There was a dull ache in those days, always, just under his skin; worst in his shoulders and up in his neck, never terrible, just always present.
Steve got used to not being in pain after the Serum, so while it wasn't intolerable, it was alarming. He asked the doctors about it, after the ice, before the invasion, and they did tests and then shrugged. Some remnant of being frozen, perhaps, lactic acid crystals in the muscles, spasms in the fascia, damage that would take longer to regenerate.
One of them tilted her head at him and asked him if he'd like to talk to someone about the war, the ice, his loss. They'd had psychiatry in the thirties, but it was a far-off academic thing for the most part, except for the time mad old Tom from down the block tried to strangle a cop and was sent to the asylum because it was either that or prison. From the stories he'd heard Steve would have picked prison. Steve didn't want to be sent to an asylum, so when the doctor asked he said no, he'd rather not, thank you.
(They made him eventually anyway, his SHIELD handler coaxing him along, reassuring him that therapy had come a long way in the last seventy years and nobody was going to lock him away anywhere. It didn't help the ache, but it gave him some tools to deal with the grief, so he only put a stop to it once it stopped helping with that.)
The only time he didn't feel the ache was when he was fighting. Combat, sure -- the invasion of New York had been a chance to really let loose and after he didn't feel the ache over the soreness for two days. But he hadn't felt it while he was fighting before that, either, standing on the Helicarrier filled with clean, pure anger, daring anyone to come take a swing, and Tony Stark metaphorically did, which was wonderful. He hated how good he'd felt, being so cruel.
And the thing was, Tony liked fighting. Steve could always count on him to either pick a fight or rise to one, if Steve came around spoiling for a shouting match. Pepper flat-out said that Tony liked arguing, so Steve didn't worry too much about picking on him, about whether it was bullying. Because if he didn't start one, after a few days Tony would come and find him and egg him on.
Steve was first into combat and last to leave, and they fought about that; Tony never followed the plan and they sure as hell fought about that. They fought about Tony leaving messes in the sink ("It's my own damn home, Rogers!") and Steve turning off the television ("You were asleep, and it was loud!") and about things that weren't even about them, like whether or not Clint was justified in shooting Bruce in the back in order to get him to Hulk out when his comm went down and nobody could tell him to let the Other Guy loose. Clint and Bruce settled this about ten minutes after the raid on that Hydra base was over; Clint offered to buy him lunch, Bruce accepted and shook hands, and that was that.
Steve and Tony were still fighting about it weeks later.
The only times they didn't fight regularly were when the team was making a battle plan or in combat, or when Natasha occasionally got tired of it and threatened to stab Tony somewhere vital. This stopped Tony because he liked his organs where they were, and she knew Steve hated it when any of them were hurt, so it stopped Steve too, for a while.
And it would have gone on that way and it would have been fine, because it was Steve's own foolproof brand of painkiller and Tony considered it good sport. It was functional, it worked for them. And even Tony knew there was a line neither of them should cross, a line where they didn't touch on certain subjects that would draw too much blood. A line where they never took each other too seriously or went too deep into why they did this.
And one day for whatever reason Tony just jumped the hell over it.
"You are not going to tell me what to do again, you sanctimonious star-spangled prick!" Tony was yelling.
"Sancti -- have you heard yourself talk?" Steve was yelling back.
"Yeah, and you know what, at least I'm capable of adapting in the moment -- "
"It was a perfectly good plan and there was no need to adapt -- "
"I saw a need! You never trust my judgement!"
"Your judgement is as much about playing with every new toy you've installed in the suit as it is about the safety of the team."
"Rollerblades are not a toy!" Tony bellowed, gesturing at the helmet-cam footage of their last fight, playing silently on a monitor nearby.
"If you don't stop showboating someone's going to die, Tony!"
"Yeah, probably you, Captain Let Me Just Slide Under This Tank! Where was that in your goddamn playbook?" Tony demanded, turning away to scoop metal off the workbench, dumping it noisily into a bin in a way that set Steve's teeth on edge. "Jesus H. Christ, it's a miracle you didn't die of sheer fucking stubborn when they thawed you!"
"Don't think I don't wish I had!" Steve said, and then shut his mouth sharply. Tony jerked around to face him, wide-eyed, shocked. They stared at each other for what was probably only a few seconds but felt much, much longer.
"That's it, isn't it?" Tony asked, and his smile was equal parts cruel and terrified. "That's why you do it. Jesus, that's why you do all of this. You're suicidal, you're actively trying to get yourself killed."
"You can go to hell," Steve said, and turned to leave, because Tony crossed the line.
"JARVIS, lock," Tony called, and the door clicked shut with what would have been an air of finality, but Steve and finality weren't on speaking terms. He just drew back and punched the glass of the door. There was a creak.
"Steve, for God's sake -- "
The second punch yielded a chip, but no cracks. He swung a third time and got a satisfying little spiderweb.
"It's Stark Glass, you can't -- "
Tony was there before he registered, and he would have stopped if he'd seen him in time. Tony was there and he grabbed Steve's arm, throwing his whole weight back, but comparable to some of the things Steve had dealt with, he didn't weigh that much. Steve's fist slammed home again, the door cracked almost all the way in half, and Tony -- arms wrapped around Steve's bicep to try and stop him -- slammed into the door as well.
There was a sickening noise, a thud that seemed much too loud in the suddenly silent workshop, and Tony dropped to the ground, catching himself with one hand, the other going to his head.
"Jesus, Tony -- " Steve dropped too, horrified. "I didn't -- I didn't see -- JARVIS?" he called, panicked.
"Sir's heart rate is elevated -- Sir, shall I summon Dr. Banner?" JARVIS asked.
"M'fine," Tony managed, exploring the side of his head with his hand.
"Call him," Steve said.
"Don't, JARVIS, I'm fine," Tony insisted. "M'I bleeding?"
"Let me see -- sorry, sorry," Steve said, when Tony hissed at a too-rough touch. "No blood, I can't see any."
"Barely saw stars. Taken stronger headers than that testing out the suit," Tony said, slumping backwards, leaning against a convenient wall. "Jesus, you swing like a charging rhino. Ice pack in the freezer by the charging stations, can you..."
Steve nodded, rising and rummaging in the little freezer, which was heavily stocked with ice packs and burritos. He wrapped one of the packs in a clean-looking rag and brought it back, offering it apologetically.
"Sorry. Sorry I hurt you. Guess I owe you a new door, too," he said, seating himself crosslegged in front of Tony, who held the ice gingerly to his temple.
"Don't worry about it. The glass is wired with sensors, we'll get some interesting readings from that," Tony said. He looked at him, a look that said he wasn't about to leave the cause of this alone.
"Let it go," Steve said. "I'm not going to top myself, Tony."
"You're not exactly going to stop someone else doing it, though, are you?" Tony asked.
"Well, if I wanted it that badly I'd just annoy Natasha."
"Uh-huh." Tony rolled his eyes, then winced.
"Look, we can talk about this later, it's not important -- "
"You just punched my door in half over not-important," Tony said. "Is that why you keep doing this?"
"Picking fights with me? Because you know I'm not about to kill you but I'm not going to make anything easier on you, either?"
"Well, I know you don't mind it," Steve said. "If you did you're smart enough to shut me down."
"No, it gets the blood flowing, but I can get that from anyone," Tony said. "You know I don't fight with you because I dislike you, right? Because you're actually kind of fun to be around when you're not an asshole."
"I didn't think much about it one way or another. I figured we both got something we needed," Steve offered. Tony flipped the ice pack around and used the other side, sighing.
"What did you need?" Tony asked.
Steve looked down, away from Tony's gaze, which was a little too knowing.
"There's this thing I have," he said. "It's -- it's not some kind of emotional thing, I talked to a shrink, that didn't help, it's physical. But the docs can't help either. It's just this pain...thing. In my shoulders, my neck, sometimes all over. Fighting distracts me. Combat, or sparring, or...what we do. Too angry to hurt, I guess," he said with a shrug.
"You're all hopped up on super juice, you shouldn't feel pain at all," Tony said, curiosity replacing the usual faint acid in his voice. "Outside of actual injury. Not long-term pain."
"They think maybe it's from the ice. They didn't have anything that could help, but this did. Us fighting. So...when you seemed, I don't know, up for it, I got into the habit."
"Well, you're fun to argue with, and you obviously wanted it, which is not the case when I fight with Pep or Rhodey or the others," Tony said. "Show me what hurts."
"Here," Steve said, gesturing to his collarbones, his shoulders. He touched the back of his neck, bowing his head. "Down into my arms sometimes, or lower ribcage, my back. It's worse when I'm tired. Worst when I'm trying to fall asleep."
Tony nodded. "You mind if I try something?"
"You're hurt, Tony, the last thing you should be doing is nursemaiding me -- "
"And if I want to?"
"The docs say there's nothing to do about it," Steve shrugged, pulling in on himself a little. "It's not like I'm not used to it, I was in pain all the time before the Serum. I know how to find workarounds."
"Well, consider this a try for a workaround, okay?" Tony said. Steve gave him a narrow, suspicious look, but he didn't have anything to lose by trying, he supposed. Tony waited until he nodded, then put out his free hand, the one not holding the ice to his head, and rested it on Steve's chest, the base of his throat, just above the collar of his shirt. Steve looked at him, perplexed.
Tony was intently focused, though, and Steve felt his thumb sweep up his pulse point, and the sudden sharp intimacy of it made his breath catch, made the pain spike weirdly --
Then it went away completely as Tony cupped the line of his jaw, fingers spreading over his cheek. Steve leaned into it, almost gasping with relief, eyes falling shut.
"What are you -- what are you doing," he asked, breath coming in short heaves.
"Easy, easy," Tony murmured. Steve heard him shuffle closer. His hand slid back down to the nape of Steve's neck, pulling him forward, and Steve followed the motion until his head came to rest on Tony's shoulder.
"It's called loneliness, kid," Tony said in his ear, and Steve shuddered when Tony's cheek brushed against his hair. He could feel the vibration of Tony's voice all the way down his spine. "Probably touch-starvation, too. You're dying for it. Does literally anyone ever hug you?"
"No," Steve said, sounding petulant even to himself. "I'm a grown man, Tony, I don't need hugs."
"You're twenty-four, you're a baby," Tony told him. "Most human beings need contact, we're generally social animals," and the pain was melting out of his limbs now, fading faster than it did even when he was fighting, "....so if we can't get good contact we'll settle for bad. Negative attention is still attention."
"That's not -- "
"Dear lord, shut up," Tony said, and Steve gritted his teeth, but between slamming Tony into the door and weeks and weeks of fighting, he owed him at least one freebie. "Listen to me. You want to scream each other hoarse three days a week, I can do that, it's cheaper than therapy. But it's not going to fix this problem, and it's not going to help the fact that you wish you were dead."
"That's overstating things," Steve said.
"You literally just told me you wished you'd died of stubbornness, which is indeed very you, but is not very healthy," Tony said. Steve felt a prickle behind his eyes and desperately, desperately tried not to cry because crying all over Tony Stark after giving him a concussion was distinctly not a Captain America kind of thing to do.
"Well, you're the genius, then, you tell me how to fix it," he said, grasping onto what tatters of anger he could find.
"Prickly," Tony said. He was stroking Steve's hair, the short bristles at the back of his head, smoothing them down with the tips of his fingers. "That's the thing, Steve, this isn't a sprained muscle, you can't brace it yourself. You need other people."
"I don't have other people, I -- "
"Excuse you, what am I, chopped liver?" Tony asked. His fingernails dug in gently at Steve's hairline, scratching his scalp with a light touch. Steve felt nerves all over his body tingle. "You do in fact have several other people. True, most of us are emotionally stunted, but that just means they're probably dying for it too."
"Dying for what, exactly?" Steve asked, starting to pull away. Tony's hand clamped firmly down, and he could have broken the hold, but he didn't really want to.
"Social interaction. Casual affection. Positive reinforcement. Fortunately I have extensive experience in being a needy weirdo, I'm a great salesman, and I know how poorly self-medication works, so you have in this case come to precisely the right kind of doctor."
"Your doctorate is honorary," Steve said. "You got it for flying through a wormhole and saving NYU from being nuked."
"Which I think means I goddamn earned it, thank you very much," Tony said. He let Steve go and ignored him wiping his nose with his wrist, busy getting to his feet and rewrapping the ice pack. "Come on, as usual you have been fumbling along hopelessly until I arrived to actually fix things."
Exhaustion got the better of him, and he found he had absolutely zero energy to fight this. He didn't even know what this was. He just got to his feet and stood behind Tony, who kicked the door once and watched it shatter into a thousand pieces, raining down on the floor.
"Spectacular," Tony murmured, and then jumped lightly over the broken glass. Steve shuffled around the pile of shards and followed, up the stairs, through the kitchen, and into the penthouse common room, where Pepper was standing by the window, talking on a headset. When she saw them, she said, "We'll deal with this later, I'm off the clock. Yes, actually, I'm the CEO, which means I get to say when I'm off the clock. Thank you."
She hung up with a tap of the button and sighed, taking in Steve's raw knuckles, Tony and his ice pack, the looks on their faces. "What did you boys do now?"
"Steve threw me through a door," Tony said, as Pepper came forward to examine the purpling bruise around his eye. "Don't be mad at him, the door had it coming."
"And you?" she asked, ignoring Steve for the moment, which was fine because he was blushing fiercely in shame.
"Well, I know better than to grab him in the middle of punching something, and I did try to lock him in, so I may have had it coming also. But I'm still planning to milk this for weeks," Tony said, shooting a grin at Steve. "Hey, we need to borrow you for the evening, are you free, Ms. Potts?"
"I'm free, Mr. Stark," she said with a smile.
"Good. Sit, you there," he said, pointing to the couch. Pepper sat, looking intrigued. "Now you there," he told Steve, pointing to the cushion next to her. Steve sat gingerly, leaving six or eight inches between them. Tony grabbed him by the hair (by the hair!) and pulled him to one side. Steve went, yelping, until he was pressed up against Pepper's side. She threw an arm around his shoulders and disengaged Tony's hand from his hair.
Tony vaulted the couch like he hadn't just been smacked headfirst into bulletproof glass, settled in next to Steve, and kissed Pepper's hand where it rested on Steve's chest before pulling Steve's arm around his neck. He plopped the ice pack on Steve's shoulder and his head on the ice pack and said, "JARVIS, baseball. I don't care who's playing."
"What are we doing?" Steve asked tentatively, as the TV flicked on.
"Are we cuddling?" Pepper asked, sounding cheerful. "Because I have wanted to do that for like, the longest time, you look like you have very soft skin and give good hugs. And it's not my birthday but Tony's really terrible about birthdays so he just kind of occasionally decides it's my birthday..."
"He does and we are," Tony said. "Steve's alienated and traumatized."
"Just my type," Pepper said, pushing her face into Steve's cheek like a cat. For a second it felt like he couldn't breathe, like he would smother and die of shame and confusion. But he also felt like maybe he didn't even need to breathe, and for once the ache in his chest was silenced without shouting or bloodshed.
"So we just sit here?" Steve asked.
"Contrary to popular belief, I am capable of sitting still," Tony said.
"Would you rather watch a movie?" Pepper asked.
"No, I like baseball..." Steve frowned. "But you must have things you should be doing. This is wasting your time."
"Oh, honey," Pepper said softly.
"Steve, I say this very seriously, please shut up and cuddle my girlfriend," Tony said.
"Trust me, nothing at SI is as important as getting to touch your muscles," Pepper told him.
"Are you making fun?" Steve asked.
"No. Okay, a little, but only a little," Pepper admitted. "You're very sweet and I like you as a person but seriously," she said, and patted the top of one pectoral, "as long as you don't mind, anyway."
"I don't mind, I just don't understand," Steve said haplessly.
"I'll give you the psych lecture later," Tony said. Pepper rubbed the back of Steve's head gently, which felt amazing, and also made him aware that he was barely keeping his eyes open. "Also biochemistry. We'll make Bruce explain, he probably has models of dopamine receptors and shit."
Tony said more, but Steve could feel his body relax without his real say-so, and his brain shut down before he could warn them they didn't have to stay, that he was just going to sleep.
Pepper leaned forward, around Steve, and caught Tony's eye. Steve had basically collapsed sideways onto him.
"Can you breathe?" she asked in a whisper.
"He's down for the count, you can talk normally," Tony said. "And no, but oxygen is overrated."
"Poor sweetheart," she said, stroking Steve's hair, rubbing a thumb over his ear. He sighed in his sleep. "For you to drag him up here and hug him instead of fighting with him he had to be in a bad way."
"Nobody realized how isolated he was, I think," Tony said. "I sure as fuck didn't, until he had a meltdown in front of me."
"Did he seriously throw you through a door?"
"Only into it, technically. I'm fine. I shouldn't have locked it when he tried to leave."
"You're going to have a real shiner."
"Badge of honor. He wouldn't have done it on purpose. He didn't see me grabbing him until it was too late."
"Sounds like a rock-bottom moment for him."
"A little less rocky than some. Glad I was there, actually. You don't mind, do you?" he asked.
"What, the hugging?"
"He needs us, Pep," Tony said, eyes dark and serious. "He needs someone, anyway, and I sort of volunteered us."
"No, I don't mind at all. I do like him, and he's pretty, in a puppy kind of way."
"You never tell me I'm pretty," Tony said.
"That's because you're a narcissist," she reminded him.
"Well, fair enough. Hey, get us some blankets? I bet you a million dollars he gets twelve solid hours."
"Double or nothing he gets fifteen."
"I do love my life," Tony said, as Pepper got up and went into the bedroom, returning with a couple of quilts. She eased back down and threw one to Tony, tucking another around her legs. Tony pushed Steve up and off him, into the back of the couch, then leaned into Steve's other side. She put her head on his chest and met Tony halfway.
"Can we keep him?" Tony asked.
"You're in charge of feeding and walking him."
"Yay," Tony said solemnly. Steve snuffled in his sleep. "I'm gonna nap."
"I have some reports to go over," she said, waggling her phone. "I'll poke you if he wakes up."
Tony gave her an adoring look, the kind that reminded her even when he was being a flaky genius that his love was never in question. He closed his eyes, settling in, and within five minutes he was out, too, looking somewhat more fragile than usual. Pepper made herself comfortable, scrolling through her phone cheerfully, and listened to the dual beatbox of Steve's heartbeat and Tony's wheezing snores as she worked.
When Steve woke, he was warm and comfortable, but he wasn't sure where he was. He was wrapped in blankets braced up against a cushion of some kind, and the darkness in the room made it clear he could close his eyes and drift off to sleep again if he wanted.
There was a noise behind him, a shift in what he'd thought was a cushion, and he focused his eyes enough to see that he was lying, not on a pillow, but with his head in someone's lap. A hand was resting on his head, but it shifted to his shoulder when he moved.
"Hey," Tony said quietly. "Go back to sleep if you want, it's late."
"How long...?" Steve slurred, confused.
"Few hours," Tony said.
Steve pushed himself up, despite a wordless noise of protest from Tony, and rubbed his dry eyes. He glanced at Tony. The right side of his face was now really spectacular, purple shot through with blue streaks like fireworks.
"Jeez," Steve said, hovering a hand over it. "I really creamed you. We're lucky you didn't go face-first, it would have broken your nose."
"Well, I suspect you've learned your lesson," Tony said, looking indulgent. "Feeling better?"
Steve rolled his shoulders. He did feel guilty about Tony's poor face, but he also felt...good. Relaxed for the first time in ages. And the ache was gone. He nodded.
"Good," Tony said.
"Thanks for fixing it," Steve said, unsure how to vocalize what he was really thinking, the relief he felt. Tony's eyebrows drew together.
"It's not a vaccine," he said. "It's not just fixed like that. So," he added, before Steve could speak again, "next time it happens, come find me and we'll try hugging it out, that sound good?"
"Oh," Steve said, looking down at his hands.
"Or find someone else," Tony said, with a shrug that was a little too casual. "If I weird you out or something."
"No, it's not..." Steve pressed his lips together, trying to work out how to say it. "It's uh. It's weird to ask for. That. I mean you're not..."
Tony raised his eyebrows, then winced a little.
"Arguing is normal," Steve said. "Touching is strange, isn't it?"
"Not especially. Ask anyone, I touch people a lot. If you're worried about Pepper, she doesn't mind."
"Pepper?" Steve asked, confused.
"Well, it's not strange, but it is intimate. Some people wouldn't like their partner being that close to other people. She's cool with it though. I mean for one thing if she wanted to she could break me and leave me homeless and destitute," Tony said with a grin. "But she's a sane woman, my Pep. And she likes you, so she wants you to be happy."
"I'd settle for sane myself," Steve muttered. Tony reached out, and Steve flinched a little before he let himself be touched.
"It isn't me, it's this, isn't it?" Tony said. "Needing things like this makes people vulnerable. It feels shameful to want it."
Steve nodded against Tony's hand, eyes closing.
"Poor kid," Tony murmured. "I know, it's terrible. Look, just...give it a try, okay? Asking, I mean. If it makes you that uncomfortable we'll go back to fighting."
"How do I...?" Steve asked, feeling very much at sea.
"Just show up like you normally do. I'll figure it out," Tony said, and Steve opened his eyes to see him grinning. "Come on, you've got another six hours in you, if you sleep until 3am I win the bet with Pepper."
"No, I think..." Steve pulled away slowly, rubbing his face, and stood up. "I'll go sleep in mine. Thank you, Tony. Honestly," he said, and Tony nodded with an unsettlingly knowing look on his face, and let him go.
The thing was, of course, that while Tony had indeed arranged things so that he wouldn't have to -- to ask for it, Tony had essentially set him up so that he did still have to ask for it. After all, they both knew what Steve really wanted if he hunted up Tony to pick a fight with him. And that made him feel almost unbearably exposed. He wasn't meant to need things. That was the point of the Serum: to make him strong.
He could practically hear Tony's voice in his head saying Sometimes strength is knowing when to ask for help but knowing it didn't actually do much.
He didn't avoid Tony. He didn't avoid anyone. But he didn't engage, either. He didn't pick fights, he avoided conflict, he left if he saw Tony coming with the intent to start something. He caught Tony watching him sometimes, still with that knowing look, and it was beginning to grate on his nerves.
It was hard, too. The ache had come back, just like Tony said, and now without his usual outlet he was reduced to sparring with the others to try and assuage it. It only took Natasha about a week to start asking him what his problem was, why he kept wanting to beat the crap out of everyone, and after three weeks even Thor was treating him like a six-year-old who wanted attention.
Then Hydra launched an assault on SHIELD.
"Thank God," Steve murmured as he ran for his uniform, and then felt horrible about being so excited to go fight Hydra.
The battle was close-quarters. It was smaller than most of their fights, but it was also at SHIELD's temporary HQ in an office building in downtown New York, which meant there were a lot of opportunities for civilian casualties. They had to keep the fighting close and internal as much as possible, which meant Thor and Tony were left evacuating the upper levels, and Bruce couldn't go in at all. Clint and Sam were holding the perimeter, picking off Hydra agents as they tried to escape, and Steve and Natasha were on their own on the inside.
"You're enjoying this too much," she called, as Steve crunched someone's face in.
"Quit ruining my fun, Widow," he yelled back, and threw the shield, taking out four or five Hydra agents with the ricochets. Natasha flipped over the shield, just to show off, and kicked a bad guy in the throat.
"I'm just saying, it's not healthy," she told him, as he caught the shield. "I think that's it for this level, but -- "
"Gunfire one floor up," Tony said over the comms. "Let me go in."
"Iron Man, keep evacuating," Steve ordered.
"Not gonna matter if the whole building comes down," Tony said. "You don't need flying shooting Iron Man right now, you need a structural engineer."
"Tony -- "
"Thor's got this, Sam's on it too," Tony said.
"Your job is evac, Tony!"
"My job is backing my team," Tony retorted, and Steve heard the whine of repulsor fire through the ceiling.
"Oh, I know that look," Natasha said, as Steve set his jaw and went for the stairs.
It didn't actually take that long to end the attack -- you could cut off one head and Hydra might grow two more but both of them would be cowards -- and Steve left SHIELD doing mop-up, hitching a ride back to Stark Tower on a helicopter that Clint liberated from a nearby luxury high-rise rooftop. He did a head count as people came in: Natasha, Clint, and Bruce from the heli; Sam landing a moment later with a high-five and a thumbs-up for him, beaming; Thor right behind Sam, tossing the hammer cockily. Tony had beat them all back, and once everyone else was safely inside Steve left his shield in the kitchen, shed his boots and belt and the uniform jacket, and headed down the steps to the workshop.
Tony had reinstalled the glass door, of course, and he'd put a jaunty little sticker on it that said CAPTAIN AMERICA APPROVED, which normally made Steve smile. Instead he pushed through the unlocked door, storming in while Tony was pulling off the last of the armor.
"What the hell were you thinking?" he asked, crossing his arms. "I gave you a direct order."
Tony turned to look at him, but he didn't speak.
"I expect that when I ask you to evacuate civilians you're not going to blow it off because you want to be the big-shot engineer. If you ever pull that again, so help me -- " Steve started, but the rest got cut off. Tony had gaped at him for a second, and then surged forward and pulled him into a hug.
Steve opened his mouth to protest, wanting to push away. But the inhale to speak turned into a sharp gasp as Tony's weight pulled him forward, and he stumbled, gulping on a second inhale, tremors running through his muscles. The sudden halt to his tirade was sharp and painful, and he choked when he tried to speak a third time.
"It's okay," Tony said, holding Steve's forehead to his shoulder, and Steve gasped again and shook stiffly, hands going to Tony's hips and then curving around to his back. "Shh, it's okay, I got you, everyone's fine."
The relief was almost pain in itself -- his muscles felt like lead weights on his bones, and he couldn't seem to control them very well. Tony half-propped him with a solid grip on the waistband of his uniform trousers, still making quiet soothing noises, shush-hush-shush.
"Sam had everything covered, I didn't have time to explain," Tony said, still cradling his head to his shoulder. "We'll talk about it later. It's okay, it's done now. Nobody got hurt but the bad guys."
Steve inhaled, barely hearing the words, just the tone of it -- safety, relief, protection. He curved into Tony's body and trembled and tried to breathe.
"I know, I know," Tony said, even though Steve hadn't said anything. "It's fine. It's okay."
Steve managed to find some words, somewhere in the jumble of his head. "I came down to yell at you," he said. "Actually yell at you, not fake yell at you."
"I'm sure you thought that," Tony agreed, letting him go. He cupped both hands around Steve's throat, which would have probably earned a stranger a broken wrist. But his touch was gentle, and this was Tony, and Steve both trusted him and wanted this so badly. "Tell me what you need."
Steve's eyes darted away, looking anywhere but at Tony's face. "I don't need. I can't just ask."
"You do need, and you won't just ask. Hey, hey, that's not a criticism," Tony said, as Steve tried to pull back. "Nobody's angry at you."
"I don't need this," Steve said, taking his wrists and pulling them away. When he released them, Tony held up his hands, fingers spread, a gesture of defeat.
"Okay, we can go back to fighting."
"No, that's not fine either, it's not healthy, you said it yourself," Steve said, despair filling him.
"Well, you have to have some kind of outlet."
"I can't make other people be my safety valve."
"Well, you can't get by without one."
"I'll find something."
"Why?" Tony asked. "I'm literally standing in front of you offering you several options, here. Any one of us would do this for you, you have to know that. Why can't we?"
"Because I can't do that again!" Steve blurted, only half-aware of what he was saying. Bitterness and grief rose up like acid in his throat, and a terrible knowledge he hadn't realized he had began to pour out. "I lost -- everything, Tony, everyone, I didn't have a choice. If that happens again I have to be ready for it!"
Tony's face was startled, but when he spoke, he said, "Oh. That makes sense."
"Good, I'm glad you -- "
"I mean in the totally irrational way of people in pain," Tony continued, and Steve sighed. "Hey don't get me wrong, I've been there, I can give you witness testimony about my slow-motion, fifty-suit nervous breakdown. But that's..." he ran a hand over his face. "Flying into a wormhole into outer space, falling into Greenland and freezing for seventy years, yes, these are things that happen to us in a sense, on the regular. Trauma is part of our lives. But that specific incident is so incredibly, vastly rare -- it's not going to happen again, Steve."
"You can't know that."
"Well, statistically I can, but I also know that now that we..." he made a gesture encompassing himself, Steve, the people upstairs, "Now that we all know you can survive that, we wouldn't stop looking." He took a step closer, and Steve swayed back a little. "My dad gave up on you because he thought you were dead. I'm not him but more importantly I don't give up. Like, ever. It's a real character flaw, Rhodey will tell you."
Steve watched Tony's hands, because one of them was stretching out to him again. Tony kept his gaze on Steve's face, and when he finally touched Steve's arm, neither of them flinched. He pulled Steve's arm up until his elbow was bent, palm and wrist facing up, then covered Steve's hand with his own, flat, fingers spread.
"What happened to you is not going to happen to you again," Tony said. "And everything else, all the shit that's going to happen in your life because shit happens in everyone's life, it's going to be so much less painful if you have this. It doesn't have to be me, but this..." he tapped their palms together, "you need this. You know you do. Maybe not everyone does, but you do. Trying to train yourself to survive without it is like trying to train yourself out of needing food by not eating."
"You're a real asshole, you know that?" Steve said, his voice cracking. Tony grasped him by the wrist and pulled him in again, and at least this time he wasn't shaking or dry-sobbing. He just stood there, letting Tony hug him, worrying about when this would start to feel awkward.
He barely heard the click of the door opening, and he would have pulled away but before he could, there was the sound of rapid footsteps and a sudden weight on his back.
"So this is what we're doing," Natasha said, as Steve staggered and found his balance. She had her knees tucked over his hips, arms folded along his back, and she rested her chin on his right shoulder, tilting her head to face him from behind.
"What are you doing?" he asked.
"Backwards hug," she said, and patted out a gentle drumbeat on his shoulders. "You didn't say you were freaked out, we could have done this upstairs. It's freezing down here."
"The machines need a lot of ventilation," Tony said, letting Steve go. Natasha wrapped her arms around his chest. Steve stood very still, not certain what to do.
"Come on, upstairs, there's food and we're gonna go heckle the news reports about us," she said, leaning back, pulling him backwards with her. "Everyone else does a shot whenever they gratuitously show my butt."
"Go ahead, I'll be up in a minute," Tony said. "I need to hook up a boot jet for a diagnostic, then I'm all yours."
"Mush," Natasha said, shifting her weight so that Steve leaned forward. "Upstairs, mush!"
"You are a child," he told her, but he headed for the door, sliding his hands under her knees to secure her in place.
"Sam's gonna be jealous I got a piggyback ride," she said, as he climbed the stairs.
"I'm putting you down when we get to the top, and don't tell Sam," he said. "Don't tell anyone."
She clamped her knees and arms, preventing him from setting her down. He supposed he could have shaken her off, but that seemed even less dignified than carrying her into the common room and dropping them both onto the couch, pinning her to the cushions. She shrieked and poked him in the kidneys to make him shift. Sam came roaring out of the kitchen and tackled him into the couch, off of her, and Steve flipped him up over the arm on the other side, making sure to give him enough lift that he could land on his feet. Clint caught Sam around the waist and pulled him to the carpet to wrestle out their post-battle adrenalin. Bruce shot Steve a raised eyebrow from where he was safely ensconsed in a wing-chair.
Steve curled himself into his usual position in the corner of the couch, where he wouldn't bother anyone or take up too much space. Sam and Clint bumped around on the floor for a while until Thor came in and separated them; Natasha had climbed off the couch and was in the kitchen rummaging for snacks. Steve crossed his legs, more or less content, and was about to suggest they watch something nice instead of the news -- maybe that reality singing show that made people cry all the time with how beautiful the singing was, or something -- when Tony came up, wiping his hands on a rag, and sat himself in Steve's lap.
"Hey!" Steve yelped. Tony flopped back on him. Steve scooted sideways, legs uncurling, and Tony dropped into the space between him and the arm of the sofa. Which was probably his plan, the shady bastard. Natasha, returning from the kitchen, sat on the floor and leaned back against Steve's legs, kicking Clint away from her affectionately, and Sam crawled up onto the couch next to Steve.
"Hey so did he actually rip you a new one?" he asked Tony, leaning around Steve.
"We sorted it out," Tony said, taking a box of Cracker Jack from Natasha and ripping into it.
"We didn't sort it out yet," Steve said reproachfully.
"Let it go," Sam advised. "I had it covered."
"I told him that!" Tony said.
"We're going to have a talk about swapping duties without telling the leader of the team, later," Steve said, but it was hard to put any venom behind it. Sam was warm and Tony was a perfect weight against his other side, and nobody seemed to find any of this at all strange or...un-Captain-like. Natasha had an arm locked around his calf.
"I should get out of the uniform," he said, after a few minutes of awkward basking in all this attention. He managed to catch Tony rolling his eyes.
"Stay," Tony said, but it didn't have its usual acid edge. Natasha patted one of his bare feet, then rested her hand there, thumb rubbing along the edge of his instep soothingly.
He could feel laziness creeping through his limbs, the same limp, sleepy sensation as the time Pepper and Tony had curled up with him. When Sam fidgeted and adjusted position, pulling Steve's head over against his, he let him, and nobody seemed to think that was weird, either. Bruce had fallen asleep in his chair and Clint was leaning up against Thor on another couch nearby, back propped against his shoulder. When he caught Steve looking, he grinned.
"I see you all came back in one piece," Pepper said as she swept into the room, and Steve started to think about moving so she could sit with Tony, but she just dropped onto Tony's lap and swung her legs up, across Steve and Sam's thighs, pinning all three of them in place.
"Not on purpose, in some cases," Steve said, twisting a little to nudge Tony with his shoulder.
"He's going to be on my ass about this all week," Tony told Pepper.
"What did you do? Were you unnecessarily noble and self-sacrificing?" she asked.
"That depends on your definition of unnecessary."
Natasha, tipping her head back to rest it against Pepper's thigh, snorted. Pepper reached down and petted her hair, fingers digging in to rub circles on the crown of her head. Through a haze of lassitude, Steve felt a twinge of discomfort, a sense of intrusion on something private, although technically he was now at the center of attention, and it wasn't like anyone hadn't noticed he was there. Pepper must have seen something in his expression but misinterpreted it as envy; her other hand snaked behind Tony's neck and rubbed Steve's scalp too.
"You seem to be letting go pretty well to me," she said to Steve, who managed a smile that he suspected was a lot goofier than he intended. He closed his eyes as Tony's hand joined Pepper's, and while he didn't exactly sleep, the conversation went on without him for quite a while.
What drew him back up to conscious attention was a soft snore from Sam; when he opened his eyes he found Sam asleep on his shoulder and Tony conked out too, head tipped back against the couch. Bruce was asleep with a book still hanging from one hand, and Clint was balled up against Thor's hip, both of them down for the count.
Pepper was awake, eyes on Tony, but when Steve shifted she looked up at him and smiled.
"It's like watching a room full of toddlers who haven't had their nap yet," she said, and Steve nodded. "Fighting took a lot out of you all today."
"It usually does," he said softly.
"Tony was waiting for you to ask, you know."
"Waiting for me to break, more like."
"No, he wouldn't think of it that way. It's not weakness, Steve," she said.
"Feels like it. All of this feels indulgent. And even if I didn't mind that, it's...difficult to let people see."
She nodded. "Believe it or not, I know a little about that."
"Well, you run Stark Industries. I'd imagine you spend a lot of time making sure you don't show weakness."
Pepper looked faintly surprised by this. "Yes. That's it exactly. But I also know who I can go to when I need to take a break from that. And so do you."
"I know in my head. Heart's another matter."
Her fingers were rubbing his scalp again, hand moving slowly so as not to wake Tony, whose head was pillowed on her arm.
"Maybe think of it this way," she said. "Your team needs -- "
"Me to be strong. They need to know their leader has things covered."
"That's not what I was going to say," she scolded, and Steve flushed. "Your team needs your attention. They need to feel like they're special to you. Like a parent, a little bit. They want to bond with you so that you'll all work together better, so that they'll feel secure. And that helps you -- you'd have understood what Tony and Sam pulled today better if you were closer to them. You must have been very close to your men during the war."
Steve considered this. He had been. He'd shared tents with most of the men at some point or other, huddled with them around fires, helped patch them up when they were hurt. There had been a lot of comfort in that.
"So...they need this," he said, trying out the idea -- that this wasn't an indulgence but a responsibility. A duty he'd been neglecting, making sure his team bonded properly.
Steve frowned. "Maybe we should have...some kind of regular team thing."
"Cuddle night," Pepper said with a grin. Steve winced. "Too much?"
"Little bit. But...a picnic meal in the living room. Or a movie night, or board games. Once a week. To check in and make sure everyone's on the same page."
Pepper looked indulgent. "Whatever gets you through the week, Steve."
"It's different when you're needed," Steve insisted. Her smile softened.
"Yes, it is," she agreed.
Steve considered, for about thirty seconds, suggesting team bonding as an activity to the others, but he suspected he'd get pushback, and he knew that official enforced friendliness never worked as well as people hoped. Instead he left it to Pepper to suggest to Tony, who in his usual deft, manipulative fashion managed to get all of them into the living room with snacks and a Dog Cops marathon before even Steve realized what he was up to.
The next week it was a new StarkGames video game that Tony had enrolled half the team in as beta-testers, and Steve found himself attempting to play, swearing and mashing buttons, while leaning around Natasha, who had decided he was warmest and settled in his lap with a blanket.
Winter was impending, with a snap in the air and the stores filling with fleece and scarves and thick gloves, when Sam suggested a pick-up football game. There was a small park behind Stark Tower, part of Tony's green-building plan, that was just large enough to decently run around in, so they all trooped down in sweaters and thick hats, with a football scrounged from the gym.
"Okay, but we're handicapping you, you, and you," Tony said, pointing to Steve, Thor, and Natasha. "This is flag football, but for you three, tackling is allowed."
"Why me?" Natasha asked, at the same time Thor asked, "What's the point?"
"Because we can't stop you but at least this way we get to feel up your guns," Tony said to Thor, who nodded as if this made perfect sense. "And you because you're sneaky," he added to Natasha.
"I don't cheat at football," Natasha said, mock-offended.
"I didn't say you were a cheat, I said you were a sneak," Tony said, and Natasha rolled her eyes, but Steve stepped in to prevent anything escalating.
"Okay. Thor, Sam, Clint, Tony, red team; Natasha, Bruce, Pepper, and me, blue team," he announced. He almost asked Pepper if she was sure she wanted to scrimmage with them, but she was making the numbers even and anyway you didn't question Pepper.
As they played, Steve kept one eye on Tony, enjoying the opportunity to try to out-strategize him. Tony was brilliant, but he wasn't trained in the kind of combat strategy Steve was, and he lost his temper when he lost. The other eye he kept on the coffee shop across the street, where a little crowd was gathering to watch. Most of them snapped a few pictures of the Avengers chasing each other around the park and then went on with their day, but there was a small crowd of kids who looked like they'd watch for as long as the Avengers were there.
The tackle-handicap actually worked pretty well, he thought, as Natasha managed to to trip Thor and bring him down. Blue and Red were tied, pi to pi --Tony and Bruce were keeping score -- and Blue was roadblocked on their own ten when Tony announced that the pizza JARVIS had ordered was on its way, so this should be the last down.
"You just don't want us to win," Steve said with a grin, as Pepper prepared to hike the ball.
"I'm sorry, have you not noticed where you are? We're one interception away from sweet victory," Tony retorted.
"You just try it," Steve said, clapping his hands together, breath puffing in the air. Tony growled. Sam and Clint looked especially determined, and Steve got a mildly bad feeling about this.
Pepper hiked the ball back to him and Natasha and Bruce both dodged down the field, drawing as much attention as they could; Steve faked a throw to Bruce -- Thor bought the fake-out every time -- and then tucked the ball under his arm and took off running.
Sam caught on first, mainly because Steve couldn't resist blurting "On your left!" as he passed, and leapt to tackle. Steve felt Sam's arms lock around his waist but he kept running, and after a few barely-self-censored swears, Sam simply fell away. Steve could see a clear path to the end zone and a quick glance behind him proved Thor was still tangled up with Bruce, but just as he was feeling home-free Clint came busting out of nowhere and leapt. He landed on Steve's shoulders, arms locked around his neck, and yelled "Gotcha!"
Steve laughed and kept running.
"No!" Clint yelped. "Now you go down! Go down!"
"Nice try!" Steve said, still running. Clint threw his weight to the left, swinging his legs around, but while he had the muscle control, he just didn't have the weight.
"Why must you defy physics?" Clint demanded. "I've tackled you, be tackled!"
Steve was about to reply, but Thor had realized what was happening and was coming down the field, roaring "CAPTAIN!" in a bellow of rage.
Steve tried to dodge, but Thor was too fast and too big. Clint swung left, Thor dove right, and Steve felt himself go down five yards from the end zone.
Thor was laughing as Tony and Sam managed to catch up and leap on the pile; he felt other bodies flying onto the heap and figured his own team must have decided to join the fun, the traitors. He squirmed under Thor and Clint, but Thor had him pretty firmly pinned. Tony hit the turf next to him, Natasha sitting on his shoulders, Pepper with a firm grip on his hips.
"Hey, Captain," Tony said.
"What happened to that interception, huh?" Steve taunted.
"Can't intercept if you refuse to throw the ball, coward," Tony retorted. It felt like possibly Clint and Sam had begun to wrestle, literally on top of him. "How you doing?"
Steve caught Tony's expression, the knowing concern in his dark eyes, and let his head drop gently to the muddy grass.
"I'm good," he said, and was surprised to find he meant it. He managed to stretch one arm out and shove Tony's shoulder gently, then gave Natasha a push to dislodge her. She somersaulted backwards gracefully, then offered Pepper a hand up, ignoring Tony's offended grumbling.
Steve sat up, Clint tumbling off his back as he did so, and pulled himself to his feet mostly using Thor.
"All right, everyone," he said, thumping Bruce on the shoulder with a smile. "Inside. Food's almost here and we need to get warmed up. I'll be up in a second."
"What's up, applesauce cup?" Tony asked, as the others headed for the Stark Tower side entrance.
"Just going to go shake a few hands," Steve said, nodding at the kids across the street. "Okay if I give them the ball?"
"I think I can spare a used football," Tony said, and dug in his pocket, producing a gold-ink marker pen. He pulled the ball and Steve's hand towards him, held Steve's hand by the wrist as he signed the ball, then passed the pen over. "See you upstairs."
It got tiring after a while, dealing with the consequences of being a famous superhero, but Steve never minded when it was kids, who were refreshingly open about their hero-worship. They almost never had ulterior motives, either. He shook a few hands and patted a few shoulders, then picked out the shrimpiest kid and offered him the football, signing it to him and then handing over both the ball and the pen. A few photos, one last round of handshakes, and he jogged back across the street, more than ready to wipe off the worst of the mud and thaw out a little.
A damp towel hit him in the face as he stepped into the warm common room, and he wiped his face and arms reasonably clean as he took in the scene. The others were all piled on the couch or just below it; Clint had an entire box of pizza to himself and was curled around it defensively, hissing at Natasha, who had a plastic fork clenched threateningly in one hand. Sam was draped over Clint's back and already stealing a slice while Clint was distracted. Bruce was on the floor, bracketed by Thor's legs, and was sharing a thin-crust red pepper special with Pepper on the sofa above him, because they both had awful taste in pizza. Tony had an arm around Pepper's shoulders, a folded-over slice of pepperoni in one hand and a steaming mug in the other.
Steve didn't even think about it until he was already moving; he launched himself across the room and dropped down in the handful of square inches between Tony's butt and Natasha's back. His landing on the sofa upset Clint's balance, giving Natasha a chance to snag the box; Sam and Clint both tumbled to the floor, Pepper squeaked as she tried to preserve her horrible thin crust, and Bruce placidly lifted the box out of the way as Clint used Sam as leverage to try and kick his pizza box out of Natasha's grip. Natasha dodged, and Clint crawled up Steve's leg to try and get in a more defensible position. Steve grabbed the back of his shirt and secured him from attacking.
"It's cool, look, there's a second Mushroom Supreme," Sam said, lifting the lid of one of the boxes still on the coffee table. Clint scowled, then slithered back to the floor to investigate Sam's discovery.
"What the hell even goes on a Mushroom Supreme?" Tony asked. "And why do we have two of them?"
"Agent Barton and Agent Romanoff do not share well; I thought it wise to procure two," JARVIS answered.
"Lots of mushrooms," Clint said, as he and Sam disposed themselves next to Bruce. "A supreme amount of mushrooms."
"Three kinds," Natasha said, through a mouthful of pizza.
"Huh, that's not what I call supreme," Tony said.
"What do you want, Steve?" Pepper asked.
Steve leaned into Tony, shifting his arm so Natasha could burrow backwards into his chest. He lifted Tony's -- he sniffed, ooh, hot cocoa -- out of his hand and took a sip, feeling the warmth spread out to his fingers and toes.
"I think I'm fine for now," he said with a smile.