“No, clamp his artery there, we want him to stop bleed – ”
Tony lifts his hand from the patient’s thigh, satisfied. “Any other diagnosis, Doctor Wilson?”
“Smoke inhalation, bruising to ribs from blunt object.”
Good enough. Still, everything’s a learning experience, and as they start pushing the gurney away from the ambulance’s flaring lights, Tony adds, “fractured ribs from the fire extinguisher falling on him.”
“How did you know that?” someone asks.
Tony glares at the paramedic – no, the firefighter. What was a firefighter doing here? – and he gives a short nod to Sam. There was another ambulance coming for him to greet. “Wilson, disinfect wounds, bind ribs – ”
“Keep him sedated,” Sam finishes for him. He really is Tony’s brightest intern.
“Perfect,” Tony steps aside to let Sam pass through the ER’s glass doors, and he smiles at the tall firefighter, “now I get deal with this pest.”
“Excuse me?” the firefighter asks.
Snagging the clipboard from the actual paramedic in the ambulance, he checks the appropriate boxes. “No loitering in my ER,” he tells the firefighter. That is usually enough to get people to scram, but by the boots at edge of Tony’s vision, the man is still loitering. Tony sighs. “Either you’re here to watch until Officer Danvers comes to arrest your guy for arson, or you’re trying to give me his patient details.”
“There’s no crime. It was a minor kitchen fire. Just wanted to make sure he’ll be alright, Nurse.”
That makes Tony look up. “Nurse? Who do you think you are?”
And oh, those were some very sharp cheeks. With wide shoulders. A bright yellow soot-covered helmet complimented the flashy red uniform, which all only served to make those very blue eyes stand out more.
“Steve,” the man dares to offer a hand to shake. “Steve Rogers. Fire Captain.”
Preferring to hold onto the clipboard, Tony gives the Captain his friendliest customer service smile. “Right, Mr. Rogers, unless you have a problem other than oversized muscles crowding up my ER, you’re free to go back to sliding down poles.”
The Captain’s brows furrow, and he retracts his hand awkwardly. “Pole dancing is an entirely valid exercise.”
“And exercise is healthy, unlike all the space you’re taking up for that ambulance coming up down the road.”
“So, will he be okay, Nurse?”
“That’s Doctor Stark to you, Muscle Man,” Tony hands the clipboard back to the paramedic. “The kitchen fire guy is in my hands, so he’ll be more than okay.”
“Well, then,” Rogers tips his helmet slightly down, “only because it’s your safe hands, Doctor Stark.”
With that, and with a wide smile, the man walks away, right in time for the next ambulance to roll up the curb.
Its loud sirens are enough to snap Tony back to attention.
The paramedics rush to help open the door, and he takes in a deep breath to center himself. Any distraction could cost a patient's life.
EMTs spill out of the ambulance with the gurney, an oxygen mask strapped to the patient's face.
He assesses the paleness of the patient's skin, the blueness of her fingernails and the sweat dripping down her hairline.
“Get Doctor Wilson back here. The other interns can treat a kitchen fire,” he orders briskly, taking over the chest compressions from the EMTs. “She’s going straight to surgery.”
“Pulmonary embolism,” an EMT confirms. “Husband reported her last pain on her left upper thorax.”
“Get Doctor Wilson, stat,” Tony repeats.
Prepping for surgery always involved a dreadful thrill, his heart hammering for a few seconds before he enters a calm far quieter than sleep.
Ever since the car crash that had killed Howard, Maria, and nearly taken Tony too, he had felt indebted to the paramedics, doctors, nurses who had saved him. He had invented the world’s most invasive pacemaker to be able to escape being tied to a machine by a bed, and with his ticker problem out of the way, a year of physical therapy was more than enough for Tony to poke and prod the doctors for their knowledge – for someone with three PhDs, a proper MD was a walk in the park.
He could’ve gone to research, churning out medical patents for a fortune, but he had put himself under Doctor Hank Pym’s strict tutelage, proving himself as an intern in cardiology, climbing the ranks until he’d gotten to be SHIELD Memorial’s new leading emergency response doctor.
Giving a wink up to Doctor Strange on the OR’s observatory deck, Tony takes the scalpel offered to him by a nurse, and turns it out so its handle points at Sam. “You’re making the first cut today.”
“Really?” Sam’s eyes widen.
Tony nods. “Really. Let’s save a life, today.”
It’s only later, after the woman’s chest has been sewn closed and wheeled out of the room with unclogged veins working perfectly fine, that Tony’s mind starts to wander from the calm quiet.
Over the rushing of the tap’s water, he turns to Sam. “Is there anything wrong with my hands?”
“Perfectly steady, Doc, great for delicate surgery,” Sam pipes up, untying his surgical gown, spirits far too happy for having just cut open a woman. “Much better than Doctor Hammer.”
“You’re not getting into that surgery tomorrow if you don’t do that lady’s post-op paperwork,” Tony points out.
Predictably enough, Sam groans. “I still have my burnt guy.”
“This is the ER, Doctor Wilson, if you’ve got time for sucking up, you’ve got time for paperwork,” he laughs. It’s six thirty in the morning, which means his shift ends in half an hour. “You can ask Strange if you’ve got questions.”
Sam groans louder, passing Tony some tissues. They both liked having the ER not too close to the Neurology department – Doctor Strange’s penchant for strange rocks was unsettling.
“Call me only if you have someone bleeding out gallons in the ER,” Tony warns.
“And if they’re only bleeding out litres?” Sam asks.
“Then you fix it and find a mop to wipe the floor,” Tony shrugs, unworried. After a long twelve-hour shift, he’s ready to crash in bed, and he’s even more ready to forget about ridiculous firefighters.
Serving on the fire department was often a thankless job, and in a city like New York, it was a job mostly involving simple cooking mishaps, ill-advised uses of scented candles, and people who couldn’t plug their electronics properly.
Is it Steve’s fault that he has a distaste for electronics when they tend to make him have to suit up?
“Captain!” Thor greets him boisterously from the fire station’s kitchen, head poking out of the fridge where they keep the girl scout cookies.
“Met a new doctor today,” Steve hangs his helmet on the wall.
The fridge closes with a loud bang. “Was the lovely Jane not present?”
“No,” he unbuttons his uniform. His shift isn’t quite over yet, but with the soot from two emergency calls, it’s best to change into something cleaner. “His name’s Doctor Stark.”
“Ah, Tony! My dear Jane speaks of him often,” Thor offers him a cookie. “He is very smart.”
“Rude? Jane claims he is the perfect gentleman.”
Steve thinks of Doctor Stark’s sharp smile and barbed teasing. He’s met a fair share of doctors on the job, but having grown familiar with Doctor Foster’s easy professionalism, Stark’s swift quips were... different.
However, having a working relationship with medical staff is necessary, and SHIELD Memorial’s proximity to the fire station means they consult the hospital’s ER often. If Stark is now Head of the ER, Steve has to figure out how to make it work with the Doctor.
“He is smart,” Steve relents, accepting the cookie from Thor and chewing on it thoughtfully.
Thor laughs, patting Steve hard on his shoulder. “Handsome, too. Or so Carol tells me.”
“What does Danvers have to do with Stark?”
That question, Steve decides, is preferable over admitting too that Stark is handsome, with a raised brow and cocky self-assurance that wheedles its way uncomfortably under Steve’s skin. The witty quips were far too similar to... well. He prefers not to think about that either.
“You have been gone too long from the bar, Captain,” Thor announces. “'Tis time you had some fun. And time we remind them who the bar belongs to.”
“Saving people’s lives is fun,” Steve grumbles.
“And paperwork is not. So let Commander Fury fume about paperwork, and let us find someone to warm your bed, Captain.”
Feeling his cheeks heat, he turns to Bruce in the corner for help. But Bruce simply shrugs, continuing to arrange his collection of glass vials in the medicine cabinet. Strangely enough, that's Bruce's favorite part of being the station's emergency medic.
“Paperwork’s not good for health,” Bruce repeats the argument he’s used a hundred times. “Besides, paperwork makes me angry.”
Then, before Steve can come up with another quip, Bruce tosses something – a magazine – on the table. Futura, the bold red letters of the magazine proclaim. Beneath them, the face of Doctor Stark with that curious goatee. A Van Dyke, apparently.
“Keep up, Captain,” Bruce says, a smirk curling his lips up into a rare smile. “Stark's the second-smartest man of the century.”
Steve wrenches his gaze away from the camera-ready smile splashed across the front page. “Who's the smartest?”
When Bruce grins, it's all teeth. “I am.”
Night shifts were better for Tony’s nocturnal tendencies, but they tended to put his social life on a damper.
And Tony would like to be able to enjoy his salary.
In the bustle of New York, that enjoyment often meant the famous Romanoff Bar, conveniently located three blocks down from the hospital, a midway point between Tony’s penthouse and work.
If it also happens to be a block away from the local police precinct where Carol works, then it's merely a coincidence that Tony enjoys visiting the bar for breakfast at 1 p.m., right around Carol's lunch break.
“Morning, Nat,” he takes his usual spot by the counter, drumming his fingers on the polished wood.
Natasha slides him his cup of black coffee with more shots in it than Tony administered in a day. It isn't the best thing for his heart condition, but Natasha knows his limits, and she offers him the smallest smile. “Afternoon, Tony.”
“Where’s our very own Miss Marvel?” Tony does a cursory sweep of the almost empty bar as he wraps his hand gratefully around the warm cup. “Has her summer break ended?”
“Not at all, Doctor!” Kamala pokes her head out of the storage room in the far corner. “Just helping Clint replace the dart board, then back to earning cash for my med school.”
“I’d pay for it, you know,” he offers her for what must be the thousandth time.
“I don’t need your money, Doctor Stark, just your brains – and maybe a recommendation letter.”
Tony chuckles, meeting Natasha’s gaze fondly. “I recommend that you leave Clint to suffer alone,” he winks at Kamala, and receives loud, muffled curses from Clint, followed by the sound of clattering plastic.
“Leave them,” Natasha rolls her eyes. “There’re more important things to think about.”
“Like my donuts?”
She brings out a basket of fries instead. “Like how I heard you weren’t the happiest Doctor.”
Munching on the fries, Tony shrugs. “If I smiled the whole day long, some would accuse me of psychopathy.”
Natasha steals a fry, smirking. “Does Steve Rogers ring a bell?”
“Fire captain – ”
“He was crowding up my ER bay!” Tony groans, throwing his hands in the air. Then, he squints at Natasha. “Who told you?” The bell over the door tinkles, signalling another one of Natasha’s patrons, but Tony forges on. “What did Rogers say about me?”
“Who are we talking about?” Carol’s voice interrupts, and oh, Tony might’ve made a mistake ignoring her entrance, because Natasha grins wider than he’s ever seen her smile.
“Steve Rogers,” Natasha leans forward, conspiratorial. “Tony doesn’t like him.”
Carol reaches over the bar to get her customary juice box, sipping at it with an eye roll. “Well, I also think he looks like an overgrown puppy.”
“See! He has muscle problems.” Tony says perhaps too defensively, but if Rogers has something to say about Tony, he should very well say it to Tony’s face.
“He’s also in the fire department, so it’s natural that we have a rivalry,” Carol takes a particularly loud slurp of her juice. “You, however, what's got you in such a – ”
“Captain Danvers!” Kamala pokes her head out of storage again, cutting whatever Carol was about to imply. “You’re late.”
Tony latches onto the distraction. “So, Miss Khan, you come out of hiding for Carol but not for dear old me?”
“Captain Danvers has gossip,” Kamala walks over, sitting on Tony’s left, and now Tony is surrounded on three sides by three ladies far too invested in his happiness. “Your life is work and more work, Doctor Stark.”
“And yet you’re becoming a doctor, not a policewoman like her,” Tony points out.
“She never said your work isn’t meaningful,” Carol comes to Kamala’s rescue. “Only that your life is in dire need of spicing up.” With a wink at both Kamala and Natasha, she goes on. “And despite my natural disapproval of firemen, Steve is in even more dire need of spicing up.”
“I’m not a Spice Girl,” Tony resists the urge to thunk his forehead on the bar table. “I don’t need Rogers adding more chaos to my ER.”
“Righteous indignation,” Natasha rolls the words around slowly, “we can work with that.”
“Coffee,” Tony slides his empty cup back to her. “I need more coffee if I have to survive a twelve-hour shift and your hopeless plans.”
“Wanna bet?” Carol holds out her hand.
“I know when my odds are rigged, Danvers.”
“And that,” Natasha points out to Kamala, wry and indulgent, “is why Doctor Stark is a genius and a hopeless man.”
This time around, Steve makes very sure to greet the man properly.
Or as properly as he could while helping Kamala out of the truck and onto the hospital floor. Her arms had extensive second-degree burns. It was plain coincidence that she lived in the building Steve's unit had been dispatched to, and when she had insisted on coming to the hospital with the firetruck, Steve was secretly pleased because that meant he wouldn't have to worry too much about her.
In the late summer, the winds are starting to pick up, which sends the tails of Doctor Stark’s medical coat whipping around his bright red scrubs.
The wound on the girl's arm is nothing too serious, but, “Doctor Wilson,” Stark immediately calls out to another doctor, “get us some antibiotic cream and a saline bag.”
“On it!” Wilson rushes away.
Having learned his lesson, Steve hangs back, watching with rapt fascination as something seems to soften across Stark’s eyes, crow's feet forming at their edges as he smiles.
“Hey, Miss Khan,” Stark gently puts his hand on her shoulder, steering her into the hospital. “I thought we agreed: if you want to visit me at work, you don't enter through the ER doors.”
“It wasn't my fault,” Kamala protests.
Stark glances at the loose bindings that Bruce had wrapped around her burns. “Is your Abu on his way?”
“Her father is hitching a ride on the ambulance with Bruce. They're both fine, only surface-level injuries,” Steve quickly reports, hoping to be helpful. He hadn't expected Stark to be this friendly to Kamala.
Then again, she had told Steve that Stark – or rather, Doctor Tony – was the best of the best. 'Have you read his research on cardiopulmonary resuscitation in children?' Kamala had asked with far too much cheer for someone whose apartment just narrowly avoided a fire. Steve had agreed with her assessment of Stark's abilities, but that only served to make her even more excited. 'You know, he has his lunches in Miss Romanoff's bar, have you met him? What do you think about him?' her questions had gone on until Thor had parked the firetruck in the ER bay.
He's not sure whether she's in league with Natasha who has been trying to get Steve to go on dates. He puts that thought aside for the moment, though, more concerned with her arms than his heart.
“Abu is coming,” Kamala confirms, gaze darting between Steve and Stark, who nods.
“We’ll get you checked in,” Stark tells her, “you know Doctor Wilson is the best, and – ”
“Captain Steve said you’re the best.”
Stark’s smile turns amused, sneaking a curious, appraising glance at Steve. “Did he?”
Kamala nods enthusiastically, and Steve sheepishly jogs to catch up with them as Stark continues walking Kamala into the ER. The room is crowded, a cacophony of noise that hits Steve with a sudden memory of days spent with his mother nursing himself and others back to health.
His mother had been one of the kindest people he knew, and Stark was... well.
“Miss Khan was telling me about your latest research,” Steve explains quickly, “about saving people's hearts.” His gaze falls to the stethoscope around Stark’s neck because he doesn’t think he can survive looking into the brightness of Stark’s amusement for much longer. “And you did promise me your hands are the safest, Doctor Stark.”
When Stark doesn’t immediately throw Steve out of the crowded emergency room, the small thrill of victory makes Steve stand up straighter.
Stark's lips twitch up one last time before he ignores Steve again, leaning over Kamala’s shoulder to ask her, “you understood that research?”
She nods again. Then, she shrugs. “Not all of it. And I was only halfway through reading about it when Captain Rogers saved me from the upstairs candle.” Shorthand for how Steve had stopped the fire from spreading through the entire apartment building. “Turns our doctors aren't the only heroes.”
“No, we're just the smartest heroes.” He gives another wry smile to Kamala, and Steve stares at the dimples forming in his cheeks, at the way the bright white lights turn Stark’s eyes into a gentle brown, calming and steady. “Ah, took you long enough, Sam.”
Wilson, having come back with the antibiotic cream, points at an empty bed. “Sorry, I – ”
Stark holds up a hand to cut him off. “Just keep our young hero healthy, won’t you, Doctor Wilson?”
Jane says he is the perfect gentleman, Steve remembers Thor telling him, and Steve has to relent further because maybe, maybe, Stark isn’t as much a rude ass as he had first suspected.
Then again, a clipboard is waved under Steve’s nose, and, “Captain Steve,” Stark says with none of his earlier softness, “if you’ll kindly do the rest of the paperwork for Miss Khan?”
Watching Doctor Wilson lead Kamala away, Steve sighs, unable to muster much annoyance.
“Do you lure unsuspecting patients to do your paperwork for you?” he asks blandly as he fills out the details of the accident, peeking from over the top of the clipboard to gauge the doctor’s reaction.
He’s rewarded with a bark of laughter, accompanied by a grin. “You’re not unsuspecting, and you’re not a patient either, Captain.” The grin fades into something smaller. “But Kamala's family is fine?” Stark asks.
“I made sure of it,” Steve promises, wondering how it was that Kamala managed to win Stark's affection. He thought Stark's snappy manners would clash with Kamala's exuberance, but he supposes that he might be mistaken about a lot of things regarding Stark. “Her dad should be arriving here any minute. The fire dispatch call came at the right time,” he adds on some more reassurance.
“She's a brilliant young lady,” Stark crosses his arms. Not a sign of annoyance, Steve observes, more of a way for Stark to close himself off, to put some distance.
Medicine required objectivity, and yet... it needed passion, too, and a lot of heart.
The clipboard feels heavy in Steve's hands. He thinks his mother would have loved Stark's no-nonsense attitude. Steve coughs to clear his throat. “She has you to look up to, Doctor.”
A sound of confusion slips out of Stark. “You know her?”
“She works in Natasha's bar? She mentioned you have your lunches there?”
“More like my breakfasts,” Stark mutters to himself. "Why haven't I seen you around the bar before?"
Steve wonders how much he should say. "I lost a friend to a fire," he settles on telling Stark the bare truth. "Didn't feel like going to the bar for some time."
"Doctor Stark?" a nurse – a proper one, this time – interrupts them. "Sorry. One of Doctor Hammer's experiments exploded again. Doctor Strange asked if you could check the lab for damages?"
"Dammit," Stark curses. "Tell Stephen that if Hammer ruined my experiments again, I'm not responsible for where I put my scalpel. And I need a list of all the chemicals Hammer was using."
"Noted, Doc." The nurse smiles apologetically at them both before leaving, weaving her way through the bustling ER.
"I'm guessing you need to go?" Steve carefully says. He's learned that crowding up the ER isn't a good thing, and he suddenly becomes uncomfortably aware of his large body blocking the way.
Surprisingly enough, Stark shakes his head. "Not for a few more minutes. Hammer's lab is a big fat fire hazard. I'm not going to go anywhere near it until I'm sure there won't be a second explosion."
"Well," Steve shrugs, "I'm around to stop any fires. I'd be happy to help."
Stark chuckles, arms still crossed. "You won't be quite as happy after you see Hammer's face. I don't understand why SHIELD Memorial is even keeping Hammer around."
He doesn't quite know what to reply to that. "Thor says hi," he offers instead. An olive branch, a new, neutral starting point.
That makes Stark blink. “You’re in the same battalion as Thor?”
“The 107th,” Steve tells him as he fills out his contact number and signs his name on the form with a flourish.
Stark makes a thoughtful noise, shoving his hands into his coat pockets.
“Thor most likely meant 'say hi to Jane', but I appreciate the sentiment.”
“He did mention you. Told me you’re pleasant if I don’t catch you near the end of your shift,” Steve feels brave enough to say, which for some reason makes Stark squirm.
“It can be a tiring job.” Stark clears his throat awkwardly, smile lopsided. “And I'm sure pole dancing is equally tiring.” He takes a step back to let a nurse pass between them, then gestures at Steve's uniform, “so, you, uh – thank you for your service, Captain.”
“You’re doing one hell of a job here too, Doctor Stark. Thank you.”
“Coordination, cooperation, collaboration – or something like that,” Stark rocks back on his heels and shrugs nonchalantly. “Doctor Pym loves to lecture us about it.”
“Teamwork,” Steve hands the clipboard back, trying not to jerk his hand away when Stark’s rough fingers brush with his. “You’re thinking of teamwork.”
“Well, it takes two to tango, doesn’t it?”
“If you say so.”
“If I say so?”
“You’re, uh, you’re the doctor,” and Steve feels his own cheeks warm. A beat of silence, and he cautiously adds, “you know more about… bodies.”
Stark snorts, loud enough that the nurses and other doctors glance curiously their way. He stifles it quickly, grinning again at Steve. “If you say so, Captain. Now, unless – ”
“Unless I want to be attacked by your needles,” Steve finishes for him, knowing when he's being dismissed. “I should stop crowding up your ER?”
“No,” Stark shakes his head, walking over to the reception desk to drop the clipboard off. “Unless you want me to hose you down, I suggest you use one of our showers and stop stinking up my ER.”
Steve has to bite his lip to stop himself from laughing. “Are you offering to shower with me?”
“Sarcasm sounds so wrong on you.”
“That's not a no, Doctor,” Steve can't resist saying.
“I'm a respectable man, Captain. Dinner first, then bed, then the showers.”
With that, Stark turns on his heels. Steve watches him go, a small laugh finally escaping him when he notices Stark's mismatched shoes. One red as red as his scrubs, and one as yellow as the helmet on Steve's head.
He stops just short of finding it endearing.
“Those shoulders,” Tony mutters into his beer, “are unfair.”
“They’re not as big as Thor’s.”
“That only makes them well-balanced. What’re the chances Natasha won’t tell him that we’re here?”
“Small, but not important.” Carol fishes out her phone. “Have you seen the fire station's latest post?”
Tony stares at her with horror. “Do you really think I have enough time to follow the government’s latest propaganda?”
“When it involves those wide shoulders, yeah.”
That, Tony has to admit, is true.
Besides, with all his shifts at the hospital done for the month, he can allow himself this evening of indulging in a fantasy fueled by the pleasant buzz of alcohol.
He knows nothing can possibly happen between him and the Fire Captain – Tony isn’t looking to leave behind a string of broken hearts, isn’t looking for the cold comfort of a few hours in a stranger’s bed. All signs point to Rogers being a good man, and that means he deserves better than the paltry nights that Tony can give, better than cancelled dinners because of emergencies, and Tony’s night shifts that means he can hardly ever be home for anything.
Tony doesn’t necessarily enjoy his loneliness, but his empty penthouse means no one will be hurt by him, and he can’t be hurt by anyone else.
All the partying he needs, he gets right here in between Natasha's badgering and Kamala's bright hope reminding Tony why he does what he does, why the city is worth staying in despite the hundreds more residency programs elsewhere willing to pay him triple.
Still, it's nice to imagine a life where someone might be waiting at home for him.
The bar and his friends here were all well and good – he's endlessly grateful for them, and yet, when Carol flips her phone screen to him, he can't help the silent sigh of wistfulness tinged with annoyance because goddammit.
Rogers might've barged into Tony's life. He is not going to barge into Tony's heart, too.
Nudging his shoulder, Carol flips her phone screen in his direction.
“What is he even doing in that picture?” Tony takes a long, sobering chug of his beer. “No one has any right to look that good.” Rogers is wearing the same blue jacket tonight, laughing beside Thor and Jane at the opposite corner of the bar.
The novelty of seeing him outside the baggy fire uniform is messing with Tony's resolve. That All-American aw shucks smile paired with the floppy blond hair Tony just wants to brush back – those weren't helping matters either.
It makes Tony almost feel underdressed in his sharp vest. Almost.
Because it will take more than a single firefighter to outdo Tony.
“You could simply ask him,” Natasha pipes up as she walks past their table.
“Thor Almighty,” he curses, whirling around to glare at her back, “my heart isn’t strong enough for heart attacks, Romanoff.” She only sways her hips a bit more, walking away.
“She’s not wrong,” Carol, the traitor, points out. “You could just ask him.”
Why did he think an evening down at the bar would be relaxing? “The man looks like a poster child for steroids and rescues kittens for a hobby. Pets are a vector for diseases!” Tony protests. “We have nothing in common.”
“Except you have the same friends, and are in the same bar.”
He leans forward, ducking his head low to avoid Rogers spotting him.
“Carol. Captain Danvers. You know my schedule. And my – my restless sleeping,” Tony winces at the truth. “Rogers blushed like an actual red apple when I implied sex, he’s going to run to hell when he sees my pacemaker.” My scars.
Carol raises a brow, unimpressed. “The man’s seen more burns and bones and scars than most, you know.”
“Isn’t it against the law for the precinct to defend the fire department?” Tony tries another angle. "The blood fued rivalry thing?"
Rolling up the sleeves of her leather jacket, Carol gives Tony a smirk that he's come to associate with unfavorable things for himself. “More a matter of principle,” she says, “but my morals say I can’t let you mope around town alone for much longer.”
“I’m not moping. I’m just – ”
“You have every right to be happy, Tony,” it should be a gentle thing to say, but the way Carol says it is more of a tired argument.
She had been a junior officer when Howard's car crash was called in, and she had visited Tony often during his recovery. Her gruff frankness kept him sane when everyone else was walking on eggshells around him.
“How about friends?” Tony bargains. “I don't mind having Rogers as a friend.”
Carol's winning smile should have been a warning for Tony, but –
“Well, that's great to know.”
Tony winces again, turning around in his chair. “What is it with people sneaking up on me tonight?”
Rogers sets down a mug of black coffee on their table, holding a bottle of beer. “Nat told me you might like a coffee better than lime soda, Doctor Stark.” He sits across the table, next to Carol. Visibly, she adjusts her jacket, resting her chin on her hand.
“Hey, Nozzle Head,” she greets Rogers.
“Good to see you too, Donut Patrol,” Rogers smiles back.
The fond nickname is something Tony himself has called Carol, especially when she used to go on actual patrols, but Tony squints suspiciously at the coffee, then at Rogers.
Never look a gift horse in the mouth, yeah – Tony doubts the ancient Greek had to resist that All-American smile.
“I happen to like donuts,” Tony notes, taking a cautious sip of the coffee. It's as good as any of Natasha's drinks are, and he ponders whether saying 'thank you' would send the wrong signals.
“Isn't sugar unhealthy?” Rogers asks.
Tony can't quite tell if Rogers' slanted lips are a sign of disapproval or amusement. “Everything is good in moderation,” he shrugs at the Captain.
“Like how some people find fun to be good in moderation,” Carol winks at Tony. “Thought I managed to scare you off this bar's turf, Rogers.”
Rogers takes a casual sip of his beer.
It's either very brave or very foolish to go against Captain Carol Danvers, and Tony settles on the latter when Rogers shakes his head. “Not everyone has an 8-hour shift job, Danvers. Some of us have to do actual heavy lifting.”
“But he's got a point,” Tony raises his voice over the music of the bar, louder now that Clint has taken over the old music box. “Hard to have fun when you've got 12-hour shifts.”
“I've got a 24-hour shift,” Rogers replies.
Rolling her eyes, Carol pushes her chair back to stand, taking her empty glass with her. “Men,” she shakes her head as she leaves them, “comparing the length of everything.”
Rogers huffs out a soft laugh. “I'm sure you know Carol is the best,” he starts, “we just – ”
“Have a scarily competitive streak?” Tony finishes for him. The coffee mug is warm in his hands, and he ducks his head down when Rogers' smile turns wider. His cheeks feel warm too, now.
“Yeah,” Rogers agrees, “the fire department wins the competition any day, but sharing the victory is caring.”
Tony snorts. “You've got some crazy nerves, Rogers.”
For some reason, that makes Rogers laugh. “Steve. Call me Steve.”
“Is this a ploy to get out of calling me Doctor Stark?”
Scratching the back of his neck, Rogers shakes his head. “You've already called me crazy. No harm in calling me my name.”
“Steve,” Tony tries out the name. It's far too simple a name for someone as maddening as Rogers. “I think Thor's looking for your attention.”
“He has Jane's attention,” Steve doesn't even bother glancing at Thor going toe-to-toe with Banner in an arm wrestling match, a crowd of spectators surrounding them. “Besides, it's time the firefighters claimed this bar back from Carol's officers.”
“I'm not going to get involved in your rivalry.”
“Not at all,” Steve assures him, taking out a folded piece of paper from his jacket. “Just wanted to tell you Peter's aunt sent this to the fire station yesterday.”
Carefully, Tony takes the paper, unfolding it gingerly. A child's drawing, with a bright red firetruck in the background, a man with a yellow helmet beside it – holding hands with a man in a white coat, oh God, is that Tony? His cheeks grow warmer.
He hands the paper back to Steve and takes a long, sobering gulp of his coffee. “I'm glad the boy's doing better.”
“It was a good team effort,” Steve raises his beer bottle, and fine. No harm in making a new friend.
Tony raises his mug to give Steve a toast. “To ungrateful governments and grateful children.”
“To saving lives,” Steve clinks his bottle with the edge of Tony's mug.
“To ridiculous firemen,” Tony retorts.
“Fire captain,” Steve corrects with a playful smirk.
Friends, Tony has to remind himself. Things have to end at that line.
From her new spot next to the music box, Carol gives him a thumbs up and a wink.
Tony huffs and continues doing his best to not be taken in by the surprisingly easy banter.
But with every barb that Tony throws at Steve, he's met with another barb that cuts beneath his attacks, burrowing under his armor to find the truth that Tony tries desperately to cover up again.
After a while, Tony has to excuse himself.
Staying any longer would severely compromise his already shaky resolve, buzzing alcohol tempting him to do stupid things like kissing Steve's ridiculously high cheekbones.
There are more useful things he can do than stare at the Captain. Groundbreaking medical research. Another surgery. Sleep. Or binge-watching yet another romcom.
Important things like that.
He says his goodbyes to Natasha and Carol, leaving a fat tip for Clint and Kamala to collect later. Steve offers Tony a ride home on his motorcycle, which Tony very quickly turns down because he doesn't know what he'll do if he has to be pressed against Steve and those insanely large shoulders.
“I can walk,” Tony says. “It's fine.”
Steve doesn't look very happy with that, brows creasing with concern. “Take care, Doctor Stark.”
“I know who to call if I get mugged,” Tony nods in Carol's direction, making Steve huff yet another laugh.
“And you know who to call if you get stuck in a tree.”
“Good night, Captain Rogers,” Tony gives the man one last wave, quenching down the incessant happiness bubbling up.
“Good night, Doctor.”
Steve is much less concerned when the ambulance rolls to a stop in front of SHIELD Memorial’s curb. He’s not looking forward to it, per se, not when it means someone's been injured. Only that if he has to drop by the hospital, it’s nice to have a friendly face he knows.
He's dropped off more than twenty patients in the past six months into Doctor Stark's safe care, each time falling into conversation that gets easier and easier. Stark teases him about liking butter pecan ice cream and Steve badgers him for not getting enough sleep.
This time around, there wasn’t a fire when they had been called out. A local school had a major lab accident, and while Thor and Bruce had stopped it from becoming worse, the lab teacher had gotten some deep glass cuts in her shin.
Part of the job, Steve thinks as he helps her down, eyes searching for a familiar goatee.
Except, he finds only Doctor Wilson waiting, seeming rather jumpy. “Captain Rogers. Mrs. Carter,” the doctor greets them, helping Steve lift her off the truck. “Let’s get you sorted out.”
Mrs. Carter waves cheerfully at him from where she’s propped up against the gurney’s stiff back. “He’s quite charming,” she whispers to Steve in her British accent.
Doctor Wilson grins. “Unfortunately, you’ll have Doctor Lang treating you, ma’am.”
Together with him, Steve rolls the gurney into the ER, parking it next to a free hospital bed. Then, with Mrs. Carter gripping Steve’s arm tight, they lift her onto the bed, taking special care with her cut up legs.
Another doctor comes over, drawing the curtains around Mrs. Carter’s bed closed. “I can take over, Sam.” This must be Doctor Lang. “Tony’s waiting for you in the OR.”
“I’ll bring the gurney back to the truck,” Steve gives Mrs. Carter’s hand one last reassuring squeeze. “You’re in safe hands here, ma’am.”
But once Steve finishes packing up the gurney with Thor, he finds himself dawdling slightly.
After all his brushes with Doctor Stark on the curb, it feels wrong to leave.
“Captain,” Thor asks, “is anything amiss?”
“Go on ahead,” he tells Thor. “I’ll take a cab back to the station.”
Steve doesn’t give Thor much chance to argue, already walking the opposite direction towards the corner pizzeria he saw earlier. He wasn't supposed to be on call today, but with nothing to do besides stare at his stubbornly blank canvases, he had tagged along when the first dispatch came.
Natasha's right. He needs to find a life outside the job. His apartment is depressingly bare, though, and Steve can do more good here.
He waits patiently for the pizza to cook, scrolling through his phone. There are well-meaning messages from Thor, a more demanding one from Chief Fury about paperwork, Natasha tagging him in another social media post about kittens, and a strongly worded email from Carol warning of his demise and various misdemeanor charges if he treats Doctor Stark wrong.
Doctor Stark is a friend, he types out a quick reply, I’m not about to commit arson against him.
By the time he gets back to the hospital half an hour later, there’s another doctor and another ambulance. The doctor’s badge reads Stephen Strange, and Steve slips into the ER, feeling awkward with his three pizza boxes and bright uniform that turns heads.
He leaves the food with the receptionist, who tells him it might be a few more hours before the surgery and post-op checks end. Steve nods his thanks.
11 a.m. is just about the opening time for Natasha's bar, and he heads the few blocks down to it, pondering why he felt disappointed. He slides into a seat in the corner, waiting for Clint to finish setting up. Kamala spots him, making a beeline towards his table.
“No college classes today, Miss Khan?” Steve asks, grateful for the distraction.
“Nope,” she pops the 'p'. “No Doctor Stark today, Cap?”
“You've been spending too much time with Danvers.”
“That's because you're barely ever here anymore,” Clint comes over, handing them both Steve's customary lime soda.
“And Carol is cool. She saved Tony's life, you know? My Abu says a hero isn't who you are, it's what you do.”
Steve frowns. “She saved Tony's life?”
“You still haven't Googled him yet,” Clint mutters. Then, before he walks back to the storage room, Clint pokes at Kamala's shoulder. “Leave Steve alone. He's a lost cause.”
“No one is a lost cause,” Kamala grins at Steve. “Captain Danvers was the first responder when his parents' car crashed. Tony was the only one to make it out. Everyone knows that story. She's why Tony chose to stay in New York.”
“He was going to leave?”
“Carol reminded him there's good to be done here.”
Steve never really stood much of a chance with Tony, did he? As soon as the thought comes, he squashes it down. He shouldn't begrudge anyone's happiness, much less their life. He should be glad that Carol was there to save Stark. “That's good.”
“Of course it is. And you can ask Carol all about it,” Kamala points at the door, which chimes to signal, as if on cue, Carol's entry.
She isn't alone, however. Beside her, eyebags dark and hair sticking out wildly, is Stark. He's half leaning on Carol, the white medical coat that's usually on him is slung on his shoulders.
They don't even look Steve's way.
Instead, they head for the bar counter, Carol helping Stark up onto one of the tall bar chairs, and Natasha serves Stark one steaming mug of what must be coffee.
Stark rests his head on Carol's shoulder. Steve takes a long sip of his own drink, watching with growing – discomfort? Unease? Whatever it was, it made Steve's stomach churn unpleasantly – as Stark laughs at something Carol said. In the empty silence of the mostly deserted bar, the laugh echoes through the room, and Carol snakes a hand around Stark's waist.
“Captain?” Kamala's whisper pulls him back. “Is something wrong?”
He shakes himself. “Not at all.”
“It's Tony, isn't it?”
“You should go help Clint. I'll be fine alone,” he tightly says.
“Are you sure, Cap?”
“I'm sure,” Steve promises. Then, to placate her, he adds, “come by the station more often, Miss Khan. You can watch the EMTs train.”
Kamala pumps her fist. “Yes! You're the best.”
His stomach flips. He nurses his soda, wondering whether it was too early to order something stronger. Without Kamala sitting in front of him, he's given an unblocked view of Carol bickering with Stark. After a few more minutes, he decides to slip quietly into the restroom, staring at his reflection in the mirror.
Splashing some water over his face, he takes five steadying breaths.
His fists ache for the calming momentum of the gym's punching bag, the quietness that usually comes with exercise. But when he thinks of exercise, he hears the memory of Stark quipping about his oversized muscles.
Get a grip, he tells himself. He can be better than this.
Turning off the tap, Steve heads back out, pausing when he spots the empty seat next to Carol, who raises her wine glass his way –
“Captain Rogers,” and there’s Doctor Stark, slumped in Steve's corner seat. “I heard you saved another damsel in distress this morning.”
“Mrs. Carter is hardly a damsel,” Steve warily takes the seat across him, where Kamala's glass of lime soda still waits. In front of it is a new basket of potato wedges.
Stark tips his head sideways. “You’re grumpy today.”
“And you're here to spend time with Carol,” Steve deflects. “You shouldn't leave her alone.”
“Sam called Carol on me. She is to enforce that I get enough sleep,” Stark pops a potato wedge into his mouth. “But Clint told me a certain Captain was darkening his door, and I told her I'd sleep after a quick stop.”
Steve's thoughts stutter. “What?”
“Thank you for the pizza.”
Oh. The pizza feels like a lifetime ago. “Thought it'd help after a long shift.”
Stark nudges the potato basket closer to Steve. “It did help. I think you've earned Sam's undying loyalty.”
“I've had breakfast,” Steve turns the food down. With his stomach twisted into knots, he doesn't know if he can even swallow anything.
Things aren't really helped by Stark, either: despite the dark bags under his eyes, Stark's ruffled hair and crumpled coat strips away the brisk air of self-assurance that usually surrounds the Doctor, leaving behind a softness that Steve doesn't dare look closely into. He's wearing his red scrubs too, which now Steve realises actually highlights Stark's eyes well, especially in the bar's dim lights.
Stark, however, is undeterred. “Big man like you, gotta burn a lot of calories saving damsels,” Stark holds up a potato wedge in front of Steve's face, brooking no argument. “Eat.”
Steve feels his cheeks warm. Gingerly, he takes the offered piece. “Yes, Doctor,” he mutters between bites.
“Surgeries are a normal thing,” Stark leans back into his seat. “You didn't have to go above and beyond.”
“You went above and beyond to save someone's life.”
Stark waves it off like it's nothing. “Mrs. Carter told me to thank you.”
“You met her?”
“I don't usually advise patient-doctor relationships, but you're not a doctor, and she finds you charming.”
The unspoken question hangs in the air. “She's married, Stark. Did Nat rope you into this?”
“You're awfully, unhealthily single for a man your size, Cap.”
The nickname makes Steve forget his sour mood. “Whose life did you save, today?” he asks slowly.
Squirming slightly, Stark wipes the corner of his mouth with the back of his hand. “A father. Has three daughters, had heart failure.”
Steve thinks of the doctors who had saved him when he had been a skinny, sickly young boy. Miracle workers.
Sure, Steve could stop burning building, but when push came to shove, it wasn’t him who actually made sure that hearts kept beating and lungs kept breathing.
“Yeah,” Stark shrugs with one shoulder. “Sucks when your ticker doesn’t work properly.”
“You – ” Steve frowns, treading lightly, “is your heart – are you alright?”
The laugh that Stark lets out is bitter, disbelieving. “Have you seriously never looked me up?”
“Your name comes up in Futura, which I read. I know you invent pacemakers, x-rays, biotech. I know you do good work.” Steve feels the strange need to defend himself. “The internet’s different, though, and it’s wrong to intrude on someone like that.”
“At least I know you’re not a creepy stalker,” Stark casts another disbelieving look at him.
“Sorry for asking. I didn’t mean to push.”
Stark gives him a smile, but it’s all wrong. Sharp at edges that don’t usually show. “Not your fault that my heart’s broken.” Fingers drumming on his chest over his red scrubs, Stark lets out a long breath. “Shrapnel, from a car accident. Doctors saved me in time. Now I’m returning the favor. Balancing the scales.”
Survivor’s guilt, Steve’s mind supplies. He wonders how many more facets there are to Stark, wonders if he’ll ever get to know them all. “Just because your heart’s broken,” Steve slowly says, “doesn’t mean you’re heartless.”
“Do you ever get tired of being nice?”
“You should rest – ” Steve starts to tell him.
A pager beeps insistently, interrupting them.
“Dammit,” Stark shoves the rest of his potata wedge into his mouth. Rubbing his hands on his pants, he fishes out the small device from his pocket, then turns around the room in search of something while mumbles, “sorry, gotta dash.”
“Here,” Steve stands, taking the medical coat from over the chair and holding it up for Stark to turn and slip it on easily. It’s an act that Steve has done for Bruce many times before, one that he’s sure interns have done for Stark too, so he shouldn’t be overstepping anything.
In his rush, Stark lets Steve help him put it on, but when Steve makes sure to smooth the coat over Stark’s shoulders, Stark stiffens until Steve lifts his hands again.
“Thanks,” Stark says, voice unusually tight.
“Go be a hero, Doctor,” Steve gives him a small salute.
Stark cracks a real smile as he pushes the door open, small and harried. A smile, nonetheless.
“Call me Tony, Steve.”
Tony runs out of the bar.
Steve meets Carol's eyes.
He wants to resent her, but he can't.
Not when she can make Tony laugh. Not when Tony's smile sends something tumbling in Steve, falling and breaking and fracturing promises he made a long time ago.
He hasn't dated in a long time. Married to his work, Clint would say. Except, that isn't the reason: Steve knows what it's like to lose someone, knows the dread of waiting for someone to come home, the late nights and dinners growing cold when they don't make it. He admires Jane's fortitude for loving a man who she might lose any day, for loving Thor who has given his heart to the duty of saving others first.
Steve can't inflict that hurt on anyone. He still grieves for his Ma, for Bucky.
Better that he throw himself into his work.
Better that he stay friends with Tony.
Two weeks after what Tony has dubiously termed the Pizza Aberration, Steve Rogers has still not yet made another appearance at the hospital. Tony supposes he could go to Natasha’s bar again to see his chances of finishing their cut conversation, but that feels too much like a surrender and Tony does have a full-time job apart from crazy firefighters handing off patients to him.
Sam had called the incident the Not-So-Secret-Admirer Aberration, gossiping with Lang about the fire captain, until Tony assigned them both to a day of boring stitching in the ER. Carol, however, was an entirely different problem, sending Tony unsubtle texts asking about his progress with Steve, telling Tony in no uncertain terms that he needed to get laid.
Fun is good in moderation, she had reminded him when he finally called her to weather the storm.
Tony fixes the collar of his coat, offering a young girl some stickers for her bravery with the needle. This was good work. He doesn’t need distractions. He doesn’t –
When Sam deigns to attach a ‘Doctor’ to his name, things are either going very right, or very wrong. By the paleness of Sam’s face, Tony decides on not good. Assuring the girl’s mother that a nurse will drop by soon, he holds up his palms to slow Sam down.
“Breathe,” Tony walks them both out of the ER to give Sam space.
“An electric pole fell down over a bridge and they need more medevac.”
True enough, when they exit the glass doors and step out onto the curb, there are already two ambulances getting ready to leave. “They?” Tony asks.
“Firefighters handling the scene. 911 dispatch came through to us. It’s bad.”
Tony checks his pocket. He has his phone, his pager, pen, O2 wrench, flashlight, scissors, rubber gloves, and – ah, bandages. Good to go. “You’re riding in the second ambulance,” Tony tells Sam. “Page Doctor Foster, get her to handle the ER. If she’s busy, page Strange.”
Bad, it seems, is an understatement. By the time the ambulance manages to cut through the traffic already clogging up, they’ve wasted precious critical response time. The firetruck blockades the opposite side of the bridge, its sirens bright in the afternoon sun. With a closer look, Tony realises the problem is more ‘car crashed into electric pole, then electric pole fell over bridge’, because there’s a silver car trapped beneath the wreckage that the fire crew is lifting up.
He swallows at the thought of a car crash. Every second matters.
Tired of waiting for the ambulance to steer past the last chaos of cars, Tony steps out, jogging the few remaining meters to the temporary police line set up. “Medic,” he holds up the badge around his neck –
“Carol,” Tony sighs, relieved. She's good at these things. He ducks under the police line, ignoring the other officers to walk straight to her. “What do you need me to do?”
“Our ambulance got the driver out already. That was the worst of it,” she reports, “Banner went with the ambulance. We called for back up ‘cause some of these Nozzle Heads got hurt doing a bit of lifting.”
He breathes in deep. Banner being here means the 107th was dispatched. No time for distractions, though.
“Alright, show me where they are.”
“Hey,” she grabs his arm. “The driver was alone, got away with a broken collarbone and a hell of a concussion. No one else was hurt.”
Now, more than ever, he feels his pacemaker whirr in his chest. “No biggie, then,” he flashes a smile at her.
Carol waits another second before she's satisfied. “Go on, Scrubs,” she lets go of his arm. “Give the hopeless Nozzle Heads a hand.”
Tony carefully avoids the wreckage of the car, slipping between the railing of the bridge and the end of the electric pole. He scoffs internally at the rust on the metal, his engineer's mind noting the sloppy work. Some firefighters work on keeping the electric cables safe from catching fire, removing flammable debris from the car, and they part for Tony to pass through.
True to Carol's word, there's a small group of firefighters with their bright yellow helmets around the back of the firetruck, apparently squabbling with a few officers. Tony recognises Officer Quill, who throws up his hands in the air. “If you're not gonna accept treatment, that's not my problem!”
“I'll wait for Thor to finish with the wires,” an equally ruffled voice replies, and Tony barely resists groaning when he hears its familiar stubbornness.
Sitting at the back end of the red firetruck, clutching his hand close to his chest, is Captain Steve Rogers. There's a scratch on his forehead, crusted with dried blood. His helmet is on the ground next to his boots, a small crack running through it.
More importantly, the Captain's uniform jacket has been tossed to the ground with the helmet, leaving Steve in only a sweat-drenched tank top that leaves little to the imagination.
Swallowing, Tony moves his gaze away from those bulging biceps to the wound: it must've been something pretty sharp to cut through the thick layer of cloth from the discarded uniform.
If Steve can still argue that animatedly, though, he must not be suffering from blood loss that's too extensive.
Quill puts his arms on his hips, blocking Tony's view of his patient. Tony decides enough is enough.
He clears his throat loudly, making the squabbling men pause.
“I take it Captain Rogers is injured?” he asks, stepping the last few feet to the firetruck.
“Just a scratch, Doctor Stark,” Steve answers sheepishly. Next to him, Quill glowers, but before it can go any further, Tony raises his hand.
“I'll take it from here, Officer. There are more useful things for you to do.” He waits until Quill leaves, then, he towers over Steve, “and you, Captain, will let a doctor be the judge of your scratch.”
Steve seems appropriately chastised, offering Tony his injured hand silently. The left one, already with bandages wrapped around it. Most likely, the bandages were taken from the first aid kit open beside Steve. Tony moves the kit onto Steve's lap so he can sit beside the man, snapping on his rubber gloves and unwrapping the bandages to check on the wound.
“Bruce didn't have time to stitch it up,” Steve eventually explains, “and Officer Gamora needs more help than me.”
“Sam – Doctor Wilson is handling it.”
Taking an alcohol swab from the kit and a numbing solution, he calmly dabs at the long gash that only bleeds out intermittently when he puts too much pressure on the inflamed skin around it. “Did you get scraped rescuing the driver?”
“How did you know?” Steve asks back between his winces. It's clear that he's trying hard not to show Tony the pain, but to his credit, the wound stretches from nearly his wrist down to his elbow.
Tony throws away the drenched swab and fishes out the needle and thread. “I'm growing familiar with your recklessness complex. This is going to need stitches. Did Banner give you painkillers?”
“He made me have some Tylenol.”
“There's no harm in admitting pain,” Tony holds onto Steve's wrist. Even there, Tony can feel the hard muscle from what must be years of training.
Steve shakes his head. “Spent a lot of time on painkillers as a kid,” he gives Tony a tight smile. “Didn't like the feeling much.”
“Alright.” His pacemaker ticks on. He understands the horrid disorientation from too many days on drugs. “I need to sew this up. Think you can handle that?”
To spare Steve the pain, Tony quickly threads the wound close. Loop, and gently pull, then loop again. Twenty three stitches later and Tony ties the knot near Steve's elbow, where he's less likely to disturb it than his wrist.
Only then does Tony realise how close he's gotten to Steve.
Their thighs press against each other, Steve's hand resting on Tony's lap, dangerously close to his hip.
With any other patient, Tony would have no trouble staying coolly professional.
When he glances up, however, Steve calmly smiles, lips quirked up to one side with a thin line of soot across his cheek.
The cut on his forehead, which should be ugly and marring, just serves to make Steve even more defiantly, annoyingly adorable – a giant of a man with an even larger heart.
Large hearts are a medical condition that Tony has built tech to solve, but he thinks, this time around, a large heart might just be his undoing.
“All done,” Tony coughs to get the raspiness out of his voice. He takes another alcohol swab and lifts his hand up to reach Steve's forehead.
Obediently, Steve shuts his eyes, and Tony uses his other hand to move Steve's hair away.
He is not, in any way, disappointed that his rubber gloves means he can't feel whether the blond strands are soft or rough. This is his job. He can act more mature than a goddamned teenager.
“You're good at this,” Steve dares to say, eyes still firmly shut.
Carefully, Tony removes the crusted blood. Betadine is next. “I'd be out of a job if I wasn't.”
“What made you choose to be a doctor?”
“Isn't saving lives enough to be a reason?” Tony glibly dismisses, shifting his hand slightly to get more of Steve's hair out of the way. “What made you choose this job?”
Steve opens one eye, blue and bright. “People like you.” His smile tilts higher. “My mother was a nurse. She helped make lives better.”
“A) I'm not a nurse, and B) she must've had one hell of a time wrangling you,” Tony finds a laugh slipping out of him.
One final thing to do: he pulls off the rubber gloves to take out the band-aids in his pocket, picking the one he usually reserves for kids.
Stars and stripes. Very patriotic.
“What're you doing?” Steve suspiciously squints his open eye.
“Medical attention,” Tony deadpans, darting forward to stick the star spangled band-aid on the forehead cut before Steve can object. “There, all done,” he can't resist grinning his victory.
Steve pulls back, opening both eyes to dryly ask, “do I get a lollipop?”
“You get trimethoprim and amoxicillin.”
“Ugh,” Steve groans.
When Steve makes a move to poke at his stitches, Tony bats his fingers away, grabbing at them when they resist.
“You're not supposed to touch!” Tony purses his lips, then freezes.
They're so close, Tony can the the spray of freckles beneath Steve's eyes. This new position, he realises, has him holding both of Steve's hands.
That leaves him very vulnerable to –
“Thank you, Tony.”
Tony jerks his hands away, pretending to busy himself with tidying up the first aid kit.
“Thank me by not ruining my good work, Captain. No fighting fires for you tomorrow. Doctor's orders.”
“If you say so.”
“I do say so.”
They sit in silence for a few tense seconds.
Steve deserves someone to come home to at the end of his long shifts, not a doctor who gets called out for emergencies, who works into the night and who he won't be able to see often.
Clicking the first aid box shut, Tony sighs.
A friend. He can be a friend to Steve, and it should be enough.
It's been enough with everyone else: with Carol, with Thor, with Natasha and Clint. Help them get better, spend a few nights out at the bar with them before slinking back to his penthouse or his labs where he builds new hearts for people who need them more than him.
But Steve puts his good hand on Tony's shoulders, solid and warm and steadying.
“I'm glad they dispatched you,” Steve says.
“Why? Did you miss me, Captain?” Tony prods back at him almost flippantly.
“No, just glad to know I'm in safe hands.”
“I know more than three hundred ways to stop your heart.”
Tony huffs. “I'm getting your meds from the ambulance.” He stands up. “And paperwork for you to fill.”
“Thought I wasn't allowed to work?” Steve grins innocently, standing up too to take his uniform off the ground.
The bottom edges of his white tank top gets pulled by the movement, showing a sliver of skin that Tony determinedly ignores.
“No work for you tomorrow,” Tony shoves his hands into his pockets to keep them from straying.
Steve, now with the uniform draped over his shoulders, falls into step next to Tony. In the setting afternoon sun, their shadows fall long over the bridge, large sceptres of themselves beside each other.
“Did you miss me, Doctor?”
“Definitely not, Cap.”
He has the uneasy feeling that Steve knows it's a lie.
Steve paces the length of the station's breakroom, frustrated with being benched.
There are other things he could be doing with his free day, but he's too keyed up to be able to focus on much. He had tried jogging. He had tried art.
That hadn't helped at all. Anything he tried to paint wounded up being too close to a goatee for comfort.
He had even resorted to flipping through the magazines Bruce leaves around. That hadn't helped much either: he only found himself staring into yet another article about Doctor Stark's revolutionary genius.
The bandage stuck on his forehead from yesterday is still there.
Sentimental of him, yes, but he couldn't quite bring himself to peel of the stars and stripes Tony had so happily put on him.
It's highly distracting to have Tony's teasing rewind over and over in his head. Steve slumps into one of the chairs, turning his phone around in his hand.
One search on the internet and Steve is certain he would be able to solve the mystery that is Doctor Stark. Slipping into the banter with Tony yesterday had felt frighteningly comfortable. He can't believe he said what he said.
Something to the way that Tony kept pushing him, kept surprising him with new things that made Steve want to know him more.
Groaning, he reaches for the nearest bit of paper. A yellow post it pad.
Searching about Tony on the internet feels unfair, especially when Steve's own profile is guaranteed to be far less prolific.
Jotting down what he knows with a pencil, he finds himself scratching his head.
He glances at the neat row of stitches trailing up his arm. Attention to detail, he adds in his head, already running out of space.
His phone chimes. Steve ignores it, tapping his pen on the table.
Thor and Bruce are out handling a dispatch call with a fallen tree branch, so he can't ask them for help.
His phone chimes again.
Steve sighs, swiping his screen, reading the messages over and over again until the final message comes through.
Steve huffs, torn between being touched and being confused at the sudden surge of concern from Tony.
This again: a new side to Tony, a new angle for the sun to hit across him, making him burn brighter in Steve's thoughts, searing him even deeper.
Steve adds the number to his contacts before he replies, fingers hovering over the small keyboard of his phone as he struggles to come up with an appropriately neutral but not too severely neutral reply.
To his surprise, the 'typing' bubble appears straight away, Tony's reply coming through a heartbeat later. It makes Steve laugh, clutching his phone and glancing carefully around the room.
No one is there to watch him, or to ask him what's suddenly gotten his sour mood to lift.
Putting down his phone, Steve glances back down to his post-it list, trying to put two and two together. Tony couldn't possibly – Tony couldn't possibly know about Steve's newfound crisis, could he? Kamala had noticed, and if someone as young as her could see right through Steve, is this Tony toying with Steve?
But Tony couldn't possibly be that unkind.
His phone chimes again.
Steve scrambles to check.
There's a banging on the garage door. Shit. Steve jumps up. The whole station is a mess – Steve hasn't cleaned up from Thor and Bruce's arm wrestling last night.
Running his hand a few times through his hair, Steve presses the button that cranks up the garage door.
“You're not working, are you?” Tony doesn't bother saying hello, pushing past Steve and whistling at the fireman's pole at the center of the garage. The plastic bag he's carrying bumps into Steve's thigh, cold and hard.
Steve closes the door again, then points Tony to the living space. “Did Thor tell you I'm here?”
“Don't look too upset, Cap.” Tony pokes his head around until he finds the breakroom with the coffee maker. His black shirt snags on the door handle, giving Steve a brief glimpse of shockingly toned muscles. “Your friends said you were a bit wound up,” Tony goes on, unaware of Steve's plight, and lifts the plastic bag. “I brought butter pecan for the recovering patient.”
“Thank you,” Steve pulls out a chair for Tony, just to have something, anything, to do with his hands.
“Figured I'd get even with you for the pizza.”
“You didn't need to.” Taking two spoons and bowls from the drawer, Steve opens up the tub of ice cream. He scoops some ice cream for Tony –
A rustle of paper. Then, Tony's slightly strangled voice. “What's this?”
Shit, Steve thinks for the second time in five minutes. “I, uh,” he stares at the yellow post-it in Tony's hand. “I was doing some thinking.”
“Why'd you cross out 'handsome', Cap?” Tony's voice is carefully blank.
Steve tips his chin up, summoning the courage it took to walk through fire. “You're more than handsome.”
Tony blinks. “I hate to say it, but I need you to explain.”
“Your face has healing properties,” Steve repeats, which makes Tony snort, the careful blankness swept away. “You're a good man, Tony,” he explains more truthfully, feeling bad for hiding behind witty quips. “And a good heart counts for more than a handsome face.”
“The ice cream's gonna melt if it gets any hotter in here,” Tony says, eyes flicking away from Steve as he folds up the post-it note into a small square.
Scooping out several more spoons of ice cream, Steve slides it down the table. None of this is helping with Steve's flip-flopping stomach, but it makes his chest tight, warm in a way he's rarely ever felt.
“You know, if you needed to make lists,” Tony breaks the brief bit of silence between them, leg bouncing under the table, “I have laptops and tablets to do that for you. Even an AI you can talk to instead of pen and paper.”
“I know. I did put 'tech genius' on the list.”
“Still reading Futura, Cap?”
“I like pen and paper,” Steve digresses. “They make things feel real.”
Tony's spoon clinks on the bowl. “Do you have something against tech?”
The conversation is in safer waters, and Steve lets himself relax slightly. “Tech and electric plugs are a fire hazard.”
“You're a grandpa,” Tony waves his spoon in the air. “Just you wait. I'll get you to like modern tech and racier ice cream flavors, Cap.”
“And yet you finished all your ice cream, Doctor.”
“Well.” A pause. Tony gives his spoon a quick lick, glancing at the folded-up post it next to his bowl. “There are a few old-fashioned things worth keeping around.”
Tony is right, maybe Steve should adjust the thermostat, make the room colder. Why is the room getting hotter?
It's only later – after Tony has left, running from Steve badgering him to rest – that Steve realises he can't find his post-it list anywhere.
He shifts bowls around, shifts through the pile of papers on the table.
Tony must've taken it with him. Steve doesn't know why he feels pleased by that.
The paediatrics ward is where Tony goes to find his peace whenever the flow of incoming patients in the ER ebbs. Children needed the most human contact, isolated as they were, and with Sam handling the ER wonderfully, Tony slips into the room, smiling at the nurses keeping watch over the sleeping children.
This time, Tony has a valid excuse for escaping the bustle of the ER.
A check-up on his smallest patient in the NICU.
Tony is in the process of making miniaturised pacemakers that can last more than two decades. Little Maria was the first baby to receive it. A thin filament that's keeping her heart beating. She's a fragile thing, but when she hears Tony greet her, her brown eyes open, small fingers reaching out for Tony beyond the glass.
He wishes he could hold her, wishes that her parents could hold her. But her recovery from her surgery three days ago means he can't jostle her too much. For all that he grumbles that babies can be loud, their shrieks headache-inducing, there's so much hope in those small eyes.
An optimist is someone who believes the future is uncertain. A futurist is someone who believes in possibility. And Tony is, well, he's –
Good with kids. The words suddenly flash in his mind. One of the first seven things Steve had thought about him.
Tony presses his hand on the glass, humming quietly to not disturb the other babies. “Heart rate strong,” he checks off her clipboard. “Oxygen levels high. Bit of a fever, but you're a fighter, aren't you?”
As if understanding him, she kicks her small leg, making it stick out from under the blanket. Tony opens the windows on the side of the incubators, reaching in to fix it. He lets her tiny, tiny fingers grip around his, allowing himself to marvel at the fact that she might not be alive if he hadn't cut open her chest and fought for her heart.
The scar from the incision might follow her for the rest of her life, but she has a life. He saved her.
It's a humbling realisation.
His hair is wet.
Tony pulls his hand out of the incubator, closing the window.
The sprinklers are on. The sprinklers are –
“Is this a drill?” Tony asks one of the nurses. His pager beeps, and – a loud blaring. The fire alarms. Drills were supposed to be every Wednesday, every three months.
Today's a Friday.
2ND FLOOR FIRE. HAMMER LAB. FULL EVAC NOW, his pager reads.
They're on the third floor. Hammer's lab has enough chemical fuel to keep a fire burning. To burn the entire building down with incompetence. He hates Hammer.
He runs the numbers in his head. There's not going to be enough time to evac all the eight infants here with only three nurses and him, especially if the fire is spreading quickly enough to demand a full evacuation.
“Co-bed the babies,” Tony orders. “Put her with him,” he points at two incubators, and then, “the twins go together, the two girls too.” Those are the healthiest infants, they can handle co-bedding, they can handle vertical evacuation. That leaves two more, including little Maria. “Go. Take the East Wing ramp.”
That's the furthest from the fire's start in Hammer's lab. None of the nurses hesitate, trusting his word.
The NICU room is a fire compartment, with fire-proof walls and floors to withstand the heat. The incubators have an oxygen supply that will keep the infants safe from the smoke. Tony is trained for this.
Maria's fever spikes. Tony takes a dose of the medicine the nurses were supposed to administer and pumps it into her IV.
Then he gets to work: flip off the sprinklers to keep the room from flooding before the fire reaches them. Use the water on the floor to soak up the spare baby blankets in the cabinet and clog the gap beneath the door.
His pacemaker protests the stress on his heart, whirring loudly as he breathes to calm down.
There are already sirens outside that he can hear.
This is a waiting game, and if it's Steve out there, he trusts that it's a game they'll win.
The fire has spread up to the third floor by the time Thor's unravelled the hose and Steve has the truck's ladder up to the fourth floor, directing the spray of water to stop it from spreading further.
Ambulances jam the street, evacuating critical patients to the nearest hospital. Carol is down there, keeping the crowd from exploding into chaos.
Steve's hands don't shake.
He's seen no hint of Tony since he got here ten minutes ago, the fire shows no hint of abating. Whatever chemicals Hammer had spilled to cause such a hot fire, it's persistent and dangerous.
Fury is sending another firetruck their way. Handing the hose over to Thor, Steve hops off the ladder, jogging to Carol.
“Is everyone accounted for?” Steve asks. “It's getting pretty hot.”
“Tony,” Sam pipes up from somewhere to his right.
“He was – he was in the NICU. The nurses said he stayed behind.”
“Why?” Steve demands, glancing back at the raging fire.
“There were two babies who wouldn't survive the stress of moving.”
Carol latches onto Steve's arm, knuckles white. “Steve. You can’t go in there.”
“The hell I can’t!” he wrenches his arm away from her grip, but Carol shoves him away from the building.
“Stand down, Captain.”
“Tony might not have that long – ”
“So you’ll let yourself die with him?”
“He has infants with him,” Steve argues, losing valuable time. “Where's the NICU?”
Sam points to one of the windows. “Third floor, right across that room.”
“It's a fire compartment,” another doctor says. Stephen Strange, Steve reads his badge. “They'll be safe from the fire. Tony's heart won't survive the smoke.”
“Work on stopping the fire,” Carol stands firm, between Steve and the burning hospital.
Steve shakes his head, looking up to the window Sam had pointed at. “He's my friend, Carol.”
“He's my friend too!” she raises her voice, and the crowd around them flinches. “Stop the fire, Captain.”
Gritting his teeth, Steve sees the second firetruck roll onto the curb. “Chief Fury will stop the fire.”
“Don't you dare – ”
“Hello? Cap? Muscle Man?”
That's – that's Tony's voice, coming from Steve's pocket. He glances at Carol's wide eyes, fishing out his phone and slowly asking, “Tony?”
A cough. “Hacked your phone,” Tony says. “Sorry.”
“Get yourself out, Tony,” Steve grips his phone tight to stop his hands trembling in relief. Tony is alive.
“No can do, Cap. One: I'm not alone.” Another cough. “Two: the hallway's a bit hot.”
“I didn't rescue you just to have you die on me again, Scrubs,” Carol cuts in. “You better come out breathing.”
“Had to make sure the kids were safe,” Tony coughs again. It takes some time for it to stop. “The room's a fire compartment, just had to make sure – you guys aren't worrying about me.”
“Thor's stopping the fire,” Steve tells him, half-shouting into the phone over the loud sirens, “we need to get you out.”
“Not until I know these kids are going to be safe.” A scuffle. Something falling? Then, “Steve, is Sam there?”
“I'm here,” Sam says into the phone.
“When Cap's gotten the kids out, I need you to replace the power supply of the incubators. They're running on emergency power right now.”
“How much longer until power runs out?”
“An hour. I can use my - the power in my pacemaker to buy a few more minutes for the kids.”
Steve blanches. “Tony -”
“I signed on for this job to save lives, Cap.” Tony coughs, but through the haze of sirens and smoke and panic, “make sure the kids get out alive.”
For once, Steve trades a glance with Carol, and finds he agrees with her. “We're getting you out too, Tony,” he promises.
“I'll be – fine,” Tony insists, but Steve shoves the phone into Carol's hand.
Fury's team was helping Thor handle the fire much faster, and any second now, it'd be safe enough for Steve to go in. Strapping his helmet back on, Steve nods to Carol.
“Get him home, Nozzle Head,” she gives him a quick salute.
Steve takes in the ash marring the side of the hospital dark, the broken windows and the loud sirens of his firetruck.
He's not leaving anyone behind.
“Thor!” Steve commands, scaling up the ladder of the firetruck again. Third floor, Sam had said. “Clear me a path with the foam unit.”
Steve straps on his helmet.
He has lives to save today.
And then, and then, after this, he'll let himself think about a life to build.
He doesn't remember falling asleep.
And that beeping, that incessant beeping that sounds like an alarm clock gone mad –
No, that's a cardiogram.
He frowns, blinking one eye open.
His eye tracks the voice, and it's – Steve?
He squints at the IV bag hanging by the bed. Is he on hallucinogens?
“I am,” he coughs, throat dry and croaky, “on the wrong side of the hospital bed.”
Steve, if it is Steve, chuckles. “You’re staying right there, Mister.”
Tony closes both his eyes. “I’m completely fine – ”
The words come out more garbled than that, and Steve huffs. “Except that your lungs are suffering from smoke inhalation, your heart had oxygen deprivation, and – ”
“I thought I was the doctor,” Tony manages to open his other eye, this time to glare at Steve. Steve, Tony realises, who is not in uniform but in a very delightful white shirt that leaves little to imagination.
Something cold presses on his lips. An ice chip.
He blinks, and oh, that's Natasha on the other side of his bed, forcing him to eat the ice chip. It helps, his throat less like sandpaper.
She feeds him another ice chip. “We nearly lost you.”
Tony swallows. “Sam saved me?”
“He did on site CPR,” Steve confirms.
“Well, I'm now – ” he coughs, and his pacemaker whirrs in protest, the oxygen cannula in his nose shifting, “completely fine.”
“Carol told us to tell you she's not above cuffing you to the bed,” Natasha smiles. “And I'm not above tasering you if you try to leave before Sam discharges you.”
“I don't think I like you working with her.”
“We don't like you trapping yourself in a fire,” she shoots back.
The thought sobers him enough for his blurry mind to ask, “the kids? Were they alright?”
Steve is quick to nod. “You saved them. They wouldn't have survived the evacuation. Thor stopped the fire before the heat seeped into the NICU's fire compartment.”
“That's – that's good.”
“We're in Mount Sinai,” Natasha says, “you've been here three days, and Sam will be checking up on you in twenty minutes.”
Tony nods. The IV needle in his arm is uncomfortable, and now that he's more awake, he's also more aware of the pain in his chest.
“No morphine,” Steve says before Tony can ask. It lifts a weight of worry from him, just as it makes him squirm, uncomfortable with how quickly Steve has grown to know him.
Natasha, however notices his discomfort, and she stands up from her seat. “I'm getting lunch,” she announces, “and when I come back with Sam, I expect you both to have worked with whatever it is that made Steve stay here for three days.”
“Steve was here for three days?” Tony repeats dumbly, even as Steve's cheeks flush pink. Adorable. Dangerous, because Tony isn't supposed to feel the curl of hope in his stomach.
“He stinks,” Natasha says flatly.
Steve's shoulders hunch in on themselves. “I was worried.”
“He also carried you out of the hospital,” Natasha adds, pausing by the door to smirk. “An authentic fireman's carry.”
The door of the private room swings close behind Natasha, clicking pointedly. In the silence, Tony flicks his gaze to Steve, wondering if he'd get away by pretending to sleep.
“Tony, I – ”
“I have the worst working hours,” he blurts out before Steve can –
“I’m very busy with my job,” Steve smiles, quirked up to one side, and Tony feels his throat catch. Likes pizzas and donuts, the small post-it from Steve had read, rough hands and hard work.
Nothing about how rich Tony was, or about Tony's fame.
“I am – ”
“I'm willing to try,” Steve cuts him off.
“You want to try?”
“You make me want to be better.”
Tony blinks, uncomprehending. He's usually brighter than this. “Me?”
“Tony, you build hearts for people. You're willing to stay behind in a fire, and you carry around bandages with stars and stripes because you know it'll make the kids happy.” Steve's hand falls on the bed beside Tony's, not touching, but there. “Give yourself more credit.”
Tony shrugs as best as he can with a cannula in his nose. “Most people say I give myself too much credit.”
“If I wasn't scared of you rileing Bruce up, I'd have tried to poach you a long time ago,” Steve stubbornly refuses to be distracted. “You're someone I'd want on my team, Doctor.”
Tony blinks again. “Well, I'd want to kiss you first.”
The words slip out of him before he can stop them, and he rushes to take them back, to –
“I wouldn't – ” Steve's smile grows brighter. “I wouldn't mind that.”
“Oh?” The hope curling in Tony's stomach sparks into a warmer wish, scalding hot as he tries to stamp it down.
“I thought you were a genius, Doctor Stark,” Steve says, and is Steve teasing him?
“Don't bully the sick person,” Tony huffs.
“I thought you were perfectly fine?” Steve chuckles, the same teasing lilt to his question.
And if Steve thinks Tony is brave, doesn't Tony owe it to him to take the last step after all the steps Steve has leaped through for him? He has fuzzy memories of Steve carrying him out of the burning hospital, and he remembers the gentleness of Steve's hold.
“You really trust me, Cap?” Tony asks, trying to make the question flippant but utterly failing. It comes out raw, feeble, his defenses crumbling.
“Well,” Steve's hand inches closer to his, until the edges of their palms brush. “I've heard that you've got the safest hands.”
Tony snorts, wincing when the laugh grates in his chest. "Are you always like this?"
"Only for heroes like you," and, wow, Tony wishes he could pull Steve in for a proper kiss.
But he's a doctor. He knows that wouldn't make things better. Instead, he lets his hand move slightly to the right, curling over the bumps of Steve's scarred knuckles.
"How's a guy supposed to recover in peace with you smiling at them right now?"
"You can recover in bed."
“Dinner first,” Tony says, “then bed.”
“If you insist.”
“If you insist.”
“In two weeks,” Steve sternly adds. “After you get discharged.”
Tony scrunches his nose. “You're going to wait two weeks to kiss me?”
Indulgent, Steve leans forward, but the warm press of Steve's lips fall over Tony's temples, at the crinkles of his smile there, soft and searing all at once –
A camera clicks.
Tony pulls back, frowning at Natasha by the door.
She's holding up her phone, smiling one of her rare smiles. “I'm sending that to Kamala,” she taps on her phone, “and to Carol.”
He squints at her otherwise empty hand. “Weren't you supposed to be getting lunch?”
“Yes, but I'll survive a little hunger,” she shrugs, “hunger is less torture than your pining.”
Steve frowns, hands squeezing around Tony's. “We weren't pining.”
Natasha keeps tapping away on her phone. “Whatever you say, Captain.”
"And just for that," Tony huffs, "we're going to have our first date at your bar. I expect it to be on the house."
"You don't have a more romantic place in mind?" Steve asks.
"We can get to the romance after dessert."
"You read my mind, Cap."
"You're not the only genius around, Doctor."
"Did anyone mention geniuses?"
Tony doesn't want to turn his gaze away from Steve, but he looks up at Carol striding through the door with a bag full of takeout boxes, with Sam and Thor following behind.
She grins at him. "Told you that you could've just asked him," she adds.
"And I know you need your rest to recover," Sam chimes in, dragging a chair from outside as Thor holds the door open, "but the emotional and psychological benefits of a meal together outweighs the cost."
"Hear that, Cap?" Tony whispers, shifting on the hospital bed, "I like to think there are... physical benefits to dating a firefighter too."
Steve helps crank the bed up, letting Tony sit properly. "And that's scientifically proven, Doctor?"
"We can prove it together," Tony suggests.
Steve's cheeks turn an even brighter pink. “I, uh, look forward to it.”
This time, when Steve braves another kiss, it lands squarely over the top of Tony's smile.
But full of warmth and gentleness and hope of happiness.
It feels right. It feels easy.
The cardiogram's beeping keeps going on, muffled over the rush of his own heart in his ears. He can hear Sam hooting, and Thor cheering them on.
From the corner of his eye, he catches sight of Carol winking at Natasha, of them snapping another picture of him and Steve.
And despite his wheezing chest, despite the IV in his arm, it feels like coming home.
Like a second chance.
Yeah, Tony nods to himself, there are a few old-fashioned things worth keeping around.
He holds onto Steve's hand.