The shawarma wasn’t bad. Steve was just too tired to pretend his hunger outweighed his exhaustion.
Steve had almost declined joining them in what Thor had called “a victory feast.” He’d felt victorious enough. They’d saved New York city from invasion and a bombing.
To quote Tony: “Yay, team.”
But, in the back of his mind, Steve was still grieving, and grief could be selfish. Grief made you draw back, like your pain was the only thing that mattered. Like, somehow, your pain was uniquely agonizing and unbearable in the history of mankind.
Identifying the lie didn’t cure things overnight.
Only a few hours ago, memories had brought him to a standstill in the middle of the chaos, and for a moment he’d been back in the foxholes surveying a damaged world so different, and so the same.
Early on in his reintroduction to the world, SHIELD had arranged a few sessions with a doctor—a psychologist—who’d given him a lot of well-meaning advice. “Give yourself time, Captain. Give yourself space.” It sounded good on the surface, but underneath…underneath they were empty platitudes. Platitudes that could easily have been crafted into permission for self-pity.
If Steve hadn’t seen through SHIELD’s initial charade, he wondered how long he might’ve sat there, useless and coddled. As it was, he’d spent enough time holed up, obliterating punching bags, but never denting the memories.
He made a choice. Giving himself time and space would’ve equated isolation. The decision to stop white-knuckling control of his surroundings had already been made when he’d agreed to be a part of the Avenger’s initiative. He’d couldn’t stop now.
So when Stark had swept them all up with his won’t-take-no-for-an-answer enthusiasm for a post-battle celebratory meal, Steve hadn’t resisted. To do so would have been a choose to be alone. It would’ve been like closing himself back up in that small room from the 40s that SHEILD had tried to use to shelter him from harsh reality. He couldn’t go back to a place where this century couldn’t touch him. He’d started breathing in this century now, and the air in that relic of a gym was dusty and stale with nostalgia, weighing down the future with thoughts of the past.
He might deserve the space to heal, but that space was out here, with real people. And these people—this team—they were all of them scarred, and healed, and broken, and remade. They were the walking wounded as much as he was.
As he rested his face in his hand, elbow propped on the table, his attention drifted from face to face. The warmth he felt from watching them—each picking at their food with varying degrees of interest—wasn’t quite fondness. Not like he’d known it, comfortable and familiar, with Bucky and the Commandos. But the warmth was enough like that fondness to make him feel grounded for the first time since he’d woken up.
The feeling of warmth was enough to make the present feel tangible. It was just…enough. Being there surrounded by them was, for a moment, home.
Clint and Natasha were the first to leave. She flashed the a smile, and left nudging shoulders with Clint, speaking Russian in a soft undertone.
Bruce was next—telling them, with an understated look of amusement, that he felt stir-crazy for some fresh air, and needed to stretch his muscles with a walk around the block. Apparently, the Other Guy’s rampaging didn’t count.
Which left Tony and Thor occupying the two seats to Steve’s left. Their conversation was monotone, soothing.
And that was where Steve began to lose track of what was happening around him. He’d learned—perhaps too well—how to fall asleep anywhere. At least, he’d had the skill during the war. Recently, since waking up, sleep had not come easily. But now…
The next thing he knew, someone was clapping him on the shoulder. For some reason, he knew instinctively that it had to be Stark.
“Up ‘n at ‘em, Sunshine.”
His instincts were right. His instincts furthermore were quickly losing any fanciful feelings of warmth in exchange for irritation.
“’Night, Stark,” he mumbled, already beginning to drift off again.
“Now, see, if I were a lesser man I would either: A, leave you there drooling onto a hygienically dubious surface, or, B, use this opportunity to take the kind of picture the media would be all over with their sticky little hands. But, not being a lesser man, we’ll go the no-man-left-behind route.” There was pause in the nonsense, wherein Stark sighed, presumably at Steve’s lack of a reaction. “Thor? He’s not moving.”
“So I observe.”
“We can’t leave him like this.”
“No,” Thor’s voice agreed gravely, “we cannot.”
“He’s got ‘adopt me’ written all over him. Like some freakishly huge puppy.”
The snigger in Tony’s voice almost cracked the veil of sleep. But not quite.
“Alright, Thor,” Stark continued, “I’ll peel his face off the counter. You, lift.”
That was enough to shatter the veil—but, too late. He was already being manhandled into an upright position. He stifled a groan at the last minute as the pain of the blast wound to his side came alive with a fiery throb. He’d forgotten about that, thanks to adrenaline and exhaustion. Now it—along with the bruises and cracked ribs he’d sustained from being flung out a window and onto a car—sent out a chorus of complaints that blurred into one giant ache.
“You with us, Dopey?”
Steve blinked blearily at Stark’s face and found raised, expectant eyebrows, and too-cheerful eyes. He realized Thor was half supporting him, and quickly straightened, taking his own weight and clearing his throat.
“Alright, then. Grub’s paid for, so we’re off.”
Steve fell into line next to Thor, following Tony out the door on autopilot, only to pause when he found himself standing on a sidewalk, inexplicably preparing to get inside a black limousine. It was sleek, and, to his eye, long enough to appear warped, and altogether so entirely foreign from his concept of cars. In the last few years before his “death,” he’d spent more time in the back of a deuce-and-a-half, jostling over ragged terrain, than anything. The car’s dimly lit interior—with its leather seats, and tinted windows, and mini bar—was less alluring than it was stunning. He supposed he should be over the surprises this century had to offer. A car shouldn’t have seemed surreal, not after the Hellicarrier.
“Captain?” Thor inquired. He stood at Steve’s side like a sentinel; like he was still following Steve’s lead into battle.
“I should…probably report back to SHIELD.” He took a step back, exhaustion making his thinking process muddled. “I’ll get a cab, or...” Or just stand there and try to gain his bearings, waiting until the roaring pain in his side ebbed again before he took the next step.
“Nuh uh. Not leaving you on the curb, either.” Stark sounded determined. He placed a guiding hand on Steve’s arm, like he was a small and willful child. “Fury would have my hide.”
Resistance welled up. He’d never liked being vulnerable, not before the serum, and not now. And he was vulnerable right now. He didn’t need Stark rubbing it in his face.
“I’ll be just fine on my own, thanks.” Steve pulled away—felt the strain the action placed on his abused stomach muscles, and the more-than-twinge of pain it cost him. He gasped soundlessly, drawing in breath and holding it against the hurt. Not breathing, unfortunately, only upped the vertigo.
He had a fleeting vision of himself passed out on the sidewalk in front of them. Him, the guy who let himself be touted as the “man with a plan,” the sure bet for a leader. He respected Thor too much, and he was too conflicted where Stark was concerned, to let that happen.
“You’re looking a little worn ‘round the edges there, Cap.”
“You were injured, Captain,” Thor added, “I saw the blast you took.”
“I heal fast.” Unconsciously, Steve realized his hand had crept up to cover the wound in question.
“Not that fast. You should probably have it looked at,” Tony pointed out, and he sounded strangely devoid of sarcasm or ulterior motivation.
But all that prospect conjured to mind for Steve was bright light, and poking, and prodding, and questions, and tests. “No,” he replied decisively. Then, finished less decisively: “I just need… rest. Just rest.”
“Then c’mon. Into the Starkmobile with the both of you. You can sleep on the way to the tower, Steve, and then we’ll see if we can find you some spangly jammies. Pepper’s a miracle worker like that.”
Steve clenched his jaw against retorts the itched to be made. For all his goading, Stark seemed to mean well. Despite glitz, and glamor, and well-groomed devil-may-care persona, the overall impression Steve was gathering of him was one of loneliness as intense as any of the team’s. He cared more deeply about things than he let on, and he cared less about his own safety than his pride might suggest. And when it came down to it, he’d laid down on the wire, alright.
But the fact that he was beginning to see past preconceptions—through the confusion cast by his friendship with Howard—only made Steve want all the more to keep Tony Stark at arm’s length. He needed to understand better, first. Himself, and Tony. The whole team, really.
He shook his head at Tony’s offer. “I’ll be fine.” He took another step back to emphasize his intentions. With a rush of mortification, he stumbled, clutched his wounded side protectively as teetered precariously on the brink of losing his balance altogether. He wished fiercely for the privacy to make these mistakes without an audience. At least hospitals were impersonal, where observers weren’t also teammates whose respect he already valued, and needed if he was going to lead them.
Thor wrapped his arm beneath Steve’s and casually pulled it over his shoulders, his easy companionability simply not something to be shrugged off. “Come, Captain. Accept our friend’s hospitality for the night. Surely, you will rest easily within the safety of such a mighty fortress as this Tower of Stark.”
As weariness rolled over him in waves, Steve suddenly couldn’t think of a reason not to. He’d seen Stark Tower—knew it was supposedly large enough to get lost in, and believed it from what he’d seen. So maybe he’d just lose himself for a night. Sleep. Be recovered by morning.
He dipped his head in a lazy nod, leaning on Thor more than he intended to. It was a good, thing, too, because the pain that lanced up his side when he took his next step was enough to drive the air out of his lungs. He realized this time he had groaned, and bit the inside of his cheek in frustration. Thor’s arm across his back tightened in obvious concern.
“Maybe we should stop by SHIELD. Have you patched up,” Stark suggested, again without any apparent attempt at mockery.
“No,” Steve negated sharply. He tried to moderate his tone, make it sound less hoarse, but he knew the edge of desperation was still there. By going to SHIELD, he hadn’t had in mind a trip by the medical facility at all—just a direct route to the quarters he’d been given. “No, please. I don’t…I don’t want to be analyzed right now. They mean well, but the doctors are so curious to learn more about the serum’s healing properties, and it’ll be half the night before they’re done, and right now I just can’t—”
“—Easy, easy,” it was Stark’s tone, more than anything, that instantly shut Steve up. He sounded almost…compassionate. And a little angry about something, too. “No one’s dragging Captain America off against his will. Much less to face a barrage of tests from a medical firing squad.”
“Indeed not,” Thor affirmed staunchly, and he sounded upset, too. “I will allow no such thing. On my honor.”
“There. As vowed by the God of Thunder, himself. No pin-cushion treatment. Sound alright? You can count on it. No data-hungry doctors putting you under a microscope, I promise, on both of our…honors.” Stark sounded almost like a kid, eager to please, which was just strange. He was probably imagining it.
Steve was at once defeated, and thankful, and resigned as he allowed them to tow him along—Thor’s arm still around his back, Tony hovering—and urge him inside the car. The seats were cool, and comfortable, the lighting was forgivingly soft.
Steve drifted off to sleep with Thor on one side, and Tony on the other, and the sensation of almost-fondness and almost-familiarity returned to his chest with reassuring warmth.
“Ouch. That had to hurt.” Tony surveyed mottled bruising: dark, purple-black centers, and a fan of green-to-yellow edges. There was a particularly nasty patch that covered nearly the entire right side of Steve’s ribcage.
And that wasn’t even starting in on the circular burn left by a Chitauri blaster. Again, the edges had begun to heal, but the center was still a painful-looking, inflamed red.
When they’d arrived at the tower, Steve had woken enough to semi-pilot his own way to the guest room—but he’d hadn’t resisted Thor’s help, and he hadn’t spoken a word. After that, he’d just collapsed on the bed, apparently with no further aspirations other than to lie there and embrace unconsciousness.
Common sense might’ve dictated that Captain freakin’ America knew his own business. He’d survived World War II (sort of). So it stood to reason that he knew how to keep on surviving.
Surviving, however, came in all shades of pain or ease. Tony knew Steve’s story. God knew he’d heard it often enough from Howard. Steve had scraped by, alright. His whole life might’ve been defined as survival.. He’d survived being a sickly kid, survived the serum treatment, survived Hydra and Hitler’s régimes, survived crashing a plane into the arctic and being frozen solid for seventy years.
Survival shouldn’t always need to be come by the hard way. Tony’d had his fair share of that brand of beating the odds.
And, apparently, Thor had been of the same persuasion as he was: namely, that it would’ve been a crying shame to just turn their back on a singed and battered Captain America, curled up in an honest-to-God fetal position, without so much as taking the time to toss a blanket over him.
Tony had just opening his mouth to break the ice with some brilliant quip about how they were going to get him into those spangly jammies, when Thor had asked, calmly collected:
“Have you ointment and clean bandages?”
And from there, Thor had stolen the show, and Tony had let him. It really shouldn’t have come as a surprise that the guy with hundreds of years of battle experience was an old hand at “treating the harm done to comrades.”
Now Tony was standing there watching, battling a sense of unease. He wasn’t exactly nurse material.
Thor, on the other hand, was the antithesis of awkwardness, accepting what Tony brought him like a surgeon accepting the tools of his trade. Pepper’s plane hadn’t returned from DC yet, and most of the tower’s staff had either fled town, left for the night, or were otherwise busy with the aftermath of the day’s events, so Tony ran Thor’s errands himself. Frankly, he didn’t mind the opportunities to dart from the room, even if finding witch hazel would’ve been hopeless without JARVIS’ patient direction.
When he came back from that mission, Thor had cut away the top part of Steve’s suit—and it was a testament to Steve’s exhaustion that he had remained dead to the world. He was then treated to a full itinerary of the bruises and burns and cuts that littered Steve’s upper body.
And, yeah…just, ouch, didn’t really cover it.
Thor instantly began to dab, and clean, with a gentle, almost artistic delicateness to his touch that temporarily boggled Tony’s mind. As if the whole situation weren’t surreal enough already: him, the God of Thunder, and a softly snoring Captain America.
When Thor neared the burn with his cleaning and dabbing, Steve woke with an unguarded yelp, jolting upright and lashing out to grab Thor’s arm.
“It is well, Captain. You are among friends,” Thor assured him instantly, as if this, too, were a role he had performed many times.
Steve’s breathing instantly slowed, though he didn’t immediately release Thor’s arm. He looked like kid waking up from a bad dream, and it suddenly struck Tony just how young Captain Rogers—war hero, living legend, and icon—really was. What was he, twenty-two? Twenty-three? It was easier to buy, here and now, while Steve was a sooty, tousle-haired mess, with pain shining a little feverishly in dazed blue eyes.
Maybe Steve Rogers knew a thing or two about dual-identities, himself. It had never really occurred to Tony that Captain America and Captain Rogers weren’t one and the same. He remembered now how Howard had talked plenty about “Steve” being a great guy, not just Captain America. Suddenly, in context—with a living, breathing Steve Rogers in front of him—that distinction took on new meaning.
This was the guy his dad hadn’t shut up about. At present, it was both a profound realization and comical one, considering Steve’s wide-eyed, ragged appearance.
“What are you…doing?” Steve looked from Thor to Tony in obvious bewilderment even as he beginning to sag back against the pillows.
“We only sought to make you more comfortable,” Thor replied. He looked amused by Steve’s grip on his arm.
Steve caught on, looking down at his own hand like it belonged to someone else, and hastily let go. “Sorry about that, Thor. And, thanks, but I’m fine. This...really isn’t necessary.”
“Well, no duh. Anyone can see you’re doing just peachy,” Tony interrupted. He knew he was an displaying an abysmal bedside manner, but he’d had about enough of the bedraggled martyr routine. “Obviously, the decent thing to do would’ve been just to leave you there to shiver, and thrash, and fight off infection the hard way. Because we’re hardhearted and soulless like that.”
Steve looked satisfactorily subdued by his tirade.
Tony continued, picking up the glass of water he’d brought, and holding out a more-than-average-adult-sized dose of extra-strength Tylenol. “Now stop your whining, and take this. It’s got to be better than nothing.”
Steve obeyed. Thor raised an eyebrow, and Steve nodded, the two of them communicating on some telepathic Warrior Link.
Steve suffered through all further ministrations with more of his customary, steely-eyed fortitude. As Thor began to carefully coax free pieces of singed and melted fabric from the blaster wound, Steve clenched his jaw so tight, he looked liable to chip teeth.
Tony might be fresh out of prescription analgesics (especially the kind, if they existed, that were potent enough to have any effect against Captain America’s super soldier metabolism), but there were other ways to deaden the pain.
“JARVIS. Give us something life-changing to watch.”
“That’s be my invisible butler,” Tony informed Steve, as an aside, as the flat-panel TV on the wall directly opposite the bed came to life.
“I’m pregnant, Karl! Pregnant!” shrieked a brunette in a low-cut yellow prom dress.
“What? No way, Darla!” Karl delivered his lines with passion. “Don’t look at me. It can’t be mine. It…can’t.”
“Oh, yeah? Why’s that, Karl?” Darla puckered her face tearfully in a way that was probably supposed to be sexy.
Ah, late night television at its best.
A sidelong glance at Steve revealed a startled, and faintly concerned expression. Captain America Gives Unwitting Soap Star A Lesson in Responsibility—he could just see the headlines now.
“Soap Operas: fictional dramas of only the classiest nature,” Tony explained. “I guess they were a little after your time, Cap.”
“What does this lovers’ quarrel have to do with soap?” Thor asked, still working studious at cleaning the grime from Steve’s wound, movements swift but deft.
“Or opera?” Steve added.
“Ah…they started out as commercials made by soap manufacturers, or something. Not sure about the opera part.”
“Will this selection do, Sir?”
Tony chanced another sidelong glance in Steve’s direction. He was watching, now with less concern, and more narrow-eyed scrutiny, as Karl took the news of his pending fatherhood with some borderline shrieking of his own. “Very life-changing, yes, thank you, JARVIS. You’re a real gem.”
“I strive, Sir.”
Steve watched, until his eyes began to droop. He leaned forward obligingly to allow Thor to wrap a gauze bandage around his torso, before melting back comfortably into the pillows, with drowsy thanks.
“No boots on the bed,” Tony chided, and had to yank hard to loosen them, before nearly flying backwards as they slid off easily in the end. Geeze, the things were heavy.
Thor got the covers, overriding Steve’s protestations with a benevolent smile, that just might’ve been his means of casting some kind of Jedi Mind Trick/Spell thingy that turned stubborn super soldiers into compliant and droopy super soldiers. Maybe he’d been casting the spell all along. He pulled the covers up to Steve’s chin, and even gave them a finishing pat, like somebody’s doting grandma.
Talk about a whole new dimension of reality.
“Sleep well, Captain.”
“Yeah, don’t let the bed bugs bite. Sweet dreams. All that stuff.”
As he dimmed the lights off without needing to be told, JARVIS left the TV on, volume on low. Karl and Darla’s fight provided flickering light, like an artificial fire on the hearth.
“You guy’s ‘r great,” Steve’s soft, muddled words were almost too quiet to hear. Almost.
A Tony felt a surge of satisfaction, better than the glowing warmth of a good Madeira. Which was saying something.
“Yeah. We’re kind of getting used to you, too, Cap,” he replied, with just a hint of irony.
Thor may actually have been glowing, faintly. “Recover your strength, Captain. We, your comrades, value it in battle.”
From just about anyone else, it might’ve sounded like an insult to first insinuate he needed to recover strength, and then secondly to put value in battle up there like the pinnacle of worth. But from Thor it was different. It just was.
Thor closed the door, and slung an arm around Tony’s shoulder with a grin, suggesting, “Perhaps I may trouble you for something to eat.”
“You just can’t stop hugging people, can you?” Tony groused, squirming ineffectually. “Or eating.”
Thor was unperturbed. “Can one acquire Pop Tarts at such an hour?”
Tony rolled his eyes. “Yeah, yeah. C’mon, big guy. You’ve earned it. Hey, should we start calling you Dr. Thor now?”
Thor’s boyish smile didn’t exactly die so much as it soften into something solemn and thoughtful. “It was no chore; no obligation. He is one of our number, and our Captain. And though he does not wish to appear weak, we must show him that our faith in him will not waver over mere wounds—wounds honorably and bravely obtained, no less.”
Tony knew he was blinking a bit owlishly at Thor. He couldn’t help it. The guy was all raucous exuberance one minute, and the next he ambushed you with ponderings too deep for his tired, mortal brain to untangle.
Thor must’ve seen this, for he clapped him on the shoulder, and said more concisely, “He is a worthy Captain.”
There. His brain could handle that. Tony smiled, steering Thor in the direction of the kitchen, where he was pretty sure he’d seen some Pop Tarts in one of the cupboards. “Yeah. Yeah, I think he just might be.”