He gazed at her, then glanced around her comfortable, slightly messy office with its children's drawings on the walls and sets of inspirational coffee mugs on the bookshelves. "To be honest, I'm not sure. I think I came to say goodbye officially." He paused. "I'm told it's called a sense of closure."
"I don't mean today," said the counsellor, and Steve reflected that in all the months he'd spent talking to her, he'd never seen her anything other than chipper and optimistic. Now she looked remote, subdued. Tired. "I mean in the first place. Why did you come to us?" Steve blinked. "You've never believed in the everlasting flames of hell, have you?"
Steve shook his head.
"Then there really isn't any purpose to your being here," she said quietly. "Maybe there never really was."
"Isn't this where you're supposed to convince me to come back?"
"I have been doing this for twenty-two years," said the counsellor slowly. "I'm proud of a lot of the work I've done. I've helped people who honestly feel that they will burn in everlasting hell if they give in to their addictions - their impulses. I've helped people whose families would disown them. People who would lose their spouses and children, their entire lives. I'm proud of that work." She sighed. "I've also been called every name in the book, and had clients tell me I ruined their lives by not forcing them to accept who they were." She suddenly looked very old. "I believe in my work, Captain Rogers. But if you don't..."
"You don't seem to me to be a young man who needs what we have to offer. You seem to be conflicted, yes. But not committed. Not to this."
Steve sat back.
She gave him a small smile. "I'm not - it's not that I want to give up on you. I want all my clients to find God, to find happiness. And we're here if you feel you need to come back. I pray that you do. But if you don't... I'll pray for you anyway."
Steve nodded, and stood up. "I don't think I'll be back," he said, and had to wince at the bluntness of his own words. "It's not that I think you should be banned, not like... some people do. But I don't agree with what you do. Not any more." He paused. "Thank you for trying to help me. For doing what you thought was right. But there's nothing wrong with me. Nothing I need to change."
"I've had a lot of my clients tell me that, years later," she answered. "I've learned to be grateful when they don't blame me for wasting years of their lives."
Steve nodded and moved to the door.
"Captain Rogers," she called out. He turned back. She looked uncomfortable for the first time, choosing her words carefully. "If you don't choose to come back... you don't have to wallow in the kinds of behaviour that... others do." His eyebrows went up and she hurried on. "I don't think that's who you are, regardless of your orientation. I do have gay friends, and not all of them - I don't agree with their choices, but I do believe that some have made better decisions than others in terms of the lifestyle they choose to pursue." She paused and said carefully. "If you do pursue a relationship... just be careful. There are many people in the lifestyle you're choosing who... who should not be emulated. You should... take care. Of who you surround yourself with."
Steve thought for a moment. Are you telling me that if I have to be gay, at least don't be gay with Tony Stark? Briefly he thought of saying that out loud, but there was no point.
"Thank you," he said instead. He paused at the door. "Goodbye."
"Good luck, Captain Rogers. I'll pray for you."
Steve walked away from the church, feeling strangely relieved and let down at the same time.
He checked his watch. Three hours till their meeting with SHIELD.
He looked around and headed down the quiet street, no particular destination in mind. He'd needed to get out of the Tower this morning, had wanted to settle some things that he really should've settled a long time ago, in the spirit of ending things that needed to be ended. But that had gone a lot faster than he'd expected, and now he had all this time and nothing to do but brood and worry and think...
And he believed what he'd just told the counsellor, he realized, stopping short in the middle of the street as it hit him with unexpected force. He'd wrestled with this for so long, about what was right and what God wanted and what he believed, and had slowly started to intellectually agree that maybe Tony and Clint and all the others were right, but still felt in his heart that there if there was a way to be normal, then maybe... but now, with a clear head, and a year of living in this world...
There was nothing wrong with him. There was nothing he needed to change about that part of himself.
What he and Tony had done together might be something he'd been told was evil and weak for most of his life, and might still be thought of as disgusting and wrong and sick by a lot of the world, but the peace and joy he'd found in Tony's bed was nothing to be ashamed of. Not in that way, anyway. The only thing wrong with it was that it was supposed to be about more than just a roll in the hay; it was a part of yourself that you shared with someone you loved and were committed to for life, and not just with a pal with some time on his hands and an unhealthy tendency to give too much of himself for his friends.
He sighed, his sense of stunned relief giving way to a wave of regret. "Friends" wasn't all he and Tony had been, no matter what Tony said. And if Steve hadn't been a horse's ass and brought his insecurity and hang-ups into the bedroom, maybe eventually Tony would've realized that. Maybe he wouldn't have made Tony feel like there was something wrong with them and they had to end things.
Maybe he wouldn't have taken the closest friend he had in this time and used him, taken what he needed and repaid him by treating him like shit. Like he could just be picked up whenever Steve couldn't take the pain and loneliness and frustrated desire any more, and tossed aside when he felt better.
God, he'd been so selfish and blind. Tony hadn't deserved that. No wonder he'd backed off. Amazing that he hadn't done so a lot sooner.
Steve took a seat at the cafe, feeling drained and noting with relief that Beth didn't seem to be working today. He passed the time alternating going over the last bits of paperwork for the Taft mission and occasionally drawing, trying to psych himself up for the meeting at SHIELD.
It would be fine. The hard part had been deciding what to do and planning the meeting. A harder part would be the coming weeks and months. This meeting? Peanuts.
His cell phone pinged - damn, he really had to ask Clint how to manage this thing because Tony had programmed his phone to the tune of the Star Spangled Banner and he was getting pretty sick of it - and he checked the number.
"Ready Cap?" said Tony's voice. Steve's heart gave a small thud.
"As we'll ever be," he answered. "Everything still as planned?"
"Yup. Assassin Twins are meeting us there. Hill's gonna be there too."
"We still let Sorensen go first?"
"No reason not to. I bow to your wisdom about discretion and not wearing the suit to the meeting. Humdrum administrivia all the way." There was a pause. "Almost all the way."
"It wasn't just my wisdom," Steve reminded him.
"Hey, I'm letting you feel like you won an argument. Don't question it. It's called being gracious."
Steve smiled and stood to go, reflecting that it was a good thing Tony had a lot of experience with this not-together-any-more thing. He hadn't allowed any awkwardness between them. As far as the team was concerned, there was no change; they'd barely acted like a couple before, and the fact that they hadn't sat together as Dances With Wolves gave way to The Silence of the Lambs was not remarked upon.
At least Steve didn't have to deal with losing Tony's friendship. No fights, no anger... just regret and guilt. Just desire that he couldn't act on any more, a yearning to touch and hold and go back in time and not screw this up and take for granted the best thing going on in his life right now.
Steve hurried into SHIELD HQ half an hour later, gathering with his team-mates in a board room and sat through an admin meeting, all of them responding and nodding in all the right places as Sorensen droned about procedure and documents to be filled about Taft and a request for specifications for Clint's new arrows, and Tony's by-now-standard refusal to provide said specs.
"I don't think you appreciate that you no longer have Director Fury's backing on this," said Sorensen impatiently. "We have a new Director, and I doubt she's going to continue to indulge your lack of cooperation." He turned to Hill expectantly.
Hill's eyebrows went up. "Agent Sorensen, we haven't discussed this. Perhaps after the meeting would be a better time to talk over what it is that you think I should do about Iron Man's preference for not sharing Stark Industry trade secrets."
Sorensen's mouth thinned briefly. "Very well, Director. I'll send you a memo. I do think that as SHIELD personnel, Iron Man has a duty to--"
"Um, excuse me, Iron Man is a consultant, not personnel," Tony interrupted, his eyes narrowed in annoyance.
"You're part of SHIELD. You have certain responsibilities. It's time you started to act like it," said Sorensen.
Tony glanced around the room. The tension had suddenly spiked, as they all leaned forward in their seats.
Steve glanced around the room. Technically they had agreed to wait until all of SHIELD's agenda items were done before springing this on them, but there was no real reason for that other than politeness. He gave a small nod, and saw no demurral from any of his team-mates.
"Iron Man?" Sorensen prompted. "You have something to say?"
"Funny you should ask," said Tony, sitting back. "We were going to wait till after you were done bitching about inappropriate use of copier fluid and triplicate request forms for paperclips, but now's as good a time as any. Yeah, so, we quit."
Hill leaned forward, her eyes narrowing. "Come again?"
"We. Us. All of us, as a team. We are withdrawing from SHIELD auspices."
"Are you serious?" Hill looked around at the team.
"We are leaving," Thor answered. "We are remaining Avengers, but shall no longer be part of SHIELD."
"All of you?" said Sorensen, looking around the table.
"All of us," said Steve. Bruce nodded. Natasha reached into her pocket and took out her SHIELD ID, placing it on the table before her, and Hill's eyes widened as Clint did the same.
"Are you seriously--" she began.
"They can't--" Sorensen interrupted her.
"Agent Sorensen, please," said Hill brusquely. "Why?"
"We have our reasons," said Bruce.
"Listen," said Hill, her voice rising, "You don't have to do this--"
"Director, you can't allow them to just walk away," said Sorensen.
Hill turned to him impatiently. "Agent Sorensen, Mr. Stark and Mr. Banner are consultants only, and Thor isn't exactly regular staff. There is nothing I can do to stop them. Now be quiet." She turned to Steve, Clint and Natasha. "The three of you are SHIELD. You can't just--"
Steve leaned towards her. "It's a job," he said. "It's just a job. And we quit."
"Maybe to you it is," said Hill, and turned to Clint and Natasha. "But you two--"
"It's just a job," Clint repeated. "I've had lotsa jobs."
"You'll have to be cleared to exit," said Sorensen.
"We know that."
"There are fairly rigorous exit interviews," said Hill. "For all of you. It's not a step to take lightly."
"We know that too," said Steve.
Hill gave him a hard look. "I told you that you were welcome to join Research and--"
"And then you put a stop to that."
"This is highly irregular!" Sorensen said.
"Yes, it is," said Hill. "What brought this on?"
"It's not working out," said Tony. "There's been problems with the team and SHIELD from the beginning. We're just pulling the plug. I had Legal go over it and we're totally clear."
"You've learned a great many things through SHIELD that--"
"We've explained confidentiality clauses to them," said Natasha. "And we're familiar with them ourselves."
"They have to return all SHIELD technology," said Sorensen.
"Oh no, please not that," Tony sneered. "Legolas and the Widow haven't used SHIELD tech in months, you moron. I've been supplying all their weaponry. Half of SHIELD's weaponry, as a matter of fact."
"What about Captain Rogers?" said Sorensen.
"His shield was designed and built by Howard Stark," said Tony with a smirk. "We can fight over it in court, but I don't think you'll like the media fallout if you try to take it away from him."
"That's not the only SHIELD tech he has."
"The uniform? Please. Did you never notice that he never came to you for repairs on that thing? That's because I repaired and rebuilt it about a dozen times. Though I suppose you can still claim it's yours." He rolled his eyes. "What would you do if he'd shown up here wearing it? You'd want him to strip off for you in here and walk home bare-assed? I'd have a new uniform delivered to the front door in a limo."
"That's not it." Sorensen nodded towards Steve's arm.
Steve blinked. "You mean the implant?"
"It's proprietary SHIELD technology, invented and built by our scientists and currently administering medication formulated by SHIELD Medical."
Bruce made a noise in his throat and Clint blew out his breath in disgust.
Steve nodded. "That's a good point. How do we get it out?"
Tony's smirk dropped. "Steve, are you kidding?"
"It'll be OK," said Steve calmly. "He's right; if it's not mine, it needs to come out. We knew there would be sacrifices."
"Had you already thought about this?"
"No, but it's not a big deal." Steve kept his expression calm and refused to give Sorensen any satisfaction. Bruce could reformulate a lot of what SHIELD Medical had worked on; he'd been backing up SHIELD Medical for him for months. Tony had already figured out the cost of their medical care, and that included therapy. Granted, none of them had factored in the idea of trying to get medication to work on his enhanced system, but Bruce could figure it out.
He'd be OK. He ruthlessly tamped down fear at the thought of dropping back down into depression, having to try to cope again with anxiety attacks.
There was no cause for alarm. The medication had been meant to stabilize him when he was deeply depressed, give him time to feel better while he and Dr. Sanjay worked out his issues. Well, he'd had months of that. He was feeling better and it wasn't all due to the little implant in his arm.
Funny, though; for all that he'd hated the thought of being dependent on it at first, he certainly didn't feel too good about giving it up now.
"How should we do this?" Steve asked, his voice determinedly casual. "Should I go down to Medical right now?"
"Or are you gonna do it right now with a knife?" asked Tony angrily, making no attempt at nonchalance. "You might as well, he'll heal right away anyway and without the implant there's no pain medication that'll work on him--"
"We would be within our rights to do exactly that," Sorensen began.
"And of course we wouldn't," Hill broke in hastily. "Captain Rogers, we can make an appointment to deal with that later this week, if you really are serious about leaving."
"We're serious," said Bruce flatly. "Really, really serious."
Hill gave him a level gaze, then moved to the rest of the group. "All right, then," she said calmly. "As of 14:15, the Avengers are no longer associated with SHIELD." She sat back and stared at them, her eyes stony and unamused. "You are making a huge mistake. Without SHIELD resources--"
"We'll do fine," said Tony.
She pursed her lips. "For what it's worth... good luck."
And that was the second time today Steve had been wished luck by someone he was rejecting. He tried not to feel like there was something passive-aggressive about it.
He stood, and followed his team-mates out the door.
It was so peaceful out here. So different from the frenzied flurry of meetings and exit interviews and strategy sessions that had filled this week.
She finally sat down on a deck chair, satisfied that her thoughts were more orderly, and pulled a Starkpad towards her, frowning as her newfound peace faltered at the sight of yet another flagged story about Tony and Steve.
Iron Man's Broken Heart?
God, weren't they tired of that yet? She flicked the story away, then clicked on "Related stories" against her better judgment, groaning inwardly as yet another column about Steve's mental health appeared. Those were even more disturbing, as the media indulged in their time-honored practice of tearing down the very people they built up. Speculations as to whether Steve was fit to serve again, and whether he had merely suffered from depression or been actively suicidal, whether he'd recovered and how...
And there it was, a photograph of Steve in Taft, cowl off and frowning at one of the idiots they'd apprehended. Somehow the angle and lighting made it look like Steve was nervous, almost intimidated by the guy. Which was funny because moments after the picture the moron had tried to bolt and gotten about three feet before super-soldier reflexes and a steely grip on his collar snapped him back.
"Don't do that again," Steve had said mildly, holding the guy a foot off the ground and politely ignoring his girly squeak.
Unstable and emotionally compromised, the article speculated. Not ready to take up the shield again.
That wasn't how Natasha remembered Taft at all. She remembered seeing Steve coming out of the Quinjet, suited up, calm and confident, and it was like the man they'd come to know over the last few months, who had doubts and fears and mood swings and who had sometimes seemed like all he wanted was to be allowed to die in peace - that man had disappeared, and Steve Rogers was back among the living. Captain America was back where he belonged.
It wasn't anywhere near that simple, Natasha had reminded herself sternly. He was only there for muscle, only tentatively cleared to be part of their dysfunctional little team again. And she knew that given a major setback he could be right back where he had been, on that ledge on Staten Island or on the floor of their kitchen, huddled and sobbing while Tony was forced into the uncomfortable role of grownup and held him close and whispered comforting words and rocked him back and forth into stability.
But that day, he'd been Captain America again. The man who had led the Howling Commandos and made Phil Coulson swoon like a giddy fanboy and brought the Avengers together like nobody else could. Natasha had felt her heart soar despite herself.
Fit To Lead Again? wondered another headline, and Natasha wanted to kick whoever had written it until she scanned through it and found a relatively balanced piece. Yes, a mention of him being gone for a while, yes, some doubts as to the wisdom of allowing such a young man with such a past to take on such a stressful job again; but also an exhaustive list of his many triumphs, both during the War and during his time with the Avengers.
God's Peace: Religious Therapy, Or Psychological Abuse? asked another headline. She scanned. Allegations that Steve had been a regular at the church. Firm refusal to comment from church officials. Silence from Steve, the Avengers, and SHIELD.
And just how the hell had the media caught wind of the particular place Steve had attended?
Clint walked out onto the deck, drying his hair, and flopped down into the chair next to Natasha. She put her pad onto her lap and leaned over to rub his shoulder; he often got aches in it from target practice, and their sparring match yesterday hadn't helped. Thank God Tony's private Avengers gig included medical.
It was so odd to no longer be part of SHIELD, she thought as Clint closed his eyes and leaned forward, elbows on his knees and head bowed as she massaged his shoulders. So odd to no longer be part of that world. To be living, essentially, on Tony Stark's dime. Odd and disturbing. After so long with SHIELD being their only stability, their only salvation...
SHIELD people came in all types, but there were more than a few like the two of them: throwaways who had SHIELD or nothing. Assassins, hackers, social misfits; no family, no home. They tended to either be fanatically loyal to the only place that had ever let them belong, or pragmatic and ready to fly the coop at any moment.
Clint and Natasha had always prided themselves on being somewhere in the middle, in part because of each other and because of Phil, but if she'd had to choose Natasha would've said she was more of the former. Until a few months ago, she would never have considered leaving SHIELD.
"How are you doing?" she asked Clint, giving his shoulder a final pat. Clint sighed and rubbed his neck.
"Fine," he said, and rotated the shoulder tentatively. He winced.
"When's the movie?"
"In a few minutes. Bruce is finishing some hummus dip."
"How's the shoulder?"
"Fine." Clint glanced at the Starkpad on her lap. "How's the news?"
Clint snorted. "Yeah. Like my shoulder." He scanned the pad. Iron Man Dumped? and Captain America, Ex-Gay? headlines screamed from the surface.
"Notice there's nothing about us leaving SHIELD." He ran a finger over the pad, scrolling through the stories she'd just been reading.
"Seems like that's about the only thing that's not covered, though," he remarked, stopping on a picture of Steve smiling at a star-struck gap-toothed child from Taft, with a headline underneath reading Suicide Watch For Cap? and a sensationalist expose with subheadings titled, Religious mania, Secret relationships, and Love triangle? above a picture of Tony, Steve, and Pepper.
"It's like they're throwing anything and seeing what sticks," said Natasha. "Typical."
"I wanna know how they got so much right, though," said Clint. "Some of the details--"
"SHIELD Medical knew about his suicide watch," Natasha pointed out.
"They didn't know about God's Peace," said Clint, pointing at the name on the screen. "Steve never told anyone at SHIELD the name of the church he went to - hell, none of us but Tony even knew he went. And nobody but us knew they were fucking. Or that they'd broken up. Who the hell told? It was either the church or the shrink. Again. And Steve swears up and down that he doesn't believe they told."
"I don't think he's so sure about the church any more," said Natasha. "But I don't think it's them either."
"So, what, you're saying it's SHIELD?"
"I don't know. If it is them, though, you can bet they're laying the groundwork so that if it comes out that we've left, we look like a bunch of lunatics."
"Especially if we say anything about why," Clint agreed glumly.
Natasha sighed. That was one of their biggest bugaboos. What to say, when to say it. Bruce and, to a smaller degree, Steve, wanted to go public with it, but the rest of them were urging caution, for various reasons - not the least of which was the fact that it would expose Clint and Natasha's failure to maintain non-disclosure. It... wasn't helping team dynamics.
"What's the movie tonight?" asked Natasha. "I take it there was a discussion on that last night after I went to bed."
"Forrest Gump," said Clint.
"So we are skipping Schindler's List then? Too triggering?"
"Nah, we decided to go ahead and see it after all. But then Bruce said everyone was too exhausted this week and half of us would just fall asleep. We're gonna watch it when we're not so out of it. Besides, after Lambs and Unforgiven we kinda need a little levity."
Natasha nodded. "Good. It deserves full attention."
"You've seen it?"
"Isn't it a bit of a bummer?"
"The hero is a morally bankrupt man with a lot of red in his ledger," said Natasha. "I found it... uplifting."
"We are skipping The English Patient, though."
"Also boring, according to Bruce, who tried to see it with a girlfriend in the theatre and when it came out on video and fell asleep five time times."
Natasha laughed. "Bruce said that? I would've pegged him for a romantic."
"I got the feeling he just wanted to give Tony and Steve an excuse to skip it."
"Guys," said Bruce, poking his head out onto the deck. "Movie time." He stepped back inside and Natasha and Clint got up to follow him.
He looked tired, Natasha noted. But at least he was talking to her and Clint. Their relationship had taken a bit of a beating, but they were OK. Sort of.
They went inside and helped Bruce bring trays of the hummus and something Steve had made - some kind of Middle Eastern samosa-like baked things - to the movie room. They all settled down to watch, as the screen lit up with a feather swirling up into the sky.
Natasha looked around at her subdued team-mates, all showing the strain of the last week of living in a kind of no-man's-land, having quit SHIELD but still being up in the air about exactly what that meant.
They couldn't even go public with that, for one thing. Not without knowing more about how they were going to manage themselves, not without knowing more about exactly what had happened at SHIELD and whether it might still be a threat to them. Tony had been working night and day on it, looking through servers, trying to track down Fury, frustrated that they weren't getting anywhere.
They wouldn't be in this position if they'd waited a little longer before quitting, she thought for about the millionth time. Then again, considering how some of her team-mates had felt about SHIELD, she was lucky they'd agreed to delay even the minimal time they had. And it wasn't like they could do anything about it now, not without a time machine.
And they couldn't do anything about the fresh batch of publicity regarding Steve and Tony, either. It was disturbing that all of it was going on right now, but for all they knew, it might just be one of those media things where there was a slow news week and they latched on to something inane.
Natasha shifted over slightly as Clint leaned up against her and smiled as Forrest Gump held out a box to the woman on the bus bench next to him.
"Mah mama always said," Forrest began, and Clint, Natasha, Bruce, and Tony finished with him, "Life was like a box a chock'lits," laughing as Forrest continued his speech.
"That's where that came from!" Steve exclaimed.
"What?" asked Tony.
"This guy at Research and Analysis," said Steve. "When I was doing training. He'd say that every so often, 'Research an' Analysis is like a box a chock'lits, ya never know what you gonna git,' and I could never understand why he put on an accent."
Tony smiled at him and they both turned back to the screen, seemingly engrossed in the movie, and if Natasha hadn't known they were no longer together she'd have sworn the casual way they were behaving towards each other was perfectly normal. They were being so mature and reasonable, so careful to show no hint of anything having gone wrong.
And it was wrong. Very wrong. Steve was quiet and pensive, and couldn't seem to look at Tony without guilt in his eyes. Tony was very determinedly not acting in any way that was any different from before, right down to working to all hours and kidding around with Steve, but it felt forced.
They were trying, but it wasn't the same. They were too careful with each other. No more touching each other, no more smiles that actually reached their eyes.
It was depressing, is what it was. For a woman who so determinedly didn't believe in love, it was disheartening to see it go bad.
Natasha turned away from them and back to the screen. She was turning into a sap. And at a remarkably bad time, too. She believed in individual strength, in independence. Being alone, self-sufficient. The way she had been before SHIELD. She'd let herself get too soft, these last few years. She shouldn't continue down that route. She shouldn't let herself romanticize love and friendship any more than she'd let herself romanticize SHIELD. All of it was unreliable; all of it could turn on you.
Even though everything felt different right now. She was alone again, she'd lost the protection of SHIELD, but she still had Clint. She still had the team, shaky as it was.
She even still had friends. She'd gotten several emails from people at SHIELD, people she hadn't realized considered her anything but a colleague. She'd always thought she was a maverick, part of the organization but outside of it; apparently she'd been wrong.
Can't believe you're gone, Agent Romanova, said one email from an agent she'd worked with a few times and worked out with whenever they were both in the gym.
Ours is not to question why you quit, said another from Chang. But there's a lot of us who are wondering. You will be missed.
And a very strange anonymous one, that she and Clint had puzzled over extensively and then brought to the attention of the rest of the team. One more thing for Tony to work with, one more reason to think they were right to have left.
Keep looking, it said. You weren't wrong. You were given a great deal of latitude for a reason. We weren't wrong either.
She turned back to the movie, clearing her mind so she could pursue it more tomorrow.
Steve whacked back a grimy-looking young man and couldn't help agreeing with the description. He'd been expecting mad scientists. Instead, they were facing... actually, they looked a bit like the warriors from Braveheart. All they needed was blue paint. And apparently they didn't have a high opinion of personal hygiene.
Steve swiped sweat from his face, then ducked and hit another assailant. The smell was probably partly due to the unpleasant Miami heat - a change from New York, which was chilling the Avengers to the bone these days. And it wasn't just the grimy people, it was the warehouse and the whole neighborhood, wafting a bizarre scent of tar and vomit that Steve didn't think he could have possible imagined and didn't think he'd be able to forget any time soon. If this is what these guys had to live with on a daily basis, it was really no wonder they didn't bother to bathe.
Steve ducked and punched and drew a quick breath as the last two guys attacking him finally went down. He checked - OK, three breathing and bleeding - took the tracking devices Tony had provided him with and clipped them onto the unconscious men. He grimaced and whacked the spines of the non-breathing ones, wincing at the weird popping sound as they went limp but relieved that at least he wasn't killing anyone. And SHIELD would pick up the tagged men eventually.
They were battling some idiots who apparently wanted to try a combination of pilfered high-tech and possible biological warfare kluged together from alien technology. Not viruses, but many species of weird crawling insects, ranging from gnat-sized to about the size of a Chihuahua. SHIELD had been keeping an eye on these guys for a while, according to Tony's intel. Had noticed weird science lab materials entering a nondescript warehouse and too much movement of people in and out. Had decided to move in on them at dawn this morning when they started getting reports of weird-looking, weird-acting, impossible-to-kill bugs coming from the warehouse - and had discovered themselves outnumbered, outgunned and outverminned, if that was a word. The first unit had been easily repelled, the warehouse nearly impossible to breach, and the agents who'd gotten inside reported being beaten back by surprisingly grimy scientists, some of them eerily silent, and swarms of vicious bugs.
The second storming attempt a few hours later had gone no better. More agents, more tech - more mad scientists and bugs. SHIELD had settled in around the warehouse to try to figure out how to get them out, reluctant to damage the building and risk releasing the bugs - and then a group of agents going for a coffee a block away had spotted a group of bad guys trying to sneak off, no idea how they'd gotten out of the warehouse. It was only by luck that they'd run into them. SHIELD had gone into massive containment mode.
That was when the Avengers had decided to step in. The Verminators were trying to get out. They were going to get away, with their weird tech and bugs, and SHIELD wasn't getting the job done. Maybe a flying suit, JARVIS's observational and analytical abilities, and Bruce and Tony's genius, could get the job done. And if they also had Thor and Clint watching from up high for more of these folks popping up out of nowhere and Steve and Natasha to help beat back whoever did, well maybe that could help too.
Seemed to be going well so far. Tony had gotten a lot of info and shared it with SHIELD, they'd managed to contain several small groups that had gotten out, and seemed to be making a difference. They'd even discovered that the eerily silent grimy human fighters weren't human at all; they were "some kind of knockoff Life Model Decoy," according to Tony. Which certainly made fighting them a little easier, since he didn't have to worry about causing unnecessary harm the way he did with the humans.
Most of the human-like assailants seemed eager to fight but not up Natasha's or Clint's level, let alone Steve's. Clint was beginning to sound out of breath; three batches of assailants had appeared on his perch, trying to bring him down. So far he'd brought all of them down instead, but he was getting tired and wasn't happy about the bug-protecting coverings over his eyes, face and arms. They were all hot and tired, beating back people and securing them while Tony, Thor and Clint tried to figure out where the hell all they were coming from so they could cut them off at the source, how to get into the warehouse without blowing up the surrounding city blocks or possibly setting off something volatile inside...
It was too damn hot here. And extremely frustrating, beating back one batch of unwashed people and annoying bugs only to have another one spring up a few minutes later, from out of nowhere it seemed. The warehouse wasn't that large... how many of them could there be?
On the other hand, it was nice to be doing something active. They'd been busy setting up their own observation equipment since they couldn't use SHIELD's, getting up to speed on various intel, going over old missions, trying to see how they would have run them with no SHIELD logistical or infrastructure behind them. It had been an interesting mental exercise. They'd missed an incursion of some kind in Milwaukee, they thought - one of the things SHIELD did rather well was keep things out of the media, so it was hard to tell exactly what they'd missed - and it was sobering how much they relied on SHIELD in previous missions. They'd tentatively decided that this event on the outskirts of Miami was a good test, and besides, they were needed.
"SHIELD still has the north quarter?" Natasha asked. It was a little eerie that they were cooperating the way they were; not working together, but the Avengers had informed SHIELD that they were taking the area past NW 60th and a voice - sounded like Taggart, an agent Steve had worked with before - had curtly said, "Acknowledge," and let them handle things themselves.
Steve ran behind the warehouse, alert for any new breakouts Tony, Thor, and Clint might not be able to see up high. He heard Tony curse.
"Another breakout, west side - damn it, that's seventeen, eighteen - Thor, can you get them? SHIELD's getting pummelled--"
"This is taking too long," said Clint. "SHIELD evacuated twelve square blocks, right?"
"Yeah," said Tony.
Bruce's voice came over their comm. "Should I call in the Other Guy?"
"No, it's fine, we can handle it," said Tony.
"Iron Man, are you sure?" said Steve. "The Other Guy knows enough about LMDs and people to not go after the people. Didn't you say LMDs smell funny to him, Bruce?"
"They irritate him," said Bruce.
There was a brief pause.
"You think?" asked Tony.
"I think it's worth a try," said Steve.
"Big Green, what do you say?"
Bruce chuckled. "I think it'll be fine."
"Remember SHIELD also suspects these bugs might not just have venom. Me and Steve and Thor and the Hulk are probably fine, but I'm not feeling great about Hawkeye and the Widow."
"We can take care of ourselves, Iron Man," Clint said. "Bugs haven't bitten through yet."
"I know you can take care of yourselves hand-to-hand; I'm worried about viruses. And there's SHIELD agents and local law enforcement to think about too. Besides we're gonna have to turn this over to the good people of Miami sometime soon; I don't much feel like letting these idiots put bio junk into the city."
Steve nodded and flung his shield at a human fighter as Bruce went past him, growing into a force to be reckoned with and going around the corner.
He followed at a distance, keeping to his area in case there was another breakout but getting close enough to see Hulk grab one LMD and roll it like a pinball towards a group of others, bowling them over. It was going to be OK; this looked like it was maybe a final push out, and it looked like the Hulk might be helpful enough that maybe SHIELD could finally just concentrate on the humans and maybe finish securing them. Steve glanced down the street, debating calling Natasha to get her feel on whether this was a final push and they should lend a hand, or whether it was a distraction and they should keep their posts--
Suddenly there were shouts as a large group came out of the door closest to Steve and headed straight towards him, desperation clear in their faces. He braced himself and waded in, glad he'd kept his post and wishing it was a little easier to tell who was who, holding his own and beating down opponents and they were turning the tide, this was the final push, he'd downed most of them, just two left--
Steve suddenly stumbled as something ripped through his glove and embedded itself into the back of his hand, pain blossoming from the impact as it expanded and the bones cracked. He bit his lip back on a shout, as another projectile lodged itself into his ribcage.
"Jesus Christ! Steve!" Tony's voice came over the comm.
"It's OK," Steve gritted out, flinging his shield in front of him and crouching down behind it to avoid any more missiles. "I can still move. See if Hawkeye can take down whoever just got me."
"Done, Cap," Clint's voice came over the comm. "He's - uh, she was on the roof across the park. Iron Man, I've got her netted. Looks like she also got some of the SHIELD agents on the other side of her building though--"
Steve bit down on the inside of his mouth, chanced to look down. His shield hand was still intact, his other hand a sodden mess and his uniform was soaked, an ugly gash in his side where whatever it was had gone in.
Tony landed next to him, grabbing his arm to prepare to lift him away.
"No," he said. "Don't lift me, I don't want to puncture a lung. It's gonna hurt like a sonofabitch but I'll be fine, remember? Super-soldier?" He paused, took a breath that lanced through him like fire. "Go see to those SHIELD agents that got hit."
Tony took off without a word and Steve looked around. The people he'd been fighting looked like they were disappearing, a dozen or so of them down in one way or another, many of them looking like maybe he or Natasha had knocked them out and Clint had netted them. He could hear Hulk still rampaging, but it was all beginning to feel faint and faraway.
"Cap, I'm gonna need you to head for the SHIELD comm portable unit, OK?" said Tony's voice over the comm. "I'm picking up SHIELD agents to bring in and so's Thor. We've got three down, looks nasty. Can you get there on your own?"
Steve nodded. "Yeah. I can get there."
"Captain, lean on me," said Natasha from his side, and he blinked. She looked dusty and sweaty and had taken off her face mask and glasses. There was a streak of something across her cheek, but she didn't seem to have any of her own blood on her.
"They're retreating," she said, a small arm slipping around his uninjured side and her frame providing surprising steadiness. "Iron Man brought some injured SHIELD agents to their control building and he and Thor are collecting the guys we took down. SHIELD's determined that those darts have bio contaminants; we're not sure exactly what that means but they've asked us to join them in the building."
"How many got away?" he asked, focussing on each step. Jesus. His ribs felt like there was a bomb lodged in there.
"We don't know. A few. There were over a hundred when we started, plus LMDs."
"What happened to the LMDs?"
"Hulk smashed the hell out of every LMD they had," said Clint, joining them and taking Natasha's place. Steve felt himself relax as he took more of Steve's weight, now that he didn't have to lean down so much for his larger frame. "He sat on a bunch of them, it was actually pretty funny. Unfortunately I guess someone didn't like that, so they burst out the big guns and now we've got SHIELD agents itching at themselves and we're calling for a quarantine. We're joining them in this little shelter."
Steve's vision was starting to swim. The comm portable building seemed to be shimmering.
"It's just SHIELD's got a hazmat tent over it," said Clint. "It's a portable unit they use. We all need to go in, Steve, and they're gonna irradiate this whole area and get rid of the little watchamacallits."
Steve nodded, trying to listen as they stumbled into the comm center, crowded with at least a dozen agents as well as themselves.
"...didn't ask the Avengers to interfere," said Sorensen's voice over an open comm. "This is SHIELD--"
"We took out all the LMDs," snapped Clint, helping Steve sit down on the nearest chair as a dusty, tired agent hastily vacated it. "We picked up three of your injured people. We netted a bunch of your prisoners. You're very welcome, you ignorant--"
"And we're grateful for your help," said Taggart. "Come in," he gestured to Natasha. "Make some room," he called out, and there was a general shuffling of bodies around the crowded space. "And get some bandages!"
"They aren't part of SHIELD," said an agent.
"You can't leave them outside," said another.
"Sorensen's gonna shit."
"Sorensen's not their liaison any more."
"Sorensen's got a point, though," said one of the agents. "He tried to work with them; they're loose cannons."
"You know we've got superhero-hearing, right?" said Clint, annoyed, taking off his and Steve's face masks and glasses. "As in, we can hear you when everyone's in real close quarters and you're making no effort to keep your voice down?"
"Steve," said Tony, still suited up and taking up a great deal of space as he entered the portable. He knelt next to Steve's chair and raised his faceplate. "Jesus, Steve. What the hell. You're--" he trailed off, staring at the sodden shredded mess of Steve's left side.
"It's all right," Steve said, nausea rising.
"It's not all right. You've got - holy shit. That thing looks like it exploded on impact."
"It did, and his isn't the only one," said a medic, shouldering past and peering at Steve's side. "You didn't get a chance to take a good look at those folks you brought in. Not actually as destructive as they look, but they've got some sort of bio-contaminant. And the lady your archer took down was firing canisters of the stuff down at random after shooting the ones in darts."
"Good news is, he'll live," she said, hastily pressing some dressings to Steve's injuries and standing to go. "Didn't pierce a lung or hit major arteries. I'll be back when I'm done with--"
"They're right," said Steve, holding Tony back as he moved to grab the medic. "I'll be fine."
Tony took off his helmet and dropped it next to Steve's chair. He peered at Steve's side. "Listen, you know Stark Industries just hired a medical research team of our own, they're on standby--"
"Until we know how contagious these things are we're not letting anybody in or out of this unit," said Taggart.
Tony opened his mouth, then shut it.
"The hell," said Clint, watching as blood seeped around the dressing and ran down Steve's side. "We don't even know that--"
"We don't," said Tony, his voice hoarse. "But they're right. We stay here." He knelt down again, took Steve's uninjured hand in his and stared up at Steve grimly. "Are you all right?"
"Hurts like a sonofabitch," Steve gritted out, and concentrated on not passing out and not crushing Tony's hand in his. Tried not to think about the warm blood pooling on the chair and the floor under him as it seeped past the dressings pressed to his side.
An interminable amount of time later, the medic was back and poking around his injuries.
"All right. As far as I can tell it's not too bad," she muttered. "Just some kind of bugs wriggling around in there. Just seems to be causing irritation in the people who were doused with it over the skin and some pain in the people who got it in darts. I mean, who knows, it may end up being a major disaster where we're all infected with the zombie plague, but right now it looks like the major problem with the darts is how they spread and crack shit up on impact."
"Your bedside manner--" Tony began.
"Is nothing compared to the bill you're probably gonna get for this once the new world order sees I treated your man," noted the medic as she examined Steve more closely.
"And you'll get my bill for bringing in three of your people," Tony shot back.
"Touché," she said, grinning as she leaned over Steve's side. "Right. This is where I normally put in some painkillers, but... hang on, we should still have on hand the formula for what SHIELD Medical had worked out for your implant, shouldn't we? We can probably synthesize it? Stan, look it up," she said over her shoulder, and another medic got onto a pad and started typing. She kept working as she talked. "You're. Shit. It's dug in. It's gone right in between your ribs."
Steve flinched and tried not to scream as she poked and prodded. "Yeah, it's wedged in real good. I'm gonna need to cut some, then spread your ribs apart a bit and dig it out. It's left a hell of a mess on the way in, too... shit, your tissues are trying to close around it, that's not helping. Jesus."
"All right," he bit out. "Take it out."
"Any pain relief administered is a SHIELD proprietary formula," said Sorensen's voice over the main portable comm, and the medic blinked. "He shouldn't even still have the implant."
The medic's mouth dropped open. "What the--"
"The medical chemical synthesis unit is controlled from HQ," said Sorensen. "You do not have the authority to access--"
"You asshole!" Tony exploded. "What the fuck is the matter with you--"
"We don't have time for this," said Steve. "And Tony, it doesn't really work anyway, it doesn't knock me out; all it does it take the edge off a bit and messes with my senses and then I throw up. It's like being drunk." He took a quick breath, wishing breathing didn't hurt so much.
"It's better than nothing--"
"It's not gonna kill me to not have it. And I'd really rather get these things out than keep arguing."
"You're a piece of shit, Sorensen," said Tony after moment. "You're a piece of shit and if I could I'd wipe you off my shoe."
The medic was looking almost as angry as Tony. "Fine. We'll do without." She started to sterilize her surgical equipment. "Never wanted to do this again after Albuquerque," she muttered. "Yeah, I was on that team. Had nightmares about that for days. And we don't even have reinforced straps here."
"If the Hulk was here, he could probably sit on you," said the other medic, helping Steve off the sodden chair and onto the floor, away from the puddle of blood, and starting to cut away the side of his suit.
"He's still out there, though, looking sad," said one of the other agents, looking out the window. "One of you is gonna have to go collect him when he turns back."
"Sir," JARVIS's tinny voice came on the overhead, startling the SHIELD agents. "Captain Rogers' vital signs have spiked sharply in the last--"
"Yeah, thanks, JARVIS, we're on it," said Tony.
"You were not responding to--"
"Helmet's on the floor. Nothing you can do anyway."
"Does he monitor all of you?" asked the medic, and Tony shook his head grimly.
"Use your metal suit and grasp his shoulders, brother," said Thor to Tony. "I will hold down his lower body." He sent a venomous glare towards the comm console. "Sorensen is a petty man with no honor. There is no reason to force a man to suffer when it can be prevented."
"No argument from me," muttered the medic, and sloshed disinfectant on her hands. "You ready? This is gonna hurt like hell," she said, and Steve nodded. She handed Steve a piece of padding and he bit down on it. "We'll do your side first, then your hand, it's not bleeding so much."
Thor nodded grimly, holding down Steve's torso, hips and legs, and Tony tightened his grip on Steve's shoulders and upper body as Clint and Natasha held down one arm each. Steve had a sudden vivid image of the Commandos, gathering around him and cursing as doctors worked on him and he bit down on a piece of leather and prayed for an end.
"OK. Here goes."
Steve tensed as the disinfectant splashed onto his side and it lit on fire.
This was sickeningly familiar. Pain so bad all he could do was hang on and wait for it to end, he could feel the medic digging around, slicing his uniform off some more, Thor and Tony holding him steady as his body tried to get away from the pain, back trying to arch away, every muscle cording futilely to escape the scalpel and probing fingers and he could feel his ribs cracking as the medic grunted and pulled some more and her eyes were intent as she pried the thing out of his ribcage and he clenched his eyes shut, trying desperately to send his mind elsewhere, somewhere where this wasn't happening. Somewhere where he was safe and there wasn't any pain, Tony's bed and the two of them holding each other close, a smoky bar in France with Peggy's eyes sparkling at him, Coney Island and Bucky's grin so bright, the sheen of his motorcycle, the peace of the French countryside, the feel of pastels on his fingers - but every image and thought was punctured by the pain as the medic dug and clipped and tugged and then started stitching, stabbing repeatedly at abused nerves that screamed in protest--
And then they weren't holding him down so hard any more and his chest was heaving and the pad he'd bitten through was falling out of his mouth and his face was soaked in sweat and tears. Tony and Thor both looked like they were going to be sick, pale and grim and covered in Steve's blood, and he couldn't see Natasha or Clint but he could vaguely hear Clint swearing softly.
"You ready for the hand?" said the medic.
Tony glared at her incredulously. "Can't you give him a minute?" he said harshly, his own breathing heavy. Steve wearily raised his uninjured hand, too dizzy to speak, and Tony grasped it. "Just a minute, you just finished--"
"Sorry Iron Man," said the medic grimly, "but the sooner it's out of his hand the sooner he can start healing. His body's trying to knit the tissues around it right now; gonna make it harder to get the thing out the longer we wait. And I wanna stitch the hand, too, he's lost enough blood already."
Steve groaned and closed his eyes, biting back the urge to sob like a child at the thought of the medic digging around some more.
"Come, Man of Iron," said Thor, his voice subdued. "Our brother can be allowed more movement this time but he still needs our help." He handed Steve a clean pad and Steve bit down again, taking a deep breath through his nose and steadying himself.
The medic moved to his hand, Thor was still sitting on him, keeping his side still so he wouldn't rip out stitches but letting his legs move, heels digging into the floor as he tried to block the pain from his hand, the medic digging and cutting and aligning the bones in his hand and he desperately thought of something, anything else - Tony's eyes as they talked, his mouth when they kissed, but the medic was still tearing at him and he couldn't hold still, Tony was stroking the side of his face and murmuring to him when he couldn't stop the cries from getting past the pad he'd nearly bitten through...
They were done. They were finally done, and he was covered in sweat and exhausted but all the pieces of the darts were out and he could relax, he might even be able to sleep if he could just ride out the waves and waves of agony lancing through his ribs and hand.
He would heal. An hour, maybe two, and the pain would start to subside. In two or three days there would be nothing left. The pain would be gone.
"Is he all right?"
"Blood loss," said the medic. "Jesus, the amount he lost, anybody else would be dead; he just gets woozy. He'll be fine in a couple of hours."
Somebody was screaming, he vaguely registered, somewhere in the portable. And then suddenly quiet. But somebody else was cursing steadily, and crying.
"They're infected," he heard vaguely through the miasma of pain.
"Thank God he can't get infected."
"Not with anything normal, no."
There was a long pause, his team gathered around him as the world slowly gained solidity again. Dizzy perceptions of something worrying all the people around him, far-off sounds of pain.
"We can't take any chances," the medic was saying when Steve was next able to pay attention. "You saw what happened to the other wounds. Those things were burrowing." Somebody was poking his rib, lifting the padding, exposing his wound to the air. "Ah, hell. It's not an infection, it's... they're like tiny insects, or something."
"Listen, the stuff we used on the agents, it looks like it worked."
"It's not 'proprietary'?"
"Probably is, but thank God I have it here and don't have to clear it with Sorensen. He'd probably tell us to wait and see if the Serum can get rid of them." Pause. Poke. Steve groaned. "I don't know if it's that the darts that got him weren't as soaked in whatever it was, or that maybe the Serum does have something against the bugs, but he's not affected as badly as the others. I still don't wanna wait here and see what happens, I'd rather just kill these things off." The medic cleared her throat. "But you heard Shiang screaming. We put the others under before even starting the treatment. It's a poison, we've used it before on other infestations, but it takes a while. About twenty-four hours for most people; maybe four to six for him. Goes through their wounds and destroys the fucking little bugs that are burrowing under their skin, then spreads all over the damn place, through the bloodstream." She cleared her throat again. "It's gonna hurt like hell, like second-degree burns. And I've got the treatment for the bugs here, but I don't have Captain Rogers's synthesized pain medication."
There was a long silence.
"You're going to need to clear that one with Sorensen, aren't you?" asked Natasha.
"No choice. The only way to get it is to synthesize it, and for that I need the formula from the SHIELD servers."
"He'll give it to us if we're back with SHIELD, won't he?" said Clint.
"No," said Steve wearily. He blinked, forcing his thoughts to clear. "We quit."
"Shut up, Steve," said Tony. "You're in no shape to be making any decisions right now." He got up and headed for the comm unit.
"My medical care you're talking about," Steve called out, but Tony didn't answer. Far off he could hear him starting to talk quickly into a mic. "Tony!"
Natasha patted Steve's arm and got up. "Relax. We'll work something out. I'll help sweet-talk Sorensen; Tony pisses him off just by breathing." She headed over to Tony.
"Just clear the bugs," Steve told the medic.
"Give them a few minutes. They may be able to work out a deal. There's no reason to do it painfully if we don't have to."
"Relax, Cap," said Clint, patting his shoulder. "Nat can charm anybody."
Steve breathed deeply, trying not to think of the bugs or whatever they were burrowing in his flesh while they talked rapidly, Natasha's voice gaining volume.
"People?" the medic called out a few minutes later after examining Steve again. "Time-sensitive thing going on here, I really don't want to pit these things against the Serum. The Serum's not doing well so far."
Tony and Natasha came back, a black cloud of anger simmering around them both.
"He wants two years," said Tony.
"The fuck?" said Clint.
"Two years," said Natasha. "We all come back to SHIELD for two years, or Steve gets no 'proprietary' pain medication."
"He's throwing in enhanced confidentiality agreement shit too," said Tony.
"Tell him to go fuck himself," said Steve, closing his eyes and taking a deep breath. It wouldn't be so bad. He was used to this. He could do it. He felt a sob starting in his chest, ruthlessly clamped down against it.
"Tell him yourself, you stupid son of a bitch," said Tony harshly. "I'm not watching you be tortured in front of me twice in one day. Not if I can help it."
"Me neither," said Clint.
Steve gritted his teeth. "I can take--"
"Yeah, fuck that noise," Clint cut him off, his voice rising. "Just watching that shit's enough to give anyone PTSD. So don't be a fucking hero about it, and take the meds--"
"We quit for a reason--"
"God damn it, this is why you aren't in command," Tony shouted. "Because you make stupid-ass decisions that always end up with you getting hurt!"
"Tony," Steve bit out. "Drop it."
"No! No, fuck you. You're not going through that again!"
"Two years," Sorensen's implacable voice came over the overhead comm, and part of Steve had to hand it to the guy; there was something impressive about holding that steady when so many people were radiating hatred at you, even long-distance.
"One year is sufficient," said Hill's voice, breaking in.
There was a pause. "Director Hill, I can--"
"One year Steve, come on," said Natasha, her green eyes steady on his and a smear of his blood across her forehead where she'd pushed her hair back.
"Brother, do not force us to be complicit in your suffering," said Thor. "We are all in agreement."
"Do we have your agreement, Captain Rogers?" said Hill. "You and your team will return to SHIELD for a minimum of one year. Agent Sorensen will not be your handler."
"What?!" the comm fairly squawked with the force of Sorensen's dismay. "I'm the one who's getting them back on board--"
"And your record will note that," said Hill's cool voice. "Agent Sorensen, you are not being demoted. You will be given a leadership role at the Rosendale unit; they can use somebody with your determination and ruthlessness. But this team is no longer your concern."
"Please, Steve," said Tony quietly.
Steve gazed at Tony, his dark eyes pleading and full of pain and fear, as they had been on that ledge in Staten Island. No. No, this wasn't fair. He wasn't - he didn't want to - they'd quit, they'd all decided to leave, and now Steve was going to be the reason they were all going to go back under the control of a place that didn't give a shit about them, that didn't give a shit about eight million people, that--
Tony gently grasped his hand and brought it to his lips, holding his gaze.
"Captain Rogers?" Hill's voice broke the silence in the portable.
Steve let out his breath and nodded in defeat, looking away from his team-mates as they breathed out audible sighs of relief. The medic quickly turned to her assistant, who did something incomprehensible that Steve couldn't follow with the computer console and with some sort of chemistry set - God, what the hell kind of organization carried around a chemistry lab in a portable communication unit - and within minutes the medic was pressing something to his upper arm in the region of his implant.
"I know it's not perfect," the medic murmured. "I'd much rather knock you out for this, if I could. But it's all we've got."
Steve nodded again, feeling the coolness of some kind of sedative working its way through him.
All right. He held Tony's red-smeared hand tighter. Natasha, Clint and Thor gathered around them, huddling close, their breathing anchoring him.
"Go for it," said Tony, his voice hoarse.
The medic lifted the padding from Steve's side wound and poured some sort of green gel over his ribs, and Steve jerked as he felt the burning, but somehow removed.
"Jesus Christ," he mumbled, his eyes closing of their own accord. "That hurts."
"I know, Steve," said Tony. "I'm sorry."
"Not that much, though," he said, and felt a sort of crawling painful itch begin, radiating out from the wound. It was like his flesh was peeling away, but unlike the sharpness of the scalpel digging into him, the agony of flesh and bone ripping apart and nerves screaming in the air, this was a softer, more generalized ache. Still awful, though.
"Fuck. Hurts," he mumbled, and Tony ran fingers through Steve's soaked hair.
"I know. Relax. Just don't think about it, OK?" He stroked Steve's cheek and Steve saw the medic gazing speculatively at Tony, but like it was all far away.
She leaned forward, peered at his ribs. There were people out there beyond their small group, people discussing something.
"Shortest retirement in the history of SHIELD," said one.
"Son of a bitch Sorensen."
"He's not even one of us. WSC all the way."
"He's just doing his job."
"Hill should've shut him down."
Another splash of the gel, this time over his injured hand. More fire. He could pick out the voices individually, but he couldn't figure out who was saying what, and they were starting to not make sense. A wave of nausea passed over him. Hard to tell whether it was from the pain meds or the weird disinfectant working away at killing the bugs in his wounds.
"You all right?" he asked Tony to distract himself.
"You look sad. 'M sorry. You really didn't need to do this."
"Yeah, I really did," said Tony, and when had he removed the suit? He was sitting on the floor next to Steve now, holding Steve's uninjured hand, and at some point somebody had also put a blanket over Steve and a pillow under his head.
"You gave 'em a year, just for a couple minutes of--"
"No, Steve, it's gonna take more than a couple of minutes. It needs to work through your system." Tony stroked fingers through Steve's hair and squeezed his hand. "It's gonna be hours of this stuff reacting with those bugs and the shit they left behind--"
"Few hours, then," said Steve, shrugging, but shrugging hurt so he stopped. "Been hurt a lot worse, 'member? Spent most of my life in hospitals."
"You're not making this any better," said Tony, his voice rough. "Be quiet. Try to sleep."
"Didn' have to. Serum probly woulda killed the damn things anyway."
"Yeah, maybe," said Clint. "We didn't want to take the chance."
Steve opened his eyes, squinted at Clint and Thor. "You're kind of blurry," he said through the burning in his hand and side. He looked at his hand. "So'm I. An'... rainbow-y. Or maybe tha's just blood."
Clint snickered. "Cap, you're high."
Steve blinked. "Am I?"
"As a kite," said Natasha.
"Huh. Wouldn't know." He swallowed, a wave of nausea flooding over him. "Missed the sixties, y'know."
"Feels like bein' drunk. Too bad 's also makin' me feel sick." He thought a moment. "Not that much fun, bein' high."
"No, not like this," said Tony. He stroked a hand across Steve's brow, wiped his forehead. "Think you can sleep while this thing does its job?"
"C'n you stay?" Steve asked, and Tony nodded. "Good," Steve sighed. "'ve missed you. A lot."
Thor made a noise in his throat and Steve glanced at him, biting his lip as he realized what he'd said. Damn it. And what a ridiculous thing to say - it wasn't as though Tony had gone anywhere, after all. The empty feeling Steve got when he found his thoughts reaching for Tony - it wasn't, no, damn it, he'd told himself he wasn't going to say anything to Tony, Tony had ended things and he had every right to, damn medication loosening his stupid mouth...
Tony adjusted the blanket, then leaned down and rested his forehead against Steve's for a moment.
"You're gonna be OK," he murmured. "Close your eyes. I'll be right here."
Steve closed his eyes gratefully and let the dizzying darkness take him away.