Tony’s skin. His gaze is on Tony with a relaxed leisure of a predator already satiated.
Tony is not a danger to them. Still, when Steve looks up, there is a hunger in his eyes that has Tony shivering. If only Steve would look at him like that once. He does not, though. But his scowl does not look very intimidating in his current state, naked and utterly at home.
“Don’t tempt him,” he says, his sneer just a necessity instead of something actually felt. “Stark doesn’t have any shame.”
And Tony has not. He would give one of his limbs, perhaps all of them, if he could slip between these two men and have them hold him like they mean it.
“As far as I remember, you don’t have either,” Bucky purrs, speaking to Steve but never taking his eyes off Tony. “I’m sure you have enough energy for both of us.”
“The though alone works better than a cold shower.”
It is banter between lovers. For once, Tony is sure Steve does not aim to hurt. It still does, of course, but Tony is used to that. What is new is the longing shooting through him, not only at the thought of Steve, but at watching Bucky sprawl out right next to him.
“I’ll leave you to it,” he says hastily and turns around to run.
In his back he hears the rumbling voice of Steve and Bucky’s resounding laughter. It stays with him for days.
The first time Bucky kisses Tony, it knocks the air out of his lungs in an entirely pleasant way. Breathlessness has always been tinged with fear or panic before. Now, however, it tastes distinctly of hope – not to be cured, Tony is not as naïve as that, but perhaps to die not completely unloved.
“What was that?” Tony asks when they separate, trying not to sound ungrateful but needing to know.
Steve bursts in, showing that Tony might not be the only one with a talent for bad timing. He stops short in the doorway, looking suspiciously at how close Tony and Bucky are standing.
“What is going on?” he asks,
This time, Bucky does not hesitate to answer. “Nothing.”
It is not nothing that Tony coughs up that night.
The first time Steve kisses Tony, they are being watched.
“This is just an experiment,” Steve growls, looking like he would prefer being anywhere but here.
His lips are hard and unforgiving when he presses them on Tony’s, but Tony melts into the touch nonetheless. They have not even kissed at the wedding, since Steve was too busy getting out of there as soon as the priest had stopped talking.
Tony feels something move inside his chest, and while he is used to all kinds of pains and pressures, he cannot be sure what it means.
“And?” Bucky asks when they part.
Steve’s expression says more than words. He wipes his mouth and hastily takes a step back. “Nothing.”
This has become the ultimate answer between the three of them. Still, Bucky does not react how Tony would have expected, does not turn away and take Steve with him, considering this particular matter dealt with. Instead, he looks at Tony, waiting for an answer from him.
“I don’t –” Tony starts, stumbling over the words because he cannot get his mind to stop racing. “It doesn’t react to touch alone.”
It is easier to hold onto scientific facts than to make sense of feelings. Although Tony has always been an anomaly
“I told you so,” Steve says shortly and finally turns to go. Bucky lingers as if to make sure that Tony will be all right, but leaves when Tony shakes his head.
Then they are gone and Tony allows himself to try to take a deep breath. The air catches the way he is used to but – no buts. Everything is the same. Thinking anything else would be foolish, just because he does not lie on the ground, coughing his lungs up at this newest development. That will come again soon enough.
Sometimes, Steve scares Tony just by being able to sneak up on him. It is not normally a problem, considering they do their best to stay out of each other’s way, but it also makes it impossible for Tony to know when Steve is coming for him.
(Sometimes, Steve does not have to do anything to scare Tony. His mere existence is enough to strike an unearthly fear in his heart.)
This time, Tony does hear Steve’s steps coming closer. He does not know that it is Steve at first, but he would recognize Bucky’s, and barely anyone else comes here. Still, it is a surprise to see Steve appearing at the door to the workshop, raising his hand to knock.
All of that has Tony immediately on edge.
Still, he lets Steve in. He is not in the habit of making things unnecessarily harder on himself, and rejecting the man he is dying for would certainly fall into that category.
“Let him in, J,” he orders quietly, making sure to keep a workbench between himself and the door. That is nothing more than an illusion of safety, considering that even without his lungs being as they are, he could never outrun Captain America.
Steve step into the workshop but stays within a hasty stride from the door. Neither of them expects this to go well then.
“Bucky told me I should apologize to you,” Steve then says, the usual derision absent from his tone.
Bucky then. Tony should have known that much. For the past weeks, Bucky has assigned himself as the peacekeeper of the house, taking on the thankless job of trying to get Tony and Steve to get along. Sending Steve here like they are in elementary school and a forced handshake would make them friends again is just sad.
“What for?” Tony asks warily, still ready for the blows that are surely to follow.
“You –” Steve pauses and looks away. Tony envies him for the deep breath he takes. “You have done a lot for us.”
A humourless smiles spreads on Tony’s lips. He and his condition have make everyone he comes in contact with miserable.
“If you mean building that arm for Buc- Barnes, he has already thanked me for it,” Tony says, biting his tongue at his near blunder. Bucky is already too friendly to him when they meet. If Steve finds out, thing will only get worse. “Even though he didn’t need to.”
“It’s not just that,” Steve replies quickly. He looks uncomfortable of all things. “You – we didn’t get off on a good start, and you still let me move in with you, even if I didn’t even speak to you.” That was a clause in their marriage contract to make Tony’s death a little more comfortable, not that it really works out this way. “You made this Bucky’s home too. You’re a better person than –” He shrugs helpless.
Better than what? Than Howard said? Or the gossip rags? Better than Steve feared? Better than the horrible disaster of a human being everyone thinks him to be?
“Don’t,” Tony cuts him off almost gently. “You’ll think differently again soon enough. Let’s just keep things how they are.”
He does not think he could take it if they tried to turn this into something better and failed. Tony likes to know where he is at, and he can deal better with Steve’s hate than this uncertainty, ready to backfire on them any moment now.
When Tony turns back to his word, breathing as shallowly as possible to not get a coughing fit right here, Steve uses his opportunity to flee. It is bad that the walls are transparent. This way, Tony sees that Steve does not look back at him.
“Captain Rogers is asking whether you have time to come up for lunch,” JARVIS asks, interrupting Tony’s work.
Putting the soldering iron down, Tony frowns at the nearest camera. “Did someone break into the server room and munch at your cables?” he asks, wiping some sweat from his forehead. He does not take the request serious for a single minute.
“Not at all,” JARVIS replies lightly. With a hint of scolding in his tone, he adds, “I heard that human bodies need regular nutrition, although that might be a foreign concept for you. That is why I relayed the request.”
Tony loves how nuanced JARVIS is getting, how he uses sarcasm and trickery. Sometimes he feels more like a human being than Tony manages to be on his good days.
“You got the names confused,” he cautions, wondering whether the latest update might have done more damage than good. “You meant Sergeant Barnes.”
“No, sir,” JARVIS says without hesitation, causing Tony’s frown to grow. “Captain Rogers asked for your presence.”
“Sergeant Barnes,” Tony repeats stubbornly because, frankly, nothing else makes sense. “Bucky. Dark hair, metal arm. You should have seen him around down here. Do I have to do maintenance on your sensors?”
“Captain Rogers,” JARVIS answers, endlessly patient but also slightly amused. “Tall, blond and, to quote you, unbearably muscular, I’m positive.”
Tony stares. “That makes no sense,” he mutters as he waits for his racing thoughts to form into something useful, something to explain this sudden turn of events.
“Perhaps you should go upstairs and find out for yourself.”
JARVIS sounds so sure, but there is no way that Steve, who hates him, would ever invite him for lunch, not even if Bucky pushed him to do so. Steve has registered all of Bucky’s small kindnesses over the past weeks with growing discomfort.
“You wouldn’t prank me, right?” Tony asks his AI.
Entirely unhelpful, JARVIS answers, “Your well-being is my highest priority.”
Because Tony made it so. Sometimes he feels guilty for it. He created a thinking and arguably feeling person, body or not, and then commanded him to care for Tony. He would not trade JARVIS’ company for anything, but it sometimes makes him wonder whether Steve’s assessment of him might just be right.
“That could also mean you want me to smile more, which would make a prank more than possible,” Tony says dryly, not hinting at his thoughts. His kid deserves better than to be pulled into his doubts.
“Only one way to find out,” JARVIS replies cheekily.
There are more, of course. Tony could watch the camera feed from the kitchen or turn on the intercom. He even has some miniature drones lying around he could send out to spy for him. He does not.
Instead, he saves his progress and puts his tools away safely, and takes a leap of faith.
The way to the kitchen is both too long and too short. Several times, Tony has to force himself not to turn around, and yet he has not nearly prepared himself enough for whatever he might find when he is already standing in front of the door. Gathering the last bits of his confidence, he goes in.
They are sitting at the table, lunch in front of them, but they have not yet started eating. There really is a third plate, and neither of them look surprised at his sudden arrival. Still, the atmosphere is tense and not exactly welcoming.
Tony does not dare to step farther into the room. He sees everything he needs to just fine from the doorway.
“There you are,” Bucky greets him as if they have lunch together all the time.
Tony only glances at him before his eyes fall on Steve and refuse to leave him again Everything stands and falls with Steve’s reaction He already feels a slight scratchiness in his throat.
“JARVIS said you –” want is the wrong word and it does not pass over Tony’s lips, “requested my presence.”
“He told us you haven’t had lunch yet,” Steve says cautiously, “so I thought we might eat together.”
It feels stilted and formal and wrong, the way they face each other and take so much care with what they say. Tony does not move closer to the table – at least he is not running away either, although he still cannot make sense of the situation.
“Just sit down, Tony,” Bucky sighs exaggeratedly, as if Tony is the one who has suddenly turned mad. “It’s just lunch, not rocket science.”
Building a functioning rocket from scratch would still be a better prospect than sitting down to eat with his husband.
“It’s Italian,” Steve adds quietly, “Howard told me your mother was from Italy.”
Irrational anger rises in Tony at the mentions of his mother. Steve has already taken his father from him, he cannot lay claim to Maria too. Still, there is something earnest to Steve’s expression, something that has, up until now, usually been tinged with disdain but is now uncertain. Tony chances a look at Bucky and receives a small nod – which should not be reassuring, considering that Bucky is Steve’s friend not his, but gets Tony moving to the table nonetheless.
He sits and the proximity to the other man is overwhelming. All other times they have been in a room together have ended in yelling and more heartbreak. Now, they keep their heads down and their hands occupied. It is horrible, and yet the most peaceful they have ever been together.
“So,” Bucky draws out the word and waits until they are both turning towards him. “What are you working on in the moment, Tony?” he then asks, too cheerful, earning himself two incredulous looks from Steve and Tony.
Even stranger, Steve glances at Tony afterwards, almost conspiratorial, as if it is them against the sudden insanity of his best friend. The moment passes quickly, but Steve’s face still contains a trace of curiosity.
“I –” Tony clears his throat, but for once, it is not a flower making his voice hoarse, just nerves. “I’m thinking about making a phone. A mobile one.”
Nobody says anything for a long moment. They look, though, but Tony does not feel entirely uncomfortable under their gaze.
“As a weapon?” Bucky asks. He is still the spokesperson, but his incredulous expression matches Steve’s.
Howard’s entire legacy is death. Even Tony himself has never been free of it, from the world outside and within. He does not want that to be his legacy too.
“No,” he says firmly, not letting his own doubt show. “As a phone. For everyone.”
Uncertain silence falls over them, but after just a moment, a smile spreads on Bucky’s lips that has to be real, considering the way his eyes grow warm.
“And how’s that going?”
All throughout lunch, they carry on a conversation and never get stuck on complaints or accusations. If not for the ever present heaviness inside Tony’s chest, it could have been a normal meal between new acquaintances testing whether they could be friends.
Afterwards, Tony goes a whole day without the threat of suffocating on his own stupid love.
The first time Steve calls him Tony, the world stops turning. It feels like a punch to the gut, and yet as if he has never breathed more easily than this.
Sometimes it feels like a dream. Not because it is all nice and easy-going – on the contrary. But every time Steve looks at him, first with neutrality then a smile, every time he says Tony’s name or they make it through an entire conversation without hurting each other, Tony expects to wake up.
He has seen Steve sneer at him so often that every other expression looks foreign on his face. Tony cannot help but wait for the other shoe to drop.
Only it does not.
Bucky comes more often to the workshop and sometimes Steve comes to drag them both up to eat, explicitly including Tony. Despite his expectations, his meal is never poisoned. Conversation turn from stilted to engaged. One night, Tony finds Steve cradling a flower picked out of the trash.
Then Steve starts joining them in the workshop. Other than Bucky, he is not interested in helping. First, he simply watches them, then he draws them. Later, the room feels empty when the couch is not occupied by Steve.
They spend so much time together, go out together, laugh together. Together is a concept that Tony is experiencing for the first time in his life. He does not want to lose that again. Miraculously, they do not seem inclined to let go of him either.
This is not the story Tony has always been told would be his. It is not perfect either. He would not change it for anything in the world.
His breathing does not get easier per se, but life does.
When Bucky kisses him again, Steve is there, watching with something of a smile.
Tony reciprocates before he remembers himself and draws back as if burned. “What?”
They were sitting on the couch together, watching some movie Tony has already forgotten all about. By now, he has become used to Bucky’s wandering hands and has not thought much about being drawn in. People always liked to get handsy with him, the multi-million dollar heir dying from a mysterious disease. Despite being a wreck, everyone thinks he has always more to give.
“Tell us to stop,” Bucky says in a low voice.
Before Tony can even register his use of us, Steve is closing in from the back, melting against Tony’s body as if they have always fit together, and leans his cheek against Tony’s. He feels trapped before he realizes that this is what he has been hoping for all his life; Steve and he so close that they could almost be one.
“What are you doing?” Tony asks, panic in his tone. He expects to dissolve into a wheezing mess any moment now. His lungs are traitorously silent, though, not caring for once that he is obviously being led on.
“What I should have done from the very beginning,” Steve says.
Tony does not believe him, even though he cannot help but believe the lips touching the sensitive skin of his neck.
The knot of despair in Tony’s chest does not dissolve after this. All is not well. He feels happy, though. For the first time in almost two decades, Death does not loom over Tony’s shoulder but watches from across the room instead.
It is almost like being free.
“I love you.” Bucky is the first to say it.
They are sitting on the terrace together, watching the slow descent of the sun. They are not holding hands or prepare to go to bed. A few minutes ago, they have been talking about starting a small garden.
The scene is so full of domestic bliss that Bucky’s words hit Tony like a punch to the stomach. He closes his eyes and forces his face to be still. He will not take this moment from Steve and Bucky.
“You’d think the chattiest person alive would have something to say to that,” Steve teases, but falls silent when Tony still does not look, does not say anything. “Tony?” he asks quietly, nudging him.
Tony resists for a long moment longer before he blinks against the brightness of the sun and focuses on the two men beside him. They are looking at him, both smiling, although Bucky’s is tinged with trepidation and Steve’s with worry.
“I love you,” Bucky repeats slowly, never once looking away from Tony.
“And I love you too,” Steve adds, offering his hand for Tony to take, which he does, albeit hesitantly.
“I –” Tony clears his throat, his stomach dropping. That is when he realizes that he does not feel the scratching of a petal climbing up his windpipe. He has not coughed up a flower in weeks.
Taking a deep breath, he smells nothing sweet, only sea salt and drying stone. Smiling, he stares at his hand in Steve’s, and Bucky’s eyes on him.
“I love you too.”