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Blue Stars Shiver

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Often, Steve hurts – body pain, bone-deep, a slow burn, joints that feel stiff and muscles that creak. If he hurt after assignments, after pushing back against chaos, he could understand it – could compare the feeing to the memory of Brooklyn, of dim, dark alleys, and the smash of someone's fist. But it doesn't come then – doesn't come with the crash that comes to all of them afterward, doesn't come when adrenaline recedes and his body starts to heal. Instead, it comes with two days of peace behind it and no threat ahead, comes when he's rested, and quiet, and safe.

It was there when he woke without anyone he knew, but there wasn't time to take stock of it when the radio was playing a game out-of-time, when he could taste live danger like acid in his throat. He ran, and they caught him, and the world was nothing but a crash of noise, and it felt like the flu, the gnawing ache, but he thought it was grief. Peggy was dead.

He isn't sick – he's seen the charts, the scans, the tests. His body isn't failing – he's run until he's leaden with exhaustion, felt energy rush back the moment he gave pause. It's something else, something just beyond his grasp, and on some days it exhausts him, and on others he can't hold still. It pushes him into restless action, buoys him with an energy that has nothing to do with Erskine's serum. He tries outpace it, to pummel it into submission, to exorcise the feeling with fists against a punching bag and weights in his hands. But some days it won't retreat – his shoulders, his elbows, the small of his back, a bright, searing flare, a reckoning, pain.

"Yo, Cap," says Tony. "Eyes up. My face is right here."

The disconnect is jarring, the space between Steve's thoughts and the here and the now. He stares at the punching bag that Tony's holding steady, at the waiting curve of Tony's hands. "I think." Steve notices the scar at the base of Tony's thumb, concentrates on that while he straightens out his thoughts. "I think I'd better call it quits."

"Can't handle it? You're not the first." Tony's all smiles, puffed up and pleased. "I'd say you're the third or fourth today. That's not including Fury – he has a season pass. Lifetime membership, if we're honest."

"No, it's –" Steve backs away a couple of steps, rubbing the back of his neck. "I'm just not feeling good, and – "

Tony snaps to a new kind of attention. "Jarvis?"

"Captain Rogers' vitals are normal, sir. No indication of impaired breathing, no lingering injury from Monday's altercations, nothing to indicate poisoning or other threats."

Tony nods but he's still alert, studying him, thinking. "Where does it hurt?" he asks at last.

Steve looks at him, bewildered, aware of being evaluated but without any idea of the weight and measure. "Everywhere," he says, honestly.

Tony's expression softens – chagrin, understanding, sympathy. "Know that feeling," he says, and cups Steve's elbow, tugs just enough to get him moving. "Come on."

"Come – what?" Steve does as he's told, because he doesn't know what else to do, and in the absence of understanding, he'll let Tony take the lead.

"Came back from Afghanistan a little knocked around," Tony says conversationally as they climb the stairs. "Healed up pretty good, but that didn't stop the pain. And the pain?" He glances sideways at Steve. "Didn't have much to do with the surgery or the burns or the ligaments I tore. Not much at all."

Steve feels his cheeks heat, uncomfortable, as if Tony's seen right into his head. "What was it?" he asks, wanting answers despite himself.

Tony gestures, an idle twist of his fingers near his temple. "Brain stuff. I mean, before I crash landed – oh, right," he snaps his fingers, "you too – I was in the suit. Mark One, missile casings held together with spit and paperclips, weighed a ton. Chafed and bruised like a mad thing, and that's before they started shooting in my direction." He huffs a bitter laugh. "It flew, but god, when it landed. Felt every blow."

Steve doesn't get where this is going, or why Tony's climbing the stairs to the second floor. He follows anyway. "So that was it? That was what hurt? You said it wasn't from – "

"Right, no, no, I know this isn't clear, it's just – putting it into words is not my forte. I'd be damned surprised if it's anyone's." He smiles ruefully. "Thing is, all of that, every bit of it healed. Clean bill of health, not a cell out of place, everything great . . . well, okay, save for the arc reactor thing killing me, whatever, that's – " He waves a hand. "The point is – my wrists, my back, my chest, everything still felt bruised. But not all the time. Sometimes. And it wasn't when I'd been up in the suit again, and it wasn't when I was facing down some megalomaniac who decided we should be his playthings, and it wasn't when I was scared that one of you was going to hit the dirt before I could get to you – it was on some schedule that didn't connect to a goddamn thing."

Steve pauses on the stairs. "When it was quiet."

Tony nods. "When I should have felt safe."

Steve looks down at the weave of the carpet beneath his feet, the polished wooden treads of the staircase, lets relief sweep through him. He'd sit if not for Tony's hand back beneath his elbow, just enough to keep him standing.

"Let's get to your room, huh? Better than the stairs."

"What did you do?" Steve asks, letting himself be guided. "What did you take – it's a brain thing?" He stutters to a halt. "Are you okay?"

Tony laughs, sincere. "I'm fine. You're fine. Your brain is not leaking out of your ears, Rogers, you just need – " He tugs on Steve's arm again. "Would you move? What happened to following orders?"

Steve does, reluctantly. "Brain thing," he says again as they reach the landing. He lets Tony push open his bedroom door, saunter in and take over.

"I'd like to remind you, first of all, that while I'm fabulously and desperately intelligent, I'm not an M.D. And it's not as if people haven't been confused before – there was a time in Paris when . . . okay, on reflection, not the best time for that story," Tony says, pulling open first one dresser drawer and then another. He finds a sweatshirt and throws it at Steve. "Here, put this on."

It's one of Steve's favorites – soft, as if he's had it for years – and he shrugs it over his head, pulls the cuffs over his hands before he stuffs them into the pocket at the front. He rolls his shoulders, feels a little of the tension in his body ease.

"Second I've been told, by which I mean I had Jarvis do the research and lay out the pertinent stuff with pictures – trauma lays down memories in odd places. And when the trauma's accompanied by pain, the brain stores that, too. You must've heard of guys who lost a limb in the war, still felt it after it was gone."

Steve nods, still not exactly understanding.

"Their brain remembers, and it keeps sending signals – danger, pain, get me out of here, this hurts."

Steve wanders over to his bed, sits on the edge of the mattress. "I don't remember anything hurting."

Tony pauses, looks at him with one eyebrow raised. "You crashed a plane into an iceberg. I'm guessing that stings a little."

"I don't remember."

"Cold, maybe? Like, I don't know, preserve-you-in-ice-for-seventy-years cold?"

Steve hunches inside his sweatshirt a little more.

"Point is," Tony continues, pulling a blanket out of a closet, "it hurt, and the brain likes to hold onto that stuff in case it needs to warn you you're about to do something foolhardy and dangerous in the future. Not that you get to decide what constitutes foolhardy and dangerous, your brain's going to do that all on its own."

"That doesn't make sense," Steve protests.

"It's more that it's its own special kind of sense," Tony says, tugging out a second blanket before he closes the closet door. "Welcome to PTSD."

Steve feels himself flinch. "Shell shock?" He knew guys sent home from the front for that, guys who couldn't function anymore. "I'm not – "

"You woke up seventy years in the future, not knowing a soul, in a place designed to fool you into thinking you were safe," Tony says urgently. "Outside of there – seventy years of sound and color and technology that you didn't know. People you'd never seen before. A new world order, and organizations you'd never heard of, because they didn't exist when you were a kid. That you think the human brain's supposed to withstand that without a little blowback is, frankly, adorable." Tony rounds to the other side of the bed, throws a blanket down at Steve's side. "Bundle up, soldier."

Steve twists to look at him, confused, a question ready, and sees that Tony's already shaken out the other blanket and wrapped it around his shoulders. He watches as Tony flops down on the bed, rummages on the side table for the TV remote. "What are you doing?"

"We are going to watch terrible movies together," Tony says as if it's obvious. "You are going to wrap that blanket around you and crawl under the covers if that's what feels good. You will help me choose said terrible movies, and someone in the bowels of this house is going to make us food and bring it to this room."

Steve's stomach growls plaintively. "Grilled cheese?"

"And soup. And, I don't know, what's healthy? Apples? And then cake, and bacon, and a whole lot of beer."

Steve wraps the blanket around his shoulders, shifts to sit with his back against the headboard. "And why am I doing this?"

"The obvious answer is that you love spending time with me," Tony offers blithely, but when he glances over his face doesn't match the tone of his voice. He looks serious, concerned. "But the real answer is . . . Look. Your brain can tell your body that you're in danger when you're not, that it needs you alert, or it needs you to play possum so that nothing can make you its target again. But – and thank god for small mercies, because those are all we have – your body can tell your brain to back down. Comfort." He gestures expansively, taking in the blankets, the TV, the bed. "It'll ease the aches. Painkillers don't work, right?"

"Right."

"So trust me. Give this a shot."

Steve bumps his arm against Tony's. "Is this what worked for you?"

Tony reaches over, tugs the blanket more tightly around Steve's torso, pats it into place. "Yeah."

"And who helped you like you're helping me?" Steve asks.

Tony blows out a breath, studies the remote in his hand for a second. "Jarvis."

Steve sighs. "If it happens again – "

"I'm fine, there's a guy I talk to – I'll give you his number; hell, I'll just bring him here . . . "

"If it happens again," Steve says, "I want you to tell me."

Tony's looks at him impassively. "And you'll tell me?"

Steve nods. "Yeah. I will."

The corner of Tony's mouth twitches just a fraction, a ghost of a smile. "Okay. Pact. Should we pinky-swear, or do the blood brother thing – what's the proper currency for that kind of promise, you think? Legal documents? Earnest letters we write in pink, sparkly ink?"

Steve slumps down against the headboard a little, lists against Tony's side. The blanket's soft and clean, the sweatshirt warm, and he can do this, accept this, figure this out. "A grilled cheese sandwich," Steve says.

Tony slings an arm around his shoulders. "Coming right up," he says. "Jarvis, can you – "

"Already done, sir. Perhaps you might take this opportunity to –"

Tony growls softly. "If you say 'rest' I'll – "

"I'm breathless with anticipation as to what dastardly end you believe I would deserve," Jarvis replies. "But yes, if you would. Just rest for a while."

And they do.