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If I Die Before I Wake

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A hissed breath was sucked through Steve's clenched teeth as the fiery line was traced across his chest, the durable material of his uniform—not to mention his skin and a few layers beneath—giving way easily under the extremely sharp knife.

For all Steve was capable of healing from an injury at a faster rate than most humans, he was just as capable of feeling the pain. Or, if he did have a higher pain tolerance, this was an unbelievably agonizing thing to suffer and he was really, really glad that he'd convinced their captors to take him instead of one of the others.

Not that he had any doubts about their ability to survive. Much to the frustration of their enemies, they were all very hard to kill or even incapacitate with injury.

But as their leader it was his duty to take the full brunt of said frustration when it was so focused. Even if Thor and the Hulk were probably just as capable of taking this pain as he was with their enhanced systems.

That was irrelevant, though, because he was still their leader.

"GODDAMNIT, YOU MOTHERFUCKER," Tony railed, the clink and rattle of chains accompanying his efforts to stop this by breaking free. If it didn't hurt so much to even breathe right now, Steve probably would have laughed. The Hulk had been unable to break the chains before being subdued with some alarmingly glowing fluid injected into his skin, so Tony had no chance.

Which didn't stop him, or Thor, or even Bruce, wan and shaky as he was after his forced transformation back to human.

Clint was staring with the single-minded intensity that often spelled death for his targets and occasionally growling when Steve reacted—which was part of the reason why he tried not to. Natasha was a statue next to Clint, and Steve couldn't help but wonder if she was imagining taking this guy apart piece by bloody piece. He was just glad right now that he'd never given her a reason to stare at him that way.

Steve's attention was abruptly brought back from his team's reactions when the knife was lifted from his skin. Though it didn't stop the pain left behind, it did lessen the pain currently being added and that was a dizzying span of contrast.

He closed his eyes and did his best not to gulp in air in preparation for the next round, his muscles going lax against his will for as long as the pain wasn't keeping them tensed.

It had been three days of this—nearly a week since their capture—and despite how well he was holding out, he wasn't sure how much longer he could continue to do so.

For once his ability to heal was not a help. Every night the man with the knives and the fire and the acid—oh god, the acid—would leave and Steve's body would respond as it was supposed to and heal whatever it could. It was never complete, the injuries being more severe than a single night's worth of healing, but it was enough that there was no concern on their captor's part for going too far.

Even though he knew it made things worse in the end, Steve was still grateful for the break each night. It would be better if he could actually move then, if his restraints were undone or even just loosened to allow him even enough to move a little after three days in the same position.

And then there were the benefits to the rest of his team. They weren't being physically hurt like he was, but he could see clearly how much having to watch while he was being tortured was wearing on them. The break each night allowed them just as much chance to recover as it did him.

Though not as much chance to heal.

Tony's wrists were bloody where he'd pulled and twisted to try and free himself, and his face had become flushed in the last day from what Steve hoped was anger, but suspected was infection.

Bruce was looking a little green—and not in the usual way—from the regular injections of whatever it was that allowed them to keep him from changing.

Thor's knuckles were bloody both from punching the wall in his frustration and from fighting with the guards each time they came for Bruce.

Clint had branching trails of blood down the side of his face from where he'd taken that first blow that had knocked him out. He'd recovered quickly enough to not worry any of them over serious brain damage, but it had been too late for him to escape capture by then.

Natasha was the only one who didn't appear injured, though Steve knew she probably had an impressive set of bruises under her uniform from the fighting before they'd been forced to surrender for Clint's sake. He thought he might have also seen her limping, but she didn't seem to be favoring either leg now, so maybe he'd imagined it.

His own injuries were, of course, much worse, but, really, he was okay with that. Far better to be the one being hurt than to have to watch it, helpless as well as responsible.

A clatter from the knife being set aside brought him out of his musings and he blinked in confusion, before it cleared and he was dragged back to the present moment. Time was unreliable when torture was on the schedule. It sped up and slowed down and generally became meaningless, an unfortunate side effect of situations like this. At least, that was how it worked in his experience.

And, yes, he did unfortunately have more than this one time to go on.

He forced his eyes to focus, bleary as his vision was from involuntary tears of pain and the exhaustion of extended stress. It had to be nearing the end of another day.

His hands clenched beyond the thick metal cuffs at his wrists, as much with a wave of depleted fury as to cover up the tremors that coursed through him at the thought of having to endure much more of this today.

He was satisfied and even proud of how well he'd held out thus far, but he knew well that no one could resist forever under such conditions. Even the mighty Captain America would eventually cave under torture.

He just hoped his faith in Phil Coulson's ability to locate him and his team was not misplaced this time.

Most of his field of vision was filled by the moist, and occasionally dripping, brick ceiling above and the wall before him, though if he turned his head he could see the barred half of the room where his fellow Avengers waited and watched, chained to the wall with just enough distance between them that they couldn't reach each other. The angle of the table he was on meant that the blood ran down to the drain into the floor at his feet.

Or his head, if the table was canted the other direction and rotated. That hadn't happened since the first day, though.

He would look over to check on his friends occasionally, to reassure them he was okay, but he couldn't maintain the eye contact because, for one thing, that would add unnecessary pain to his neck from the awkward angle. For another, he didn't want them to see how close he was to breaking when the pain got bad.

He was doing this for them, so they didn't have to, and that included hiding any and all signs of how difficult this was.

He did look over now when Tony spoke, his voice soft, but not from strain—though God knows it should have been after three days of near constant insults, threats, profanities, and other assorted angry words hurled at Steve's torturer. It was as dark and deadly as Steve had ever heard it, and something in his chest clenched to hear his friend forced to discover that side of himself again.

Thoughts of some of their other enemies flashed into his mind and worry that Tony would be irreparably damaged by this encounter when he'd survived so many others sent bile hurtling up into his throat and forcing him to swallow thickly, even though it restricted his airflow when his Adam's apple pressed against the wide leather band across his throat.

"I swear on every. Last. Cent that I have, that I will see you dead for this, you son of a bitch."

"Tony," he tried to say, but three days of self-imposed silence had taken its toll on his throat and he only managed to aggravate it, the pain from an early injury triggering a cough that ripped him apart from inside.

His body instinctively bucked against the restraints as the cough got worse and worse, the coagulating blood on his chest breaking apart with the spasms and allowing more to flow freely. He gagged and choked as his body tried to take in air but couldn't through an airway narrowed by swelling and irritation. Wounds that had been masked by the greater pain of fresher ones were reawakened and dark spots began to swim before his eyes as even his incredible body failed to meet the demands placed on it.

He was suffocating and there wasn't a damn thing any of them could do about it. He could only hope that their captor was ready for him to die yet and would intervene.

He could vaguely hear the protests of his friends, shouts and demands and oaths of vengeance should he die, sworn on Mjölnir and Tony's wealth and a favorite bow. Bruce was cursing in languages Steve couldn't even begin to guess at, while Natasha made dark promises only in Russian.

And then it began to fade, the cacophony, the pain, the panic even, and as he continued to fight, weakening but not relenting, he had the thought that at least it would be over.

That lasted only a second before he realized that his death would only mean another of his friends would take his place on this godforsaken table and he forced his eyes open, locking onto the dispassionate blue ones that had come into his line of sight.

To anyone else it might appear that the man was indifferent, watching an animal die, as interested as a scientist and completely without remorse, but Steve had learned far more than he would ever have thought possible about the darker side of humanity these last few days.

Worse than indifference or curiosity or even a complete lack of remorse, there was cunning. Calculation. Greed.

This was not an unplanned event. This had been expected and it was a test for Steve: would he sacrifice himself—and his friends—or his pride?

For Steve it wasn't even a question. Everyone eventually gave under torture, even if it was only an inch at a time.

"Please," Steve mouthed, putting his sincerity into his eyes since he had no voice left. "Please."

The corner of the man's mouth twitched upward ever so slightly. Victory accepted.

A moment later the leather neck band was released and Steve's head jerked forward, his body trying to double over. He was able to breathe, though, gasping and choking, but breathing. The air crackled and whistled through his throat and he winced at the sensation.

"You must be thirsty," the man said in his emotionless voice, turning an offer of help into a threat—one swiftly carried out as a broad palm slammed down, pinning Steve's head to the table. A bucket of water was poured on his face, the relief provided by the liquid overrun by the flash of terror at the sensation of drowning.

When at last the flood eased to a trickle then ended, the bucket was thrown aside with a clatter.

"Goddamn you," Tony said between his own heaving breaths. "Goddamn you!"

Steve wearily turned his head to the side, worried by the tremble in Tony's voice, and saw his team and couldn't help the smile.

They were battered, and beaten, and worn, and God knew they all reason enough to call it quits at any time and no one could begrudge them for all they had already given, but they didn't. They stuck together, they kept going no matter what.

It was plain to see right now that any one of them would swap places with him in a heartbeat's time—would have from the beginning, but even having seen what had happened still would. He wouldn't let them, of course, because this was his job, his responsibility as their leader, but the pride swelled in him that he was blessed to lead this team.

That smile, that sign that whatever small concession he'd given in begging for his life hadn't truly been a break in his spirit, was enough to trigger a frown in their captor.

In the first display of a loss of control so far, a growl left the man's lips and he swung around, groping for something on the tray of tools and knocking several others aside in his haste. He whirled back, Steve's only warning a glint of light at the corner of his vision before it blanked out in a wash of white agony.

When it cleared Steve looked down to see a large knife sticking out of his side, the serrated edges sending more flares of pain with every breath he took. He blinked and blinked again, not sure if he was actually seeing this or if the pain was finally causing hallucinations.

A rough hand grabbed a fistful of hair and yanked so that Steve was forced to look at his captor and away from the cell where the cries of his friends continued.

"I'll see you in the morning, Captain," the man sneered, then bounced Steve's head off the table once for good measure, blocking out the other sounds with a deafening ringing in his ears.

He was gone, and for that Steve was immeasurably grateful, but he'd left behind a reminder of his promise to return: the knife still sticking out of Steve's gut.

It was going to be a long night.

o.o

He could feel the wound healing around the knife—or at least he could feel when the newly healed tissue was re-cut as it brushed against the sharp edge of the knife. It made what should have been a respite another kind of unending torture.

The blinding surgical lights over him had been shut off, leaving the one recessed light over the cell the only one still dimly glowing and he was grateful if only because his team couldn't see him now, couldn't see the fresh tracks of tears down the sides of his face as he sucked in each agonizing breath.

It might have been on a whim, the idea to stab him so that every inhalation was pure, white-hot pain, but after the previous rounds where his breathing was jeopardized, this only made the relief of air a betrayal.

Dr. Morningstar, the S.H.I.E.L.D. psychologist assigned to them, was going to earn her paycheck a hundred times over after this mission.

Steve just hoped she didn't make him draw anything this time. He didn't want to sully his favorite hobby with the negative associations of all this.

He heard soft murmuring in the cell but couldn't quite make it out over the high-pitched whine in his ears, counterpoint to the thud of his heart that echoed in every cell of his body. He felt a shudder coming on, either shock from the loss of blood that couldn't be replenished fast enough—though it was more than fast enough to keep him from passing out, unfortunately—or from the unrelenting stiffness he'd imposed on his limbs to keep from causing any more pain, and choked down a cry as it hit, washing over him, each muscle group taking a turn to spasm and twitch in the restraints that held him to the table.

He grit his teeth and squeezed his eyes shut, but it must not have been enough because when it passed and he was left to gasp—and regret each and every breath—he could tell the talking had stopped.

Only the endless drip of his own blood and the harshness of his panting echoing off the walls filled the space between him and his team.

"Steve?" Tony finally asked. A clatter of chains followed as Tony stood and got as close as he could. "Hey. Hey, Steve. Look at me."

He wanted to. God, he wanted to, if only to reassure himself that they were all fine—or at least, as fine as they could be, given their circumstances—but he couldn't because there was enough light that they would no doubt see the sheen in his eyes.

They had watched him beg and he knew they wouldn't hold that against him—or even this—but he just... He couldn't do it.

"Steve! Goddammit. Steve! Look at me! NOW."

It was hard, implacable, the voice Tony used when he expected to be obeyed and it reminded Steve just enough of Colonel Phillips that he almost turned his head on instinct.

But he didn't, he managed to resist. It was a victory so inconsequential, but it meant a lot to Steve right now. That he was capable of doing so was... It was important.

Tony wouldn't give up, though, and anyway Steve really didn't want him to worry any more than he already was so he knew he had to give the man—give all of his team—something, some sign he was okay.

He mentally braced himself, then inhaled as deeply as he dared.

"Steve Fucking Rogers, so help me God, you look at me right now or I'm going to—"

"Tony."

That one word was enough to stutter the infamous chatterbox of the Avengers into silence.

For half a second anyway.

"Steve?" he whispered and there was no steel-backed general behind it this time, just a grateful, nearly broken, desperate plea for proof he wasn't imagining it.

Steve couldn't have denied that any more than he could have allowed one of them to take his place, though God knew they'd all given it their damnedest.

He clenched his hands against the pain, forced his voice not to waver, and licked lips dry from the dehydration of losing blood at a steady rate.

"I'm okay, Tony."

Now it was Tony's turn to choke on a sound, a keening, wet noise in the back of his throat that was neither laugh or whine but some horrible halfway utterance.

It was Clint's voice that broke the silence though, the dark humor that Steve always hated to hear, that always came out after one of the missions S.H.I.E.L.D. sent him on alone. "If this is your idea of 'okay', Cap, I'd hate to see what you consider 'fucked the hell up'."

Steve wanted to respond to that, to return something light and easy that might help release some of the tension filling the room and pressing in on all of them, but before he could Bruce spoke up.

"Has the bleeding slowed?"

Steve swallowed, working moisture into his mouth and delaying for time. He didn't want to be honest, didn't want them to realize that he was really in trouble this time. None of them could do anything about it and they would do some very stupid things to try and prove him wrong on that point.

And yet, he couldn't lie to them. Not now. Not if this was where it all—

He blinked at the ceiling, wondered briefly if Peggy would be waiting for him when his body finally did give in to the inevitable.

He wondered if they had dancing in heaven.

"Steve?" Bruce repeated. "Shit," he muttered, then raised his voice over the sound of his chains shifting noisily as he stood to mimic Tony and get as close as possible to try and see what was going on. "Steve?"

"Steve!" Clint barked.

"Captain Rogers!" Thor thundered.

"GODDAMMIT, ROGERS," Tony cursed. "IF YOU DIE I WILL PERSONALLY FIND A WAY TO BRING YOU BACK JUST SO I CAN KICK YOUR STAR-SPANGLED ASS, YOU SON OF A BITCH."

He sucked in a breath, not even realizing he'd been holding it, and the sound, ragged as it was, was enough to momentarily stop all of them.

"Goddammit," Tony breathed. "Goddammit."

"Sorry," he said, though the teasing tone was lost under a wash of fresh pain from another shudder. They were coming faster now. That was bad.

"How's the bleeding?" Bruce repeated. "Has it slowed at all?"

Steve gulped, fingers shaking in their fists, and said, "Not enough." A laugh, harsh and wet and more sob than laugh, broke from his chest, jarring his whole body and causing the pain to flare brightly and block out the world for a moment. "Not nearly enough," he whispered.

The tears were audible in his voice now, nothing he could do about that anymore, and the silence as his team heard it too was almost palpable.

"We need to get out of here," Tony said. "We need to get out of here now."

"Oh, sure," Clint said, dark and bitter, "just let me get the keys to our cuffs that I've been keeping in my back pocket. I didn't want to use it too early and spoil the fun, you know?"

"Fuck you, Barton," Tony snapped. "I'm serious."

"And I'm fucking not?" Clint hurled back. "It's not like we've been sitting with our thumbs up our asses this entire time, Stark. If we had a way out, we'd have used it. Unless you've been holding back on us?"

"Do I fucking look like I have been?" Tony snarled, chains rattling as he lifted his hands to show off his bloodied and mangled wrists.

"Guys," Bruce said, "let's all just stay calm, okay? No one has been holding back anything—"

Clint snorted. "Says the guy who should be able to rip his own chains right out of the fucking wall."

"He was drugged!" Tony said, incredulous. "Repeatedly!"

"Tony, that's not helping," Bruce said, then turned to Clint. "Believe me, the second I have any connection at all to the Other Guy, you'll know."

Steve turned his head a fraction, enough to see what was happening, but not to give them a good view of his face.

He grimaced and then winced in pain once more at the added pain of the stretch of his neck. He needed to see them, though, he needed to help them. They were falling apart over him and he couldn't have that.

God, if he wasn't going to survive this, he needed to know that they would, not just individually but as a group.

"Stop this bickering," Thor said, showing his rare truly angry side. "We must work together if we are to save our captain and friend."

Tony and Clint were still locked in a glaring contest, but at Thor's reminder of his desperate state, they both backed down just a little. Not enough to apologize, but enough to redirect that anger.

"Okay," Tony finally said, after a deep breath—and damn if Steve didn't envy his ability to do that right now. "What do we have? Thor's strength. My brains. Bruce's... zen. Clint's eyes. Tasha's..." He paused and looked at Tasha, her eyes locked on apparently nothing, her body as still as it ever was. "Tasha?"

She sucked in a sharp breath, then her shoulders jerked, a brief flash of agony flitting across her face.

"What the hell was—" Tony started, but before he could finish the door slammed abruptly open. Back-lit by the light from the hallway, a shape far too familiar loomed.

God, no, too soon. It was too soon. It couldn't have been an entire night already. He wasn't— He couldn't— He wouldn't make it another day if he had to start from where he was now. He just wouldn't.

The hand reached past the doorjamb and flicked on the switch to the surgical lights, Steve flinching back from the faint glow that would very quickly grow bright enough to cause pain in its own right.

He was not pleased to see that the anger from before had not abated in the slightest.

When the rough hands started undoing the straps and cuffs, Steve felt no relief. That he was being freed was of no consolation when he knew that it meant that he was only being replaced.

"No," he said, voice low and breathless. "No, wait—" He couldn't help the involuntary cry of pain that was yanked from him as the knife was. Wet warmth, a faster stream than before, spilled down his stomach and over his hip to the table, pooling under him and staining the back of his uniform as well as the front.

When the noise and whiteness and flood of pain faded just a little he could hear Tony back at his diatribe, promising revenge that would touch every facet of this man's life before it ended.

Steve could feel more straps and restraints being loosened, knew this was his chance, that if ever he was going to be able to help his team it was now, but couldn't get his limbs to respond.

They jerked and twitched, but nothing more, nothing concrete that was even a threat let alone an injury. All his strength and durability and he was as helpless as he'd ever been before the serum, before Dr. Erskine.

More so, because at least then he could make a show of defiance, if not make good on it.

When the last strap, the one across his chest that had caused the star on his uniform to press down uncomfortably into his skin—not that he'd felt that minor annoyance with everything else that came after—was undone, he started to slide down the blood-warmed and slicked metal, but a heavy hand on his chest stopped him.

He blinked up at the face over him, hearing Tony's distant protests, and wondered if this was it. Was he to be returned to his friends to die, if not in peace, at least in good company? Or was he to be tossed aside like so much trash and left to slowly bleed out alone, cut off from any small shred of comfort?

He was lifted by the throat, dragged toward the bars of the cage, and then thrust downward, hitting his knees with a painful spike that rocketed up his legs and into his skull before it dissipated, setting off a thousand more explosions between as it touched other injuries.

The hand let go and he slumped forward, barely catching himself on his hands, feeling his elbows shake. He stared at the ground for what felt like an eternity, just breathing, reveling in the small decrease of pain with the knife gone.

The drip, drip, drip of his blood continued, a red puddle forming underneath him.

He could see a small, upside down reflection of his friends, more shadows than details, but it was enough to prompt him to lift his head.

Tony was closest, on his knees as well, mere feet away, the bars no more a barrier than the uncrossable space between them.

Steve met his eyes and smiled the best he could, shaky and weak though it was. "Take care of them," he said.

Tony swallowed, the wet tracks of previous tears on his cheeks and more welling up in his eyes.

Steve knew he'd lose it if he held that broken gaze, watched as the hope leeched out with his own life, and looked to the others. He'd given Tony his last wish aloud, but silently he begged Bruce and Thor and Clint and Natasha to watch out for Tony. He'd take this, take Steve leaving him, harder than they would.

Every last one of them acknowledged his request and silently accept this one last order.

That taken care of, his last duty discharged, he sighed and let his eyes slide shut.

That sent the waiting tears over the edge and down his face, but there was no point in resisting now.

When the hand grasped his hair tightly and yanked back, a cool line of fire crossing his throat where the razor sharp blade kissed it, he thought once more how proud he was of this team, hoped they knew it, that he'd told them enough and showed them enough, and then thought of Peggy's face.

There was a grunt behind him, a gasp before him, and then a crushing weight took him to the ground. Stars exploded behind his eyes as his skull bounced off the hard floor and he knew no more.

o.o

Steve didn't know how long he'd been out—truthfully, he hadn't expected to wake up again—but it couldn't have been long because he could still smell the rusty abattoir stench and hear the same steady dripping he'd been hearing for days now. He was really wishing someone would just call a damn plumber already and fix that.

But then, that was probably the point. One more way to torture those locked in this hell.

There was, of course, the possibility he really was deceased and his post-life journey had taken him down instead of up, but he liked to think that his sins hadn't been that serious. Okay, he'd pretty much made it his job to ignore that fifth commandment, but he'd only killed when absolutely necessary and for the protection of others. That had to count for something, right?

"This is hell, yes," a familiar voice said, "but only the generic Earth-based kind perpetrated by people with way too much time on their hands and not enough Facebook friends, not the fire and brimstone kind." A snort followed and then the voice—Tony, always Tony—added, "Besides, if you are a candidate for Hell, the rest of us are just plain fucked."

The words were flippant, casual, the usual joking post-battle—and sometimes in battle—spiel Tony kept up, either to annoy their enemy or because he just didn't know how to stop talking sometimes. But the tone was very much not his usual one, despite how he was obviously trying. It was softer and gentler, a soothing cadence underlying it just a little like Tony was talking to a wounded animal.

Which, Steve supposed, as a flare of searing pain rocked through his chest with the addition of pressure to his knife wound, he kind of was.

The other major difference was the occasional sniffle and the cracks and strained quality that punctuated the words.

It suddenly occurred to Steve that for there to be pressure on his wound, someone had to be close enough to touch him and, from the sounds of it, that was Tony. But how the hell had Tony gotten out of the cell?

Steve forced his eyes open, blinking at the bright lights still on until a dark mass overhead shifted and cast him in blessed shadow. He blinked a few times, sending the welled up moisture there sliding down his face again, then realized the mass was Tony and he was grinning wide enough to hurt something if he wasn't careful. He shifted his weight and then a hand, rough from his work but infinitely gentle, touched Steve's cheek, wiping away the tears.

"How...?" Steve started before the pain became too much and he shifted in a vain attempt to escape the excruciating hold Tony had on him. Not that he wasn't grateful for the life-saving effects, but it was more pain and Steve was so ready to be done with that portion of his week. Or life.

Yeah, he'd be perfectly happy to never again know this kind of agony.

Until then, he panted in short, sharp bursts, partially because anything deeper hurt like the dickens and partially because he could feel panic welling up again at the memories of what he'd endured. He twisted his head to the side, seeking the location of the man who'd done this to him, needing to know he wouldn't be coming back any time soon.

Meeting those blue eyes again had Steve starting and trying to move away before he even realized what he was doing. He certainly didn't hear the wounded, terrified animal noise he made in the process.

"Whoa. Whoa! Wait," Tony said. "Hey there, Steve, stop it's— It's okay, he's dead! He's dead, Steve! He can't hurt you again." Tony's voice hardened. "Dr. Moreau can't hurt anyone ever again."

Steve tore his eyes from his captor, locking them on Tony and searching for any sign of a lie, or even embellishment.

"I swear on my Aston Martin, he's as dead as a doornail," Tony said seriously, reading his need and responding immediately. “I don't even know what a doornail is, but he's definitely at least that dead.”

Steve gulped and gasped and then said, "The red one?"

"My favorite," Tony agreed.

Steve sucked in as deep a breath as he could get without blacking out again, then nodded, releasing it slowly, shakily. "Okay," he said. "Okay."

He had to steel his nerves to look back over, but once he did the fear washed out of him. He could see for himself the stillness that only came with death, the lax muscles and loose jaw, and, now that he was paying attention, the blueness faded under the fog of death.

His eyes closed and he said a silent prayer of thanks. Even if he didn't make it out of here—and, no, he really wasn't feeling much improved at all—at least he knew that his team was safe and their captor would hurt no one else.

At the thought of the rest of the team his eyes flew open again and he lifted his head to look around. Bruce was with Clint, leaning over Tasha and, it appeared, in the process of reducing her thumb back into the socket. She didn't so much as flinch beyond a tightening around her eyes, a flare of her nostrils, and a firm press of her lips together. Tony was leaning over him, obviously, one hand pressed to the wound in Steve's side, makeshift bandages from his shirt wrapped around his wrists. Thor was standing near the door, talking to— Oh. So that was how they'd gotten out.

Phil had, once again, come to the rescue. Thank God. The lack of more be-suited agents led Steve to believe that he'd come alone—or at least well in advance of the rest of the cavalry.

It might be time to make him more than an honorary Avenger. This was becoming an unfortunately necessary habit.

Phil's ability to sense when someone was watching him kicked in and he turned to look at Steve, the tiniest twitch of his lips betraying his profound relief at seeing Steve staring back.

Thor, seeing the expression, turned as well and announced to the room at large that, "Shieldbrother Steve, you are awake!"

Which of course immediately caught the attention of the other three Avengers and had their eyes snapping up to look at him. Tasha all but climbed Bruce, using Clint's shoulder as leverage, and then moved as quickly as she could across the floor—and, yeah, that was definitely a limp now.

Bruce paused only long enough to offer a hand and yank Clint to his feet before following and passing her, dropping to his knees and temporarily blocking Steve's view of the rest of them. That only lasted, of course, until they were all crowded around.

Steve might have felt claustrophobic if he wasn't so busy feeling that last bit of worry and fear slide away as his team surrounded him, a barrier against anything that might try again to hurt him.

Bruce picked up his arm with the gentleness he made a point to use as a contrast to the Hulk's roughness, his fingers pressing lightly on Steve's pulse point as he scanned to take stock of the injuries. This couldn't have been the first time he did it, but he was just as meticulous as if it was, not missing anything.

Part of Steve wanted to draw back, to retreat from the scrutiny, to not be seen so battered and beaten by his team, but he didn't have the energy and, really, it wasn't anything they hadn't seen before.

At least his clothes were... mostly intact this time.

He shuddered at the memory and Natasha mistook that for a shiver and dropped to sit behind him, lifting his head carefully and scooting forward so his head was in her lap. He smiled at her upside down face bent over him and she returned just a flicker of it. It was more than enough combined with what she was allowing him to see in her eyes.

He reached up the hand not being held by Bruce and groped for hers. She quickly obliged, though she pulled back slightly when she realized he had done so to get a look at her hand.

"It's fine," she said, brushing him off as easily as she brushed her other hand through his hair, the motion another signal to his body that he could let go of the worry and stress, that he was safe now.

"I know," he said, because even if it wasn't she would not allow his mother-henning tendencies, as Tony called them, when his injuries were so much worse.

But he'd seen enough to know that she wasn't entirely wrong. There were a few spots on the outside where the skin had been scraped off and her second thumb joint was already starting to darken with bruising, but it moved easily and she didn't wince at his touch so he let her go. She immediately moved to cup his cheek with the hand, that very thumb stroking over his cheek as a stubborn look entered her eyes, daring him to question her soundness again.

Another shudder ran through his body, only this time it was from cold, the loss of blood and the damp ground combining with the extreme stress his body had been under, his defenses lowered—even if that was still well above most people—and she tightened her grip on him.

Next to her, Tony shifted uneasily, the only part of him that wasn't moving was the palm pressed securely to the worst of Steve's injuries, that damn stab wound. Steve suspected that not only would Tony stay there until the world ended or he was forcibly dragged away, but that he was already doing so at great personal cost.

Not that Steve didn't appreciate the gesture, but there was no reason for Tony to torture himself so he could be as miserable as Steve right now.

He shifted his head and caught Clint's eye, a flick of his gaze enough communication for the other man who immediately said, "Hey, Tony, let me spell you—"

"I can do it, Barton," Tony snapped. "Back off."

Clint put his hands up in surrender and said, "I never said you couldn't, Tony. I just thought I'd take over so you could rest your wris—"

"I said I'm fine!" Tony's glare punctuated the words with all the grace of Mjölnir.

Steve sighed and resisted the urge to roll his eyes—mostly because even his face hurt a little right now and there was no reason to aggravate anything. "Tony," he said.

Tony's eyes shifted from defiant and angry to guilty and compliant in the time it took them to shift to Steve.

"I'm fine," he said again, but it wasn't at all convincing.

Thor put a hand on Tony's shoulder and said, "If I might...?" and gestured to Tony's spot. Steve wasn't sure what he was planning, but it would mean Tony would have to give up his duties to Clint so he waited to see what the god intended.

Tony frowned for another moment, his face screwing up.

"I do not doubt you are fine," Thor assured him, "but I would like to assist by getting him off of this damp floor."

Steve blinked, but Tony nodded at that and what followed felt a little like a pit crew at a race track, smoothly coordinated movements all one right after the other. Tony conceded his place with a glance at Clint, who placed his hand over Tony's and pressed down as Tony slid free. Then he was up, if not bouncing, and moving aside so Thor could sit. He circled around and plopped back down as Steve felt himself being lifted, unable to get out more than a feeble, "No, wait, I'm—"

But by then it was done, Steve cradled in Thor's lap and feeling ridiculous, if a little warm inside from all the care his team was showing. Clint had his hand pressed down firmly on Steve's wound—and though it hurt, he was glad because it was much stronger than Tony's had been and that was as much a sign as anything that this was all worth it.

Tony, meanwhile, had settled himself in between Bruce and Clint and was holding Steve's free hand now Bruce had moved on to inspecting the cuts on his chest.

Natasha still supported his head and shoulders, having moved up to her knees and sidled into place next to Thor.

Behind Clint stood Phil, just enough of his lips curved into that smirk that spoke of proud, paternal feelings for this little group he'd helped organize.

They stayed like that until the doorway filled with agents and discussion turned to talk of going home and medical evacuations and telling the Helicarrier doctors to be ready for him.

For them, for his team, he'd do it all over again, but he's damned glad he doesn't have to.