“Sorry, Tony. But Captain America’s more important than you.”
The helmet hisses as he pulls it away. And instantly the toxic air fills his lungs.
He leans over and presses his lips against the ones of the man he's loved for so long, and gives his breath like it’s nothing. It’s easy. It always has been. Steve always took his breath away, regardless of whether they were sparring in the mansion or taking down the Skull.
After pushing his lips further against Steve’s, Tony pulls up and takes a deep breath, feeling his eyes sting at the amount of dust and toxins in the air. His mind is racing, swirling with the possibilities of more. He’s always wanted to kiss Steve but to get the chance when they are both barely breathing? That isn't fair.
“T’Challa-T’Challa’s gone ahead.” Tony wheezes out, sitting up fully on his knees and wincing as the armor scrapes against the ground. Almost painstakingly slow, he reaches out and brushes his hand against Steve’s cheek, feeling the soft tremors chase up his arm and course through his body.
When had it gotten so cold?, Tony wonders. Has it always been this cold?
“I-I know you don’t trust me-or you’ve-you’ve never been a fan-“ Coughs wrack his body and he faces to one side to avoid afflicting Steve. He’s always been difficult and infected so why should he put that on Steve?
“I just w-wanted to say-“ And he has to pause because what does he want to say? There’s always been so much and he’s always been good with words. Wasn’t that a thing? Tony Stark is good with words? Tony Stark is-
The coughs come back with vengeance and suddenly they’re so much worse. Dark and hacking and foul and something is wrong and he feels it. His body knows and he feels it and it’s wrongwrongwrong-
“I-I guess you were always important. T-to me and the team and...” A sigh escapes his lips but then he pauses. He retracts his left gauntlet and lifts his fingers up to his lips. They feel nasty and almost encrusted, like cold sores all over. And when he pulls his fingers away, they tremble and carry a dark maroon liquid.
But...no one had said...
Tony’s heart sinks completely as the realization sets in. The disease causes all sorts of problems but no one knew it could cause internal damage like this. Maybe it grew and adapted, much like they did. He can already feel his skin starting to itch and he knows what is happening. Either way, there isn’t much time left. This is it.
Absently he reaches down and unlocks his other gauntlet and takes comfort from the very thing he’s always turned to in moments like this. His own private little secret that he’s kept close. He brings his wrist up and stares once more.
Beyond the name imprinted lies a whole lifetime of hopes and dreams. The words imprinted on his skin were his lifeline long before Steve woke up from the ice. What Steve would never know was just how much his name had meant to Tony. When he had been only a few years old and Howard had handed him his first glass straight off the rocks, he’d held his wrist and not cried. It had been a nice cold one that even to this day, Tony remembers the burn that ran down his throat. But he hadn't cried.
His throat feels like it’s burning now, but it isn’t the whiskey. It’s not the slaps across his face or the feel of Sunset pressing his body into the mattress or the feeling of his body being torn apart by the shrapnel. It isn’t from hearing his father tell him Stark men are made of iron or that he was never going to be loved by Captain America and that having a faggot and a liar for a son was his own personal hell. It isn’t from the world repeatedly reminding him that Captain America, that Steve Rogers must have one hell of a soulmate. Someone real special.
It isn’t even that, though he's had plenty of time to sit and learn that he's not good enough. It’s from the feeling that maybe he shouldn’t have hoped for more. That he was an idiot for thinking he could stand a chance against Captain America. Really, what would a man like Steve see in someone like Tony Stark?
He probably has my name. Tony thinks tiredly, feeling his eyes drift from the name imprinted on his wrists to the blond of Steve's hair. He probably knows and decided a long time ago. Maybe took one look at his wrists and scoffed. Or maybe he decided after he met me. It isn’t fair, I wouldn’t blame him. Who would want someone like me?
His throat closes and he swallows. There’s a low sound coming from somewhere, a moan that sounds like a wounded animal and suddenly Tony realizes he’s the one causing it.
A sharp pain courses through his body and it’s agonizing. The pain envelops him like fire and attacks from all sides, feeding off his body and stealing his last breaths. It’s so bad he’s forced to bend over.
I-I feel sick.
His head spins and the words on his wrist begin to blur out of place. Steve is still lying there between his legs, and suddenly Tony is hit with the desperate need to touch him. He's felt it before, plenty of times but it's important now. It's really important.
People often turn to others for comfort when they’re dying. Don't mind me, I just don't want to be...
Something wet falls on Steve’s cheek. Tony jerks a little when he sees.
“I-I’m sorry.” He whispers, feeling tears start to fall from his lids. His wrists fall to the ground beside Steve’s head and Tony is torn between wanting to touch Steve once more and not dare sully him any further. Another tear lands. Another. And another.
Maybe just this once. Maybe I can be selfish. Just...this once.
Slowly he brings his wrists closer and lets his fingers brush the edges of Steve’s cowl. He shouldn’t, he knows.
Feeling a stone settle low in his stomach, he coughs and feels his body choke as he hooks one shaking finger under each side and pull the cowl back.
“You-you’ll do better. Find someone better. Just...you’ll be okay.” Tony whispers in the cold, lonely place (his final resting place) and his body isn’t shaking as much anymore. He’s still cold but it hurts less. His lungs hurt less.
“L’ve you Winghead.” Tony slurs and feeling his head loll, he brushes his fingers against the matted blond strands on Steve’s forehead.
Blood starts to trickle from his nose. And that’s when Tony knows for sure.
I’m sorry. Please, I’m so sorry.
When Steve comes to, he’s hit with several things. The roughness of the ground, the thickness of the air and the cloying stench of death all around him. It doesn’t make any sense, he should be dead, he knows it. He felt it.
Slowly, he opens his eyes and takes a deep breath. The world comes into focus like a bad television screen, all fuzzy and hard to make out. But after a few blinks he clears his view and can make out the sky.
The grey dusty smog is gone. It’s bluer and more fresh than ever. And sounds come back to him in slow waves but it doesn’t sound like there’s danger.
“He did what he could. We just never knew that...”
“Did Cap know?”
“...I doubt it.”
Scrunching his eyes shut, he groans a little at the stiffness of his body. Then he opens them again and turns towards the voices.
It’s the team. Or part of it. There’s Carol and Wanda and T’Challa all kneeling on the floor a few feet away from him.
“H-hey-“ His throat closes and he starts to cough, feeling the dust on his face. It itches but thankfully when he pats at his cheeks the skin doesn’t fall away. It does surprise him though. He doesn’t remember taking his cowl off.
His fingers touch something wet and instantly he swipes his face and holds his hand up. There’s no blood thankfully, or none that’s fresh but there are tears.
Was I crying?
His shuffling gains some attention and when he looks back, the team are staring at him in silence. They’re not saying a word.
“W-what?” Steve says hoarsely and begins to sit up. It’s hard but his hands hold him up enough that he can settle on his knees. He’s really not in bad shape, all things considered.
His eyes flick between his teammates. They don’t say anything but Carol’s face is taut and pale and her eyes are frozen wide, like she’s been spooked.
Wanda is crying. Not outwardly but there are tears running down her cheeks. Steve instantly thinks of his own.
“What’s wrong?” He says, instantly on alert. “Is there a threat? Is there an unknown-“
A shiver runs down his spine. For a second the ice threatens to encroach him again.
“Are we dealing with something bigger? The infection, has it-“
The way Carol says it, makes him stop. And suddenly the ice is glaring.
“Have we...have we lost someone?” Steve whispers because that’s the only reason he can think of for why they’re kneeling there and not doing anything-
Carol sucks in a breath. T’Challa remains silent like an impenetrable wall but he doesn’t seem the same. The Black Panther’s shoulders are sloped. His eyes seem dimmed even through the mask.
“Before you say anything, he’s still alive but-“
“Who-?” He growls suddenly because how much more can he take? Why don't they say?
“He’s barely breathing. We don’t know if we’ll get him help in time.” Wanda says quietly and Steve has had enough-
“Tony. He’s dying Steve.”
The air leaves Steve’s body. There is silence. Then-
“What?” Steve croaks and opens and closes his mouth, feeling like something is pulling him down and launching him back into the ice.
He begins to crawl forward towards them. It’s not dignified but who gives a shit because-
The three shuffle aside to let Steve see. The sight he’s greeted with, slams into him like a freight train. His eyes lock onto the pale face of the man he’s loved since the beginning of this time.
“Oh god...” Steve whispers and crawls close enough to be kneeling beside the armor. Slowly, the pieces start to fall into place and all he can think is no no no and not you, not you and no you can’t leave me because even when I woke up in this era, I had no one. Nothing. You gave me a purpose, somewhere to belong… I told you, I told you, you gave me a home and I-
Tony’s flat on the ground and his body is facing the sky like a twisted sculpture. His helmet and gauntlets are off revealing his face and hands, and for some reason that makes Steve ache more because he looks so vulnerable, and almost fragile. He looks human which is something Steve has always found to be not enough, when describing how brilliant Tony is.
His face is pale and covered in scabs, no doubt as a result of the infection eating away at his skin. His lips are parted ever so slightly, like he's mid sentence and if Steve thinks about it, he can picture Tony talking happily about his latest and greatest at SI, with full lips that curve into a bright smile. This man who has so much to say but right now...
It’s when Steve touches Tony's cheeks that he breaks. There are trails of tears on Tony’s cheeks, still damp and shining. It’s not right, Steve thinks darkly. None of this is right.
But there’s something else. How could he forget?
“His wrists...are they-“
“He has a name." Carol admits, like she doesn't know how much it hurts to hear that Tony belongs to someone else. "But Steve, it’s-“
He ignores Carol and latches onto Tony’s left wrist, pulling it close. His fingers are curled around it and Tony feels so cold and Steve’s worry skyrockets because he might have to tell Tony’s soulmate one day and how can he do it when he feels so much for Tony too, no matter how unaware he is-
He freezes. His breath stills. His mouth falls open as his eyes go wide.
“It’s...” He can’t say it, he can’t, he can’t-
The others are silent around him. They all knew. It’s not a lie.
“I’m his soulmate.” Steve whispers in horror and finally it makes sense.
Tony has never wanted to show his hands but he has never had a permanent partner in front of Steve either. He hovered around Steve initially and kept asking about his past before the ice. Steve had been too blind to see it but half of those questions-hell, half of those comments-
“I bet you must’ve had a perfect soulmate. Probably one of those ideals with the perfect smile and the picket fence. I’m sorry it didn’t work out that way.”
“No sweat Cap! You just pick whoever is best for you. I know you’ll make the right choice. I won’t let you make the wrong one!”
“Who, me? Don’t make me laugh Cap, I’m not meant for soulmates. You have to have a soul to have a soulmate, right?”
Rage burns in Steve's chest, even though it feels like he's been dunked with cold water.
Oh I’ll make the right choice. As soon as you stop thinking it’s not you. You damn idiot.
“Have you called medical?” Steve asks sharply, placing Tony’s hand down on his stomach so that his wrist is hidden, concealing Steve's name from the world. Carol leans over and presses two fingers into Tony's neck and behind them he hears T’Challa making a call.
Carol swallows but looks equally determined. “We’ve already called and they’re on route. He’s still alive. But barely. He might not make it-“
“He will make it. He doesn’t get a choice.” Steve says coldly because this isn’t a negotiation. It’s an order.
Carefully, he slots his hands under Tony shoulders and knees and lifts him up, holding him close as he stands on legs that shake. Tony’s head falls back against his arm. His tears shine brighter under the natural light.
“He’s my soulmate. If he dies, that’s on my head. I need to tell him.”
Steve doesn’t have a name on his skin. He’s wanted one desperately since he was five years old. To have someone chosen for him by the universe, someone that is solely his to stand by his side. Maybe the serum wiped it out or maybe the time difference in the ice messed with his biology or perhaps the universe just decided to screw with him-it sounds like something Tony would agree with, that's for sure (though he'd probably think it's his own fault, Steve knows). But he never got a name when he encountered Tony. And Tony’s must’ve appeared as soon as they shook hands for the first time. Had Tony been happy at all? Had he been excited, even a little? Or had he wrapped his wrists in thick bands to hide Steve’s marks on his skin because he was ashamed?
Steve knows that’s not it. Tony just risked his life to save him and hasn’t even bothered to mention they’re soulmates, not once. That doesn’t come from shame or neglect. That comes from fear. Shame in a different way.
“You’re my soulmate.” Steve tells Tony quietly, and suddenly it feels so much more real. To be telling Tony this, even if Tony doesn’t know it.
“You’re mine, Shellhead. What makes you think you can-“ Steve bites his tongue and looks away. His eyes burn with the threat of unshed tears and he doesn’t dare say more. He’s gonna have it out with Tony. He has to because this, not to mention this self-destructive play, is a serious concern and he won't have it. What kind of self-esteem does Tony have for him to be able to throw his own life away, or forget that-not even tell his soulmate they should be together?
Only Tony would believe he’s not good enough. And it’s ironic because Steve has only ever pictured Tony as the perfect key to his puzzle.
He has to live. He has to. He needs to know what I feel about him. I can’t let him do this to himself anymore.
“Cap, are you ready? Quinjet in five.”
Don’t leave me. Steve thinks, watching Tony’s eyelids flutter. Don’t leave me Shellhead. I’m not finished with you yet.
“I’m ready.” He croaks and sniffs to hide the tears he didn’t know he had. One falls on Tony’s cheek and Steve hates that he now knows where those tears came from.