If he told the truth, he was a little embarrassed. He knew it was stupid; everybody took a hit sooner or later, and he’d been in the thick of the action—no one’s eyes could be everywhere, not even his, and eventually he was bound to get hurt. But it was the first hard hit he’d taken since he’d been unfrozen from the ice, and well, he guessed his pride had taken a hit, too.
He hadn’t wanted to be the . . . weak link, to have the others think his time in the ice had slowed him down, or that he couldn’t keep up with the pace of things nowadays. Iron Man and Thor weren’t the Torch and Namor, but he was used to working with flyers and he could adapt. He knew a thing or two, and he still had a few tricks up his sleeve that these youngsters didn’t know a thing about, and he’d bet he could show them things they wouldn’t have expected.
But no, he was being silly—the Avengers were one hell of a professional outfit; they’d shown that going up against Zemo and his Masters of Evil. Steve had his issues with how they ran things—but then, maybe he was the one who was out of touch. The relic. And, well, maybe he just wanted to show them that he still had some kick left in him yet, that he wasn’t about to be put out to pasture.
He’d ended up curled on his side, coughing into the dust, head ringing, barely even aware of the shield digging into his arm, or the pain everywhere else. He didn’t even remember falling, just hitting the big metal juggernaut with his shield. He must have been sent flying, he figured, and shook his head to clear it, only to have his world dissolve in a wash of dizzy, swooping pain and bright lights before his eyes.
When he opened his eyes again, he tried to move, clenching his grip in the straps of the shield, though his fingers barely responded and he could hardly feel them curling in against the strap, and bringing his knees up. It was only then he realized he was bleeding, as a wave of hot bright agony he could feel all the way down into his thighs lanced through him like being impaled all over again, and a gush of hot blood spilled over his forearm where it lay in the dust as he tried to brace himself, to roll over onto his hands and knees and push up.
He fell back, grunting helplessly, painful head spinning, and tried to shift his hand, press it to his gut and the place where that warm blood was welling up, and felt his fingers flutter weakly against his belly, curling in helplessly, pathetically. Words swam in and out of his ears, and at first his dizzy mind wasn’t certain if he was really hearing them or if they were a dream, a hallucination—Cap’s down, high and fluting, a whirring sound, wings—Janet—Bucky, no, let go, drop off—no, I can do it, I can reach it—“I’ve got him,” a staticky, metallic tenor—Iron Man. Hands pulled at him, then, strong against his back, steadying, and his arm was jostled, a whole new source of sparking pain, and he thought he heard himself make a noise and clamped his mouth shut, gritting his teeth and locking his jaw, because of it. “Got you, Cap,” came that same metallic voice, and Steve wondered if he was imagining how anxious that robotic voice sounded. “We’ve got you, just hang on, you’ll be all right, you’ll be just fine—” the metal hand eased over the top of his, pressing his palm in flat against his gut wound with a strength Steve had lacked. A warm dull throb of agony traveled up from his belly, all through him, at the pressure, and Steve tried to open his mouth, to say something to reassure Iron Man, just in case he really did sound that anxious, but his jaw wouldn’t unlock when he tried it. Then someone touched the arm strapped to his shield again, and he heard a strange, strangled yelping sound, almost a whimper, things spun around him even as he realized the noise was coming from him, and then things went black.
He came in and out of awareness after that, heard Thor’s voice, still deep and rich but not so booming now, subdued, even, for him, even as it seemed to vibrate, low and thrumming, through Steve’s body, ringing between his ears. “I fear our brother is gravely wounded.”
“He’ll be all right,” It was still Iron Man’s metallic voice, worried and tense, and Steve wanted to ask how the battle had gone, if they’d finished the fight, but all that would leave his lips when he tried it was a low groan. Then things moved, he was moving, and the pain flared again, red and black in a way that was far too bright and sharp in its intensity, and was gone again.
He woke several more times, fuzzy, fading in and out, the voices of the others around him, Jan’s voice quieter than normal, speaking quickly, Giant Man responding, the tinny ring of Iron Man’s as he spoke to Steve—Come on, Winghead, ol’ buddy, just a little bit longer, you’ve got this under control, you always do, you’ll be fine—and Steve didn’t know how much time that had taken. At one point he was cold, shivering, teeth chattering, and when he shifted he couldn’t move his arms and legs. A wave of woozy, sickening fear, a sick certainty, swept over him, that he had never left the ice, that he was still there, trapped and frozen and helpless, and he moaned in terror and distress, feeling tears of despair pricking behind his eyes despite himself—but then his fingers twitched and fluttered, and he felt cold steel under them, when he shifted them, curled them down and around, he felt the strap around his wrist and realized he was strapped down to an operating table, and he almost choked on his sob of relief.
“He’s waking up,” another, unfamiliar voice came, and was answered by yet another, shorter and sharper.
“Already? All right, give him another hit.” But then hands prodded at his other arm, the one where he’d been wearing the shield, and Steve was choking back another cry, swallowing it behind his teeth, and sinking into the blackness again.
There were flashes of consciousness after that, but not many, and it was hard to put pictures or words to them, or to know, really, what they had meant. The next time he really felt aware, Thor and Iron Man were helping him into a wheelchair, or trying to. Steve balked at it, protested as vehemently as he could—he was tough, and the serum could take care of it, he didn’t need a wheelchair of all things, he wasn’t an invalid, and someone who needed it could use it—and was horrified at how weak and thready his voice sounded, how groggy he felt, head pounding and dizzy. Thor and Iron Man conferred for a moment over his head and he couldn’t follow it, head spinning and mind refusing to track on their words, and then Thor surprised him into a yell when he swung Steve, surprisingly smoothly, up into his arms, all in one easy movement.
“Just what do you think you’re doing?” Steve managed to demand, dismayed by how hoarse, croaking and breathy, his voice came out sounding.
“Conveying you to our transport to the Avengers mansion in a more acceptable fashion than this chair you so dislike,” Thor said, and, well, it was hard to argue with Thor, especially when he was already moving and sending pain jolting in dizzying heaves through Steve’s body from his painful, thickly bandaged gut and his immobilized arm in its cast and sling. Steve gritted his teeth against the pain, swallowed, and managed to hold on, lifting his head and craning his neck to try and see if he could catch sight of his shield, to see what they’d done with the old girl after they’d got her off him. He saw that Iron Man had her, then let himself subside against Thor with a sigh, his head and gut pounding.
“But why?” he managed through the swimming dizziness in his head, the waves of discomfort. He’d have thought he’d be alone here in SHIELD medical at least another day, while they waited for the serum to do its job of piecing him back together. With the serum on the job, he never needed much extra attention, and the Avengers were all so busy, he couldn’t imagine they’d want him around, dead weight cluttering up the place while he recovered. He’d get in Jarvis’s way.
“Why?” Iron Man asked. “Well, there’s a long list of reasons.” The metal hand pressed gently in against Steve’s forehead, brushing hair out of his face with surprisingly delicacy for a hand encased in metal, but then, Steve already knew how delicate and dexterous, how careful, those metal fingers could be, he’d marveled at that before, so many times, the gentleness and carefulness Iron Man managed to have in his grip. Before he could stop himself, Steve pressed into that touch, his cheek soft against the cool metal, and Iron Man curved his hand gently against the side of Steve’s face in response. Steve let himself close his eyes and lean into it, reveling in how well it seemed to fit there against the side of his face, just for a moment. “The doctors let us know that you were on the mend, and with the serum and your physiology it’s really just lying in a hospital while some medico keeps their beady little eyes on you for a few days until they’re satisfied, so we figured you could do that just as well at home with a few friends and volunteered the mansion as a likely place, and ourselves to watch you.” He was still cupping Steve’s cheek gently, metal thumb moving soothingly back and forth against Steve’s bruised forehead, so soft and gentle with the smooth metal that Steve hardly felt it, and it hardly hurt.
A moment later, it struck him what he was doing, pressing his face sleepily into Iron Man’s gauntleted hand, and he jerked back, face flaming painfully, the rush of blood making his bruises prickle and twinge with pain. “You don’t have to do that,” he managed to get out. “I wouldn’t want to be—it’d be too much of a burden. On you. On the others. I wouldn’t want to be in the way—I—I’ll be just fine on my own, here.”
“There’s no way you could ever be a burden,” Iron Man said immediately, surprising Steve with how vehement he sounded. “Or in the way. Get that all out of your head, all right, Winghead? We’ll be glad to have you.”
“Indeed,” Thor rumbled from beneath Steve’s head where it lolled against his chest, “it is much preferable to having you gone from our number and wondering how you didst fair at this hospital, alone and unsuccoured. We shall wait upon thee hand and foot—shall we not, Iron Man?”
Steve was certain his face was burning even hotter now. “There’s no call for you to do that,” he protested, flustered, but Iron Man was already opening the door of one fancy town car and Thor was laying him down inside, on the back seat.
“It’s Mr. Stark’s,” Iron Man explained, as Steve felt his eyes widening at the plush feel of the seats, the softness of the leather. “When he heard you’d been hurt, he, uh, he insisted.”
“He did?” Steve asked, bemused even through the way his head hurt and his body felt too heavy and slow. He’d only spoken to Tony Stark a handful of times, and he’d been left rather dazzled, at the man’s movie star good looks, surprisingly down to earth manner, and the impression of vast intelligence he gave off, but he saw no reason why Mr. Stark would have regarded him the same way, or as much of anything other than Captain America. He’d even been flushed and wrong-footed, flustered, in his presence most of the time. And Mr. Stark had always been so nice to him, far nicer than he had any call to be, considered who he was, and how busy he was, and important, testifying before Congress and all that, but he was clearly a kind man, generous, funding the Avengers like he did, and—
Steve wondered if he was imagining it, how Iron Man looked maybe a little awkward, before Thor, folding himself into the back seat by Steve’s head despite the way he had to hunch down to even fit himself into the car, came out with, “Of course he did! What, didst you imagine our benefactor could fail to care for thy wounds upon hearing of the blow thy took in battle?”
“Heck, he even sent me, his personal driver, to get you back to the mansion safe and sound,” said the man in the driver’s seat, startling Steve as he did into a jump that made him groan and sweat. He shouldn’t have missed him there, he thought disjointedly, panting. His situational awareness must really have been slipping. The chauffeur exchanged a glance with Iron Man that had Steve wondering what that was about before looking back at Steve with a grin. “Happy Hogan,” he said, “it’s an honor and a pleasure to meet you, sir. I’d offer to shake your hand, but—” he nodded at Steve’s cast and sling “—seems like you’re a fair bit tied up at the moment.”
Steve gave a rueful smile back. While he still had one good arm, he would have had to lean across and tug on his gut, a mess of new stitches and incredibly painful, in order to manage it, and even as he considered it, worked his hand up in order to start to extend it, Thor grabbed his arm and held it solidly down his side with one arm clasped across his chest. “Be still,” he rumbled in Steve’s ear.
Was this what it was going to be like the whole time he was off his feet in the mansion? Steve wondered with mild exasperation, but he let himself sink back down against Thor all the same. “Pleasure, Mr. Hogan,” he said instead.
“Likewise,” the driver said, and turned toward Iron Man.
“Exactly,” Iron Man said, as if satisfied, and got into the front seat beside Mr. Hogan.
His personal driver? Steve thought, wondering at that, at Mr. Stark sending him, but his head was so heavy and thick, still throbbing insistently, and his thoughts felt so scattered, all over the place, that he couldn’t really spare much energy to linger on it. And then the car started, smoothly, but still with just enough of a jerk that pain shot through Steve and he fell back against Thor, biting down hard on his teeth to swallow it. Thor’s arm tightened, holding him on the seat. It wasn’t too long a car ride, Steve didn’t think, at least not for the traffic being what it was. Thor’s hold kept him from slipping or sliding, and Steve found himself watching the light moving across the roof of the car distractedly, wondering what medium would be best to capture it like that with the slow, fuzzy way he felt right then, the strange clarity of the angles of the light when the rest of his mind felt thick and heavy. He noticed the way Mr. Hogan and Iron Man were talking, though Iron Man kept glancing back at the back seat, in Steve’s direction; he could see the helmet swivel. He wondered if they were good friends, Iron Man and Mr. Hogan, both working for Mr. Stark and all. He wished, suddenly, that it was Iron Man’s arm around him instead of Thor’s, holding him against that solid metal chest, then felt his face redden furiously at the thought. That was—no, he shouldn’t let himself dwell on that, that was stupid. He let his head fall back against Thor’s chest, pressed his cheek against the armor Thor was still wearing until he could feel it digging into his skin, and tried to breathe evenly. He could feel the expansive beating of Thor’s heart beneath his head, the warmth and sturdiness of him even through the armor, in the arm he had wrapped around Steve’s chest. This really was so good of them, to do this for him, Steve thought unfocusedly, and it was the last thing he remembered thinking for a while.
He was still groggy when they roused him, got him up to his feet—Steve was glad that Thor didn’t swing him back up into his arms and try to carry him again, now that they were back at the mansion, even if every step pulled painfully on his core and sent pain jolting through him, wrenching and clawing in his gut. He could at least walk into the mansion on his own two feet, even if Iron Man and Thor both had their shoulders under him, Iron Man’s arm around his waist and Thor’s just above it, holding Steve’s good arm over his shoulders with his other hand. Steve was dizzy, everything swirling around him, before he heard Jan’s voice, exclaiming over him, followed by Jarvis’s lower, more rounded tones, then Hank’s voice (“Come on, Janet, give the man some space—”). He concentrated simply on putting one foot in front of the other until his knees were almost butting up against the couch in the main living room they used, and Iron Man and Thor helped him get turned around so he could sink down onto it. Iron Man laid Steve's shield right by his feet, against the base of the couch, and Steve felt something in his shoulders relax. He kept one hand pressed to his stomach, against the bandages, head spinning, and gasped out a thank you to both of them.
“It is nothing!” came Thor’s response, booming and easy.
“Yeah, really, it’s nothing,” came Iron Man’s voice a moment later, and to Steve’s surprise, he felt those metal fingers gentle on his chin, against his jaw, a moment later, tilting his face up to look at him. “Really, Steve,” he said, and it was low and soft even with the metallic tone the suit gave it. Steve wondered what Iron Man’s voice really sounded like, wished he knew. “It’s the least we can do,” he said, and moved his hand away.
Steve followed him with his eyes, squinting until he could make them focused. “It is something, though,” he said, insistently, looking up at Iron Man. “I really appreciate it. I’m—I’m real grateful.”
And it was true. This was . . . it was already so much better than lying on the thin hard bed in SHIELD medical, alone, and staring at the ceiling, feeling cold and trying not to give in and clutch the blanket to him too obviously. The couch was soft, and welcoming, and it felt—it felt like home, the surroundings comfortingly familiar. He lived here, he knew this place. He sighed and let himself sink back into the cushions. Thor slid a pillow in behind his back—Steve hadn’t even seen him there. It felt so good against his back, when he leaned into it. His shoulders hurt, and he hadn’t even realized how much he’d been aching until he had that soft support under him.
“Don’t be,” Iron Man said, a little awkwardly. He didn’t seem to know what to do with his hands, now. “It’s really the least we can do, big guy.”
“Come on, Steve,” Jan said, coming forward and winking at him, smiling. “It’s nothing, you’re one of the team. Besides, you’d do the same for any of us.” She spread a blanket over his knees, tucking it in around him, brushed his hair back from his forehead, then leaned in and gently touched her lips to his skin, just above his brow. Her lips were warm and tingled softly against his skin, and Steve was pretty sure he blushed. She smelled nice, like perfume and flowers, her hair brushed against his cheek, and he felt very red all over by the time she pulled away. He smiled up at her, unfocused and he was afraid a little bashful, and she ran her hand gently through his hair. “He needs more than just a few pillows and a tiny little blanket,” Jan said to the others. “We’ll get you set up here for now,” she added, ruffling Steve’s hair gently, then turned toward Hank. “More blankets, Henry, and a few pillows off the bed.” She turned back to Steve. “Do you need a hat? Are you warm enough right now?” She considered. “What about socks? We can get you a hot water bottle, and we should dig out that electric blanket.”
Steve blinked, not quite prepared for the detailed questioning. “I’m fine,” he said, trying to smile up at her again. He could feel his hand sliding down, fisting in the blanket, pulling it close against his sore belly. “I’m fine here, I really am.”
“No, no,” Jan said, grinning at him. “We get to spoil you now; those are the rules.”
“Are they?” Steve asked, a little faintly, he thought. He suddenly found Iron Man’s arm back around his shoulders, and realized he’d been listing to the side slightly.
“Yes,” Hank said, grinning at him from across the room as he crossed his arms and leaned up against the fireplace. “Those are officially the rules.”
“I think you guys just instituted these rules now,” Steve said, finding himself smiling, despite all the rest of it, how thick and heavy his head still felt, the pain, everything.
“Maaaybe,” Iron Man said, and his arm tightened around Steve’s shoulders a little bit. Steve couldn’t keep himself from leaning into it, feeling warm at the touch, the steadying strength of it around his shoulders. He felt lightheaded, and still a little warm in the face.
“And why should we not institute such rules?” Thor asked, rounding the end of the couch. “It is a most excellent policy!”
It was really hard to argue with Thor.
“Giant Man,” Jan said, “go on.”
“All right, all right, I’m going,” Hank said.
“I agree,” Iron Man said, and somehow, Steve got the impression he was smiling under the helmet. “It’s the new policy.”
Steve frowned. Something seemed off about that. “But that’s not fair,” he protested.
“No?” Iron Man asked. His voice was breathy static against Steve’s ear.
“What’s not fair about it?” Jan asked. “It seems plenty fair to me!”
“What about you?” Steve asked, twisting his head around to look at Iron Man, lifting his hand, though he just managed to get it up high enough to rest it on the chestplate. “We won’t be able to do the same for you when you’re hurt.” He couldn’t quite put into words how distressing he found that—hell, would he even know if Iron Man was hurt? Not unless it was obvious, and he’d still be able to hide it, downplay the injuries, they might not ever know how badly he was injured—
“Aww, hey,” Iron Man said, catching Steve’s hand in his gauntleted one and squeezing gently, then pressing it down into Steve’s lap again, back where it had been laying protectively against his belly, “don’t worry about me. Ol’ Shellhead’s pretty tough. I mean, I have the armor to protect me, not like the rest of you.”
“You still get hurt, though,” Steve said, frowning.
“Well, we’re worrying about you right now,” Jan told him, firmly, putting her hands on her hips. “Stop trying to change the subject.”
“I’m not trying to change the subject,” Steve protested. “I just—”
“You might not be trying to, but you are,” Jan said, shaking her finger at him, and Steve could hear Iron Man’s little huff of laughter, tinny and staticky, like it had been under his breath, close to his ear. It made him feel close to him somehow, like it had been something they’d shared, just between them, intimate, maybe, as foolish as that seemed, almost as good as Iron Man’s breath in his ear would have been, and he leaned his head against Iron Man’s smooth metal shoulder without even thinking about it. He was warm, not as cold as you’d think the shiny metal armor would be, radiating a bit of heat, as if alive, energy thrumming through the armor, underneath it. He seized up a little, as if surprised, and Steve suddenly realized what he was doing, but Iron Man relaxed, curled his arm around him a little more, against his back, and Steve hesitantly let his head settle there after all. “You get him settled against the side of the sofa, Iron Man,” Jan said, then, “maybe you can sit there with him?”
Steve liked that idea, he smiled a little. “That’d be nice,” he admitted, quietly. Iron Man was just so solid, so warm and sturdy against his side, holding him up. It felt good. Iron Man was so . . . present, and strong, and it felt like Steve wouldn’t have to . . . worry, if he dropped off, or fell asleep on him, or maybe woke up the way he did sometimes, with his head back in the war. Even with his strength, Iron Man would have him, especially weak as he was.
And it was just . . . nice. To lean up against him. It felt good. Really good.
“But I don’t want to—you don’t have to stay here, I know it’s a lot to ask,” he added, belatedly, lifting his head to look up at Iron Man. “It’d be nice to just . . . the couch is really comfy, I can just rest here.” He smiled up at him, at them both, pushed himself back into the corner of the couch as well as he could.
Iron Man hesitated, looked up at Jan, and she widened her eyes at him, waved a hand, making a strange face. Steve felt like he’d missed something and felt his cheeks begin to heat, but then Iron Man was scooting closer, tucking Steve in against his side. “I’d love to,” he said, and Steve didn’t think he was imagining the warmth in his voice, even under the robotic tones of the armor. “That’d be great. Here.”
“You don’t have to—” Steve started again, and he could hear the fond amusement in Iron Man’s voice when he spoke again.
“I got that, Winghead,” he said. “Now let me get settled, all right?” He scooted back against the back of the sofa, and Steve shifted himself, tucking himself more solidly into Iron Man’s side, letting his head rest comfortably on his shoulder. Iron Man pulled the blanket up over him a bit more, arranged the pillows of the couch behind the small of his back. “Comfy?” he asked.
“Mmm,” Steve responded happily. He couldn’t imagine anything better than this. He’d been wishing for this during the ride over, after all, exactly this; Iron Man’s arm around him, warm and steady, almost heavy. It was perfect. Even better than he’d imagined, with the warm, smooth thrum of the armor under his head. He raised his good arm, let the palm of it rest against the middle of the armor, focusing on the level warmth under his hand.
“He sure looks happy,” Jan said, sounding pleased with herself. She came closer and perched beside them, and Steve raised his head to look at her, but she patted the top of his head, waved him to put his head back down on Iron Man’s shoulder, so he did.
“I am happy,” Steve said, and closed his eyes.
Jan giggled and her small fingers sank into his hair, stroking through it gently. Steve bit the inside of his lip. It felt good, and it somehow soothed the still persistent ache in his head. Jan and Iron Man exchanged a few words, but they flowed over the top of Steve’s head, and he didn’t try to get himself to focus on them. They were talking about what movies to watch, he thought, but he figured he’d like whatever they picked out. Jan’s hand just felt so good in his hair, and he was so comfortable lying propped up on Iron Man like he was.
He wasn’t quite sure how much time had passed, but he blinked and opened his eyes again, waking up a little when he heard Hank and Thor come back into the room. Pretty soon they were all fussing over him, whatever he said; his shoes came off and blankets were tucked in around him, and Jan volunteered to leave the room until Hank and Thor managed to get him changed into a robe (that looked like it might be Mr. Stark’s, but Hank knew Mr. Stark pretty well, Steve thought, so it had to be okay, besides, Jarvis had been there and wouldn’t have let him take it if it wasn’t) and a loose pair of drawstring pants. They settled pillows from the bed under his head and under his bad arm and a hot water bottle under his feet. Steve’s head was spinning, but seeing the others argue over the arrangement of the pillows had him almost laughing before too long, groaning and holding his gut as it sent twinges of pain through him. He didn’t think he’d ever been this fussed over in his life, and he told them so.
“Maybe it’s time you were,” Iron Man told him, and Steve shook his head, grinning at him, and punched him lightly in the side with his good arm.
“Nah, I don’t need all this, Shellhead, you kidder,” he said, knowing his voice was coming out light and loopy but unable to do anything about it or even really care. “I’m just fine. There’s no call for all this fuss. It sure is nice of you, though. Thank you guys. It does, really, mean a lot.”
“You said that already,” Hank said.
“Our friend has had a very busy day,” Thor informed him gravely, then turned to Steve. “You are our captain,” he said, quite earnestly. “Of course there is a call for all this fuss. You deserve comfort and the support of those around you, as you heal, and as your teammates and, I think, friends, we shall be the ones to provide it.” He grinned. “Of course!”
Steve had a feeling he was blushing again, and did his best to ignore it. “I’d really be all right,” he assured him, but it was hard not to smile back at Thor. “But thank you, all the same.”
“I hear we are to watch one of the ‘movies’ now,” Thor declared. “A worthy activity for one’s convalescence, to hear tales of exploits past, whether true or false. I hope we are to again be regaled with the story of the romance of Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler. I will fetch the popcorn and beverages.” He swept excitedly out of the room again.
“Who’da thought Thor would like Gone With the Wind so much,” Steve murmured against Iron Man’s helmet, grinning into the armor.
“Again?” Hank asked the air.
Iron Man’s hand came down on the top of Steve’s head, metal gauntlet surprisingly light, and ruffled his hair slightly. “Thor’s right,” he said, voice soft even with the modulation of the armor. “You’re our Captain. Of course we want to fuss over you, and you’ll just have to get used to it, pal. It’s part of the whole team thing.”
“I still think it should go both ways,” Steve told him, but he couldn’t deny it—that felt . . . it felt good. It reminded him of the old days, with the Invaders, except it was different. This wasn’t a war, and the Avengers weren’t soldiers, they were . . . this was something else.
And he liked it. He liked them. He liked things like this, even being spoiled for something silly like a few bumps and bruises was an excuse to do this, to lie against Iron Man on the sofa and watch a movie and be with his new team, and . . . and, well, he couldn’t say no to that.
“You’re entitled to an opinion,” Iron Man said wryly, with a laugh.
“You’re so damn stubborn,” Steve sighed, but he was smiling, too.
“Guilty,” Iron Man said, and then brushed Steve’s temple gently with one metal thumb, reached down and tapped his nose. “But you saying I’m stubborn is a little rich, Winghead.”
“You’re both stubborn,” Hank said.
“Hank,” Iron Man said, “please.”
Steve smiled at that—they were both stubborn as heck, it was true, and he liked seeing Iron Man get playful like that. Iron Man’s hand traveled down to his shoulder and rubbed there lightly, almost absently, and Steve felt a warm tingling shiver go through his whole body, even down to his toes, and smiled to himself, down at his hands, this time, feeling his cheeks warming again. Now that was really nice.
That was about when Jan came back, with Jarvis in tow. He was carrying a tray, and whatever was on it smelled incredible; Steve felt himself flush when his stomach gave a loud rumble. He hadn’t even realized he’d been hungry until he’d smelled the food, but now he was painfully aware of the gnawing ache in the pit of his stomach. He balled his hand into a fist and pressed it in against his stomach as if that would do any good, smiling embarrassedly up at Jarvis. “Smells good,” he managed.
“I am glad to hear it,” Jarvis said. “And, might I say, so very glad to see you in relatively one piece, Captain.” He was smiling, warm and fond and pleased, and Steve suddenly felt a rush of feeling well up inside him, of belonging, somehow, at that, at the clear emotion on Jarvis’s face, the idea that he would care so much about him, that he was all right, that he had come back hurt at all, let alone how he was—suddenly his throat felt thick and his eyes stung, and he had to look down, clear his throat a bit. Jarvis was going on. “I made you some soup,” he said, “and a grilled cheese sandwich. There’s fruit as well. I hope you enjoy it. I remember the last time you were injured, you asked specially for extra food to fuel the healing process, I believe, so I thought it would be best to begin as soon as possible.” He leaned forward, settled the tray neatly over Steve’s legs. It looked incredible—Jarvis could put together a soup or a sandwich like no one else Steve had ever met, and the soup looked rich and flavorful and smelled of chicken and ginger, with leafy greens in it as well as the chicken broth, and the fruit was so fresh Steve still couldn’t believe it, like every time he looked in the mansion’s cupboards and refrigerator. The sandwich looked perfect, just barely oozing cheese. He swallowed hard against the saliva in his mouth and wished he could keep his stomach from rumbling.
“Thanks, Jarvis,” he said, looking up at him, and meant it. “This looks incredible.”
“It was my pleasure,” Jarvis said quickly, then smiled back. “I am simply glad to do my part to help you recover,” he added. “Take care of yourself, now, Captain Rogers.”
“Yessir,” Steve said, “will do.”
“Now, I believe there is some popcorn to finish preparing,” Jarvis said, and smiled. “I do hope you enjoy it.”
“Thank you, Jarvis,” Iron Man said from behind Steve, his hand squeezing lightly on his shoulder.
“You’re welcome, sir,” Jarvis said, and started out of the room again.
“So, dig in,” Jan said, planting herself on the arm of the couch again and leaning over to prop herself on Iron Man’s shoulder with one arm. Iron Man shifted slightly.
“That’s not good for it, you know,” he said after a moment. “It pulls the arm away from the body of the sofa.”
“As if my weight could possibly do anything to this sofa compared to what a giant suit made of metal is going to do to it,” Jan said, laughing. Steve spooned the first bite of the soup into his mouth and closed his eyes in bliss. It was perfect, just hot enough, dotted with the golden droplets that spoke of butter, bursting with fresh flavors and exotic herbs he didn’t know, and tasted strongly of chicken and ginger. It tasted incredible and luxurious to him, and it was almost hard to believe he was eating it right then. He wanted to savor it. He was concentrating on the food, so he mostly missed Jan and Iron Man’s playful bickering over the couch and the moment when Thor came back in with several bowls of popcorn and handed them out in a way he managed to make seem like he was bestowing each of them with a great honor. Iron Man ended up with theirs, and shooed Jan away to sit with Hank and share his, apparently claiming his need to share with Steve as taking precedence. Jan started the movie and then draped herself over Hank’s lap and took possession of the bowl of popcorn. “I had a workout today,” she said, “I’m allowed to pig out, I think.”
Steve felt himself flush a little, considering how determinedly he was stuffing his own face, but didn’t stop. It tasted too good for that. Besides, he wasn’t as fashionable as Jan, and the serum was good for taking care of his weight. He’d never been able to put on any weight even before it. It just seemed rude to be shoveling food in while she talked about pigging out. But he knew the others had to be used to it by now. Iron Man was still rubbing his shoulder, gently, and it felt so good.
Sure enough, the movie ended up being Gone With the Wind, and while the people in it weren’t the best sorts of people, Steve had always really enjoyed that picture, so he was happy with it. It reminded him of first seeing it, like The Wizard of Oz, and he’d always kind of enjoyed the drama of it, the romance, despite himself. Not for real life, that was for sure, but in a film it was kind of something to see. And he was glad it was going to be a picture he’d seen before; he would have felt obligated to pay attention, otherwise, and he was still sore, and the heat and warmth and presence of Iron Man at his side, the fluffy blankets covering him, was making him drowsy, tired and too comfortable to really focus on something like that. He still couldn’t quite get over the luxury of watching a movie in the privacy of your own home, on the television like that—it felt almost unreal. Completely aside from the fact that here he was, snuggled up to Iron Man on the couch, a man in a fantastical metal suit that enabled him to fly, sharing popcorn (though Iron Man only occasionally popped a kernel or a handful or two past the faceplate, sometimes opening it just enough to get a good handful, while they all averted their eyes and pretended to be absorbed by the film).
Steve still hurt, of course. He’d taken a pretty hard hit; he could admit it, and it wasn’t just going to go away overnight. His belly throbbed dully, his head ached, and it was hard to focus. Once he finished the food, he felt heavy and tired, drowsy, like his body didn’t want to move or to listen to him. But it seemed much farther away, now. He felt . . . warm, and pleasantly full—Iron Man even got the tray for him, putting it down on the floor, even as Steve argued that he could have gotten it—and there was the team all around him. They had him; he knew they did. He could feel their eyes on him as his eyes drooped wearily or he struggled for focus, and he wouldn’t have been surprised if one reason Iron Man kept one hand on the back of his neck, rubbing gently, was to keep track of his temperature somehow. But he didn’t mind, he realized, somehow. Jan was right; he’d sure as hell have wanted to keep track of them, if they’d been the ones hurt like this. It felt . . . good, all of them around him, the warm room, the familiarity of it. Jarvis was in and out, conferred lowly with Iron Man and then got him a lukewarm cloth, which Iron Man started to use to bathe Steve’s face and neck, careful not to brush any of his bandages. Jan and Thor had an animated discussion about the movie, which Steve only caught parts of. Bucky had always really liked this picture, he remembered. He’d thought it was romantic, and he’d liked the action. He remembered he’d argued with Toro once, over which picture they wanted to see during their leave, when they’d only been showing about three American films in England, anyway.
Iron Man made sure Steve drank down a good bit of water, after he’d finished with the food, and then Steve thought he might have fuzzed out for a while, since there was a good section of the movie he didn’t remember seeing again. He woke up again, head still pillowed on Iron Man’s shoulder, and blinked, slowly.
The room felt very warm; he felt very warm, but in a comfortable way, every aching muscle in his body slow and drowsy. The film was approaching the end now, and Jan was whispering to Hank, and the light was the warmer glow of late afternoon. Steve almost couldn’t believe how indulgent it was, the whole team, eating popcorn and watching a film on the couch in the middle of the afternoon.
But then again, it wasn’t like it was bad. Not at all. The Avengers were like this. This was the sort of thing they did. The Invaders might have done things like this, too, if they hadn’t been at war. If it had been possible. He thought back to it, pictured it, and the bittersweet twist of his chest he’d expected surprised him by ending up more of a sweet ache than anything, not the deep, wrenching, gutting pain he’d became almost used to since he’d woken up in this time. They would have loved do something like this, and Namor would have complained the whole while, and Bucky probably would have eaten most of a bowl of popcorn, and Jim would have gotten involved in a discussion with Iron Man or Hank, because whatever Iron Man said about not being on Mr. Stark’s level, it was obvious he had quite a deep interest in engineering himself.
It took another few minutes, and a slow, soft pass of Iron Man’s hand through his hair, ruffling it up gently, in a way that made Steve figure Iron Man didn’t realize, quite, that he was awake, it was so careful, for him to realize what it was, exactly, he was feeling. He felt, well, he felt, safe, utterly and completely safe, like he didn’t have to worry about a damn thing, in a way that pooled in his gut, warm and bright, and welled up and spread all through him. Which was something he hadn’t felt, for himself, for a while now, except when he was with the Invaders, at times, or Bucky, or—but that was all in the past, far, far in the past, now, and while the mansion was great, it was also Mr. Stark’s family home, and Steve just couldn’t quite forget that, somehow. Maybe he would, eventually—Mr. Stark certainly seemed to think so, wanted them to be comfortable there, to just use the mansion as they would any other lodging or headquarters, and so Steve really did give it his best shot, but was still . . . different. Even just living with a specific team when it wasn’t just the hard dirt and a tent or two felt different. Everything felt different, really.
And it wasn’t bad. It was actually . . . nice. He liked this, he realized, still half-asleep. He liked this a lot. It felt right. It felt good.
The metal gauntlet settled a little more heavily in his hair, rubbed gently, then ruffled more of the strands up, gently cupping the back of his neck and sliding along there before lifting again to run back through his hair. Jan’s voice was still rising and falling in the room, and somewhere along the line, his and Iron Man’s bowl of popcorn had gotten awfully low. “Hey, Shellhead,” he managed to get out, looking up at Iron Man as he did. Onscreen, Scarlett was talking about tomorrow.
Iron Man’s hand stilled in his hair. “Yeah, what’s up?” he asked.
“I think I’m fading out quick,” Steve answered, “but would it be okay, d’you think, if I slept in here, for a while? On the couch, I mean.” It wasn’t that it seemed like too much effort to head back to his room, it was more that, nice as it was, it was big, and it felt a little lonely, compared to this warm room that had members of the team through it at all hours of the day and night, and well. Maybe he didn’t want to be alone just then. “Do you think it’d be all right with Mr. Stark?”
“Yeah, of course,” Iron Man said at once. “I’m sure it’d be fine with him. That’s—yeah. He said we could use the mansion however we wanted. He’s, uh, he's not the type to go back on that sort of thing.”
“And you guys wouldn’t mind?” Steve asked. “It’d just be—I’d just sort of like to—”
“Of course we wouldn’t,” Hank broke in from the other chair. “Don’t worry about that, Cap.”
“I think it’s a good idea,” Iron Man said, and squeezed the back of Steve’s neck gently, so very gently, with those metal fingers. “We’ll get you all set up.”
“Great,” Steve said, smiling at him. “Thanks.”
He was pretty sure he fell asleep with a smile on his face, pillowed in layers of blankets so that the couch felt like the softest bed, easily as soft as the bed in his room, and feeling warmer than he’d felt in a long time. He kept hearing the others coming and going, moving around, their voices in the mansion, for the rest of the day, as he slipped in and out of sleep, and he slept easily, content, slept more easily than he had in ages.