Title:  To Extremes

Author: saraid (LJ | Comment)

Rating: Nc-17

Pairing: Steve/Tony

Universe: New Avengers AU, no Civil War, no Skrull

Betas: marinarusalka

Word count: 30,667

Labels: H/C

Warnings: none

Summary: Tony gets sick. Tony stays sick. Steve takes care of him.

 

Art by Stormseyes (1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6), Ginjar (1)

 

Rat

* * * * *

 

Stepping into his bathroom – the one in Stark Tower was bigger than the one in the mansion had been -- Tony stumbled and barely caught himself with a hand on the wall. He had to lean there for a moment, to catch his breath.

He’d dropped the armor in the bedroom. It hadn’t felt so heavy in years, not since he got Extremis, almost two years before.

Pain spiked in his chest and he raised a hand convulsively, rubbing at it. His heart was healed,  this was just – exhaustion. Or a bruised rib or something. Nothing to be worried about, Extremis would take care of it. A few more steps brought him to the shower with the lazy seat in the back. He half fell on it, reaching out with Extremis and turning the water on. It started soft and then powered up to a fierce beating spray, hot and welcoming. Tony closed his eyes and leaned back against the wall, soaking it up. He’d feel better in a few minutes.

Extremis would fix it.

***

With folders spread around him and two more stacks towering on the coffee table to his left, Steve reached for his coffee cup. He grimaced, finding it empty.  He moved carefully and sat up,  trying not to disturb the order he’d finally managed to achieve in the time he’d been working with them, rolling his neck. He’d clearly been lying there too long.

Setting the cup down, he shifted a couple of the files, putting them in different stacks and stretched, yawning.

This was crazy! SHIELD just had so many rules and regulations. How they managed this long without a complete overhaul was beyond him. When Fury had asked him to review the training manuals and policies Steve had thought it’d just be a good exercise, a chance to stretch his brain and remember old training techniques. He’d forgotten just how much bureaucracy could muck things up. They definitely needed something more streamlined. More manageable. The way it was now a sergeant could hardly make a decision without having to consult with at least three superiors, two of whom would probably be in the field. Actually, what they really needed was to streamline all of their procedures - but there was no way Steve was volunteering for that mess.  He picked up his cup again, looking into it wistfully. The kitchen seemed a long way away. He began to extricate himself from the piles of folders, moving carefully.

He suddenly remembered the many nights spent in this room on a sofa with Tony, watching a movie or a football game; sketching or doing paperwork while Tony did everything in his head. And how his cup somehow never ran empty those nights.

Thinking about it, Steve stood, at last, and headed toward the coffee pot. Where was Tony? Steve had checked down in the lab earlier before he’d settled down to work, and assumed that his friend had stayed late at work, although he wasn’t aware of there being any real problems with Stark Industries. The company had been doing well as far as he knew with the new cell phone that had everyone excited and some new medical breakthrough Tony had been chattering about a couple of weeks ago. Steve hadn’t actually gotten the whole story on that actually, which was odd. Usually he was the first to hear about any of Tony’s breakthroughs, or his failures. He paused, hand going still in the act of lifting the coffee pot, and realized that he hadn’t actually spent very much time with Tony since then. He’d been so busy with this assignment for Fury, Tony had been working, and the supervillian front had been quiet. They hadn’t even sparred in a couple of weeks.  That wasn’t right.  Steve put the coffee down. No one would touch his files, they’d stay there until he got back to them. Everyone at the tower was polite that way since you never knew what someone might be working on or how sensitive or important it might be. Even Peter was careful – but then again he was a scientist at heart, despite his quirky mannerisms. Steve knew that was just youth.

It wasn’t late yet; he could dig Tony up and drag him down to the gym for an hour, work out the kinks he’d developed lying on the carpet. It would be good for both of them. And if Tony was actively avoiding him for some reason – Steve sighed – better to find out and deal with it now.

***

Twenty minutes later Steve was getting frustrated. Tony wasn’t anywhere he could think of finding him at this hour. He wasn’t in his office, or in his room, or the gym, not even the lab. Finally, it was only by chance that he walked by the study door and, seeing it cracked open, decided to look in. And there he was. Tony Stark - renowned playboy, genius, businessman, founding member of the Avengers – dozing in a leather chair with a large book open and askew on his chest.

The room was illuminated by a couple of lamps that didn’t give off much light -- not that really mattered so much to Tony anymore. Not with Extremis. He didn’t even have to be on the same continent with whatever he was reading. So maybe it was a little strange that he was reading an actual bound paper book.  Maybe he’d just missed the feeling of having an actual book in his hands, Steve mused. He’d always felt that reading things on a computer screen just wasn’t the same. Steve was surprised though, when Tony didn’t wake as he walked up behind him. Gently lifting the book and setting it aside, he took note of the title: ‘Molecular Mimicry: Infection-Inducing Autoimmune Disease (Current Topics in Microbiology and Immunology)’. That was a mouthful. Must be related to the medical breakthrough SI had made. Tony wasn’t a biologist, though he could fake it pretty well if he had to, and he liked to understand everything going on around him, a trait Steve admired and shared - even if he didn’t have the brains to always follow. Steve put a hand on Tony’s shoulder, enjoying the warmth, and shook gently.

“Tony. Come on, get up and go to bed.”

His friend made a soft sound, and turned his head until his cheek rested on Steve’s hand. Steve smiled. This had happened before. Tony let his exhaustion catch up to him sometimes, and just fell asleep wherever he was. Steve always imagined that Tony was thinking of his mother, or Jarvis, or one of his female conquests, when Steve woke him gently. Though it was hard to imagine Tony being close enough to any of them that they’d need to wake him up and get him to bed since Tony seemed to think that those women were good for that just one thing. Perhaps combined with simple companionship, but he didn’t really share his life with them, the important things involved the Avengers, Pepper, and Steve.

“Your back is never going to forgive you if you spend the night here,” Steve leaned to whisper. Tony sighed, and snuggled deeper into the chair. Steve’s smile grew. Tony must be really wiped out. “Come on, shell head, up you go.”

“Not in the suit,” Tony mumbled quietly. Steve was glad his friend couldn’t see him smile.

“I’m awake, I’m awake.” Tony belied the words with a yawn.

“But stuck in the chair?” Steve teased. He reached under Tony’s arms and pulled. Tony whined but came to his feet. He seemed wobbly, though, so while maneuvering them both around the chair he wrapped an arm around Tony’s shoulders to steady him. He had a second of worry; Tony had been like this more and often recently, almost like when he’d been drinking, but there was no sign of alcohol. No scent and Tony had promised to stop. And Steve trusted Tony. Finally Tony opened his eyes and gave Steve a weak smile.

“Where am I?”

“In the study.” Steve chuckled. “You must be really out of it. How many days have you gone without sleep this time?” 

Mmm, just a day or so,” Tony said, slowly pulling away from Steve’s support. “I’m going to bed now, though.”

“Good,” Steve told him. “You let yourself get too run down and I’m locking you in next time.”

“Yeah, like that’d work,” Tony retorted. Slowly he straightened, and as he walked past Steve, the blond man felt a brush of heat. Steve wanted to reach out and touch his forehead, like his mother would have done, but didn’t. Tony was fine; he’d just fallen asleep in a chair. Steve stood there, looking at the book. Coffee and more work or bed? Or he could always squeeze in that workout he’d been planning to share with Tony. It wasn’t that late, he decided suddenly and he could always workout and then get some more work done. Heading towards the gym, he smiled. Tony’s work ethic was apparently contagious.

***

Tony made it as far as the elevator before his legs gave way. Biting back a moan of frustration, he levered himself back up, wedged into a corner and using his arms. His legs felt like noodles. He felt fresh sweat bead on his skin. Thank God Steve hadn’t noticed anything wrong. If he had come along he would’ve seen this display of weakness. That was the last thing Tony wanted.

He’d reached the breaking point. There was something seriously wrong. These bouts of weakness, dizziness, and fever had been happening now for over a month and it was a small miracle that no one had noticed.

He didn’t want to tell anyone, but it was just getting worse, and tonight he’d almost been caught out. Tomorrow he would contact Reed Richards and see if the scientist would check him over. It was probably something silly, some coding error with Extremis, something that could be fixed with some new programming but he hadn’t been able to find anything himself. Tony made it to his room, clinging to the walls, and fell onto his bed not bothering to undress. Sleep eventually came, washed over him like a wave and he fell gratefully under it.

***

“Baxter Building,” Susan Richards sounded professional today.

Tony winced. He’d woken far later than was normal. He didn’t need an alarm, Extremis was programmed to wake him at 6, but today it hadn’t. He wasn’t thinking about it though. Not yet. He felt better, less shaky, but he had to admit there was a problem. So here he was on the phone trying to reach Reed Richards early in the day.

“Hello?”

“I’m sorry - Sue? This is Tony Stark. I need to speak to Reed.” He fumbled the words out, distracted. Christ, he was usually the king of multi-tasking. What the hell was going on?

“He’s in the lab, Tony. I can take a message though.” There were sounds in the background, high-pitched squeals. Tony winced as they amplified painfully through the receiver and his head. Using Extremis, he tried to turn down the volume but it wouldn’t respond. “Franklin! Leave your sister alone!” Sue shouted. “I’m sorry, Tony, they’re full of something today. I’ll –“

“Sue, I really need to talk to him.”

“The last time you really needed to see him you both wound up lost in the bowels of the Tokyo subway system.”

Tony smirked. That had been a great weekend. When Reed let down his hair… well.

“This is important,” he tried again, lowering his voice.

“Tony-” Sue paused, voice more sincere when she spoke again. “Is something wrong?”

“I don’t- I can’t… talk about it.”

“Tony.” There was a trace of worry now. “Is something’s wrong?”

“I just need to see Reed,” Tony mumbled. He felt tired again and it came over him like a blanket, dropping from the ceiling, draping and smothering him.

“Alright.” There was another shriek from the children and Sue sighed. “Come on over. I’ll dig Reed out.”

“Thank you,” a long pause and then Tony heard himself say softly, “I owe you one.”

“Careful. I might ask you to babysit.”

“Aw, now that’s just not fair,” Tony protested weakly.

“And Tokyo was?” Sue teased gently.

“That was completely not my fault.”

“So you say,” she almost giggled. “I’ll make sure he’s expecting you.”

“I’ll be right over,” Tony answered, holding back a sigh.

***

It took a ridiculous amount of effort to get his armor to respond. He blamed it on the exhaustion, unwilling to even consider another cause. When it was on, he felt better immediately. He could walk steadily. His body no longer ached. Tony pulled the faceplate down, so no one could see the dark circles under his eyes and the stubble on his face. His hand had been shaking too badly for him to shave.

Steve was standing in the living room as he passed through, deep in his files. As he looked up, Tony gave a casual wave.

“Caught up on your sleep?” Steve called.

“Yeah, I’m good,” Tony answered, not stopping. Steve rolled to his feet.

“Something going on?” He was all ready to join in. Tony stopped and tried to sound cheerful.

“No, I just feel like flying. I’ll be back in a bit – if I’m not over at the office already.”

Steve looked disappointed and Tony had to squash the guilt he felt. “Oh, well. I’ve got plenty to do here.” He gestured at the mess on the floor.

“There weren’t this many yesterday,” Tony observed. “I think I see a couple of little ones under the couch. Have they been breeding?”

“God, I hope not,” Steve replied, words serious but eyes laughing. “I’d better separate them, just to be safe. Have a good flight.”

“I will,” Tony said, turning with a profound sense of relief. If he said anything else, Steve would know something was wrong but Tony still lingered for a moment, watching him as he squatted down to gather some files and stack them haphazardly on the armchair before sitting where they had they’d been. A bittersweet pang ran through him his chest. They were old friends, this longing and he. He savored it for a moment, then turned and left.

Out the door, on the stairs, into the air. For a second he was afraid – what if he couldn’t fly? – but he brushed the feeling off and he was on his way.

***

“So, how bad is it?” Tony sat on the examination table, which wasn’t like any other in the world, in the smallest of Reed’s laboratories. It was the one devoted to medical research, which Reed spent the least amount of time on.

He was wrapped in a blanket over his skivvies and still shivering. Pulling himself together, literally, Reed leaned heavily against a bank of machines behind him. Tony knew what they were, most of them anyway, but right now he couldn’t get himself all that interested in Reed’s homemade tech. Crossing his arms over his chest without a bit of stretching, Reed stared at him. “It’s not good,” Tony muttered, clutching at the blanket with both hands.

“If you were a normal human I’d seriously consider sending you to an oncologist,” Reed said quietly.

Oncocancer? I can’t get cancer, Reed. I’m –“

“No.” Reed shook his head. “You can’t. I tested you for it. There are no markers, nothing in your blood work. But you do have classic symptoms.”

“Fever, night sweats, weakness, fatigue-,” Tony listed, almost whispering.  

“And weight loss,” Reed added. “You’ve lost almost twelve pounds, Tony. For a man of your age and physicality, other lifestyle choices aside, this is huge.”

“I hadn’t realized.”

“I know you don’t feel the need to eat properly a lot of the time, but even you should have noticed this.” Reed came over, laying a hand on his shoulder. Tony shrugged, not wanting the contact, but the hand didn’t move. It squeezed gently. Suddenly Tony had the ridiculous urge to lay his cheek down on it and close his eyes.

“You’re sick, Tony,” Reed said, “And I don’t know what it is. My best guess is that Exremis is reacting to something wrong with your system and trying to get rid of it but -”

“I’d already come to that conclusion.” Tony pulled the blanket closer. He was so cold. Reed hovered for a minute, then more, offering silent support. Finally he moved away, arms stretching out to type on panels at opposite sides of the room. There was only the sound of his fingers hitting keys for several long minutes.

“You can’t tell anyone.”

Reed whipped his head around, but not the rest of him. Tony winced.“Tony, this is serious. You need to see a real doctor. A biotech specialist. An immunologist. Maybe even a rheumatologist. What do I know!

“No!” Tony tried to jump down from the table and got tangled in the blanket. Reed’s arm was there, wrapping around him. “Not –“ Tony gasped, hearing how he sounded. His voice was weak and thin. He tried again, “Not until we know more. Not until I’m re-”

“I can’t treat this.” Reed said, closer now, pulling Tony to his feet and supporting him with both arms around him. A hug. “You need help.”

“I’m not so good at that part,” Tony mumbled. He swayed and Reed drew him closer, obviously worried. Tony gave a soft moan and leaned in, letting Reed take his weight and hiding his face in the shoulder of Reed’s blue sweater. “I can’t – I can’t put them through this. Not now. Not again.”

Not Steve, who had stood beside him through so much; Tony couldn’t bear to hurt him again.

“I can give you a few days,” Reed said. He hugged Tony gingerly, clearly unsure of the contact. “Start you on Prednisone, a high dose of broad-spectrum antibiotics. They might make you feel nauseous, but you have to eat. A mild painkiller, something for inflammation. A stimulant.”

“Can’t take painkillers,” Tony mumbled, still hanging on. He was so damned tired. The thought of calling the armor and flying home was overwhelming.

“Nothing narcotic,” Reed told him, patting Tony’s back. “If I give these to you, will you take them? And rest? If can you promise me you will do both I won’t tell anyone for a week. Unless you get worse.” A week wasn’t long, but it was something. And the medicine might work. Rest might even make Extremis work properly again. Plus he knew Reed wouldn’t give him longer. Tony nodded, taking a step back and getting ready to leave.

“I don’t want you flying home.” Reed said abruptly and steered him back towards the bed, lifting him carefully onto it. Stretching, he easily opened a drawer across the room and took out another blanket, tucking it around Tony like he was one of the children. Shivering, Tony didn’t protest, he acutally took note of the fact that he’d been warmer when Reed was hugging him. The poor guy was probably glad to get loose though.

“Take a breather while I get things organized and I’ll call a cab to take you home.”

“The penthouse,” Tony said, voice suddenly stronger. “I’ll – I’ll rest better there. Alone.”

“Oh no you won’t,” Reed scolded, arms waving around the room as he gathered various items from scattered drawers, tabletops, and cabinets. Tony was pretty sure he saw one arm actually leave the room completely, but he didn’t want to think about it. “I’m going to come by and check on you every other day.” He had a small tote bag and was filling it and used another for the armor, though Tony could have just told it to get in the bag.

“Okay.”

Reed came over and Tony forced himself to sit up. “Can you get down the stairs by yourself?”

Sliding his feet to the floor, Tony wobbled and grabbed the side of the bed to keep himself upright. “I’d have to say no.”

“I can get you down, but I can’t promise no one will see you. Damn, I didn’t consider that,” Reed muttered.

“You can make it look normal,” Tony said.

Reed rolled his eyes, “I’ll try. Let me give you something first.” He left Tony standing there, still wrapped up. The shivers were starting to subside. Reed came back, deftly turning him around and peeled down his jeans and boxers.

“Hey,” Tony protested.

“This will sting,” Reed warned. Tony sucked in a breath and curled his toes and then bit out a curse.

Fuck, that hurts.”

“Sorry.” Reed pulled his pants back up and tapped his shoulder lightly. “You should feel better in a few minutes. I think it’s enough to get you home in one piece.”

“Thank you,” Tony sighed. Heat ran through him as the medication hit his system. He didn’t know what Reed had given him, but knew Reed would take everything into consideration including the risks. So Tony just stood there waiting, as the flush spread through him and the pressure finally eased. He felt steadier and straightened carefully letting go of the bed. After a few minutes he slid the blankets off, put them on the bed.

“I’m still not comfortable with you being alone between my visits,” Reed said. He had both bags and looked ready to go.

“I can order food in if I don’t feel like cooking.”

”That’s not what I’m worried and you know it.” Reed led the way to the express elevator. “You’ll call me if you need anything?”

Tony nodded. He had to steady himself a bit in the elevator; he told himself it was because it was moving.

”I’ll call a couple of places and order you some food. In case you don’t think about it.” It was clear that Reed was re-evaluating the situation and regretting his promise already.

 ***

Steve climbed from his spot on the floor for the tenth or twentieth time. He was beginning to suspect that Tony had been right; the damned things were breeding. Every time he sat back down there seemed to be more of them. If they hadn’t all contained information on SHEILD procedures he’d have suspected that Peter was slipping more into the piles when Steve wasn’t looking.

It was Friday and there was a monthly meeting scheduled that evening. Things had been pretty quiet, the team keeping to its mandate, not heading out for normal, everyday problems except for the members that made that their bailiwick. Luke and Danny and Peter, mostly. MJ was busy with auditions and shooting a commercial.

Logan had been spending a lot of time with the X-Men, Jan was busy with her new line, and Hank was deep in his labs. Jessica Drew kept herself occupied and Jessica Jones had her hands full with little Elle, who was apparently having some bad nights. Steve was thankful the bedrooms were soundproofed.  Normally, when things were calm like this and everyone was doing their own thing, Steve would spend some time with his best friend. He and Tony could have lunch, dinner, watch movies, or go to a play. Spar, fly, maybe even run together. When Tony holed up in his lab Steve would visit and hang out with his own desk in the corner packed with drawing supplies.

He’d been really involved with the job Fury had given him, though, and spent most of the last three days on the HEllecarrier talking to people and gathering information. He had an outline of the changes he was going to suggest, a plan, and was starting to organize everything on paper. Fury would have someone else put them in a computer when Steve was done, thank god.

It felt good to have direction. Steve was actually looking forward to the meeting and seeing everyone. Touching base was important. It helped him to know that everyone was taken care of.

He smiled at himself. There was a reason men in his unit used to call him a mother hen.

Suddenly he really wanted to see Tony. The other night when he’d found him sleeping in the study – Wait. He hadn’t seen Tony since the other day, when Tony had gone out for a flight, then nothing.

That couldn’t be right. He pulled his phone out of his pocket and hit the speed dial Tony had set up for him.“Potts.” 

“Pepper, it’s Steve. I just realized I haven’t seen Tony in a couple of days. Do you need me to come drag him out for a bit?”  It wouldn’t be the first time.                 

“Steve?” she sounded  puzzled. “Tony’s out of town. He left  on Tuesday.”

“Hm. Did he fly?”

“He took the plane,” Pepper said. “I’m not sure where he went. He didn’t say and he’s only called to check in once.”

“That’s strange.” Steve looked up as Logan entered, probably for the meeting. He looked casual and laid-back, as much as a grumpy mutant  killing machine could. “He have his his cell on him?”

“I can’t say for sure. And since Extremis, who can tell?”

Dammit, Tony, Steve thought, worried. He hadn’t looked well Monday night, and if something was wrong and he’d run away, Steve didn’t know what he was going to say or do. “I’ll give him a call,” he told Pepper. “Maybe he just needs a hand with whatever he’s up to.”

“Thank you, Steve. Tell him to call me, okay?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Logan was hovering in the doorway, headed for the kitchen but waiting for Steve. Steve hung up the phone and joined him.“Iron Man AWOL?” he drawled, idly scratching at his chin.

“Not exactly,” Steve temporized. No sense getting Tony in hot water with the others quite yet. Tony could have could’ve just decided to get away for a bit. Gone spelunking in the Tokyo subways.

“His scent was off,” Logan said, apropos of nothing.

“What?”

“His scent was off. Last week when I was here for supper.”

“What does ‘off’ mean exactly?” Steve asked sharply, but Logan ignored him, going to the giant stainless steel fridge and pulling out a carton of orange juice. Three swallows and he’d gulped it down, tossing the empty into the trash.“Two points.”

Steve stood stock still. He wanted to grab the shorter man and shake the answer out of him, but he knew better.

Logan finally looked at him, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.“It means he didn’t smell right.”

“So how did he smell then?” Steve shot back while moving toward the coffee pot. “Sick? Tired?” he poured a cup and added sugar.

“Like he’d been drinking?” The last words fell from his mouth despite his effort to keep them in and he regretted them instantly.

 “Nah,” Logan answered, opening cabinets and peering into them, seemingly randomly. “Not drinkin’. Sick, maybe. Not anything I’ve ever smelled before.”

Steve put the cup down, untasted.

“Why didn’t you say anything?”

“It was only a whiff Cap.” Logan shrugged. “I was gonna check again tonight. See if it had changed. Gotten stronger. Gone away.”

“Okay,” Steve sighed. “I- sorry.”

“Hmm.” Logan turned, crossed his arms, and stared at Steve.  His eyes could be, were, penetrating, and Steve often thought he was hiding a keen intelligence under his rough exterior. Even when he’d first met him in his defrosted twenties, he’d found Logan intimidating at times.

“He smells like other things, too, you know. When he’s around you.”

“What?”

“Never mind,” Logan gave a wolfish grin.  “Where’s the bug hiding his cookies now?”

***

The phone was ringing. Tony groaned, rolled over, and looked at it in disgust. He’d told Pepper he was going to be out of reach for several days, probably a week and she was supposed to tender his apologies to the team at today’s meeting. So he could sleep. He looked at the ID and blinked. Steve was supposed to be busy restructuring SHEILD so why was his number showing up on Tony’s phone? Moving was too hard, so Tony stayed where he was. He wasn’t sure he could even reach out and pick up the phone. His arms felt so heavy. He’d hardly been out of bed the past three days and Reed’s group had been drawn into some sort of other-worldly thing so even the stretchy scientist hadn’t been around to check up on him.

Tony had half expected this and was kind of glad of it, to be honest. If Reed saw him he’d have Tony in a hospital faster than Tony could fly the Iron Man suit at the rate things were going. Which was ironic since it wouldn’t answer him now.

Extremis wasn’t completly offline, most things still kind of worked, but losing contact with the armor hurt the worst.

Tony wasn’t sure when he’d eaten last. He hadn’t showered in awhile and he’d just resorted to using the waste can beside the bed as an emesis basin.

The phone started ringing again and with enormous effort Tony rolled away from it to face the wall and closed his eyes. He’d feel better the next time he woke up.

***

“He’s not answering the phone,” Steve told Pepper.

Tony’s assistant had arrived just as the meeting began to tell them that Tony was out of town and wouldn’t make it.

“He might just have the phone off,” she said, but she looked worried. Steve wondered, not for the first time, if Tony could turn off the phone, since it was in his head.

The others started looking  concerned. This didn’t have to be a crisis, though. Not yet.

Jarvis stepped into the room carrying a tray of snacks. He cleared his throat. Everyone look at him and Peter’s folded paper football fell forlornly to the floor as Danny ignored it.

“Excuse me,” Jarvis said. “But I took the liberty of checking Master Anthony’s wardrobe this morning. He did not pack a suitcase, nor was any significant amount of clothing missing.”

Steve and Pepper exchanged worried glances.

“Happy didn’t drive him anywhere.”

“None of the cars are out either,” Logan threw in.

Steve shot him a glance but the mutant just leaned back in his chair, idly rubbing a finger over the knuckles of the opposite hand.

“And the armor’s not here.” Steve had checked before the meeting. “We should check the airfield, see if he took the plane like he told Pepper he was going to.”

“Should I be worried?” Pepper asked suddenly.

“I think you already are,” Steve replied and in his head he added a codicil; so am I.

***

Thirty minutes later they had a better picture. Everyone was at the conference table, and now everyone definitely looked worried.

Jess had shown up with the baby, who was being bounced on Danny’s shoulder and MJ was home early from her photo shoot, grumbling.

“They didn’t have the permits,” she huffed, She came breezing in trailing the scent of a sunny day. “Permits! Like they’re some amateurs out of Skeeboken.”

She stopped behind Peter’s chair and waited expectantly. When no quip was forthcoming she looked around the room, one hand going to Peter’s shoulder.

“What’s wrong?”

Tony’s gone off the grid,” Peter answered, covering her hand with one of his.

Sometimes Steve envied them the length and depth of their relationship. He knew their story; they’d stayed together through so much, and somehow it only seemed to make them stronger. Outsiders might see Peter as a goofy, undisciplined geek, but everyone here knew better.

“Does that mean –“ MJ hesitated. “Is he okay? I mean, do we think he’s okay?”

“We don’t know,” Cage answered. Beside him Danny shifted baby Elle to his other shoulder. She squawked in protest, but it freed his arm so he could slide it over the back of Luke’s chair. Now that was a relationship Steve would never understand.

“We should start checking other locations,” Peter blurted. “How many places could he be? It’s not like he flew commercial!”

“But he had the armor. He could be anywhere.”

“No activity on his credit cards,” Steve spoke up. “So the question is, where would he go without clothes and money?”

“Right. First we should start looking at the other houses. I’ll get Happy and we’ll drive down to the Hamptons.” Pepper, always on the ball.

“I’ll take the bug ‘n a Quintjet, head out to Seattle,” Logan offered.

Soon arrangements were made to check all of Tony’s US homes, and they decided to worry about the overseas places after that.

Steve opted for the Manhattan penthouse, the closest location, since he could go up to the HEllecarrier if that didn’t pan out and begin a more serious search.

Tony could be inconsiderate, but he didn’t just vanish, not unless something was drastically wrong. Steve respected him, and Tony loved him like a brother. He wouldn’t let him worry, not after all they’d been through together. But he did have a tendency to get caught up in tinkering or a problem to the point where he forgot to surface long enough to tell his friends. Three days wasn’t really long enough to start this kind of panic but…

The group broke up and Steve went to the garage, debating modes of transportation. His motorcycle was fast and fun, but if Tony needed to taken anywhere, it wasn’t practical. So he settled on a sedate black Audi that Jarvis often drove, the least flashy of the lot.  Within minutes he was on the road headed for Manhattan traffic and trying very hard not to think about how badly he’d let Tony down. He should have seen this coming.

*****

The warmth had left him and Tony shivered, but no matter how deeply he burrowed into the blankets, the convulsions just got worse.

His teeth chattered hard enough to make his jaw ache, and his ears pounded with the sound.

No, wait –that was actual pounding. Somewhere...? Finally he placed the noise as the front door, but it was too well secured for anyone else to ever get in.

***

Nothing from inside the penthouse, but that wasn’t reassuring. He did have a key – he was pretty sure he was the only one, besides Pepper – but he didn’t want to just let himself in if Tony wasn’t there. It seemed too much like an invasion of privacy. The key was for emergencies, and he didn’t know yet if this was one. He’d been here before but never actually let himself in without Tony expecting him, which made him feel weird. [is this realistic?]

He just wanted to be sure Tony was okay.

Flipping open his phone, Steve finally caved and called Fury. Knowing the situation, the director of SHIELD answered promptly.

“Nick, it’s Steve. Can you have one of your techs look at the GPS on Tony’s phone? I hadn’t thought of it before this and it might speed things up

“That’s pretty a pretty invasive thing you want us to do, Cap,” Nick said gruffly. “You think I should invade the privacy of an American citizen without so much as a warrant?”

Tony would have called Fury something …impolite, at this point.

“Nick…” Steve sighed. “Could you just do it, please?” He didn’t have to ask if Fury had the information on file; the man had anything and everything.

“Don’t get your tights in a bunch, Solider. We’re checking it now.”

Steve waited patiently. Finally Fury spoke up.

“If you were thinking he’d about forty feet away from you, you’d be right, Cap.”

“That’s all I needed to know. Thanks, Sir.” He hung up the phone and sighed.

 Okay, so he knew where Tony was. Or at least where Tony’s phone was, though it wasn’t like Tony needed one since with Extremis staying connected took on a whole new meaning .

***

There was a sound Tony hardly recognized over the chattering of his teeth and the pounding of his heart.

With Extremis his hearing could be as good as Logan’s but right now his – modifications – didn’t seem to be working. He curled tighter around the pillow he held, vaguely aware that it was damp with sweat, along with the bed, wet, and he didn’t have the energy to care.

It wasn’t until he felt a hand on his face, fingers like coals on his skin that he remembered that sound. A key. A key in the door.

Footsteps? Maybe he’d heard footsteps. He wasn’t sure, right now.

“Oh, Tony,” a familiar, loved voice whispered.

Then Tony couldn’t hear anything.

***

This was worse than Steve had imagined. He’d tried to keep calm when Tony couldn’t be found, when they began looking for him, and he hadn’t allowed himself to think of the things that could have gone wrong.

Now as he touched Tony’s face, his forehead, those worries bubbled to the surface. His skin was so cold. Steve  checked his pulse. Then again,  keeping his fingers pressed deeply, the faint beat anchoring him as he shakily opened his phone.

He had thought that Tony was drinking again, had gone off on a binge. He’d have been ashamed, or afraid to come home, but Steve would have forgiven him.  Helped the way he hadn’t the one time it really mattered, that he would never forgive himself for. It was something he and Tony had in common, this inability to forgive themselves for major screw-ups. Though, as always, Tony took it to new extremes.

Steve winced, knowing that what Tony had done to himself, it probably had something to do with Extremis. The ultimate example of both Tony’s genius and lack of self  worth. Extremis. 

“Hank,” he said, as soon as the call connected. “I found him. He’s here. He’s here and he’s very sick.”

“What kind of sick?” he asked immediately.

“I don’t know. He’s – he’s cold, but the bedding is wet. I think he’s had a fever. He’s been out since I got here.”

“I’ll get there as fast as I can.”

“Now, what should I do?”

“Can you get him warm? It couldn’t hurt.”

“I can do that.”

“Won’t be long.” Hank hung up.

Steve sat on the bed beside Tony. The stillness disturbed him. His friend was wrapped so tightly in the blankets it looked like it should hurt. He had a painful moment of doubt as he began unwrapping them; Tony was limp and unresponsive. Was this really the best thing to do? Should he wait for Hank? The room stank, stale sweat and vomit, he should clean it up…

The clammy chill of Tony’s skin decided for him. Getting him warm was the important thing right now. Hank would do an examination so all Steve could do was make Tony comfortable until then. God, he hoped this would work.

Tony was nude beneath the bedding, all of him clammy and cool and limp.There was no sign of the under-armor and Steve wondered what that meant. None of this could mean anything good, because Extremis should have been keeping Tony well, making him better, he shouldn’t be in this condition at all.

Steve left Tony’s side long enough to grab clean bedding from the linen closet, sheets and blankets and a quilted green velvet comforter he remembered from last Christmas. He’d teased Tony about it and Tony had defended himself, saying it was ‘festive’.

He set Tony in a chair, wrapped in a dry blanket, while he spread the dry, warm velvet over the bed and went into the bathroom, briefly debating the merits of tub versus shower. The tub would be awkward and potentially dangerous, just because a human body was a hard thing to manage since Steve would need to hold his head above water, and there wasn’t a way to do that comfortably since there wasn’t really room for two people, not for any length of time.

The shower on the other hand was huge, with multiple showerheads and a high tech temperature system. There was also a bench in the back; Steve could adjust the water to spray directly on Tony while holding him. Decided, he turned it all on, setting it to just above warm, and stuck a bunch of extra large towels on the heating rack. He didn’t want to shock Tony’s system and throw it any more out of whack, so they’d work their way to warmer temperature wise slowly.

Steve returned to the bedroom wearing only the tight, dark blue boxer-briefs Tony had given him for his birthday the year before. At the time it had seemed like an odd gift for a man to give his best friend, but Steve knew that Tony wasn’t  like other people and so he’d just gone with it. They were surprisingly comfortable under the leather, and Tony had given him enough pairs to last a decade or so.

Steve studied Tony looking for any clues to his illness, but there wasn’t anything. Tony hadn’t moved. There weren’t any rashes or bruising or anything really except the paleness and the chill of his skin. He looked thin too, but… that wasn’t all that strange really since Tony seemed to think eating was for average normal people, not genius business playboy superheroes.

Steve picked him up and winced. Tony felt… limp and loose, cold and damp. It was almost like he was de– no, he wasn’t going to think that. It was never okay to compare his best friend’s body to a corpse. Even though he’d just done it. Biting his lip hard enough to sting, Steve carefully carried Tony into the bathroom and straight into the shower.

Cradling Tony to his body, Steve sat, sharing his own body heat and keeping a tight grip on Tony’s hips to hold on him in the water.

The tiles were slick and Tony didn’t move when Steve shifted and water splashed his face.

“Tony.”  

Steve wanted to be heard over the rushing of the water around them but didn’t want to shout. Tony got  upset when he thought Steve was angry with him. And Steve wasn’t angry. He was worried. This motionless gaping silence was deeply disturbing. Even in the armor Tony was a vibrant personality. When he was working, concentrating; some part of him was just always moving. Steve had watched him dance with excitement, tools and all, unaware and unashamed.

“Tony, look at me. Please.”

He moved his hands, one around Tony’s waist, the other pulling Tony’s head to his shoulder. He  wasn’t getting warmer.

“Tony, you’re scaring me.”

Steve shook him ever-so-gently. Still nothing. Balancing his friend on his lap, Steve reached over and turned the temperature up a few degrees, the difference instantly noticeable to him. He couldn’t tell if Tony felt it.

Tony was lying against him at this point, side-to-chest, one of Steve’s arms supporting his back, kind of like how kids sit on Santa’s lap in the mall. The position was awkward for someone of Tony’s size, so Steve ended up lifting him and bringing him in closer, hands moving from waist to under the arms till they were chest to chest, Tony’s forehead lolling against his shoulder and Steve scooted to the edge of the ledge, legs spread for balance. Tony’s legs ended up spread limply to either side of his upper thighs and hips. Awkward, but it would have to do.

Steve pressed his lips into sodden black hair. It curled when it was wet, something he’d noticed before. It was cute. In fact there were a lot of things about Tony that could be endearing, and Steve found it secretly amusing, because he knew how Tony would react to being called ‘cute’.

Steve leaned in, as close as he could get to Tony’s ear, and almost whispered, low and intense. “You need to wake up Tony. You’re really starting to scare me here.”

Tony moved and Steve felt a frantic wave of relief. Lifting his hand to hold Tony’s heavy head he was suddenly inches away, plenty close enough to see the bloodshot blue eyes as they opened. Slowly.

Tony looked…confused.

“Steve?” he mumbled.

“Tony. Thank God.” Steve wanted to hug him hard, but he didn’t. He’d been careful, he wasn’t going to hurt Tony by accident. It would just be too easy, too risky, not knowing what was wrong.

“Steve?” Such a lost sound. Steve closed his own eyes for a minute, fighting sudden tears. When he opened them again, the blue was gone, and Tony’s head sagged forward.

“Tony? Tony!” Steve almost stood, almost shook him in disbelief when he realized Tony was unconscious again. He caught himself, and caught Tony’s head, held it to his chest. Neck. Close.

Tony had woken once, he’d do it again.

Steve clung to that thought desperately as the water continued to fall around them.

***

"It must be Extremis. I just can't figure out what it's doing or why. I need to call Henry McCoy. Steve?"

"Do what you need to."

He was warm, finally warm. Everything hurt, but god, at least he was warm.

"Hank? Hank! I think he's waking up."

Something moved, and nausea spread. Tony choked and gagged and tried to swallow, but his body wasn't responding correctly. Was he paralyzed? Had he been hurt in a fight?

"Tony? Tony, can you hear me? Hang on. Come on, hang on, Tony. Please-"

He didn't think he'd ever heard Steve so desperate.

And as darkness took him he wondered why.

***

“He started to wake up – he was choking!” Steve said urgently, sitting very still on the bed, Tony’s head was in his lap where he had lifted it. Dry and warm, Tony was still a dead weight, and barely breathing.

“I’m gonna get a mask on him,” Hank Pym said, reaching into the tackle box he’d brought with him. It contained a multitude of miniaturized medical equipment, enough to provide a small hospital. It was too bad the technology couldn’t be used by anyone else, Steve thought. Hank’s trick would allow this type of equipment to be taken anywhere, deep into third world countries. It would be a kind of miracle.

The kind he was hoping for now. Hank was fitting an oxygen mask over Tony’s face, which was drawn tight with pain even though he wasn’t aware. Feeling as if he were taking liberties, Steve slid his hands and stroked Tony’s face. He wanted to smooth out those wrinkles, ease the pain from the pale skin.

He ran a finger from the bridge of Tony’s nose to his hairline, over and over slowly, and it calmed Steve, probably more than it did his friend.

***

There was something pleasant amidst in all the pain. Tony could barely register it but… was someone touching him? Touching his face? He sighed, and wished he could snuggle into it.

He scarcely remembered the last time he’d been touched like this, with simple kindness. His mother stopped cuddling him long before her death, and his father…the less said the better. He’d never hit Tony, exactly, but he’d always been rough with him. Expected too much, mentally and physically. Emotionally. Anthony Edward Stark didn’t need coddling and hugs, he needed to push himself in math and physics when, maybe… there had been times he’d actually needed a lap or a hug and a story more.

He didn’t think about it often these days, since he never lacked for physical comfort when he wanted it. Women were lovely and sometimes soft and always warm and they smelled good. Sex was as much of an athletic activity as it was a comfort, though there was seldom any kindness to it. People always expected things before during and after so, though it was nice… little actual caring was given or received.

This tender touch undid him and he just wished he could open his eyes.

***

“He’ll be here as soon as he can,” Hank said, leaning over the bed and checking Tony’s pulse again. He was hooked to a heart monitor, the beeping quiet and irregular. Time and again Steve found himself holding his breath for the seconds between beats, afraid the next one wouldn’t come. 

“I’ve given him a stimulant and steroids to make breathing easier. I tried to call Reed, but nobody’s answering.”

Hank stepped back and laid a hand on Steve’s shoulder.

“We’ll figure this out. He’ll get better.”

He could hardly get worse, Steve thought, but he knew that wasn’t really true. He remembered Tony before the artificial heart, before the transplant. He suspected he was lucky that he hadn’t seen him right before Extremis – Tony had been dying, beaten to a pulp within the armor.

Steve had seen that often enough. He never needed to see it again.

“Tony,” he leaned close to whisper. “Tony, wake up. I need to see your eyes.”

As his friend lay there and didn't respond, Steve wondered if this wasn't worse. Not knowing what was wrong, not knowing how to fight it.

Only able to sit here and hold Tony and pray that something could be done.

***

There was a voice, whispering in his brain. Familiar, loved. The pain seemed to be growing; his head felt like it was going to explode. Tony clung to that voice, tried to follow it back into the light.

“Someday you’re going to have to tell me about that time in Tokyo. Reed won’t talk about it, and Richards isn’t embarrassed by anything. I mean, the man has some kind of personality disorder or something, he’s so unaware of social mores. So if Reed won’t talk about it, it must have been spectacular. I know you were wearing a dress when they picked you up and I’ve never really wanted to ask, but I hate the thought that now I might never know.”

There was a rough chuckle and Tony recognized the voice. Steve’s voice, rough, as if he’d been talking for hours. Those fingers, strong and warm, continued to pet his face, and Tony sighed. This time he felt it, almost relief, though it lasted a scant second. Steve had stopped talking.

Tony wanted to say something. He opened his mouth. His lips were cracked, so dry. Fingers touched them.

“Tony? Are you in there?”

Yes, Tony want to say desperately. His eyes burned as he slit them open. Yes, Steve, I hear you.

“I’m here, Tony. We’re taking care of you.”

But you shouldn’t have to.

***

Steve had almost dozed off. Hank was in an armchair McCoy had carried in from the living room and Henry was at the desk in the corner, which was now covered in paperwork and computer equipment. It was good that it was a large desk, but Steve wasn’t sure how Tony would feel about the antique leather getting smushed.  Which was silly because Tony didn’t really worry about those things, even when Steve thought he should. If it didn’t have an engine, Tony wasn’t fussed.

He hadn’t meant to rest but the days of worry, and the stress of the past hours, had added up. The bed was comfortable, now that it was remade, fresh and clean. Tony was a warm weight beside him. If the circumstances hadn’t been so dire, it could have been any night they’d fallen asleep in close proximity to one another, watching television or just talking. There had always been this comfort level between them physically.

Beast was mumbling to himself, the sound almost soothing, with the rhythm and cadence of grumbled song. Steve had one hand out, resting lightly on Tony’s chest just to assure himself that Tony was breathing, that his heart was beating.

And then it wasn’t.

For a couple of seconds Steve, almost asleep, didn’t realize. Then he jumped up, grabbing Tony’s shoulders, shaking him.

“His heart’s stopped!” he shouted, climbing onto the bed, both hands on Tony’s chest. He yanked the covers down. “He’s not breathing!”

The monitor blared a shrill alarm. Hank was on the bed, too, on the other side, his hands fumbling with an IV line and then Beast was there, hands swift and sure with a syringe as Steve tilted Tony’s head back and began CPR.

“God dammit, Tony,” he panted, “Don’t you dare. Don’t you dare do this!

Beast was watching the monitor, Tony’s wrist in one massive hand. “Thirty seconds,” he said, his voice steady and low. Steve bit back another curse and continued the breathing as Hank counted out the beats. As he compressed Tony’s chest, Steve found himself hoping that it hurt, that the pain would wake Tony from wherever he had gone.

“One, two, three, four, five, breathe.”

Steve felt Tony’s chest rise as he pushed air into his friend’s lungs, and Hank was still counting.

“One, two, three, four, five, breathe.”

“One minute.” Beast sounded so calm, confident. How could he sound like that? “Should I get the defibrillator?”

“Not yet.” Hank gasped. This was hard work. “We don’t know how it’s going to react with Extremis.”

Hank was the closest thing they had to an Extremis expert and Beast was the medical. Together they would save Tony. Steve had to believe that.

“Tony!” Beast leaned in close to Steve and shouted. It was very loud. “Mr. Stark! Iron Man! We need you to come back now!”

“One, two, three, four – I’ve got something!” Hank shouted as the monitor beeped timidly. The sound grew stronger and he leaned back, taking deep breaths, but Steve continued breathing into Tony’s lungs, providing him with oxygen, until he felt Tony’s lips move under his own. They were softer than they had been, treated with lip balm, warm. Steve held his position seconds longer, not really aware he’d stopped the breathing and was now kissing his friend but then he pulled away, both hands going to grab one of Tony’s.

Blue eyes fluttered open, barely visible, and then closed again. But Tony was breathing, and his heart was beating, and Steve thought that maybe he could have an attack now.

“Well,” Beast rumbled. “That was exciting.”

***

“I think we need to move him.”

Steve half sat from his position on the bed. He’d hardly moved in the last twelve hours, unwilling to leave Tony. He was afraid that his friend was aware, somewhere inside his head, of the pain Hank and McCoy couldn’t seem to stop.

“We can’t treat him properly here,” McCoy said, coming closer to the bed. He looked as ragged as Steve felt. “He needs to be in a hospital.”

“No,” Hank said firmly. “He can’t. Right now we don’t know what Extremis might do – it could turn off all life support, and we’d never know it till it was too late.

“No, you’re right,” Steve agreed. He didn’t know what else could be done in a hospital that these weren’t already doing.

“He’s stable now,” McCoy added. He was sagging against the wall across from the bed, obviously as worn out as Hank. In his X-Men uniform, he’d come directly from some sort of battle, almost two days ago. It was hard to believe they’d been in this room so long. “But we can’t predict how long this will last, or what will happen next. His heart’s failed twice in the last day. He’ll need to be constantly monitored.”

“We can do that,” Hank said, “At the Tower. We can hire people to come in if we need to.”

“We have excellent facilities at the Mansion as well,” Henry offered quietly.

“No.” Steve reached automatically for Tony, hands touching his neck, checking his pulse, temperature. Tony’s chest rose and fell evenly now. “He won’t want strangers to see him this way. We can take care of him. The Avengers take care of their own.”

“As do X-Men,” added McCoy. “Will you allow me to arrange transportation? I do believe we have more experience with clandestine medical care than your organization.”

“Yes,” Steve said, almost smiling. Listening to McCoy sometimes sounded like talking to a friendly encyclopedia. “Thank you.”

“I’ll call the others and warn them,” Hank said tiredly. “Jan’s going to kick my ass for not telling her sooner.”

“I’ll protect you, my friend,” McCoy said gallantly. They left the bedroom together.

Steve lay down on the bed again, close to Tony, just touching him. He didn’t want Tony to feel alone or abandoned. He wasn’t sure why, but that felt terribly important.

“Please wake up, Tony,” he said for the thousandth time. “I need you to wake up.”

***

Something was different. Tony could feel it.

He drifted, unsure of where he was or why, but it didn’t seem to matter very much. He knew he was cold, but it was hard to care. He hardly noticed.

As he became more aware he heard voices around him sometimes. He felt hands, touching him. Gentle hands, careful. Large and small. He wasn’t really aware of them, just the vague knowledge that they were hands, they belonged to his friends, and that was enough.

There was a feeling of safety in those hands. A hint of warmth that escaped when they left. He didn’t understand it, and it was too hard to try.

Eventually the voices spoke words, some he recognized. His name, that was clear, and Steve. He knew that name, knew it was important. He clung to it when he could, as his mind searched for something. He wasn’t sure what he was looking for exactly, but he knew something was different.

Something was missing.

In an effort to find it, Tony opened his eyes.

At first he didn’t see anything. Fear spiked through him as and he wondered if he was blind. Or dead. Was he dead? He could be dead, he was so cold. It would only make sense after what –

No, no, no, not dead. He’d tried that before and death didn’t hurt this much. Of course, he hadn’t been dead for long, not like Steve – Steve.

Now he knew what he was seeing. It was hard to believe, but, if his eyes weren’t lying – and that might be a damned big if – that was Steve.

Lying on whatever bed Tony was in, on his side, facing Tony.

Tony let himself study his friend. Steve looked drawn and tired. Too pale even for a blond. He was wearing the old, thin grey sweats he used for working out alone. And why did Tony know that? Because he spent entirely too much time thinking about his friend.

Steve was holding Tony’s hand. His left hand, the one he used for everything important. Holding it in both of his, which almost swallowed it. Tony had always thought his own were big, they certainly got in the way often enough when he was working on delicate machinery, but Steve’s hands were huge. His hands, his body, his heart.

Tony’s hand was very warm, encased in both of Steve’s. The rest of him…okay, he wasn’t going to think about that right now. Not thinking about the cold.

Trying to move just a tiny bit, he had to bite back a groan, so yeah, maybe ignoring his body wasn’t going to work.

Nothing seemed to be working. His arms and legs were so heavy… it was hard to breathe. He concentrated on his breathing for a minute, and realized there was something on his face. The too-familiar feel of an oxygen mask. Cool, metallic air flowed into him. It felt good, in a weird way. He wondered why. In the past oxygen masks had felt intrusive and confining. He’d worn enough of them to know. But this one almost felt like a relief.

He tried to make sense of it all. Put things in order. Order was important.

He’d…been sick? Maybe. He sort of remembered it. There’d been shouting, and maybe water? He’d been cold. He definitely remembered the cold. He shivered, because he was still cold, and he hurt.

The movement was enough to rouse his friend and Steve pushed up on an elbow, leaning over Tony, his face tight with worry. Steve’s hands tightened and Tony couldn’t hold back a wince. It hurt. That shouldn’t have hurt.

“Tony? Tony? Can you hear me? Are you awake?” Steve pulled one hand free and reached toward him. Tony felt his own eyes widen as Steve gently ghosted his fingers down Tony’s face. It was an – intimate gesture. Nothing he’d ever experienced before with Steve.

He opened his mouth to say he was okay, wanted to take that worry off Steve’s face, to press his own face into that touch. None of that happened. Suddenly frightened, Tony tugged at his hand, and his arm barely responded. It didn’t move more than an inch, even when he concentrated and pulled.

It’s okay, it’s okay, you’ve been sick…” Steve was still touching him. It felt almost familiar. There was no reason for that.

Mmmgghhdd…” Tony tried to force out a word.

Shhh, shhh…” Steve moved closer, lying back down. They were almost touching from shoulders to knees. Steve moved his hand, the one holding Tony’s, and tucked both to his chest. “It’s okay. Everything’s okay.”

God, he was warm. Tony made a sound that wasn’t a word, and tried to get closer.

“Are you cold? You were running a fever and we had to cool you down,” Steve said quietly. He actually moved closer, and Tony shivered again. “Here, I’ve got you.” A heavy comforter was pulled over both of them.

 

Tony wondered again if maybe he’d died, because this was a type of heaven; Steve Rogers throwing an arm over him and cuddling up to him, pressing Tony’s head gently to his broad, safe shoulder. Tony just sighed and closed his eyes, willing to put up with any amount of pain for this touch, Steve’s kindness.

He didn’t know how long he lay quiet. It seemed like a while. He could feel Steve breathing against him. How long had it been since he felt that with anyone?

“Are you still awake?”

Tony opened his eyes. He was looking at Steve’s shirt. That was okay. He tried to nod.

“Oh. Good. You’ve been asleep a long time.” Steve’s hand was on the back of his head. He was – petting? – Tony’s hair. This was getting surreal.

Humnghpf?” Tony tried to ask what had happened.

“You’ve been sick,” Steve answered, again. He understood. He’d always understood Tony better than anyone else. “I think you were sick that night I found you asleep in the library.”

Tony tried to shake his head, no, but Steve’s hand kept it in place and Tony wasn’t strong enough to move against that gentle grip. He shivered again, harder.

“It’s okay. I’m not mad,” Steve crooned – crooned­. Tony swallowed, his throat dry. It hurt and he made another sound. This one made Steve tighten his grip, just a tiny bit.

How had Steve known Tony was worried, that Steve’d be angry with him? That Tony would do almost anything to avoid that?

“Reed and Hank and Henry think it’s Extremis. Some sort of immune reaction that’s gone wrong – now it’s attacking your systems. Reed says it’s –“ Steve stopped and Tony felt his breathing speed up. Steve’s chest was solid, sure. He didn’t get frightened, not like this. Tony made an encouraging noise. “It – it seems like it’s trying to rewrite you. On a genetic level.”

Tony thought it had already done that. He knew it had reprogrammed his brain, like he was just another computer. If it hadn’t gotten to his DNA, he’d badly underestimated it. Or maybe overestimated it, because the nanites weren’t supposed to have the level of Artificial Intelligence necessary to do what they was doing now. They shouldn’t be thinking for themselves, not like this.

He tried to wriggle free, wanted to see Steve’s face. His friend wasn’t letting him move, though, so he gave up and relaxed into the embrace again. It felt better pressed up against Steve like this. Honestly made the pain worth it.

“There’s more,” Steve continued, “But I don’t think you need to hear it now. You stay with me for a while. It’s good to see you awake.”

Pressed close to Steve, cocooned under the comforter, Tony thought he might rest. He was still cold, but it was getting better.

“Just stay awake for a while, okay?” Steve’s head was very close to his. Tony felt him – nuzzle? – Tony’s ear, inciting a shiver. “I’ve missed you. Tony.”

Tony nodded.  It was hard to know what he should be doing, so he would do what Steve wanted. That was usually a good plan.

The warmth was making it easier to move but there was still nothing normal about it. This. The pain was there, the heaviness, and his chest was tight. He hoped he hadn’t damaged his heart again. After Extremis he’d thought he was done with that nightmare. It didn’t seem quite fair that it had turned against him. But then, when had anything in his life ever been fair?

“Do you mind if I keep talking? I’ve kind of gotten into the habit of it. You don’t have to answer. Just stay awake, okay? Stay with me.”

Tony tried to nod his head again, but it was too heavy. Even his eyelids seemed to weigh a hundred pounds and it was a struggle to keep them up. His friend made it easier, though, because he kept talking. His mouth, strong and mobile, drew Tony’s eyes.

“You’re at home, we’re in your room. Everyone’s come to see you. Pepper’s activating her proxy, so she can handle the Board for you.”

Tony only vaguely knew what Steve was talking about. He’d set Pepper up as a proxy years ago, when he was trying to get some things in order, to protect his control of the company in case he was wounded or, God forbid, got sick again. Plus, she probably knew the company better than he did.

Nnng?” he slurred, upset by the sound but really wanting to talk.

“We haven’t said anything official yet,” Steve told him. His hand stroked the back of Tony’s neck. It felt so good Tony almost forgot that he was in pain. “We wanted you to have a say in it.”

So they’d thought he would wake up. That was good.

Hrm?”

“Henry or Hank will explain it all better than I do, later.” Steve seemed to be stalling. With a huge amount of effort Tony poked him weakly, his finger almost collapsing under the pressure.

“Are you hungry? We’ve had you on intravenous feedings…”

He couldn’t shake his head. He tried. It felt like his hair might have vibrated-

“Thirsty, then? Let me get you some water.”

Steve sat halfway up and leaned over. His hand appeared in front of Tony’s face holding a glass with a straw. Still supported by Steve’s torso, Tony was able to take a few sips. Steve talked the whole time.

“There, that’s good. That IV stuff just doesn’t wet your throat, does it? Okay, not too much, don’t want you sick to your stomach. You were – no, I’m sorry, we don’t need to talk about that.”

As he pulled the glass away Tony tried to follow it with his tongue. Steve gave a rusty, pained chuckle.

Setting the glass aside, Steve turned back to Tony and re-settled them. He was leaning against the headboard and Tony only just noticed that they were in his bed. In his room, though it was dimly lit by a lamp on the highboy, on the other side of the room.

That lamp hadn’t been there. He hadn’t put a lamp there. That was where he dropped his wallet and anything else that happened to be in his pockets when he undressed from wherever he’d been. The keys and coins had scratched the finish.

It was a delicate piece, 17th century French. The little brass reading lamp with its tilted green glass shade – rather plebian and cheap-looking – really didn’t go with the rich mahogany finish of the dresser.

He tried to look around, to see if anything else had changed but his head still wasn’t moving when and where he wanted it too.

“Here, it’s okay — want to sit up? I’ve got you.” Steve deftly maneuvered him into a reclining position against Steve’s chest. When had Steve gotten so handy at moving sick people? He really was good at everything.

With his head riding on Steve’s shoulder, now Tony could see other additions to the room. There was a large folding table he didn’t recognize covered with a cloth. It had a lot of equipment sitting on it. There was a heart monitor in the corner nearest the bed. He stiffened, feeling suddenly colder.

It’s okay, Tony,” Steve told him, his hand petting Tony’s hair again. “Don’t be afraid. We’re going to figure this out.”

Hnghwhhh…” the words just wouldn’t come. Panicked, Tony reached for the nearest cell phone – Steve’s – with Extremis.

The world dissolved in sparkles of pain.

***

“He was awake, and he tried to talk,” Steve explained quietly to Henry as the furry blue doctor looked Tony over. Steve had moved to the side of the bed, sitting, but hadn’t left entirely. Poor Tony didn’t have much privacy left. “He drank a little water, and then he just – passed out. His eyes rolled back in his head and he was gone.”

He reached over, past Henry’s arm, to touch Tony’s face. “It was very – sudden.”

“I’m thinking he tried to use Extremis,” Henry said. “We’ll have to make it clear to him that he can’t. Not now.”

Steve nodded, only half listening. He’d thought of that. Tony would fight it; Extremis was such a big part of his life. Really, it was the culmination of his life’s work. Not being able to use it… that would be worse than being sick.

And Steve had to admit that Tony was really sick. They’d had specialists in. Doctors prominent in their fields, who had run tests and studied results and not been told about Extremis, though it wasn’t exactly a secret. Cardiac specialists, rheumatologists, immunologists. A parades of ists. If Tony were conscious he’d be asking for Dr. House. The thought made Steve smile. Henry noticed.

“And how have you been doing?”  He crossed large furry arms over a large furry chest and Steve wondered if he wasn’t obsessing a little bit.

He was going to shrug, but that was rude, and Henry deserved better. And he knew he was cutting it close having dedicated all of his resources to helping Tony for the last two months. Scooting slightly closer to him, Steve shook his head.

“I’m – alright.”

“It won’t do him any good if you stop eating, stop working,” Henry pointed out.

“I am working,” Steve protested weakly. He waved at the mess on the floor beside the bed, papers scattered and half-stacked in no recognizable order.

Fury had been surprisingly – well, astonishingly, for Fury – patient with him, though he’d also pushed pretty hard to get Tony moved to a SHIELD facility for care. Steve knew Nick was almost as worried about Tony was he was about Extremis accessing nuclear launch codes and starting World War III while Tony was unconscious. Almost.

“Have you left that bed since I was here this morning?” Henry tried to visit twice a day. Hank, too, but it was a much shorter journey for Hank. Steve knew that today Henry had been flown in by Angel – Warren Worthington – because he’d seen them land on the balcony outside the bedroom. It was less obvious than the X-Men’s jet, he supposed.

“Yes,” Steve answered honestly. He had.

“Have you left this room?” Steve actually wanted to look down, like a little kid caught telling a lie.

Henry sorted softly. “I thought so.”

Steve resisted the urge to roll his eyes and glared instead. “I’m doing everything I need to do.”

“Except eat, or bathe regularly, attend meetings, train, fight bad guys, or spend time with anyone outside this room-”

“I don’t need to do any of that right now.”

“Yes, you do.” A new voice spoke up. Steve looked at the door and winced. Jan walked in, dressed to the nines carrying some strange designer bag that Steve couldn’t help noticing was hideously ugly. Maybe it was functional? No, not at that size… “We need you in the real world, too, Steve.” She came and stood on the other side of the bed.

She reached down and stroked Tony’s hair gently. He didn’t stir.

“The team can do without me until he gets better.” Steve’s hand slid down to Tony’s neck, checking his pulse idly like he did a hundred times a day. Just to be sure.

“Steve…” Jan looked at Henry, who just looked back. Steve knew what was coming and he didn’t want to hear it.

“Tony would want me to call Dr. House right about now,” he laughed awkwardly. “Pepper’s looked; all the best diagnosticians in the country have been sent his file, as much as they’re allowed to read, anyhow. None of them seem interested in the case, once they find out you’re already on it, Henry.”

“He’s not getting better,” Henry said as gently as he could. Steve could tell. He could see how careful they were being. Why were they being so careful? He was Steve Rogers, Captain America. He could handle bad news. He’d been doing it as long as he could remember, especially where Tony Stark was concerned.

“You can’t hide in here, Steve,” Jan’s hand touched his shoulder now. When had she come over to his side of the bed? “We need you. Your friends, the team… The world needs you.”

“I can’t –“ he had to stop and swallow. “I can’t leave him. In here, alone, sick.” He’d left Tony that way once before. When Tony had truly needed him, Steve had walked away and Tony had forgiven him but - it was one of the reasons Steve always forgave Tony.

“We won’t leave him alone. You know better than that,” Jan scolded gently. “There will be someone in here, with him, every moment. It just doesn’t have to be you.”

“Others are worried about him to, Steve, and they would appreciate the opportunity to demonstrate how much they care for him as well.” Henry added.

Steve lowered his head. His eyes stung. How foolish was that. Tony was sick, certainly, but no one was saying he was in mortal danger. He wasn’t terminal. He was just sick. They would figure out what was wrong and he’d get better.

Jan’s hand squeezed his shoulder and when he looked back up her eyes were bright. She and Tony had been friends long before Steve was thawed out. In moments like this it showed.

“So,” he gave his head another shake, deliberately not looking at Tony. “Give me the whole story.”

“The team or Tony?” Henry asked.

“The team first.” Steve needed to know what he’d missed. He’d hardly left the room at all. Someone brought food; he ate it, showered in Tony’s bathroom, sometimes slept in the same clothes. Or they went away and came back clean.

Wow, he really hadn’t been paying attention.

Henry nodded at Jan, who took a deep breath.

“It’s not too terrible. Really just one big thing; some right-wing group got a picture of Luke and Jess and Danny and the baby out together. They were at a mall; we think someone took it on a cell phone. You know how careful Luke and Danny are, they’re almost never physically affectionate in public. It was really just a touch. They would definitely have snatched the camera if they’d noticed.”

Steve winced. “How bad?”

“The right-wingers tried calling child services last week but Pepper knows someone who knows someone and as soon as they found out who was being turned in they backed off. But we don’t know if it’s gonna last. This could turn into a media feeding frenzy.”

“That’s bad.” It was. The three of them seemed really – happy – together. Even if Steve completely didn’t understand it. “What have we done to hold them off?”

“Pepper’s set them up with an excellent attorney. The worst part is that it’s made Luke and Danny pretty anxious, and for both of them that turns into anger pretty quickly.”

“As it does for many of us,” Henry said softly.

“Jess must have her hands full between them and the baby,” Steve said.

“In other news, MJ has an audition she’s stressing over, Peter’s dealing with everything by staying in costume twenty hours a day, and Logan’s gone off on his own.”

Steve sighed and sagged a bit. He’d really let things slide. He was the team leader; keeping track of everyone’s health, mental and otherwise, was his job.

“Jessica’s fine, by the way.” Jan grimaced. “Hank’s buried in his lab, but that’s not too different than usual. Except now he has a better reason to not come out.”

“Ouch, I’m sorry,” Steve said taking Jan’s hand and squeezing back. He takes a deep breath and reached to touch Tony, just a hand on his chest, the blanket warm and soft under his fingers. He could feel movement, faint but steady, as Tony breathed.

“Okay. Dr. McCoy?”

“As I said previously,” Henry gave a small, graceful shrug. “He’s not getting better. There are no obvious infections or illnesses, no foreign substances in his body other than Extremis, and the Extremis particles are inert; either out of operation or just unresponsive.”

There was a quiet knock at the door, and Peter’s tousled head peered around it. Jan gestured at him and he came in nervously.

“I made the schedule,” he said, quietly, as if he was afraid of waking Tony. Steve appreciated it.

“Just a minute,” Jan told him, and she nodded at Henry. He shifted; stretching slightly, and Steve wondered how hard he’d been working on Tony’s behalf. It seemed that they’d all lost some clarity.

“There’s nothing more I can do for him,” Henry said gruffly. He seemed embarrassed. “He seems to have stabilized; he’s not getting worse. He’s also not improving significantly, but this may just be a holding pattern. With time and rest Extremis may recover from whatever its done and he may begin to recover spontaneously. Or he may worsen, but there’s really no way to tell. His waking today is a hopeful sign.”

“But…?” Steve asked carefully.

“There is no way to tell.” Hang shrugged again. He looked defeated.

“So what do we do?”

“We keep looking,” Jan, said. Peter nodded.

“We keep searching for the cause, testing new hypotheses,” Henry answered. “And in the meantime provide comfort, companionship, and supportive care while monitoring him closely.”

Steve sighed again. It wasn’t as bad as he’d expected.

“That’s why I made a schedule,” Peter said. “So people can sign up to sit with him when you’re not here. We’re not going to leave him alone.”

“Oh,” Steve said. He looked at Peter and Jan. Peter was smiling, a half-scared maybe-he’ll-hate-it smile, and Jan looked worried. “That’s really nice of you.”

“We’re sending copies around, too,” Peter said. “There’s gonna be a webpage, a private one that nobody else can get on, of course. But people that have access can just log on and check the schedule. So everyone can help, not just us.”

It would be good to let the others help, Steve thought. Everyone wanted to feel like they were doing something for a friend. He looked at Henry again.

“We really don’t know how long this will last?”

“If I had to make an educated guess?” Henry dropped his eyes, then looked back up at Steve, serious. “It could take a long time for him to recover.”

A long time. How long was that? It had already been almost three months, how much longer-

“Okay.” Steve nodded at him, and stood. “I guess there are things for me to do.”

He leaned over the bed and stroked Tony’s face. He needed a shave. Steve would give him one when he returned later that night.

He faced the others.

“Peter, on that schedule – did you include nighttime shifts?”

Peter nodded, his eyes wide. He could look so young sometimes, for someone who had seen and experienced so much.

“Block them out. Unless something changes, I’ll be here every night.”

Peter nodded again. “What times?”

“Say…” Eleven was too late and eight was probably too early. Nine? Could he say nine? And six in the morning? No, it wasn’t fair to ask anyone to be here that early… And nine was probably too early as well. There would probably still be things he needed to do.

It wasn’t like he couldn’t come in whenever he wanted, even if someone else was there. He hated to think it, could hardly admit it to himself, but he would miss the quiet, private time he’d had with Tony. Caring for him, holding him. But he didn’t have to give that up. Just cut back so he could keep up with other responsibilities.

“Eleven,” he said. “I might get in early, but eleven sounds good. And seven a.m., so I can start running again.”

He actually woke at six, but he didn’t have to leave the room right away. That would give him time to get Tony ready for company. Get him tidied up after the night. Some nights were bad. Sometimes Tony got sick. Messy sick. He wouldn’t want anyone else to see him that way.

“And I want it on there, in big letters –“ Peter looked worried again, “If he gets sick or gets worse or anything, I get called.”

“Of course,” Jan told him. “We’re not trying to take him away from you, Steve.”

Then she surprised the hell out of him, stepping up and giving him tight hug. Startled, he hugged her back, surprised at how natural, how good it felt.

“It’ll be okay,” she whispered.

Steve wasn’t sure he believed that but he’d make himself. Tony would get better. It might take time, but they had that.

They did.

* * *

The next time Tony woke he was cold.

He opened his eyes reluctantly, could already tell that he was alone in the bed. He missed Steve’s presence, knowing it was foolish. Steve didn’t have the time to sit with him constantly. No one did.

“Hey, you with us?”

It took a few seconds to place the voice; Tony turned his head slowly, letting the surprise show on his face.

Peter gave him a stunted grin, closing the book he’d been reading. Tony blinked at him.

“Haven’t seen your eyes in a couple of days,” Peter continued. He lifted his communicator and activated it. “Hang on a sec.”

Really unable to do anything else, Tony sort of nodded – his head actually moved, for once – and took a look around the room.

It was the same as he remembered, but he didn’t know how long it had been this time. How sick was he? Steve had said something about it, but Tony didn’t really remember what.

Peter spoke to him again and he had to turn his attention back.

“Are you there? Tony, are you awake?”

He opened his eyes again though he couldn’t remember closing them. How much time had passed? There was no clock in the room…

“Listen, this is important,” Peter stood up, leaned over him. He reached out like he wanted to touch Tony, but his hands just hovered in mid-air. “You can’t use Extremis. Don’t even try. It’s just going to hurt and it might do some kind of – damage.”

Nnn- no?” Tony worked his mouth to get the word out.

“No,” Peter shook his head. “Just don’t, okay? You can’t. Cap would lock me in the training room with Logan and never leave this room again.”

“Huh?” Cool, he could talk. Single words only, but it was an improvement. He must be getting better.

“Just trust me.” Peter patted the comforter gingerly, sitting back down. “Cap’s on his way - should be here soon.”

“Water,” Tony said firmly. He tried to lift a hand as Peter scrambled for the pitcher and glass, but his arm shook and he let it fall. Being given a drink by Peter Parker was embarrassing, but not so much as pouring the water all over himself.

Peter let him drink the whole glass. Tony felt a bit more alert afterward.

“Better? Okay?” Peter asked, looking like he was going to fuss. Tony nodded and put his head back down, closing his eyes but then opened them again. It was far too quiet in his head.

“Reading?” he asked Peter, rolling his head over to look at him.

“Yeah. It’s your book, I didn’t think you’d mind.” Peter held up the tome on autoimmune disorders Tony had been trying to digest before he got too sick to move.

“Good?”

“Interesting.” Peter opened it again. “Want me to read aloud? I can pronounce the words, at least.”

“Yeah,” Tony managed to sigh. He was feeling so weak. His heart was racing, and he’d hardly moved. He was suddenly grateful for the oxygen supplement.

Peter began to read. Tony tried to hold on – Steve was coming – but the darkness crept up on him and he drifted into it again, not fighting as hard as he had in the past.

***

“Tony?”

Gentle, familiar hands were touching his face. He felt a brief warmth, and then it was cold again.

“I’m just going to finish this wash-up, then tuck you back in, okay? MJ is coming to sit with you. I’ve got to go out for an hour or so.”

Ah, wet. That was the warmth. Wait – Steve was washing him? That was odd enough to wake up for.

When Tony opened his eyes, Steve’s face was right above him, Steve’s bright blue gaze watching him with poorly hidden concern.

“There you are,” he said softly. Tony wondered at the tenderness in his voice as he nodded, not trusting his voice yet, and looked around. It was getting easier to move his head, but everything else felt like lead.

The room was darker, dimmer. Was it the same day as he’d woken and saw Peter?

“How –“ he stopped, cleared his throat, and tried again. His voice sounded so hoarse. “How long?”

“I’ll be gone about an hour,” Steve said, still looking at him. Tony was suddenly aware of his hands, Steve’s hands, on his chest, touching him. What was he wearing? Boxers? It felt like boxers.

“No,” Tony tried to shake his head, but it hurt, a deep ache starting inside. In the back, under his skull. “How long?”

“It’s not important right now,” Steve said softly, and Tony would have worried, if he weren’t so damn tired. A warm, damp cloth stroked his chest, over his collarbones and lingered on his neck. It slid up behind his ears and Tony blushed. Steve was bathing him. This was just… weird.  

Not at all the way his fantasies had envisioned it.

The wet cloth was followed by a warm, soft towel and Tony wondered if Steve had taken advantage of the heated towel bar in the bathroom. Tony had almost never used it; it took to long to heat up, he was always in too much of a hurry.

All done,” Steve said. He pulled the covers up over him and Tony felt the blush deepen. Either Steve didn’t notice – not likely – or he ignored it to spare Tony’s feelings. “I’ll be back soon.   MJ is going to come sit with you. Maybe you can stay awake until then?”

Tony wasn’t sure if his friend was asking him to stay awake until MJ arrived, or until Steve returned. He nodded anyhow, hoping for the latter.

“Okay,” Steve said again. His hand patted Tony’s chest. “I’ll be back.”

“Kay, “ Tony mumbled.

“Hey, Steve, sorry I’m late –“ MJ appeared in the doorway, looking far too lovely to spend her time sitting beside a sick man’s bed. Her hair was loose and flowing and she was wearing a dark green turtleneck with loose black pants. It made her hair look like a silk scarf cascading over her shoulders. She was also wearing way too much makeup, which meant she’d either just returned from an audition or a photo shoot. “Tony!”

Her squeal of delight could have broken glass. He wished he could cover his ears. He actually tried, but his hands wouldn’t lift off the bed. Panic surged through him.

There was a shriek of electronic noise from the side of the bed and Steve practically jumped him, straddling him, both hands on his head, lifting. One huge hand cradled the back of his head and the other cupped his cheek. Steve’s eyes were wide and frightened. Tony didn’t think he’d ever seen Steve this frightened.

“Tony? Tony! Are you okay? What’s wrong?”

“Oh my god, Tony!” MJ added, gulping. She stuck her head back out the door and shouted. “We need some help in here! Someone get Hank!”

Tony tried to shake his head, tried to tell Steve he was okay, but there wasn’t any air. It felt like another heart attack, but he wasn’t supposed to have those anymore.

“Stay with me, Tony, hang on, this will pass. It’ll get better in a few minutes,” Steve told him, with calm firmness. Tony stared at his handsome face, wondering what he’d ever done to deserve a friend like this. Nothing, he really didn’t, but he had him and he was grateful. Especially now.

His chest felt like it was being crushed. He gasped and shook.

It’s okay, it’s okay, trust me, just a little bit longer,” Steve’s eyes held Tony’s while he stuck a hand out, fumbling over the edge of the bed for something. MJ rushed over, grabbing and handing it to him. He fitted the oxygen mask over Tony’s face with practiced ease and the strain lessened slightly. It still hurt, but now it was more like a gorilla was sitting on him instead of an elephant.

“God, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” MJ was almost crying. “I startled him, I didn’t mean to, I was just so excited to see him awake and–“

“It’s not your fault, this happens sometimes,” Steve comforted her. “Tony? Is it better? Can you breathe?”

Tony tried to nod, but couldn’t. Steve was holding his head so tight.

* * *

Hank ran into the room, going directly to the monitor that was still shrieking, and turned it off. He turned to Steve, who just shook his head.

“It’s almost over. He didn’t lose consciousness this time.”

“That’s a good sign.”

“I’m not so sure,” Steve looked rueful as he watched Tony. It was getting easier for him to breathe, Steve could tell. This was the first time he hadn’t passed out during one of these episodes.

Steve took a minute to study him.

Tony’s blue eyes were darker, his face drawn and tight. He’d lost just enough weight to make the lines and angles dynamic and not quite disturbing. Disturbing was coming though. Steve was pretty sure of that.

“I’ve got you,” he told Tony, stroking his hair as he held onto him. “You’re going to be fine. Just a few more minutes.”

The look Tony gave him clearly said ‘you’ve got to be kidding me’, but he couldn’t speak, not so soon after an attack. There was no rhyme or reason to them, they just seemed to happen. Usually they passed on their own, but several times Tony had stopped breathing and needed CPR until he was able to do it on his own again. Steve couldn’t imagine Tony with brain damage from oxygen deprivation, didn’t want to.

“I’ve got you,” Steve repeated, a little desperately.

Tony was getting better. In such tiny increments that Steve despaired, but he was getting better. It was just a matter of how close to a full recovery he would get.

Tony’s eyes began to slip closed. From experience Steve knew the attack had exhausted him, so he laid him down as gently as he could. He had a meeting with Fury that had started ten minutes ago. The Director of SHIELD had even agreed to come to the Tower. It was a huge concession, and Steve was late.

“Shit,” he whispered angrily. He had to go downstairs, had to speak with Nick. Had to talk about recruitment and training schedules and updated instruction. The last thing he wanted to do right now.

“He’s okay,” Hank said softly, touching his shoulder. MJ just stood at the side of the bed, her eyes bright and her arms crossed. “You can go. I’ll stay.”

“I’m so sorry,” MJ said again.

Steve climbed off the bed and patted her back. “It’s not your fault. It just happens.”

“I shouldn’t have been so loud.”

“It’s okay,” Steve said again. She was so young – he forgot how young some of them were.

“Okay.” She took a deep breath. “I’m good. You should go. I’ll stay with Hank, Peter’s working late.”

Code for patrolling. Super Heroes practically had their own language these days.

“Go,” Hank said, from the other side of the bed. “We’ve got him.”

Steve leaned down, touching Tony’s face. He sighed in his sleep, the clear mask fogging.

“I’ll be back soon,” Steve whispered. Then he kissed Tony’s forehead, the way he remembered his parents had kissed his.

The others wouldn’t say anything. He knew they didn’t understand why he needed to touch Tony so much, but they never said anything.

He left, refusing to look back. Tony would be fine. Hank was with him.

***

Tony woke up later. He didn’t know how long it had been. There was a gorgeous redhead pacing the room, that was nice.

He tried to smile at MJ, but the oxygen mask was in the way. She did smile at him though, a bit tremulous and shaky, as she sat in the armchair beside the bed.

“I was going to read to you –“ she gestured at the thick book on the nightstand, ”Peter’s been reading that and Steve said you were reading it before –“ she paused, biting her lip. Tony carefully shook his head. It only made him a little bit dizzy. “Don’t do that,” she scolded immediately, in the same tone of voice he’d heard her use on Peter. “You’ll make yourself sick.” Tony rolled his eyes and she smiled reluctantly.

“I already blew it once today, don’t go getting me into any more trouble, okay?”

He could almost hear the ‘Tiger’ tagged onto the end of the sentence, and it made him want to grin. He lifted his hand, gingerly, and tugged at the mask.

“I’ll get it,” MJ said, leaning over to lift it off. “Just for a minute, okay?”

“’Kay,” he agreed breathlessly. Lying still, he waited until things evened out and the faint feeling of panic faded, MJ sitting on the edge of the bed watching him. After a few minutes she leaned over and touched the top of his head. It didn’t hurt, so Tony didn’t move.

“It’s getting longer,” she observed quietly.

“I’m not even sure how long it’s been, time-wise, I mean,” Tony whispered carefully.

“I don’t know, exactly,” she answered, looking worried.

“That’s alright.” He didn’t want her to worry about telling him more than the others wanted him to know.

“Is there anything I can do? Do you want me to read to you?”

Tony looked at her for a minute. Just looked at her; so young, beautiful, alive. It was easy to see what drew Peter to her. She was kind and thoughtful and funny. He could tell what she saw in him as well. When people saw her they probably only thought of the way she looked. It was sad that they didn’t see what was underneath that glorious red hair.

She must spend a lot of time taking care of it.

“Actually…” he made a show of looking around the room, without moving much at all. “Could you wash my hair?”

“Um, sure,” she seemed surprised by the request.

“I can’t ask Steve to do it – I mean, can you see the headlines? “Captain America was Tony Stark’s hairdresser!”

She giggled and Tony smiled. “Please?”

“I guess so. If you promise to behave.”

“I won’t move at all.”

“You might have to move a little bit.”  She looked around. “I’ll just run into the bathroom and grab some things. Promise me you’ll keep breathing?”

“Promise.”  He didn’t even grin for that one. He felt okay now, but there was no way to predict the attacks. Getting her in trouble wasn’t on his list of things to do today. His oh-so-very-long list.

“I’ll be right back.”

She was, too. It took a bit of organizing and a lot of towels, but Tony came out of it still breathing, mostly dry, and with clean hair that MJ combed out neatly on his pillow. Being too tired to move, Tony let her.

***

Walking silently into the bedroom, Steve stilled, struck by the scene before him.

MJ was curled un a chair, reading some fashion magazine, an activity he knew was important to her job. She looked up when he came in, and gave him a worried smile before getting up to leave, without a word.

Tony was still in the bed, his chest rising and falling slowly. The oxygen mask was gone and his eyes were closed. The skin beneath them was vivid purple. It looked like bruises.

His black hair, longer than he ever let it get, was spread around his head like a halo, slightly curly and looking so soft against the white cotton sheets.

Unable – perhaps unwilling – to stifle the urge, Steve sat gently on the bed and reached for that spill of hair.

He was touching it when he saw that Tony’s eyes were open.

Sitting back, mildly embarrassed, Steve waited for his friend to say something, if Tony could at the moment.

“Why did you do that?” Tony whispered carefully.

Steve gave a tiny shrug. “I wanted to.”

“Why?”  It was a plaintive, curious question. Tony didn’t understand.

“Because I – I’ve been worried about you,” Steve hedged.

“I must smell like a hospital,” Tony frowned. His eyes were huge in the dimly-lit room. “My room looks like a hospital.”

“You’re pretty sick.” He wanted to touch Tony. He was used to touching Tony. Suddenly the thought of losing that made him ache. If Tony got better, did Steve have to stop touching him?

“I feel like I’m dying,” Tony whispered. He shut his eyes and Steve leaned down. He slid an arm under Tony’s shoulders, moved to sit behind him. Held him. With Tony’s weight on his chest and Tony’s head on his shoulder, Steve felt strangely whole.

“You’re not gonna die.” He could only whisper the words like an oath. He would swear one, if it kept Tony here. Swear to give up his own life instead. But sometimes living was harder than dying, and Steve knew only too well how hard Tony wouldn’t fight if it came to that. “I’m not going to let you.”

Tony almost chuckled, the dry rasping breath making Steve hold him tighter. Tony didn’t protest.

“I won’t let you,” Steve repeated, and this time Tony didn’t laugh.

It was quiet, for a while. Just the sound of the machines. Then Tony whispered again.

“I want them out of here.”

“What?” Steve asked, confused.

“All that –“ Tony lifted an arm a few inches and tried to wave his hand. His arm was stiff and barely responsive. Steve could see the effort it took, pain on Tony’s face. “Stuff. I’ve had enough of that.”

“You need it.”

“I need a shower, too, but I’m not going to get that.”

“You’re not going to get rid of the equipment, Tony.”

“Then move it out. Henry can bring it in when he needs it.” Tony took a deep breath, choking a little, and shook his head. “I don’t need them.”

“That doesn’t seem fair to Henry or Hank.” Steve didn’t mention Reed. He was still angry with the leader of the Fantastic Four, for not telling him when Tony got sick. For forgetting to check on him. Though he rather suspected that Tony had expected that turn of events, even planned for it.

“I’m the sick one,” Tony glared at him.

“I’ll ask them if we can,” Steve compromised.

“Fine.” Tony huffed a little, then leaned back into Steve’s arms. Steve squeezed, just a little, but felt it when Tony tried to hide a wince and loosened his grip.

More quiet. Steve wondered how much time had passed. His usually perfect time-sense seemed to abandon him when Tony was involved.

“I smell awful.” Tony’s words were sad.

“You’re just sick.”

“I want a shower. I want to go flying.”

Steve didn’t ask about the armor. He knew Tony couldn’t access Extremis; it wasn’t working anymore. The armor wouldn’t come if Tony tried to call it. He wondered what that would feel like. He’d had to have his shield replaced once, and that had been worse than losing a leg or an arm. Tony must feel a hundred times worse. He’d spent so much of his life in that suit.

“I could give you a bath,” he heard himself say. Then he held his breath. Where had that come from? He’d only bathed Tony when he was unconscious and unable to do it himself.

“No,” Tony tried to shake his head, stopped and seemed to hold his breath for a minute. “That – no, Steve.”

“I don’t mind. Really.”

“No.”

Steve made a show of sniffing the air. “You’re right, it might help.”

Tony looked stricken and Steve felt like a heel.

“Do I smell that bad, really?”

“No,” Steve assured him. “I was teasing. You’re fine. You’ve had several baths. We’re taking good care of you.”

Tony hadn’t been awake for any of those and Steve had given them all, but he didn’t need to know that.

“Oh my God, who?”

Then again, maybe he did.

“Just me.” Steve re-assured. “I wouldn’t let anyone else see you like that.” Helpless and wretched, too vulnerable by far. Steve was glad Tony didn’t know how many minutes he’d lingered over the act, turning the bath into something much more…personal.

“Skinny and stinky and gross?” Tony asked in a harsh whisper. “Thank you.”

“You look fine,” Steve answered quickly, knowing it was’t true. Tony looked sick, and he was far too thin. But Steve saw his hair, and his eyes, so huge in his face, his long-fingered hands reduced to delicate, and saw him beautiful. “You’re just sick.”

Tony didn’t say anything.

“Let me give you a bath,” Steve said. “It will make you feel better.”

“I can’t,” Tony muttered. He sounded like he was giving up. “There are – things.”

He moved a shoulder, as if he would shrug. And Steve got it. Things. Personal medical things, like a catheter and… yes. A bath was out of the question at the moment.

“Can you just get this stuff out of here?” Tony’s eyes were half-closed and Steve couldn’t tell if he was crying or angry or a bit of both.

“As soon as you’re asleep,” Steve promised.

It was a long time before he moved, though. Tony slept in his arms, not even snoring, his breathing still raspy, occasionally hitching. Steve felt like if he let him go, if he put him down, Tony would stop again. That made it just that much harder to move the equipment. He didn’t take it out of the room proper, but put it into the closet, which was large enough to house a good-sized boat. The medical equipment crowded it a little bit, but it was a good compromise, and Tony wasn’t liable to complain as long as he didn’t have to look at it.

It was almost morning before Steve crawled into the bed and fell asleep himself. He wasn’t ready to leave Tony to Fate’s mercies, he needed to be close to him. He would wake if Tony had a problem, he had many times before.

***

Tony woke, again, with Steve wrapped around him, warm and comforting.

He vaguely remembered the conversation of the night before and shuddered at the thought of Steve bathing him. There was no doubt Tony would give himself away, no matter what condition he was in. if he saw Steve, if Steve touched him – there was just no way Tony wouldn’t respond. He could be dying and he’d respond.

Which brought up another question; was he dying? He’d been trying not to think about it.

He’d been very close to dying, had actually died, and it just hadn’t felt like this. This was – this was – dying by inches. Millimeters.

Steve sighed in his sleep, shifted. Tony closed his eyes, exhaustion seeping from his pores.

Even dying was worth it if he got this close to Steve – without Steve knowing Tony’s deep dark secret. Which wasn’t such a secret, really. He was pretty sure Jan knew, and what Jan knew, Hank knew. MJ was pretty perceptive; she’d been the first to treat the Luke-Jessica-Danny situation as perfectly normal, commenting correctly one morning that if Luke was in the kitchen Danny couldn’t be far behind.

Danny had shown up almost before she finished saying it.

He drifted, allowing his mind to visualize things he hadn’t really thought about before. Luke was huge, Jess was dainty, and Danny was strong and buff and somewhere in between. How did it work? Did Luke top every time, both of them? The baby, Elle, was Luke’s, there was no doubt of that. Was there a chance it could have been Danny’s? Or was Danny sidelined, did he just watch? Or was he just with Luke and Luke went back and forth between them? 

Or was it Luke and Danny with Jess on the side?

Yeah, he needed to stop thinking about that. Besides, he was starting to hurt again.

He held still as long as he could. Eventually the pain forced movement. It was worse than he remembered, spreading through his body like a fire. He twitched, then he wriggled, and then a groan escaped.

Steve was awake instantly.

“Tony? Tony, what’s wrong?”

“Hurts,” he managed to pant. It was so undignified. “Burns. Steve…”

“Hang on, let me get something –“ Steve was climbing from the bed and Tony was relieved, maybe he was going for help, he wouldn’t be here to watch Tony writhe and whimper like a child – “Henry left something for this, an injection, it happened a couple of times before, I suppose you don’t remember…”

“No! No drugs! I can’t, Steve, I –“

Steve stopped and turned around, for some reason on his way to the closet. Struggling to stay still, Tony hadn’t noticed that the equipment was gone from the room, even the little fridge that had sat at the foot of the bed.

“We’ve already given them to you. A few doses of painkiller aren’t going to turn you into an addict, Tony.”

“I’m already an addict, Steve! I can’t take narcotics!” The last word escalated into something close to a wail as fresh waves of pain coursed through him. What the hell was this?

“You can’t lie here screaming, either,” Steve retorted, coming back to the bed. “Tony –“ he grabbed Tony’s hands, squeezing them tightly, giving him an anchor in the pain. “You’re going to scare the baby.”

Baby, Tony thought. What baby? Was this something even weirder than they’d told him? Had they held –

“Elle, Tony, Elle. Her room is two doors down. You’ll wake her, and Luke will kill you.”

It was a weak attempt at a joke, but Tony gritted out a smile anyhow.

“Please, Tony,” Steve told him. He leaned in close, one knee on the bed. “You don’t have to suffer. Don’t make me watch.”

He could just manage a nod as it got worse again. This time he bit down hard on his lip, twisting on the bed, resisting the urge to shout. Steve squeezed his hands once more and ran to the closet, appearing a second later with a hypodermic syringe in hand.

“Henry left several set up in case you needed them,” he explained, crossing the room quickly. “Can you roll over?”

Tony’s shudder wasn’t entirely from pain and he would have laughed at his body’s inconsistent reaction, if it hadn’t hurt too bad. As it was he could only shake his head, the world blurring for an instant.

Then Steve’s hands; large, strong, capable and gentle, were on him. They turned him over, pulled down the covers and the hem of his boxers, and there was the biting sting, somehow separate from the overwhelming pain.

“Irk,” Tony gurgled out, still trying to remain silent. He really didn’t want to wake the baby.

“I’ve got you,” Steve said, suddenly in the bed, turning Tony to his side, gathering him close. He held Tony tight. “Just a few minutes.”

“Steve –Tony’s hands scrabbled at his chest until Steve caught both wrists in one hand and held them over his heart.

“I’ve got you. Just a minute, it’ll be better. Tony, I can’t – I can’t stand –“

Urgh,” Tony managed. His lower body spasmed and he was vaguely aware of being embarrassed, but hardly able to keep the thought in mind.

“I’ll take your mind off it,” Steve said, and he kissed Tony.

The shock alone caused Tony to pause, every-so-briefly, then he was back in the storm and chemical warmth and darkness overtook him. He sank into it gratefull, the taste of Steve’s mouth following him.

***

Steve kissed Tony until his friend’s body went slack. Then he lay him down and tucked him in, a pillow between his arms in case he woke missing Steve.

He wasn’t really sure what had possessed him to do that, but it had felt right. A little too right, if he admitted it to himself. Maybe they’d been headed this direction all their lives. It certainly didn’t feel like a surprise.

He disposed properly of the syringe, and then stepped into the hall to call Henry. It was a little startling to find Luke and Danny there, but they’d probably heard the noise Tony’d made despite his heroic efforts not to.

Luke just gave him a sympathetic look, while Danny spoke.

“Is everything okay?”

“It’s better, but not really okay,” Steve admitted. “I’ve got to talk to Henry. Can one of you sit with him while I’m gone?”

“I’m scheduled to show up at eight anyhow,” Danny said.

“I’ll bring you some breakfast,” Luke told him, turning to leave. Steve didn’t miss the gentle look in the huge man’s eyes.

“He’s had a shot, so he’s down for now,” Steve told Danny. “Push the emergency button if anything happens, okay?”

“Yes, of course.” Danny was always so polite. “He’ll be fine, Cap.”

Steve hoped the young man was correct, but he wasn’t betting the house on it.

Henry would get here more quickly if Steve just went and got him. So he decided to do that.

***

Twenty-four hours later, Tony was – against all odds – better.

Not well by any definition, but better. The pain had gone while he was drugged, now he was just weak and tired and sleepy, which were all things that could be dealt with.

Henry was cautiously optimistic.

“That might have been the worst of it,” he told them both, Hank also present. “One big bang of change and then recovery. It certainly seems like it, according to the test results.”

“What do they say?” Steve asked. Tony just looked at him sleepily. Steve was sitting beside him on the bed, Tony half-curled around Steve’s legs.

“That he’s improving. Areas of damage are beginning to heal, but very slowly.”

“Far more slowly than we’d expect from Extremis,” Hank added. Tony twitched a little.

“So it’s not coming back online,” Steve asked, so Tony wouldn’t have to.

Henry shook his head. “This appears to be normal, human-speed healing.”

“Damn,” Steve swore quietly and the two doctors stared at him. Okay, he didn’t swear often, but that was ridiculous. “So what do we do next?”

“Watch him. If he keeps improving we can start making some small changes…”

“Catheter,” Tony said, the words muffled by Steve’s calf.

“Excuse me?” Henry said, politely. Tony half sat, Steve helping him when it was clear Tony’s strength wasn’t going to do the job.

“Can I get the catheter out?” Tony asked quietly. He didn’t seem embarrassed by asking.

Hank and Henry exchanged glances.

“As long as you accept help getting to and from the facilities,” Henry said.

“Can you do it now?”

“I see no reason not to.” Henry came to the bed, picking up a set of latex gloves and pulling them on. Steve wondered where he got them to fit.

“Go,” Tony said, giving Steve a little push.

“What?”

“I know you’ve seen the whole show, but I wasn’t awake then,” Tony grumbled, and Steve grinned. It did sound like he was getting better.

“Okay, okay.” He held up his hands and climbed off the bed. “I need some coffee anyhow.”

“Coffee,” Tony said pathetically, but Hank and Henry both shook their heads.

“Bland diet for the time being.”

“We’ll see as you progress.”

Steve left the room chuckling at the expression on Tony’s face.

He found Danny in the kitchen, feeding Elle little round Cheerios. A highchair had appeared, probably compliments of Jarvis, and the baby banged on the tray with her hands enthusiastically.

“Teething,” Danny said as she crammed a handful of cereal into her mouth.

“I’ve heard that’s no fun,” Steve commented, pouring himself a cup and sitting across the table. “Where are the others?”

He’d meant everyone, but Danny only reported on Luke and Jess.

“Mom and Dad needed some alone time.”

Sipping silently, Steve wondered if that didn’t make Danny feel left out – was he just a glorified babysitter?

Perhaps Danny Rand had some mind-reading talent as well, because he practically answered the thought, giving Steve a shy grin.

“Next time it’s Dad and Uncle Danny’s turn.”

Steve blushed, and allowed himself to wonder, for exactly as long as it took him to drink the coffee. Taking it back to the room would just be cruel.

When he was sure enough time had passed, Steve went back upstairs, leavng Danny telling Elle how pretty and smart and clever she was as he counted Cheerios for her.

Tony was asleep again when he got there, but rolled over and curled around him when Steve sat on the bed, a stack of new SHIELD training manuals in hand that Nick had coaxed him into editing. Happy with his red pen and Tony’s improvement, he got a lot more done that he’d expected before he decided he needed to eat, and Tony did too.

“Tony.”  He shook his friend gently. Tony murmured and tried to hold on tighter. His grip wasn’t much – Steve wondered if Elle could do better – but he seemed pretty sure that he didn’t want Steve to leave him.

It made Steve think again of what had happened – what he’d done.

He wanted to talk about it.

“Tony,” he sing-songed, dropping the manual he was working on over the side of the bed and sliding down to cuddle the smaller man closer. “Time to wake up…”

Tony made a muffled sound and opened his eyes. They were bleary, not his usual dark blue at all.

“Steve?” he seemed to notice how close they were and began to pull away, but had to stop, suddenly panting for breath.

“Tony?” Steve asked, alarmed.

“It’s – okay. Just – moved-too-fast..”

“Don’t go anywhere, I’ve got you.”

“You keep saying that.”

“I mean it.”

“Steve, don’t.” Tony squirmed, trying to get away. He couldn’t have escaped Steve under normal circumstances, if Steve didn’t want to let him go, but now there was really no chance.

Steve didn’t want to let him go, but he wouldn’t hold his friend against his will, either. He let go, and watched Tony make his slow, laborious way to the other side of the bed.

“Don’t what?” he asked when it seemed that Tony was settled.

“Don’t be so – kind,” Tony blurted. He was hardly able to keep his eyes open. “You don’t want…that.”

“Want what?”  Were they talking about the same thing?

“Anything. Like that. You’re just feeling guilty that I got sick and you’re too close right now.”

“I am, huh?” Steve wanted to laugh. He was, truly, only just starting to realize what he might want, but Tony Stark had it all figured out.

“Of course,” Tony’s words were slurred with exhaustion. “You don’t want me…”

The emphasis made Steve frown, but he just lay there and watched Tony fall back into sleep. He’d have to make him eat in the morning, he could tell that was going to become a battle.

They were spending so much time in this room – granted, it was a big room – he needed to check with Henry, see if they could get Tony a wheelchair, or Steve could carry him, that would be better, and take him out for some sun. At least to the balcony.

***

The next time Tony woke Logan was sitting beside him. He stretched, carefully, and eyed the powerful mutant.

Logan seemed to be sleeping, but Tony knew better.

“You still smell sick,” Logan said, not opening his eyes.

“Feel like shit,” Tony agreed, knowing he didn’t have to censure his language around this man.

“B-T-D-T, Jubilee would say.” Logan opened his eyes and seemed to study him. It made Tony want to squirm, just a little bit.

“What?” he held down the urge to move; he wasn’t sure yet how much it would hurt, or how hard it would be.

“Been there, done that,” Logan said. “You thirsty? Hungry?”

“No.” He couldn’t shake his head, either, for fear of getting dizzy. All he could really do was lie here and stare at the ceiling. Looked like today wasn’t going to be one of the better days.

“I brought a deck.” Logan flipped a deck of cards from somewhere, a regular cheap blue bicycle box. Tony managed a weak grin.

“Can you help me sit up?”

***

When Steve came back that evening, Logan was rich and Tony was losing money faster than Pepper would’ve liked. He also desperately needed to go to the bathroom, but he wasn’t about to ask Wolverine for help. There’s just so much a man’s dignity could take. Though he was very thirsty, he hadn’t asked for a drink, afraid of making the situation worse. He kind of thought Logan knew what the problem was, though. He kept pausing in the game and giving Tony these considered looks.

“Hey, you didn’t invite me?” Steve joked as he came into the room. He was sweating and pulling his uniform shirt off over his head. Tony was suddenly glad for the full bladder; it kept other things from happening. Steve’s chest was golden and muscled and really just very nice to look at. Tony had slept with some of the most beautiful women in the world, and Steve was right up there.

It was too bad that Steve had no idea what he was doing.

“You can’t afford it,” Logan replied. He was shuffling the deck, almost a reflex, over again. The shooshing noise was soothing.

“I think we’re done anyhow,” Tony said. It was easier to close his eyes than watch as Steve dried his chest with a towel. “Logan’s got money to burn.”

The mutant made a grumbling noise that Tony understood as ‘On what?’, then tucked the deck away and stood. He leaned slightly over the bed, sniffing inquisitively. Tony eyed him as he drew back.

“What?”

“You smell better.”

“I feel like an invalid.”

“But you’re better.”

“If you say so.” Tony rolled his eyes. Logan watched him for a minute, then gave Steve a look Tony couldn’t interpret.

“What was that about?” Tony asked, after Logan had left.

“He was worried about you.” Steve went into the bathroom, but left the door open. He had to raise his voice to be heard, the room was that big. “He told me you were sick when you went missing.”

And Steve was still angry about that, Tony thought. Well, not angry. Probably more hurt than anything else. Tony couldn’t begin to explain why it was so hard for him, to have anyone see him like this. Steve wouldn’t accept his answers anyhow. He just didn’t seem to get that Tony felt worthless unless he was contributing. That he was worthless, unless he was creating something or saving someone or…

“I’m not mad,” Steve called out and Tony sighed. Steve did understand him better than anyone else. Way better than Tony wanted him to.

He listened to the sound of the shower, then closed his eyes again when Steve came out wearing a towel. He was scrubbing at his hair with another; Tony had always envied him, that he could look so perfect with only a shower; no styling his hair, he didn’t have to worry about what he wore. Steve Rogers always looked great. Tony, though; he had to work at it.

“I thought I could bring up something for you to work on tonight,” Steve was saying. “Since you’re awake more now, and I know you don’t love television.”

“There are only so many House reruns I can sit through,” Tony agreed. He felt a hint of excitement. Something to work on? Something to do with his hands? If he had something to do…

“I asked Reed if he could design you some sort of worktable that would go over the bed.” Steve pulled out jeans and a dark blue tee. The one with the star on the front, that Tony had teased him about. It felt like it had been years ago. “He called this morning, to say it’s ready.”

Over the bed? Tony sighed, and tried to roll over. It was an effort, but he made it to his side. He couldn’t quite curl up the way he wanted to, it would have to do.

He was beginning to think this was it. He was going to stay this way; semi-helpless and useless, for the rest of his life. The thought alone was too much to bear; he didn’t see how he could face even another day.

It would be easier if he had a drink.

The bed shifted as Steve sat beside him.

A large hand stroked his back. He could feel the warmth of it, almost too hot through the thin cotton of his own tee shirt.

“I thought that would make you happy,” Steve said softly.

Tony gave a half-shrug.

“It will be easier for you, if you have something you like to do.”

To never drive a car again? Never work on one?

To never put on the armor and fly?

“I’m just trying to help,” Steve said, leaning closer. Tony could feel his breath on his neck.

“I know,” Tony whispered. He kept his eyes closed.

“Do you want some time to think about it?”

Tony sighed again. It would make Steve happy, to think he was helping. Dammit.

“No,” he sighed. “Set it up. I’ll look at it tomorrow.”

Steve stayed beside him, still stroking his back. Tony longed to relax into that touch. What would it feel like, to be able to cry with Steve holding him? He was never going to find out.

“I don’t feel very well,” he said after a few minutes.

“What can I get you?” Steve asked immediately. Tony heard the worry in his voice, and the eagerness to do somehting helpful.

“Something to help me sleep?”

“Just a minute.”

The weight left, and, a minute later, Steve was kneeling on the other side of the bed, facing Tony. He held a cup with a straw and a small yellow pill.

“Open up.”

Tony opened his mouth obediently. Steve placed the pill on his tongue and then moved the straw to his lips. Tony swallowed. His eyes were on Steve’s face.

It was still perfect, despite the worry line creasing the high forehead. Tony held that image in his mind as he drifted off.

***

The next day, Tony woke alone. It was strange, not waking to Steve beside him. The bed felt big and cold.

He noticed the large stainless steel table pushed to the wall. It was long and narrow, and the edges were padded. In case he fell forward, maybe.

There were sliding drawers underneath it, deep ones at either end and shallow across the width.

It actually looked pretty useful.

There were several crates of parts lined up on the carpet below it.

Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad, if he could work on the armor.

He wondered where Steve was. And why he didn’t have a babysitter with him. Not that he minded; the privacy gave him the chance to take care of some personal business.

After sitting up slowly, he carefully lowered himself to the floor and began to crawl toward the bathroom.

He was so tired of asking for help. He’d be damned if he was going to do it again. He was a grown man, a superhero, and he didn’t need help to piss. No matter what Steve and Henry said. Okay, so he couldn’t walk there. It would take him a while to get there, and he wasn’t sure he’d be able to stand when he arrived…but those were minor concerns. Especially when his legs gave out about four feet from the door.

He’d never regretted having a large bedroom before.

Shit. Tony lay on the plush carpet, resting, his head on his arm. He hadn’t felt this weak after open-heart surgery. Maybe he could turn to his side – no, that wasn’t going to happen. This was crazy, he was supposed to be better.

Biting his lip, Tony pulled himself a few more inches, but he also broke into a cold sweat and began shivering. Nausea welled and he fought it down, swallowing and panting.

It just made sense that this was the moment Steve decided to come back.

On the floor between the bed and the bathroom door, Tony couldn’t see him, and Steve couldn’t see Tony, but Tony could definitely hear him.

“Tony? Tony! Where are you?” Steve sounded flustered and worried. Tony winced; he knew how hard it was, taking care of him. If he could just convince everyone to leave him alone, but they wouldn’t, no matter how much Tony wanted them to. He wanted privacy, and dignity, but instead he got spoon-feeding and help to the bathroom.

“Tony!” Steve sounded sad and dissappointed as he came around the bed. “What are you doing?”  It only took Steve a minute to crouch and gather him up, then he was carrying Tony back to bed. The movement triggered more nausea and Tony dry-heaved helplessly. “Why didn’t you wait? I’m so sorry I was late. I went jogging, there was a mugging, I had to wait for the ambulance and police…”

And now Tony’d made Steve feel guilty.

“Not your fault,” Tony croaked as he heaved. His breath was coming in gasps, he felt light-headed.

“I’ve got you, hang on.” Steve laid him on his side and took a syringe from the cabinet beside the bed. Henry had stashed a tiny refridgerator in there. “One more minute…”

Tony felt the cool air on his hip and then the sting of the needle. The nausea lessened immediately, and his body relaxed.

“Steve – I still need to –“ the urge was even worse now, with the high-powered muscle relaxant in his system. “Help me up!”

“Not this time, sorry.” Steve reached under the bed for the bottle that Tony hated.

“No, help me up,” Tony insisted, trying to push up with his arms. He couldn’t even get his shoulders clear.

“You’re going to hurt yourself.”

Very casually, Steve rolled Tony to his back. He tugged down the front of his pajama bottoms and moved everything into place. Gritting his teeth, Tony pissed. He shut his eyes and waited until Steve had left the room and come back, before he spoke angrily.

“I told you no. You never listen to me. I’m just a thing you have to take care of!”

***

Startled by Tony’s anger – it wasn’t usually directed at him – Steve remained standing. He’d been looking forward to getting home and cuddling up with his friend, but finding him shivering on the floor had put a damper on that. Now Steve was too worried to enjoy it.

“Tony…” words failed him. Steve recognized this mood, anyhow. There was nothing he could say that would appease his friend. Tony was the most stubborn man Steve knew and, if he seldom held a grudge, he clung to the ones he did. “How do you feel now?” he asked instead.

Tony turned his head away and didn’t answer. Steve sighed, and began stripping out of his running clothes. He needed a shower, but he was going to skip it so he could spend more time reassuring his friend. He put on a clean tee and climbed into the bed, reaching out to pull Tony close. Tony resisted for a minute, and then reluctantly let himself be held, his head on Steve’s chest.

They lay that way for some small while, Tony’s breathing evening out. Then he spoke, softly.

“You suck.”

It startled a chuckle out of Steve and he gave Tony a squeeze.

“Sometimes, probably.” He pressed a kiss to Tony’s hair. “Sorry.”

“Don’t.” Tony tried to move away, but he didn’t have the strength.

“What’s wrong?” Steve had gotten into the habit of it; kissing Tony’s head or forehead, touching his arm or hand, holding him. They had almost talked about it, a bit, before, but Steve kept doing it. He didn’t think about how much he liked it, the chance to be openly affectionate with Tony. He just did it. It felt right, and he liked it.

“Don’t do that.” Tony moved his head. Steve felt his short beard. Tony needed a shave.

“Why not?”  They hadn’t really talked about it, this touching thing. Steve wasn’t sure why he liked it. He had a pretty good idea, but he wasn’t sure. Wasn’t ready to really think about what it meant. Okay, wasn’t ready to talk about it. If Tony didn’t like it, Steve would stop, of course, but he’d seen no evidence of that. Tony usually sighed or leaned in to the touch. It always seemed like he appreciated it. “I thought it was okay.” Maybe even good.

“No.” Tony’s eyes were closed. He sighed the word instead of saying it. Steve felt guilty for pressing the issue, but if it bothered Tony he needed to know why. He wasn’t going to give up this gentle sweetness, at least not until Tony was well. He’d probably have to then.

But Tony might never be well.

“Can you tell me why?” Steve asked, giving him a jiggle.

“No,” Tony sighed again.

“Sure you can. You can tell me anything, Anthony Stark.”

“Not this.”

Tony’s eyes were wide and bright. Steve reached, to tilt Tony’s head up, but Tony hid his face.

“What’s that line, about an enigma wrapped in a riddle… Steve pondered lightly. He felt a tiny movement that might have been a chuckle from Tony. “I didn’t think there was anything we can’t talk about.” He resisted the urge to kiss Tony’s head again.

“I’m…” Tony hesitated, then almost spat out the words. “I don’t, I’m not comfortable, being touched.”

“Have I been hurting you?”

“No. Not that.”

“Then what?”

Tony didn’t answer.

“Tony, what’s wrong with me touching you?” Steve asked quietly. He used both hands to lift Tony up, so he could see his face. “Tony.”

His friend was pale, from the exertion and illness. Steve needed to get him into the sun soon. There were heavy dark shadows under his eyes, and recent weight loss left his chin and cheekbones too sharp. He looked gaunt and unwell.

Tony shrugged.

“What does that mean?” Steve asked. Tony did it again.

“There are times I can’t read your body language,” Steve told him.

“Just look at me.” Tony turned his face away. “I’ve got no muscle tone, no definition. I’m fuzzy and I smell bad. I can’t think, I can’t fight, and I might as well be a throw rug for all the good I’m doing. I look like –“

“You look sick,” Steve interrupted. “And that’s okay, since you are sick.”

“I look awful. I’m worthless.”

“Geez, Tony.” Steve wanted to make a comment about vanity, but this didn’t seem like the right place and time. “I don’t care what you look like. Don’t you know that by now?”

“I don’t know anything. You’re being so fucking nice, all touchy-feely, and I don’t understand!”

“You’re a really slow genuis,” Steve teased gently. “You’re my friend, Tony. I like you.”

At last Tony seemed to get the idea. He was very still, and very quiet when he spoke.

“You’re not gay.”

Steve sighed. “That’s not what this is about.”

“Then why are you always here? Why do you sleep here, and hold me, and kiss me?”

“Because you’re my – mine. I don’t know about the rest of it. I know that I want to be here, I need to be here, and that’s enough for me.”

“But when I’m better,” Tony said slowly. “When I’m better, this will all be over?”

“Only if you want it to be.” Steve wrapped both arms around Tony and hugged him. “Really, Tony. I can’t see my future without you in it, so it will only be over if you want it to be.”

Tony was still, and silent. After a minute, Steve realized that he’d fallen asleep.

He hoped Tony had heard what he said.

He hoped he understood.

***

There was a routine now. Tony hated it, but he kept that to himself.

He woke with Steve beside him. Some mornings Steve kissed his face before getting up. He would help Tony to the bathroom, get him clean clothes if he needed them.

Most mornings he lifted Tony and carried him to the balcony, where a comfortable leather recliner lived now. Two of them, actually, though Steve hadn’t had a chance to use the second one yet. Tony would doze, or watch the sun come up, while Steve changed the bed. Then he would carry Tony back, asking each time if Tony wanted to stay out longer.

“No, I’m tired,” Tony said, every morning.

“You can sleep out there, the chair’s comfortable.” Steve lay him down, tucked him in, made sure that the extra pillows padded Tony’s knees, his hips. He felt better with something touching him; there wasn’t enough padding now to keep the bones from pressing together uncomfortably.

Ton y never told Steve the real reasons he went back to bed. He didn’t want anyone else carrying him back in. And he was afraid of reporters; a nosy news helicopter could easily snap a shot of him, up there. All the world knew was that Tony Stark was sick. He didn’t want them to have evidence.  If the board saw it, they might try to take over. Pepper was keeping things under control for now, and Tony still clung to the idea that he’d get well and be able to go back to his life. There wasn’t anything to back that dream up, but it was his. The thought of staying this way; weak, feeble, useless – it was unbearable. Tony had born many crosses in his life, but he knew, if it came down to it, this one would break him.

He wasn’t a man who accepted failure with dignity, whether it was his mind or his body that failed him.

“Going back to sleep?” Steve asked this morning, sitting on the side of the bed and smoothing the blankets over Tony.

He shook his head. He felt thick and foggy, but not tired enough to sleep.

“Danny’s coming in a few minutes. Do you want anything special for breakfast?”

“Coffee,” Tony answered, but he didn’t really care. He only said it because Steve expected it.

“Maybe half a cup,” Steve teased and Tony held back a sigh. Then he smiled, and tried to seem excited.

“Really?”

“I don’t think it could hurt.”

“With cream and sugar?”

“Sure.” Steve reached up and touched Tony’s jaw. Gotta have something to wake up for.”

“I’ve got you.” Tony tried a grin, and wondered if Steve could tell he was faking.

“I’ll be back up in a bit.” Steve tapped his chin and stood. Luke appeared at the door, like magic. He was carrying the baby.

He and Steve spoke quietly for a minute, then Luke came in. He set Elle on the bed beside Tony. She gurgled happily and chewed on her fist, drooling copiously.

“Hope you don’t mind, it’s my turn to stay with her,” Luke said, pulling the bedside chair closer and holding the little girl with a hand on her leg. “Sometimes the schedules conflict.”

Tony shook his head slowly.

“Steve’s going to bring up your breakfast. Would you mind if I put on Sesame Street?”

Tony shrugged.

“Thanks. She’s too little to understand it, but Jess thinks stuff gets imprinted on her brain.”

Tony raised his eyebrows and almost smiled. Luke looked so serious.

“Hang onto her for a second.” He lifted Tony’s arm and wrapped it around the baby. Tony was startled, but tightened the grip as much as he could. Elle grabbed at his fingers, tugging on them. Tony was pleased to see that he could stand up to an 18-month-old.

Luke got the Tv on, and Elle tried to pull loose from Tony. He hung on, trying to distract her with wiggling fingers, then Luke was back and lifting her up.

“Can I hold her?” Tony asked when Luke went to set her on the floor.

“I, uh, sure,” Luke said. “Let me just get you up.”

With the baby crawling on the floor, Luke stacked pillows and lifted Tony to a sitting position. Tony put a pillow in his lap – his hipbones were sharp, it hurt to have pressure on them – and her father lifted Elle into his lap. Tony grinned, meaning it this time, and wrapped an arm around the baby. Engrossed in Sesame Street, she hardly noticed.

He was enjoying the warmth and baby-smell, her gurgles and rapt attention, when Steve came back a little while later. He had the breakfast tray – toast and tea and fruit, with the promised coffee cup beside a glass of ‘supplement’ shake. Tony frowned. He hated that stuff.

He opened his mouth to complain, but closed it again. Steve was being sneaky. Tony figured the only way he was going to get the coffee was to drink the despised suppement. And he didn’t even really want the coffee; he’d only pretended to make Steve happy!  Hoist on his own petard, he was.

“Let me get that,” Luke said, getting up to take the tray.

“I’ve got it,” Steve said. “Do you mind giving us some time? Half an hour or so?”

“’Course not.” Luke deftly removed the baby from Tony’s lap. “It’s probably time for a new diaper anyway, right, sweetie? I bet you’re stinking the whole place up.”

Tony made a face and Steve laughed. It sounded forced, and Tony hid a wince.

“Just want to touch base for the day,” Steve said as the pair left. He sat in the chair and put the tray on the bed. Tony eyed it with distaste. Steve noticed. “Come on, it’s not that bad.”

“It’s disgusting.”

“But you get coffee.”

Tony turned his head, biting back angry words. Steve had been so good to him; it would be wrong to get mad at him for this.

He dutifully ate the toast, drank the tea. When Steve held up the glass of nasty, thick, stuff, he gagged it down, too. The coffee did taste good, but it would never wash away the aftertaste, or the weight of shame.

“How’re you feeling today?” Steve asked, after the coffee was gone.

Tony gave a half-shrug.

“I talked to Henry last night – he’s not going to be able to come by until tomorrow. I told him you’re okay.”

With an effort, Tony lifted an arm, and gave Steve a glare.

“You’re not actively trying to die,” Steve scolded. “And that’s okay. I know you’re going to get better.”

“I’m going to be stuck in this bed for the rest of my life,” Tony told him darkly.

“You can’t think like that. Extremis – it’s just too powerful. I know you saved your life by using it, but you may have messed up everything else.”

Ya think?” Tony snarked. His stomach was beginning to roll. It didn’t like food.

“But you’ll get better. I know you’re bored, but you’ve got stuff to work on now.”

Tony glanced at the worktable on the wall. Then he looked away.

“You don’t want to work on anything? That old set of armor, you can tinker.” Steve sounded hopeful.

I can’t do much more than that, Tony thought, not letting himself grimace. If he could lift an arm properly it wouldn’t be such a big deal. Steve was trying, so he smiled nstead.

“That would be great.”

“You can’t overdo it. Exhaust yourself. You’re still going to sleep properly and rest when you need to.”

Tony nodded. He would agree to anything at this point.

“I’ve got to do some team stuff, but I’ll have time this afternoon, if that’s okay?”

Biting back a comment about the team, and how he wasn’t on it anymore, Tony nodded. He’d been holding back a lot of words lately, but, again, there was no reason to upset Steve. This would all be so much worse without him.

“I’ll see you this afternoon, then.” Steve stood. He leaned over, a hand beside Tony’s head. “Rest.”

Tony closed his eyes as Steve got closer, expecting another kiss to his head, of cheek, but this time – this time – Steve pressed a kiss to his lips. Tony shivered, his tongue slipping out to taste. Steve straightened as Tony opened his eyes.

Steve was smiling. Tony – Tony didn’t know what to feel.

He watched Steve leave the room with a sense of foreboding.

***

The day passed quietly. Tony puttered with the old armor, his thoughts vague and unfocused. Luke and the baby stayed until after lunch, then Aunt May came in. Tony lay back, still and silent, with his eyes closed, and listened to her knitting needles. The rythmic clicking was oddly soothing. He wondered what it had been like, for Peter, growing up in such a freakishly normal, wholesome environment.

It would have driven Tony crazy. Maybe Peter had appreciated the stability after losing his parents, though. That would have been important.

It was close to dinner time. Tony thought that Steve should be there, soon.

May’s phone rang. He tried not to listen, then was aggrieved when he realized that he couldn’t hear her even if he tried. His head felt stuffed full of cotton, ears and all.

He thought he dozed off.

Sometime later he heard May get up, though she was trying to be quiet. Tony tried to roll over, so he could see the door, but it was harder today. He gave up. He could see the large windows on the far wall, and the drapes weren’t drawn yet; it was dark outside. Completely dark, middle-of-the-night dark. Where was Steve?

“Tony?” May’s voice was soft and kind.

He turned his head to look at her.

“Steven will be here shortly. They were delayed by a – skirmish, he called it – but he wanted to be sure that you know he’s coming.”

Tony nodded, letting his eyes closed. Maybe, if he didn’t open them, he could sleep forever. Never have to wake up and face the reality of what he, his life, was becoming.

He felt warmth on his arm. It lingered briefly, May’s touch, and then slipped away. Tony prayed for sleep.

***

Sometime later, Tony didn’t know how long, the mattress dipped and an arm came around his waist.

He resisted the urge to snuggle back into it.

“Tony.” Steve’s words, whispered into the back of his neck. Tony shivered faintly.

“I’m sorry I was late.” Steve drew him back until Tony was flush with his larger body.

Tony gave a tiny shrug.

“Seems like the quiet time is over,” Steve went on. He sounded sad. He always did, when the world disappointed him. “There’s a new threat. No one’s sure where they came from. All we know now is that they’re well organized and well armed, and they don’t mind using civilians to reach their goals.”

“Is everyone alright?” Tony asked, his voice raspy. His throat felt dry.

He felt Steve nod against him, then the softness of Steve’s hair was brushing his ear.

“It was close, but we finished without any significant injuries. They, whoever they are, got away. We’re going to have to start hunting them. Figure out what they want and who’s funding them.”

Tony had never really enjoyed that kind of work. He left it to the team members with a detective bent, while he went and built something.

“They took an armored truck. Saw us coming, grabbed hostages. Then they just – disappeared.”

Steve sounded angry, and sad, and maybe even hurt. Tony wondered if it had been worse than he was making it out to be. He began to turn over, but it was still too hard. Steve knew what he wanted, though, and completed the movement for him, his touch gentle and sure.

He lay Tony back on the pillows and hovered over him.

“I shouldn’t have woken you,” he said, hushed. Tony reached up, with an effort, and touched his face. Steve’s skin was so warm.

He covered Tony’s hand with his own, and settled on his knees, straddling Tony’s thighs.

“Are you okay?” Tony whispered.

Steve gave a soft laugh. It sounded bitter. Tony closed his eyes and winced.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Steve leaned in and pressed his mouth to Tony’s brow. “I’m so – I don’t know what I am. Tony. The world’s tilting and I don’t know how to stop it.”

The words were soft and harsh. Tony slid his hand to the back of Steve’s neck and tugged on him.

“Tony,” Steve sighed. He lay down, his head on Tony’s chest, the rest of him to the side, where his weight couldn’t hurt his weakened friend. Both arms slid around Tony and held him, carefully. “This makes me feel better.”

The words were surprising, and not. Tony was no stranger to the need for comfort, though he usually took it in the arms of acquaintances and strangers.  He hadn’t had a steady lover…well, in longer than he wanted to remember. He was a man that enjoyed monogamy, though his critics would argue that, but he’d finally begun to realize that lasting love might not be something he was going to have. It hurt, to know that, but he’d swallowed it, just as he had so many painful things. He had Iron Man, he had Steve and Rhodey and Pepper, he had the Avengers. Wealth and good looks and his hard-won health. Wanting more was just greedy.

Only now he didn’t have any of that.

Okay, maybe he still had Steve and Pepper. But he didn’t think that was going to be enough. He was sure it wasn’t, and he couldn’t talk about it because he knew how much that would hurt them. They wouldn’t understand.

He didn’t want to hurt them.

***

Steve could feel Tony’s ribs, too close to the surface. It was startling, how quickly the weight had melted off of him; not quite skin-and-bones now, but nowhere near his muscular self. It bothered Steve, because he liked to see Tony healthy, but it still felt good to touch him. Good in ways Steve finally acknowledged to himself. It was time. He’d thought he’d waited too long, really.

He’d never wanted a man, at least not consciously. There might have been some sublimated desire in his friendship with Tony all along, just as there had been with one or two women he’d worked with, but it had never bubbled to the top. Not until now.

Now he lay in bed with Tony, and held him, and kissed him to comfort him, and wanted more.

His body ached with wanting, the way a beating wouldn’t. He’d taken a pounding tonight, dodging high-powered plasma weapons and falling debris – not always successfully – but that didn’t compare to the ache inside.

He wanted Tony. Wanted to touch him, kiss him, hold him.

Wanted to become a part of him. Lose himself in Tony’s body, Tony’s smile. Steve wanted it with a fierceness that shook him. It was becoming harder every day, to not reach out and, at least, ask. Ask for what he wanted.

Every day Tony seemed to slip farther away. It was harder and harder to keep his attention.

Steve didn’t know how much longer he could bear it; watching, and waiting for Tony to give up.

***

Steve’s stillness had a desperate quality.

Normally Tony wouldn’t think himself qualified to judge, but this was Steve. And Steve didn’t do desperate.

They had become too close, in Tony’s illness. He knew that part of it was Steve’s guilt; he had once walked away when Tony needed him. Tony had pushed him away, as hard as he could, but he knew Steve still regretted it. 

That didn’t explain all of this, though. Tony knew how long he’d wanted – something – with Steve, but he still didn’t trust that Steve wanted anything back.

He seemed to. He really did.

If this was what Steve needed, Tony would give it to him. Give him something to hold on to, when he needed it.

Tony slid his arms around Steve, holding him. It was painful, to tilt his head, and press his lips to Steve’s hair. Tony nosed into it. Soft and damp, it smelled slightly sweet, as if it had just been washed.

***

Tony’s thin arms came around him, and Steve held his breath. He felt Tony kiss the top of his head. His breath tickled Steve’s scalp. His breathing was shallow, but even.

Tony seemed so fragile. It was an illusion, built of illness and pain, because Steve knew Tony was strong. Strong in all the ways a man could be. Tony didn’t see it, Steve knew that, but he could see it for him.

Steve could want. To touch that strength. To share it. There was nothing wrong with that. With wanting.

He just didn’t think wanting was going to be enough, tonight.

Steve turned his head and kissed the hollow of Tony’s throat. He let his mouth linger there.

His scalp warmed with the exhalation of Tony’s sigh.

Encouraged, Steve shifted. Slowly, because he didn’t want to cause pain, he lifted a knee and slid it up, to rest his leg on Tony’s thigh.

Tony shifted, minutely. His arms tightened around Steve and held.

“Tony,” Steve whispered against his throat. “God. Tony.”

He didn’t really expect an answer. If Tony spoke, he would probably argue against this, and that was – almost – the last thing Steve wanted.

He moved slowly, knowing that Tony could be spooked out of this, like a skittish horse. Steve touched him tenderly. Gently. With reverance. His hand skimmed Tony’s side, dropping down the length of his thigh, back up again, to his shoulder. Steve let his fingers play there, with the neck of Tony’s soft cotton shirt, stretched loose with age. He reached inside and stroked the warm skin he found, feeling it quiver at his touch. Tony made a sound, biting it back. Steve kissed his neck, and again. He tasted salt and sweat and the tang of something medicinal. He didn’t care.

“Steve…” Tony whispered. The first protest. Steve lifted to his knees, one sliding between Tony’s, where it fit snugly. He touched Tony’s hair, and settled his hand in the thick darkness.

Holding Tony’s head still, Steve leaned to kiss him. More deeply than he had before; his tongue gently encouraged Tony’s mouth to open, his free hand went to hold Tony’s chin. Tony moaned quietly, and didn’t try to pull away.

“That’s good,” Steve whispered to his lips. “That’s so good.”

“Steve…” Tony pulled slightly, barely, not really trying to get free, Steve understood. Just stating his  protest for the record. “Don’t…”

“I’ve wanted to do this for months,” Steve told him. “Maybe years.”

He kissed him again, more deeply, pushing Tony’s head back to the pillows. Both hands in Tony’s hair, holding him there. Tony’s arms fell to his sides, hands curling as Steve kissed him.

***

He’d known Steve wanted this, he’d wanted this, but to have it – and to have it now – it might be too much. Tony was’t sure. Wasn’t comfortable. Could he, really, go through with this? Give Steve what he wanted? He’d take it for himself, if he could, but Tony knew, he knew, he knew, that this wouldn’t end well.

It just…couldn’t.

Steve’s tongue was agile is his mouth, touching, tasting, stroking. It made Tony shiver. It made him want more. But he wasn’t sure what he could have.

***

Tony shivered under him and Steve knew he wasn’t cold. Tony was kissing him back; reserved and careful, but kissing him back. That was good; Steve wanted Tony to want this.

He stroked his hands down Tony’s chest, drawing another shiver. When he reached his waist Steve slid his fingers under, and up, and started to lift the shirt.

Tony grabbed at it, holding it in place.

Steve continued kissing him, patient. He tugged gently on the shirt. Tony wasn’t letting go.

There was no question of forcing the issue. It wasn’t Steve’s way. And he knew Tony was susceptible to persuasion, coaxing, but force would only make him fight harder. It was a part of his nature Steve had always admired, though sometimes grimly. When Tony got his hackles up he was impossible to distract.

Steve had never forced Toy into anything. He wasn’t going to start now.

Breaking from Tony’s mouth, he kissed his way over a too-visible cheekbne, to the curve of an ear.

“Let me,” he whispered. Tony turned his head away, and Steve kissed behind the ear. “Let me touch you.”

“I – I – you don’t need to.”

“I want to.”

“Steve…I’m…”

“Striking,” Seve breathed. “You’ve never been anything but handsome, Tony. Now more than ever.”

Even in the depths of alcoholism, ruined by despair, Tony’s pain had just made him…unearthly. Ephemeral, as his hold on life loosened with determination.

“When I’m – well,” Tony muttered. He sounded almost angry. “When I’m strong.”

“Always,” Steve said with conviction. “Always, Tony.”

Pain could be beautiful. Steve understood that, but he wasn’t sure others did.

Tony lay still beneath him. Holding himself tightly. Unwilling, afraid – yes, afraid, Steve knew that, too – because he’d lost the things that he believed defined him. Health, looks, abilities. The things he contributed to the world.

Steve knew, and loved, more than that. He loved Tony. The basic package didn’t matter. A gift was still a gift, no matter how it was wrapped.

And this time with Tony was a gift. Steve didn’t think they’d have ever gotten here without it.

He tugged gently on the shirt again. Tony’s hand resisted, and then stopped. Steve watched as the fingers released the fabric, and crept over to Steve’s knee, where they hesitated.

He covered them with one hand, turning Tony’s over and lacing their fingers together. He brought them to his lips, kissing them one by one.

Tony sighed and turned his face to Steve.

“I’m not sure,” he said slowly, “That you know what you’re doing.”

Tony’s eyes were dark and haunted. Steve would do a lot to take the expression away. He grinned, and made it as naughty as he could. “I think I do.”

Those eyes searched his face. Steve saw fear, and want, and yes, courage. Tony was brave, often at the oddest moments.

Tugging gently at the hem of the shirt, Steve repeated his plea. “Let me, Tony.”

Tony closed his eyes.

Swlowly and carefully, Steve pulled the shirt up. He’d been bathing and dressing and caring for his friend for almost six months now. He’d seen Tony in every state of undress, but this was different. This time there was intent.

He could understand how it was possible, for a caregiver to become confused. That wasn’t what was happening here.

Tony lifted his arms, half-sitting with Steve’s help, and Steve threw the shirt toward the wall. He didn’t watch it fall.

Lit only by the glow of lights outside, Tony was too thin and fragile. The planes and angles of his chest and torso hinted at mysteries Steve needed to unravel.

“Always,” Steve told him, again, reaching to touch. Tony shuddered under his hands, still not looking.

Lying him back, Steve started at his neck, and worked his way down. Warm, salty skin, fine black hair, the overwhelming scent.

“Steve,” Tony whispered above him.

And Steve took a moment, to look at him. Staring up at him, seeing Tony’s face tilted down. Shadows hung on his eyes.

Crouched over his legs, one hand on his thigh, the other touching, touching, just barely there on Tony’s flank. Where the boxers had ridden down and warm skin flowed to meet his fingers…Steve looked up, and saw Tony looking down at him.

The shadows clung to him, to Tony. Steve saw the glimmer, his eyes open, a stripe of pale cheek…the flush of his lips, barely parted.

“Tony,” he whispered back. Holding himself still, stretched into this moment.

Tony’s chin fell to his chest. Steve heard the long, slow breath as he exhaled.

“Let me,” Steve asked, almost silently. “Please, Tony.”

Tony closed his eyes. He relaxed back into the pillows, legs spreading slightly. Giving Steve more room.

“Thank you.” Steve knew Tony couldn’t hear him; he’d dropped below a whisper. Lowering his head reverently, he kissed the flat of Tony’s stomach, right above the shorts. “Beautiful.”

Another kiss, pushing the fabric down with his chin. “Soft.”

Another, little hairs tickling his nose. “Warm.”

“Ah.” Tony flinched, minutely. Steve pressed his lips there, held them. Tightened his hand on Tony’s thigh. Held onto him.

Teased his tongue out and tasted him.

Kissing the flesh as he exposed it, Steve pushed the boxers down with both hands, past Tony’s knees, relieved when Tony finished the movement, kicking them off.

He wanted to look up. Tony was watching him. Steve could feel it. But the skin here was so soft and sweet, he wanted to keep kissing it. And tasting it. So he did.

His hands came to play; trailing over Tony’s thighs, dipping to the soft insides, touching secret places, lingering there.

Tony was soft and vulnerable. His sex lay in a bed of dark curls. Steve kissed his way to it, mouthing it, tasting. He shuddered; he wanted this too much.

Tony’s hand dropped heavily on his head. Steve heard his whisper, so faint above him.

“Sorry…”

He rubbed his head against that hand, breathing deeply.

“We’ve got all night,” he whispered back. He wasn’t worried that Tony wouldn’t respond to him. It didn’t matter. This was about love, and how they shared it wasn’t important.

He did wonder, briefly, if this had ever happened to Tony before.  It must have, at least when he was drinking? Steve wasn’t sure.

Taking Tony in his mouth – soft and small and fragile – made Steve hold his breath. It was…he felt full of air. His chest ached.

Tony made a small sound. His fingers tightened in Steve’s hair.

Steve smiled inside. Rubbing his hands up Tony’s legs, he settled them on Tony’s hips, the bones too-sharp beneath his palms.

There was no hurry. He tested Tony in his mouth. Tasted him, rolling the unguarded flesh. It was hot and salty, with a trace of bitterness. Steve couldn’t decide if that was soap or something else – something Tony.

Tony shivered. Steve tightened his hands, gently, then stroked with his fingertips. It was easy to tip his head, Tony still in his mouth – in his mouth!and look up the long plane of skin, broken by faint bruises and the lines of rib, to Tony’s face. Which wasn’t looking at him, not at all. He saw the bottom of Tony’s chin, the deep hollow of his throat, the blue-grey shade of stubble.

The tendons of his neck, drawn tight. Steve closed his own eyes for a second, almost overcome.

He couldn’t look and taste at the same time; it was too much. With his eyes still closed Steve turned his mind back to what he was doing.

Having a cock in his mouth was something new – certainly new enough to keep his attention. A part of him believed – hoped – believed – that there would be other chances to do this, but Tony’s illness had taught him, finally, that he couldn’t count on the future. Living in the moment was harder than he’d expected, but it was the only way he’d survived the past six months.

The past was past. The future was unknown. All he could do was live now, this moment. This first time, all the more precious for the uncertainty.

His hands were stroking Tony now, traveling up his chest to play with nipples that hardened reluctantly. Steve thumbed them, squeezed tenderly, and tugged lightly. Tony made another sound, this one deeper, but somehow breathy.

Steve held Tony’s cock in his hand as he looked up, keeping to a whisper. “Are – alright, Tony?”

Tony lifted his head, rolled it on his neck, resting his cheek on his shoulder, and stared down at Steve. His eyes were very dark and wide.

His fingers caressed Steve’s head.

“I’m good,” he whispered back. “It feels – good, Steve.”

Steve’s smile was completely disproportionate to the circumstance.

Tony was watching him. Slowly, to be cure Tony saw all of it, Steve lowered his head again, using his hand to hold Tony’s cock steady as he sank his mouth over it. Tony moaned, softly, and his legs spread a little bit wider.

He was harder now. Enough so that Steve could feel the weight of him on his tongue as he straightened and filled. Steve sucked, not vigorously, and Tony’s fingers dug deeper into his hair, gripping hard.

“Steve - !”

Mmm-hm,” Steve agreed, continuing on. He let one hand slide under his chin, to Tony’s balls, where they played carefully. Tony wasn’t warm here, he was hot, and Steve tested the difference with a few fingers running further back, testing the elasticity of thin skin before stroking over the very private entrance to Tony’s body. Tony jerked, his hand pulling at Steve’s head. Steve caught his wrist in the other hand and pulled it away, carefully, not wanting to leave bruises ringing the frail wrists.

He pressed Tony’s hand to the bed and held it there while he sucked him, not too hard. Tony moaned again, and it became a pattern; quiet, breathed moans that made Steve wonder if he’d been wrong, if Tony wasn’t the type to talk in bed. He’d imagined Tony garrulous, enthusiastic, appreciative.

But Tony was different now, whatever he’d been like before. Steve didn’t allow himself to be sad that he wasn’t going to experience that tonight. Instead he was filled with joy; he got to touch Tony, hopefully to make love to him, for the first time. Nothing could diminish that.

His body wasn’t entirely enthusiastic about the idea either. Steve was sure he could convince it otherwise. It would just take time.

He was painfully grateful to have this chance.

Tony’s cock was almost hard enough to stand on its own. Steve pulled away gradually, bringing his hand up to circle it, stroke it. Tony moaned again, the tenor changing slightly. Steve watched, looking up at him, and then back at his hand and what he was doing. Tony’s hips lifted, slightly, and Steve bit back a sound of his own.

God, Tony.

Steve flushed suddenly hot, his body tightening and going hard in seconds. He was almost dizzy with it. His hand tightened on Tony and his friend – his lover – gasped sharply.

Steve eased off immediately, looking up at his face, trying to decipher if that had been a good noise or a bad one. From the furrow drawn between Tony’s eyes he was thinking bad.

“Sorry,” he offered on another whisper. “Too hard?”

“No, it’s – I’m – tender,” Tony guttered out, the words like falling pebbles.

“It’s okay.” Steve bent and kissed the head of Tony’s cock, warm and smooth. Kissed beside it, around it, nuzzled into the curly hair, softer than he’d expected. “It’s okay.” He breathed there.

“Steve, I –Tony’s hand came to Steve’s wrist, held it. Steve rolled his eyes up, to look at him.

Tony was – pale. It wasn’t just the moonlight.

“I don’t think I can.”

Holding back a sigh, Steve pulled away unwillingly. Very slowly he stretched himself up and out, alongside Tony, keeping their bodies pressed together.

When his head was level with Tony’s he used his fingers, careful on Tony’s chin, to turn his face.

Tony looked drawn. Tight and unhappy.

“Do you want to?”

Tony tried to turn his face away, but Steve wouldn’t let him.

“Tony.”

He sighed, eyes fluttering closed. His eyelashes were shadowed against purple smudges.

“Yes.”

“Then we’re good. No matter what does – or doesn’t – happen.” Steve cupped his chin and leaned in to kiss him. Slowly, with hunger and want.

Tony kissed him back, just as hungrily. Steve brought his hands up to rub Tony’s shoulders, play with his nipples. He ran them down Tony’s chest, trailed fingertips over his erection, down between his legs again. Still kissing him, he took hold of Tony’s hip and urged him over; onto his side and then, helpng him, his stomach. Sliding to straddle him, Steve kissed the back of his neck and stroked his hair.

Tony took a deep breath and visibly relaxed. He slid his arms out to the sides, hands flat on the sheet.

“Good,” Steve told him, kissing behind his ear. He slid his own hands over Tony’s arms, down to twine their fingers together. He nuzzled the back of Tony’s neck, tasting sweat. Mmmm.”

The room was very quiet. Steve listened to their breathing; Tony’s was shallow and long, his own deeper, more controlled.

He kissed Tony’s neck, again, then the back of it. Giving in to an urge, he bit there, gently. Tony shivered under him.

“You taste good,” Steve told him in a whisper, taking the time to nip at his ear as well. “All of you. I want to taste every inch.”

Tony stiffened, as if he would object, but Steve was already sliding lower. He licked a damp path down, between the wings of Tony’s shoulders, to press his face to the small of Tony’s back. He rubbed his cheek there, careful of scratching; he needed to shave.

He had to let go of Tony’s hands to go lower, and Tony drew his arms close to himself, as if he would curl up and away from Steve.

With one hand on the rise of Tony’s ass, Steve paused.

“It’s okay,” he said, not whispering, because he wanted to be sure Tony heard him. “Everything’s okay. Just let me – please?”

The words sounded loud in the moonlight. Tony shivered again.

Then he drew one knee up on the bed, flat to the sheet, as if afraid to expose himself. Steve sighed and ran his hand over curves, his fingers dipping into that darkness.

Slowly, sensually, he rubbed his cheek over the whole if it; over the mounds and curves, down to where ass met thigh, down further, the insides of Tony’s thighs, where the tender skin was paler, softer.

He licked there, curious. Above him, Tony sighed.

Steve hummed softly, and licked some more. He licked and nuzzled and nosed into the creases, nooks and crannies; the backs of Tony’s knees, where thigh became ass, behind his balls and up over the curves…then he ran his tongue down the divide, and Tony moaned. His body tightened.

Ah, Steve thought. Tony liked that idea. Well, Steve had put stranger things in his mouth. He didn’t even want to think about what passed for food in some countries.

He slid further down on the bed and used both hands to spread Tony open, careful not to pull; Tony bruised too easily these days.

Dark musk and sweat. Tony shivered and shuddered under the tender assault, finally beginning to make some noise.

“Ah, Steve, you don’t – God, - have to, I – you – oh! – please…”

Steve answered with his tongue, and his mouth, and his hand, sliding beneath Tony to stroke and tease. He tickled and squirmed, his tongue agile and strong, opening his friend gently but thoroughly. A fresh sweat broke out on Tony’s body and he drew up slowly, tensing gradually, until he was, at last, as hard and eager as a man could want. Still Steve didn’t stop; he wanted Tony quietly crazy and desperate for him.

He wanted Tony to remember this; not in his body, Steve couldn’t take the chance of hurting him – but in his heart and soul. Steve wanted to be imprinted there.

If Tony remembered, then maybe he would hang on. Just a little bit longer.

If Tony remembered, then maybe…maybe…he wouldn’t leave Steve. Drift away on a tide of hopelessness to some place in his mind Steve couldn’t reach.

Despair was the enemy, and Steve would fight it with every weapon he had. If hate could hold a grudge, then love could just hold on.

“Steve, Steve, Steve…” Tony was panting out his name. Raising his head, Steve rested a cheek on  Tony’s ass and answered him.

“Tony…” he wanted to say more, but the words wouldn’t come.

“Steve, please.” Tony shifted urgently. Steve held him still, using both hands. He pressed his face into the supple skin and breathed. When he lifted it again, he was ready. He’d been ready, for months now.

“I’ve got you,” he crooned. “Just work with me here, ‘kay? Let me do this my way.”

Tony shuddered and groaned, curling his arms around a pillow. The skin at his elbows pulled white.

“Good,” Steve told him. “Good, Tony. Just – here, like this –“

It took a few minutes to get Tony onto his side, arranged to Steve’s satisfaction. He tucked a pillow between Tony’s knees to prevent bruising, and made sure he had another to rest his upper arm on. With his help Tony drew both legs up high, and Steve caught his breath at the picture he made. His hand itched for a pencil, to catch it on paper. Tony probably wouldn’t like it, but Steve knew that he was going to draw it, at least for himself.

Tony was a man of extremes, caught in a moment of extremis. Gaunt, fragile, otherworldly…curled on the white sheets, his hair a brief shock of darkness rising out of the pales that composed him.

Steve slid behind him with a feeling of worshipfulness. This room was a cathedral, and Tony was his blessing.

Shhh,” he whispered as Tony shook. “I’ll take care of you.”

Shhh.” Lifting Tony’s leg and finding that private place with his fingers; still wet and soft from his tongue. “I’ve got you.”

Tony moaned and shuddered, head loose on his neck. Steve held him with an arm around his chest, fingers spread wide to touch as much skin as he could.

“God, you’re amazing,” Steve told him. His fingers sought and found the lubricant he’d brought to bed with him. Delicately, he made the first intrusion. Tony tried to push back, but Steve held him still. “Knowing that you want me – that I can have you, have this –“ Steve opened him gently, carefully. There would be no pain, no injury. Tony was too fragile, too – Steve didn’t want to think frail, but that was the word haunting his mind.

This could be only good for him. Some part of Steve knew that he might not get another chance.

“It’s everything I’ve ever wanted, Tony.” It felt like a confession, and perhaps it was. Steve knew, in ways he couldn’t explain, that Tony was on the verge of leaving him. Leaving the world, by any means possible. He’d tried it before. Steve didn’t need to understand why to know it was true. “You’re – you  are what I’ve always wanted. Every dream, stored in your heart.”

Tony hissed as Steve added a second finger and Steve slowed further, barely moving his hand. “It’s okay,” he kissed behind Tony’s ear, licked the shell of it. “Tell me what you want. Tell me what you need.”

Tony made an inarticulate sound and his body tightened for a minute. Then he relaxed again and Steve moved impossibly closer.

He lay his face over Tony’s, cheek-to-cheek in this horizontal dance. His arm curled up over Tony’s shoulder, slid down between his pecs, held him over the heart, then moved up to hold his neck, fingers spreading again.

“God, you’re hot.” It was true on many levels.

“Steve…” Tony panted. “I’m – how can you? I’m – so ugly.”

“You’ve never been ugly,” Steve scolded gently. He shook Tony’s face gently. “Don’t say that about yourself. It - hurts me.”

“Steve,” Tony groaned. “Don’t, please – don’t make me – I can’t –“

“Don’t what?” Steve asked. Tony was open and loose, his body softening, preparing to welcome Steve.

“Can’t what? I’ve never been able to make you do anything, Tony Stark.” He added a third finger, silently amazed that Tony’s body, any body, had the capacity to accept this. To open so far, and take so much. “I don’t think that’s going to change because I love you.”

“You –“ Tony sounded shocked. Steve wondered if he hadn’t quite understood what this was all about. Silly man.

“I love you,” Steve whispered, nuzzling behind Tony’s ear. He set a rhythm with his fingers, tight together, sliding in and out easily. “I love you.”

It had taken him long enough to recognize it. He wasn’t about to deny it now.

Using his hand on Tony’s neck, he turned Tony’s head toward him and arched over the smaller man to take his mouth in a deep kiss. “I love you,” he whispered against his lips. ”Haven’t you figured that out yet?”

“No…” Tony sounded desperate and hurt. “Steve, don’t. You can’t.”

“I can. I do.” Steve spread small kisses over Tony’s face, lingering on the cheekbone, the corner of his eye. “Did you think I was playing?”

“I think you’d do anything to –“ Tony shut his mouth tightly.

“To what?” Steve pushed his fingers deeper. He knew what he was looking for.

Tony stiffened and shook under him, trying so hard to keep quiet.

“What, Tony? What would I do anything for?” He rubbed firmly over Tony’s prostate, watching the way Tony flushed, color rising in his face. It was suddenly very warm in the room. Steve felt hushed, calm and serence. His body held itself in a state of anticipation, but his mind – his heart – was at peace.

“Don’t, Steve. Don’t.” Tony begged almost silently.

“Anything to make you stay here,” Steve growled softly, pulling his fingers free and resting that hand on Tony’s upper leg. “Anything to make you want to live.”

“No, no, nono, no…” Tony’s eyes were shut so tightly it had to hurt. Sinking back behind him, his hand returning to Tony’s chest, lifting Tony’s leg with the other, Steve began to enter him.

“You have to tell me yes, Tony,” he muttered, his tongue suddenly thick. He held himself still with great effort. Air was too thick to draw in, he gulped at it in abrupt need. “You have to let me love you.”

“Steve…” Tony had gone beyond words. He was taut and yearning in Steve’s arms, his body open and ready.

“Tell me,” Steve prompted.

Tony gave a great shudder, shaking as if he might fly apart, and then lay still. Steve raised up to look at him again, and saw tears seeping from beneath the closed eyes.

“Oh, God, Tony.”

The blue eyes opened and stared up at him. So wide and deep Steve forgot to breath for a moment.

Everything he wanted, was there. Everything he’d hoped and prayed for.

Tony would stay alive. He would fight. For Steve.

“I love you,” Tony said wearily. He closed his eyes. “I always have.”

“Thank you,” Steve breathed. He held Tony as tightly as he dared. “Thank you. It will be okay, Tony. I promise.”

Tony just shivered in his arms again. Unexpectedly worried, Steve reached fror the blankets and drew them up, over both of them. Tony sighed and pushed back against him; gently, but insistently. Steve laughed almost silently.

“I’ve got you.”

Warm and sweating beneath the blankets, he entered Tony slowly. There wasn’t any pain. Tony allowed Steve to control the pace and depth, rocking with the motion of their loving.

Steve kissed the back of his neck, nibbled gently, forced his hands to hold tenderly. So much of him wanted to surge forward and take this – take what Tony offered – but he wouldn’t, couldn’t hurt him. So fragile, so easily bruised. There would be no pleasure in marks left on this thin, tormented body.

“Do you like that?” he whispered, touching Tony’s cock, stroking it delicately. “Is this what you want?”

“Yes…more, Steve.”

“And this?” Steve rubbed his thumb over the head. Tony was finally hard, finally ready. Steve could hardly restrain himself; he wanted to pull the pleasure from Tony’s skin, wanted to brand him with it. “Do you like me inside you?”

“Yes….” Tony moaned now, deep and rough. “More, Steve. Harder.”

“Not too hard,” Steve muttered, warning himself more than Tony. “I can get deeper…” and he did. Every inch of him inside Tony, pressed tight to his ass, pushing carefully. Keeping up the pressure, as if he could become a part of Tony. He was filled with Tony, as Tony was filled with him; Steve tasted him, felt him, breathed him.

They hung suspended, time and space slowing around them. Steve tightened his hold, just barely, and Tony clutched at his arm, both hands clinging so tightly. Steve stroked, gently, and Tony began to shake, tremors running through him.

He lay his head back and opened his mouth, panting urgently.

“There,” Steve whispered into Tony’s hair. “There, I feel it. I feel you. You’re so close…”

“Steve,” Tony panted. “Steve.

“I’m here. I’ve got you. I love you.”

“Steve….” Tony exhaled as he came. Steve soothed him through it, thrilled to hold him, to feel him. He cupped Tony’s spent cock, cradled him as he softened, his body slack. Looking at his face, Steve wasn’t surprised to see Tony’s eyes closed, his breathing even now, relaxed.

He was almost asleep.

Shifting to a more comfortable position, Steve rolled slightly, half on top of Tony, Tony’s face eased onto the pillow. He made a noise, soft and welcoming, and moved his legs, to give Steve more room.

“Good?” Steve breathed into his ear.

Mmm.”

“Good,” Steve sighed. Slowly, carefully, he began moving; sliding in and out smoothly. There was just enough friction to catch his attention, so much heat he could only gasp.

Afraid to go too hard or fast, he built a rhythm steadily. He fought with himself to keep his grip easy, his hands steady. No bruises, no pain. Tony’s body, already pushed to its limit, couldn’t take it.

His beautiful, wonderful, welcoming body. Steve shook with the need for control, gulped in great breaths of warm, sex-scented air. His hands roamed Tony’s back and neck, touched his ribs, his ass. Reverently traced the place where they joined. Where Steve became part of Tony.

Tony was quiet, but not still, not entirely. He shuddered, small aftershocks shaking him. Steve found himself watching for those moments, each one ratcheting his need higher. It was need now, not just love, and he reached for the goal, for the end he knew was coming. His hands under Tony, around Tony’s chest, half-lifting him, his chest pressed to Tony’s back, his mouth pressed to Tony’s neck, where the hair curled and tickled.

“God,” he moaned. “God, Tony, you feel – I can’t – I need –“

“Yes,” Tony urged, shaking under him. “Yes, Steve. I want you to. I want to feel you – let me hear you.”

“Tony, I –“ Steve fought to hold on – just a few more seconds. “I…”

“So strong,” Tomy murmered. “You’re so strong, Steve. I can feel your strength, and I love it. I love feeling it inside me, and around me.”

“God, Tony,” Steve sighed, and gave up the struggle. With three hard, deep strokes, he brought his body the end it needed, and his soul the connection he craved. He shuddered through release, his weight pressing Tony to the bed, and then realized what he was doing. With a deep gasp he forced himself back to his side, taking Tony with him. He didn’t let an extra fraction of air come between them.

The room was silent, but not. His breathing, Tony’s inaudible murmurs. Tony’s hand reached back to caress Steve’s skin, wherever he could reach.

At last Steve felt strong enough to speak. He brushed hair back from Tony’s face; sweaty and tangled and so soft.

“Are you okay?”

“Mm-hm.”

“Nothing hurts?”

Nmh-mm.”

A smile spread slowly over Steve’s face.

“Are you ever going to use words again?”

Tony hitched a shoulder in a tiny shrug.

Steve kissed it.

“I’m okay with that.”

He saw Tony smile, eyes still closed. It was a sweet, vulnerable smile. Steve didn’t think anyone else had ever seen it.

He had to kiss it – awkwardly and briefly, but he kissed that smile on Tony’s face.

He rested. They rested. Tony held in the curve of Steve’s body, too-warm beneath the covers, sweaty and sticky and alive. Steve felt it, when Tony slipped into sleep, and it wasn’t so frightening now. He would be back. He would always come back, now.

Steve needed to sleep, too. It had been a long, brutal day, and tomorrow would be more work, more worry about Tony, just more of everything.

He should sleep. Rest. Prepare himself for the trials to come.

He held it off as long as he could, trying to memorize the feel of Tony in his arms. Tony as he was now; Steve’s best friend and lover.

Tony as he would remain. Sick or well, it didn’t matter, from now on he would be this part of Steve.

Dawn came with gracious slowness.

 

~~ the end~~