apples: she’s apples
Everything is fine, all is well. Australian English often uses the feminine pronoun she where standard English would use it. For example, instead of 'it’ll be right' Australians say ‘she’ll be right’. "She's apples" was originally rhyming slang - apple and spice or apple and rice for 'nice'. The phrase has now lost all connection with its rhyming slang origin. First recorded in the 1920s the term can still be heard today.
-Australian National Dictionary Centre
When the rescuers finally broke through the boulders, Steve was reluctant to let go of Tony's hand, half afraid that the faint pulse beneath his fingers might just fade away.
Tony hadn't opened his eyes again, not at Steve's insistence, and not even at the sounds of the approaching rescue party. Steve wasn't sure if he was unconscious or in too much pain, too focused on each labored breath—or if he simply had nothing left to say.
"Hey, you all right?" the first person to reach Steve asked, a hand on his arm.
"I'm not hurt. I'm fine," Steve said. The first was true, the second, not so much. "But I think he's in shock," he added, nodding towards Tony.
That was when the rescuer gently pushed Steve aside to get closer to Tony, and Steve had to let go. "Can you give me the low-down?" he asked.
"He's been trapped under that rock since the cave-in. He said something pierced his left side, so we thought it wiser not to try and free him," Steve said. He couldn't move his gaze from Tony's anguished face, the lines at the corners of his eyes and mouth, the blood in his goatee. "He's been coughing up blood, and his breathing has been getting worse. The last… fifteen minutes or so, he's been drifting in and out of consciousness."
"Okay. You've done a good job. We're taking over from here," the rescuer said, his voice very calm and collected. "Someone's going to see to you while we help your mate."
Another person from the rescue team joined in, gesturing for Steve to move away from Tony. These people knew what they were doing and would do their best. Steve hadn't been doing much, himself, just keeping Tony company, and not even good company at that. Probably the worst possible company, considering their history. He should go.
He let himself be led away from the tunnel that had collapsed around them, to safer ground with well reinforced walls. The first responder who was taking care of him looked vaguely familiar; he was fairly sure he'd seen her before, but couldn't remember a name. She must've said it earlier, closer to Tony's side, but Steve had missed it entirely. She guided Steve to take a seat in a small personnel carrier, one of many vehicles the rescue crew had with them.
"All right, I just want to make sure you're okay before we head towards the surface. How are you feeling?" she asked. "Does anything hurt?"
He could've laughed. It hurt beyond words that Tony might die and the last conversation they'd had had revealed that they both regretted splitting up, and that he might never get to talk to Tony again, or to even touch him. But obviously that wasn't what she was asking.
"I'm not injured," Steve told her. "I'm okay."
"That's good to hear. I'm still going to go through the basics, so we don't miss anything, all right?"
Steve barely registered it as she shone a penlight in his eyes and took his blood pressure. She went on to ask him a few specific questions, taking note of bruises that Steve hadn't even realized he had, and double-checking he wasn't feeling dizzy or otherwise unusual. He replied mechanically.
His thoughts were still with Tony. They'd have to move that boulder Tony had been trapped under. That'd take time, which Tony didn't have. And they'd somehow need to make sure he didn't bleed out from whatever had impaled him. There was no doubt at all that his chances of survival were slim.
Steve wanted to be there, by Tony's side, to know what was happening, but he also knew they wouldn't let him, and that he'd only be a nuisance.
"Is there anyone you can contact if you want company?" the first responder asked him. "Maybe someone to take you home?"
"Yeah," Steve said. "I'll be fine."
Thor was waiting for Steve outside the locker room, and stuck around while Steve filled in forms and gave his account of what had happened. Thor hadn't been on shift at the time of the accident; otherwise he'd probably have been a part of the rescue.
The drive to their shared apartment was subdued, the familiar landscape flashing by without Steve paying any heed to it. For all his usually loud and cheerful manners, Thor could take the hint and tone it down when needed, and didn't speak much.
Once they got home, they had some leftover pasta from the day before, at Thor's insistence. With the plate in front of him, Steve realized was actually starving; he hadn't eaten anything since breakfast, but food had been the last thing on his mind. He stared at his fork, thinking of how when he'd cooked the pasta, less than twenty-four hours ago, he hadn't even had any clue that Tony was in Australia, let alone that he would be visiting the mine.
Later, they sat on the couch. The TV was on, showing some sitcom that Steve wasn't really paying any attention to. Thor asked if he wanted to talk, but he just shook his head, and they fell into companionable silence again.
Steve kept browsing news sites on his phone.
Two mine workers trapped in collapsed tunnel, the titles still read. No deaths mentioned.
"I shall retreat to my bed," Thor finally said, when darkness had fallen outside. "If you wish for company, do not hesitate to join me."
"Thanks," Steve said.
It'd be nice to have someone near and holding him, Steve thought, but it'd also feel wrong when all he could think of was Tony, and all the times they'd held one another, on a lazy morning or a quickie between shifts when their schedules didn't allow for more.
His own small bed would've been right in the corner of the living room, but he never made it there; he stayed on the couch until he finally nodded off.
Steve woke up with a jolt from the most terrible nightmare.
He'd been lying in bed with Tony, just cuddling, back together, all their disagreements settled, and Steve had been so happy to hold Tony close again—until he'd noticed that Tony's skin was cool and he was perfectly still—and he'd looked more closely and realized he was clinging to a dead man.
It felt too much like a premonition.
Hands shaking, he grabbed his phone from the table and tapped "refresh" on the news item that he still had open.
Mine worker severely injured in accident, the title now read, and further down in the text, Both men are safely out of the mine. One survived the incident unharmed, the other suffered serious injuries and is currently in critical condition.
Not dead. Tony wasn't dead, Steve repeated to himself. Badly hurt, but not dead. He was stubborn as hell. He'd pull through.
Without thinking things through at all, Steve looked up the nearest hospital's number and called them, only to come across a thoroughly peeved receptionist.
"No, Mr. Stark isn't here. They took him to Sydney."
Of course they would. If he was that badly injured, a rural hospital wouldn't have sufficient facilities.
"Which hospital?" Steve asked.
"Look, I've already talked to three other reporters today," the receptionist said in a long-suffering voice. "I don't know, and even if I did, I wouldn't have any reason to tell you."
"I'm not a—" Steve began, but the man at the other end had already hung up.
Steve sighed. There had to be dozens of hospitals in Sydney. He'd call every single one if that was what it took, but maybe he could be a bit smarter about this.
He called work instead. Of course, Steve's manager knew he'd been involved in the accident, and was sympathetic. He didn't know much more about Tony than the news sites did, but he was able to tell Steve the correct hospital, saving him the trouble of going through the whole list.
The phone call that followed was almost like a longer take on the first one.
"Yes, he is a patient here. Who's asking? Are you a reporter?" the receptionist asked.
"No, I'm not. My name's Steve Rogers. I'm a friend," Steve said. It felt like a lie.
"Not a family member, are you?"
"He doesn't have any living relatives," Steve said, though he could already guess this wasn't going anywhere.
The woman took a moment to reply, and Steve heard the clicking of a keyboard in the background. "Sorry, you're not on his file. I can't give you any details."
"Nothing at all?" Steve said. "Please, can you at least tell me how bad it is?"
"Mr. Stark is in critical condition, and currently in surgery. Other than that, I'm not at liberty to say. If you really are his friend, you should contact his next of kin," she said, not sounding entirely unsympathetic—but that wasn't much of a consolation.
"Right. Thank you," Steve said rather stiffly, and hung up.
He was back right where he'd started: that was pretty much what he'd read in the news. How was this fair? He'd been there! He should have a right to know!
His fingers clenched around the phone, which he was tempted to fling across the room.
"You will still need that telephone, friend," Thor said, his hand settling on Steve's shoulder. He'd managed to sneak up on Steve. Not exactly a challenging feat, considering how distracted Steve was.
"I know, Thor, it's just..." Steve began, and shook his head powerlessly.
"Now, I shall make breakfast. In the meantime, you know who you should call. It is a suitable hour: evening on the East Coast," Thor said, in a no-nonsense tone.
"Yeah. I know," Steve said.
Just like Steve was well aware that Tony didn't have any living relatives, he also knew the people who were most likely to be listed as his emergency contacts, unless things had changed a lot during the few years they'd been apart.
He tried calling Rhodey first. James Rhodes was an engineer like Tony; they'd studied together, and been the closest of friends ever since. Steve had never gotten to know Rhodey very well, but he'd seemed like a nice, level-headed guy, and someone who genuinely cared for Tony.
Rhodey didn't pick up the call. Steve sighed. That meant he'd have to call Pepper.
Pepper Potts was, or at least had been, the last time Steve had heard anything about her, working in human resources back at home. She'd also been Tony's girlfriend, on and off, with a more or less open relationship status. That had overlapped with Tony and Steve hooking up, and they'd even had a few threesomes, which had been pretty great—Pepper was both beautiful and an overall lovely person. On the other hand, she could also be truly terrifying if you got on her wrong side, and Steve wasn't sure at all how she'd see him since his breakup with Tony.
Almost hoping she wouldn't answer, he dialed her.
"So this is what it takes for you to get back in touch?" the reply was quick and sharp. "Two years and not a word, and now that he's in hospital, you suddenly—"
"Look, Pepper, I was there," Steve put in.
"—feel the need to—what?" she fell silent as she registered Steve's words. "What do you mean?"
"There, in the mine, with Tony. When it happened," Steve clarified.
Just mentioning it instantly conjured up the image of Tony under the boulder, the blood on his chin, the agony in his eyes. Steve swallowed, trying to keep the bile down.
"What?" Pepper said, incredulous. "What're you doing in Australia?"
Of course she wouldn't know where he was. He hadn't talked to anyone from home since he'd left. "The same as everyone," he told her. "Trying to make a living doing what I do best. Digging."
"Oh my God," Pepper breathed. "You're the local worker who got trapped with him?"
"That's—Oh, Steve, I had no idea! How was he?" Pepper asked, her voice almost pleading, nothing left of her earlier acrid tone.
"Huh?" It was Steve's turn to be confused. "I don't know! That's why I called you. They're not telling me anything because I'm not a family member."
"But you saw him! I've only heard the medical jargon," Pepper returned, sounding as desperate as Steve felt. "Was he conscious? Was he in a lot of pain?"
"He…" Steve tried, but the words stuck in his throat. This wasn't the conversation that he'd been fearing, that he'd steeled himself for. He'd thought he'd have to fight to get her sympathy. To describe what had happened was difficult in a very different way. Much harder. "I haven't seen him since the rescuers got there. Before that, he was conscious and talking most of the time, and—yeah, he was hurting. It was pretty bad," Steve listed, just trying to get it all out quickly.
"Oh my God," Pepper said again. "That's terrible. I can't imagine how awful it must've been. Are you okay?"
"I'm not injured, but, no. Not really," Steve said honestly. "Please, Pepper, tell me what the doctors are saying. Is he going to make it?"
"They're not promising anything," Pepper said, her voice so soft he almost couldn't hear it. "They're not optimistic. He might make it. He might not. The last I heard, they'll know better once he's out of surgery."
That was just as bad as Steve had feared. "Are you going to fly over?" he asked.
"I can't. I wish I could, but you know how it is with Tony. He's involved in so many projects, and now that he's not around—obviously no one is irreplaceable, when it comes to work," Pepper stopped for what sounded very much like a sob, "but there is a lot to sort out, and that's mostly up to me. It'll take several days before I can even consider leaving. Rhodey's already on his way, though. He should land at seven tomorrow morning, your time."
Which would explain why Rhodey hadn't picked up when Steve had called him. "That's great. I'd hate for Tony to have to be all alone. Could I—do you think I could visit him?"
Pepper stayed silent for a moment, considering her answer. "Well, of course, if he's conscious, he'll be the one to decide," she finally said, her tone implying that she didn't expect him to be. "If he's not, it'll be Rhodey you'll need to convince and not me, since I won't be there. If you asked me, I'd say yes. I think he'd like for you to be there. He missed you a lot. Not that he ever said it in so many words, but it was obvious enough."
"Yeah, I... We talked, down there. I think I got the idea. I missed him too, you know," Steve admitted.
"And yet you never called," Pepper said, some of the accusation back in her voice.
"He never called me either. He did have my number," Steve said defensively.
"True, but him being an idiot doesn't excuse you from being one, too," Pepper noted.
"I know, and I'm sorry about it. You have no idea," Steve said, a lump at his throat at the renewed dread that Tony might die and that conversation they'd had underground would've been their last.
"I just might," Pepper said. "I'm sorry I can't be there. You can always call me if you want to talk. Any hour. I expect I won't be sleeping very much over the next few days."
"Thank you, Pepper," Steve said, incredibly glad that he'd made the call despite his trepidation.
An hour later, Pepper texted Steve that she'd talked to the doctors again, and that they were officially saying Tony's condition was stable.
For the first time since the accident, Steve allowed himself to feel cautiously hopeful.
Even though Steve hadn't been injured, he'd been given a week off work after the accident to get his head back in the right place. Of course, the next thing he did after his conversation with Pepper was book himself a place to stay in Sydney. Thor, being the amazing friend that he always was, offered to drive Steve, even though going there and back cost him a good seven hours of his last free day.
"Don't be too disappointed if he doesn't wish to see you," Thor said as they turned to the parking lot by Steve's lodgings, after a trip mostly spent listening to music and not speaking very much.
"If he's well enough to say he doesn't, I'll be glad," Steve said. As long as Tony was okay, it wouldn't matter if it turned out that everything he'd said in the mine had been spoken in despair and without really thinking things through. As long as they got to finish that conversation, Steve would deal with it, whatever the outcome.
"If you do see him, give him my greetings, and my most sincere wishes of a speedy recovery," Thor added. "And whenever you need a ride back, give me a call, and I will try to make arrangements."
"Thanks, Thor," Steve said. "Don't know where I'd be without you."
"I know you would do the same for me, Steven," Thor said.
The owner of the tiny apartment that had luckily been available on a short notice showed up to hand Steve the keys. They exchanged the usual pleasantries, and Steve courteously declined an offer to show him the town.
The place was a studio with just the basic necessities, which was exactly what he needed. Usually, he was fine with shared accommodations, and had stayed in people's spare beds for most of the past few years, but right now, he needed his own space.
He dropped his bag on the floor, slumped on the bed, and checked his phone. It was five o'clock. There were no new messages from Pepper, and the news stories hadn't been updated, either. Not that there was any reason for the reporters to keep checking on Tony all that often. He was the top mining engineer in the world, but that didn't exactly make him a celebrity.
It was five o'clock, and Rhodey's flight would land at seven the following morning. Until Rhodey got here, there was no way Steve was going to be allowed to visit Tony.
He stared at the sparsely furnished room around him, and realized he had no idea what to do next.
He ended up spending the rest of the day trying to distract himself the best way he knew: he went for a run. He tried to enjoy the change in scenery from where he usually jogged, without much luck. In other circumstances, he'd have loved being by the sea, but following the shoreline only made him feel melancholy. It was fall, and the beaches were empty of swimmers, only skilled surfers daring the waves.
He kept running long past dusk, at a faster pace than he'd usually go for, faster than would make sense for exercise purposes. When he finally got back to the apartment, he was exhausted enough that he was mostly thinking of how much he wanted a shower and something to eat.
After takeout Chinese from the closest place he could find, he ended up lying in bed and staring blankly at the ceiling again, unable to sleep, tired as he was with only a restless nap on the couch last night.
If things went well, he'd see Tony tomorrow.
There were so many things he wanted to say. He had the conversation in his mind a dozen times, a dozen different variations. In some of them, Tony understood him perfectly and agreed on everything he said, in others, they ended up shouting at one another until the nurses dragged Steve out of the room.
Halfway between sleep and wakefulness, there was a scene where Steve was holding Tony's cold, dead hand, and confessing everything he'd wanted to say, knowing that there would never be an answer.
At some point, Steve must've finally fallen into a deep, dreamless sleep, since instead of yet another nightmare, he woke up to a text from Rhodey at eight in the morning. It was to the point and neutral in tone: Pepper explained the situation to me. If you're up for it, meet me at the hospital at 11.
Steve didn't waste time nor words in answering: I'll be there. Thank you.
He got there early, of course, just in case, and had to sit and wait in the lobby for a quarter of an hour. He'd have felt less nervous if he had been in the hospital because he was sick himself.
Rhodey showed up at 11 sharp, punctual as always, not appearing through the main entrance but from inside the hospital. He shook Steve's hand firmly.
"Rhodes," Steve said.
"Rogers," Rhodey said. "How're you holding up?"
"Fine. How's Tony?" Steve asked, skipping straight past the usual small talk of inquiring how Rhodey was or how his flights had been.
Rhodey crossed his arms, pursed his lips and looked away from Steve. "Considering the circumstances? Not too bad. He's conscious, and they're saying there's a good chance he'll recover." Rhodey's words were in such obvious contrast to his body language that they did nothing to assuage Steve's worry. "You want the details? It's grisly, no way around that."
"Tell me," Steve said. He didn't want the sugar-coated version. He needed someone to finally tell him how things were.
Rhodey took a deep breath, visibly steeling himself. "A support beam went through his left lung. They're saying he's incredibly lucky it missed his heart."
Steve shuddered at the thought that he might've been trapped underground with Tony's dead body.
"They had to cut his chest open and remove the damaged tissue," Rhodey went on, "which means he's lost half a lung. That shouldn't slow him down too much if he pulls through, but he's not out of the woods yet. There's a disturbingly long list of possible complications."
The injuries sounded as gruesome as Rhodey had warned, bad enough to make Steve feel nauseated just thinking about it. But Rhodey had also said that Tony was conscious, and that the prognosis wasn't hopeless. That was the most important thing.
"Did you see him? Can I see him?" Steve asked.
"I saw him, and I asked him if he'd like to see you," Rhodey said.
"And?" Steve asked, a renewed wave of nerves washing over him, a feeling closer to panic than anything else. If Tony didn't want to see him—
"He seemed happy about the idea," Rhodey said, offering Steve the first smile of the entire conversation, guarded as it was.
The relief was almost as strong as the anxiety. Steve let his shoulders slump, his knees a little shaky. "So, we can visit him now?"
"Yeah," Rhodey said. "This way," he motioned towards a corridor at the corner of the lobby.
"Just so you realize," Rhodey said as they walked. "He's still intubated, so he can't talk, just gesture, and he's also quite heavily drugged. Don't expect too much, and take it easy with him."
"Of course I will," Steve snapped. "I'm not going to walk in there and start yelling at him!"
"I know you won't," Rhodey said, "but I also worry for him, same as you, and I'm not sure what's going through his head when it comes to you. Just don't upset him, okay?"
"Wouldn't dream of it," Steve said, doing his best not to be affronted. Rhodey was right. Tony was sick and probably not thinking very rationally, and he was bound to have mixed feelings about Steve. The last thing Steve wanted was for him to get worked up over things.
Rhodey stayed in the background, standing by the door as Steve approached Tony's bedside, taking in the surroundings.
Steve wasn't sure whether Tony had looked worse down in the mine, under that boulder, than he did in the ICU, surrounded with machinery, wires and drips. At least in the mine, Tony had been lucid, talking, and breathing on his own, though it'd been getting more and more difficult for him towards the end. Now, there was ventilator tubing going down his throat, a whooshing sound accompanying each breath, and when Tony turned his eyes towards Steve, they were glazed, probably due to the medication he was on.
"Hey," Steve said, feeling at a loss for words in spite of how many times he'd played through this scene in his head.
Tony gave the slightest of waves, just lifting his fingers off the mattress.
"Is it okay if I sit with you for a moment?" Steve asked.
Tony frowned, as if confused. Maybe he hadn't understood the question, or was wondering why Steve felt the need to ask.
"Is that a yes?" Steve prompted. "Can you nod for me?"
Tony rolled his eyes and gave a little nod, indicating with the two gestures that he was more clear-headed than Steve had first assumed.
Steve found himself a chair and sat down next to him.
In the background, there was the sound of a door opening and closing. Steve glanced over his shoulder to see that Rhodey had slipped out of the room.
Steve took hold of Tony's hand, and unlike in all those terrible dreams, it felt warm. Not cool and clammy, like in the mine, but comforting.
Tony squeezed Steve's fingers, staring at him with a look that spoke of longing and uncertainty—even without words, Tony could convey more emotion than many people would with an elaborate speech.
Steve placed his other hand on top of Tony's, capturing it between both of his. "Yeah, I'm here," Steve said, "and I'm not going anywhere."
Even with Tony's mouth partly blocked from view, the smile was unmistakable in the crinkles around his eyes.
"It's going to be all right," Steve added, and it wasn't just a reassuring phrase he said to make Tony feel better. Even though he knew that Tony's road back to health would be long, and that it would take the two of them many difficult conversations to sort out their past disagreements, he was entirely convinced it would be.
And in the end, it was.