Tony’s favorite color is blue.
Blue like the ocean. Blue like deep sea ice that’s only recently been exposed to the surface. Blue was the first color he saw- blue-tinged lips and a tattered blue uniform, the bright spot of blue at the center of the famous shield and the flicker of color as he started to wake- and blue will be the last.
A long second ticks by, marked by the whirling numbers in his head, and Steve’s hands tremble on his shield. Extremis whispers to him in binary, a litany of every process he’s running to try and unlock the suit, to hack someone’s comms, to do something while his life flashes before his eyes.
The important bits, at least.
This is what he gets for hiding it. He was young, he panicked. They found Captain America in the ice and Tony’s world sprang into color, into gold and red and blue, blue, blue. Steve had only woken for a few seconds, not long enough to process his surroundings but long enough all the same. Their eyes met, Steve passed out again, and all Tony could see was blue.
He panicked. He sat by Steve’s bedside until he started waking for more than a few seconds at a time, and then he cited Stark Industries business and he ran. He couldn’t see the look in Captain America’s eyes when he woke properly, when he asked who and the inevitable disappointment when he found out that all he got was, well, Tony Stark.
Tony Stark, workaholic extraordinaire and professional procrastinator all at the same time. He’s not really a catch. People think he is, people who see the genius billionaire in safe black and white, people who know they can play at forever and walk away when it gets difficult. For them, he’s a dream. For someone- Steve Rogers, Captain America himself- to look at him and know they’re stuck forever? Not so much.
So he doesn’t say a word about the colors and he lets other people be there when Steve wakes fully, lets them answer his questions and bring him up to speed. He lets them deal with the confusion of waking up seeing colors, which ought to be impossible- but then again, isn’t Captain fucking America the paragon of what ought to be impossible?
Tony’s perhaps the only one who isn’t surprised when they click, when they’re only successful at leading the team together and an utter wreck apart. But then again, he has insider knowledge.
He doesn’t mention the colors.
Neither does Steve.
And years pass.
Forty-six seconds to suit mobility, Extremis murmurs. Initializing communications systems now. Channel: Avengers 1.
“Don’t do it, Steve, you really don’t want to do this.”
“Oh, shit, somebody get to Cap. Stark’s an ass, but he’ll never forgive himself for this one.”
“Steve? Steve, you gotta listen to me, man.”
Heroes from all sides of the fight chime in as they notice and stop fighting, talking over one another in their hurry to say something, anything. Extremis throws up video feeds of heroes, of companions and friends torn apart by registration, some of them frozen in shock and others leaving their fights to sprint towards Tony and Steve.
Steve squeezes his eyes shut, trembling harder, and raises his shield a little higher.
At least, Tony thinks, he won’t have to watch Steve figure it out. It was awful enough watching Pepper lose the colors, watching her come to the awful realization that it was over, it was done, that her soulmate was dead. It was possibly worse than knowing that it was his fault that the machines malfunctioned, that life support failed for just long enough for Happy to… well. That.
Pepper thanked him with tears in her eyes, her voice shaking. They’re gone, Tony, she said, he’s gone. My Happy.
Tony almost told Steve then.
He meant to, when he called their meeting. If Steve was innocent, oh please let him be innocent, if he didn’t know anything about the attack on Happy, then Tony was going to tell him. Steve deserved to know.
It wouldn’t make things easier. If anything, Steve would hate him more for having kept this secret, but at least he would know.
They’ve always known that Steve would outlive Tony, probably outlive them all, thanks to the serum. It’s a high-risk lifestyle they have and Steve can recover from things that would kill practically anybody but Logan. Seeing Pepper lose her soulmate… Tony couldn’t keep it a secret any longer, couldn’t bear to let Steve go through that without ever having known.
It was on the tip of his tongue. You see the colors, Steve, don’t you? You have since you woke up after the ice, but you never knew why. Why, or more like who. I’m sorry, Steve, I was afraid and then I’d let it go too long and I didn’t know how to tell you.
And then Steve looked at him with disgust and anger and worst of all, distrust, and Tony chickened out. Started a fight instead, or egged one on, it doesn’t really matter. Not now. Steve’ll find out soon enough.
Tony sucks in as much of a breath as he can with the armor restricting his chest. Steve leans into him harder and every muscle tenses, ready to bring the shield down as soon as Steve can bring himself to do it.
“Your eyes,” he whispers, quiet enough that Steve’s comms won’t pick it up, trusting Extremis to shut his own off and keep it between them. “That blue was the first color I saw. Seems right that it’ll be the last.”
Steve’s eyes snap back open, staring disbelievingly at Tony. Tony turns his face to the side, leaving his throat bared to Steve, and closes his eyes.
“Oh, god.” Steve’s voice is barely audible, a choked out thought that he didn’t quite mean to say. “Oh, no, no, no, no.”
“Always meant to tell you, never knew how.” Tony smiles bitterly. It’s probably ghoulish through the mingled sweat and blood he can feel starting to dry on his face. He doesn’t care. It’s been a long time since he thought he’d die pretty. “Make it fast, Steve. If I ever meant anything to you, then don’t let me suffer.”
Not any more.
The armor creaks around his waist where Steve shifts his weight. Tony tunes the world out, ignoring the increasingly strident calls from all the other heroes to stop, and stops fighting back.
Shut down all suit protocols.
The suit collapses around him, catches releasing and plates sliding away. The undersuit melts away, leaving the parts of the suit still balanced on top of him pressing uncomfortably into bare skin. Steve’s weight collapses down against him, no longer supported by the strength of the suit, and Tony thinks he feels a rib crack.
“No, Tony, no,” Steve says, half to himself. Tony doesn’t think he knows he’s saying it aloud.
The shield sings through the air.
It clangs against the ground a hair’s breadth from his head, dropping from Steve’s hand. One glove brushes Tony’s cheek, tracing the line of his cheekbone and then following his jawline down his bared throat.
“I can’t do it,” Steve whispers, and then louder, “I surrender.”
Three long weeks later, Tony loses the colors.
He stares at a black and white crowd on a drizzly grey day, the flag on Steve’s casket grey and white and darker grey, and he can’t manage his eulogy. They don’t know. None of them know.
When the world falls apart around his ears, he thinks of Steve. When he begins the long- painful- process of deleting his mind, when Osborn almost kills him in the hot sands when he barely knows who he is, he closes his eyes and thinks I’m coming, Steve.
He wakes up in a circle of blown-out candles with Strange, the blood of his friends red across the smeared white chalk, and he doesn’t know why he’s so relieved to see it isn’t black. This isn’t the first few weeks after he saw Steve for the first time, when he was afraid every time he went to sleep that the universe would realize it made some grand cosmic mistake and take the colors away. It’s been ages since then and he knows better than anyone that Steve’ll outlive them all.
Still, the red shouldn’t be quite so reassuring.
Tony stretches, taking the measure of his limbs, and gets to work stopping the bleeding. The colors dragged him out of his own head, finding Steve’s image in his own head and a reason not to die. He kind of hopes that Strange didn’t see that. Ah, best to bribe him into silence just in case. At this point, he’s kept his secret for too long to admit to it now.
“You can’t go rushing in there,” one of the nurses shouts. Tony thinks it’s the one who refuses to admit that he’s mostly fine and can really have more than just ice chips and the occasional broth or, if he’s lucky, baby food. Rhodey keeps stealing his Jello, citing scared me half to death, Tony, damn it. And I’m stuck here for a while. Hand over the Jello.
Steve bursts in the door to the room, completely ignoring Rhodey to barrel over to Tony’s bedside. He’s disheveled and… yeah, Tony can’t figure out whether he’s supposed to be furious or relieved, but it’s something in between the two. He thinks. It’s hard to tell when Steve does the whole bottling-up-everything-he-feels thing.
Steve grabs him, dragging Tony against his chest in a bone-crushing hug. Tony yelps in pain and Steve almost drops him.
“Ow ow ow ow ow! Major surgery here, Cap. Easy on the super strength, ‘kay?”
“Tony,” Steve breathes, then more angrily with a deep frown, “Tony.”
“Suppose I ought to apologize,” Tony says, not fighting his way out of Steve’s arms. He’s been injured, had to actually use his reboot drive. He deserves a moment of wallowing in his soulmate’s arms before he has to sneak out of bed, find a computer, and figure out what all he’s missed. When Rhodey’s asleep so he can’t call the nurse, the traitor.
“Don’t you ever do that to me again,” Steve bites out, lowering Tony back to sitting in his hospital bed. “Never again, you hear me?”
“Don’t know why I had to reboot, hope it was worth it, sorry you had to, well.” Tony waves at his chest, then again at his head. Steve cups Tony’s face between his hands, keeping him from looking away from Steve.
“All that happened, finally getting back to you only to lose all my colors? Never. Again.”
Tony manages an eloquent ‘um’ before Steve kisses him like he’s dying and Tony’s the one thing that can save his life.
“Steve,” Tony pants when Steve finally lets him break for air, “Steve, Steve, not like I’m complaining, but I think Rhodey’s getting an eyeful and he likes to tattle to the nurses.”
Steve rests his forehead against Tony’s. “You don’t get to do that to me again.”
“No more dying. Understood.”
Steve laughs. It isn’t a good laugh, a ha ha funny laugh, more like a pained it isn’t really funny but it’s better than the alternatives laugh.
“And Steve?” Tony points between the two of them a couple of times, raising his eyebrows. “I might be missing some memories here, because I am really confused right now.”