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Tony places a steadying hand on Steve’s arm and says, “You ready?” His smile is sweet and sad, and it makes Steve think that Tony wants to do this even less than Steve does.

“I can still fight,” Steve protests, despite the fact it feels like he’s been breathing underwater for hours and every nerve in his body might as well be rubbing against sandpaper.

That might actually feel better, at the moment.

It’s hard to explain how much it hurts Steve to operate the Iron Man. First, there was the process of ripping open his ribs and installing the chestplate; Steve can still feel how they cracked him open to do it.

Then there is actually wearing the damn chestplate. It’s exhausting. His back is constantly fighting the desire to just topple over front-ways and the strain doesn’t just make him sore—it stresses every muscle until sitting up straight becomes an exercise in torture.

And then when he puts the armor on, Steve is Iron Man, and that’s somehow better and worse. Better, because he’s finally empowered to do his duty and fight for a cause he believes in. Worse, because the way the Iron Man is wired into his body means he feels everything the armor feels on top of the unbearable exhaustion he must fight through.

Yet, what most people don’t know, is that taking it off is its own trial.

Steve can still hear bombs going off; he knows that the fight isn’t over yet. People need him to be Iron Man and instead he’s here, behind the front lines, being pampered by man with eyes that make him shiver. It’s not like Tony should be here either—he’s too smart to just be Steve’s personal nurse.

When Steve tells him that, Tony always waves him off. This is where I belong he always says, and Steve always looks away when he hears it.

“Stay still,” Tony begs because Steve won’t stop squirming out of his grip, even though he’s also fighting the need to just collapse into the ground. There are days Steve is sure it won’t be a bomb that breaks him, it’ll just be this suit and the toll it’s taking on his body. “Please, Steve?” Tony asks and Steve acquiesce. When they kick him out of the army, they’ll write that Steve Rogers had the fortitude to stand up to anything that stood in his way, as long as it didn’t have Tony’s smile.

He’s out of the Iron Man now, but he’s not out out; there are still wires protruding out of his chest, connecting him to the suit. Steve could do without disconnecting them, if he had a choice. He would sleep right there, huddled up against the steel armor. He casually says this to Tony, but Tony just shakes his head and places a steadying hand on his back

“It’ll be quick, I promise. And then I’ll listen to you moan and groan as long as you like.” It’s a joke because they both know Steve won’t say anything, but it makes Steve smile. It’s hard for him to make new friends when everyone behaves like he’s a saint.

Tony knows he's no saint.

Without waiting for Steve to give him a signal, Tony begins to slowly remove the wires connecting Steve to the Iron Man. Every connection triggers an explosion of sharp hot pain behind his eyes followed by a shock of numbness that only gives to the next flash of pain as Tony continues. Steve grits his teeth and wishes he could grab hold of something, but the only thing around him is Tony and Tony doesn’t need the distraction. He certainly doesn’t need this process to be any worse than it is.

Steve is vaguely aware that Tony is using his free hand to rub circles against his back. “Here, last one,” he says and finally it’s over and there are a few blissful moments where Steve is so numb, he might as well be floating.

He sits like that, could be for a couple of minutes or a couple of hours, and watches Tony pack up the Iron Man armor with such care Steve can’t help but smile.

Tony has learned how to time this so that he’s finished around the time Steve begins to regain sensation. At least Steve’s not nauseated this time, so he just weakly smiles as Tony puts the last odds and ends away. He foolishly attempts to stand, but the feeling in his legs isn’t fully back and he stumbles right into Tony’s arms. Tony adjusts them so he can keep Steve upright and walks him to Steve’s tent all the while admonishing him for attempting to stand up in the first place. He lays Steve down on the soft cot—an indulgence compared to how the rest of his fellow soldier sleep—and drags over a chair to sit by Steve’s side.

“That one was bad, huh?” Tony says before placing a hand on his forehead and running his fingers through Steve’s hair. Steve goes to swat him away— what is someone is looking he thinks—and Tony just shushes him and nods at the flap of the tent to make sure Steve knows it’s closed.

Steve grins. “I’ve had worse,” he says and it’s true. “You really should let me go back in.”

“Not my call,” Tony says as he out his canteen and makes sure Steve takes a long drink of water. “Plus, you’ll just hog all the glory. Let someone else be the hero this time.”

Steve has seen the way Tony looks at the Iron Man armor, so he asks. “Someone like you?”

“You think I couldn’t?” Tony sounds defensive, but he’s still petting Steve’s hair, still leaning into Steve’s space.

Steve grabs Tony’s wrist and uses the little strength he has to pull his hand down so he can kiss Tony’s knuckles. “I know you could.”

Tony’s staring at him in a way that makes Steve feel more breathless than usual. They’re locked in that moment and everything about it is precious to Steve. If he could just keep this second of breathtaking intimacy and carry it around in his pocket and pull it out when he needed the emotional fortitude, he would.

But it’s fleeting for a reason. Steve gives Tony’s wrist one more squeeze. “I should sleep,” he says because he can’t fight the way his eyelids are drooping anymore.

“I’ll be right here,” Tony responds and he tugs his hand away from where it has been hovering in front of Steve’s face. Steve hopes he doesn’t imagine the reluctance he sees on Tony’s expression.

Steve finally gives in to all the exhaustion and weariness he always feels, and as he drifts off, he hears the scraping of pencil on paper and knows Tony is hard at work on improving the Iron Man.