Steve awoke with a start, shooting up into a sitting position, ready to strike at the shadows, but struggling with the bedspread. Instantly he regretted moving too fast, hissed in pain. His arm was in a cast and his ribs hurt, his shoulders ached. The bed was unfamiliar, the dark room suddenly threatening, and it took him a panicked moment to remember where he was. It was dark, but warm and he was alone, nobody around to attack – and his hands weren't bound. Breathing hard he hunched over, leaned his head against his drawn up knees and waited, tried to will his pounding heartbeat and his erratic breathing to slow.
It should not have taken as much time as it did to remember he was in Stark Tower, or to be exact, in his own apartment on the 62nd floor of Avengers Tower. He'd moved in yesterday after releasing himself from hospital. He was safe here.
"You should not make a habit of this, Cap,” Sam said with a frown when he opened his eyes. Just like last time he sat in an uncomfortable looking hospital chair beside his bed, quietly watching, having Steve's back even when he was down and there was no immediate fight around. It was hard not to notice how worried he looked.
An uncomfortable feeling settled in the pit of his stomach and Steve quenched it before it could take root. “Tell that to the other guys,” he said and hissed in sudden pain, his voice croaking from disuse. The artificial lights in the pristine, white room were hurting his eyes after days in a dark and cold prison cell.
With a satisfied grin Sam said: “Stark said, the Hulk did all the talking for them.” He patted Steve's good arm and froze when Steve pulled back from him as if his touch burned.
Now here he was in what was supposed to be his own bed, panting, like a child afraid of the monsters under the bed. But he couldn't shake it – the uneasiness, the panic. He'd seen so many soldiers suffer from shell shock, but feeling this was new to him.
He stumbled out of bed, turning on all the lights and leaving them on behind him as he stumbled forward into the next room, as he left his apartment even to walk down to their common room.
It's the bed, he told himself. Too soft. Too comfortable. Too new. Not yet mine. Not yet familiar.
When he arrived downstairs and found their spacious living-room and walk-in kitchen empty, he told himself that he wasn't glad that none of the other Avengers were around to see him. He had not been avoiding them since he'd arrived back at the Tower, he told himself firmly, he'd simply been tired. After all that was to be expected. He healed fast and he could take an substantial amount of abuse, but even he needed rest after an ordeal like this.
He was Captain America, not the Hulk, not Thor. He was only human, if a little stronger, a little faster and a little more resilient.
The room was dark, but not the same oppressive kind of dark that had suffocated him in his bedroom. New York was always alive, always awake, a myriad of lights illuminating the night in front of the panorama windows. It was an amazing sight and Steve contemplated it for long minutes, walking closer and touching his brow to the smooth surface of the glass that kept him from the abyss. New York. He still loved it, still felt at home here. Safe. Even now.
Feeling much calmer he finally walked back to the big sofa, passed it by and curled up in the armchair instead, protectively pulling the hurt arm against his chest. It was already healing and the itching was starting to get uncomfortable, but the armchair was nice and from here he could still see the city, could still remind himself where he was and how he'd gotten here and forget about the itching, about the nightmares that lurked inside his own mind.
The darkness was getting to him, doing exactly what it was supposed to: disorient him. It felt like it had been three days, but he couldn't be sure. The cold was even worse, seeping into his bones, making his fingers ache.
He was hanging suspended by his wrists that had been tied behind his back with cuffs that had been made just for him and his shoulders were slowly giving out on him. But the pain at least was real, welcome, keeping him grounded in the here and now, while the icy temperature and darkness were beckoning him to think himself back in the ice.
He gritted his teeth.
He needed to hold out. Get out of here.
He wasn't dead. Wasn't frozen.
He'd get out. Just like before.
Again he woke with a start. This time his eyes fell on the window, the amazing view of New York, and the glittering lights out there first and he knew where he was instantly. He must have dozed of in the armchair. The room was still dark, but beside him the light of a screen was shining a glaring light on its immediate surroundings and someone was moving beside him. He turned to look.
“Hey,” Tony said, without looking up, swishing his fingers over the screen of his tablet computer. “Couldn't sleep.”
The words put Steve on edge. It wasn't entirely clear to him whether that was a statement or a question, so he remained silent, watched as the man sat in the dark and did whatever it was he was doing on the tablet in the middle of the night. Tony didn't look at him at all, just remained quiet and focused on what he was doing, biting his lip even, as if he was mulling something over. Steve wasn't sure when he'd ever seen him this quietly focused. “It's not good for the eyes to do that without the lights on, is it?” he asked, because he couldn't stand his own thoughts circling.
Tony looked up as if startled. “I didn't want to wake you.”
Again Steve had no idea how to react, or what to think about that, was tempted to ask whether Tony had come down here to keep an eye on him. He was sure JARVIS could alert Tony to everything that went on in the building. Tony might have asked him to track Steve's movements for his own safety even. Without Tony, leaving the hospital yesterday against the doctor's wishes would have been an even bigger mess. It had been Tony who had smoothed things over with the medical staff, speaking of the medical facilities they had here at Stark Tower. But after he'd brought Steve home he'd made not a single move or had lost a single word about medical staff or attention, had only asked if Steve needed anything, not pushing even a little bit when the answer had been no. He had brought cheeseburgers for dinner, when Steve hadn't shown himself in the kitchen and had vanished again without pushing him to come along or see the team – or even talk about what had happened.
It was a relief to be left alone. But something about Tony's quietness still rubbed him the wrong way. Tony Stark, in his experience, was not a quiet man.
“Why did you not lie down on the sofa? It must be more comfortable than the armchair?” There was a distracted note to Tony's words, as if he was thinking about something else entirely.
“Don't know,” he said sourly. “Didn't think about it.”
Tony nodded as if that was the answer he'd been expecting and hummed at the back of his throat, then he focused back on the tablet and Steve remained where he was staring out of the windows into the not too dark night, frowning. He had been glad to be alone before, but now he was actually just a tiny bit thankful to hear Tony's breathing right next to him, to hear the movements of hands and the rustling as the man shifted back and forth on the cushions.
At least here he knew that the world was still there and he wasn't alone.
“The lights are annoying?”
“What?” he asked, startled by being addressed again.
“The lights,” Tony motioned to the ceiling, not to the windows where the city lights were shining.
Not comfortable with admitting too much of anything at the moment, he shrugged and went back to his surly contemplation of the city.
“After I spent three month in a cave, light was really welcome, but it hurt.”
It hit so close to all the things he was trying not to think about that he held his breath. He didn't want to gasp or spiral into the thoughts that led to panic, to the urge to flee, to jump up and run away. Tony was one of the last people he wanted to show his weaknesses to.
“Then I nearly got swallowed by space and suddenly the dark was fucking awful, too. Go figure that,” Tony added. “Suddenly lights were all that kept the darkness away.”
“I really don't...” he wasn't sure what he was going to say, but he wanted to cut Tony off, before this could get any further.
“It's fine,” Tony said flippantly, and that of all things was finally familiar enough to not be grating. “I just want you to know I'm here if you don't want to talk. I'm fucking useless at listening anyway. But you know, I'm either here or down in the workshop or wherever, ask JARVIS. If you don't want to talk that is.”
And Steve finally got it. Tony wasn't offering him pity or an open ear. He was just saying there was no need to be alone if he didn't want to be.
“Okay,” he said. “I don't want to talk now.”
Tony huffed and nodded, as if that was obvious and went back to his work.
Steve fell asleep again a few minutes later to the sounds of someone working and breathing beside him; not close enough to touch or be scary, but just a quiet presence that let him know he wasn't in a cell somewhere.
He was nearly unconscious when the noises start up, noises of battle and gunfire. In his haze, his fingers tingling painfully from the cold, he imagined that he could smell the ozone in the air that came with Thor's thunder. He couldn't keep his eyes open though, couldn't do much more but cradle his broken arm and wait for Rumlow or whoever it would be to come and have a final go at him, so his friends wouldn't find anything but his corpse. He drifted off until the door just exploded out of its hinges and suddenly it was so bright that his eyes hurt. A startled scream escaped his throat although he knew this was good, this was help.
It just hurt so much. Hadn't he been good at coping with pain before? Was he that broken now?
Natasha stood before him, blood on her face. Sam hovered behind her, metallic wings filling the room and blocking the view of the door.
Then the red and gold of Tony's suit appeared. “We've got you, Cap,” Tony said, his own voice, no mask in the way to stop it. “We've got you now.”
Steve just hoped that was true.
* * *
“I took the chopper down, before anyone could get hurt.”
“Steve!” Clint said in a sudden pleading voice. “I can't be the voice of reason here. You're taking too many risks lately... It's not... healthy. Maybe you shouldn't...”
He closed up before he even knew it. But it was Natasha who warningly shouted: “Clint!” Bruce was downstairs “cooling off”, but Thor and Tony were standing on the far side of the room, watching them and Steve just wanted them all to go. “He's not taking any more risks than he usually would,” Natasha said. “We're talking about someone who fell out of a helicarrier once and survived.”
“He's not taking any more risks than I would,” Tony said and gave an unamused half-grin. “But I know that's not saying much, speaking as someone who fell out of a space portal that one time.”
Thor clapped a hand on Tony's shoulder and laughed. “And a good day it was.”
“Not for my back, I can tell you.”
Clint huffed at them, but relented. “Okay, yeah... I was just worried,” he said sheepishly. “We were Cap-less for three weeks and having Stark leading the team solo was not my favorite three weeks ever. Point taken.”
Steve wasn't sure that would be the end of it. It wasn't like Clint had no reason to have his doubts about him now.
* * *
Part of him was thinking about Bucky who must have gone through Hydra reprogramming for years. Part of him just wanted them to get over with this, take their revenge and end it.
The cold was too much to take some days.
* * *
Natasha was frowning at both of them as if they'd lost their mind.
“Take the damn coffee then,” Steve said and put his own blue cup down in front of Tony forcefully then.
“This is not the the point!” Tony said gruffly, but when Steve glared at him, he glared back and took a sip out of Cap's cup as if he was making a point and then stuck his tongue out at Steve as if this was a matter of pride.
At least Tony was still as annoying around him as ever.
It was so stupid, he had to grin. Probably for the first time in weeks.
* * *
It was soothing.
“Do you think I need to step down?” he asked, loud in the relative silence of the room and for the first time demanding Tony's attention.
Tony swiveled around in his chair to look at him. “Why do people keep talking to me like I'm the one making the decisions here? I even gave away my own company so I wouldn't have to deal with that anymore.”
“I want to know what you think, Tony.”
“Do you think you need to step down?”
He'd asked himself the same thing repeatedly since they'd found him and brought him home. But he was bad at running away from bullies and he would not let these people win without a fight. He'd rather take the abuse again. So he shook his head.
“Then that's your answer,” Tony said and swiveled back so he was facing his work table. Then he picked up some metal part and held it up in front of his own face. “Hmm. The thing about things that are broken is you fix them. And sometimes you figure out that it's only broken parts and not the whole thing that's the problem. So you fix the broken parts. Or patch them up best as you can. You can improve on that later.” He waved the part around and Steve realized it was a gauntlet of the Iron Man suit. “There's nothing that doesn't need fixing once in a while.”
It was the Tony Stark way of telling him he wasn't broken beyond repair, he supposed. It was so crazy that it even made sense. This strange new connection they had amused Steve and he smiled at the back of Tony's head, sure the man couldn't see it, and he leaned back against another work station, his arms folded in front of his chest, watching him work. “It's always good, not talking to you, Tony.”
“Anytime,” Tony answered without missing a beat.
* * *
“I know,” he said. There was no need to explain to Sam why that was or how it had happened. He knew. He just wanted him to talk about it.
And the memory of the icy cold of his cell was enough to scare him.
So he did his best not to even think about it.
* * *
“Yes,” he said and sighed. They'd talked about it before and Sam always was smart enough not to press the matter. He was a good friend. The best. He was even out there looking for Bucky when he wasn't here worrying about Steve, all for Steve's sake. So Steve added: “I'm spending a lot of time not talking to Tony.”
“Sometimes we talk,” he admitted. “Sometimes we don't.”
Sam seemed surprised, watching him carefully for a whole long minute. “Okay, if that works for both of you.” He actually looked so relieved that Steve had to grin.
* * *
Touch wasn't an issue anymore.
The cold was.
“I slept fine,” he said as he slowly sat up.
“That was pretty cozy,” Tony admitted.
“Warm,” Steve added. He'd been skirting around the issue of how they had used the cold against him, how they had kept him awake for days straight with noise, with beatings, startling him awake when he fell asleep in a clod and dark room. There had been no way to escape the cold. Tony had pieced it all together by now, but never asked. He only sometimes made comments that showed how much he understood about this.
He didn't even hesitate then, leaning over to kiss his friend on the mouth. Tony held still, and didn't pull away. When he sat back and could meet the contemplating brown eyes, there was that pondering look again.
“I'm pretty hot,” Tony pointed out.
“Warm enough for two, actually.”
They spent the night together in Tony's room and Steve again slept without waking, until Tony startled awake and woke him instead. They didn't talk, they kissed and wrapped around each other, holding tight.
It was enough. For now.
Both of them had broken parts. But Steve was good at figuring things out and facing challenges and Tony was a hell of a mechanic. Between the two of them, they'd be able to fix whatever still needed fixing.