It started with a left hook to his jaw.
Steve stumbled, crashing onto his back, and a foot came down like a hammer, heel driving home, straight into his solar plexus. It stole air, robbing his focus. Just like an asthma attack, just like when his windpipe closed up and made the simple act of breathing impossible.
The droning in his ears took over. Only it wasn't a droning sound so much as a sharp, pulsing, shriek. It was the blare of his clock’s alarm, nagging him awake.
Jerking upright, he pulled a welcome breath into healthy lungs, and could've sobbed at the feel of them expanding easily, fully, without a hint or threat of heaviness to weigh him down.
He swung his legs over the side of the bed, realizing too late that he was caught up in a tangled mess of twisted bed sheets. The impact with the floor jarred his brain more fully awake, but for a minute he just lay there, irrationally angry at the sheets, and the alarm, and stale dreams about bullies, long-gone, overpowering a Steve Rogers from another time.
Later, he’d wish he’d stayed down while he had the chance. But getting back up was something that both that Steve Rogers and this Steve Rogers would always have in common.
Kicking free of the sheets, he crawled to the foot to the nightstand with an economy of grace, propped himself up on one elbow, and reached up to find the top button by feel and slap it off. Now that he’d figured out how to work the thing, the satisfaction of hitting a token piece of technology every morning was like a therapeutic rite that never got old.
He got to his knees and locked into a groggy stare-down with blue numbers. 06:18. Taking the drive into consideration, that left him about fifteen minutes to get ready if he was going to get the SHEILD meeting by 07:00.
Steve surged towards the bathroom, flipping on the glaring lights and fumbling around for toiletries in the foreign, too-large space that was Tony Stark’s idea of a perfectly normal en-suite. No time for a shower. He dressed, wet a comb, and ran it through his hair, then shaved—and did a neat job of nearly slicing his own throat with the razor.
Grabbing a handful of tissues and pressing it to the cut, he made a beeline for the kitchen. His metabolism made caffeine about as effective on him as alcohol, but he needed...something. Something that tasted potent even if it wasn't.
Clint and Natasha were there, looking as immaculate and unflappable as usual. Steve nodded to them and went straight for the coffee pot.
Behind him, Natasha was buttering a piece of toast. “Need a Band-Aid for that, Cap?”
He started, turning, cup clenched in one hand, pulling the tissues away from the cut and discarding it in the trash with a last dab. “Thanks. But I think the serum can handle it,” he answered ruefully. “Should be healed soon.”
Natasha assessed him. “Your hair’s a little…”
“Spikey. Like a hedgehog,” Clint suggested, straight-faced, bringing his empty plate over to the sink.
“Ooo, nice tousled, bed-head look. Very not-retro for once. I like it, Pops,” Tony offered up his unsolicited opinion, breezing in looking maddeningly fresh, and well-groomed, and ready for the day. He also headed straight for the coffee, inhaling half a cup on the spot without appearing to be scalded in the least.
Steve didn’t even bother with feeling self-conscious. He was too busy being not remotely ready for the day. Taking a careful sip of black coffee, he reached up to try to groom his hair into some semblance of order. Apparently the wet comb hadn’t been a permanent match for a serious case of “bed-head.”
“Here.” Natasha stepped behind him, smoothing out the stubborn tufts at the back of his head before coming back around to tweak the front of his hair with assured, deft, two-fingered movements. Then she stepped back to examine him, picking up her last bite of toast and popping it into her mouth. She nodded with a soft smirk that didn’t ridicule. “Very retro, Cap. Very you.”
Steve gave her a grateful smile as he turned to search out something to eat. And promptly caught a toe on the edge of the rug, stumbling into the counter and losing his solid grip on his mug. He jerked away at the last moment so that more of it spilled on him than her, but it still wasn’t enough to spare her from a bit of a spattering.
“God, Nat, I’m so sorry. Did it burn you? I didn’t—”
“—It’s fine.” She grabbed a roll of paper towels and proffered him a torn-off handful of sheets. “Hardly shows. Got to love black.” Patting her own clothes dry, she eyed the dark stain spreading down the front of Steve’s light blue plaid.
“Yeah,” Steve agreed ruefully, dabbing at his shirt without much hope.
Clint had no reason to still be standing there watching them, but he was clearly too busy gawking like a tourist. He griped pointedly, “How is he not dead right now? If anyone else splattered coffee on you they would be dead.”
“Anyone else would be way dead by now,” Tony concurred petulantly. “First the pat on the head, and now this. How come all the special treatment, Tasha, huh?”
Natasha rolled her eyes, ignoring them like the answer was as obvious as the answer to why you obeyed gravity. She just kept observing him, knowingly, and Steve caught something in her eyes like understanding. Like she knew all about the last few weeks of sketchy-to-nonexistent sleep. Like she knew that even when disasters, and meetings, and press conferences weren’t waking him up early or keeping him up late, the nightmares took over, dredging up memories that felt like yesterday instead of the better part of a century ago.
That was just Natasha: insightful to a degree that was terrifying, but, once she let you in past her guard, unexpectedly warm despite the hand life had dealt her. She was stoic, and compassionate, and dangerous, all at once. Steve didn’t always understand her, but he was coming to appreciate the paradox she was as something rare and hard-won.
But she didn’t say anything to acknowledge sympathy or concern, for which he was grateful, especially considering their audience.
“You might want to hurry and change,” she said, simply.
“No time,” Tony interjected, far too cheerfully. “We’re probably gonna be late as it is. Ride’s a-waitin’, kids.” He trailed after Natasha, and his pestering for her to straighten his hair ending abruptly with a sharp elbow jab to his stomach.
Steve was just dumping the shattered pieces of his coffee mug into the trash, when Tony’s voice haunted him from out in the hall: “All aboard, Cap! Last call!”
He sighed, straightened his over-shirt, and headed for the elevator.
It was a humid, sweltering seventy-six degrees outside—too hot to grab a jacket on his way to cover the damage. So Steve just went with grinning and bearing it. Mostly just the bearing it, part.
Fury hardly gave his less-then-presentable status a second look before he left them to the care of Agent Mitchell.
Agent Mitchell gave each of the Avengers first, and second, and third looks, and none of them were the pleased kind.
Apparently, the meeting was about balancing SHEILD’s checkbook: a quarterly assessment of the expenses the Avengers had accrued.
To Tony’s credit, he didn’t just turn the middle finger on Mitchell and walk out. No. That would’ve been far, far too painless for them all.
After five minutes of Agent Mitchell outlining their tally of smashed cars and decimated blocks like they were a luxury expense right up there with champagne and sports cars, Tony started adding his own commentary in the form of cheerful reminiscences of creating said destruction “while saving the world—and a couple of people—in the process.”
Steve couldn’t even be mad at Tony for intentionally picking a fight. Because he got it—or at least, he thought he was beginning to get it. Staying here to make bad jokes was Tony’s own way of being a team player, of sticking it out with the rest of them instead of instantly throwing money at the problem. That would undoubtedly come later.
Moreover, he agreed with Tony. People like Mitchell didn’t know what it was like to be in the middle of a fight, feverish and careless of protecting anything and everything, provided the end result was lives saved.
But Steve had heard enough of these tirades to know that wasn’t really the point. The point was…people like Mitchell would always exist, and they were necessary, however aggravating. After the smoke had cleared, and the first blush of victory had passed, things like money still mattered, and not all of them had Tony’s unlimited resources. Everyone knew that the Avengers couldn’t be held responsible for all the damage that happened in the course of saving lives, but that didn’t stop people from stepping up to question the necessity or avoidability of so very many of the individual instances of destruction of private property. And while SHIELD would not, of course, pay up every claim made against them, someone still had to examine their validity.
So while it grated on him, as a soldier, to listen to Mitchell’s scolding, he knew that no amount of counter-argument would ever stop people from complaining about the cost of war.
He also found no small irony in the fact that for all his cynicism, Tony was optimistic enough to gripe right back at Mitchell, like he hoped to score a point that would result in Mitchell caving and conceding.
Which obviously wasn’t going to happen.
So when Mitchell’s gaze seemed to settle on Steve as some sort of focal point for his wrath, Steve sighed inwardly, and schooled his features into an approximation of attention instead of lethargy. While he understand where Mitchell was coming from, and could even respect it, accepting it as a good reminder—the fact remained that lives would always be more important than any number of wrecked streets, or cars, or buildings.
“As the man giving out orders,” Mitchel continued, eying the stained front of Steve’s shirt, like such personal slovenliness gave him a reason to doubt that Steve really was the one in charge, “I think it would behoove you to rethink your tactical approach the next time you order something smashed.” He made it clear that by “tactical approach” he really meant “reckless excuse for leadership.”
“Hey,” Bruce spoke up sharply—polite, but quietly indignant, “don’t hold Captain Rogers responsible for the damage the Other Guy causes. That’s on him, and me.”
Tony didn’t bother with politeness as he added with a particularly sulky expression, like he’d been gravely insulted: “Yeah, count Iron Man out, too. I’ll take my own accolades, thanks.” He grinned incorrigibly. “Smashing happens, with or without orders.”
Thor looked imperious, more lofty in his approach but equally offended. “Indeed, it does. Frequently.”
“Well, personally, I just like blowing things up,” Clint said smugly.
Natasha snorted quietly.
Mitchell looked around at them, aghast. He was obviously unseasoned when it came to dealing with children disguised as adults.
Steve cringed a little, inwardly. It was kind of touching—in an aggravating way—to see them each pitch in like that. To hear them talk, Mitchel was dishing out cake instead of blame, and they each wanted to scarf down a piece.
But that kind of flagrant taunting just dragged things like this out for even longer.
How right he was about that.
By the time Mitchell finished, Steve was on the verge of promising anything, up to revising, “Hulk, smash,” to, “Hulk, impede the advancing hordes bent on world domination while utilizing your better judgment and discretion to avoid any unnecessary damage to public or private property in the course of your blind rampaging.”
He bit his tongue at the last minute, and even avoided sprinting for the door when the meeting was finally adjourned by an angel of mercy, cleverly disguised as Agent Coulson.
When Tony all but kidnapped him for lunch, Steve only resisted long enough to grab a clean shirt out of his locker.
In the limo, he made the mistake of questioning Tony’s gravitational pull towards pizza as the natural food of choice: the default winner when nobody had a decisive answer in response to, “What’s for lunch?”
Tony was clearly outraged. “Pizza’s pizza. It’s always a good idea. It’s happy ending food. And pretty much happy anytime food. Cheese, grease, and pepperoni are what make the world go ‘round. Trust me on this.”
“Okay,” Steve agreed, settling back against the cool leather of the limousine’s seat. If growing up during the Depression hadn’t been enough to drive all thoughts of finicky eating from his way of thinking, then C-rations had finished the job. He’d only questioned Tony’s choice…because. Because there was so much to be questioned these days, and one way or another Tony had become his personal walking, talking pop culture dictionary. And also he’d asked because his small talk skills were suffering today, and it had been the first thing he’d come up with.
But he should’ve known better than to feel the need to create chit-chat. For the next ten minutes he was treated to a Stark versus Stark debate, concerning the “timeless argument” of whether pepperoni or sausage was the better topping. Unsurprisingly, Stark won, and the obvious conclusion to the argument was “both.”
Tony then went on to expound with impassioned rhetoric upon how green peppers should be outlawed as toxic. Sometimes Steve honestly couldn’t tell when he was joking about these things.
It was nice. Strangely nice. Like turning on the radio and listening to commentators talk without caring in the slightest what they talked about. Steve could’ve easily let himself fall asleep to it, there in the private darkness of the limousine.
Then they were at the curb, and Tony had the door open, and Steve followed him out onto a busy New York sidewalk.
How the reporters found them, Steve hadn’t a clue. They must’ve been in the area originally for some other purpose, because there was no way they could’ve found out so quickly that the two of them would be here. But they were on them almost immediately—a handful of determined men and women complete with camera crew and microphones—honing in like sharks smelling blood. There was an energy and an élan to them that was as admirable as it was disquieting to encounter so abruptly. The USO shows should’ve prepared him for this kind of thing, but the truth was that even then he’d never really gotten used to the part where random people—strangers—bombarded him with so much hungry fervor. Fervor to see him fail. Fervor to see him beat the odds and win. Just…fervor. He didn’t know these people, but they always acted like they knew him—and, he supposed, in a way they did.
Stark usually basked in it. Today, he was annoyed, but not deeply. He held up a hand, denying answers airily, and demanding space to get through to the pizza parlor.
Tony’s cellphone rang in tandem with Steve’s, and when Steve picked up, straining to hear above the shouts from the reporters. He sighed at the cryptic message from a SHIELD agent, informing him that there was “a situation.”
They pushed their way back to the limo.
“So. Gas station stop?” Tony groused, already having ordered Happy to turn the car around.
Steve was hungry enough that a bag of greasy chips, a Snickers bar, and hotdog sounded about as much like heaven as anything else that would take away the gnawing edge of a raging metabolism.
As he shouldered his way through the gas station doors on the way out, mid-bite of hotdog, he heard a flurry of clicking and giggling—and looked over to the source. A couple of teenagers stood with cellphones trained on him.
“Go Cap! Way to endorse the junk food,” called one smiling boy, with a thumbs-up gesture.
Tony practically yanked Steve back inside the limo.
“Were they…” Steve began.
“Oh, yeah. They were. Cameras are standard in cells these days.”
Steve opened his bag of chips. “You don’t think they’d…”
“Send those pictures anywhere?” Tony smirked discomfortingly. “You’re about to make FritoLay, Mars Inc., and hotdog venders everywhere very happy, Cap. ‘Course, health nuts will probably burn you in effigy, but…eh.” He shrugged.
Steve regarded his food, sighed, and dug in.
The meeting was brief, and to the point. Some kind of semi-organic robot hybrids were ambling down streets in Harlem. Half-a-dozen, so far. No pictures were available, just reports of huge “troll” creatures with legs like elephants, and mechanical upper bodies. They had proven as impervious to negotiations as they were to bullets—just plodding heedlessly past law enforcement, tearing up and eating shrubs, trees, and fire hydrants. In their wake, they were letting out…fumes.
If AIM was behind their creation, it seemed more likely that their release was an accident rather than a deliberate attack. Unless AIM was counting on them to systematically eat up earth’s vegetation, or to knock humanity out with their “exhaust.”
Tony was already gleefully dubbing them the Stink ‘Bots.
On his way to suit up Steve ran into Fury. Literally. As he rounded the corner, they clipped shoulders with a jolt that sent them each stumbling back a step, and knocking the folders in Fury’s hands to the floor in a spray of flying papers. It was like being in one of those terrible romantic comedies Clint like to torture the team with—where humorous run-ins abounded—only it wasn’t remotely funny, and Fury clearly wasn’t the sweet-if-vacant blonde of any man’s dreams, any more than the reverse was true.
Serendipity was not the word for the moment.
“Sir. I apologize, I didn’t—”
“—Go, Captain Rogers. Carry on.”
Steve grimaced, tipped his head in acknowledgment with a, “Yes, Sir,” and didn’t bother trying to decrypt the anger-to-exasperation ratio in the look Fury leveled on him. Some days it was just better to assume your C.O. hated your guts, and be pleasantly surprised if he cut you any slack.
He was the last onboard the quinjet, not physically out of breath, but definitely feeling the strain of a day that seemed bound and determined not to grant him time to gather his composure and equilibrium long enough to stop spilling coffee on Natasha, or running headlong into Fury.
He sat, resting his elbow on the arm of his chair, directing his mind towards strategy, and an approach to deal with the ‘bots as quickly as…
“Woah, Cap. Your sweat explosive, or something?”
Steve blinked at Tony in incomprehension.
Tony pointed towards Steve’s left shoulder, a slow smile building. “Blowout on aisle one.”
Steve lifted his arm, examining the hole in his suit directly over the armpit. Great. He folded his arm back to his side, crossing his arms. He’d been in too much of a rush to notice when he’d donned the suit.
“You totally burned right through it,” Tony insisted with no end of elation, “with your super soldier sweat. What about the other ‘pit—”
Steve gave Tony a warning glare. “Not now, Stark. Not today.”
“But tomorrow? Okay, fine, fine. I can wait until tomorrow.”
Only, he obviously couldn’t wait until tomorrow to continue, because even as the Avengers charged into the action, Tony was prattling over the comms, full of more-than-insinuations that Steve could fend them all off by fighting stink with stink.
Frankly, Steve quickly began to wish that the solution could only be so simple. The ‘bots weren’t terribly aggressive. They were slow, lumbering, and graceless—but when enraged by any attempt to stop them, the fumes really began to come. Steve supposed it was part of their defense mechanism, and he had to concede, it was a pretty good one.
Clint, however, was cackling about, literally, being above all of it. Iron Man, too, was able to filter out the smell thanks to the suit.
But, as for the rest of the team, even Thor was coughing and looking a little green as he swung Mjolnir against their tough, leathery hides. Hulk roared in rage: “Stinky die!” before denting in a Stink ‘Bot’s head with a fist.
Facing off with one of the remaining three ‘bots, Steve took turns with Natasha, hanging back a moment to gag and gulp in air, and then rush in on the offensive. The electromagnetic volts from gauntlets seemed to be having some effect, at least, as she twisted out of reach, hitting it repeatedly in the legs with charge after charge. It stumbled around drunkenly, convulsing and waving its arms as if to swat at a fly. It didn’t fall, though.
Steve took advantage of the distraction to leap onto its back, raise his shield, and bring it down hard on the creature’s head. So far, despite the helm-like metal of their heads, the neck and back of the head seemed to be the ‘bot’s weak points, where blows were the most effective.
It staggered for a moment, and Steve yelled for Natasha to stand back, preparing to jump clear, himself. But then it seemed to recover—enough to buck Steve and send him crashing backwards through the showcase window front of a nearby building. Despite the searing pain that lanced down his back, he managed to keep hold of his shield, raising it just as the ‘bot came crashing through the wall after him, letting out a tinny-sounding roar that reverberated oddly in the enclosed space. Its fists smashed against the surface of the shield, and Steve braced himself to keep his arm up. He’d hit his head pretty hard, and his ears were still ringing from it, blood trickling down his neck.
The smell wasn’t helping, either. It was cloying, like rotting meat, and faintly earthy like mold, with just a hint of sulfuric, rotten egg musk overlaying it all. It was pungently, nauseatingly warm and close, with the creature towering over him and pressing down on him, as steamy puffs of stink vented out of the chinks and gaps in its exoskeleton.
He saw the flash of sliver over the ‘bot’s shoulder—heard Natasha's grunt of effort as she drove a slender knife between its head armor and body armor, directly into the neck.
The howl it gave was loud with pain, and when Natasha leveled her arm and jolted it with a long, sustained volt, it spasmed in one last, long paroxysm before toppling forward like a felled tree.
Steve couldn’t help a ragged cry as it landed on him, its torso trapping his legs, head smashing against his shield and pinning it—and his arm—to his chest.
The stench quickly became the least of his worries as he struggled to simply breathe. There were cracked ribs, for sure. Possibly, just a lot of cracked bones, period.
Natasha was yelling over the comm for Hulk, or Thor, to come help lift it off him. Then her face was hovering directly above his.
“I’m fine,” he grunted. “I’m…” he broke off to gasp in surprise at the feeling of hot, wet something beginning to saturate his left leg. “Oh, God, noplease,” he moaned, with plenty of prayerful earnestness.
Whatever it was—blood, guts, urine, or liquid-state fumes—it burned like acid. He grimaced at Natasha, without the breath or words explain the misery that was as disgusting as it was painful. The anonymous ‘bot fluid was wicking quickly up the lower leg of his suit towards his thigh, and a few more spots spattered his torso. He strained to lift the carcass, but flat on his back was hardly the ideal posture for good leverage, and there simply wasn’t any give. As heavy as the ‘bots appeared, he was discovering that they were, in fact, even heavier than he’d imagined.
Natasha’s hand hovered lightly against the side of his face. “Hulk’s on the way.”
As the burn progressed to breathtaking levels, he finally managed to voice the primary issue on his mind: “S’leaking on me.”
Natasha’s expression drew together into a sympathetic cringe. “Oh…that’s… That’s just... “ She shook her head, as if to dispel a shudder. “We’ll have you out in a minute.”
Stark proclaimed that he’d gotten the last of the things and shortly thereafter the Hulk arrived with thunderous footsteps. His green face peered down at Steve from over the ‘bot’s crumpled mass, and Steve couldn’t help whimpering impatiently, “Hey, buddy. Can you lift it?”
Steve choked a little at the apt assessment, amused despite the pain. “Oh, yeah, buddy. Cap squished alright.”
Hulk lifted. There was a moment of instant relief from the pressure, just before a spray of liquid hit Steve’s face in a cascade of burning droplets. Steve sealed shut his eyelids and mouth quickly, scrambling to turn away and crawl clear of its radius. Natasha gripped him under the arms to help pull him free. She towed him as far as a large piece of rubble, which he sat down on, frantically rubbing at his face with his sleeve, pushing away the cowl, and spitting out the taste of bile. His eyes were watering enough to make sight blurry.
He heard the familiar clink of metal as Iron Man set down, and then (for the second time today), a got a thoroughly impressed, “Woah,” from Tony. “You’re smokin’, Cap. Like, for real.”
Steve blinked away moisture from his stinging eyes in order to look down at his leg, and saw Tony was right. His suit was smoking slightly wherever the liquid—a yellowish goop with streaks of black-green in it—had touched. There were even a few small holes eaten in the fabric.
Nat yelled emphatically into the comm for someone to bring something to wash “the ‘bot slime off Cap.” Thor promptly answered the call—with what appeared to be the tank from a large slushy machine tucked comfortably under one arm.
“Hold fast, Captain,” he commanded, before deluging him with purple slush. No doubt, somewhere in the city there was vendor wondering why his slushy machine had been commandeered because it was "requred by the Captain of America."
Steve yelped at the impromptu ice bath. It did cool the burn, however, and he rasped, “Thanks,” as he wiped at his eyes.
“Stark,” Nat continued to take charge, “fly him to SHEILD. He needs medical attention.”
Steve couldn’t protest. He simply wasn’t physically capable of it, not between creeping nausea, and the underwater ringing in his ears that, even sitting down, gave him the sensation of vertigo. All of which meant she was probably correct in her assumption.
He could practically hear Tony wrinkling his nose as he clunked closer, and couldn’t restrain himself from pointing out peevishly, “You can’t even smell it, Tony.”
“I can imagine it. You look revolting.” A pause, no doubt for comedic effect. “And very purple. And that ‘bot slime had better not burn through metal.”
Steve began to push himself upright. “I think I’ll take the quinjet, Nat.” He instantly thought better of attempting autonomy as his left leg throbbed angrily at him, and his broken ribs grated and screamed in protest at the movement. The distinct need to vomit grew stronger.
He didn’t shrug off Tony’s support after all.
“So what’ll it be, Cap’n? Bridal style, or like Tarzan and Jane?”
Steve didn’t rise to the bait. He just hung on, and let the wind carry away some of the smell. And when he finally got to the SHIELD medical facility he retched over a basin until he was sure the dry heaves would turn him inside out.
They kept him for several hours after they’d rinsed the burns and loosely covered them with bandages. The docs wanted to see the blisters were beginning to heal before they released him. After all, they were dealing with an entirely unknown substance.
Long after he’d divested himself of his reeking suit, the smell lingered on his skin. But the nurses were compassionate, suggesting several home remedies for removing skunk odor that he could try later.
Tony disappeared for twenty minutes or so somewhere in the middle of the initial chaos, before returning out of the suit to inform him the initial debriefing had been taken care of. Tony, for reasons known only to Tony, stuck around after that. He had plenty of comforting things to say.
“Could’ve been worse.” He pointed to Steve’s face, finger making a circle to indicate the angry red marks along his jaw where the slime had splattered. “You’ll be pretty again in no time. In the meantime, you’re even mostly recognizable.” He grinned broadly, congratulatory.
Steve didn’t laugh, but only because Tony was all the encouragement that Tony needed, and also because the thought of laughing was enough to make his ribs hurt.
But, the fact remained, Tony had a way of exaggerating that somehow put your own pain into perspective.
Yeah, he was miserable now. He might’ve felt like he’d been scrubbed with harsh chemicals and a stiff bristled brush until his skin had begun to peel, and his stomach might never be the same, and he might smell like Stink ‘Bot for the next week. But things could be worse. Things could always be worse.
Tony lounged back in his chair and snagged the TV remote off the side table.
And there, on the news, was worse. Not “worse” as in impending death, or advancing hordes of aliens. Nothing so mundane. It was just the wearisome, dispiriting kind of “worse” that involved his face starring in a news fluff piece about superheroes and their vices. “…Turns out even Captain America needs his junk food stop,” chirped the entirely too cheerful reporter. In the video clip (with the sound of giggling in the background), he watched himself step out of the gas station with a bag of chips, a Snickers bar, and a hotdog already on the way to his mouth.
He closed his eyes, and felt Tony pat his shoulder consolingly, and waited for his nose to become deadened to the smell of Stink ‘Bot.
The burns began to show signs of healing right around the time they began to itch.
And with his entire left leg engulfed in fiery, itching pain, the last place on earth Steve wanted to be was trapped in an elevator with Tony Stark.
Actually. That was pretty much the last place on earth Steve wanted to be stuck, and the last person he would’ve wished to be stuck with, ever. Much less today. Tony could be just—a lot, sometimes, and confined in a small area his personality was that much more… concentrated.
“You’re not going to cry, are you?” Tony was tapping away on his phone, probably threatening lives to make their immediate rescue possible. Or else he was possibly on one of his “social networks” informing people that SHIELD had just proven themselves complete technological dunces beyond all hope of future pardon. He glanced over at Steve. “Because you kind of look like you’re going to cry.”
“I’m not going to cry,” Steve replied tersely, folding himself back into the corner and resting his head against the cool metal wall of the nondescript SHIELD elevator.
“You know, it’s not healthy to stifle these things.”
“Believe me, Tony,” Steve said, with forced calm, “some things should definitely be stifled. Including my impulses at this moment.”
“Right. Okay, carry on, then.” More tapping on the phone, before Tony pronounced with preening satisfaction, “There. Thor’s on his way.”
“They’ll probably have us out before he can get here,” Steve pointed out wearily.
“I wouldn’t count on that. There’s probably paperwork to be signed off on by the president before they can proceed.” Tony was pacing now, cramming his phone back in his pocket. He stilled in front of the access panel. “How much do you want to bet I can get us out of here before either Thor or the technicians find a way?”
“Tony, are you sure you should…”
But of course he was sure he should. He sniffed in response to Steve’s words of caution and removed the metal panel, flexing his fingers like a master pianist preparing to awe a packed auditorium.
Steve found himself sliding down the wall, drooping into a seated position. He was beyond caring about petty things like dignity, or what history the patch of floor he was seated on might have with gum, or dirt, or any number of unthinkable germs. He’d just been leaked on a by a Stink ‘Bot. Germs were probably afraid of him.
“Man, you’re ripe.”
Steve just grunted a bland, “Sorry.”
“You don’t sound sorry. Do you know how hellish this is for me, being trapped in here with you smelling like that? Hellish.”
“Suffer,” Steve suggested without heat.
Pulling his knees up and resting his arms across them, he settled his chin on top of his forearms. To the lullaby of Tony’s whining, he drifted of into a semi-lucid doze.
He started awake to the tortured shriek of rending metal, Thor’s fingers making dents in the doors as he pried them open. He smiled in at them warmly.
Steve came close to hugging him. Instead, he peeled himself up off the floor, clapped Thor on the shoulder, ignored the sound of Tony’s ego breaking over having been unable to MacGyver his way out of the elevator, and nodded his head mutely as he bypassed apologetic SHIELD agents. He staggered for home.
The kitchen counter was looked like it’d become host to an Avengers art fair—with food as the medium of choice.
Bacon was definitely the theme. A theme Tony could get behind.
Clint’s roast beef/Swiss cheese/bacon/pickle sandwich was of near-Dagwood proportions. Natasha’s platter of bacon-wrapped, brown-sugar-topped mini-hotdogs smelled otherworldly. Thor was beaming his approval accordingly, as he systematically popped enough microwavable Kettle Corn to feed an army (or one Asgardian, plus a few friends). Bruce was warming up some TV dinner that smelled like the usual mystery meat in so-so BBQ sauce, because he was incorrigible that way. Tony supplied two huge bags of peanut M&Ms, and another bag of assorted mini chocolate bars, a bag of Doritos, and a truckload of Twizzlers.
The smells were really coming.
And then Tony looked up, and spied Steve shuffling painfully through the living room with a handful of folders. He was clutching said folders with something like desperation, as if his life depended on them. His face looked like someone had taken a two-by-four to it. And that was discounting the bruises and the nasty case of Stink ‘Bot rash he had going on.
Steve paused at his call, looking startled by Tony, his surroundings, and life in general.
It occurred to Tony that Steve hadn’t been having an easy go of it today. Actually, that had occurred to him several times during the course of the day.
But, clearly, things were reaching a climax with Steve—and they couldn’t leave Captain America to go off and cry quietly in a corner. Even Tony would admit that was wrong, like, on every level. There were probably humanitarian laws in place that forbade turning a blind eye to it.
He proceeded selflessly to attempt to corral Steve into joining the merry food-making venture. But when his most coaxing, “C’mon, Cap—food! It’s amazing stuff. Try some,” only made Steve blink at him, and look more inclined to continue limping on by, Tony took a more proactive approach.
But Steve wouldn’t be budged, not even by a tug on the arm. He shook his head, mumbling at him in tired annoyance. Defeated-sounding annoyance.
Tony pursed his lips. That wouldn’t do. He snagged the folders from Steve’s hands before Steve, in his current battered and exhausted state, could react. When Steve did react, Tony twisted expertly away long enough to get a peek inside.
“Stark, I swear if you so much as—” Steve began, an edge of homicidal intention making his voice tight.
“—A paternity suit?” Tony said, disbelievingly, allowing Steve to snatch the folders back after he’d scanned enough to satisfy his curiosity—and enough to help in his quest to make Steve feel better. Obviously there was that. “That’s a paternity suit.”
“Yes. It is,” Steve answered tersely.
“Against you?” Clint spoke up, echoing Tony’s disbelief.
Now everyone was watching.
Steve’s shoulders visibly drooped, along with his tone of voice. “SHIELD sent a lawyer over with paperwork. Said they need to get on top of sorting it out right away.”
“Cap, you dog,” Tony goaded. He honestly couldn’t help it. Honestly. It was like a nervous tick: the urge to provoke an easily embarrassed Steve.
Steve was clearly worn beyond the point where he could detect even the most blatant attempts at humor. He leveled Tony with a look of outrage that was far too desolate to be defined as anger. He declared earnestly: “It’s not my kid. I swear, I’ve never seen the woman in my life, never mind…” he colored slightly, “that.”
It was times like this that Tony wanted to grab Steve and give him noogies, ruffle him up a bit until he stopped looking so bewildered by lying liars who lied.
“Steve, how ‘bout you set down these files, and come have a bite to eat.”
“This is serious, Tony,” Steve countered, woeful and stern all at once.
Tony sighed heavily. “Look, no one in their right mind’s gonna think it’s actually your kid.”
“The lawyer seemed to consider it a distinct possibility.”
“Like I said,” Tony retorted dryly, “no one in their right mind.”
“It’s really not that uncommon for celebrities and public figures to have this kind of claim made about them,” Natasha spoke up, resting the tongs she’d been using to flip mini hot dogs on the edge of the pan.
“Some people just want attention,” Bruce added. “They want their moment in the spotlight.”
Steve looked doubtful. “But if she’s inviting this kind of speculation and publicity, she must be pretty desperate.”
Tony was getting a bad, bad feeling about where this was headed. “Steve. You are not marrying this woman.”
“Well, no, of course not,” Steve answered, too quickly. “It’s just…raising a kid on your own’s tough. Maybe the real father died, or is otherwise incapable of being there for her.”
Tony knew Steve wasn’t a babe in the woods. He was a grown man. But sometimes…seriously. The guy was too freakin’ trusting to be real. The scenario he was painting might be entirely possible. Sure, there were plenty of tragic stories out there, and this one might even be one of those. But the fact remained, the woman was hounding an innocent man in the hopes of getting some notoriety, at the very least, and probably money as well.
“Because, clearly,” he said calmly, in his best mentor’s voice, “the woman couldn’t possibly have ulterior motives. Like wanting to be able to boast that Captain America is the father of her child.”
Steve frowned, like the thought hadn’t occurred to him. “Oh.”
“Yeah. Oh. She’s got a crush on you, Cap. Pure and simple.”
“I’m really not sure it’s that simple, Tony…” Steve began dubiously, gazing down at the folders in his hands with clear trepidation.
Steve obviously didn’t have down the concept of fans who were just that rabid. Fans who put the capital “F” in Fanatic. Like, no, really. Tony had encountered plenty of the genuinely sane and rational, as well the genuinely let-me-have-your-babies types. And it was clearly time Steve was educated in the fine art of not taking someone else’s insanity personally.
“We’ll make it that simple. Later.” Tony didn’t add that this wasn’t his first rodeo, by any means, because he was pretty sure that was a whole ‘nother can of worms. He really didn’t care to explain to Captain America right then that while paternity tests had always proven the claimants to be fraudulent, there’d been several points in his life where fatherhood had loomed as a very distinct possibility.
Yup. Definitely a conversation for another day. Steve’s brain was already looking under enough strain to be in immanent danger of snapping.
“Come on, Steve. It’s been a long day. Have a sandwich.” Clint, as a testament to his sharing-and-caring mood, pointed in invitation to the second half of his Goliath-sized sandwich.
Steve was still hesitant. “The lawyer made it pretty clear this was urgent. Once the media gets wind of this…”
“Just drop the lawyer already, will ya?” Tony growled in frustration. “Everything’s always urgent with the Suits. If it’ll make you feel better, I’ll give Pepper a call. She’s a bona fide genius at damage control.”
Clint had the nerve to laugh. And he had his mouth full of food, too. Tony was surrounded by children.
But Clint had one thing right.
“It has been a long day, Cap. C’mon. Leave the matter of defending your integrity to Pep for now.”
Steve shook his head—still with that pathetic look of dejection in his eyes, guaranteed to break your heart. They could just show that face to the media to shut them up, Tony mused. It’d have them teary eyed and cooing their sympathies in a hot second.
“Miss Potts shouldn’t have to do that,” Steve insisted.
“It’ll be her pleasure, believe me. Mere child’s play, for a veteran like her. She and Coulson will probably wind up putting their cunning minds together. They’ll nip this thing in the bud, believe me.” Or, in Coulson’s case, he’d probably go and put the fear of God into anyone who dared to persist in spreading the flagrant lie that Captain America was playing renegade father. As if the man who was practically the living embodiment of selflessness and duty would flout responsibility on that level. Nothing would fill Coulson’s little fanboy’s heart with more glee than to set those people straight. Oh, to be a fly on the wall for that conversation.
“So listen to reason, already,” Tony concluded. “Think about it. What kind of an example would you be setting if you let this woman foist these accusations on you, Cap? You can’t sympathize with her, let her have her way, or you’ll be feeding the lie, and setting a precedent as a push-over. It’d make even more people think that they can get away with doing that sort of thing to other high-profile people.”
That finally seemed to get through to Steve. He drew in a slow breath. “Yeah…yeah, I guess you’re right. I’ll just go...take a look at the paperwork, though.”
“Pepper will give you the synopsis of what’s required from you once she looks things over. She’ll probably even be nice about it, with you. Hold your hand, or pat your head, or something.” Tony shot Natasha a narrow-eyed look. “As women are wont to do where you’re concerned.”
But Steve wasn’t listening. He was shuffling off again, like a robotic toy running out of battery juice.
“Oh no you don’t,” Tony forbid, looping an arm through his elbow, and turning him in the direction of the couch. “This way, Don Juan.”
“—Aht. Sit.” Tony pressed down on Steve’s shoulder. Which had absolutely zero effect, A, because Steve was built like a boulder, and, B, because Steve was currently behaving about as pliantly as a boulder. “Sit. Seriously, I’ve known cats who were better at this trick than you.”
Steve sat. Tony regarded him with a shake of his head, and then held out his hand for the folders. “It’s officially after work hours. I call it, and confiscate all work-related materials from the premises of this responsibility-free zone.”
Steve looked at him like he was speaking a foreign language.
“Means give me that heap of junk mail you’re clinging to,” Tony clarified.
Steve relinquished it with a surprising lack of further protestations, like he was resigned to not understanding his life, or fathoming why Tony said and did inexplicable things.
Tony hid the files in the cabinet right next to the hardback edition of The Way to Cook that he hadn’t realized he owned.
When he turned around, the sight that met his eyes made a slow, amused grin spread across his face. The rest of the team had flocked towards the living room, and they were all in their subtle to not-so-subtle ways plying Steve with food offerings, like a flock of mother birds vying to adopt the orphaned fledgling super soldier.
Snagging up the bowl of assorted chocolates, along with the Twizzlers and Doritos, Tony strode forth to claim a seat on the couch next to Steve, elbowing Clint aside in the process. He plopped the bowl down in Steve’s lap, and held on to the Twizzlers and Doritos, himself.
“Dig in. And the rest of you, sit down. You’re making me dizzy with all your fluttering.”
“Do you want hotdogs and bacon, or not?” Natasha reminded him archly.
“Alright, fine. Everyone except Natasha, stop fluttering,” Tony amended.
For that, he got an aloof expression, and Natasha handed a particularly heaping plate full of toothpick-skewered hotdog-and-bacon goodness to Steve.
“Wow,” Steve said, staring at the food with clear admiration.
Natasha smiled, but valiantly resisted the urge to pat him on the head. After passing out more plates, she claimed a spot on the couch on the other side of Steve and started in on the M&Ms at an alarming rate, with bites of hotdog in between.
The couch was huge. But not quite huge enough for all the Avengers, and Bruce made it clear that he was fine not playing sardines, instead selecting one of the armchairs that flanked the couch.
Thor and Clint, for reasons known only to them, decided that sitting on the floor was also preferable to playing sardines, or choosing any of the other pieces of furniture. Thor sat with his back against the couch, between Natasha and Steve, and Clint between Steve and Tony.
It soon became apparent that the primary motivating factor in their choice of real-estate was the proximity to the candy. Between the two of them making dexterous (and seemingly double-jointed) grabs for the food, it was like being under siege by an octopus. Tony made the conscious decision to sacrifice the bag of Doritos to the multi-limbed Snack Monster, depositing it into snatching fingers, and watching Clint and Thor dig in. Somewhere along the way, Thor had appropriated an entire liter bottle of root beer, and was drinking it like a can of soda, occasionally handing it off to Clint in a truly deep measure of his affection.
“I think it’s a re-watch kind of night,” Tony decided, turning on the TV. “What do you guys say?”
“Cap, you never pick the movie. Why don’t you decide?” Natasha suggested.
“What about that movie about…true love, and the Fire Swamp, and stuff,” Steve suggested, cringing a little, like he expected ridicule.
Little did he know that the fact, alone, that the first time they’d watched it they’d all seen him get a little misty eyed over the “true love never dies” scene—for reasons all too apparent—was reason enough for them not to scorn his choice. But, seriously, who could scorn that choice, regardless?
“Steve, I’m proud of you,” Tony announced. “You’ve got taste.”
JARVIS was already on top of pulling up the movie. And as the beginning titles played, and the lights around them were thoughtfully dimmed per JARVIS’ further initiative, Tony felt some of the tension bleed out of Steve’s posture.
Too bad they all still smelled a bit like Stink ‘Bot. It was also too bad that—apparently—Clint had issues with Tony tucking his feet into the warm space between his back and the couch. (Well, hey, Thor let Natasha do it. Though the argument could be made that Thor hadn’t even noticed.) It was also too bad that sometimes life just stunk to high-heaven, and really no-good-rotten-horrible-days just happened, and Captain America could come home from one of those days and find himself being sued for child support.
It was furthermore too bad that the only way the Avengers seemed to know how to recover was to eat bacon and chocolate and watch The Princess Bride.
Yeah, it was too bad they were all such a royal mess. Because sometimes they just worked together in a way that was as ludicrous as it was clockwork perfect.
And if—somewhere around the time Buttercup and Westly fell offically, headlong in love—Steve whispered a sleepy, "Thanks, Tony," well...that didn't make all the trouble of putting up with five certifiably insane teammates and housguests completely worth it. Not at all.