It takes a lot to injure Steve.
Advanced healing has its perks, one being that even if he practices throwing his punches against a sandbag to the point his knuckle wrappings become red with blood there is no scarring, and by the time breakfast rolls around with the other Avengers no one is any the wiser.
Well, he says no one, but from the way Natasha often eyeballs his hands and watches his face, he has a feeling she knows. After all, she does know everything.
The unfortunate part of the advanced healing is that, well, no one knows how it works. There are no men like him who he can ask, or case studies he can read over. He is the original, the one and only and unfortunately the one S.H.I.E.L.D. test endlessly to see how far they can push the bar. So it’s practically impossible to know what hit will kill him – and one day it will kill him. He’s not immortal. No one can cheat death. No matter how hard he tries.
Steve doesn’t have a death wish, or at least he doesn’t think so. He is the first one to throw himself into the worst of a fight, because when Thor’s not around he knows that whilst Tony may have his suit and Banner has the Other Guy and Natasha has her knives and Clint his arrows – it is him who can take the biggest hits. He wants to take the biggest hits, because his logic is that he could not stand to see any of his teammates on an operating table. He has no ties, no family, no one he is going to leave behind heartbroken and widowed. He already played that card back in a plane trapped in ice. Sure the public might mourn him, but in the way that he’d be a common news segment and a “oh that’s such a shame” passing comment.
So that being said, when he sees the 20 foot tall monster they are fighting in Central Park raise a rebar towards Tony’s suit he doesn’t even hesitate to run interference in between. It is not a death wish, it’s not, it is just the rationale of ‘my life is less important than that of a million dollar man who is the only face of clean technology and has Pepper and Rhodey and Happy and people who care for him’.
So when the metal goes through his stomach, he has a brief moment of “so that’s what it feels like to die” and smiles at Tony who has flipped his visor up and is shouting something that Steve cannot hear over the roaring in his ears, not even really aware that blood is pouring out his mouth, before the world goes dark.
“What the fuck were you doing?” are the first words Steve hears when he wakes up, eyes fluttering open. Tony is sat by the bed whilst people bustle around them. By their uniform, Steve can assume they are hospital staff, rather than angels, and he isn’t in heaven but in fact some medical room at S.H.I.E.L.D.
Which he’s a little disappointed about, if he’s honest, he was looking forward to a stiff drink that he’d actually feel and a welcome platter upstairs.
Tony’s fists are clenched, knuckles white. “Cap, you can’t just throw yourself in front of every villain we face and hope one makes a hit that renders you dead!” his voice cracks on the last word, right hand flexing. Steve’s surprised at the anger, their relationship has never been the easiest – one started on angry words and old memories could never be anything but difficult – but he didn’t think his own variation of the sacrifice play warranted such an emotional reaction.
“I was just looking out for the team.” He says, voice rusty and croaky from lack of use and blood dried on the roof of his mouth. Tony, being Tony, realises this and hands him a glass of water without Steve even having to ask. Their hands brush, and rather than flinch away from the contact Tony briefly closes his eyes and reaches with his other hand to hold onto Steve’s. The touch is quick, not even long enough for Steve to react, before Tony appears to recharge and open his eyes.
“Yeah well, I’m the queen of self-destructive behaviour, can’t have you stealing my spotlight.” He grins, and Steve doesn’t comment on how that smile seems forced, because they both need this right now, the humour, as Steve sits wrapped up in gauze and bandages and temporarily blind in one eye.
Later, Tony will tell him of the silence in the city, the people who crowded in front of televisions watching the news desperately and exchanging stories of the times Steve had helped them, the globally trending #SaveSteve tags on twitter, the shaky Youtube videos of children stood crying watching the news reel in Times Square, and the frantic way the newscasters relayed any scrap of information coming their way on his condition. But right now the words remain unspoken and instead they awkwardly dance around the fact mere hours before he had a meter-long piece of metal sticking out his chest.
When Steve is giving the all clear to go home a week later, the house is subdued. Clint gives him a one-armed hug that lasts a bit too long for it just to be a “welcome back”, Thor has tears in his eyes, Bruce speaks up about helping Tony strengthen his Kevlar without damaging the flexibility of the suit and Natasha offers him the first cup of coffee, gracing him with a mouth that trembles around a smile.
Tony is silent, which is unlike him, and only speaks up to agree with Bruce.
“I’ve been thinking about getting in touch with Reed, seeing if he can give us some information about adapting the synthetic fibres within the Four’s suits.” Tony goes for nonchalance – as if Steve’s well-being isn’t something he is invested in all that much, but Steve knows Tony well, and Steve would bet his shield on the fact the genius has already emailed Dr Richards about the very same thing. Waving off everyone else, Steve limped up to his room and collapsed onto his sofa.
It would be funny how quick the team has slipped into domesticity if it wasn’t so tragic. After the battle of New York, they parted for a long while and Steve wasn’t sure if the Avengers Initiative would in fact simply fade into a failed experiment, one that just couldn’t stick when so many unknown entities were involved. But what they do, saving the world, is quite a niche pastime, and there is only so long you can pretend (for that’s all it is, pretending) to be normal before you long for your own kind of people.
It didn’t take long for the entire team to move into Stark Tower. Steve was one of the first to arrive, looking for a place to stay in New York when his sad little 70 year back pay ran out. Despite the fact the bank account had many more zeroes than Steve had ever seen before, money doesn’t stretch nearly as far as it did, even for one as frugal as him.
Upon arrival, he found a parking space in the garage with his shield’s symbol painted in the middle already there for him, and he hasn’t been able to pause for breath and take the bike out for a spin since.
Clint was the next to arrive a week or so later, eyes haunted and red with Natasha close behind nursing a broken collarbone and a mean-looking scar above her right eye. They don’t talk about what happened in the interim, but the whispers and gossip that haunt S.H.I.E.L.D’s corridors of Black Widow dropping her cover in order to save Hawkeye don’t go unnoticed. Thor drops in whenever he can between Asgard and New Mexico – his shoulders often drooped and expression broken. No one ever asks even though they all know a man with green eyes and an inferiority complex is probably at the heart of it. It took Bruce over a month to decide to join them, and even now he still practically sprints down to his safe-room in the basement at the first sign of an argument.
Each has their demons they like to pretend don’t exist. Steve’s have brown eyes and a wicked attitude and in his nightmares they thump and beat at the ice as he stares wordlessly from beneath it. He thinks that’s what terrifies him the most, the fact that in his nightmares he makes no move to attempt to help them break the layer between them – just watches Bucky or Peggy or even Howard sometimes scratch and scream at the ice until it’s stained red with blood.
The next time it happens, they are fighting a dragon in the middle of Times Square. Thor is flying around, booming about how it is an unworthy opponent and he will make it rue the day it landed on Midgard, so clearly this beast has been sent by Loki for him to be in such a good mood. Their relationship seems a complex one, based on how much one antagonises the other, but Steve does not question it. He knows that the familiarity in a strange world probably soothes the demi-god, and if that means fighting side by side with him against a scaly foe, so be it.
However, it is Steve who pushes Natasha out the way and gets thrown into a wall in her place. The bricks shake and what was probably an already weak structure trembles and falls, crushing Steve under it. Steve has a moment to laugh, the sound echoing and relaying around the comm before going silent.
“You can’t do that again Cap.” Natasha speaks quietly, meeting him at the door as he gets released from medical, face grey.
Steve’s probably the closest to Natasha, if only because they often cross paths on the way to and from the practice room. Steve hides his bloody knuckles from her and she hides the scores of knife wounds lacing her skin from when she’s gotten too close to a flying blade. He’s not sure if the fact his first real friendship is based on pretense is a good thing, but he’ll take it anyway.
But right now she is upset with him, and it’s the first real emotion he’s seen from her. It saddens him that it’s not a happy one.
“I won’t. I promise.” The smile he forces feels hollow on his lips, and from the look he gets he doesn’t think Natasha believes him. He doesn’t believe himself, considering the fact the fight is still on permanent replay in his mind, and he can’t even bare to imagine Natasha being crushed in his place. He’s the super soldier and half of him wonders whether making the sacrifice over and over again will eventually force him to feel something.
Natasha grabs his arm and looks down at his knuckles, still red raw from the sandbag earlier than morning before the fight. He doesn’t like her look of pity.
The final straw for everyone, he supposes, is when they are dealing with Doctor Doom’s tantrum in lower Manhattan. The Fantastic Four are on holiday, taking some well-deserved rest in Tahiti, and so naturally the Avengers are called in to deal with the madman’s latest invention. Steve seriously doesn’t mean to do it, but when he sees Doom waving around an extension of his arm that bristles with electricity he steps up to bat and takes the brunt of a blow that was meant for Clint. The current passes through him, and for a brief moment he feels like he is burning before the spasms take over and he falls to floor.
It’s sad because at this point he’s not even trying to play a hero, he’s just too weak to be standing on the other side of the window in medical.
“I have been asked by the group to have a chat with you Captain, do you know why?” Nick Fury’s voice is one Steve could go his whole life without hearing ever again. It manages to sound patronising, world-weary and respectful all at the same time, and Steve hates it.
“I don’t know Sir.” Despite the fact that on occasion, Steve can’t stand this man, all full of false platitudes and hollow half-truths, he was still raised to be polite. A skinny kid from Brooklyn who has nothing going for him has to cultivate a reputation on his irreproachable manners and his attitude, and so even though he tries he can’t force himself to drop the Sir at the end of every sentence. Ever the soldier, he thinks wryly.
“They think you are …unhappy.” Fury’s voice is confused, of course it is. He’s S.H.I.E.L.D. These guys didn’t know what to do with the Man Out of Time, panicking and shoving him into a room with forties memorabilia and magazines expecting him to blow up if they so much as showed him a tube-top or Wikipedia web page. They have no clue what to do with him, his situation is unprecedented – there is no rule book, no set of guidelines or protocols and that scares the hell out of them all. They don’t understand why a man who is perfect in every physical way could possibly be suffering mentally because they see the abs and the super strength and then see photos of him before and assume he should be perfectly happy.
“Just doing my job Sir.” He sidesteps the actual query with ease, not sure he can lie his way through that one.
Fury sighs, and in that moment Steve sees a man who has taken on the sole weight of this project and yet is watching it fall apart beneath his very eyes, “Even so, I have been recommended to bench you for the time being. You need time out of the field.”
The problem with an idle comment, a muttering made in passing, is that is very hard to wish something out of existence rather than create it in the first place. Thoughts take root like trees in the back of Steve’s brain, and they scramble for purchase against the rocky crevasses of his mind. So when things get complicated, when technology and culture seems so far and yet so stunted from what he would have assumed, it is easier to imagine himself out of existence than to understand it.
He fought for so long, and the world he died protecting no longer exists, replaced by one where technology is precedence over human contact, and instead of asking for a dames hand to dance boys will call them sluts and other names Steve can’t bear to pronounce. He watches the world around him, so full of lust and blood and speed, and it terrifies him that he is no longer sure whether he’d die tomorrow for it.
Steve packs a bag that evening, clothes folded and filed into his rucksack with a military precision that was drilled into him all those years ago. He avoids the rest of the group, embarrassed at how his actions must have been so loud for the rest of them to be worried. He’s not angry at them, he can’t be, and it is the team’s duty to look out for each other. He’s just disappointed in himself, frustrated he couldn’t be a strong enough leader.
He makes his way down the garage, treading as silently as he can, which isn’t all that quiet considering he is a six foot super soldier, and walks towards where he parked the bike all those months ago. When he finds the spot empty, the painted Captain America shield taunting him from the concrete, he flips out.
And it isn’t a curse word and angry shout flip out. The emotions that have been bottled up inside come loose and explode through his body. It’s a punch through the wall and screaming until his voice cracks flip out. An earth-shaking, tear the place apart flip out. Steve didn’t realise he had so much anger inside of him until he’s standing holding the debris of his rage in his hands observing the wreck he’s made of the place. So many people assume him to be calm, quiet and rational. They forget he used to be the skinny kid from Brooklyn always looking for a fight, and ready to punch his way out of each one.
“Cap?” a voice sounds from behind him, and he whirls round to face it. It’s Tony, standing there awkwardly watching him with what looks like fear in his eyes. Steve instantly feels a wave of guilt threaten to overwhelm him.
“Oh god Tony I’m so sorry.” Steve voice breaks over the apology, raw from screaming, “I’ll pay for the damages. I can’t“. Steve doesn’t know how to finish and falls to his knees. Tony darts forward, hands out to grab him, but only clawing at thin air before he lowers them to his sides.
“You kidding me? That’s a drop in the ocean for me, you should have seen what I did to the place with the first attempt at a proper Iron Man suit.” Tony joked, and leaned down to clasp Steve’s shoulder, “Come on Cap, why don’t we go get you some food.”
They make their way back up the stairs together, and before they enter the kitchen Tony claps Steve’s shoulder once more and squeezes.
“Steve, this team cares about you too much to fall apart on us now. Not when we’re just getting good.” He smiles slightly, awkwardly even, and knowing him as Steve does, showing emotion other than sarcasm and wit is probably difficult for him, which makes Steve appreciate the words even more. He throws an arm out and gives Tony a one shouldered hug.
“Thanks Tony.” He speaks soft, oblivious to the fact that the genius’ face reddens slightly.
It takes him a while before he realises that’s the first time Tony’s called him by his first name.
Steve doesn’t eat as much as he should. With a metabolism like his, S.H.I.E.L.D. had advised him to be eating over 12,000 calories a day. The reason he doesn’t heed the recommendation is apparently, according to the psychiatrist S.H.I.E.L.D. employs, due to a latent form of PTSD. She loves to tell him over and over again that clearly it’s a coping mechanism. Steve doesn’t have the heart to tell her that she’s wrong. He’s still the skinny kid from Brooklyn who was always taught to stretch a meal, and so he can’t help himself from taking smaller portions and after the team eats he’ll stay up until midnight picking at the bones until he has enough to salvage for another two or three meals.
Because of this he tends to try eat alone, snatching a sandwich or piece of fruit here or there and then excusing himself from dinner early, rather than obsessively staring at the portions people take, ready to save whatever is left. On the field, he is the embodiment of a team leader, but at home he’s still the fish out of water who hasn’t a hope in hell of understanding half the cultural references Tony, Clint and even Bruce drop in conversation. He figures its best to save them the bother of having to explain every sentence, and the awkwardness of retelling and dissecting a joke just so he can understand it, by simply not showing up.
To the majority of them, he’s still “Cap” and he sure as hell hasn’t earned the right to be called “Steve”.
So when Tony pushes him into the kitchen where the whole group are sat round a massive spread of nachos, tortillas and fajitas sprawled across the table he doesn’t know what to do. They all look up when Steve enters, and Thor is the first to beam, a look slightly at odds with the massive black eye he is sporting – though it appears to be healing as the minutes go past.
“How fantastic it is that you are here my friend,” Thor’s voice, for once, is fairly quiet but full of sincerity, “I was worried I would have to carry the burden of eating this entire feast on my own shoulders – not a hard task of course – why once when we caught our first Tribekerak we feasted on its flesh the same evening and had a feast that lasted over a week.” He smiles, and Clint punches his arm good-naturedly.
“As if big man, I worked up a right appetite today flexing my guns to impress the ladies.” He jokes, and Natasha rolls her eyes, Bruce huffs a laugh, and the awkwardness that hovered in the room shatters.
“I need to be invited to one of your ragers Thor, they sound right up my alley.” Tony comments, and upon Thor’s look of confusion, groans. “You have no idea how hard it is when I am this fantastic to be stuck with two people who don’t understand as an audience.”
“Especially since the other’s don’t want to understand Tony.” Natasha’s voice is dry and Clint grins at the look of slight horror on Tony’s face.
“I’d normally retort, but I’m scared you’ll cut off my head and eat me like you do with your other spoils of war.”
Steve listens to the group chatter away silently, sitting side by side with Tony and keenly aware that the man is watching his every move with a look of concern on his face. Every so often their shoulders bump as one or the other reaches for another helping of nachos. Steve would be lying if he said he didn’t subconsciously lean into the touch. Clint makes it his personal mission to smear Natasha’s nose with sour cream, an endeavour which only gains him a growl and a face full of guacamole a second later. Bruce is sat chatting to Thor trying to explain how microwaves (“Midgardian sorcery!”) work, and every so often Tony chimes in asking for Asgard ale in return for their knowledge.
Steve doesn’t talk once, just watches the others, and is thankful for the contemplative quiet. It is there, sat round the table with the only people he’s met since waking up after the ice who don’t expect him to be anything other than what he can be, that the super soldier finally begins to try to heal.
The first time they are called out, minus Steve, he has to sit on his hands to prevent marching out with them. He instructs Jarvis to keep him informed on the action whilst he punches the sand out of a practice bag in the gym. By the time Jarvis tells him they are on their way back, safe and sound, sweat is blurring his vision and three broken sandbags are spread-eagled across the floor. Unwrapping his bindings, he pads upstairs to find Tony stumbling into the kitchen, face bloody and one eye swollen.
“Holy –“Steve doesn’t finish, sprinting across to hold the man up as he goes to fall to the ground. Lifting him into a chair, he grabs an ice pack from the freezer and holds it gently over Tony’s forehead, who winces as it’s applied.
“Jarvis, in what world is this safe and sound?” He growls up at the AI, tone then turning apologetic when he addresses Tony “I’m sorry, I should have warned you.”
“I’ve had worse.” Tony, as ever, tries to crack a joke, though it falls flat in the otherwise silent room as they remember the experiences that have led Tony to experience ‘worse’.
“How are the others?” Steve questions, hating the fact he wasn’t there to watch out for his team.
“Fine, Clint’s sporting a lovely purple bruise across his back. Bastards had tentacles - can you believe it? Loki has a seriously fucked up sense of humour.” Tony jerks as Steve gently presses a hand to his forehead.
“Just checking your temperature.” Steve reassures him, leader mentality firmly in place, “So Loki sent them?”
“I assume so considering how Thor kept roaring about how he throttled one of their ‘kin’ as a toddler. Surprisingly didn’t do well to calm them down.”
Steve laughs softly until he catches Tony’s eye. The man is watching him with a look so intense Steve could almost drown in it.
They begin at the same time before stopping. Tony grins and the moment is gone. “You go first.” Steve offers.
“I was just going to say we missed you out on the field today.”
Steve sighs. “I missed being out there.”
Tony’s face is kind, and soft, and when he speaks his voice is a quiet whisper, “Let me describe it for you.”
The two sit, heads bent, and talk quietly until the sunlight burns through the window.