It all happened so quickly.
They had been on their way to this small art gallery in Manhattan – Tony couldn’t remember the name of it anymore, but he did remember thinking that Steve would love it. Since he’d found out that Steve was an artist, Tony had made a point of taking the man to different art museums and galleries, and even tried to convince him to get his own exhibition, because the work was damn good, even if Steve denied it.
He could remember Steve thanking Tony for driving him, the annoying smile that Tony automatically had to grin back to. He had joked about something – arriving in style, he guessed – and Steve had laughed…and then there was nothing.
It frustrated him that there was a whole section of his memory that was just out of his grasp. It was just car, black, hospital. He remembered the impact – or, rather, he remembered the feeling of the impact – the press of his seatbelt, the pain in his head when it hit the windshield, the ringing in his ears, but there was nothing else. The doctor said that it was likely he would get his memory back over a long period of time, but it was just as likely that he never would, which was something that Tony would not allow. Especially not now.
When he had woken up, Pepper and Rhodey’s worried faces peering down at him, he had stared at them in confusion, struggling to remember how he even got here. He opened his mouth to question them and croaked, coughing. Pepper hurriedly offered him ice chips and, although he hated the idea of being babied, he accepted the help with some grace.
“What happened?” Tony managed to get out.
“You were in a car accident,” Rhodey stated, eyes alert and worried and a deep frown was set into his face. “Don’t try and get up,” he warned, “You’ve got a bad concussion.”
“I can feel that,” Tony winced as he reluctantly settled back into the pillow, breathing out slowly and relaxing into the frankly uncomfortable mattress, “What else?”
“Cracked ribs, dislocated shoulder, some bruising to your stomach tissue,” Pepper listed off. “It could have been a lot worse.”
“And I’m so happy about that,” Tony mocked through his pain, and frowned as he tried to regain some of what was a blur to him. He couldn’t get much at the time, just flashes of scenery and blond hair, but it was enough for him to ask, “Steve? Where’s Steve?”
The man had superman healing powers – he had to be around here somewhere right, Tony had theorized, but then he’d seen the drop in his friends’ faces, and the tightness of their lips, an expression they usually bore when they didn’t want to tell him something. Dread welled in his stomach.
“Where’s Steve?” he repeated the question.
“Where. Is. Steve?”
Pepper sighed and looked at him sadly. “We…don’t know.”
“What do you mean you don’t know?” Tony tried to speak carefully, tried to control his emotions and judging by the look on Pepper’s face, he was failing. Strangely, he found that he didn’t care.
“When SHIELD reached the crash sight, Steve wasn’t in the car with you,” Rhodey explained, a little hesitantly, “But the door had been busted, so it looked like he could have broken out, but…”
“But it’s more likely that Steve was taken Tony,” he finished with a sigh as if he didn’t want to admit it. It could be because probably the only person who was a bigger fan of Captain America was Rhodey, or because he’d known Tony for far too long, and far too well, to think he would just let someone else handle this.
“Do we know by who?” Tony tried to gather as much information as possible, his mind already whirling with different strategies and plans – he wasn’t as good as Cap, but he could definitely make it work. It would have to work. He moved to get out of the bed, despite his spinning head and aching limbs that screamed in protest, and made noises of protest when Pepper pushed him firmly back into bed.
“There’s nothing you can do,” she told him, “Not like this anyway. You need to focus on healing and let SHIELD do their job.”
“SHIELD is full of idiots, how can you trust them do something as important as this?” Tony objected.
“Whether I trust them or not isn’t the issue. I think they know how important it is to get Steve before anything happens. He’d be top priority, and I swear to god Tony, if you try to get out of that bed before the doctor clears you, and then I will strap you to it, until you aren’t a danger to yourself.” Pepper threatened.
“You always say that,” Tony grumbled, folding his arms across his chest in defeat. Besides, it wasn’t as if he couldn’t do the investigation from his bed. All he needs is JARVIS and his computer, and he’d be able to do a better job than SHIELD’s entire analysis department.
“That’s because it’s true,” Pepper stated. “Please Tony, for once in your life, just don’t get involved. At least not until you’re better.”
Not get involved? No, that wasn’t going to happen. This was his fault. It was his idea to go the art gallery; it was he who insisted on driving there because as much as he appreciated Happy, there was sometimes when he just needed to do it alone. He knew rationally that whether Happy had driven or not didn’t necessarily mean that Steve wasn’t going to be taken. It was clearly a planned attack. Driving them just meant that there wasn’t another innocent person getting hurt in the blast. Still, he had to do something. And he would. But Pepper didn’t have to know that.
She smiled slightly at his silence, perhaps believing that this was Tony’s way of conceding, or maybe knowing he just didn’t want to lie to her, and pressed a kiss to his forehead. “Get some sleep,” she instructed, “I’ll go tell the doctor that you woke up.”
Tony watched them go silently, and then stopped Rhodey in the doorway. “You never did say who took Steve. Do we know?”
Rhodey watched him for a moment, as if deciding whether it was worth it, before answering. “We know. They didn’t exactly hide who they were.”
“Hydra,” he answered simply before exiting, leaving Tony alone to his thoughts.
Hydra had been Steve’s main enemy during the war, more so than Nazi Germany. Whilst the rest of the world focused on one man, Steve and the Howling Commandos took on Schmidt and his seek for godlike powers. As a child, Tony had been told this story a lot. Although Howard was a terrible father, Tony thought he liked the attention that being a story teller received, and he was good at it. Hydra is bent on world domination and, if they had taken Steve, it only meant trouble for them all.
Tony was in hospital for a week before he was released, at his own demand and the doctor’s pleads. So he may have made things purposely difficult for the staff, and he should probably feel guilty about it. Pepper gave him a disapproving look when she arrived to escort him home but Tony smiled charmingly and hobbled after her on his crutches.
“You were only going to be here for another few days Tony,” Pepper complained when they’d reached the car after battling through the hordes of reporters and photographers snapping shots and shouting questions about what happened on the roadside, “You didn’t have to torture the nurses.”
“I got bored,” Tony answered simply, diverting his eyes out of the window as Happy pulled out of the hospital parking lot.
“Don’t think that you aren’t going to be on bed rest just because you’re back at the house,” she told him when she helped him into his bed back at the Mansion, “If I find out you’ve gone to the lab before you’re cleared, I’ll strap you to this bed.”
“Ooh, kinky,” Tony leered and Pepper rolled her eyes.
“JARVIS, make sure he doesn’t get up, change the codes to the doors if you have to,” she instructed, heading towards the door.
“Of course Miss Potts,” JARVIS agreed politely.
“Traitor,” Tony pouted, once again wondering why he gave his AI the ability to not listen to him.
“He’s just looking out for you,” Pepper defended, before giving Tony a pointed look, “Stay in bed. Call if you need anything.”
Tony waited a grand total of 25 seconds after the door had clicked shut behind Pepper before he sat up sharply, ignoring the pull of muscles on his right side and fumbled in his bedside drawer for his tablet. So he wasn’t able to leave his bed. Fine. He didn’t need to leave anyway, not to get what he wanted.
“JARVIS show me the signals for the trackers,” Tony ordered, not glancing up from the screen. It hadn’t been something he had exactly told the others about but during his time where sleep was a struggle, he had created devices that meant that, whatever happened, he’d always be able to know where they were, whatever the situation. The fear of losing them had been too much, and yeah, some people would call it unethical, but he had his reasons.
There was a pause of a few seconds before JARVIS obliged. The screen darkened for a moment before the map and the blinking lights appeared. His eyes scanned eagerly over, making notes of the names – Pepper, travelling, on her way back to Stark Industries; Natasha and Clint, working, somewhere in India; Thor, off map, still on Asgard then; Bruce, walking, Tony guessed, he did that a lot – vaguely he wondered whether he was going to see that Dahlia woman or not, before jumping for the name Steve.
Which couldn’t be found.
Why couldn’t Steve be found?
Tony growled out in frustration and threw his tablet violently against the floor. He didn’t even blink when it smashed, and gritted down on his teeth to not cry out at the pull on his muscles. He dropped down heavily onto the bed and glared up at the ceiling.
“Sir, it would seem that the Captain’s signal has been jammed,” JARVIS supplied.
“Yes, JARVIS, I got that,” Tony snapped, unable to help himself. He ran a hand tiredly over his face and sighed, “This is going to be much more difficult than I thought. Fuck…”
“You’re looking better,” Bruce commented from the doorway, hands in his pockets. “Um, can I come in?”
Tony gave a half shrug, unable to do much else with one hand cuffed to the headboard, and, with his free hand, closed the data that JARVIS had pulled up for him. Of course, he could have continued working but the pain killers he was taking were stronger than he usually took and the drowsiness he was fighting off was beginning to make his eyes water. He could do with a little break.
Bruce entered slowly and eyed the suspended arm. “I didn’t actually think Pepper was serious,” he stated, perhaps the first time he had, unprompted, referred to her by her first name rather than Miss Potts. He eyed the metal bands curiously. “Can’t you get out of them?”
“Voice activated,” Tony grumbled.
He arched an eyebrow. “Where on earth did she find voice activated handcuffs?”
“I made them, and regretting it now,” Tony admitted, “So what brings you to my humble abode?”
“Just wanted to see how you were doing. I know it was pretty bad,” Bruce admitted, “And to say sorry for not visiting sooner. SHIELD has been very persistent about not letting us get involved in the search for Steve,” his lips twisted into a frown; “Personal investment apparently, makes us irrational.”
“So have you been a good boy, listening to what Daddy Fury tells you?” Tony mocked.
His fellow scientist smiled slightly, as if amused, and pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “You’re probably proud to know that you’re a bad influence on us. Where’d you think Natasha and Clint are now?”
“Coulson’s bedroom?” Tony feigned innocence. He was well aware of where the dynamic duo was, but he couldn’t just come out and admit it. No doubt Bruce would figure it out, even with his superb deflection skills.
“Investigating a lead in the middle east somewhere,” Bruce corrected, “I haven’t heard anything from them, which assumes they haven’t found anything.” He paused to sigh, “They should be back by the end of the week.”
“There have been a few rumours that there’s a Hydra headquarters in Dubai, I think,” Bruce said thoughtfully, “Nothing concrete but can’t leave anything unchecked, right?”
Tony nodded sharply. Statistically, he knew it was unlikely that Hydra had managed to smuggle Steve out of the country. It was unfeasible, because nothing can keep the Captain out for long. There was also the fact that SHIELD had ordered that all flights – private and commercial – were to be cancelled until further notice, but something told him that Bruce nor Natasha and Clint knew anything about that.
“So…what do you know? About what happened…?”
“Honestly, not much,” Bruce rubbed the bridge of his nose, “They weren’t being secretive about your crash. They ploughed into you with a massive armoured truck; Hydra emblazoned across the side; took Steve and left as fast as they came. And then they just disappear.”
“How do you just disappear?” Tony exclaimed, frustration in his voice.
“If we could answer that question, they’d probably be easier to find,” Bruce answered as calmly as he could, “I suspect that means they were some where near the crash site, but it’s not entirely possible. They could have swapped cars or moved underground. Hydra are a lot smarter than they were a hundred years ago, and that makes them even more dangerous.”
“I got that Bruce,” Tony snapped, unable to stop himself. His shoulders slumped and he leant back into his pillow. It was as if all the energy had left him and now he was only weak, powerless, tired. He blamed the drugs.
His gaze diverted from the ceiling to Bruce when he felt a hand covering his hesitantly. Bruce offered what Tony was sure was supposed to be a comforting smile.
“We’ll find Steve,” he reassured, “We will.”
After a pause, Tony nodded his agreement slowly. Even if they have the tear the world apart to get him.
The very thought that Tony was actually prepared and willing to do that…scared him frankly. The seriousness of it all, the silent meaning behind those words, something that Tony had only truly felt for one other person – and that hadn’t exactly ended well. How had that even happen? When did Steve jump from being his friend and co-superhero to something so much more? The realisation made his mouth go dry and his stomach clench uncomfortably.
Bruce watched him curiously, pondering a thought – a dangerous thought in Tony’s opinion. Bruce was smart – if anything could figure it out what was wrong, it was him. So Tony changed the subject.
He forced a sly grin. “So, how’s Dahlia?”
Bruce flushed pink.
Two weeks later, Tony had been uncuffed and allowed to wander, although still on crutches. His pain medication still kept him tired, but with hovering friends, there was no doubt he could avoid taking them. He was in the lab when Natasha entered – he was sure he hadn’t given her the access codes, but something told him that didn’t really matter. He glanced up at her, before returning to work – fixing the blasters whilst JARVIS did a worldwide search for Steve’s genetic signature.
“I’m a little busy, Miss Rushmore,” he commented, unable to stop himself from reminding her of the time they had met.
Natasha didn’t rise to the bait – she never did – and instead, placed a small black device, no bigger than a button, onto the work surface and pushed it towards him. She arched an eyebrow.
Tony glanced at it, and looked away quickly. Damn it. SHIELD found it faster than he had expected. But he wasn’t about to admit it was him. “Is that supposed to mean something to me?”
“You can’t just go around bugging confidential meetings Tony,” she commented.
“I didn’t do anything, although I’m flattered you think so,” he shot her a grin.
“I’m well aware you got Clint to do it for you,” she stated, “He’s a good shot, but I’m better when it comes to espionage.”
“He told you didn’t he?”
“Practically handed it to me,” Natasha agreed, “Don’t get too mad with him. I’m a very persuasive person, as I’m sure you know. I take it you didn’t pick up anything?”
“Well, I know now that SHIELD is as clueless as to where Steve is as the rest of us,” Tony shot her a dry smile, “Fortunately enough, I expected that. I just wanted to make sure SHIELD wasn’t keeping anything from me. I know you’ve been ordered to keep me out of the loop.”
“Until you recover,” she added, “Yes, we were. But considering it was Bruce that told you that, I’m assuming you’ve realised that we’re not following orders.”
“And I’ve never been prouder.”
“We don’t know anything Tony. There have been leads but nothing substantial,” Natasha informed, “Phil thinks he might be in a warehouse – something big enough that you could hide a super solider inside and it would be difficult to find unless you knew the way – and somewhere close to the crash site. They’re looking into known Hydra bases in Manhattan and surrounding areas just to be sure, but so far nothing.”
“Sir, the scan has been completed. Twelve possible matches,” JARVIS’ voice broke in before Tony could speak.
“Excellent. Bring ‘em up JARVIS,” Tony ordered, and automatically a holograph of the world map appeared across the white tiled floor. He spun on his chair, away from the desk, to face it. He shot Natasha a self-satisfied smirk. “Good thing I’ve been doing my own checks right?”
She let out a non-committed hum, her eyes trained on the map and the little red dots that blinked in places of interest. “What is this?”
“I did a scan for people with Steve’s generic characteristics – blood type, similar genes, body temperature,” Tony listed, “JARVIS, talk to me.”
“Well, we can rule out the three out of the United States. It’s seems incredibly unlikely that the Captain is within the continents of Australia or Asia,” JARVIS theorized, and three lights on the opposite side of the globe disappeared.
“Which leaves…four in New York, one in Texas, one in Mexico, and three in Chicago,” Tony read the results, “Alright, strike the Texan, Mexican and the Bulls. Let’s focus on the New Yorkers. Zoom in and pull up locations.”
The ordered lights disappeared; the image closed in upon the east coast and, from the four remaining red spots, what appeared to be flags of information appeared. Three with high body temperature, one on Main Street, one in Brooklyn, and another…about three miles from the place of the accident.
“It’s near the crash site, but…Steve runs hot,” Natasha commented, clearly thinking the same thing as Tony, “And he can’t get sick. His body just heals itself and fights of the illness.”
“Unless he’s not able to just heal himself,” Tony pointed out, eyebrows furrowing as he thought, “After the accident, Hydra couldn’t have gotten far. Bruce said they weren’t exactly being inconspicuous, and they would have easily been chased.”
“New York is on lock down, nothing in or out,” Natasha added, “It happened pretty quickly, they wouldn’t have been able to get to Brooklyn. SHIELD has been especially careful to keep this contained. New York is a big enough area to search.”
“Not to mention, Steve would have woken up. They got lucky by causing the accident. Steve must have been disorientated, easier to move, and once he woke up, chloroform would only have kept him unconscious for so long. They needed to get him back to where they were, to begin whatever they needed Steve for before he could fight back.”
“So we’re back to the too cold point,” Natasha stated. “JARVIS, can you tell me the address of this place? What’s there?”
“Certainly Miss Romanoff,” JARVIS agreed politely, “543 Henryson Place. It seems to be an old industrial estate. According to my records, it was recently purchased by a Mr R S Schmidt.”
“Schmidt? As in Red Skull?” Tony stated, realising. His heart pounded a little and relief made his muscles weaker – they’d found Steve. Steve was alive, but sick. Tired by whatever Hydra were doing to him. His body temperature was just lower than the average human, he read, about the same as someone in the cold. But for Steve, that had never happened before. No one could tell how dangerous it would be.
“I’ll go tell the others,” Natasha stated, “We’ll go as soon as possible.”
Tony nodded determinedly. “Right. Just let me get the suit on.” He stood up slowly without the support, feeling his legs shake a little but refusing to reach for stability. He could do this damn it.
“Oh no, you’re staying here,” she disagreed, “You’re still injured. You could make yourself worse.”
“I need to be there,” Tony stated firmly, “And arguing is just going to waste time. Get the others; I’ll meet you at the plane.”
Natasha frowned, as if were her intention to keep fighting, but didn’t press since, she was aware, Tony had his points. They had to find Steve. Besides, she noted as she took a moment to watch Tony struggling on his way to the platform, calling out instructions to JARVIS about mark whatever of his Iron Man suits, she was certain this was something that Tony would fight for. She wasn’t blind. Tony had taken a personal interest in Steve for months now, taking him to this gala and the next, to gallery openings and to museums, because Tony was an excellent tour guide, the man claimed, but Natasha doubted that was the true reason. She was a spy. It was part of her job to notice things, to find people’s weaknesses, to notice the odd looks or touches, and she didn’t have to be a genius to know that Tony was at the very least in lust for Steve.
Now though, like this, with Tony battling even through the pain to be there to fight, because he needed to help, because these people had to suffer, because he had to make sure that Steve was alright. Not just loyalty or concern for a team member though, no, it was so much more than that.
She wondered whether Tony was aware of his feelings. Probably no, she decided, as she slowly turned away, putting her hand to her ear to click open the lines of communication.
“Clint? We found him. Get Bruce.”
Once the warehouse was located, it didn’t exactly take long for the team to assemble. Tony was in the suit by the time he had his way up from the lab to the lobby. His muscles still ached, but the rigidness of the suit kept him up right and he would deal with it until Steve was out of enemy hands and safe once more. Clint looked up from where he was checking his arrows and arched an eyebrow at him, wisely not saying anything.
Tony pointed at him. “You and I are going to have to discuss the definition of the word ‘covert’.”
“And we’re going to need to talk about the meaning of rest,” Coulson interjected as he entered the room, his suit jacket billowing a little behind him.
“Doesn’t that sound like déjà vu to you?” he shot back.
“Yes, but I don’t have Mrs Potts to answer to,” Phil reminded, “I’m not going to be the one to stop you, but this is an important rescue – are you sure you’re up for it?”
Tony’s teeth gritted behind the mask as he fought of his normal reaction to fight the doubt, or perhaps it was care, in their handler’s voice. “Yes, I’m sure. Let’s do this.”
Phil nodded sharply, put a phone to his ear and gave an update. “We’re moving out.”
An uncontrolled roar sliced through the still silence, seeming to shake the whole industrial estate on its foundations, a moment before Hulk punched a hole through the wall of the entrance to the garage. There were cries of surprise and the sound of metal crunching under the weight of falling concrete.
Hulk bellowed and, when shots began to fire from the people below, he violently shook off the onslaught and reached for the nearest Hydra agent who soon found himself airborne.
Clint, having taken advantage of Hulk’s entrance was now positioned in the darkness of the rafters above, began taking aim, men falling from arrows to the back, chest, head and, in a few instances of impeccable aim, the eye.
Natasha slid down from her position on Hulk’s back, two guns poised in front of her and taking aim at the influx of Hydra members storming into the hanger, large canon like guns ready to shoot. SHIELD agents came to aid from behind, not exactly as many as the enemy, but they made quick work of cutting down the numbers.
Tony flew through the mass of people, knocking agents to the ground with all the force of his thrusters, something that gave him sickening glee. He could see their surprised expressions which quickly melted into pain when their eyes rolled back and their bodies crumpled. He shouldn’t like it so much, but just the knowledge that they all had responsibility for what was happening to Steve, he found he didn’t care.
Clint’s voice broke through on the speakers. “Stark, go find the Captain. We’ve got it handled here.”
Tony rose above the rabble and saluted in the direction that he knew Hawkeye was stationed, before taking off through a large arched doorway on the opposite side of the wide space, where metal shutters were urgently being rolled down in an attempt to contain the situation, although it wasn’t exactly difficult to get through. Shouts followed him and Tony was sure he may have been hit a few times by their blasters, but he found himself barely noticing, raising his hands and shooting his replusors at anyone who got too close while he sped along the narrowed corridors.
Too many doors, too many people, too many paths he could take that would end up with him miles away from where Steve was kept. They could sneak Steve from the base – they’d avoided SHIELD for this long, they could probably find a way out without being detected – and then they might never find him again. Tony’s stomach churned at the thought. No, he had to be found and safe, and that had to happen today. His leg was beginning to ache in the suit and he knew that his hands shook every time he moved them. This needed to be done fast.
He could feel his heart pounding in his chest, and exhaustion created a layer of sweat on his skin. He was pushing himself too far, jumping head first into a battle he wasn’t entirely ready for. Strangely, that only made him move faster.
His eyes scanned across the scenes before him. “JARVIS, the warehouse blueprints please, with all the figures inside pinpointed.”
“It would seem that the lower concentration of people is six corridors from here,” the AI advised in Tony’s ears, “It would seem perhaps that Captain Rogers is being kept away from the fight.”
“And the exits,” Tony added, nodding slowly, “Sounds as good as any other theory. Put the replusors at full force.”
“Gladly sir,” JARVIS agreed, and Tony would hear the low whirling as the engines prepared to take off.
Hydra agents got in too close, guns drawn and loud voices demanded that he stand down.
“You might want to stand back,” he responded a second before the engines picked up and he found himself forced forward, too fast for him to see the reactions of the agents as he moved past. He counted each row of rooms as he passed, before he reached six and curved his body with little effort down the corridor. It was then he slowed the engines, his feet touching the floor with a gust of wind. The drop forced a jolt of pain up his right leg, and he gritted his teeth to stave off the pain, before continuing forward.
Tony observed the corridor first. Long, dark in the distance, and very uniform. All the doors looked the same, evenly placed apart. It was…a little unnerving actually. Like a creepy set of twins would soon appear, holding hands and demanding that he “come play with us.”
He tried the first door, wriggling the door handle and then frowning in annoyance when it didn’t give. He tried the next one, to the same affect. He was beginning to understand this set up. Uniform setting, doors locked, no striking features that could help point out where you were. If it weren’t for JARVIS, and the sound of battling that seemed to echo in the distance, he probably wouldn’t have noticed this place.
“JARVIS is Steve directly behind this wall?” he inquired. The blueprint map zoomed in and nope, Steve seemed to be on the opposite side of the hidden room. Tony grinned. “Good.”
“Sir, I really don’t think you should…”
Tony ignored JARVIS’ warning, raising his arms and aiming the repulsors. There was a high pitched noise as the weaponry gathered power before he shot it forward, hitting the wall and piercing. The concrete and bricks and chipped white paint fell to the floor in a messy heap. Dust rose from the crash, but Tony ignored it, stepping over the broken pieces to enter the room.
A laboratory, Tony realised. Steel tables lined the centre of the room; all covered in sheets of paper, some with equations others with doodles. There were test tubes and wires and saws and knives; scattered bottles of this chemical and that. There was one Bunsen burner flickering in the darkness. There was a blackboard to his right, white chalk lines forming numbers and letters of a formula that Tony knew he had seen before.
In the corner, there was a long tube, equipped with lights and thick wires that protruded from the back of the machine and up into the ceiling, running along to a power generator. It hummed lowly, kind of like an insect hum in the dead of night making everything so much louder. Tony’s eyes zeroed in on it could make out a figure and his stomach dropped in worry. He approached slowly.
Tony’s steps stopped when he got too close, when he could see every detail, every curve of his face, of his muscles, could see the unnatural stillness. His visor flipped up and he stared on in horror. It was Steve.
He was just floating there, in this light green fluid, wires attached and imbedded in the back of his neck. His arms were tightly locked above his head, which was lolling forward in his sleep – Tony hoped it was just sleep – and a mask, the only thing keeping him breathing, was securely attached to his face. He just…he looked so weak, so vulnerable, powerless. Tony, he just wasn’t used to seeing Cap like that. Steve was always stronger than him, the one who could cope with the nightmares, the one who could give the orders, the one who was never down – and this wasn’t that Steve.
Hesitantly, Tony’s hands reached out to touch the glass. The metal of his suit clanged when it made contact, but Steve barely moved. Tony shuffled closer.
“Fuck, Steve, what have they done to you?” he muttered lowly.
The door swung open behind him, hurried footsteps following, and it made Tony look away from the bare figure of his friend, of his…someone he truly cared about, to the intruder.
The man was tired and worn, clearly a scientist which was more noticeable through the dark bags under his eyes and the clipboard under his arm than the white lab coat that hung too far off his shoulders. The man kind of froze when he caught sight of Tony, his facial expression one of horror rather than the determination he had seen before on the others here. Not that Tony cared. He was angry. If this man was a scientist, if he had any part in what was happening to Steve, the man wouldn’t get away.
His expression darkening, Tony strided towards the man, who yelped and tried to scramble away. The man was a coward and, from personal experiences, Tony knew that cowards could run fast – but Tony wasn’t in a merciful mood. He caught up with the man quick enough and the crack his back made when Tony forced the scientist against was almost sickening. The man tried to cry out at the impact, but Tony’s arm was across his throat, holding him in place, and a rough push forward cut off his vocal chords.
“Who are you? What did you do to Steve?” Tony demanded.
The man gurgled pathetically and, reluctantly, Tony loosened his grip, ever so slightly, enough that the man could speak, breathe as he gasped desperately into the lab. Tony repeated the question.
“D-doctorWis-ssenschaftler-r,” the man fumbled over the words, his a German accent slipping through as he panicked.
“That’s a hell of a mouthful,” Tony mocked, “Tell me, what did you do Steve?”
“I…we…the super solider is still alive!”
“That isn’t what I asked you, I asked you what did you do?”
Wissenschaftler hesitated, and Tony let out a frustrated noise. He pressed down on the man’s windpipe again, letting him scramble at his hand to try and relieve the press.
“JARVIS, pull their files, get everything,” Tony instructed, loosening his grip a little.
“Those…files…are…encrypted,” Wissenschaftler gasped, “You’ll…never…”
“Completed sir,” JARVIS announced.
Tony shot the scientist a strained grin. “You underestimate me,” he stated.
“Are you going to kill me?”
“I should, but it would be cruel to have all the fun when I’m sure the others will want there piece of you,” Tony answered honestly, before moving his arm away quickly, and using his other hand to punch him when the man swayed. Wissenschaftler took the blow to the head and dropped a few feet away, half way on top of the rubble.
Tony didn’t spare the example of a despicable human being another look, as he focused his attention back on Steve. He grabbed a foldable chair as he went something that was haphazardly left, probably when the news of the Avengers’ arrival hit them. “JARVIS, will I do any immediate damage by sudden actions?”
The files shifted before his eyes as JARVIS analysised the information. Tony probably could have read it if he wanted to – maybe that would have prepared him for what happened – but he was too busy looking past the words, at Steve.
“I don’t see any reason to believe so sir,” the AI finally answered.
Tony nodded slowly, his hands adjusting their grip on the chair. “Good.”
Steve remembers the accident if only vaguely. He remembered laughing and joking with Tony – they were going to an art gallery, he thought – no, it was definitely an art gallery. Tony had been excited about it for weeks leading up to it, almost as if this was a treat for himself, rather than a gesture of good will to Steve. And then there was the truck, that familiar symbol that caused him so much pain. It had hit on his side, and he remembered being a little dazed from his head injury. He could see Tony, slumped forward and trapped beneath a crushed half of the car, and he reached dizzily to I don’t know, try and help, he guessed.
And then heavy hands, large and leather covered, grabbed and lifted him roughly from the car. He remembered wondering why he was getting further and further away from Tony. He struggled and he reached back sluggishly to grab his attacker. His vision was getting clear already, the serum kicking in, and then there was a spare pain in his neck and everything just…went dark.
And then green. Like a light green. It wasn’t something that Steve could actually see. It was more like his eyes were closed and the sun was trying to invade, only it was something luminous and too unnatural. It just made him want to fight it off, to protect himself from the unknown intruder.
But he was weak. It was as if his body was floating, his feet not touching the ground. His arms ached, although he couldn’t quite place where they were or what was causing it. His neck – his neck was just numb, such so he couldn’t lift his head, and he knew that every once and a while that shooting agonizing pain would break that nothingness, jolting through his body and making him feel all the more powerless. He couldn’t hear anything – just this annoying low ringing that he got used to between the bursts of consciousness.
It was the spike in the ringing that had made him wince, consciousness shooting back to him for a second – long enough to feel metal hands on his bare shoulders – before the darkness claimed him once more.
When Steve awoke, the green was still there. Only this time, it was as if he had given in to urging from before; as if it had slipped under his guard and was now filling his senses, consuming them. He panicked, of course he did, and he felt his heart pounded in his chest, felt his chest begin to tighten as he took in shorter and shorter breaths.
And then there were hands on him again, from people he didn’t even hear come in, and he automatically fought back. He sent one flying, he knew he did, but there wasn’t the usual crash that would follow such an act and then he opened his mouth, wanting and ready to demand where he was, what had happened to him, and just…nothing.
He had thought the words, they had been right there in his mind, but it was as if his voice box hadn’t got the message. His throat just hurt, stinging, and he couldn’t hear anything. He didn’t know what was happening. Why couldn’t be hear anything? Why couldn’t he speak? What had happened to him? Why the green film over his eyes? Where the hell was his? Who were all these people?
Steve felt a presence behind him and tried to turn, when there was a sharp pain in his neck – another needle, and he felt his legs shake and the floor rose up to meet him.
He was at a SHIELD hospital. He had been rescued from the hands of Hydra only a few days ago. They didn’t know what was wrong with him, or how it had happened. As far as tests were concerned, Steve Rogers was in perfect health.
Well, Steve knew that he wasn’t. He couldn’t hear anything except a low ringing, like a frequency in his ear. He couldn’t speak, and every time he tried, as if trying to desperately prove the doctor’s wrong, all it did was hurt. He couldn’t see anything, just the same green colour as before that he was starting to get used to. If it weren’t for his knowledge of Morse code, Steve would be in the dark so to speak about everything. Just…lost in the strange green glow. At least there were some things to be grateful for.
Strangely, that didn’t stop him from knowing when people entered the room. He couldn’t hear the delicate footsteps of the doctor, or the heavy footed steps of the nurses, but it was like he could…feel their presence beside him. Their heat, their shadow, so close yet seeming so far away. He thought maybe he should mention it. He thought maybe he shouldn’t.
Steve hated the weakness of this. He hated the fact that he couldn’t get up and walk away, because he’d never be able to not hurt himself – and that’s even if he could walk straight. He hated that he had to rely on somebody else. He was never like that, even before the serum, something he was sure irritated Bucky to no end. He always did things for himself, always strived to do good – but what good could he do in this state? He thought bitterly.
The only respite from the incessant reminder of what he had lost, of how utterly useless he was, was his visitors. Natasha and Clint would usually visit together, sitting on either side of him, both taking the hand closer to them and, taking turns, they would tap out some classified information about the capture, about what they had found in the warehouse, about what they had found out about what Hydra had done to him. Sometimes they would laugh and joke, but Steve usually felt like the outsider of their little conversation, as he usually did when it came to Clint and Natasha.
Bruce was more attentive. From what Steve could gather, the scientist hadn’t known morose code before but was slowly taking the time to learn it. Steve actually enjoyed the feeling of concretion in the room as Bruce tried to get his point across and it did make him feel more like himself when he carefully helped the man form his letters properly.
There was this new woman, Dahlia; she said her name was his therapist. It was her job to make the transition easier for him, to tell the others how to behave around him, to help him through his issues and, although he was initially resentful, the woman was good company. She would tell him about anything and everything she could think of, showing him different types of ways for him to communicate to explaining the complex love triangle in this book he had never heard of before.
Phil visited quite a lot. They had become close after the near death experience with New York and it kind of made him happier to know that Phil hadn’t completely abandoned him now that he was no longer ‘Captain America’. It was good to know that just Steve Rogers was good enough too.
But, if Steve was being honest, it was Tony’s visits that he looked forward to most. When the man had first shown up at his bedside – he’s been able to tell by the calluses on his fingertips – he had been so relieved, like a weight he wasn’t aware of had been lifted. Tony was alright and alive and safe – a little worse for wear, according to what Tony told him, but still, he was good. It was Tony who told him about the accident and how he had been found, tried to fill in the gaps that they both had. It was Tony who told him stories and jokes and expected Steve to banter back with him, like they used to before the accident. It was Tony who tried to make him feel human again.
‘I have something for you,’ Tony told him.
Steve arched an eyebrow. ‘Really? What?’
‘It was in one of my father’s boxes. I was having a clean out and well, I thought you should have them.’
Something cold and smooth was pushed into his hand and Steve rubbed his fingertips softly over the curved edges, over the raised what felt like words on one side. T…E…V…E…H…R…O…oh. His dog tags. He opened his mouth, preparing to say something and snapped it shut at the sting. Right, he had to remember about that. Steve held out his hand instead and waited for Tony to grasp it before answering.
‘Howard kept this?’
‘He must have. You were his hero.’
Steve’s smile became bittersweet. ‘If only he could see me now…’
‘Hey, Howard and I might not have been close but I know that he would say to you exactly what I’m about to say to you – it’s not about the accident or the injury, it’s about what you do afterwards. Whether you pick yourself up off the ground and try and do the best you can with what you have, or whether you just give up. And the Cap I know is not a quitter.’
Steve traced the words again and nodded jerkily, his fist closing around the metal as his mind swarmed with old memories, of what used to be.
Tony’s hands rubbed soothing patterns into the back of his hand.
Steve was blind, deaf and mute. According to the files, Hydra had been running experiments on Steve, trying to alter the effects of the super serum to eliminate the enemy as well as find a way to create their own super soldiers. His body had been pumped with chemicals off all kinds, some to cause weakness and others to cause the compulsion to obey. The things that had been taken from Steve, they were just side effects of some bigger picture.
And from what Tony had read, it only could have gotten worse from there.
They didn’t know what they were doing, clearly. They had very little understanding of the serum as pretty much everyone did, even before Steve had been chosen as a test subject. Within the notes, they had little footnotes of other combinations to try, other ways to slowly destroy Captain America. He hoped, wherever SHIELD had put that Wissenschaftler that he was suffering along with the rest of the captured Hydra agents.
It hurt to see Steve like that. He could tell that the man was frustrated, that he hated his sudden disabilities and, on more than one occasion, he could see that Steve would forget what had happened, would open his mouth to say something and it would all come flooding back. It was just…heartbreaking, he guessed. There were no other words that could be used to describe the whole situation.
Tony took a long drag from his whiskey bottle and ran a hand down his face. His eyes were beginning to blur and cross although he couldn’t be sure whether it was from tiredness or drink. He’d been up for days, it seemed, just reading over these notes. There had be a way to reverse what had been done, had to be a way to get the super serum to kick in and heal. There had to be. He shook his head, attempting to clear it, before narrowing his eyes to focus solely on the equations and chemicals on the page.
He looked up at the whooshing noise that the door to the lab made as it swung open and gave a half smile to Bruce as he entered. Bruce, however, did not return the gesture.
“Have you been down here all night?” he frowned.
“Maybe,” Tony answered vaguely.
Bruce shook his head. “You do realise that you need to be rested to work at full capacity?”
He sighed in response, scratching his head. “How can I rest when I’ve still got so much to read?” he pushed his tablet away from him a little, “I can’t just…I need to find a way to fix Steve.”
“And you will,” Bruce assured, “But that doesn’t mean you have to drive yourself into the ground to do it. What good will that do either of you?” He approached his friend and pushed the bottle away, “You might want to lay off this as well. You look like death warmed over.”
“You always know what to say Bruce, no wonder Dahlia likes you so much,” Tony fluttered his eyelashes playfully.
“Speaking of Dahlia, she’s coming around to talk to us about how to help Steve adjust to everyday life,” Bruce told him.
Tony looked confused. “Why?”
“She’s a trained therapist Tony,” Bruce told him, “And SHIELD asked her. I’m going to make you coffee, you need to sober up for this. Ten minutes,” he warned, “Or I’m sending Pepper down for you.”
Tony arrived in the main den, eleven minutes later, just to make a point. Bruce wordlessly handed the man a slightly lukewarm coffee. Tony sipped as a test, wrinkling his nose at the bitter taste at first, before he took another deep gulp. He dropped heavily into an empty seat and smiled charmingly.
“Dahlia, it’s been far too long, you’re looking wonderful this morning,” he greeted.
Dahlia looked amused. “Thank you Tony.”
Dahlia Griffiths was a SHIELD agent, and, when they had first met, by ‘accident’ a few weeks before, Tony hadn’t fully understood how the woman had ended up at SHIELD. She was too reserved and shy for the battle field – but then he had seen her fight, just the once, in a training simulation a week later and well, it explained a lot. And apparently, she was a therapist as well.
“I’m sure you all know by now that Director Fury sent me here to talk to you about the care of the Captain,” she started, hands clasped in her lap and her eyes darting from each person present, making sure they were all paying attention. “Being a deaf blind person is difficult, let alone mute as well, and it’s even more so for someone who wasn’t handicapped the days before, but that doesn’t mean that Steve won’t adjust to what happens, and you guys, as his team and as his friends, need to try and make this as easy as possible for him, understood?”
“We know all of this,” Tony rolled his eyes; “You got anything that’s actually useful?”
“Fine, ignoring pleasantries,” Dahlia continued, tilting her head at him and her smile straining, “The first thing to point out is how to get his attention. He can’t hear you, he can’t see you – so you have to touch him, but military men usually fight against unexpected holds. You need to go for neutral spaces, ones that an enemy are unlikely to go for, and you need to be as calm as possible. Make him comfortable, and give him little clues to recognise that it’s you. Callous on fingers, where you touch him, perfume or aftershave – whatever, as long as he realises that you’re friend not foe.
“Another thing would be to keep the layout of the Tower exactly the same as it is when he’s discharged. Most deaf blind people learn the layout of their home so they have some idea of where everything is, and don’t feel dependent on a carer to escort them round. And if I find that one of you has been moving things around, as a joke, I’ll have no qualms in rooming Steve from here faster than you can suit up, understand?” she took a breath, before continuing, “As for communication, I’m very impressed that you’ve figured out the use of morose code. Not many people know it. But there are other ways that are more commonly used – sign language; blocking, which is spelling the letters out onto the palm of the hand; or tadoma, that’s far more intimate, and requires the deaf blind person to place their hands upon the speakers mouth or neck and feel the vibrations. Whatever you chose is up to you. Other than that, try to treat Steve as normal as possible, no overprotective mothering or hovering. He’ll know and it will only point out his weakness to him. Now, is there anything else you want to know?”
“When can Captain Rogers be released?” Clint questioned lowly.
“I just have to do a few last minute checks – his visual spatial awareness, and stability mostly – and then he should be cleared to leave by this afternoon,” Dahlia assured, “I should get down to the hospital now, but I can give you a call when he’s ready to be picked up?”
“Do that,” Tony nodded jerkily.
Dahlia eyed him. “I will. But sober up before you get there. Steve might not be able to see you, but he’ll smell you.”
“I’ll drive you,” Bruce offered quickly, standing up, awkward smile in place and smoothing down the front of his jeans. Dahlia smiled, flushed and nodded in thank you.
Tony kept his hand on Steve’s elbow as he led him into the Avenger’s mansion. He didn’t say anything, except for tapping out warnings of turns and steps onto Steve’s palm, as he guided him gently, because, really, he wasn’t sure what to say. The only thing Steve had ‘said’ since he’d left the hospital was ‘just glad to be out of there’ when Clint questioned how he was feeling. Tony wasn’t entirely sure when the rest of the team evaporated and it became just the two of them, but he was almost glad. He told himself it was because the last thing that Steve needed was hands everywhere, not because he wanted some moments alone with Steve, away from the rest of the team; that he wanted to make it up to him; that he selfishly wanted the Captain to rely on him for once instead of the other way around.
Steve shook a little under his hand, Tony noticed, and the hand that held the cane flexed uncertainly every once and a while. His feet moved awkwardly, not quite straight or steady on each step, and Tony, on more than one occasion, had to encourage Steve to stand up straight as his body wavered and tilted forward or backwards. He supposed he hadn’t noticed just how much someone relied on their sight and their hearing until it was gone.
He wanted to break the lack of communication between them and, after a moment of wondering exactly what to say, he did. ‘We’re just going past Clint’s bedroom now,’ he stated.
‘I know,’ Steve said after a moment, ‘It smells of fruit and nuts.’
Tony blinked, surprised. ‘Cutting off one sense, really does improve the others, doesn’t it?’
‘But it’s not just one sense, it’s three. My sense of smell and touch must be amazing.’ The words sounded bitter to Tony, and he didn’t need to hear Steve’s voice to know he wasn’t as impressed by the compensation his body tried to give him.
‘What’s it like?’
‘…Hard.’ The taps and dashes moved speedily and it took Tony a few tries to catch each word formed, ‘I forget sometimes. Wake up and it’s just green and I think I’m back there. My ears burst and ring a little, like they’re blocked and trying to clear the passage but nothing ever changes, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve opened my mouth to call to someone or ask for something and just…nothing.’ Steve huffed out his annoyance, ‘I feel weak Tony.’
Tony swallowed. ‘You’re not weak Steve.’
‘You’re guiding me around my own home like a puppy on a leash.’
‘It’s just temporary, until you learn where everything is. Then you’ll be able to get about by yourself.’
‘And how long will that take?’ Steve demanded to know.
‘A couple of days at most, I’d guess. You adjust to things quickly Steve, you did it after you were a Capiscle and you’ll do it now. Besides, the lack of senses thing, it won’t last forever.’
‘So you claim.’
‘So I know, because I’m going to fix you.’
‘But can you? Really can you? I already know that nobody can really tell how Hydra caused this. How do you expect to reverse it?’
‘I’ve got some ideas,’ Tony lied, because the last thing he was going to say was that he was just as clueless as everyone else was, and because he doubted it would have helped. Steve was sad enough as it was, and Tony would fix him. He might as well give the Captain some hope, right? ‘You’ll get better, I promise. Soon enough, we’ll get to hear those wonderful tones shouting orders from across a battlefield.’
Now Steve seemed amused. ‘If they’re so wonderful, why don’t you ever follow them?’
‘Now, where would the fun be in that?’
Tony watched a little smile cross Steve face and grinned widely, proud of himself. He would fix Steve, he would, but in the meantime, he would keep that smile in place, anyway he knew how. He squeezed around Steve’s hand, silent and happy.
‘Tony?’ Steve said after a moment.
‘I don’t want to go back to my room,’ he stated, ‘I want you to show me the rest of the house.’
‘Steve, the doctor said you needed to rest.’
‘I can rest afterwards. If I’m going to get used to walking around by myself, I better start learning now.’
Tony sighed but nodded acceptingly before realising that Steve couldn’t see him and tapped out, ‘Whatever you want Cap.’
Adjusting was far easier than Steve had actually expected. He still froze, terrified, at the green film in front of his eyes or panic when he couldn’t hear anything, and he had opened his mouth to speak a couple of times before he could stop himself, but mostly, he was dealing as well as he suspected anyone would in his situation.
He was thankful for some resemblance of independence, and it was through his cane that he was able to have that. The metal stick, smooth and cold at first touch, was always at his side. Having that weight in his hand made him feel…more stable, battle ready even. It also kept him from walking into walls during his walks, as infrequent as they were, through the Avenger’s mansion.
He wanted to have that alone time more than he did. It didn’t make him feel so damaged, when he was walking alone. There was no one to hear or see or speak to.
Besides, Steve had never been one to ask for help. Even when he was sickly and small, and Bucky would have to sweep in and save him; Steve had never asked and always resented his friend’s heroics, like he couldn’t take care of himself. And now that he knew that kind of freedom felt like, he hated being brought back to that stage of weakness in his life.
Rationally, he knew that they, his friends and his team, were only trying to help. He must be a shock for them as much as it is for him to have him walking around so vulnerable, but he couldn’t stand the way they were always there; hands on his arm or shoulders, guiding and tapping out their concerns, scolds or questions, making him feel like a child again. He tried to reign in his frustrations, although he wasn’t entirely convinced he’d done a good job of it, but he had his limits. How was he supposed to learn to do things for himself if they were always there?
Tony was the worst, if anything. He was just…it was like he had taken over the role of mother hen. He would appear in the hallways, sometimes still smelling of oil and breathing heavily with exertion like he had dropped whatever he was doing in the lab to run after him at the drop of a hat. He would be in the kitchen and the den and gym. Steve could practically smell the worry and the self blame that was consuming the man so perhaps that was the only reason why he hadn’t said anything about it.
After the brief run over of what happened, neither of them had really spoken about the accident. It was just something that was glossed over. It didn’t occur to him until he had been back at the mansion for a week, and he’d just shut Tony out his bathroom because there was no way the man was following him into there, when he realised that maybe Tony felt guilty about what had happened. It seemed like a prosperous thought, why would Tony blame himself, there was nothing he could have done to stop it. If Hydra didn’t get him on the street, then they would have gotten him in the field as Captain America or at the mansion as Steve Rogers. There was nothing that Tony could have done to stop it.
But Steve started to notice after that. The way Tony would ramble on about this thing and the other - stuff Steve didn’t really understand if he was being honest - but his taps would be hesitant or shaky. His breath seemed to have the constant tinge of whiskey, even if it was covered by a mountain of coffee. And he was tired, Steve could tell.
He thought about questioning Tony, although he couldn’t be certain how well that would go. Badly, he guessed. But he couldn’t ignore the problem that was there. And…he just didn’t like seeing (or not seeing) Tony destroy himself over something he couldn’t have stopped. And he thought, maybe, he had a way to ask.
‘Tony,’ he tapped out on the floor with his cane. Tony wasn’t in the room, but he knew that the man had programmed JARVIS to recognise the beats and dashes of his creator’s name. He shifted his grip on the cane, and waited.
He felt the vibrations of footsteps as Tony approached the room at a quick run. He felt the creak of the door in his feet and the dip in the bed when Tony sat down. The man touched Steve’s hand gently, drawing it into his lap to tap easily.
‘Is something wrong?’
‘Nothing’s wrong. I just wanted to try something. Would you mind being my guinea pig?’
‘…Sure, what do you want to try?’
Steve released his cane, perhaps a tad reluctantly and reached out blindly for Tony. He followed the trail of his arm, feeling the warm skin and the tension in his forearms before his hand cupped the back of Tony’s neck, fingers brushing the hairs at the nape. Tony was a little rigid and tense, his grip tightening a little around Steve’s fingers. Swallowing, Steve stroked the skin comfortingly in an attempt to calm him.
‘It’s something that Dahlia taught me,’ Steve explained, ‘its called tadoma. It’s just…I wouldn’t want to try it with anyone else. Is this still okay?’
He felt Tony breathing out heavily and the slight nod of confirmation. Steve smiled slightly and reached out with his other hand to clasp Tony’s cheek. He tapped out an answer there. ‘Say something?’
“Like what?” Tony said out loud, uncertainly. Steve felt the stretch of skin and muscles on his hand and, taking a chance, he let the hand on Tony’s neck slip around to his cheeks, fingers pressing onto his lips. He grinned a little when he thought maybe he could understand.
‘Anything…’ he paused, liking his lips nervously, ‘How have you been?’
Steve frowned slightly. ‘I don’t have to be able to hear or see you to know that you’re lying. I can smell-‘
“Oh, so now you have a super sniffer?” Steve could just hear the snark in his head that were no doubt behind the words. It was Tony’s default for when he felt trapped or afraid. He snapped and mocked.
‘I can smell the alcohol Tony. You don’t…’ his fingers stalled, ‘I thought you weren’t drinking anymore.’
“Am I not allowed to? It’s been a stressful few months, you know. You’re not my parent, and I’m definitely too old for this,” Tony argued, and Steve felt the man pulling away from his hold. If he could speak, he would no doubt have made a wounded noise as he made grabby hands for the other man. Steve managed to grasp his hand and tap out a quick ‘don’t go,’ trying to ignore how pathetic that sounded.
Steve thought, for a moment, that Tony was actually going to leave him and was beginning the mental scolding of pushing to man too far, when he felt his hands being returned to their previous positions, to warm cheeks and chapped lips. Relief shook him and there was no doubt he was smiling.
“I won’t leave you Steve, I promise. I owe you at least that much.”
Steve’s eyebrows furrowed. ‘Owe me?’
Tony didn’t answer straight away. He just breathed for a bit, before his lips spread. “…I don’t know how to fix you. I’ve been reading those files again and again, and there’s just nothing. I don’t know what they did to you. I have no idea why the serum isn’t fixing it and I said that I would find a way, and I just…” he seemed to be struggling with words.
Steve swallowed. ‘You’re putting too much pressure on yourself. I want this fixed, I do, I feel…completely helpless like this and I hate it, but I don’t want it at the expense of you running yourself into the ground….I don’t want to lose you to regain anything.’
“You couldn’t lose me,” Tony’s lips moved slowly, small and quiet, but Steve could still feel it, and the words just hit him more than he thought mere letters ever could. He wanted to ask what Tony meant by that, if he meant what Steve thought, hoped, they meant, but he didn’t have the chance before the man had continued, “But I’m not giving up.”
‘At least ask for help. Bruce or Phil, someone, anyone, I don’t care, but this can’t be all on you.’
Steve nodded, satisfied. He licked his lips and when he shifted, he noticed exactly how close he had gotten to Tony. He could feel the man’s breath, hot and slightly tinged with rum and what was assumed to be leftover Chinese food, and Steve just really wanted to close the gap between them. It made his stomach churn a little at the thought, nervous because…well, maybe he was realising something.
He didn’t have to feel the vibrations with his hands to know what Tony was saying, but for the first time, he couldn’t tell what Tony was thinking. There was no little voice adding in the sarcastic tone or the exhaustion or anything else that Tony felt. This was just…blank, waiting to be filled, and it made him hesitate. Because what if he was wrong? What if Tony didn’t want to…and then he…it would just be so embarrassing. How could he come back from that? He thought about withdrawing and Tony’s hands, calloused and cold, moved to his bicep, fingers digging into the fabric of his shirt.
Steve’s breath caught and, not for the first, he wished desperately that he could see. He wanted to see Tony’s face; he wanted to know what the man was thinking. He wanted to know anything and everything. He wanted to know what Tony wanted for certain, to know that he was it.
In the end, it was Steve that made the first move, finally managing to push past all his thoughts and doubts to feel the press of lips against his. They were soft and pliant beneath his, not really pushing back at first, although they twitched as if they really wanted to. Steve’s hands curled a little around Tony’s face and Tony’s hand tensed at Steve’s shoulder.
He realised very quickly that Tony wasn’t kissing back. His heart dropped into his stomach and he swallowed heavily, as he pulled away. There was this tension, so thick that had he been able to hear, Steve was sure it would be ringing in his ears.
His hands, shaking, lowered from his face and, seeing no other choice, he hovered over Tony’s hand. ‘I’m sorry, I-‘
‘The Avengers have just been called. I’ve got to, yeah.’
Steve felt when Tony felt the room, the gust of wind sending a cold shiver towards him that seemed to settle and rest over him like a dark cloud. He felt his shoulders slump and he dropped his head into his hands, rubbing his eyes. Bitterness welled up in his throat.
He couldn’t quite believe just how badly he had gotten that wrong.
Tony ran out of the room like a bat out of hell. The call couldn’t have come in at a better time, and though he hated how quickly that he had left Steve behind, he just needed to get out of there. He ignored the looks from the rest of the team as he headed to the lab to get suited up, ordered JARVIS to keep an eye on Steve and then headed out with the rest of the team.
It wasn’t actually a difficult mission, just Doctor Doom causing trouble again with his army of doombots. They’d done this many times before, but never without Steve. It was kind of strange without the Captain there, giving them orders of how to handle the situation and when it was finally over, the presses never ending questions about the condition of Captain America were just an irritation. Coulson gave Tony leave from the media circus and, taking Bruce with him, he left.
He tried not to think about the kiss, about what it meant, about…well, everything except what he knew he could handle, like trying to find a way to fix Steve. It was in the helicarrier, in the tense silence, that he finally spoke.
“I think I need some help,” he announced.
Bruce quirked an eyebrow at him, the dark bags under his eyes seeming even more prominent in the dim light. “Help with what?”
Tony swallowed. “Fixing Steve, I just…I can’t figure it out. And two heads are better than one, right?”
“I was waiting for you to ask me,” he mused, “Of course I’ll help, but we can, ah, give it a few hours right?”
Tony smirked a little and nodded in acceptance. Bruce hummed and nodded, turning to rest his head on the seat, all the energy draining from him. He hated what the transformation did to his friend, but he had to admit, at that moment, the fact that he had to escort Bruce to his bed, because there was no way the man would be able to by himself, kind of gave him the stalling time he needed to gather his thoughts before he found Steve.
He hovered outside Steve’s bedroom before he finally entered. Even though he knew the man couldn’t hear him, Tony stayed quiet. He saw the movement of a bulky shadow from the en suite bathroom and knew automatically it was Steve. Still, he didn’t approach. If anything, knowing that he was there, made Tony freeze. He just…what was he supposed to say or do? This was Steve Rogers, Captain America and he’d kissed him.
It wasn’t as if Tony hadn’t thought about it before, because who hadn’t, but he never thought it would ever actually happen. He was broken and sarcastic and he didn’t exactly have the best history with people and relationships…most kinds of relationships. What was he supposed to do? Did Steve expect anything from him? Did he want Steve to expect anything from him?
His hands flexed at his side and he licked his lips.
There was a loud crash from the other room, making Tony jump. His chest tightened a little in panic and his legs carried him quickly across the room. He opened the door quickly, scanning the scene. Steve’s back was to the glass, a fallen ornamental vase that must have been toppled accidentally. Steve was shirtless, just wearing a pair of jeans, towel drying his hair.
“Steve,” Tony called out in warning, not that it made a difference.
He could see the moment when he stepped backwards, bare feet pressing into the glass. Steve’s body jolted in shock and he stumbled backwards, trying to get away from the pain. On reflex, Tony reached out to grab him, and he was glad that he had remembered to remove his suit because the press of metal would only have made Steve panic more.
‘Steve, stop moving,’ he ordered.
The man tensed and reached out with shaky hands to touch Tony’s arm. ‘Tony? What happened?’
‘You stepped on some glass just, stay calm, I’m going to get you onto your bed, okay?’
Steve gave a sharp nod and stayed still, letting himself be moved around the glass and towards a more comfortable place. He relaxed into the bed, and Tony moved towards the wound, keeping his hand on the man’s body to make sure he knows that he’s not running away. Steve’s toes were curled and his foot was elevated just off the ground. Tony winced at the bloody indents in the sole of his foot. He tapped out his words onto Steve’s thigh.
‘It doesn’t look too bad. Just let me get the first aid kit, okay? I’m going to need to remove the glass before I bandage it’
Steve mouthed the word ‘okay’ and Tony moved to the bedside table, grateful that Pepper had insisted the presences of a medical kit in all rooms. He worked in silence, the hand holding Steve’s foot in position caressing the skin at his ankle between each tug of shard, a comforting action. He tapped an apology when he wiped the wounds with an antiseptic wipe and Steve flinched away. He wrapped the injury, carefully securing it before releasing it.
‘There, all better. Are you feeling okay?’
‘I didn’t even know that I’d…’ Steve trailed off, and Tony could see the frustration on his face.
‘It’s not exactly something you can help.’
‘I hate this. I just…I can’t seem to cope with anything. I don’t want to be dependent on you, or any of the others.’
Steve bit down on his bottom lip and though the man had never cursed before, Tony was sure if he could, he would right now. Tony wished he could say something reassuring, but he didn’t think there was anything he could do that would actually help in anyway. So, instead, he gripped Steve’s hand and, after a moment’s hesitation, he pressed a kiss to the back of his hand. He felt the moment that Steve tensed, breath catching and he pointedly ignored it.
‘I’ve spoken to Bruce. He’s going to help, and we’ll fix this. We will. I promise you. Give it some more time and you’ll be back to how you were before you know it. Just…hold on for a little longer, okay?’
Tony glanced up from where his lips were still pressed to Steve’s hand to watch his reaction. He seemed frozen, surprised and maybe a little hopeful. Tony pressed one last kiss before pulling away. Steve reached for him a little uncertainly, and he wasted no time in pressing himself closer. Steve’s fingers dug into his shoulders, and he tapped out an uncertain question.
‘Are you going to…?’
‘Do you want me to?’
Tony surged forward, hands moving to cup Steve’s neck before forcing their lips together. It was a little tense and awkward at first, where Tony wanted so much and it was difficult to restrain, but he didn’t want to push. Then Steve’s lips parted easily beneath his and suddenly, Tony didn’t care about control. All he cared about was the feeling of Steve being pressed so close and finally being able to get his hands on him the way he actually wanted.
One of his hands slipped down to feel the bunching muscles and the stretch of skin across his back. He felt as great as Tony had imagined and so much more. He felt the moment Steve’s hands slipped around his waist, gripping the fabric there and god was he tugging at it? Tony pulled away slightly, feeling the ragged breaths against his lips and he licked them nervously. Steve’s eyebrows furrowed a little in confusion as he drew his head back slightly, and his hands stilled before he spelt out, ‘is something wrong?’
Tony shook his head before clicking that Steve couldn’t see him. ‘No. Nothing is wrong. Just…do you really want this?’
‘I don’t want you to stop.’
Tony watched him for a moment, the green film over his gaze and the heaving of his chest and yes, permission given, he had no intention of stopping.
Once Bruce got involved, it begrudged Tony to know that it didn’t actually take that long to come up with a possible solution. Bruce had a lot of experience with super serum. Well, enough experience that it’s what caused the Hulk anyway. It was…difficult, that was a good word. Tony couldn’t name how many times that Bruce had threatened to hulk out in frustration at him whilst Tony has been more than prepared to suit up.
It was probably only Steve’s presence that kept them even the slightest bit level-headed. For Tony at least, it reminded him that the most important thing was trying to cure what had happened, not one up his science bro, and it had been under Steve’s instructions that he’d apologised for being an “insufferable ass” many times.
“I’ve never heard you apologising to anyone,” Bruce commented one time, “You must really care about him.”
“I want to help him,” he had responded instantly. Steve and Tony hadn’t exactly made their relationship known. Steve, being from a different time, wasn’t entirely sure how the rest of the team would react to the new status of their relationship, and he certainly wasn’t ready to tell SHIELD, if they were anything like the US army used to be. Tony understood – well, he tried to understand, which was hard given his usual policy for not giving a fuck.
The only person he had told was Pepper, because he had to tell someone. She’d grilled him for an hour and then scolded him if he was taking advantage, before dropping off a few contracts to sign and some information that Coulson had given her into the investigation at the Hydra warehouse. Tony didn’t even bother ask how she got the information before they did.
It was almost two months after the official beginning of their relationship, that Tony and Bruce may have found a way to fix everything. They couldn’t be certain – there was no one else who would test it but Steve – but it was probably the closest they were going to get. The idea was to send a boost to the serum that was already dormant in Steve’s blood and get it to speed up the recovery process. Of course, that was assuming that the serum was trying to fix the problem in the first place. Unfortunately, it was the best option they had, especially since the captured Hydra agents were stubborn quiet, according to Natasha.
Steve was silent as he let himself be injected and connected to the machine. The indents in the back of his neck, the ones from the original wires, hadn’t completely healed and with Bruce’s steady hand, he managed to get them in more or less the correct place. Steve reminded tense at the press, his shoulders rising up and his hand clenching and unclenching anxiously on the arm of the chair. Tony, who had been checking Steve’s vitals on his computer, noticed and reached out unafraid to touch Steve’s hand. He squeezed comfortingly and quirked a smile when Steve returned the gesture just as tight.
Bruce gave him a knowing look that he returned with a challenging one of his own. The scientist chuckled slightly before crouching at Steve’s free side, tapping onto his hand.
‘Are you sure you’re okay with this?’
‘There’s no other ways right?’
‘Probably not, but we honestly can’t tell you what this will do. It could do nothing at best, or make it worse than before. Do you definitely want to take that risk?’
Steve didn’t answer for a moment before nodding sharply. Bruce nodded in acceptance, tapping a quick ‘alright’ and a warning about the sharp pain he’ll probably feel, before glancing at Tony in silent order. Swallowing, Tony remotely increased the flow of the chemical and Bruce, now hovering over the control panel, turned the dial that tightened the fuse between man and machine, before the adrenaline flooded.
Nothing happened for a moment, just a small moment when the room was filled with the beeping of the machine and laboured breaths as they waited impatiently for something. And then when that something did happen, it was loud and panicked. Steve’s slightly nervous body seized, muscles going taunt and his mouth opening in a soundless cry. His eyes clenched shut and his nails gouged into the seat.
“What’s happening?” Tony demanded to know, alarmed, his eyes scanning over the elevated vitals and struggled to find a way to calm them when all he could think was safe Steve.
Bruce was in a similar state, if perhaps a bit more rational, his hands flying over handles and knobs on the main machine, altering this and that. “It’s his body reacting to the enhanced adrenaline. It would be like…the first time he was injected with super serum, only worse.” He licked his lips nervously. “I don’t think the painkillers are working.”
Tony bit back the urge to growl out a “you think” as he abandoned the computer to crouch at Steve’s side. His hands were everywhere, running up his arms and legs, across his shoulders and the side of his face, trying to encourage some kind of movement and relaxation. He murmured words that he knew Steve couldn’t hear, but made him feel better to say. The agony was clear on Steve’s face as he withered and shook.
Then, suddenly, there was nothing. Steve’s body slumped in the seat and, f it weren’t for the ragged breathing that fell from his chest, Tony would have thought he was dead. The man wasn’t moving, not really, his eyes clenched shut and his fingers curled threateningly. Tony’s hands ran over Steve’s arms again, pressing him close so the man could tell it was him.
“Steve? Steve, please give me a sign you’re alright,” he pleaded, tapping as well as speaking, just in case, “Just give me a sign, something, anything. I can’t…Steve…”
Nothing happened. Tony’s heart dropped. They’d made it worse. Of course they had. They shouldn’t have messed with it. It was bad before, how bad was it now? What if they’d destroyed his sense of smell or touch? What if he wasn’t able to walk again, one of his legs was positioned weirdly. Fuck, they’d just ruined everything.
Steve stirred a little, legs drawing closer and shoulders relaxing. His head rolled towards Tony and there was a little deep set frown, the one that was usually there when Steve was trying to figure something out that he wasn’t entirely sure about.
“Steve?” Tony tried again.
Steve stood still, his body tense. His hands flexed around the weapon as he waited, patiently, impatiently, anxious and eager for the next move. There seemed to be a whooshing noise from his right, closing in, nearing him, and his swung his entire body around. His smile was smug and satisfying when his weapon, a baseball bat, made contact with the object, the feeling of the impact shooting up his arm and sending it flying in the opposite direction.
Tony laughed to his left. “Alright big shot, good hit.” A hand fell onto his own, the one clutching the bat and slowly lowered it, “But I think it’s time for a break.”
Steve laughed and relinquished his hold on the weapon in favour of holding Tony’s hand. “Sounds like a plan. Did Pepper pack any Diet Coke?”
“Hey, what makes you think that I didn’t pack it?” Tony objected.
“Because I know that the picnic was almost definitely Pepper’s idea of how to spend our anniversary,” Steve responded knowingly.
“It could have been my idea…”
“For my birthday, you flew us to the Canary Islands,” he pointed out, “Something this simple was definitely Pepper’s ideas.”
“…You like it right?”
Steve tugged him closer, dipping his head to press a kiss to Tony’s lips, loving the way they parted so easily beneath him and the rough feeling of the man’s goatee against his cheek. “Yes Tony, I love it.”
“Then this was definitely my idea.”
“Whatever you say Stark,” Steve conceded, shaking his head in amusement, “Come on; lead the way.”
It didn’t take that long to get back to the basket, because they had both decided not to go too far away, and when he felt the change of fabric underneath him, Steve sunk into the softness of the blanket. He stretched his legs out in front of him, breathing out a sigh and smiling at the feeling of the sun on his face. Using one hand to support himself, he reached out into the blindness for Tony once more.
Tony both hated and loved it when he did that. He loved that Steve wanted him, that in the darkness he still wished for his presence, his touch and his hold. It felt good to be wanted and needed in that way, because he certainly hadn’t been needed like that before. But it hurt, because it reminded him of his mostly failure. Steve’s voice had returned almost instantly after the experiment, although he often couldn’t speak for long without the cracks and croaks revealing themselves. He had hoped that the sight and the hearing would follow soon enough but after six months, other than Steve’s claim to be able to hear pitches although not clearly, it had kind of been accepted that it was unlikely to happen.
Well, Steve had accepted it and he was probably a lot better for it. He learnt to utilise his other senses in replacement to the ones he had lost. He felt the vibrations in the air, used some kind of sixth sense for positioning, his sense of smell to determine who was there, what was happening. It was a few weeks ago that he started makes trips to local schools, taking about disabilities and how to cope, teaches a few of the boys and girls to play baseball. It was kind of impressive, but who could expect anything less from Captain America?
It was Tony that still hoped that maybe his attempt hadn’t been for nothing. That eventually Steve wouldn’t have to deal with this because it was hard. Tony could see the moments when Steve forgot he couldn’t see and would wake up in a panic, as if still in the throngs of a nightmare. Or the times when the enemy on the field had gotten just a little too close for Tony’s comfort. He wanted something more, something better for Steve, because he deserved it, though, he supposed, there were families out there, looking at their own loved ones and thinking exactly the same thing. Maybe he wouldn’t be able to help Steve, but maybe he could find a way to make sure someone else doesn’t have to feel this. He made a side note to himself to talk to Pepper about that.
Steve’s hand was still there and, swallowing, Tony reached out for it. The man grinned at the contact and gently urged him onto the blanket, making him lie down beside him.
“I have something to tell you…”
Tony arched an eyebrow. ‘Really? What do you need to tell me?’
Steve leant forward mysteriously, adjusting his grip on Tony’s hands before tapping the words that made Tony’s chest tighten, made him grin widely and veer over to press insistent kisses to Steve’s lips, muttering the same times and making promises of something better. They were words he never expected to have aimed towards him, and words he would cherish.