Thunder cracks overhead just as Steve forces the door with his shoulder, spilling into the cabin. It’s dark; the water sluices off the both of them onto the wood floor in audible splats. Tony ducks in after him, out of the storm in time for lightning to illuminate a square room with a couple pieces of furniture shoved against the walls. Tony gets a flash of a chair with only three legs lying on its side, before the darkness plunges again. The windows let in a little ambient light, and Steve sets about dragging the rotted curtains closed while Tony finds a way to secure the door. As soon as the windows are covered, Tony risks a low flicker from his left gauntlet. Considering the state of his power cells, it’s likely all he’s going to get.
The place is cobwebby and coated in dust. It smells of musty wood. There’s a staircase toward the back that Tony wouldn’t trust with the weight of a cat let alone a grown man, and somewhere upstairs, the wind whistles, likely through a busted pane. The roof is collapsing over what looks like an ancient hearth, but there’s no rain coming through yet. And there’s a couch.
The gauntlet’s readout notes seven percent power. “Come here.”
Steve does, and collapses onto the cushions with a groan. Tony drops the bag from his shoulder and swipes his sopping hair out of his eyes. They’ve been moving so much, he doesn’t even have an entire suit constructed yet, and god, does he feel naked without it, especially now. His jacket is charred, speared through in places, but thanks to Extremis, he’s whole enough. He unhooks the gauntlet—the element he never could live without—and settles beside Steve on the edge of the couch. “Here, arch.”
Steve obeys, though his face twists horribly as his torso lengthens. It’s enough for Tony to get his fingers under the body armor and peel it free of Steve’s side. The fabric is sodden and shockingly dark, a deep red. Tony goes as slowly as he can. The ragged mess of the wound comes into view. Tony grabs the pack Steve was carrying, pulls out the first aid kit, and fires up the gauntlet one last time.
“Four inches long, give or take.” He aims the light closer, angles down and wipes blood away. It’s hard to see the edges properly. Steve’s ribs flex up and back with each hitched breath. First aid kit’s not going to do it; Tony tugs the extra change of clothing out of his bag, spilling everything else across the floor, then wads up the shirt and presses it to Steve’s side. Shines his light on Steve’s face instead.
Steve grins weakly. “Well, is it give or is it take?” His skin looks waxy, far too pale, and now Tony knows it’s not from the cold rain lashing into them. Steve’s grin vanishes on a shudder, and he swallows. His eyelids dip and rise again sluggishly.
“Hey. Hey, Steve.” Tony has to cauterize this sucker before the serum can no longer keep up with it. Steve’s been running on it through miles of woods already, in the dark over uneven ground, and all the while the rain has kept it from clotting.
“Yeah—” The word cuts off and Steve’s face clenches tight, his body going rigid again. Tony waits for the spasm to pass, then helps settle him back into the couch. “Think there’s—” Steve lifts his head, trying to look down at his side. It’s a bad angle. He drags his fingers over his skin, tracking blood. “Feels like something’s in there.”
Six percent. The hell with this.
Tony taps the gauntlet to full scan mode and runs it slowly over Steve’s side while Steve holds his tunic out of the way. It takes a full minute to get a good picture. “Metal shard. It’s really in there.” What’s the best way to do this? He could use the magnet, it won’t take too much energy, but there’s nothing that will put Steve out and no time to do that anyway. At least Steve hasn’t yet begun to heal around the foreign body. With a little finagling, Tony removes the laser node from the gauntlet and sets it in his lap, then holds out his gloved hand.
Steve eyes it and looks back at Tony. The shadows are gathering beneath his eyes. He grabs hold of Tony’s gauntlet, then proceeds to crush it into a pulp as Tony digs in and drags that fucker out of Steve’s side.
The point of the knife is an inch long, and serrated. Tony tosses it away, grabs the laser piece and—three percent, that’s okay, that’s enough. “Grab hold, come on.”
“Tony,” Steve manages between gasps, “don’t use it up.”
“It’s fine, now hang onto me, let’s do this.” He waits for Steve to clamp down on his gauntlet again, grateful for vibranium and, yes, even grateful for his father for thinking it up, okay? He can feel the metal gauntlet crushing further inward as he sears Steve’s wound shut, and Steve’s body heaves, would have arched fully off the couch if not for Tony’s knee pressing his hip down, Tony’s leg slung over Steve’s waist. Finally Steve’s skin knits into one jagged burn mark, and the laser dies completely, plunging the room into blackness.
Steve slumps against the couch with a reedy huff.
“You okay?” Tony says into the darkness, repeating himself when he’s drowned out by another peal of thunder. Steve’s still heaving for breath, but the tension of before has vanished. Fuck, he hadn’t made one sound, just the briefest of whimpers when Tony had foiled his spasm. Tony knows he himself would have been screaming in half the time. “Steve?”
“Still here,” Steve wheezes. Tony grunts and feels for his face, not caring about the blood on his hands. His thumb trips over Steve’s open mouth, a rush of warm air, and then Tony has him, has Steve’s forehead tipped to his own, just for a second so that he can breathe as well.
“Saved your life,” he whispers. Steve chuckles, another rush of air that disappears under the noise of the storm.
“But now you’re out of juice,” Steve says when the thunder has died.
Tony shrugs. “Been there before.” They’ll manage. When the chips fall into the void, Steve is the world’s second most resourceful scrounger, bested only by Tony himself. Then again, Tony can’t see to make sure he did what he needed to do, and suddenly, that’s a lot more distressing than it was a second ago. He rubs his thumbs over Steve’s cheeks, then lifts off him, fumbles his way onto the couch proper and feels for Steve’s wound instead. Steve’s flesh flinches under his fingers, but the scar feels cleanly closed, if still slick.
Steve’s soaking wet, though, and infection is something the serum fights off, not something it wards against. “Gotta get you warmed up.”
Steve’s hand bumps his leg, fumbling to find purchase and ending up high on Tony’s thigh. “No fire.”
Tony curses, because of course not. Their pursuer will see. If he’s looking—and he is looking—a fire will just make this cabin an easy target, by light or by smoke. But candles they can do. Tony pats Steve reassuringly and hauls himself off the sofa, hands stretched out into the darkness. He stumbles into something large that shifts and puffs dust down his throat, setting off a coughing fit. It has no drawers that he can find, so he pushes past it toward the next derelict piece of furniture.
It takes almost a full circuit of the room, past a doorway he can’t remember seeing, before he lights upon what might be a desk or a bureau. The first drawer reveals folded cloth, napkins or the like; he grabs a small stack and tucks it under his arm. The second is a mess of metal somethings, tools, silverware, Tony’s not sure. He rummages to the very back without finding what he’s looking for, but then, the next drawer opens up in a flurry of beeswax scent.
“Candles.” Tony scrabbles for the tiny box of matches that keeps slipping away from him. He lights one. It’s small, the candle stub in his hand woefully short, but now he can see there’s more where that came from, plenty more.
Steve has worked his tunic off and is resting against the couch again as though he’s run a marathon, squinting against the new light. The cushion he’s sitting on has gained a nice red blotch, but Tony can see from here that he’s not bleeding anymore. He lights a few more candles, setting them in pools of their own wax atop the… it’s a dresser, big drawers at the bottom that probably contain—
He lets out a ‘ha!’ as the last two drawers reveal musty blankets. He chooses the three at the very bottom, protected from the worst of the grime, and shakes them out. He looks Steve over. “Strip. Take it all off.”
“Stark, you scoundrel,” Steve says blandly, but he dutifully unbuckles his belt. By the time Tony gets back to the couch, he’s got his fly undone. Tony gets rid of his boots, then slides Steve’s pants off by the bottom hems as gently as the drenched material will allow. He tosses them into the corner, then holds his hand out for Steve’s shirt and gives it the same treatment.
“Move over, that’s…” He helps Steve shuffle to the side of the couch that isn’t soaking and bloodstained. Steve groans as he settles back, this time a relieved sound that makes Tony think of sleep or sports games on a Sunday afternoon. Tony lays the blankets over Steve and around his shoulders, tucking them close. He lingers a moment longer, chafing Steve’s upper arms underneath the blanket. “Get started, warming up.”
Steve watches him silently as he strips out of his own clothing, trading it for what’s left in his bag. Once Steve’s warmed up enough, Tony’ll get him into his spare duds, but for now, he’s still damp, and he’s lost a lot of blood neither of them can spare. Finally, Tony blows out all but one candle and plants it on the floor in front of them. He checks the curtains again, then slumps down to sit at Steve’s side, careful not to jostle him as he slings the last blanket around them both.
Steve’s arm around his shoulders is a surprise; from the glaze in Steve’s eyes, Tony hadn’t thought him particularly aware of much. Steve urges Tony closer until body heat pumps between them. Tony can feel how clammy Steve’s skin still is, but at least it’s warm now. “Lean over?”
Steve leans over, a strange sort of fall that slumps him into Tony’s side. Tony resituates Steve’s arm between them and wraps his own around Steve’s torso, careful to stay away from his wound. He starts chafing again, long, deep rubs up the length of Steve’s arm. Steve sighs.
“Where do you think we are?” he asks after a minute. He sounds drowsy, but not drugged. Tony pauses to thank that remaining six percent in his power cell.
“Aren’t you supposed to be the navigator?”
“Tactician,” Steve corrects. “I memorize the maps, I don’t usually plot them.”
“Well.” Tony adjusts his hold, urging Steve down across his lap and trying for a release of all those clenched secondary muscles. “Rip off.”
Steve hums. His hand has circled Tony’s wrist loosely where it rests against his collarbone. “Get you a refund.” This time the slur is plain.
Steve’s grip tightens. “Just tired, s’okay.”
Like hell it is. Tony reverses their grip, locking his fingers over the pulse point in Steve’s wrist. Steve doesn’t comment. He doesn’t extract himself from Tony’s grasp either.
Eventually he falls asleep, his head on Tony’s thigh and his heart beating steadily under Tony’s thumb.
He checks Steve’s wound four times in the hour before Steve judders back into consciousness. His legs spasm, his grip going painful before Tony can squeeze back. “Shh, it’s just me. You’re fine.”
Steve lets out a breath. For a moment, he relaxes, eyes sliding shut again. But he’s far too awake now, Tony can see it in the lines drawing up around his mouth. “Clotted yet?” he asks, lips barely moving.
The bruise grew bigger around Steve’s brand new scar for about ten minutes. Since then, it hasn’t changed shape at all. “Think you’re good.”
Steve tenses, rolling up off of Tony’s lap, and Tony helps him the rest of the way. Still, Steve gets no farther than sitting up on his side of the couch. At least his breathing is steady, no longer rushed. His mouth hangs open a little ways, each breath twitching his lips. His hand moves, splayed and sluggish over his abdomen as though searching for a place to rest. Tony has seen him like this before, dozing off on a warm evening with the TV droning in the background.
Now, Tony just looks and looks, unwilling to draw his eyes away.
“I told you I’d help you find him,” he grunts after a long minute. “Not watch him gut you.”
Steve just shakes his head, and there’s nothing to say, really, except that then Steve looks right at him, and holds his gaze for too long.
“Thank you for not killing him,” he says.
Tony stares back, then rolls his eyes. It’s reflex. It’s avoidance, is what it is, but there’s still nothing to say that won’t dig in like that knife shard. “I’m not going to kill him.”
“You’d be within your rights.”
“No, you’d be within your rights,” Tony says sourly. “Don’t thank me. I wanted to kill him.”
“What stopped you?”
Tony glares, incredulous. “Don’t…” No, not that. “If you ever do that to me again, I really will blast him to bits.”
“Oh, shut up, Steve.” Tony pushes into his space, a desperate, too open kiss that has exactly none of the finesse Tony’d always imagined he’d manage, were it to come to this. And now it has, there’s no room for finesse in this hell hole, and there it is, no take backs, he’s done it.
Steve’s eyes never close, not for one instant. When it’s over, he pulls back with his gaze still fixed on Tony’s face. “Tony.” Are there more ways for Steve to utter his name? Only two syllables, and yet, this shifting breadth of meaning.
Tony shakes his head. “You must have known.”
“And you didn’t do anything about it.”
Steve smiles, faintly. In the candlelight, his eyes just look sad. “Already asking too much of you.”
“Steve.” Tony turns, rolls up onto his knees on the couch. Takes Steve’s shoulders in both hands. “This is yours. You’ve owned this for a while.”
Steve’s hand shakes as it curls around Tony’s nape, but he doesn’t pull down. He doesn’t move at all, and then he does, a sharp jerk as though his body is remembering it has muscles, and he rises up to meet Tony’s mouth again. He tastes like blood and rain, the smoke of the buildings they left in their wake.
Tony kisses him like it’ll be the last time. Every time afterward will be the last time. How thoroughly Steve Rogers has become his world, his every focus, is frightening.
“You hungry?” he tries, once he has room to speak. Steve doesn’t answer, just lifts his chin, drops it and lifts again, brushing Tony’s mouth in tiny kiss after tiny kiss. They’re half-formed, one follows another as though Steve is stuck in a loop, returning over and over to Tony’s mouth. His breath catches audibly each time, his eyes flicker back and forth to Tony’s eyes and then to his lips—and if Barnes ever tries to kill Steve again, Tony will damn well rip him in half.
“You,” Tony tries again. Instead of answering, Steve fists the collar of Tony’s shirt and pulls him in, makes it stick. He utters a weak groan that Tony feels to the center of his chest, expanding in a sudden, aching rush.
He pushes back, whispering a “Steve,” and then looks at his own hands settled against Steve’s chest. He bumps their foreheads together again and grits his teeth. Decides it’s too difficult anyway and kisses Steve one last time, long and messy, then gasps against his lips: “Food, now.”
Steve lets him go.
They don’t have much. Just military-style rations: self-heating soup packets and dehydrated potatoes. Collapsible flatware. It’s surprisingly flavorful. By the time they’re done, the blanket has slipped to Steve’s waist, leaving warm, dry skin in candlelight. Tony helps him dress and checks his wound, but there’s very little left to indicate that it had only been sealed up an hour ago. It looks a day old now, at least, and the bruise is finally starting to fade. Steve remains silent while Tony probes the spot, feels for excess heat, and neatens the bandage. As soon as Tony straightens, however, ready to declare it safe enough, Steve pushes forward, ducking his head into another kiss. Tony sucks in a breath and steadies himself against the armrest. Steve’s lips are cool from the water they drank, his tongue and teeth hot, and Tony surges in before he can stop. Steve takes his face in both hands and tilts his head until the kiss is obscene, neither of them remaining silent now. It’s all Tony’s wanted for months, yet it’s hard to get it all at once, impossible to focus on any one thing. Steve’s hand climbs down his front, fingers curling in his waistband. Tony finds himself tugging at the neck of Steve’s shirt, gripping and releasing, unable to concentrate on how best to remove it from the equation, and then Steve chokes and loses the rhythm. His body seizes up, his hands clenching at Tony’s sides. He inhales harshly.
“Okay,” Tony breathes. He brushes Steve’s mouth. He’s an idiot, they can’t do this, not with that hole in Steve’s side. “Rain check.”
Steve’s forehead thunks down onto his shoulder. His muscles are still tight, still straining. Tony eases him back until his torso is straight up again, and Steve releases a pained sigh. When Tony moves away, Steve’s fingers fist around a handful of his shirt.
Tony pats his pocket: the matches are still there. He leans over enough to blow out the candle, then carefully stretches the length of the couch until he’s lying on his back. He finds Steve’s hand, still clutched in his shirt, and follows it up to his shoulder. Squeezes once, then urges him down, careful of Steve’s injured side. They resituate clumsily in the pitch darkness. But Steve makes no complaint, just settles his head against Tony’s chest and tugs the blankets over them both.
When Tony wakes, the storm is gone but the rain has remained. It patters onto the leaves outside and taps hollowly on the decaying roof above. The room is full of blue light. Tony has no idea what time it is. Even in the rain, there’s sound to the forest. He can’t pinpoint it, but it’s not the silence of being stalked. Wherever their pursuer is, he’s not here yet.
And Tony’s warm. Steve gives off heat enough for two, all of it trapped under the blankets. It’s a loose, heavy feeling. Tony’s muscles feel like they’ve detached from his bones; he recognizes he has arms, legs, hands and feet, but no sense of how to move them. No desire to do it anyhow.
And Steve… It’s as though, now that Steve’s been given permission, he’s abandoned all attempts to keep himself at a distance. Even his subconscious has given up the fight. And it is clearly himself he’s been holding at bay: Steve’s hand cups against Tony’s side like it’s been fastened there, then trails up and down on a track, moves lazily as Steve shifts in his sleep. Tony hadn’t thought Steve would be a fidget. His breathing is still shallow, a clockwork pull and huff that lulls Tony back into the haze. Steve is deeply asleep, has been for some time, and yet his body never seems quite still, shifting nearer to Tony’s, along Tony’s, in tandem with Tony’s.
Tony slides a hand feather-light down Steve’s side until he feels the firm bulge of bandaging. Steve’s ribs expand and contract with each breath, and Tony splays his fingers as wide as he can, trying to encompass all of it.
He needs a working suit. The second SHIELD fell, he knew he’d miscalculated, not just the threat but his own reaction to it: he knows now that he’s incapable of just standing by, letting others clean up the astounding mess. And if Steve hadn’t shown up at his door when he did, worn thinner than paper and staring at him with shockingly hollow eyes, Tony would have transformed his entire workshop into armor within a week.
He looks down at the mangled gauntlet on the floor, the one Steve squeezed so hard last night. That, right there, is the extent of what he’s been able to accomplish.
That, and keeping a certain soldier alive.
“I love you.” The sound barely passes Tony’s lips. He presses his mouth to Steve’s hair, into the scent of rain and earth, then tucks his cheek to Steve’s head and tightens his grip. Steve sighs, his breathing settling into a new rhythm. Tony laces a hand through Steve’s hair and curls his fingers. The heat next to Steve’s scalp is incredible. “I love you so much.”
It’s ridiculous. He’s ridiculous. He doesn’t care at all. He loves Steve in ways he’s sure they haven’t earned yet, and still, they beat against his ribs like someone pounding steadily on a door. He wants Steve in ways he can’t define. He’s almost certain sex will only leave him more desperate, less in control, warmer and tighter and higher than ever. With all the time that has passed, it’s only gotten worse.
Bigger, he decides.
What does he do with love that’s returned? For once, he realizes, and sits up straighter before remembering his burden, he didn’t think about the effect on himself. He just followed Steve out the door. Promised him help. Made things happen. Steve filled all the nooks and crannies for so long that now, when Tony can finally see himself again, he doesn’t quite know how he got here.
Why he got here, on the other hand, is as clear as water.
He kisses Steve’s head again, threads his fingers through Steve’s hair until the heat engulfs his hand, and listens to the rain.