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The silence seems powerful, out of place, as if there should have been all manner of sound and fury but it had suddenly vacated.   The air around him is hot and humid, cloying summer suffering rolling in from all sides, but the concrete pressed against his body is blissfully cool; his ears have stopped ringing, finally.

Steve checks himself for damage and finds his body mostly intact, but his skin has that telltale sting of recent healing, and the deeper ache of knitted bones.  No numbness, no tearing, and it doesn't feel like he's pinned. 

The air around him stinks of blood.

The hotel had collapsed; they were... what were they doing? ..  Right.  Distress call.   He'd had to take the stairs; Clint and Natasha had their own way of doing things, he'd left it to them. Tony and Thor were clearing the bottom floors for survivors and hostages, they could check the windows faster than on foot.  Bruce had been behind him, a floor or three below, just in case there were any wounded.

And then... and then the explosion.  Looking back, it seemed obvious: an abandoned hotel ought to have had abandoned luggage in it, naturally, but what a great place to hide satchel charges.  It had been a trap; Steve remembered having that thought before he was blown into... wherever he was, now, buried under however-many feet of rubble.  White-hot glowing rings exploding from every angle, some kind of bizarre future-technology that had burned straight through the masonry and melted the glass and and spread out into the air like ripples in a pond; it had been ugly, but Steve had somehow-- lucky him-- escaped into what he suspects was an elevator shaft, maybe blasted into it by a backdraft. He didn't even have time to react.

Digging himself out takes a while; his shield serves as both reliable brace and makeshift crowbar, prying up chunks of broken concrete and pipes, and thick cable that must belong to the elevator.  When he has room to crouch, he starts crawling, and tries not to think of trenches and barbed wire.  Slowly, he leaves the smell of blood behind him, and loses his only landmark.

The complete darkness does him no favors; his sense of smell lets him pick out salt from the ocean air and he tries to follow that, but it only seems to yield gaps in the wall of rubble too small for him to fit through, and too heavy for him to lift.   Eventually, when his knees and shoulders ache too much, he finds a comfortable spot in his little mole-tunnel, and tries to rest.

It's a bad idea, because resting is hard when you're afraid of sleeping, and sleeping is best kept away by thoughts.  The words drip toward the front of his mind as if they've been waiting patiently for a leak to spring.

They're dead. 

He scolds himself for the thought, and reminded himself that they are the Avengers.  Explosions are their meat and milk, they--

Didn't see it coming. It was a flash. It melted concrete. They're dead.

His eyes sting, but he grits his teeth.  Tony is a genius, he must have found a way to--

The computers in his suit can't take that kind of heat. 

The Hulk would never let anything happen to Bruce--

Bruce would have to know there was something wrong for the Hulk to save him.

Thor is practically immortal, he would have survived the blast--

He's not fireproof; he still needs to breathe.

Natasha and Clint--

Are human, and they would never leave each other behind.

He can feel his chest tighten, his eyes sting. 

No, it's too soon for that, soldier.  Get your breath, get your feet under you.  You're not going to die down here because you can't.  You came here because you were ordered to by your commanding officer, you have to report; whoever did this, whatever they were doing, they wanted you removed from the equation before they did it.  Do you want them to have their way because you were crying in a hole? 

He swallows, gets his hand back in the straps of his shield, and keeps crawling.

 

--

 

Hours pass long after he's stopped being able to tell time except by the strain on his muscles, but there's no sign of an exit.  He can't risk pulling his tunnel down on himself, so his path winds and twists on itself, dictated by what Steve can move and what he can move safely. 

When the heat gets unbearable, he assumes it must be mid-day, and allows himself a break. His stomach groans its displeasure at skipping what must be two meals at this point, and Steve amuses himself when he hears it in his head--

"I require sustenance!" 

"Thor.  Is it just not socially acceptable to say 'I am hungry' in Asgard?"

"No, but then the question is 'For what do you hunger?'. A man may hunger for many things. Sustenance is a need that must be met, or the body withers."

Clint clapped him on the shoulder, laughing.  "We can do better than just meeting basic needs around here; come on. Have you had a lot of human food yet?"

"I am told most of what I have eaten was food for the breaking of the morning's fast, but I am also told I did eat a lot of it." 

"You know what you need? Someplace with an all-you-can-eat buffet.  Steve! Come with us, don't you owe Thor an eating contest?"

Steve laughs to himself.  The sad truth is that he very rarely gets to eat enough to satisfy the raging inferno that is his metabolism. Even if he has that much food in front of him-- and Tony makes sure he always does-- he just can't bring himself to eat such huge quantities; childhood during the Depression and a lifetime of a peckish appetite just made it impossible.  Accepting Thor's challenge had been the first time he really ate until he was full.  And Thor had still won.

The drinking contest had gone better.

"I cannot believe this. How..." Thor hiccuped, and then reflexively belched.  "..How is it.. I am felled so badly, by such small drinks, by you... you tiny people? You are so... so tiny."

Tony was spinning his shotglass on one finger, looking pleasantly pink in the cheeks and smiling like his problems were very far away.  "Lemme guess, Goldilocks: you binge.  I'm seeing big steins, full of mead or lingenberry wine, or whatever the fuck it is you drink. That sound about right?"

"It does."

Clint was facedown on the table, drooling; Natasha slipped a napkin under his chin.  She shrugged.  "Part of my job involves being able to stay focused when my marks are trying to get me drunk; I've had to face down three Japanese businessmen this way before."  If it weren't for the way she swayed a little when she moved and the obvious droop of her eyes, she would have looked completely unaffected.

"Technically, I've been a functioning alcoholic since college."  Tony put the shotglass down; if Natasha was sober as a priest, he was drunk as a lord.  "Sorry, Thor, but your boozehound level tops out around 'Frat Boy'. This is probably the first time you've ever even seen the hard stuff."

"I'm drinking for two," Bruce offered. "Not.. not literally, but the Other Guy, he's resistant to a lot of things that would normally affect me mentally. It takes a lot to really get me hammered." 

"I plain can't get drunk, I metabolize it too fast."  Steve patted Thor's back.  "This stuff is 190 proof, so don't feel too bad. You fought well-- your ancestors are proud." 

"Never again... I shall never again do Midgardian shots..."  Thor pulled Bruce's chair over, decided he was the right height to use as a pillow, draped himself over his back, buried his face in the good doctor's hair and promptly went to sleep.  Bruce might have objected if it was less warm and snuggly.

"We should probably move him, before he throws up. I think he's eaten three or four entire animals today. That doesn't mean I'm helping, I don't think I can stand up."  Tony leaned his chin in his hands, watching all this with delight. 

Steve got up to try and lift Thor, but Natasha stopped him;  instead, she went to the couch, unsteady on her feet.  She returned with Thor's cloak, which she put over his shoulders and thus completely obscured Bruce, and the matter was considered resolved.

He revists the memories over and over, chasing down the details;  the thin, intense line of deep blue-green makeup Natasha wears on her eyes, the angle of Tony's beard, the soft burr of hair that peeks out from the collar of Bruce's button-ups in warm weather, the pale blue of Thor's eyes when he laughs his face red, the flex of Clint's fingers as he puts on his bracer. 

Taking Natasha to the training room, watching her show him how to run and jump the way she runs and jumps, bouncing off everything, moving with perfect efficiency as clean and swift as raindrops.  The way she moved, ignoring gravity and inertia and the blur of unrestrained movement she said it felt the way dancing ought to feel,  but he told her it looked more like she could fly. 

The first time he ever heard Bruce laugh openly because Tony made some kind of hopelessly nerdy science joke that no one understood but the two of them; it was a graceless sound, peppered with deep nasal snorts and gasps for breath, but it was so perfect and so him, and it seemed to echo through the house long after he'd finally calmed down.

Expecting Tony to either brush off Christmas as commercialized nonsense or throw the flashiest, gaudiest party in New York, only to come home that evening to a very modest tree and a year's worth of thought put into gifts for everyone: the way he smiled, pretending he wasn't very nervous, that this wasn't his first real Christmas, that he wasn't very afraid of looking stupid for caring.

Arm-wrestling with Thor,  just for fun and just to see who would win;  boisterous competition versus unflappable determination, Clint had called it, a grudge match for the ages.  And then they had broken the table when their elbows buckled the legs, and Thor had rewarded him with a hug and the promise of a rematch when table technology could stand it.

Watching Clint cooking just because he felt like it, expertly chopping and dicing and making something marvelous out of whatever was in the kitchen at the time, occasionally breaking to tell some story he recalled, or to offer Steve a spoon and say "Taste this."  The first time the smell actually summoned Tony and Bruce out of the lab, it put such a smug grin on his face that Tony called him an asshole and then asked what he was making tomorrow.

They were good times.

He wants to sleep; it would be easy, in the darkness and the drowsy, stuffy heat, but he reminds himself of his responsibility.  His knees hurt, his hands are raw, and his shoulders are bruised and scratched from feeling around in the dark; it doesn't matter. He has to go forward.

Steve takes another breath and tells his stomach to keep growling, because he'd rather starve to death than outlive his memories.

 

--

 

Night falls; he can tell by the drop in temperature, the distant chirp of insects.  His path has taken him further up, he thinks, but without daylight to search for, he doubts he'll get any further, and so he edges out enough space to lie down, and rests.   He stinks of blood again, his knees scraped near to the bone, his fingernails chipped, his palms raw and bloody.  Perhaps, he thinks, he's overdone it. His mouth is dry, and his stomach has given up.

Steve feels the cool air on his face, and it soothes the ache, just a little; the broken concrete slab beneath him is sleeping-lover warm against his back.  He tries to indulge in a fantasy of who it might be, but there are too many names, too many wishes, too many far-gone friends.  They're gone.  He can make peace with it now: he said goodbye to Peggy and Bucky and the Commandos;  one by one he whispers goodbyes to Natasha and Clint and Thor and Bruce and Tony, because he means to fall asleep soon, and tomorrow will mean waking up alone again. 

Sleep comes easily; he dreams of lace curtains and his mother's hand on his forehead, lightly patting his face with a cool, damp cloth.  He's feverish and lonely, trapped in a body barely strong enough to move its own bones, and so tired, and so sick. 

He turns and retches into the bowl at his bedside; the liquid that pours from his mouth is bright blue at first, and then red as the Serum leaves his body and pulls rich, deep heart's-blood from out of him.  The face he sees in the reflection is gaunt and hollow, wrinkled and wearty with age, and full of strange holes; he should be able to breathe even with his mouth shut, but his lungs are closed, and they burn.

His mother is gone when he begs for help; the house is empty, and full of dust; the world outside is noisy and he can't pull the door open, but he sees a car full of bright, shining, beautiful figures as it pulls away from the curb and rounds the old corner.

He collapses against the door, waiting for the disease to come and take him; the ravens come to wait and peck his eyes. But someone comes to collect him and set him on his feet; his father, wise and hazy in the fog of old, faded memory, says something reassuring.  Go on, son.  You must go on.

Steve wakes slowly, although there's no light to tell him whether his eyes are open.  

He's woken up alone before. 

He takes another breath, and keeps crawling.

--

The heat of noon bears down on him; he can see cracks of light between the crushed walls.  He's thirsty and hungry, his body screaming for what it needs;  he lifts the shield to dig just a little further, and can't.  

He slumps against the wall, sucking in slow breaths of too-hot, humid, stuffy air. It smells gloriously like distant rain, and it's the only thing he can sense through the burning of his muscles and the sting in his chest in his eyes.   

Don't give up, Rogers. You're close. This isn't bigger than either of the wars you fought in.  What would they say if they could see you like this? 

He looks up at the tiny pinholes of light above him, and Steve Rogers digs his bloody fingertips into the wall, and climbs.

He digs.  The shield digs in, he pulls.  More rubble comes loose.  He digs.  His hands ache, and his elbows are beaten. He digs.  The air is too hot and his lungs feel too tight.  He digs.   He loses his breath, so he braces one foot on the opposite side of his little vertical tunnel, and he gives himself a exactly one minute to rest.  He counts his heartbeats as seconds; he names every tenth one. 

One more, he tells himself. One more.

Steve leans forward and plunges the shield into the ceiling one more time; it crumbles and his little mineshaft collapses. He falls a few feet, but he catches himself at the last minute; the wrench of his shoulders and his knees is unbearable, and he yelps like a kicked dog.

But there's daylight pouring on him, and oh God it burns his poor eyes, but he doesn't need to see to follow the warmth of a cloud-crowded sun on his face. He drags himself out of the hole, curls in around his shield.  He's out. He can breathe.  He gets to his feet.

The island is gone.  When they'd landed, there were little cabana bars, cars on the street, apartment buildings sprung up around the booby-trapped resort hotel. Now it's just rubble, streets full of it, flash-burnt and crumbled overnight.  He's still blind from spending so much time in the darkness, but he doesn't need to see much to know he can't hear anything but the waves.  

God, he might have been asleep for months. He'd never know the difference. An earthquake could have done this, a tidal wave.   But ... well. That's a trip he's taken before. He's not any more alone than he was yesterday.

He starts down the pile, his gait dragging and careless, shield loose in his hand.  He thinks he can hear a whine of electricity in the air, maybe a power line still firing or a street-light trying to come on, but it--

"STEVE!"

He jumps, he turns to face the sound of someone's voice.

He doesn't know who said it because they're all there.  Battered, and broken, and bloody, but alive, and rushing up the pile from the places they've staked out among the loose concrete.  Natasha, pretending she's not favoring her right leg and with her left arm bandaged; Bruce, bruised all over and naked except for a pair of pants, which must belong to Tony, who is wearing his gauntlets, his T-shirt, and a surprisingly boring pair of black boxer-briefs along with his spectacular black eye and burnt shoulder and swollen, purple knees;  Clint, with his arm in a makeshift towel-sling and long, bloody gashes down his shins, and Thor, whose hair and cloak are burnt to less than half their normal length and had blood staining his clothes, everything from the waist up slowly healing from hideous burns.

Steve drops to his knees.  He can hear their footsteps coming, he can see them running-- running, even on their poor hurt legs-- and his eyes are stinging, and the lump in his throat slowly gathers, until their shadows fall on him, shielding him from the blinding sunlight.

Tony kneels down first, and gives him that sharp, lopsided smile, the bottomless dark of his eyes gleaming.   "We've been looking all over for you, Cap."

He bends his head down because he can't stop it; he just reaches out with both hands until he finds purchase against skin and cloth, and leans forward to bury his face in the side of Tony's neck.

Their hands reach back for him, on his shoulders, in his hair, around his waist, around his neck; a gentle, clean warmth despite it all, the smell of sweat and metal and SHIELD jumpsuits and Tony's cologne and Bruce's shampoo and Natasha's makeup and Clint's aftershave and Thor's ozone. 

He draws in a shaking breath, and for just a second he thinks he'll hold it together, until someone reassures him, very softly,  "It's okay, Steve."

He exhales a sob of such utter relief that it wracks his aching body like a punch, and although he can feel the shame and the embarrassment creeping up his neck, he can't stop it.  His lungs tell him he screams; his ears tell him it's a whimper, and somehow, he cries himself to sleep against Iron Man's shoulder, still clinging to his teammates as if to keep them from disappearing.

 

---

 

He wakes some time later; it's night, and a campfire is roaring nicely not far away.  The heat from the fire keeps his bare feet warm; someone's removed his shoes and shirt, and the cool air nicely balances the body heat surrounding him.  His cheeks are sticky with dried tears, and his eyes are irritated, his throat hoarse.

There's a slow, steady heartbeat under his ear; Thor's broad chest rises and falls with it in a way that seems to fall in step with the soft lap of the waves not far off.  Natasha is curled up on his other side, her left arm using Thor's stomach as a stable resting place;  Clint is practically molded to her back, his arm cradled in the bell of her waist.  Steve can feel Tony is flat on his back behind him, one arm tucked under Bruce's neck, the other aligned against Steve's spine, fingers curled in the hair at the nape of his neck.

Steve sighs contentedly and smiles, settling in to get a little more sleep.