Enlightenment

by Nix
(crimsonquills AT gmail DOT com)


Author's Notes: Written for the cap_ironman Alphabet Challenge.


Steve shifted uncomfortably in the small, hard chair provided by the hospital, but didn't stand. Instead he leaned forward, elbows braced on his knees, and watched Tony breathe. In. Out. In. Out. The steady rise and fall of his chest was soothing, even if Steve wished he would open his eyes already.

He lifted his head at the sharp click of heels on hospital linoleum in time to see Jan step into the private room that had been given to Tony. "I heard what happened," Jan said, face lined with concern. "Well, I guess everyone heard. It's been all over the news." She walked over to stand next to Steve and looked down at Tony. "How is he?"

"He's going to be fine," Steve said, turning his eyes back to Tony. He was pale and he looked far too still in the hospital bed, but he was breathing. "The counter-agent that we got from the Skull is working. But...it was really close, Jan. We almost lost him." While Steve's super-soldier enhanced body had held off the disease, and then defeated it shortly after he'd been brought into clear air, Tony hadn't had any such protection, and it had taken time for the counter-agent to be synthesized. Nearly too much time.

Jan put a hand on Steve's shoulder and squeezed gently. "But we didn't lose him," she said gently. "He'll be back on his feet before you know it." She smiled wryly. "Probably before he should be."

"I know." Steve reached out and gripped one of the railings that ran along the side of the hospital bed. "Damn it, Jan, why does he keep doing this?" he demanded suddenly, his voice breaking. Steve looked up at Jan. Her eyes had widened at his outburst.

After a second Jan's expression softened from surprise into sympathy. "We all knew what the risks were when we put on our costumes the first time. Or at least, we figured it out pretty fast. This could have been any one of us."

Steve shook his head and looked back at Tony. "This wasn't like that. This wasn't Tony putting himself at risk to save the people we all swore to protect. He was safe inside his armor, but he exposed himself to save me." Steve scooted closer to the bed and leaned on the railing, reaching out after a moment to brush the hair off Tony's forehead. "He decided that the chance that I might live if he helped me was worth more than the certainty that he would live if he didn't. And it's not the first time he's done something like that." Steve turned a pained expression on Jan. "Why does he do that?"

Jan studied him with a strangely intent expression for a long moment. "You really don't know, do you?"

Steve blinked. "Know what?"

She sighed and took a moment to pull a second chair up beside Steve and sit down. "Steve, Tony's in love with you."

In love with him? Tony? Steve looked away from Jan and at Tony for a long moment, then turned back to Jan. "Jan--"

She put her hand over his on the bed's railing. "He is," she said firmly. "He has been for years. I always thought you knew, that you never said or did anything because you didn't want to hurt him."

Steve could only stare at her as the words sank in. Slowly he dragged his eyes back to Tony's unconscious form. Tony loved him...more than he loved life. Steve's heart clenched. "I didn't know," he murmured, distressed.

"Steve, are you all right?" Jan asked.

"I..." he paused and swallowed, never taking his eyes off of Tony. "I think I need a bit of time to get used to this."

"Okay," Jan said, but her tone was uncertain. "You call me if you need anything, okay?"

Steve forced himself to meet her eyes again and managed a shadow of a smile. "I will, I promise."

After a moment her expression relaxed a little and she patted Steve on the hand before standing. She took a long look at Tony before turning and leaving the hospital room.

Alone, Steve turned back to Tony, examining him as if, even unconscious, he might show some evidence of his feelings for Steve. As if the fact that he was unconscious in a hospital bed in the first place wasn't evidence enough.

Steve had known that Tony was as much attracted to men as to women, but it had never occurred to him as even the remotest possibility that Tony might be attracted to him. They were friends and partners and nothing had ever made Steve question that. Now he couldn't take his eyes off Tony as nearly every moment they'd spent together rearranged themselves in his mind.

If Steve hadn't known this, could he really claim to know Tony at all, never mind as well as he thought he'd known him? "No," Steve denied aloud. His gaze came to rest on Tony's face and his voice softened. "I know you." He'd always known he was important to Tony, if not quite how much. He almost wished he wasn't that important to Tony.

Almost.

Was his own life so important to him that Steve could want Tony to sacrifice his life? Was he so egotistical that the idea that a courageous, wealthy, attractive, and intelligent man wanted him was more important than a friend's life? Steve hadn't thought so, but he couldn't deny that a part of him--a large part of him--was warmed by the thought that Tony loved him. Was in love with him.

Unsettled, Steve leaned on the railing, eyes tracing the planes of Tony's face. After a moment he had to laugh. "You're always forcing me to question my assumptions." He reached out to brush at the unruly lock of hair that had once against fallen down across Tony's forehead and paused, fingers all but tangled in the soft, dark hair, and stared at his own hand. After a moment he completed the motion and drew his hand back, rubbing his fingers together unconsciously.

All sorts of assumptions.

--End--