“Okay, people. Operation Avengers Do Fiji is moving full speed ahead. I expect everyone to get busy packing; well, except for Agent. He gets to finish his nap.”
Steve opened his eyes, realizing he had been dozing himself. They were still in the limo, but the car was pulling into what looked like the Stark Tower garage. “Are we home?” he asked, disoriented.
“Looks like you need to finish your nap, too, baby-blue,” Tony said sweetly, smiling at him. “Yes, we’re home. Happy outdid himself maneuvering the limo around the gathering hordes.”
“They’re here? At the tower?” Steve recalled the mad media mob they left behind at Madison’s building after the press conference.
“They’re like roaches. They’re everywhere.” Tony laughed, apparently not bothered. “Which is why I had a secret entrance into the garage built a few years ago.”
“Felt like we were ducking into the bat cave,” Clint quipped from beside Tony. “Totally cool.”
“They’re still looking for you out front, boss,” Happy reported.
“They can keep looking,” Tony responded, tapping on his tablet. “I’ve got a security team at the airport making certain we don’t have any difficulty getting to the plane later. This vacation is going off on schedule.”
“Most invigorating,” Thor declared, grinning widely.
As the car came to a stop, Clint opened the door on his side, calling to Happy as he got out, “Pop the trunk. I’ll get Phil’s chair.”
The rest of the Avengers began to file out of the car, Bruce heading to open the front passenger door to check on Phil. “How are you holding up?”
“Never better.” The nap looked to have done Phil good. His convalescence was coming along remarkably well, but the last few days had definitely been a strain on him, something Steve felt guilty for. Phil Coulson was a tough cookie, though. He insisted on doing most of the work to transfer himself to the wheelchair once Clint had brought it around, and nobody was about to argue with him. As Phil was getting seated, Bruce turned his attention to Steve.
“How about you, Cap? You feel okay?”
“I’m fine,” he answered, ignoring the dull headache. Before Steve was released from the hospital this morning, Bruce had voiced concern about possible after-effects, but Steve wasn’t worried. The Asgardian drug they had given him had surely passed through his system by now. He chalked the headache up to stress. Tony wasn’t overly bothered, but Steve wasn’t comfortable with the idea of them having to live their lives under constant scrutiny just because of how they felt about each other. He had thought Tony was kidding at first about the whole vacation thing, but now he realized he was looking forward to getting out of town for a while.
Bruce whipped a small flashlight out of nowhere, shining it into Steve’s eyes. “You sure?”
“Cut it out,” Steve complained, brushing Bruce’s arm away, ducking from the irritating light. Realizing how rude and ungrateful he sounded towards the man who had worked tirelessly in the hospital to take care of him, Steve was immediately contrite. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to snap. You took me by surprise. Do you always carry a flashlight?”
“When I need to.” Bruce was looking quizzically at him, but then Tony started clapping his hands, getting the attention of everyone as the group moved from the limo toward the elevator.
“If everyone would be kind enough to regroup at Steve’s apartment, I have a small celebration prepared.”
“When did you do that?” Steve asked, though he didn’t know why he bothered. This was Tony.
“I thought we were supposed to be packing,” Clint pointed out.
“Toast first. Then pack.”
“What is this glorious libation?” Thor bellowed, raising his glass high, creamy foam clinging to the golden hair over his upper lip. “I must know its name forthwith.”
“I’m with Thor,” Clint concurred, though he was sipping through his straw and not wearing most of his drink.
“These are real, old-fashioned New York egg creams, aren’t they?” Phil ventured, looking delighted. “Where did these come from?”
“Please tell me you’re not really keeping Ol’ George locked in the basement with your new soda fountain.” Steve looked at Tony, who had jokingly threatened to do just that the night of their date. Tony had gone to the trouble of purchasing the fountain and hiring an old-timer from Brooklyn who used to run a soda shop in order to surprise Steve with his favorite drink on their date, but that was almost a week ago. Surely George wasn’t still here, was he?
“He’s not in the basement. Hell, give me some credit. He has a perfectly lovely apartment.”
“George lives here now?” Steve was stunned.
“I must meet this Sir George, brewer of chocolate delight,” Thor decided, reaching for another egg cream from the new tray being carried in by some of the same wait-staff Tony had used to serve Steve Nathans on their date right here in his apartment. Tony presently had a whole spread of snacks and freshly made sodas being brought in for their post-press conference celebration. Steve’s apartment was packed with Avengers, waiters, and even Happy, and Phil’s physical therapist, Walt, along with some of his nurses, who had also been invited.
“Well, he needs to be nearby to oversee the construction,” Tony reasoned.
“What construction?” Steve was confused. He knew Tony was renovating the penthouse, but what did it have to do with George?
“His new soda shop I’m building in the concourse. It’s going to be awesome, totally retro. You’ll love it.” Tony gently finger-combed the bald patch on the back of Steve’s head, brushing over the healing scar. “I was giving your bruised brain a chance to fully recover before I started picking it for design ideas. I want the place to look as authentic old-school Brooklyn as possible.”
“Best idea you’ve had, ever, Stark.” Natasha sat her empty soda glass down on a tray and took another, using her straw to play through the foamy head rising to the top of the chocolate drink. “This stuff is sinful.”
“Right?” Tony agreed, nodding. He clinked his glass to Steve’s. “Drink up, baby. I had these made in honor of your homecoming, not to mention our little coming-out party today.”
Steve enjoyed seeing Tony happy, especially after the stress he had put him through over the last few days. He didn’t have the heart to tell Tony he could barely stand the smell of his beloved egg cream, holding his glass as far from his nose as possible. Masking his odd reaction, he changed the subject. “Don’t you think George might be a little old to be running his own new place?” Steve had never met George, but Tony had described him as a cross between Yoda’s mother and Ernest Borgnine. Steve had looked up pictures of both Yoda—who didn’t have a mother as far as he could find—and Borgnine—who was dead, but didn’t look too spry even when he was alive. Even if Tony was exaggerating, which was more than likely, it still meant George had to be pretty old.
“No worries. First off, Ol’ George is a bad-ass codger who would probably deck me if he heard me call him that. Second, the man has a family full of younger Georges and Georgettes who he has been passing down his knowledge and skills to. It’ll be a family business. Trust me, this place is going to be the hottest shop in town, people lining up out the door. It’ll make me a stack of money, and you want to know the best part? We’ll have fresh, free egg creams on site here any time we want. Sound good?”
Anything that got Tony this fired up was fine with Steve. “Sure does.”
“I’ll damn well drink to it,” Clint declared enthusiastically.
“Me, too.” Bruce was smiling around his straw, a couple of chocolate stains on his shirt.
“Great.” Tony beamed, lifting his own half empty glass in the air. “Time for a few toasts, everyone. First, to Ol’ George, egg cream maker extraordinaire. When he’s done mixing these babies, I’ll get him up here for a bow.” The room gave a cheer. “Second, to our admired, adored, esteemed—not to mention sexy as hell, but that’s only for me to notice—Captain, for coming home safely to us.” Tony winked at him as he lifted his glass in Steve’s direction. Steve flushed and nodded shyly, pretending to drink along with his team. “Next, let’s drink to the truth. It’s out there now and I’m sure as fuck not taking it back, so let the chips fall where they may. And while those chips are falling, it’s the perfect time to get out of Dodge, so a final toast to the most magnificent vacation anyone has ever embarked upon—which is exactly what we are getting ready to have!”
“Here, here!” Thor shouted, everyone chugging down their sodas with gusto.
“Eat, drink, and be merry, guys,” Tony proclaimed. “But make it quick, because we have packing to do.”
“You won’t have to go far,” Natasha said with a wicked grin. “Ninety percent of Steve’s closet is filled with your clothes, not to mention your hair products taking up most of the bath-room shelves.”
“Why are you snooping in my closet?” Tony asked, though he looked more amused than miffed.
“You mean Steve’s closet?”
“Okay, why are you snooping in Steve’s closet?”
Natasha shrugged. “It’s what I do.”
“I think Steve’s pretty much ‘out of the closet’ after today,” Clint joked. “Plenty of room in there for Stark’s extensive wardrobe.”
“Is your whole wardrobe really in my closet?” He hadn’t been home since the tram incident. Tony had told him he moved “a few of my things” in Monday morning, but Steve didn’t know what those things consisted of.
“Babe, my whole wardrobe wouldn’t fit in this entire apartment, let alone your little closet. Don’t believe Natasha. I just brought a few necessities.”
Steve grinned, wanting to see for himself. He started in the bathroom, which gave him the perfect inconspicuous opportunity to dump the contents of his soda glass down the drain. His shelves were indeed lined with more hair products than most stores. He also found deodorants, body sprays, razors, toothbrushes, hair brushes, soaps, and shaving creams that hadn’t been there before. He was surprised to find how neatly the toiletries were organized, having seen the condition Tony left a bathroom in, but then he figured Tony must have gotten one of his staff to take care of this for him. Moving to the bedroom, he found Tony’s clothes hanging in his closet and folded neatly into drawers that had been previously empty. There was even a new bureau stuffed full of Tony’s clothes, and a floor to ceiling shoe rack with more shoes on one shelf than Steve had owned in total his entire life. It was quite comical, how much Tony had managed to move in considering he was only here for about an hour or two after Steve had left Monday. Steve was delighted seeing Tony’s stuff crowding his few belongings. Best of all, the red comforter was back. Tony had brought the cherished blanket to him in the hospital, but now it was freshly laundered and returned to their bed where it belonged. Steve sat down, spreading his palms over the treasured comforter, taking a moment to appreciate all that he had.
“You’re not mad, are you?” Tony asked, ducking in the doorway, as if hesitant to come fully into the room.
Steve was flabbergasted. “Why would I be mad?”
“About my stuff. Looks like a lot, I know, but honestly, you didn’t have too many things, and they only take up a tiny space, so nothing of yours had to be shoved to the side, but it won’t be uneven for long because you’ll have a lot more when I get your new clothes, which I’m in the process of taking care of, believe me.”
“I’m not mad.” Steve smiled at Tony’s rambling. “I like having your stuff here. Besides, you are temporarily displaced from your penthouse because of me.” He knew Tony was redesigning everything because of his discomfort, which was very touching, and he was trying not to feel too guilty, focusing on the fun he’d had planning the new design with Tony.
“Oh, that reminds me. I have more blueprints to go over with you. I want to make sure everything keeps moving forward while we’re gone. I can have JARVIS bring up the plans. Or do you want to look at them on the tablet first?”
“Whatever you think.” Steve pinched the bridge of his nose, willing the headache away.
Tony came closer, appraising him. “I think maybe you need a nap. You did just get out of the hospital this morning and this hasn’t exactly been a stress-free day.”
“I had a nap. In the car. Remember? Show me the plans.”
“Hey, boss, sorry to interrupt.” Happy was knocking on the open bedroom door. “Pepper is on my phone. She said she’s tried yours for the last hour. She sounds pretty mad.”
“I turned my phone off. Didn’t want to field the media calls. And for the record, she is very mad.”
“Because of me?” Steve didn’t like the pang of jealousy he felt whenever Tony had to deal with Pepper. Maybe she was having second thoughts about dumping him. Maybe she would try and talk him out of what probably looked—from all television accounts—like a heedless entanglement with Steve.
“She’s angry because of me. Because I didn’t bother to give her a heads-up about the press conference today, and she’s had to handle the influx of calls from stockholders without any prep time.”
“For what? You didn’t do anything. And she’ll get over it. This is how Pepper earns the big bucks. Happy, tell her I’ll be right there.”
“Sure thing, boss. Oh, and the architect needs to speak with you. The pilot, too. And the designer guy, what’s his name? Jean Paul? Paul Jean? Jean Jean?”
“Yeah, yeah, tell them all I’ll be right there.” Tony shooed Happy from the door and closed it, turning back to Steve. “Sorry, baby. I need to deal with this stuff if we’re ever going to get out of here. Think about taking that nap. Whatever you do, don’t pack. You’re not taking any of this stuff.” Tony waved toward the closet where Steve’s small set of clothes hung. “I’ve got your new wardrobe on the way.”
“You were serious about that?”
“I’m always serious about fine clothes.” Tony leaned down and kissed him softly on the mouth. “Can I bring you another egg cream? How about two?”
“No!” Steve hadn’t meant for it to come out quite so emphatically. At Tony’s questioning eyebrow, he added, “I’ve got to start pacing myself if George is going to live here full time, right?”
“Sure, sure, okay.”
“Hey, boss?” Happy was knocking.
“Give me a minute,” Tony complained, exasperated.
“Go,” Steve smiled. “I’m okay.”
“Sorry. Not much of a homecoming. I feel like I haven’t been alone with you since the dinosaur age.”
“We’ll be alone plenty in Fiji.”
“Damn right.” Tony’s grin was wicked. He stole another quick kiss before heading out the door, typing on his tablet and issuing orders to Happy as he went. Steve missed him already, which was childish, but he couldn’t help himself. Stretching out atop the comforter made him feel closer to Tony. He wasn’t planning to sleep. He had already napped and he wasn’t tired. He just wanted to feel their blanket against his cheek. Maybe his eyes did close, but not to sleep. He only wanted to block out the light, which, for whatever reason, was bothering his eyes. Putting a hand over his stomach, he wished it would stop grumbling. He was probably hungry, but the thought of food wasn’t particularly appealing. Maybe later. Maybe after the headache passed.
Maybe when he wasn’t so tired.
“Everyone else is getting to play, Mom. Why can’t I go?”
“Because you’re sick. You have to rest.”
“I did rest and I took all the medicine. I’m better now. I want to be like everyone else.”
“You can’t be like everyone else. You can only be you, for better or worse. Wanting to be well and being well is not the same thing, Stevie. Don’t be prideful.”
“Mom, please, it’s not fair!” Steve bolted upright, looking around frantically. “Mom?” The room was unfamiliar. Where did his living room go? Wasn’t his mom speaking to him? Where was she? Where was he? He tried to think through the aching headache, getting a glimpse of the red comforter he was clutching, which helped him remember. “JARVIS?”
“Yes, Captain Rogers?”
Steve was relieved to hear the smooth voice that used to unnerve him. Thankfully, they’d undone the Privacy Protocol Steve had once employed to keep JARVIS from spying on him. It made no sense once Tony started sleeping in his apartment, since JARVIS was always watching Tony. “Was I asleep?”
Steve wasn’t sure if the information comforted him. His mother’s voice had been real. He was sad to find she wasn’t here. He rarely dreamed of her. Throwing his legs over the side of the bed, he sat, rubbing his eyes, trying to figure himself out. He was disoriented. When had he fallen asleep? He hadn’t been tired. “How long was I out?”
“One hour, fifty-seven minutes, twenty-two seconds, sir.”
“Wow.” Steve stood up, but then immediately sat back down. He must have gotten up too quickly because the room spun.
“Shall I alert Dr. Banner regarding your elevated pulse rate and blood pressure level, sir?”
“My what? No! I’m fine. I was dreaming, that’s all.” Steve got up again, more slowly, and this time he was fine. “See, I’m good.” Steve walked to the door and opened it, stepping out into the hall. The apartment was quiet now. “Where is everyone, JARVIS?”
“Mr. Stark is currently on the penthouse level conferring with a Mr. Jellyroll Martin regarding a pattern of flooring he is unhappy with. Master Thor is seated in the common kitchen partaking of an elaborate meal. Agents Barton and Coulson are in residence; Agent Coulson asleep while Agent Barton packs a suitcase. Dr. Banner is within Agent Romanoff’s suite engaged in sexual intercourse.”
“W-wait, whoa, hold up,” Steve sputtered, feeling himself go pink with embarrassment. “I don’t want to know what . . . I mean JARVIS, that’s private. It’s not the kind of thing you should be announcing.”
“Sorry, sir. I was attempting to provide you with the information you requested.”
“Locations, JARVIS. Next time, locations are good enough.”
“As you wish, Captain.”
Steve had an uncomfortable thought. “JARVIS, you don’t disclose to people when Tony and I are—” He cut himself off, realizing some questions were better left unasked. “Forget it.”
“Mr. Stark has been attempting to reach you via your cellphone, Captain.”
“Oh?” Steve walked around his empty living room, searching, noting how neatly everything had been tidied after the small celebration. Tony had just given him the replacement phone as a gift in the limo on the way home. Surely he hadn’t lost it already? Scanning the room and then rifling his pockets, Steve grew upset. He had already dropped the original phone in the East River. The last thing he wanted to do was misplace the new one. “Where the hell is my phone?” he grumbled aloud, frustrated.
“Your cellphone is currently located on the floor of the limousine Mr. Hogan has taken to wash.”
“What?” Steve was startled, not intending the question for JARVIS, but now that he had an answer, he became distressed. “No. Call him. Tell him to come back. Please.”
“I will contact him at once.”
“Thank you.” Steve rubbed the sides of his head, wishing it would stop hurting so he could think straight. He walked into the kitchen and grabbed a bottle of water. He had only taken one sip when it hit his stomach like liquid lead. He realized he couldn’t drink any more. His stomach wasn’t right. Putting the bottle down, he headed for the bathroom instead. A shower will help. They hadn’t let him take a full shower in the hospital, but the wound on his head was closed now. Steve rubbed his fingers over the new patch of skin covering half the back of his skull as he looked in the mirror. There were still purplish bruises over his cheeks and forehead, and a few long scabby strips near his eyes where his skin had recently healed, but considering they told him his face had looked like hamburger after his face-first fall, this wasn’t bad. The serum was doing its job. Soon his head and stomach were going to feel better as well.
“Captain Rogers, Mr. Hogan reports he is on his way to the tower with your cellphone. His estimated arrival time is eight point six minutes.”
“Thanks, JARVIS. Can you please tell him I’ll meet him in the garage? And get word to Tony I’ll meet up with him in about fifteen minutes.”
Steve stripped and stepped into the shower ready to wash away the lingering effects of his hospital stay, as well as the echoing voices from his dream.