When it happens, Tony is in the air and watches. It surprises him how – when he looks back now – it is a soft, almost gentle moment. The swing from behind the Captain clips him in the back of the head. The beam clocks him in the skull and he drops to the pavement as the battle rages around him. Tony yells out for help, he can’t intervene – he’s engaged in an air battle. He asks for Clint or Natasha to check on the Captain, but it is the Captain’s own voice that answers. He belays the order and states he’s fine.
He’s anything but fine.
It will take hours before the battle is finished, before the digging out of civilians is completed, before any of them seeks out the comfort of the healing bays on the Helicarrier. As the clean-up and rescue of the last of the civilians occurs, Tony lands next to the Captain and notices a dark splotch on the back of his cowl that leaks like an oil stain on pristine waters down his neck to his shoulders.
“You’re sure, you’re okay?” Tony asks as they usher a number of mobile civilians from their hiding spots to the nearest paramedics. Steve only waves him off.
After the initial accountability review of the civilians, the Captain orders them back to SHIELD and the Helicarrier. When the Quinjet lands point four miles outside the city radius, Tony witnesses a slight slump in the Captain’s shoulders. For those members of the Avengers who are not flight capable it will be a long walk. Not only do they have to make the point four miles but they have to walk at least twenty five blocks to get to the radius of the city in the outskirts of Warsaw.
Several of the civilians offer the Captain a ride, of course. He thanks them and calls his land troops to order. Only Thor and Tony will fly to the Helicarrier directly, while the rest of them will trudge through the wrecked city and, finally, to the Quinjet for pick up. Tony frowns and calls JARVIS to connect him to Fury immediately.
“I am not your waterboy, Stark.”
“But you are the dick who has four of your Avengers on a forced march before they can get to the Quinjet and get some down time and maybe even medical attention,” Tony retorts. Tony lingers over the group as they start back. Bruce is still the other guy and, at any minute, might transform and, the Captain will have to deal with that on top of being bone tired and probably injured. “You do realize, we’re over a mile from the pick-up site.”
“Understood. An armored vehicle is being dispatched,” Fury says. “And Stark?”
“Why you ever doubt me is still up for debate,” Tony replies and switches over to communicate with the Captain. “Cap, Fury has an armored vehicle en route for pick up.” He glances at the HUD. “Looks like it will be at your location in less than five minutes.”
Steve turns around and peers up into the sky where Tony circles. With an offer of a short salute, the Captain smiles then reverts his attention to his current team mates. For an instant, Tony thinks he sees the good Captain waver on his feet. He recovers without a word and all four of them, including the Hulk, sink onto the remains of a blown out building.
Tony debates whether or not he should stay and watch over the quartet. Since Thor has been called in early to discuss this latest and greatest incursion from the Nine Realms (and isn’t it fucking great to be a part of that group of weirdoes), Tony thinks he should check in on the progress of the investigation into any long term effects from the weapons discharged due their enemy’s creepy ass guns.
Just as he’s about the leave, he notices the Captain lean over a recently transformed Bruce to help him with his disorientation. A fleeting thought skitters through his mind – how does the Captain keep it up, how does he keep going without stopping.
Tony doesn’t get his answer.
He ends up back on the Helicarrier and deeply enmeshed into the captured weaponry from their latest enemy. When Thor stops by to discuss the possible big bad candidates of the week, Tony sets aside his analysis and goes over some of the Norse mythology. Like any folk tales and mythos it is conflicting, confusing, and downright contradictory to anything that might be considered a sane story. Thor shakes his head and throws it back with hearty laugh when Tony mentions how half assed backwards the Nine Realms is.
“When your world is as old and storied as Asgard and the rest of the Realms you too shall have such – as you say half assed – stories to tell.” Thor sits on the stool which seems far too small for him and Tony thinks it might break, but he doesn’t say anything. “Yet, there is so much within the Nine Realms which waits to be discovered. You, man of Iron, should come one day to the Realms. We could hunt and find glory in our discoveries and our adventures.”
“Right, um, yeah,” Tony says and quirks a brow before shuffling some of the parts around on the lab bench. “Sounds like fun.”
And so it goes for the next few hours with Thor regaling him about the wonders and terrors to be faced in the Nine Realms, while Tony makes little grunting noises every now and again. Who the hell knew the God of Thunder was such a fucking gossip boy? He drones on and on until at one point when Tony looks up he isn’t there anymore. Tony has no idea when he disappeared, or if he hurt the guy’s feelings with his lack of enthusiasm or attention to his long winded stories. He hopes he didn’t squash his passion for the fight or for Earth or anything else for that matter. He hates the idea of hurting such an innocent guy, plus he loathes the idea of days of rain and drizzle because the guy’s depressed.
He goes back to his study of the devices and doesn’t come up for air until Bruce is standing next to him with his hands in his pockets.
“Christ, when did you get here?”
“About an hour ago,” Bruce says. His hair is damp and it looks like he just recently showered. At least he doesn’t smell like the burnt out building or ash or battle. Tony discretely sniffs his own armpit and makes a mental note that bathing might be a good idea, and soon.
It occurs to him that he’s been in the Helicarrier’s laboratory for a while and he flicks through a screen to see that he’s spent a good seven hours working on alien technology that borders on alien mumbo jumbo also known as magic. He hates magic, well and truly hates magic.
“Only an hour ago?” Tony says because something isn’t adding up here at all.
“Took more than five minutes for the ground transport to get there,” Bruce says with a shrug and picks up one of the strange pointy things that looks like a cross between a sword and brass knuckles – if that is even possible. “Ended up taking a good hour and by then there were a few stranglers, you know, civilians with more serious issues than we had.”
“You sitting around butt naked in the middle of the city doesn’t qualify as a serious issue?”
“Surprisingly, no.” Bruce points the weird ass weapon at him. Tony pushes it away and lifts a brow to warn the good doctor. “But Cap decided they needed the transport first, so we ended up walking.”
Tony snickers. “You naked, walking through the city?”
“Cap found some pants.”
“What he just carries them around with him, tucked where? Not like his suit has extra room for some luggage.” Tony tries to visually imagine where Steve might tuck an extra pair of pants on his person during a fight.
“Huh, hmm, no.” Bruce looks away and says, “He kind of convinced a shop keeper to give me some clothes.”
“That boyish Captain America charm, works every time. You know people think I’m manipulative.”
“No, they don’t. They think you’re a bastard. There is a difference,” Bruce replies.
“Still, Captain America conning someone out of a pair of pants is priceless. You did get a picture – oh no wait, that’s right, you didn’t have a phone considering you were naked and all.” Tony chuckles.
“Oh yes, clever, very clever,” Bruce smirks at Tony, but doesn’t goad him further.
Before Tony’s able to continue on, the communication link beeps and Tony hits the console to answer it. “Two Science Bros here to answer your sciency type question?”
“Is Bruce there?” It is Natasha and she sounds irritated. Tony knows an annoyed Natasha is not one to be played with. On the screen display, he can see a distracted Natasha half facing the camera while she attends to something else off camera.
He decides not to risk it today. “Yep, what can we do for you?”
“Bruce? Doctor Banner, can you come down to the medical bay?”
The switch to his formal title sends alarm bells off in Tony’s head and he sees the same reaction he’s having in the quiet of his chest (as his heart tries to break out of his rib cage) on Bruce’s face.
“What is it?”
“It’s the Captain, we- we don’t know what’s wrong,” she hesitates as she looks behind her again. “But he’s gone blind.”
“What?” Tony says and drops the tool clenched in his fist. “People just don’t go blind, and especially not a super soldier, not Captain America”
“Thus the reason for Doctor Banner to get here immediately,” Natasha returns.
“On our way,” Tony says as he shuts off the link. He isn’t going to sit idly by as Bruce hunts down the reason for Steve’s malady. He isn’t going to sit on his fucking hands when Captain Fucking America has just gone blind. It isn’t about a puzzle, it isn’t about the mystery, it is Steve. It is their Captain.
It is his Captain.
Both Bruce and Tony rush through the corridors and then down through the passageways to get to the medical bay without interference. Agents and technicians step back toward the bulkheads and they run. No one tries to stop them and, for that, Tony is grateful. One thing keeps playing over and again in Tony’s mind as they navigate through the colossal ship in the sky.
The bat to the head.
It had seemed innocent, not even one of the hardest hits he’d seen the Captain take in the heat of the battle. Hell, he’s actually watched as bullet’s grazed the good Captain’s cowl leaving bloody trails, a slightly unsettled super soldier, and a leery enemy when a bullet doesn’t even stop Captain America.
The collision to the head should have been nothing. Tony keeps going over it and thinking about it, it occurs to him that Steve did fall, if for only a moment. He’d landed on his hands and knees, waiting for the world to right itself, Tony can only surmise. The blow must have landed hard and caused damage the Captain didn’t realize.
As Tony enters the medical bay, followed by Bruce, he hears a ruckus in one of the triage centers. He rounds the corner to find Steve sitting on a gurney with his back to the curtains. He’s still in the Captain America suit, and a nurse peels down the cowl. Tony whistles. Crusted through his hair is a mess of congealed blood. He even thinks he might see bits of bone or something. He swallows back bile as the nurse helps the Captain remove the rest of the jacket. Down his neck and along his shoulders, a large bloody stain smears over his back.
“Christ, Cap, you do realize you needed medical attention?” Tony says as he joins the nurse at the edge of the gurney. She only frowns at him as he pops up on tiptoes to examine the dent in Steve’s head. There is a fucking dent in his head.
“It’s really okay,” Steve responds, but his voice sounds tired and, as Tony abandons the more gross part of the examination and leaves it to Bruce, he goes to the Captain’s side. He notices Steve is holding a kidney shaped bowl and staring blankly into space.
Tony clicks his fingers twice in front of him. Steve slaps him away, amazingly hitting his target, twice. “Go away, Stark.”
“Nope, I asked you if you needed medical attention when that zombie freak or whatever the hell it was whacked you on the head with the beam. You said, no. Now I hear you’re pulling a Stevie Wonder.”
“That’s not politically correct,” Bruce says as he takes a forceps from the nurse and, with gloved hands, starts prying at the mess on the back of Steve’s head.
“Don’t worry about it, I didn’t understand the reference anyway,” Steve says and hisses as Bruce probes in a tender spot. He hunches a bit and says, “Watch it that hurts.”
Tony gazes right into the Captain’s eyes, and who knew this man had such blue eyes and such long lashes. Christ, women must hate him just for the length of his eyelashes. “You can’t see anything?”
“Not right now,” Steve says but sound completely disinterested in his state of blindness.
“Um, sure, but is there a reason you’re not freaking out?” Bruce asks as he gently plucks out what looks like a bone shard from the back of Steve’s skull.
Steve adjusts his seat on the gurney and Bruce stops his harvesting of glop from his head until Steve rests comfortably on the gurney.
“It’s happened before,” Steve says with a shrug.
“What?” Tony says and interrupts Bruce as he’s about to interrogate the Captain. “You’re telling me you’ve gone blind before and you never thought to mention it to anyone.”
“Yeah, um, that,” Bruce says.
Pressing the heel of his hand into one of his eyes and then blinking several times, Steve says, “I thought it would be in my file. It was during one of the raids. I got hit pretty hard, lost my sight for a few days. Everyone freaked out, especially the rest of the Commandos, since we were on a raid behind enemy lines.”
“And?” Tony asks.
“It cleared up.” Steve says as he slumps even further toward Tony and away from Bruce as he digs around on the back of his head.
“Cleared up and you just thought this would too?”
“No need to think it won’t,” Steve says, and lifts a shoulder. “Can I lay down now? I’m a little woozy.”
“Woozy?” Tony shakes his head and glares at Bruce like he wants the other guy to appear and rattle some sense into their fearless and idiotic leader.
Bruce allows Steve to slowly slide onto the gurney and close his eyes. “I still want to get a CT scan of your head.”
“Fine, whatever. I have no idea what that means. Are you going to open up my skull?” Steve opens an eye as if to look at Bruce.
“I wasn’t planning on it, but I think the medical doctors here would probably have a better idea of what is going on if they take some pictures. An MRI and CT scan are probably our best bet. Both of which are non-invasive,” Bruce says as he places on hand on Steve’s ankle.
“Good, because I just want to sleep.”
“He can’t sleep, can he? He has a major head injury,” Tony points to the splotch of blood all over his bare back.
Bruce pats Steve’s booted ankle and says, “He can sleep. The skull’s already knitted back together and the indentation is gone.”
Steve covers his face with his hand and sighs.
“The doctors want the scans, first, though,” Bruce says and, with that, Steve starts to force himself vertical once again. “You don’t need to get up, they’ll wheel you there.” Bruce walks away to consult with the attending staff.
Flopping back down, Steve murmurs something that sounds like thank God and then rolls over so that Tony can feast his eyes on the amount of blood covering his head and back.
“Shit, Cap, that is just ugly.”
“Thanks, Tony, I love you, too,” Steve says in a muffled reply into the pillow.
“Are you, like, completely blind?”
“Yeah,” Steve says and doesn’t lift his head.
“That doesn’t scare the shit out of you even a little bit?” Tony asks, because if it doesn’t Tony is just going to fly his own butt into the Hudson and refuse to come out for days. What the hell? Can’t anything unnerve this guy?
Steve lifts his arm and blinks his eyes, it is obvious he can’t see anything – his focus is bleary and glossed over. “Would it help you out to know that it does scare me? That being blind now, in a world I barely understand on a day to day basis scares the living daylights out of me? Do you want to know that? I figured a genius would have figured that one out by now.”
“You know you can be cruel when you want to,” Tony replies but doesn’t apologize for picking at a freshly healed wound on the Captain’s psyche. He does add, “You’ll be okay.”
“Took a few days the last time. By the time we got back to base camp and I wasn’t better they wanted to drill holes in my head, glad the next day I woke up and could see again.” He is a little pale as he’s relating the events to Tony.
“Yeah, I would say so,” Tony says and gulps down the bile.
Before Tony continues, Bruce walks back into the triage bay and says, “The technician is going to bring you down for your tests, Steve. Is that okay.” He has his arm thrown over his face again and doesn’t immediately respond. “Steve, are you okay?”
“Hmm, yeah, head hurts.”
Tony looks at Bruce and there’s a slight hesitation. “I’ll see if the doctors can prescribe anything strong for you.”
Steve smiles but doesn’t say anything to Bruce. They all know it is just a gesture. Nothing will help Steve; he will just need to endure it.
The technicians appear along with Barton of all people. He hangs close to the Captain as the gurney is rolled out of the bay and walks along side of it. Tony stays behind with Bruce and says, “Do you think it will resolve itself?”
“Super soldier serum is a miracle. He probably has a hematoma or clot pressing on his brain. Once it clears up, he’ll be fine. Probably what happened in the forties, too.” Bruce says and has his hands in his pockets, but Tony can see the fists balled through fabric of his jeans. “It’ll be fine, it’ll be good.”
“But it wouldn’t hurt to maybe talk to Thor?” Tony suggests.
Bruce tilts his head and then slowly nods. “Yeah, probably not. He has the inside line on magical potions and some such.”
Tony claps Bruce on the shoulder and says, “Then tell Capsicle I’ll be back, I’m going to seek out our brother of the hammer.”
As Tony walks away, Bruce says, “Brother of the hammer?”
Turning on his heel and walking backwards, Tony replies, “Better than hammered brother, right?”
“Whatever you say,” Bruce mutters as Tony leaves the medical bay.
It takes him sometime to hunt down Thor and, when he does, he has to use the communications link to hook up with him since he’s left the Helicarrier sometime ago to visit Jane at a conference in Europe. Jane appears on the screen first and she’s obviously distracted because she keeps batting someone away from her and giggling. Yes, a physicist can giggle.
“Thor, is he there?”
“Iron Man wants you,” Jane says and the way she sing songs the want it makes it sound dirty and delightful at the same time.
Thor shoves Jane aside and she must plop on her butt because Thor becomes all apologetic and completely disappears from the screen for a minute while Tony rolls his eyes and taps on the console. Truly, this is the best Earth can hope for they might as well have a yard sale and call it a day.
“Yes, my brother in arms, what may I do for you?”
He looks too relaxed and Tony hates him for it. It means he just got laid. Must be sunny and beautiful where he is right now. “It’s the Captain. He took a hit to the head during our last outing and, well, there’s damage.”
“Our leader is injured. How can this be?” Thor looks off to the side and listens but then turns back to Tony. “There must be something grave if you call on me.”
“The hit to the head caused some kind of blindness.” The words tumble out of him in a rush as if he doesn’t want to hold on to them, as if loosing them on the world will dissemble their truth, their strength, their power.
“Blindness, but does not his super soldier serum assist him in healing?” Thor crinkles his eyes at the screen like he’s trying to read Tony’s mind. It is a little creepy.
“Cap thinks it might be temporary, happened before but-.”
“But you were wondering if I might call upon Asgard and my mother to see if there is an Asgardian cure if there is a possibility that it is not temporary?” Thor says.
“Yeah, something like that. You got any magic potions to be used?” Tony says and crosses his arms over his chest. He wishes he could build something to fix Steve.
“I will contact my mother at once, for her companion and friend, Eir, has knowledge of the healing arts.”
“Great, thanks, and say hi to Jane again for me.” Tony points to the section of the screen where he can see Jane sitting to the side. She’s wrapped only in a sheet and he cannot hate them anymore than he does now. It is irrational and petty, but, damn it, Cap is blind and their fucking their brains out.
“I will contact you at once,” Thor says and ducks his head. Tony cuts the connection.
He sits there for longer than necessary staring at the blank screen, seeing his reflection there, the light of the arc reactor. The buzz of the consoles and computers around him offer him little solace. He feels the air from the ventilation duct and thinks it stale and sour. With his elbow braced against the desk, he leans against it and rubs at his forehead. He should call Pepper, or JARVIS, fuck even Happy might help at this point. He cannot believe this is fucking happening.
How does one break Captain America? By ignoring the fact he was slammed in the head during an attack. Letting him fight for another hour and then leaving him to make his way back to base with a god damned head injury. Something cold and sharp eats at his belly.
A ping on the console brings him out of his morose thoughts. “Tony?”
He looks at the screen and is greeted by a talking head – Bruce.
“The scans are done; the doctors are going over them now. Do you want to come down?”
Christ, how long has he been sitting here feeling sorry for himself when the Captain is facing the idea of being blind for the rest of his life. Shit, he is a shithead sometimes. A narcissistic bastard. Natasha was right, maybe he doesn’t belong on a team to save the world. He can’t even see past his own fears.
“Tony?” Bruce asks again.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m on my way.” Tony hits the screen and it goes blank. Time to face the music. But it isn’t his music, it isn’t his dance. This is about Captain America, not even. This is about Steve, Steve Rogers and whether or not the kid – because, shit, he is a kid – is going to be blind or not.
He inhales, exhales, nods, and then stands up and finds his way back to the medical bay. Natasha and Bruce are huddled with the doctors around a trio of screens. Across the readouts are displayed various forms of head shots of Steve’s brain. He briefly considers whether any of this is actually legal, considering HIPAA laws. But he’s not going to bring it up, if they aren’t. He wants to know.
Joining them, there’s a little doctor with frazzled hair colored a bright orange, which borders on insane, and a long sloping nose where her glasses are perched. She smiles at him and points to the screen. She’s about five inches shorter than Tony. It is a difficult thing to make Tony feel uncomfortably tall, and she does. He’s somehow grateful to her, just because of this fact.
“Your boy, he’s gonna be fine.” She taps the screens in order. “Even the scans are showing the blood clot starting to decrease in size. It’ll take some time. Residual effects and all, but he’ll be good as new in a few days.”
Tony opens his mouth but nothing comes out. He was prepared for the worst, and doesn’t know how to react to the best. “Um, that’s good?”
“Right now, the scans are showing that the blow to the head caused a trauma which led to a slow build up, leading to a hematoma within the brain. The blood vessels around the brain are putting pressure on the optical nerve,” the doctor says. “And bam, his sight is gone. Once the hematoma is gone, he should be good.”
“We know the hematoma is going to go away?” Natasha asks Tony’s question.
“From what we can tell his advanced healing is already taking care of it, to a degree.” She shrugs. “There’s only one unknown.”
“How long?” Bruce supplies.
The little doctor grins and it causes her glasses to notch up a bit on her nose. “Not really. We can’t tell if there was any actual brain damage, yet.”
“What the fuck?” Tony gulps for air. “That’s the most important part, what the hell kind of doctor are you?”
“I would consider being polite to my doctors, Stark,” Fury says as he walks up to join them at the center station in the triage area of the medical bay.
“Tell Cindy-Lu here that it would be nice to be a little more straight up on her prognosis.”
“Doctor Goddard?” Fury turns to the little imp with a raised brow, the one over the patch, which is completely weird.
“Right now, we believe that he’ll regain his sight. What we’re seeing on the scans,” she says and makes a point to glare at Tony. “Is that his sight is most probably impaired due to a hematoma within the occipital lobe of the brain. Unforunately-.”
“Here comes the good part,” Tony grumbles.
“Yes, unfortunately, we cannot tell if the Captain has any brain damage to the area because the hematoma blocks our views and overshadows the regions we are looking at. He’s acting completely normally, as reported by his team mates, so I am concluding he will be fine.”
“Oh,” Tony says and knocks his fist once on the console. “It took some time for him to go blind, how do we know if he won’t develop some brain damagey like symptoms.”
She nods and they seem to be on the same page, for now. “We don’t, Mister Stark. A lot of what we do when diagnosing brain damage is looking at scans and compare how the patient acts and behaves over a period of time. He’s good, now. I would take that as a positive sign.”
“Thank you, Doctor,” Fury says and, without a word he dismisses her. She turns and leaves them. “Are you good, Stark?”
“Good enough, for now.” He turns to his other team mates. “I called in Thor. He’s going to try and contact Asgard, and see if some witch doctor can come and take a look at Steve, make sure this isn’t magic induced or something.”
Bruce folds his arms and says, “From the scans it looks pretty straight forward, Tony. It’s organic. Once the swelling goes down, he’ll get his sight back.”
“One hundred percent bet on that? Because I have a million dollars I can play with right now,” Tony says.
Bruce puts his hands up in surrender while Natasha just rolls her eyes.
“And with that display of courage, I’m going to visit the good Captain.” Tony leaves them and walks over to the small triage bay where he’d last seen Steve. As he approaches, Tony hears quiet talking; it isn’t rushed or filled with quips, just soft sounds in the airwaves. He stops before he yanks the curtain aside and listens.
“I learned early on not to miss, you know. If I missed the target, it meant I didn’t eat or worse.”
“That’s rough,” Steve replies and despair laces his voice. “You were just a kid.”
“Maybe, yeah, but it’s my life, you know. I kind of accept it, now. You got to, Cap. After a while, you got to roll with the punches, because someone is always ready to smack you down,” Barton says. “Anyhow, I got you a tray. You hungry?”
“Yes, thanks,” Steve says. There’s a noise as Barton rolls over the tray table to place it next to the gurney and, Tony peers in through the small space between the wall and the curtain to glimpse the scene.
Barton takes hold of Steve’s right hand and places a fork in it. He moves to take Steve’s left hand then, and touches it to the plate. “At noon, you have something that kind of looks like it is trying to be mashed potatoes. At about four, you got meat of a brown variety – don’t ask me what kind. It looks like it is a cross between meatloaf and pulled pork, don’t know how they managed that one. Oh, and at about seven there’s something that might be a vegetable, but it looks more gray than green.”
He releases Steve’s hand and adds, “Milk, of the chocolate variety at one o’clock, so be careful and don’t knock it over.”
“Pudding, sorry, Cap nothing else looked even close to edible.”
Steve smiles and it is lose and casual, not pinched off as it so often is when he’s conversing with Tony. Just the thought bubbles up an ache of envy that Barton and Steve can so easily enjoy one another’s company. Slowly, the Captain begins to eat. It is tentative and Barton leans in and helps him every once in a while. The envy is joined by jealousy until Tony decides maybe he should just leave well enough alone. He walks out into the corridor and tugs out his phone.
“Tony, it’s been hours, Tony, hours,” Pepper says as she greets him.
“Sorry, got involved.”
“I saw the news, is it bad?” Pepper asks.
“Bad, yeah, it’s bad,” Tony says, what the hell kind of question is that? “He’s fucking blind, how can it be anything but bad?”
“What? The Captain is blind, so yeah, it’s pretty fucked up right now.”
“Steve? Steve’s blind? Tony, what are you talking about?” Pepper’s pitch raises an octave and she’s panting a little in the phone. She’s always been a little fangirly about the good Captain.
“What are you talking about?” Tony says. “The news didn’t report Steve’s blind?”
“No, of course not, he helped clean up. He even swept up some of the mess and carried a puppy to the vet for treatment.”
Of course, the fuck he did, while his brain was god damned swelling up. Shit.
“Tony? Tony? Are you still there? Is Steve going to be okay?” Pepper asks.
He pinches the bridge of his nose and then drops his hand and stares up at the ceiling. “Yeah, they think so. Just some blood clot that the serum is taking its sweet old time to get rid of, or some asinine thing like that.”
“Okay, good, that’s good. Right?”
“Everything is good.”
Her voice softens a degree. “Even you?”
“Yeah, Pep,” he adds. “I miss you.”
“Tony,” she whispers and it is sad and melancholy and hurts until his chest echoes it.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
“No, Tony, you’re not. You’re Iron Man, and that’s okay.” She’s crying again, and he hates it when he makes her cry. “We’re good.”
“Maybe, I don’t know,” Pepper replies. “I can’t tell you that, right now.”
He concedes, he has no right to press her. “Okay, not now.”
“Go, take care of Steve, okay?”
“Yeah, right. Stay safe, Pep.”
“You too, Iron Man.”
He smiles as she disconnects. It is a bittersweet expression though, because he knows, knows deep down in the core of who he is, he cannot ask her this sacrifice. He cannot ask her to sit on the sidelines and watch him throw himself into danger. He knows how it feels to watch people you care for throw themselves into peril, take risks. He knows.
“Shit,” he mutters and stuffs the phone back in his pocket. By the time he returns to the bay Steve is in, Barton is clearing up the food tray and Steve rests his head on a pile of pillows. He’s in a hospital gown and there’s a blanket covering him that looks to be about three feet too short. His feet hang out of the bottom. Tony snags another blanket from an empty bay and brings it over. He unfolds it as Barton leaves the room with a raised eyebrow at Tony. Tony ignores him.
He covers the Captain’s bare feet.
“Thanks, Tony,” Steve says as he turns his face toward him.
“How’d did you-.”
Steve touches his nose. “Your cologne, plus you’re the only one who hasn’t showered since the battle, well, other than me. And they won’t let me since I might fall and hit my head again. So, what’s your excuse?”
“The constant worry for my stupid, moronic leader?”
“I’m glad I always live up to your expectations,” Steve says and closes his eyes. For the first time, Tony notices that Steve looks pale, drawn.
“Are you, does it hurt?”
“Raging headache,” Steve murmurs. He still has the kidney shaped bowl lying by his side on the bed. There’s an intravenous line hooked up to his hand that Tony didn’t see before so he figures they just set it up. Steve lifts his hand. “Using five times the dosage and it isn’t touching it. Thought it would considering my metabolism and all, but then again, the pain is pretty horrible.”
“I called Thor,” Tony says because he doesn’t know what else to say, because that’s all that comes to mind. “There’s some magic healer on Asgard he’s going to try and get in touch with.”
“I don’t need any special treatment, Tony,” Steve says. “I’ll be fine in a few days.”
“You know the doctor has no idea if you have brain damage.” Tony crosses his arms and glares at Steve. He knows his expression is lost on Steve. “I should just inform her that brain damaged is your normal state.”
Steve bows his head and a shy grin touches his lips. “Don’t worry, Tony. It’ll be fine.”
“So says the great American Icon,” Tony whispers.
“No, so says, Steve Rogers,” he murmurs and closes his eyes.
“Hey, maybe if you rest, the pain might not be so bad?” Tony rolls over a chair and sits down.
“Don’t know if I can get to sleep with the pain,” Steve admits and his voice rings hollow and empty.
“Okay, then how about I bore you with some technical crap on the suit?”
Steve rests his head back. “Yeah, I’d like that.”
Tony can pretend that he actually heard a sweet longing in Steve’s tone. Conceding, Tony starts his long dialogue on the articulation of joints and plating on the armor.
The doctors decide it is best to keep Steve in the medical bay on the Helicarrier for the next few days so that they may monitor his progress and scan his head. For his comfort and for Tony's sanity, they finally agree to move Steve out of the main triage bay and settle him in a recovery room. Most of the recovery rooms are built and maintained for short term usage, but, at least, Steve is out of the main bay and it is less frenetic. Steve tolerates all the scans and prodding very well. One bird of the hawk variety hovers over Steve as if Barton has turned from a bird of prey to a mother hen. Always polite, Steve never snaps at Barton and allows him to lead Steve around the room, help him dress in the morning, get him food, although the Captain does draw the line at assistance in the bathroom. While Barton doesn't seem put out, he lingers near the door of the bathroom until Steve is finished and helps him back to his bed.
Tony hates Barton for it.
On day two, Bruce calls Tony on it. "Leave him be."
Tony is lounging against the door frame to the room where Steve is currently housed. There's a short hallway to the actual room and he can spy Barton with a book in hand, reading to the Captain. "What the hell is he doing in there?"
Bruce peers in the room, shrugs, and then goes back to the tablet he's studying. "Looks like he's reading to me."
"What the-. Why?"
"I don't think the Captain knows Braille, and hopefully he won't need to." Bruce spreads his fingers on the screen to increase the scan he's reviewing.
"But why does he get to read to the Captain?" Tony knows he sounds like a fool, like a petulant child, but Barton is hogging all the time with the good Captain, and Tony barely gets any. He's surprised and a little annoyed that this pisses him off so much.
"Maybe he likes to read out loud?" Bruce adjusts his glasses and says, "If you want to read to him, why don't you?"
"Crap," Tony says and heaves in a breath.
Bruce places the tablet aside and goes to stand next to Tony at the doorway. "Think of it this way, something like the Captain's injury kind of hits close to home for Clint. He's a guy with amazing acrobatic skills, and probably the world's best eye. Think of how he must feel with his leader, his captain, down with an injury that takes sight away."
Tony rubs a hand down his face and stands up straight. "Yeah, yeah, I know. I just-."
"We all feel a little helpless." Bruce shuffles back to his seat and picks up the tablet. "Have you heard from Thor?"
"Not yet," Tony says and looks over to Bruce. "Any improvement."
"Actually, yes." Bruce flips the tablet over so Tony can see it. "The swelling has definitely decreased, Steve reported this morning he was seeing bright light and some color. All good. I think he'll be back to his super soldier self in the next day or so."
"So, no lasting effects?" Tony grabs the tablet and examines the brain scan. He did some of his own homework on neurology and brain function in the last few days. While he might not be an expert, he understands some of what he is looking at. "Brain scans all back to normal?"
"Soon, the doctors are seeing a few anomalies, but we can't be sure until all the swelling and clot is gone."
"Anomalies?" Tony's mouth feels dry and it is hard to swallow.
Bruce snatches the tablet away from Tony again, and says, "Don't get your Iron Man suit crumpled, nothing to worry about. Probably just the serum working its magic."
"Okay," Tony concedes, yet just the word anomaly leaves him cold and concerned. He doesn't enter the room until Barton finally leaves during the wee hours of the morning.
The Captain is asleep. The book Barton had been reading is placed on the table beside the bed. Tony picks it up as a nurse comes in and fiddles with the monitors. There's no intravenous line hooked up anymore to Steve, just a few monitors to check his oxygen levels and pulse rate. Tony turns the book over and frowns. For some reason, he imagined Barton reading a classic or some important piece of literature. This book, The Gargoyle* doesn't fit the bill to him. He reads the back and opens it. He notes they are about a quarter way through the book. Tossing it back on the table, he nods to the nurse as she leaves and then turns to look at the Captain, at Steve.
The bed is far too small, still. Several blankets cover Steve and his head is to the side, with his face toward the arching window of the Helicarrier. There is little light in the room. As Tony steps around the bed to the single chair, the arc reactor glints off of Steve's solemn face, and Tony glimpses the long lashes, the slightly parted lips, the brow at ease, and those furrows at the bridge of his nose are at rest and are gone. He looks too young to be a captain, he looks too young to have battled in a world war, he looks too young to be his father's contemporary. When he thinks on it, something harsh and stinging hitches in his chest and he slumps into the chair. He waits, and listens to the quiet breathing. It lulls him and he allows it. He doesn't struggle to remain awake, he just wants to stay at his side for a while, in the dark, alone, and silent. Somehow, he finds a certain peace.
By the time he lifts his eyes and blinks a few times, the light is shining through the window as dawn breaks. Steve lies in the bed, curled on his side. His eyes are open and he's gazing at Tony.
"Hey," Tony says and cleans the sleep from his eyes. "God, what time is it?"
Steve glances around the room and says, "Don't know, but you snore." He smiles at Tony and, for the first time, Tony realizes Steve focuses on him.
"Hey, you can see."
Steve smiles, broadly, a little abashed, but still tinged with youth. "Yeah, I can."
"Christ," Tony says and claps his hands. "Thank fucking god."
"Tony, watch your language," Steve says and pushes against the thin mattress to sit up. He scrubs a little at his face, and presses the heels of his hands into his eyes. "I told you it would be fine."
"Yes, you did." Tony notices that Steve's scrubbing at his eyes and he jerks to attention. He yanks Steve's hand away and says, "What?"
Steve just shakes his head. "Can I get out of here now?"
The word anomaly floats in the air and Tony squints his eyes at Steve. "Tell me you're okay?"
"Fine, just residual stuff. That's all," Steve says and waves him away.
Tony leans over and stares at Steve's eyes. Nothing seems amiss, but Steve shies away and bats at him again. "I'm calling the doctor."
Before Tony can leave, Steve grabs hold of his wrist and stops him. "Please, its nothing. It's just a little blurriness. It'll clear up. Please, I just want to go home."
Tony deflates a degree, considers the earnest look on Steve's face, the heat of his hand on Tony's wrist, and finally surrenders. "Okay, fine, but if it gets weird or funky, you'll tell me."
"Sure, yeah, okay," Steve says and nods.
"No, I mean it, Captain America's honor here and all that."
Steve salutes him and smiles again. It is boyish and bright and playful. Something low in Tony's belly twists in a delighted way as Steve promises, "Okay, Tony. Captain America's honor."
"Fine," he replies and breathes a little easier.
It takes another five hours before Steve is released, and no one but Tony seems discomforted by the fact Steve keeps wiping tears away and blinking a little too rapidly to be considered normal. He also gets distracted when people move, and a little dreamy eyed. Tony can't explain it and when he mentions it to Bruce, Bruce just frowns and shakes his head. Deciding that it would be better to have Steve under his roof and his care, Tony arranges to have Happy meet them at the airport and they all board the Quinjet, all but Natasha who has to stay aboard the Helicarrier for unknown reasons, and they depart.
Of course, for some bizarre ass reason, Steve thinks he’s on his way to his little shit apartment in Brooklyn. When they end up at Stark Tower after a very long commute, Steve gazes up at the monument in the sky and his lips curl in surprise. Tony thinks he’s just blown a blood vessel when the Captain says, “It really is beautiful, isn’t it?”
Happy navigates the limousine into the underground parking garage as Tony frowns at Steve. He only shrugs in response to Tony and blinks a few extra times. Tony doesn’t exactly know what is up, but he knows when he’s being conned.
“Cap,” Tony says and just for shits and giggles tosses his phone to Steve from across the backseat of the limo.
Steve grabs the phone out of mid-air without a blink or a twitch. Okay, that’s not it. Something is up, he just doesn’t know what. Bruce scowls at him and Hawkeye is just sulking for some unspoken reason. Maybe because his little chick is all well again? This is all just fucked, if Tony really thinks about it.
After they park and everyone tumbles out of the limo, Tony watches as Steve hangs back with his hands stuffed into his bomber jacket. He scans the parking garage with a strange, almost childlike fascination.
“You want to share, Spangles?”
Steve raises both brows and looks as innocent as apple pie. “Huh?”
“What’s so intriguing about the parking garage?” Tony waves a large circle around and waits for the answer. Both Bruce and Barton are pulling their luggage out of the back since they had been on the Helicarrier since the last alert to assemble, days ago.
Steve smiles but it is tight lipped and forced. “Just don’t get here often. It’s big.”
“Big, oh,” Tony says. “Great descriptor, don’t quit your day job.”
Steve chuckles a little and slaps Tony on the shoulder. “Funny, I like that one.”
Tony would roll with it, if Steve hadn’t hesitated, if Steve hadn’t stopped and examined his own hand for a few discarded seconds before abruptly coming back to himself. “So? Why here?”
“Because you’re weird,” Tony says and clutches onto a handful of Steve’s jacket to drag him to the elevator.
“I’m weird,” Steve says and mutters something under his breath. Tony is half aware that Steve might be cursing at him.
Bruce follows behind them and adds, “We’re still concerned. The scan they did of your brain today was inconclusive as far as damage is concerned. Once they analyze it more closely, I’m sure you can go home again.”
“Yeah, to your little brown apartment in Brooklyn.”
“It isn’t brown.”
“Right,” Tony says.
“Okay, not all brown, some of it is white, and black.”
Tony purses his lips and shakes his head. “You realize you’re just proving my point, don’t you?”
“I’m not even sure what point you’re trying to make,” Steve says, and then Barton has to chime in at that moment to add, “I don’t get it either, Cap, don’t take it personally.”
“I learned a long time ago, not to worry about what people think about me,” Steve says, and seems so satisfied with himself that Tony wants to smack him one, and Barton – but that is just because, and has no real basis in fact.
Once the elevator is underway, Tony tries to ignore the super soldier who is glancing around the small enclosed space as if he’s just landed from another planet. It is outright disconcerting. He peers at Bruce as if to ask him a question without speaking. Bruce does this little shake with his head to denote he has no idea what the hell is going on either –which is all kinds of good.
The elevator opens at the penthouse floor as JARVIS announces it. Bruce and Barton clatter out and it occurs to Tony he seems to have acquired more than one new roommate. He’ll deal with that when the time comes, right now he has to get a handle on what the hell is wrong with Captain America.
Steve is the last to leave the elevator; he’s skimming his hands along the frame and then drifting along the wall.
“Steve,” Tony says again, but this time harshly and not a question.
Steve jumps and turns to face Tony. “Hmm?”
“Are you?” Tony looks to Bruce for a little assistance.
“Steve, are you okay. You seem a little distracted. How’s your vision?”
“A little off,” Steve admits but doesn’t elaborate.
“What does that mean, exactly?” Tony asks.
Steve lifts a shoulder, and then drops it. “I’m tired, would it be okay if I rested for a while?”
Barton grumbles something, but doesn’t say anything outright. Tony wants to argue, but the Captain does look like he’s just on this side of death still, so he acquiesces. “Sure. JARVIS?”
“Could you direct the Captain to his room?”
“Surely, sir.” Tony gestures for Steve to follow the trail of lights and JARVIS’ directions to his room. Steve drifts away and that is all Tony can describe it as – he just ambles away like he doesn’t have a care in the world.
“That is very unCaptain America,” Barton remarks as Steve turns the corner down the hallway and is out of sight.
“You noticed?” Tony says and turns back to Bruce. “What the hell?”
“Yeah, he’s like high or something,” Barton comments.
Bruce screws up his face and he looks like he just smelled something bad. “I’m not going to deny that there is something definitely not right about that behavior.”
“You think?” Tony says. He points down the hallway. “Barton’s right, he’s acting like he’s high or drunk or some shit.”
“Do you want to bring him back? I’m sure we could bring him back to HQ in New York,” Bruce says but Tony can tell by the way he’s saying it that this is the least favorable option.
“What else do you suggest?”
Tugging off his glasses, Bruce fiddles with them, cleans the lenses, and then slips them back on. “Maybe just keep him here for a while. He needs rest. See what happens. It is probably a little bit of swelling that still needs to right itself. Give him a few days.”
Tony recalls the look on Steve’s face as the doctors insisted on yet another round of tests before he could be released, exhaustion and resignation. No, Tony doesn’t want to force the Captain to undergo another battery of tests.
“You think it’s safe?” Tony asks, they are talking about Steve’s brain here.
“Give it time,” Bruce says though he doesn’t sound as convincing as Tony would like to hear.
With a nod, Tony agrees and then looks at the both of them. He expected Bruce to tag along, but not so much Barton. “Staying then?” Barton drops his backpack, folds his arms, and does the silent growl. “Okay, then, I’m sure JARVIS can set you up.”
“I already have the rooms arranged for Mister Barton and Doctor Banner.”
“Thanks, wasn’t asking,” Tony says. “Do you know where Pepper is?”
“Ms Potts is currently at Stark Industries, headquarters.”
Tony starts away, toward the elevators, and his workshop. “Patch me through?”
Once he’s in the elevator Pepper comes on the line. “Tony? Did they release Steve today?”
“Yeah, and he’s weird.”
“That’s not nice, Tony.”
“No, I’m serious. He’s actually zoned out or something. And I should know, been there, done that myself.”
“You don’t think there’s anything long term?”
He sighs. He has no idea. He has to trust the experts. There are times when he wants to be an expert at everything. It would supremely help him. “I don’t know. Banner thinks we should give it a few days.”
“Then do that, he knows these things, doesn’t he?”
“Really, not that kind of doctor.”
“Yeah, really.” Tony walks out of the elevator, inputs the code to his workshop, and steps into it. “I’ve got work to do.”
“Yeah, I was just sunbathing here in the office.”
“Knew you were.”
She gets quiet and, when Pepper stalls, he knows to listen. “Take care of him, okay?”
He stammers out an agreement. “S-sure?”
“He means more to you than I think you even know.”
He’s about to dismiss her, to tell her to stop inferring, just because Gramps was Howard’s friend doesn’t automatically link him to Tony. Something inside, something like a small ember of hope that she’s right, stops him. “I’ll take care of him.”
“Talk to you.”
She disconnects and he stands in his dimly lit work room, staring at the shining armored suits and wonders why he suddenly feels both hope and loss at the same time.
Days pass and a routine finds its way into Tony’s life, his penthouse, and his tower. When he stumbles out of the workshop, he finds out that Steve runs in the morning, for two straight hours. He gets up at five in the morning, does some stretching, and then disappears onto the streets of Manhattan for two hours. He comes back glowing. Seriously, Tony cannot describe it any other way. And no, he’s not having JARVIS spy at all. Never.
The one time Tony was present for Steve’s return, it surprises him. Steve walks into the main room of the penthouse, and smiles at both Barton and Tony. Tony had just finished up a stint of over thirty hours in the workshop, and here comes Captain America. Sweaty and panting from his run. He’s actually still hopping around and smiling.
“The city is so beautiful at dawn. The way the light hits the buildings and kind of glitters. Looks like a faceted jewel.” Steve goes to the kitchen, comes out with a half-gallon of milk, chugs it down, and then says, “Shower time.”
Tony watches him go and then turns back to Barton, who is currently gulping down a bowl of cereal. “He’s like that every morning. Even worse in the evenings when he goes on a stroll. All giddy and crap. I’d like to take a little of what he’s high on.”
“Seriously, Banner doesn’t have an issue with it?” Tony asks.
“Banner tried to get him to go to SHIELD yesterday for a scan of his head again.”
“No go. Cap said he was fine. He’s just-.”
“Very happy,” Tony says and frowns. That is just not normal. The guy mourns; it’s what he does now. He has no idea what kind of guy he used to be, but shit the man lost everything. Getting a knock on the head changed all that? Tony sincerely doubts that. “What else has he been doing with his time?”
Barton stands up and puts the bowl in the sink. Tony frowns. Who the hell does he think will clean that crap up? Barton turns and leans against the sink, arms folded. “Don’t know. He only appears a few times a day, all happy as a lark. It’s getting creepy.”
“What has Captain Rogers been doing with his time?”
“It is not in my programming to spy on people, sir.”
“Shit it isn’t, what has he been doing?”
“Captain Rogers spends a great deal of time in the gym, working on artistic pursuits, conversing with Director Fury over strategies. He has also slept quite a bit each day.”
None of that seems suspicious. “Keep an eye on him.”
“Is your little man in the ceiling watching me, too?” Barton asks.
Tony smirks. “What do you think, bird boy?” Tony leaves.
With JARVIS watching over the Captain, Tony decides not to stir the pot. Steve needs time to rest and recuperate. He’s finally relaxed and, maybe that is a good thing. The only thing that worries both Tony and Bruce is Steve’s compliance concerning going back for more scans of his head. He refuses.
When Thor shows up with a tall, regal looking woman trailing behind him who also has a cigar hanging out her mouth, Tony coughs and gags a little. The woman, dressed as if she’s going to a formal ball, takes in Tony’s penthouse and scoffs a little as if it isn’t up to her standards. Tony doesn’t know whether to be insulted or just plain amused.
Thor introduces the woman, “This is Eir, a great healer of Asgard. She is sometimes referred to as a mother to me, and other times, not.”
“I thought Frigga was your mother?” Barton says.
“She is,” Thor says and leaves it at that. Tony shares a look with Barton and he’s glad he’s not the only one confused by the state of Asgard and what they consider normal.
“Midgard has the finest vices,” Eir says as she takes the unlit cigar out of her mouth and runs it under her nose. “I haven’t partaken in a cigar in such a long time. I truly miss your devious ways.”
“Us devious?” Barton barks out, but a palm to his chest stops him from jumping all over the woman.
“Where is the patient?” Eir asks just as Steve walks into the main room.
Paint splatters his tattered pants and short sleeved t-shirt. Tony furrows his brows, what the hell has he been up to? The shirt is definitely too small for his broad chest, and the rips in his pants across his thighs allow a peak at sculpted muscles.
Steve rubs his hands along his pants and bows his head a bit. “Sorry, ma’am, I didn’t know we had company.” He offers her his hand and says, “Rogers, Steve Rogers.”
“The famous Captain America.” She tilts her head and, for a second Tony thinks she looks a little too much like Loki with her mischievous eyes and crooked smile. She looks like she wants to taste him. “It is good to finally meet one who the Son of Odin holds in such high regard. You fight well, according to Thor.”
She doesn’t release his hand right away. “Thank you, ma’am.”
Thor says, “This is Eir, from Asgard. She has been gracious enough to come from my world to yours. She has agreed to ensure that your health has not been unduly tampered with by magical means.”
Steve’s expression drops. Tony thinks it might be the first time in over a week he sees the Captain scowl. “I’m good, ma’am. No need to come all this way.”
“Oh nonsense, for I am already here and I would not want to waste such a trip.” She points to the sofa in front of the large screen television.
Steve peers down at his stained pants but settles on the edge of the couch anyway, tense, and upright.
“Unburden yourself of worries, my son. I am not here to harm you.” She places her hands on his shoulders and Tony wonders what happened to the thick cigar. “Breathe for me, slowly.”
Following directions, Steve inhales and exhales several times as Eir keeps her hands on his shoulders, then she slowly walks around the couch and is standing in front of Steve. Her one hand slips under his chin and she gazes into his eyes.
“Such beautiful eyes. You see such wonderful things. Do you yearn for more, my child?” she whispers and Tony sees a slight shiver run through the Captain. Even as she leans closer, she continues, “Once you give up the sight, and you will have to, it will be your duty, you may lose what you desire most.”
Steve’s eyes glimmer in the light, and Tony thinks they might be watering, but he blinks away any unshed tears.
“You must do your duty, my soldier. It will be painful, and your dreams may very well be dust. But you are promised for something bigger than who you are. You are promised to be a good man.”
She releases him and steps away. Steve slumps against the couch and lowers his head. He doesn’t look at anyone.
“Has magic possessed him?” Thor asks.
“No, there is no trace of magic. What ails the good Captain is beyond magic,” she states and walks toward the elevator.
“Hey, you can’t come in here and say that without any explanation,” Tony calls after her.
She pauses only once. “I can and I did. He has a choice to make, as do you. Make the choice and it will be easier. One way or another.” She steps into the lift. “Son of Odin?”
Thor looks at them and Tony is about to protest, but Eir says, “I am in need of tying one on as they say on Midgard, and then I would like to see one of these pornographic films before I return to Asgard, are you ready?”
Thor huffs out a breath, opens his hands, and rushes after her.
“Christ, I would never want to have to go to see a porno with someone I think of as a mother,” Barton says.
“Back at you,” Tony agrees.
Steve is standing and looking as if he might bolt as well. “I think I-ll-.”
Just then the call to assemble rings and everything changes.
“Just what in the bloody hell was that?” Tony lashes out as Steve tumbles from his grasp. God damned stupid idiot almost got himself killed, several fucking times. Tony barely grabbed him before he plummeted out of a window – thirty stories up.
“I was doing my job,” Steve yells back and tears away the rest of the cowl. There isn’t much left of it since the home grown terrorists slashed him across the face with some kind of electric rod. There’s a welt that goes from his forehead across the bridge of his nose and down the opposite cheek to his jaw line. It looks painful and seeps blood.
“Jumping out a window is not your job.”
“I didn’t jump, I didn’t have a choice.”
“You had a choice; you didn’t have to take them on by yourself. You are on a fucking team,” Tony screams. “What the hell is wrong with you? You were distracted and your throws were all off. Even when we used the shield to bounce off the repulsor rays you missed the mark.”
“There was a lot of smoke from their weapons,” Steve says as he yanks away the rest of his ripped jacket. “Another one for the dump.” He tosses it to the side. They are standing in the penthouse as the rings dissemble the Iron Man armor around Tony.
“That’s a shitty excuse,” Tony says. “I don’t think you’re fi-.”
Steve whips around and there’s rage in his eyes, something Tony has never seen before, not like this, not the kind of rage which comes from fear. “No, you don’t get to decide. You don’t get to say it.”
“Sir, Director Fury is on the phone.”
“It seems I won’t have to,” Tony says and then adds, “Put him through.”
“The threat has been neutralized but we have another issue to discuss, gentleman,” Fury says as his image appears on the large screen television.
“Sir, I know that-.”
“No, you don’t Captain, you really don’t.”
Steve shuts his mouth with an audible click of his teeth.
“You are not fit for duty. You have not been cleared for duty. You should never have been out in the field, Captain,” Fury says. “You have continually refused head scans to verify no brain damage. At this point, what I saw today confirms there are residual effects. If you do not report to SHIELD medical within the next forty eight hours consider yourself on medical leave and confined to the Tower.”
“I could force you to come in here, Captain,” Fury says and raises an eyebrow. “If you do not comply, Captain. I will send agents to bring you back to SHIELD. You will be under arrest then.”
“I can and I will,” Fury says and then looks at Tony. “Knock some sense into him, Stark. And Captain?”
“Listen to him; you belong on the Avengers, we can’t afford to lose you.”
The screen goes black and Steve stands there, beaten and bloody. As the rest of the team fumble out of the elevator, Steve pushes past them and hits the button to disappear.
“What happened?” Natasha asks.
Tony shakes his head. “JARVIS?”
“Make sure he doesn’t leave the building.”
“As you say, sir.”
In the end he goes to Pepper. She’s at Stark Industries HQ-east and he walks into her office without regard to her little assistant. He’s worn thin and she looks up from her desk and recognizes it in his eyes. She tells her assistant to leave them and Pepper leads him to the small conference space in her office. There is a leather couch. He falls into it and she sits next to him. She folds him in her arms and holds him.
“There’s something wrong with Steve.”
“I thought he was getting better?” Pepper runs fingers through his hair.
“He wasn’t. I knew it, I just ignored it.” Tony buries his face in her shoulder. “I’m a coward.”
“Oh, Tony, you are so far from a coward. All your life you’ve been braver and stronger than anyone I’ve known,” Pepper says and kisses the crown of his head.
“I can’t take this, I can’t have Steve gone.” He sinks down farther onto her lap and she scrubs fingers through his thick, messed hair. “If he’s gone-.”
“How bad is it?”
“He’s making mistakes, he isn’t a super soldier, I don’t know,” Tony says because he doesn’t. All he knows is that Steve is no longer Captain America.
“Is it so bad that he might just be Steve?” she asks and her fingers stop.
Tony finds his way up to a sitting position and gazes at her. “But Steve is Captain America.”
“But is Captain America Steve?”
She smiles, and it is sweet and endearing, and he knows she gets him. “Are you afraid of losing Captain America or Steve?”
“I don’t-.” He stops and thinks about it, considers it. He thinks of the last week or so, how he’s waited on seeing Steve, on checking his status. He recalls sitting by Steve’s bedside at the medical bay, he remembers thinking of Steve. “Steve.”
She cups a hand to his face and says, “Then don’t lose him.”
He gazes into her eyes and it hurts because he sees the harm he’s done to her, reflected in those luminous eyes. As he’s about to comment, she places a finger over his lips. “Tony.”
“I know,” she whispers, kisses him tenderly on the lips, and then shifts away again. “Go, and save him.”
Thirty hours later, he finally tracks Steve down. JARVIS seems to have taken up a protective, tiger mother quality when it comes to Steve. He refused to come clean on where Steve was hiding out in the building until Tony found a paint smudge on the elevator frame. The button to an empty floor had the barest smear of blue paint on it.
“Ahh,” Tony had said as he pressed it and waited for the lift to bring him to the designated floor.
As the elevator doors slide open, Tony halts. The floor is an empty floor in the Tower and, as such, had long white walls of plaster board waiting to be renovated and modeled into something worth it.
The large open area with walls extending up to thirty feet stops him dead in his tracks. He’s standing in the middle of it all. The windows on each side of the open room pour light, fantastic light, into and across the walls. The walls are painted.
Each and every one of the Avengers has been captured on the walls. Each and every one of them is there. Yet, in no way that Tony can possibly explain or fathom. He can only remark it looks a little like canvases done by LeRoy Neiman. The colors meld and swirl about each figure, and like shadows they lurk. The shades of colors strewn across each figure ties each avenger to their special talent, or power, or capability. It is beautiful and wondrous and terrifying to behold.
His mouth is dry and he realizes his jaw is hanging open.
He identifies Hawkeye, sailing off a building with bow in hand and a swirl of violent purple pink around his torso and across his eyes. Another wall sports Black Widow with darker shadows and another figure with a silver arm wrapped around her that is only partially formed. From there, he sees Thor with rain of clouds and cyclones around him yet the figure’s eyes are lowered and his hands hold the Earth as gently as a babe. To the side is Bruce, not the other guy. Bruce with a glow of candles about him and a smear of greens of forest and spring about him, entwined in his hair and down his torso as if nature itself claimed Bruce.
The last panel is Tony.
The last panel is Tony flying, not Iron Man. Tony soaring through the air with a pulse of red and gold as flames from his feet and hands. It is spectacular, because in a slash across Tony’s chest is not the arc reactor but the Captain’s shield. It feels like a punch to the gut to see the paintings.
“You’re here,” Steve says. He stands to the side with a cloth as he wipes away the paint from his hands.
“You need to-.” Tony faces him. “This is what you see now, isn’t it?”
Steve opens his one hand and waves it through the air. “It can be a little distracting.”
“You need to go into the doctors. You need them to fix this.” Tony states it, but he instantly loathes himself for saying it. He doesn’t want them to fix Steve, he wants to save Steve.
“I know, I can’t fight like this,” Steve says. “I just wanted to finish them before, they did it.”
“We’ll all here,” Tony says and realizes he’s wrong. Captain America isn’t captured on these murals. “Where are you? Where’s the painting of Captain America?”
Steve drops the rag. “I’m ready to go.” He says it as if he’s a prisoner, as if Tony is here to take him into custody. Steve doesn’t welcome any more questions or entertain the barrage of comments Tony has as they find their way back to the main floor of the penthouse, as Steve cleans up and gets dressed, as Steve bids his farewell to his fellow team mates.
Somehow, it feels like death to Tony.
He feels hollowed out and raked open.
They travel to SHIELD HQ and Tony thinks he must be in shock or something because he doesn’t even protest when they whisk the Captain away to run tests. They quiz Tony about Steve’s state and, at some point, the other members of the team show up. They sit around a little white room, and stare at the blank walls and at each other for hours. Tony never touches his phone, he just thinks about the paintings.
The little doctor with the frazzled orange hair and sloped nose comes out to greet them. She sniffles once and says, “Captain Rogers has given me a waiver to share his diagnosis with you.”
Bruce stands up and waits.
“As far as we can tell Captain Rogers’ brain took damage from his encounter. During this time, the swelling and the clot prevented the serum from correcting the damage.”
“Steve is brain damaged?” Barton says, and he looks like someone just kicked his puppy. Tony feels it in his gut, and he turns his face away.
“So, what does that mean?”
“The damage is somewhat akin to synesthesia. Which is a kind of damage where the senses are cross wired. Someone might hear colors or smell them for example.”
Bruce turns a little green at that and Tony frowns at him. “Just wonder what green smells like.” Bruce asks the doctor, “What are Steve’s symptoms?”
“They are fairly unique. He sees after images or what he likes to call truth images of people. He can see what I can only describe as auras around people. He says they represent the people and help him to understand the people around him. But with each motion a person makes,” she says and waves her hand around. “it causes waves of these colors and images. He said it can make him a little nauseated, or even more tired than normal. It is very distracting to try and track motion of a person with these auras interfering.”
“So, what do we do for him?” Natasha asks.
“We need to perform brain surgery.”
“But the serum,” Tony says.
Bruce interrupts Doctor Goddard. “You’re not going to perform brain surgery. You’re doing to inflict an injury so that his brain will heal again but you’ll make sure no clot occurs to block it from healing correctly.”
The woman heaves in a breath and nods. “Yes, it is the best way to allow the serum to work naturally.”
“Naturally, you’re going to knock him in the head again?” Barton growls.
“No, not exactly,” she says and raises her hand. “We will do everything in a well-controlled, sterile environment. We are not torturers.”
“Says who?” Tony snaps.
“It really is the only way,” the doctor replies. “Captain Rogers has signed the consent form and we will perform the surgery in the morning.”
They stand there in a kind of stupor, or shock. Tony studies them, but nothing comes up, nothing connects. He doesn’t even say anything; he just leaves and finds himself standing in Steve’s room. The bed is empty, and Steve is standing with his hands in his pockets, staring out at the cityscape. Night shades the city, yet it still glows.
“What do you see?” Tony asks, he keeps his tone quiet, almost reverent.
“Light and dark, color and –I-.” He stops and peers over his shoulder at Tony. “I can’t explain it. I can paint it, but I can’t tell you.”
Tony nods and crosses the room to stand beside Steve. They stand for a few minutes, and it doesn’t weigh on Tony, it feels right and soft and comfortable like he’s supposed to stand next to this man, broken or strong.
“Once it’s gone,” Steve murmurs. He looks down at his empty hands. “Once it’s gone, I guess I’m committed then, huh?”
“To Captain America,” Steve says and tilts his head up. He’s looking at the ceiling but his lids flutter against the tears. He lowers his gaze to Tony. “It’s all I ever wanted to be, to do. I wanted to do well; I wanted to fight the good fight. I wanted to do my part.”
“You have, you did.”
“Not enough, I guess. The world still needs Captain America,” Steve says with a kind of acceptance.
“You don’t have to,” Tony says. “Not right away, if you don’t want. We can take care of things for you.” It seems to Tony that Steve – of all people – needs down time, he might need to adjust, yes, but maybe he just need time to be Steve.
“Doctors don’t know what that would mean. Could cause so much damage the serum won’t put me back together right,” Steve says. “Dangerous to have let it go on this long.”
Silence drops then, and Tony breaks it with the pain of truth. “You want to be Steve Rogers.”
Steve shakes his head and looks at the lights in the city. “Yes, but I – I’m not meant to be Steve Rogers. I’m not-.”
“Don’t say it. You are Steve Rogers, first.”
Steve throws his head back and laughs, full but with an airy almost aching sound to it. “Steve Rogers is a scrawny little guy who didn’t know when to give up, when to run.”
Tony grabs his arm and says, “Yeah, so Steve Rogers is some thin little snot who didn’t know when to say uncle, but he’s also the guy standing in front of me that taught me when it was important to lay down on the wire.”
Steve opens his mouth to protest, but Tony beats him to it. “You tell me, if you’re done lying down on the wire. You tell me, and I will walk right out there and tell them to cancel their little trip into your brain.”
Steve closes his eyes for a minute and then opens them to gaze at Tony. He reaches up and touches the arc reactor. “Why is it, when I look at you, I see my shield?”
Tony wants to answer, he needs to answer, because if he doesn’t his heart might just seize in his chest.
It is Steve’s turn to beat Tony to a reply. “Come back tomorrow, after, and tell me.”
After is a horrendous sixteen hours following the surgery. Steve lies in a puddle of unconsciousness. That’s the only way Tony can describe it. They punctured and beat his brain so completely, he finally could no longer wrestle with unconsciousness and it captured him. They cannot wake him.
They drilled holes into his head, scraped out the haywire connections the scans showed. It took hours because Steve had been awake during the entire procedure. There wasn’t a drug at a dosage high enough they could give him to keep him sedated. He’d been locked to the table so the doctors didn’t have to grapple with him during the operation. Since there are no pain receptors in the brain, at least Steve had been relieved in that regard. The drilling – Tony can still hear the screams.
Tony spent the better part of the last hours in the bathroom puking.
Over the next two days, they assure him there is brain activity and the serum is doing its job. Steve undergoes several scans. Things look good, but he hasn’t awoken yet. Tony slumps on the lounge chair in Steve’s room and succumbs to sleep at about day three. He isn’t sure because his head aches and his body rebels.
When the sun hits him in the face and he curses, a reprimand brings him fully awake.
“Watch your language.”
Tony looks to the bed and sees Steve swathed in bandages staring at him. “You look great.”
“Very appealing, I’m sure.”
“How's the-?” He circles his eyes with his finger.
“Normal,” Steve says and his voice has a wistful tone to it.
“I’m sorry,” Tony says.
“So am I,” Steve whispers and closes his eyes.
Three days after Steve wakes up, they release him. Tony has to confront him about going back to his drab apartment. He literally takes him by the scuff of the neck and tugs him into his car. Steve surrenders. Tony considers this a win.
Somehow or another, Tony finds out that the entire team has moved into the Tower. Pepper tells him it is the right thing to do, so he agrees. They all fall into a similar routine that they set up before Steve’s operation. Pepper becomes a part of the comings and goings, though she’s settled in a different room than his bedroom. He recognizes this as their quiet way to break up. It hurts in some ways, and, in other ways, he is quietly grateful to her. He still spends a vast amount of time with her, and she with him. They seek one another out, and this seems right and good.
Steve keeps on the periphery as he is apt to do. He revolves around everyone else, except when he commands missions. He’s back in the field and doing everything he used to. But Tony knows, feels it in the blank spaces when Steve doesn’t speak, or when he’s sitting alone in the living room staring out into the city of steel. He knows Steve is lost.
Until he finds him.
Tony discovers Steve sitting in the middle of the unfinished floor of the Tower, his paintings adorning the walls. His arms and hands are covered in paint. Tony enters the floor. There’s a new panel, it is different.
It is Steve.
Just Steve, not Captain America.
It startles him, because the figure of Steve is holding a glowing ball that has the emblem of the arc reactor drawn through it.
“You’re here,” Steve says, without turning around.
“Yeah, I wanted to see how you were doing.”
“Okay, just adjusting.”
“I think you’ve been doing a lot of that lately.” Tony walks over to the spot where Steve is sitting on the stained floor. “You know, I’m not going to be able to rent out this floor anymore.”
“Probably not,” Steve agrees, and goes about wiping the paint from his hands.
“So, are you going to tell me?” Tony indicates the portrait of himself with the shield swathe across his chest.
“What do you think?” Steve says but doesn’t look at Tony.
“I think you’re trying to avoid answering the question.”
Steve chuckles. “I think you’re right.”
Tony clasps a hand over Steve’s as he works the rag to clean his arms. “Tell me.”
“I-I’m supposed to do this -.” Steve stops and tries again. “I can’t, I just don’t.”
“Just spit it out.” Tony’s heart hammers in his chest and his stomach twists.
“I had the operation for you.”
Tony squeezes his hand, and says, “What?”
“I’m supposed to be Captain America to keep people safe, to do this thing so that people will be safe and good will prevail. But I, I had the operation because without it I can’t protect the people I love. I can’t protect my family, my team, I can’t protect you.”
Tony falls silent.
“I can’t protect you. I can’t protect the people,” Steve murmurs the rest. “The people I love, the person.”
It rips out his heart, it tears away all the shielding, it destroys everything. “Christ.”
“I’m sorry, Tony. I didn’t mean.”
His lips on Steve’s stop all words, stop the explanations, stop the worry and the pain. It stops everything. Only the feel and touch and taste of the lips, the mouth, the tongue mean anything to him. Steve’s hands are paused mid-air, and then fall to grasp onto Tony’s shoulders. Slowly, they drift upwards and cradle Tony’s head.
Tony plays with the fringe of shaved hair on the side of Steve’s head, he nips and tastes and tangles with his tongue in Steve’s mouth. Steve follows every action and reaction. There is softness and tender touch, there is brashness and arrogance in their kiss. There is no air and they pant and fight and clamp onto one another as if the world is falling away and all they have to hold onto is each other.
Tony leans his forehead on Steve’s and says, “You’re always Steve to me, you understand? You get it? You’re Steve, guy who doesn’t know when to give up, guy who’s an amazing artist, guy who I love.”
Steve nods and then whispers, “And for you, I’d give it all up to be Captain America, only for you.”