The red letters flash angrily up at Tony as he sucks the drop of blood off his thumb. 10 percent. It was only 4 percent last week, and assuming a linear trend, the maths isn’t good. Assuming an exponential trend, which the doctors believe more likely, Tony has less than a month.
Leaning heavily against the sink, he glances warily at the closed door, making sure it’s locked before he lifts the bottom of his shirt up, past the glow of the reactor. Harsh black lines creep out around the reactor’s casing, reaching further than they did yesterday, and Tony entertains for a moment the thought of telling Steve.
He should tell his husband, right? That’s what the doctors had tried to politely say: Tony should make preparations. His escape from Afghanistan was stolen time, and he’d seen what those three months in the cave had done to both Steve and Peter. Tony’s sudden disappearance and presumed death had left shadows in Steve’s eyes that still lingered even now, and Peter had spent weeks oscillating between never letting Tony go to not daring to get too attached for fear of Tony leaving again.
Maybe, Tony thinks, maybe a softer break would be better, to slowly drift away than to rip the band-aid off straight away. If Steve didn’t know, he wouldn’t worry or burn himself to the ground trying to save Tony – after all the hours Tony’s spent trying every possible permutation, Tony knows best that there’s no solution. Not even the healing factor in Steve’s blood could break down the palladium seeping into Tony’s veins.
Better that Steve doesn’t know. Better that Peter can spend these last days in blissful ignorance.
“Tony? Are you in there?”
Swallowing hard, Tony quickly lets go of his shirt, checking in the mirror that any traces of those goddamned black lines aren’t visible and shoving the medical scanner deep in his pocket before he tells JARVIS to unlock the door. A few seconds later, Steve’s head pokes in, a small smile on his lips. “There you are. Dinner’s ready. We cooked your favorite risotto.”
A smile forms on Tony’s lips too, a reflex around Steve, but Tony knows it doesn’t reach his eyes. Any other time, he would have teased Steve: we? Did our little chef burn anything?
Today, he just gives a small nod, trying to think past the rising lump in his throat that he’s dying and he’s scared and this might be one of the last times he’ll get to eat their cooking. He doesn’t want to be anywhere without Steve, doesn’t want to give any of this up. Just seeing their toothbrushes standing next to each other sends a pang of hurt so strong Tony has to forcibly wrench himself away because Steve’s looking at him with a frown, coming fully into the bathroom to wrap an arm around Tony’s waist.
“Hey, are you okay?” Steve asks, eyes searching Tony’s face for any clue as his other hand reaches up to smooth the wrinkles away on Tony’s temple.
These, too, are stolen moments. Steve’s warmth burns against Tony’s skin as the weight of the secret grows heavy in his stomach, but Tony leans against the warmth anyway, treasuring it with a sudden desperation.
“I’m just tired.” It isn’t exactly a lie and Steve spends another moment searching Tony’s face before he drops it. As stubborn as Steve is, he knows what Tony needs, so he lets go of Tony’s waist in favour of tangling their fingers together, his gentle strength coaxing Tony’s stiff hand open.
“We can use the dishwasher tonight. Peter’s done his homework, so we can relax a bit, maybe watch something together?”
“I love you.” The words slip out of Tony, too truthful and too wrong. He wants to say: I’m sorry, wants to explain: I don’t want to go. And yet, Steve is looking at Tony with so much of everything that Tony doesn’t want to break this, doesn’t want to taint that look with worry and heartbreak.
Steve pulls Tony closer, walking backwards to inch them slowly out of the bathroom, too kindly and too softly, he murmurs back, “I love you, too, darling.”
Tony has always wondered what it would take to get Steve to stop loving him. The late nights tinkering in the lab, the news scandals, the old photographs, their wildfire fights – it’s the height of irony that now Tony believes wholly in the truth of Steve’s affection for him, but he doesn’t get to keep him.
His mind wanders back to the cave, Yinsen asking him if he had anything waiting for him back home. He had wanted to tell him about Steve and their two-year-old and he had ached with the thought of Steve staying up alone to calm Peter down, then waking up early to get their sulking boy into clothes for school. He had ached at the thought of Steve puttering about alone, waiting for Peter to come home from school, chaffing at not being able to search for Tony himself.
It’s nothing to the ache he feels now.
Tony wants to tell Steve to love someone else, to not break his heart over a dying man, but he knows the stubborn loyalty of the man he married. He knows Steve will never let go of him, and as much as the thought used to fill Tony with the brightest warmth, it now fills him with dread. Steve has to live on, not just for Peter. There is a world, a universe out there for Steve to see, to feel, to love beyond Tony.
When Steve presses a quick kiss on Tony’s lips, it tastes like honey and ash all at once.
“Let’s go to dinner before our little munchkin eats everything,” Tony mumbles, pulling away before it can go any further, no matter how much he wants it to.
It’s been eight days since they did anything more intimate than kissing, and he feels the clock tick to when he has to leave to avoid his husband’s suspicion. The Malibu House is still available for Tony to live out his last weeks. As much as he hates the idea of leaving their New York mansion, it’s impossible to stay longer without Steve figuring out something is direly wrong.
Pushing Steve away, he trudges past their bedroom, picking up one of his husband’s stray shirts off the floor, draping it over the back of the armchair. Dimly, he wonders if Steve will be able to remember to do that when he’s gone – it’s dangerous, Peter could come into the room and trip.
He’s in the living room when he realises Steve is still stuck at their bedroom door, a faraway look in his gaze as he stares at Tony, lips curled down in displeasure.
“What’s wrong?” Tony walks back to him, hand outstretched in invitation.
Steve shakes his head. He takes Tony’s hand, squeezing it as they walk down to the kitchen together. “Nothing,” Steve whispers, and Tony knows he’s lying.
But he’d be a hypocrite if he called Steve out for it.
So he puts on his best smile, letting out an ‘oof!’ when Peter barrels into his arms. He holds on tighter than he ever has before, praying for one more day, one more week, one more year.
Tony’s never gotten what he wants, though.
Sure, he has the money, the fame, the success. But those have never been the things he’s truly wanted.
And he’s never wanted anything more than the chance to keep this, to have this family.
It’s a week later, when they’ve just gotten back from dropping Peter off at his preschool, that the dam breaks and everything comes to a head.
The black lines have stretched to wrap around Tony’s collarbones. Soon, he’ll have to wear a turtleneck around the house. Then, he’ll have to put his plans into motion.
The Malibu House has been dusted off under Tony’s covert orders. Pepper, Rhodey and Happy don’t know either about his… condition, and he’d prefer it to stay that way.
Steve is pulling him to their bedroom, mumbling something about a quick shower together before he goes to volunteer. Tony would love to, he really would, but. He can’t.
“I showered already,” he tugs his hand free from Steve’s, shoving it into his pocket and walking back, out of their bedroom. “I’ve got to do some stuff for Pepper, then I’ll drive you to the shelter.”
“I didn’t hear the shower earlier,” Steve sounds confused, following him out to the living room.
Shit, Tony thinks, living with a supersoldier with superhearing makes it hard to make an alibi. He shrugs. “Maybe you were asleep?”
For a moment, there’s enough silence that Tony’s tricked into believing his husband bought his flimsy excuse. This pulling away is becoming painfully familiar. Steve tries to get him in bed, Tony walks out of their room – which he loves, he loves their bed, the pictures on their drawer, his husband’s clothes strewn on the floor, and he really wishes he didn’t have to leave it – and they either fight or end in silence.
The silence is a hollow victory, except –
“Why won’t you let me touch you?”
It’s a desperate plea, half-shouted and half-whispered, Steve’s voice cracking at the end.
This is exactly what Tony doesn’t want. That look in Steve’s eyes – they’ve been fighting on and off for three days, pasting on a smile in front of Peter to keep their son safely out of their fights. The three-year-old boy is perceptive, but he’s easily distractable with JARVIS’ help.
“I’m going to Malibu,” Tony tries to snap, but it comes out as a weary sigh. He’s tired. He really doesn’t want to fight, or to leave, to spend the last month of his life away from his husband and their son. But Steve can’t know, can he? It would hurt less if Steve loved Tony less – it would hurt Tony more, but it would hurt Steve less.
A cleaner break.
Instead of the messy one of waiting for the palladium to take over, of Steve with his worried, scrunched up frown as Tony heaves into toilet bowl, the poison making it harder and harder to keep food down.
God, Steve’s lost so many people - he had watched his own mother waste away on a hospital bed - and Tony doesn’t want his death to be the thing that breaks Steve. Some part of Tony realises this is what his therapists meant when they said stuff about driving people away – maybe he should give them a raise – and yet it would hurt less, wouldn’t it?
Steve didn’t need to know his husband never truly made it out after Afghanistan. He had always blamed himself for Tony’s capture, for letting Tony go to that last demonstration alone. They had decided to stop producing weapons - it hadn’t been the legacy either of them wanted for Peter, and the Jericho was the final one, the only unfinished government contract they couldn’t renege on, so Tony had left for what was supposed to be the three-day trip.
Steve had given up on trying to come with him when Tony had insisted they weren’t taking a toddler to an active war zone. And Tony knew that some nights, when Steve thought he was sleeping, his husband would place a hand over the glass of the arc reactor and whisper a thousand different apologies.
It isn’t a stretch to know that if Steve found out about the palladium problem, he’d find a way to break himself over it, too. Over something that isn’t his fault.
Tony could easily cover up his death. A drunken accident, maybe. Not the best role model for Peter, but Peter would have Steve to fix it, and it could be a cautionary tale for their little boy to not go near too much alcohol.
Besides, Peter won’t remember much of him. He himself has no memories reaching farther back than when he was four, and those are hazy at best. He’ll fade away from their boy’s life eventually, and again, even if it hurts unbearably for Tony to think that, soon enough, it won’t matter what hurts for him if he’s gone.
“You’re not cheating on me. I have to believe that.”
Tony stops in his tracks, halfway to the stairs. He doesn’t dare to turn back. There’s something to Steve’s voice that Tony’s never been able to ignore, and Steve goes on, the couch creaking as he sits heavily on it.
“You never come to bed. JARVIS is hiding things from me, and you – ” there’s a chuckle from Steve that breaks into a sob, “I’ve tried everything but you won’t let me in. You won’t let me touch you.”
“I’m not cheating,” Tony says, surprised that the words come out smoothly. Steve has to know that Tony loves him too much to betray him like that. A voice in his mind scoffs at that. What is Tony doing right now, hiding from his husband? In the end, isn’t this hiding some sort of betrayal, too?
Steve sighs. “I know. So why won’t you let me touch you?”
His heart hurts, and Tony’s hand flies up to his reactor, pressing against its glass casing, unsure if the ache is real or a phantom from Steve’s words. His chest is numb, which has become more frequent recently. “I just don’t feel like it.”
The word isn’t angry. It’s resigned. Somehow, it hurts more, lancing deep in his heart.
Tony has to say something to it, he knows he has to, but his head is hurting too, now, eyes swimming.
He reaches out to hold onto something, and his hand meets air.
He stumbles. Somewhere behind him, there’s a noise, some sort of clatter, too loud, too much.
His vision goes dark.
“JARVIS,” Steve cradles Tony’s head, laying him gently on the couch with his legs raised on the armrests, “call an ambulance.” He kneels next to the couch, pressing two fingers beneath Tony’s jaw, his other hand frantically wrapping around his husband’s wrist, counting the heartbeats there.
He takes a deep breath, trying to calm the rush of his own blood enough to measure out the beats he feels. They’re steady, but the skin beneath his fingers is warmer than usual, clammy and slightly pale.
“ETA seven minutes, Captain,” JARVIS informs him, “running a full body scan now and relaying data to doctors.”
Lines of blue light wash over them, and Steve moves his hand off Tony’s neck to brush away some of the hair that’s fallen over his eyes.
But his fingers snag on the hem of Tony’s shirt, and –
Black lines. There are black lines webbing across his husband’s skin.
Horrified, Steve pulls the edge of the shirt down to the reactor, stretching the fabric to its limits, and he sees.
This must have been why Tony refused his touches. This must have been the secret.
Steve feels sick.
Where did they come from? How badly hurt is Tony? Why did Tony think he needed to hide it?
And, how long has he hidden it?
“The palladium in the reactor is poisoning his blood. Toxicity was at forty seven percent this morning, rising faster than projected. Sir’s body is not responding well, but doctors affirm that he can still be revived,” JARVIS’ voice washes over him, and Steve tightens his grip on Tony’s wrist, asking himself the most important question:
How did he not notice?
His husband is sick, and Steve had been too wrapped up in himself to notice. He hadn’t noticed when Stane went under their noses and ordered a goddamn hit on his husband, and now he didn’t notice his husband dying until Tony collapsed. And all the while, Steve had been too busy wallowing in his own worries to see what should have been clear to him. Yes, if Tony had chosen to be an actor, he would have won hundreds of awards with his skill to spin whatever he wanted, but Steve should have known. All the chlorophyll juices, Tony’s recent craze with heathy foods -
He knew Tony was hiding something, he should have pushed, should have coaxed Tony into telling him the truth. Should have done something to make his husband trust him more.
“When did the symptoms first start?” he brings himself to ask.
“Three weeks ago. Sir does not know what triggered the poisoning to rise at such speeds.”
Steve looks down at Tony’s closed eyes. His lips are parted slightly, as it usually has been since his capture, his diminished lungs needing the extra air. “Did he plan on telling me?”
“No. Sir set protocols which couldn’t be overriden unless you discovered it yourself. Ms Potts and Colonel Rhodes have not been informed either. He left messages to explain to you after his death.”
His death, Steve turns the words in his mind, shivering at the thought of them, unable to comprehend the emptiness, the coldness that came with the thought. What was Tony thinking? Did he think a letter would be enough to save Steve from the grief? Did he really plan on leaving Steve and Peter like that?
Anger mixes with the worry and guilt roiling deep in him. The sharpness of it helps him centre his thoughts. He was planning to volunteer at the shelter today, but he can call them later to apologise. Someone has to pick Peter up from school in a few hours, and he’s sure that they won’t be home in time for that, so he flicks through some possibilities before landing on Natasha. She should be stateside without a mission right now.
More importantly, Peter adores her, and it will be distraction enough. He doesn’t want his son to see his father like this. “JARVIS, could you explain to Nat? She should be free to take Peter for the evening.”
“Of course, Captain.”
His enhanced hearing picks up the sound of an ambulance siren before JARVIS announces its arrival. As angry as he is, Steve presses a soft kiss on Tony’s cheek, praying to any god who’ll listen.
“Don't you dare leave me like this, you bastard,” he curses, because he's angry and he's hurt and his husband is dying in his arms.
God, the last thing he said to Tony was to call him a liar. It had been the truth, but he doesn’t want that to be his last word to this man who he loves so deeply, so irrevocably.
Tony has to wake up so Steve can yell at him. So Steve can hold him properly.
He doesn’t know what to do otherwise.
Tony doesn’t wake up. The doctors put him in a medically induced coma, injecting some lithium dioxide in him. ‘To reverse some of the effects of the palladium,’ they tell Steve, and then explaining that Tony’s own exhaustion in trying to find a cure is a reason behind the acceleration of the poison in his blood.
They assure him that Tony will be awake in a day.
They don’t tell him anything about a full recovery.
Reluctantly, he goes home, tired to the bone and barely able to explain everything to Peter, who has trouble falling asleep without his dad’s ‘nightlight’.
“Papa, is dad still sleeping?” the boy asks quietly as Steve tucks the blanket under his chin, smoothing it out.
“Yeah, your dad’s pretty tired. The doctors gave him something to help him sleep,” Steve explains again, swallowing against the tightness in his throat. How does he tell Peter that his dad is dying? He doesn’t want to break his son’s heart, he doesn’t want the happiness gone from his smile.
Maybe this was why Tony chose not to tell Steve.
Peter blinks sleepily up at him. “Okay. See him tomorrow?”
“If you promise to be on your best behaviour,” Steve nods, hoping that the doctors can wake Tony up tomorrow. He’s experienced first hand how jarring it can be to see your parent lying in a hospital bed, the machines beeping, tubes everywhere. And worse, he doesn’t know how to stay strong for his son when his husband is the one on that bed.
“P’omise,” his son murmurs, already halfway to sleep. Giving Peter one last smile, he leans down to press a kiss into those curls. They had adopted Peter as a baby, but anyone who saw him said he had a striking resemblance to Tony, from those wide doe eyes to the unruly hair.
Right now, Steve doesn’t know if that resemblance hurts more than it helps.
He wishes Tony were here. On good days, the three of them would cram themselves in the tiny bed and make shadow puppets out of Tony’s arc reactor light, and before – before those dreadful three months when Tony went missing, he would cradle Peter in his arms as Tony played a lullaby on the piano, singing softly in Italian.
Tony had always been the one who could calm their son enough to sleep.
Tonight, Steve had been lucky that their son was tired enough from an exciting day with his Aunt Tasha that it was easy to get the boy tucked in.
Steve lingers, watching Peter’s chest rise and fall, dreading to go to his quiet room, his empty bed.
The stars sewn on the blanket cheerfully stare back at him, and he takes comfort in this refugee.
“Love you,” he whispers, smoothing out the blankets again.
“’ove you more.”
He doesn’t go to bed. He goes down to Tony’s workshop, patting DUM-E’s claw when the bot rolls up to the door. The tables are cluttered with his husband’s half-finished projects, a half-eaten bagel forgotten on one of the benches. He’d bought that two days ago, and with a grimace, he goes to get a tissue, picking the bagel up and tossing it into the bin.
“You said Tony left me a message?”
“It is to be given to you only in the event of Sir’s – ”
“JARVIS,” Steve cuts in sharply, not wanting to hear that word again. “Please.”
For a moment, JARVIS considers his request. In the silence, Steve wanders through the eerily still space, lips quirking up when he sights the post-it he doodled on before his last mission, two years ago. He had decided to stop going on missions to raise Peter together with Tony, and it sends a fizzle of warmth that his husband kept the little note on his desk all these years.
And yet, the warmth is mixed with his worry and fear. He needs to understand why Tony thought it was best to hide from everyone who loves him. It hurts. Steve wants to understand, to figure out what it was Tony wanted to tell Steve but couldn't say it to Steve himself.
“You will find a letter in the third drawer of the desk to your right, Captain,” JARVIS relents, and Steve all but runs to the drawer.
He slides it open roughly, blinking at what he sees.
There’s an envelope. Across it, in Tony’s blocky letters, is his name.
Beneath the letter are two small boxes, one with his name, and the other with Peter’s name. They’re wrapped in wrapping paper dotted with bright, tiny Captain America shields.
Steve smiles ruefully.
Gently, he takes the envelope. It’s crisp and when he opens it, a folded piece of paper slides out into his hand.
Stumbling blindly to the nearest chair, he gently unfolds the stiff paper, and he takes a deep breath.
I know you’re going to be angry, confused, and upset when you read this. So before you throw this away, let me say I’m sorry. More sorry than you could know. And just so you know, I’m getting hives from using pen and paper. There’s a recorded message somewhere, but I thought you’d like this better. Something to hold on to. Or maybe to rip apart if you’re angry. Let me try to explain before you do that, though.
There was nothing I could do. I tried every known permutation of every element and nothing worked. I was ready to lug around a car battery for the rest of my life. But there were complications the doctors couldn’t solve.
You would have burned yourself to the ground trying to save me, and I saw no reason for you to do that when I already burned myself fighting for an impossible cure just to spend another day, another year with you.
So I decided whatever time I had left, I didn’t want to spend it with you worrying. It’s selfish of me, perhaps even cruel of me, but I know how much it would have chipped away at you to see me dying slowly every day.
Steve, having the privilege of being yours, of raising our son together with you, has been the greatest joy in my life. I wanted my last months with you to be untainted by this poison. To spare you the pain of knowing.
You’ve always been a better father than me, a better person, and I have no doubt that you’ll raise Peter to be a man I will be exceedingly proud of. He won’t remember me much, but if he ever asks of me, tell him how much I miss holding him, and how sorry I am that I never got to go to his school plays or dress him up for prom.
Tell him to hug his papa, who has raised him for me and whom I love so very much.
There’s a birthday present I built for him – a little robot spider that I hope will be a friend for him, something that might help distract him for a while so you can get your rest.
And Steve, if you ever find another chance at a love like ours, I want you to take it, to welcome it with open arms. You deserve all the happiness in the universe. If in some other life I get to meet the person who has given you that happiness, I’ll thank them for doing what I can’t do any longer.
My greatest regret is knowing what my death will do to you, and my greatest wish is for you to be happy.
Remember to pick up your clothes from the floor. One day, you’ll trip on them. Peter likes my reactor light, so there are some safe reactors in the workshop for him to play with. And if you’re tired, remember I made us a dishwasher for a reason, Steven. Modern technology has its uses, you know. Oh and your post-morning run towels are in the bottom right drawer. Don’t you dare mix your sweaty towels with your clean ones, you heathen. I will haunt you.
JARVIS will remind you of anything else I’ve forgotten about. He’s yours now, as is everything of mine. I know you’ve never wanted a single penny of it, but I want you to use it. Buy yourself some nice clothes, blue ones that match your eyes, or when you miss me, buy Peter some of those blueberry donuts we like. Take him to see some pandas in China. Spoil yourself like I would have spoiled you.
There’s a gift for you, too, next to Peter’s bot. Our anniversary should be in a few weeks by the time you read this, and I wanted to spoil you one more time. It’s a shield.
I hope if I can’t be there to keep you happy, I can at least keep you safe.
I’m sorry again that I couldn’t be truthful about all this. I hope one day you’ll be able to forgive me, and to forgive yourself – not that any of this was your fault, but you’re stubborn and will blame yourself, so I’m saying this in advance.
I know you still blame yourself for my capture, but you found me in the end, and it was the thought of you that kept me sane. That kept me going. The cave, and now this palladium, none of it is your fault. I hope one day you’ll see that and forgive yourself and live the best of lives until we meet again.
I’ll be waiting to hear your stories, so you better get moving. Lots for you to see, and lots more for Peter to learn. God, I wish I took you out more. I promised you the universe, but I haven't even shown you the world.
With or without me, I hope you still get to go see the stars in Alaska and the heights of the Himalayas and the sunrise from the moon. And I hope you know that you are more beautiful and wonderful and beloved than anything I could dream of.
Thank you for everything, Steve. Thank you. I don’t say it enough. When we fight, when we’re angry at each other, I look at you and I think: love isn’t perfect. But then you smile at me, you remember my favorite flower, you cook me a warm dinner, and I think: love doesn’t have to be perfect, as long as it's you. As long as it tries.
So thank you, Steve, for always trying to love me as best as you could.
And I love you, too. More than anything.
I love you.
“I found your letter, you asshole,” Steve sniffs, refusing to let go of Tony’s hand, no matter how much he squirms.
As soon as he’d woken up, his husband had the audacity to ask Steve why he was crying. Underneath the hospital gown, the black lines have receded slightly. The lithium oxide must have worked, and Steve is beyond grateful.
“Oh,” Tony bites his lip, shifting around in the bed. His free hand picks at the threads of his hospital gown. “You weren’t meant to find it.”
“I know,” he barely keeps himself from growling. He hadn’t known what to do with himself after he’d finished reading the letter, chest too tight and eyes puffy. Steve had gone to bed with the letter crumpled in his hand, hugging Tony’s pillow tight. “You’re an idiot.”
“Your idiot,” Tony automatically replies and Steve lets out a wet laugh. But Tony squeezes his hand back. “I’m sorry.”
“You’ll be forgiven when you find a cure.”
The light in Tony’s eyes dims, face falling. “Steve,” his voice breaks, “there’s none. I tried – ”
“Every known permutation of every element,” Steve recites perfectly from memory. After he’d let out his grief onto his husband’s pillow last night, he had JARVIS try another angle. “Every known permutation. Tony, I know Howard was experimenting with vibranium, with other elements from the Tesseract. I remember his sketches, drew them out for JARVIS to map.” He leans forward in his chair. The plastic is uncomfortable, but it’s nothing when he gets to be this close to his husband. “If there’s no known element, you make a new one.”
“It isn’t that easy,” Tony shoots him down. And yet, there’s a spark of thought in his eyes, “actually, that might be – ”
He shushes his husband with a very effective kiss on the lips. They can get to the science when they get home.
Sinking into the warmth of the touch that he’s craved for these past weeks, Steve lets some of his anger melt away into relief. “Remember when you promised me we’d do this together?” he asks, pulling away.
There’s an uncertainty in Tony’s words when he answers with a contrite, “yes.”
Steve pushes on, needing his husband to understand, to let him in. “When you can’t find a solution, let me be there to help, okay?”
“I’m sorry,” Tony says again, brushing a thumb along Steve’s jaw. “I know it’s my fault, but I really, really miss you. I didn’t want to lose you, I don’t – ”
“Hey, hey, sweetheart, it’s okay,” Steve leans even further forward to brush the tear off Tony’s cheek. The nickname works a charm to calm him down. “you have me, Tony. Always. That’s what I promised you, remember?”
“You also promised to keep your clothes off the floor.”
“Exactly,” he kisses the tip of Tony’s nose, smiling at how it scrunches up. Then, more seriously, he pulls back slightly to meet his husband’s eyes, wanting so much to take away the doubt and fear he finds in them. “We both make mistakes,” Steve murmurs, “but we’ll fix them together.”
Tony swallows hard, and Steve gently wipes away another tear.
“Together,” Tony agrees.
“You’re not yet forgiven, by the way,” Steve teases, helping his husband into the car. Happy gives him a salute, pressing on the pedal to drive them to Peter’s school. Their son will love seeing his dad for a surprise.
“I know,” Tony leans on his shoulder, humming happily. “I’ll make it up to you by naming the element after you. Rogersium. Stevium?”
“Rogers-Starkium,” Steve smiles, shaking his head.
They have a lot to talk about. It will probably involve him sleeping on the couch for a few days to keep their argument away from the bedroom, but for now, he’s content to hold Tony. To cherish the chance to do it for another day.
“I’m sorry too, you know?” he mumbles into Tony’s hair. His husband smells of hospital disinfectant. He can still catch a scent of his shampoo gel, though, that Tony keeps complaining is old-fashioned and continues to steal anyway.
Tony shifts beside him, confused. “Why? I told you, none of this is your fault.”
“You nearly died and I didn’t tell you I love you enough.”
“I don’t need you to tell me that for me to know it,” Tony huffs beside him, burrowing closer. He wraps his fingers around Steve’s hand, brushing against the ring there.
“I want to say it anyway,” Steve pulls the hand up, pressing it against his heart before he kisses each of Tony’s knuckles, relishing the blush that’s creeping up Tony’s cheeks. The skin is less pale than it had been yesterday, when Steve had fearfully laid him out on the couch, and it’s a comfort to feel the absence of the feverish warmth. “I love you, Tony Stark, and I will murder you if you dare to die without telling me.”
“Next time, I’ll give you a seven day notice,” he pokes at Steve’s ribs, and Steve easily takes that free hand too, wrapping both of Tony’s hands in his.
“There better not be a next time.”
“Dad!” Peter yells when he sees Tony. He barrels through the crowds, small backpack bouncing up and down, a huge smile on his face as he races towards his parents.
“Hey, pumpkin – oof!” Tony gasps as his son crashes straight into him, wrapping his arms tightly around his waist. Tony bends slightly to return the embrace, enjoying the chance to hug his son.
“I missed you. Papa said you slept the whole day yesterday,” Peter mumbles into his shirt. His breaths tickle at Tony’s stomach.
“I was very tired,” Tony tells him in a conspirational tone, winking at his husband, “but your papa woke me up like a Prince Charming.”
Peter pulls away to frown at both of his parents. He regards his papa for a second longer before turning away from his dad to launch himself into Steve’s arms, Steve easily catching him and lifting him in the air.
“Papa is very charmin’,” Peter declares, giggling.
“We’ve got a smart kid, Steve,” Tony grins, moving closer to the two of them to wrap his arm around Steve’s waist, leaning against his husband for support. A whole day in bed has left his legs feeling shaky, and it’s one of the benefits of marrying a strong supersoldier. Steve can take both Tony and Peter’s weight at the same time.
Slowly, they head back to the car, Peter chattering on about his day and this new girl in his class.
Tony doesn’t know if the element he’s thinking of will actually work as a replacement for the palladium core, but he finds his worries being washed away by the bubbling joy of his son, and the soft contentment of his husband.
“Steve, if this doesn’t work, then I need you to promise me you’ll be okay. I need to – ”
“If this doesn’t work, we’ll figure it out together,” he firmly tells his husband.
The workshop around them doesn’t look like much of a workshop anymore. The walls have been torn down, part of the ceiling has its wiring exposed, and the makeshift particle collider Steve helped arrange is at the center of it all.
“Together. Right,” Tony quickly nods. “Except, we're running out of time, and what if it doesn’t work?”
Beneath all the worry that Tony has for him, Steve hears the fear, the desperation. Tony is scared of dying, too. Stepping closer to his husband, he places his hand over the glass casing of the reactor in Tony’s chest, tracing the edges of the metal casing through the shirt. “Tony, if it doesn’t work, then I’m taking you and Peter to China to see some pandas.”
“Does that mean we won’t do that if this works?” Tony pretends to pout, but Steve can see some of the tension bleed out of Tony’s shoulders. Staring death in the face isn’t easy, and just as Steve had needed something to hold onto all those years ago when he crashed the plane into the icy Arctic waters, Tony needs something to steady himself, not knowing whether or not their new element will succeed.
So Steve offers him something to hold onto.
“If this works, we’ll have a long stopover in our bedroom first.”
“It’s a date,” Tony takes a deep breath, looping an arm over Steve’s neck to pull him down for a kiss. “I love you.”
“I love you, too,” Steve kisses him back, smiling. “Now, Tin Man, let’s fix your heart.”
Tony tosses him the safety goggles.
“The element should serve as a viable replacement to the palladium core.”
“I’ll live,” Tony breathes out, wrenching the goggles of his head and bouncing over to the shining element. He kneels down, grabs some pincers, and places the element inside the reactor.
Steve steps closer, reaching out to hold Tony’s shoulder, holding his breath. The reactor flashes. Tony lets go of the pincers and reaches up to place his hand over Steve’s, squeezing it nervously.
And then –
“Sir, the reactor has accepted the modified core. I will begin running diagnostics.”
“God,” Steve breathes out, “thank you.”
Tony turns to him, eyes wide, bright, and unbelieving. “Excuse you,” he shakily tells Steve, voice full of buzzing energy, “this was all my work. Not God’s.”
Laughing, Steve pulls him up, wrapping his arms around Tony, tighter than he ever has before. The edges of the reactor’s casing presses against his chest, but he doesn’t care, his heart is brimming with too much. Tony is hugging him tightly also, trembling in his arms, and there’s a wet spot growing on his shoulder.
The relief must be crashing hard on his husband.
“Am I forgiven, now?” Tony mumbles into his shirt.
“You haven’t named the element after me.”
Tony laughs, and they hold each other tighter.
That night, Steve makes Tony see stars behind his eyes.
He traces the fading black lines of the palladium with his lips, trailing all the way back to Tony's heart, shining brighter and stronger than ever.
"Promise me you’ll tell me if you’re dying,” Steve begs him as Tony arches his back for more.
“Okay,” Tony breathlessly relents. "Anything for you."
“Promise me we’ll do this together?”
On their next anniversary, Tony presents Steve with the wrapped box in his workshop drawer.
“It’s a shield, disguised as a watch. I know you hate modern technology, and you’re temporarily retired, but you need something for when you can’t drag that glorified sled of yours around.”
When Steve unwraps it, he takes it out of the box and offers it to his husband, who smiles softly. Tony fastens it around his wrist, bending down to brush a kiss on the base of his palm, mouthing the words ‘I love you’ against his skin. Then, he straightens up and picks a pen off the table. “Place two fingers on the glass circle and tap twice.”
Reverently, Steve follows his husband’s instructions, and a light spreads from the watch, growing larger and larger into a circle nearly as tall as him, a star at the center of red and blue rings. The light casts the colors on Tony’s face and, still smiling, his husband throws the pen at him.
It hits the shield and –
“What?” Steve stares, grinning. “Do it again.”
Tony throws another pen at him. It melts, too. “You like it?”
“I love it,” he nods quickly. He doesn’t know how to say it, how to tell Tony that Steve is the luckiest man in the world to have this – this privilege of being yours, he recalls from the letter he keeps tucked away safely where Tony can’t find it. Tony is so brilliant, so wonderful and kind and alive with energy and passion, and Steve can only say, “I love you.”
“I know,” Tony smiles.
“Tell me a bedtime story, papa,” Peter mumbles sleepily in Tony’s arms, eyes drooping with every step. Soon, the boy will be too heavy for Tony to be able to do this. He wants to do it as much as he can, now that he’s been given a third chance at life.
“What, you don’t like my stories?” Tony teases. Beside him, Steve huffs a laugh. He opens the door to Peter’s bedroom, and Tony steps through, gently lowering their son on the bed. Peter scrunches his nose, cracking his eyes open.
“Your stories are so short.”
‘Short like you,’ Steve mouths at Tony, and it’s a good thing that their son isn’t in his arms anymore, because Tony can elbow his husband. Steve sticks his tongue out, and Peter frowns. “What’re you doin’?” he trips over his words.
Steve kneels down beside the bed. “I’m telling your dad how much I love every inch of him.”
“And I’m telling your papa,” Tony sits next to Steve, arm wrapping around his husband, hand digging threateningly into his ribs, “that he should focus on your story.”
Rolling his eyes playfully, Steve reaches out to take the blanket, pulling it up and tucking it under Peter’s chin. “Fine. Are you ready?”
Peter nods, eyes closed again.
“There were two men who loved each other very much.”
“This is ‘bout you and dad,” Peter protests, fighting against the fog of sleep.
“Yes,” Steve smooths his son’s curls, his fingers catching at their tangled ends. They’ll have to get a haircut soon, but it can wait for later. “He’s my favorite story.”
“Well, without him, I wouldn’t have you,” Steve points out. The logic must fit somewhere in the kid’s mind, because Peter settles down. Beside him, Tony shifts around, leaning his head on Steve’s shoulder.
“There were two men,” he starts from the beginning.
“Did you mean it?”
“I’m your favorite story,” Tony repeats in the darkness of their bedroom. It’s silly to be hung over that one line, of all things, but sometimes Tony wonders if life wouldn’t have been easier for Steve without the constant heartache and the sins of Tony’s past coming back to haunt them again and again. He hasn’t made it easy for Steve to be happy, not with his capture, nor with his nightmares, not with him nearly dying again.
Steve moves closer to him, finding him easily despite the dark. He tangles his fingers between Tony, coaxing their stiffness away until they relax, pliant and willingly latching back.
“You wrote in your letter,” Steve whispers roughly, “I promised you the universe, but I haven’t even shown you the world.”
Tony doesn’t know what to say to that, so he doesn’t say anything. Steve would fight everything Tony tries to insist about not giving Steve enough, and it still terrifies Tony to be reminded of the depth of his husband’s affection. Steve goes on, his words a gentle rumble over the storm in Tony’s heart. “Tony, you’ve given me everything. A home, a family, a life.”
“Yeah?” he doesn’t trust himself to say more than that, the words stuck in his throat.
“Yeah,” Steve squeezes his hand. “And you know my favorite part of the story?”
“That you always make it back to me.”
“Hey, Steve?” Tony turns around in bed, one night after Peter asks about flying. The boy is beyond excited to go on a trip to see some pandas. “Remember when you called me a Tin Man?”
“In the cave, before you found me,” he swallows hard to push the memory quickly back, “I had plans for a flying suit. And Peter wants to fly.”
“We can fly on one of your many planes just fine,” Steve sleepily burrows closer to Tony’s pillow, tired from a day out with their son and spent from the night in with his husband. The reminder of that day when he had taken down the entire cave to get to Tony sends chills down his spine, and Steve searches for more of his husband, reaching out blindly until his hands find Tony's, and he wraps them between his own.
“Yes, but, I thought you might want to know, I'm building a flying suit.”
The part of Steve that hasn't shut down yet marvels at the brilliance of the man, at the madness of him.
“It’s an armor. Might be useful for if you ever become Cap again.”
“My knight in shining armor,” Steve teases. He tugs the hand in his, and throws an arm around Tony, making a noise of displeasure when his husband squirms, Tony shifting around until he tucks his head under Steve’s chin.
“And Peter gets to fly.”
Steve nods, already halfway to sleep, much happier now that he has his husband close to him. Pulling Tony even closer, he buries his nose in the soft, unruly curls, slipping further into sleep at the comfort of it. He really would like to listen to Tony’s excitement, to see that light shining in his husband’s eyes, but he’s too tired, too comfortable, that the tides of sleep are hard to resist. “My Tin Man,” he mumbles.
Before he slips away, he feels Tony laugh.
“I think we can come up with a better name than that.”
And then, a brush of lips over his heart.
“Sweet dreams, darling.”