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KALEIDOSCOPE

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“Okay, people. Operation Avengers Do Fiji is moving full speed ahead. I expect everyone to get busy packing; well, except for Agent. He gets to finish his nap.”

Steve opened his eyes, realizing he had been dozing himself. They were still in the limo, but the car was pulling into what looked like the Stark Tower garage. “Are we home?” he asked, disoriented.

“Looks like you need to finish your nap, too, baby-blue,” Tony said sweetly, smiling at him. “Yes, we’re home. Happy outdid himself maneuvering the limo around the gathering hordes.”

“They’re here? At the tower?” Steve recalled the mad media mob they left behind at Madison’s building after the press conference.

“They’re like roaches. They’re everywhere.” Tony laughed, apparently not bothered. “Which is why I had a secret entrance into the garage built a few years ago.”

“Felt like we were ducking into the bat cave,” Clint quipped from beside Tony. “Totally cool.”

“They’re still looking for you out front, boss,” Happy reported.

“They can keep looking,” Tony responded, tapping on his tablet. “I’ve got a security team at the airport making certain we don’t have any difficulty getting to the plane later. This vacation is going off on schedule.”

“Most invigorating,” Thor declared, grinning widely.

As the car came to a stop, Clint opened the door on his side, calling to Happy as he got out, “Pop the trunk. I’ll get Phil’s chair.”

The rest of the Avengers began to file out of the car, Bruce heading to open the front passenger door to check on Phil. “How are you holding up?”

“Never better.” The nap looked to have done Phil good. His convalescence was coming along remarkably well, but the last few days had definitely been a strain on him, something Steve felt guilty for. Phil Coulson was a tough cookie, though. He insisted on doing most of the work to transfer himself to the wheelchair once Clint had brought it around, and nobody was about to argue with him. As Phil was getting seated, Bruce turned his attention to Steve.

“How about you, Cap? You feel okay?”

“I’m fine,” he answered, ignoring the dull headache. Before Steve was released from the hospital this morning, Bruce had voiced concern about possible after-effects, but Steve wasn’t worried. The Asgardian drug they had given him had surely passed through his system by now. He chalked the headache up to stress. Tony wasn’t overly bothered, but Steve wasn’t comfortable with the idea of them having to live their lives under constant scrutiny just because of how they felt about each other. He had thought Tony was kidding at first about the whole vacation thing, but now he realized he was looking forward to getting out of town for a while.

Bruce whipped a small flashlight out of nowhere, shining it into Steve’s eyes. “You sure?”

“Cut it out,” Steve complained, brushing Bruce’s arm away, ducking from the irritating light. Realizing how rude and ungrateful he sounded towards the man who had worked tirelessly in the hospital to take care of him, Steve was immediately contrite. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to snap. You took me by surprise. Do you always carry a flashlight?”

“When I need to.” Bruce was looking quizzically at him, but then Tony started clapping his hands, getting the attention of everyone as the group moved from the limo toward the elevator.

“If everyone would be kind enough to regroup at Steve’s apartment, I have a small celebration prepared.”

“When did you do that?” Steve asked, though he didn’t know why he bothered. This was Tony.

“I thought we were supposed to be packing,” Clint pointed out.

“Toast first. Then pack.”

~0~0~0~

“What is this glorious libation?” Thor bellowed, raising his glass high, creamy foam clinging to the golden hair over his upper lip. “I must know its name forthwith.”

“I’m with Thor,” Clint concurred, though he was sipping through his straw and not wearing most of his drink.

“These are real, old-fashioned New York egg creams, aren’t they?” Phil ventured, looking delighted. “Where did these come from?”

“Please tell me you’re not really keeping Ol’ George locked in the basement with your new soda fountain.” Steve looked at Tony, who had jokingly threatened to do just that the night of their date. Tony had gone to the trouble of purchasing the fountain and hiring an old-timer from Brooklyn who used to run a soda shop in order to surprise Steve with his favorite drink on their date, but that was almost a week ago. Surely George wasn’t still here, was he?

“He’s not in the basement. Hell, give me some credit. He has a perfectly lovely apartment.”

“George lives here now?” Steve was stunned.

“I must meet this Sir George, brewer of chocolate delight,” Thor decided, reaching for another egg cream from the new tray being carried in by some of the same wait-staff Tony had used to serve Steve Nathans on their date right here in his apartment. Tony presently had a whole spread of snacks and freshly made sodas being brought in for their post-press conference celebration. Steve’s apartment was packed with Avengers, waiters, and even Happy, and Phil’s physical therapist, Walt, along with some of his nurses, who had also been invited.

“Well, he needs to be nearby to oversee the construction,” Tony reasoned.

“What construction?” Steve was confused. He knew Tony was renovating the penthouse, but what did it have to do with George?

“His new soda shop I’m building in the concourse. It’s going to be awesome, totally retro. You’ll love it.” Tony gently finger-combed the bald patch on the back of Steve’s head, brushing over the healing scar. “I was giving your bruised brain a chance to fully recover before I started picking it for design ideas. I want the place to look as authentic old-school Brooklyn as possible.”

“Best idea you’ve had, ever, Stark.” Natasha sat her empty soda glass down on a tray and took another, using her straw to play through the foamy head rising to the top of the chocolate drink. “This stuff is sinful.”

“Right?” Tony agreed, nodding. He clinked his glass to Steve’s. “Drink up, baby. I had these made in honor of your homecoming, not to mention our little coming-out party today.”

Steve enjoyed seeing Tony happy, especially after the stress he had put him through over the last few days. He didn’t have the heart to tell Tony he could barely stand the smell of his beloved egg cream, holding his glass as far from his nose as possible. Masking his odd reaction, he changed the subject. “Don’t you think George might be a little old to be running his own new place?” Steve had never met George, but Tony had described him as a cross between Yoda’s mother and Ernest Borgnine. Steve had looked up pictures of both Yoda—who didn’t have a mother as far as he could find—and Borgnine—who was dead, but didn’t look too spry even when he was alive. Even if Tony was exaggerating, which was more than likely, it still meant George had to be pretty old.

“No worries. First off, Ol’ George is a bad-ass codger who would probably deck me if he heard me call him that. Second, the man has a family full of younger Georges and Georgettes who he has been passing down his knowledge and skills to. It’ll be a family business. Trust me, this place is going to be the hottest shop in town, people lining up out the door. It’ll make me a stack of money, and you want to know the best part? We’ll have fresh, free egg creams on site here any time we want. Sound good?”

Anything that got Tony this fired up was fine with Steve. “Sure does.”

“I’ll damn well drink to it,” Clint declared enthusiastically.

“Me, too.” Bruce was smiling around his straw, a couple of chocolate stains on his shirt.

“Great.” Tony beamed, lifting his own half empty glass in the air. “Time for a few toasts, everyone. First, to Ol’ George, egg cream maker extraordinaire. When he’s done mixing these babies, I’ll get him up here for a bow.” The room gave a cheer. “Second, to our admired, adored, esteemed—not to mention sexy as hell, but that’s only for me to notice—Captain, for coming home safely to us.” Tony winked at him as he lifted his glass in Steve’s direction. Steve flushed and nodded shyly, pretending to drink along with his team. “Next, let’s drink to the truth. It’s out there now and I’m sure as fuck not taking it back, so let the chips fall where they may. And while those chips are falling, it’s the perfect time to get out of Dodge, so a final toast to the most magnificent vacation anyone has ever embarked upon—which is exactly what we are getting ready to have!”

“Here, here!” Thor shouted, everyone chugging down their sodas with gusto.

“Eat, drink, and be merry, guys,” Tony proclaimed. “But make it quick, because we have packing to do.”

“You won’t have to go far,” Natasha said with a wicked grin. “Ninety percent of Steve’s closet is filled with your clothes, not to mention your hair products taking up most of the bath-room shelves.”

“Why are you snooping in my closet?” Tony asked, though he looked more amused than miffed.

“You mean Steve’s closet?”

“Okay, why are you snooping in Steve’s closet?”

Natasha shrugged. “It’s what I do.”

“I think Steve’s pretty much ‘out of the closet’ after today,” Clint joked. “Plenty of room in there for Stark’s extensive wardrobe.”

“Is your whole wardrobe really in my closet?” He hadn’t been home since the tram incident. Tony had told him he moved “a few of my things” in Monday morning, but Steve didn’t know what those things consisted of.

“Babe, my whole wardrobe wouldn’t fit in this entire apartment, let alone your little closet. Don’t believe Natasha. I just brought a few necessities.”

Steve grinned, wanting to see for himself. He started in the bathroom, which gave him the perfect inconspicuous opportunity to dump the contents of his soda glass down the drain. His shelves were indeed lined with more hair products than most stores. He also found deodorants, body sprays, razors, toothbrushes, hair brushes, soaps, and shaving creams that hadn’t been there before. He was surprised to find how neatly the toiletries were organized, having seen the condition Tony left a bathroom in, but then he figured Tony must have gotten one of his staff to take care of this for him. Moving to the bedroom, he found Tony’s clothes hanging in his closet and folded neatly into drawers that had been previously empty. There was even a new bureau stuffed full of Tony’s clothes, and a floor to ceiling shoe rack with more shoes on one shelf than Steve had owned in total his entire life. It was quite comical, how much Tony had managed to move in considering he was only here for about an hour or two after Steve had left Monday. Steve was delighted seeing Tony’s stuff crowding his few belongings. Best of all, the red comforter was back. Tony had brought the cherished blanket to him in the hospital, but now it was freshly laundered and returned to their bed where it belonged. Steve sat down, spreading his palms over the treasured comforter, taking a moment to appreciate all that he had.

“You’re not mad, are you?” Tony asked, ducking in the doorway, as if hesitant to come fully into the room.

Steve was flabbergasted. “Why would I be mad?”

“About my stuff. Looks like a lot, I know, but honestly, you didn’t have too many things, and they only take up a tiny space, so nothing of yours had to be shoved to the side, but it won’t be uneven for long because you’ll have a lot more when I get your new clothes, which I’m in the process of taking care of, believe me.”

“I’m not mad.” Steve smiled at Tony’s rambling. “I like having your stuff here. Besides, you are temporarily displaced from your penthouse because of me.” He knew Tony was redesigning everything because of his discomfort, which was very touching, and he was trying not to feel too guilty, focusing on the fun he’d had planning the new design with Tony.

“Oh, that reminds me. I have more blueprints to go over with you. I want to make sure everything keeps moving forward while we’re gone. I can have JARVIS bring up the plans. Or do you want to look at them on the tablet first?”

“Whatever you think.” Steve pinched the bridge of his nose, willing the headache away.

Tony came closer, appraising him. “I think maybe you need a nap. You did just get out of the hospital this morning and this hasn’t exactly been a stress-free day.”

“I had a nap. In the car. Remember? Show me the plans.”

“Hey, boss, sorry to interrupt.” Happy was knocking on the open bedroom door. “Pepper is on my phone. She said she’s tried yours for the last hour. She sounds pretty mad.”

“I turned my phone off. Didn’t want to field the media calls. And for the record, she is very mad.”

“Because of me?” Steve didn’t like the pang of jealousy he felt whenever Tony had to deal with Pepper. Maybe she was having second thoughts about dumping him. Maybe she would try and talk him out of what probably looked—from all television accounts—like a heedless entanglement with Steve.

“She’s angry because of me. Because I didn’t bother to give her a heads-up about the press conference today, and she’s had to handle the influx of calls from stockholders without any prep time.”

“I’m sorry.”

“For what? You didn’t do anything. And she’ll get over it. This is how Pepper earns the big bucks. Happy, tell her I’ll be right there.”

“Sure thing, boss. Oh, and the architect needs to speak with you. The pilot, too. And the designer guy, what’s his name? Jean Paul? Paul Jean? Jean Jean?”

“Yeah, yeah, tell them all I’ll be right there.” Tony shooed Happy from the door and closed it, turning back to Steve. “Sorry, baby. I need to deal with this stuff if we’re ever going to get out of here. Think about taking that nap. Whatever you do, don’t pack. You’re not taking any of this stuff.” Tony waved toward the closet where Steve’s small set of clothes hung. “I’ve got your new wardrobe on the way.”

“You were serious about that?”

“I’m always serious about fine clothes.” Tony leaned down and kissed him softly on the mouth. “Can I bring you another egg cream? How about two?”

“No!” Steve hadn’t meant for it to come out quite so emphatically. At Tony’s questioning eyebrow, he added, “I’ve got to start pacing myself if George is going to live here full time, right?”

“Sure, sure, okay.”

“Hey, boss?” Happy was knocking.

“Give me a minute,” Tony complained, exasperated.

“Go,” Steve smiled. “I’m okay.”

“Sorry. Not much of a homecoming. I feel like I haven’t been alone with you since the dinosaur age.”

“We’ll be alone plenty in Fiji.”

“Damn right.” Tony’s grin was wicked. He stole another quick kiss before heading out the door, typing on his tablet and issuing orders to Happy as he went. Steve missed him already, which was childish, but he couldn’t help himself. Stretching out atop the comforter made him feel closer to Tony. He wasn’t planning to sleep. He had already napped and he wasn’t tired. He just wanted to feel their blanket against his cheek. Maybe his eyes did close, but not to sleep. He only wanted to block out the light, which, for whatever reason, was bothering his eyes. Putting a hand over his stomach, he wished it would stop grumbling. He was probably hungry, but the thought of food wasn’t particularly appealing. Maybe later. Maybe after the headache passed.

Maybe when he wasn’t so tired.

~0~0~0~

“Everyone else is getting to play, Mom. Why can’t I go?”

“Because you’re sick. You have to rest.”

“I did rest and I took all the medicine. I’m better now. I want to be like everyone else.”

“You can’t be like everyone else. You can only be you, for better or worse. Wanting to be well and being well is not the same thing, Stevie. Don’t be prideful.”

“Mom, please, it’s not fair!” Steve bolted upright, looking around frantically. “Mom?” The room was unfamiliar. Where did his living room go? Wasn’t his mom speaking to him? Where was she? Where was he? He tried to think through the aching headache, getting a glimpse of the red comforter he was clutching, which helped him remember. “JARVIS?”

“Yes, Captain Rogers?”

Steve was relieved to hear the smooth voice that used to unnerve him. Thankfully, they’d undone the Privacy Protocol Steve had once employed to keep JARVIS from spying on him. It made no sense once Tony started sleeping in his apartment, since JARVIS was always watching Tony. “Was I asleep?”

“Yes, sir.”

Steve wasn’t sure if the information comforted him. His mother’s voice had been real. He was sad to find she wasn’t here. He rarely dreamed of her. Throwing his legs over the side of the bed, he sat, rubbing his eyes, trying to figure himself out. He was disoriented. When had he fallen asleep? He hadn’t been tired. “How long was I out?”

“One hour, fifty-seven minutes, twenty-two seconds, sir.”

“Wow.” Steve stood up, but then immediately sat back down. He must have gotten up too quickly because the room spun.

“Shall I alert Dr. Banner regarding your elevated pulse rate and blood pressure level, sir?”

“My what? No! I’m fine. I was dreaming, that’s all.” Steve got up again, more slowly, and this time he was fine. “See, I’m good.” Steve walked to the door and opened it, stepping out into the hall. The apartment was quiet now. “Where is everyone, JARVIS?”

“Mr. Stark is currently on the penthouse level conferring with a Mr. Jellyroll Martin regarding a pattern of flooring he is unhappy with. Master Thor is seated in the common kitchen partaking of an elaborate meal. Agents Barton and Coulson are in residence; Agent Coulson asleep while Agent Barton packs a suitcase. Dr. Banner is within Agent Romanoff’s suite engaged in sexual intercourse.”

“W-wait, whoa, hold up,” Steve sputtered, feeling himself go pink with embarrassment. “I don’t want to know what . . . I mean JARVIS, that’s private. It’s not the kind of thing you should be announcing.”

“Sorry, sir. I was attempting to provide you with the information you requested.”

“Locations, JARVIS. Next time, locations are good enough.”

“As you wish, Captain.”

Steve had an uncomfortable thought. “JARVIS, you don’t disclose to people when Tony and I are—” He cut himself off, realizing some questions were better left unasked. “Forget it.”

“Mr. Stark has been attempting to reach you via your cellphone, Captain.”

“Oh?” Steve walked around his empty living room, searching, noting how neatly everything had been tidied after the small celebration. Tony had just given him the replacement phone as a gift in the limo on the way home. Surely he hadn’t lost it already? Scanning the room and then rifling his pockets, Steve grew upset. He had already dropped the original phone in the East River. The last thing he wanted to do was misplace the new one. “Where the hell is my phone?” he grumbled aloud, frustrated.

“Your cellphone is currently located on the floor of the limousine Mr. Hogan has taken to wash.”

“What?” Steve was startled, not intending the question for JARVIS, but now that he had an answer, he became distressed. “No. Call him. Tell him to come back. Please.”

“I will contact him at once.”

“Thank you.” Steve rubbed the sides of his head, wishing it would stop hurting so he could think straight. He walked into the kitchen and grabbed a bottle of water. He had only taken one sip when it hit his stomach like liquid lead. He realized he couldn’t drink any more. His stomach wasn’t right. Putting the bottle down, he headed for the bathroom instead. A shower will help. They hadn’t let him take a full shower in the hospital, but the wound on his head was closed now. Steve rubbed his fingers over the new patch of skin covering half the back of his skull as he looked in the mirror. There were still purplish bruises over his cheeks and forehead, and a few long scabby strips near his eyes where his skin had recently healed, but considering they told him his face had looked like hamburger after his face-first fall, this wasn’t bad. The serum was doing its job. Soon his head and stomach were going to feel better as well.

“Captain Rogers, Mr. Hogan reports he is on his way to the tower with your cellphone. His estimated arrival time is eight point six minutes.”

“Thanks, JARVIS. Can you please tell him I’ll meet him in the garage? And get word to Tony I’ll meet up with him in about fifteen minutes.”

“Certainly, sir.”

Steve stripped and stepped into the shower ready to wash away the lingering effects of his hospital stay, as well as the echoing voices from his dream.

~0~0~0~

Chapter Text

“You look a little wobbly there, baby, you okay?”

Steve blinked several times, fighting the dizziness threatening to consume him. “I’m uncomfortable with this fussing. Feels stupid.” He wasn’t exactly lying. Surely he’d been standing up on this stool in the middle of the common living room for hours now. Okay, maybe more like twenty minutes, but this is still ridiculous.

Problem was, Tony was having a great time watching his team of tailors and designers measure every inch of him as clothing was put on and taken off his body like he was a life-size paper doll, and Steve wasn’t about to disappoint him. The pair of white linen pants he currently had on felt pretty tight, but he hesitated to say anything, remembering his last question about snugness resulted in two men, whose names he had forgotten, sticking their hands and a tape measure down the front of his crotch.

“You might feel stupid, but you look amazing,” Tony practically drooled. He was sprawled on the couch, his laptop strategically placed to camouflage any reaction he was having to Steve’s fashion model impersonation. “Turn around. Gotta see the ass angle.”

“To-nee.”

“Humor me, Steve. You know I’m shallow.”

Steve did turn, slowly, being careful not to slip from the stool since his balance was off. He figured it was his body’s way of reminding him his fuel tank was empty. He hadn’t eaten in days, only pretending to consume the small meals in the hospital in order not to worry anyone. It didn’t affect him as much while he had the IVs in, but now he was feeling the strain of his nutrition intake deficit. Nothing he couldn’t manage, though. He forced down a couple of sips of water from the bottle handed to him by one of the tailors. Best not to run low on fluids, too.

“Oh, fuck me, yeah, smokin’ hot,” Tony approved with a whistle. “Those pants were made for your ass. Perfect synthesis. How do they feel?”

“Tight.”

“You’ve said that about every pair of pants,” he laughed. “Maybe we should try coveralls?”

“Okay by me if it means we’re done here.”

“Are you really miserable?”

Tony sounded crestfallen. Steve turned slowly back towards him, sorry he’d put the hangdog look in Tony’s puppy brown eyes. “Nah, it’s okay.” The first time Tony had ever brought up the idea of having clothes made for him, Steve found the idea sexy, and for the most part it was. For Steve, clothing was a practical concern, but for Tony, clothes were art. Being Tony’s blank canvas to color to his exact taste and specification was thrilling. Yes, it was a bit embarrassing having Tony ogle him in front of these strangers; but a little naughty, too, which for some reason was fun. He just wished his headache would cease and he could be steadier to enjoy this more.

“Great.” Tony perked up. “I have to see you in those cotton gauze shirts Gino brought. And the blazers, too. And the shorts. For sure, the shorts.”

Steve smiled, ordering his body to cooperate. “Sure. No problem.”

“And don’t worry. This will be enough to get us started and give you something to pack, but now that they have your measurements, the stylists will be able to create the custom wardrobe you deserve.” The phone on the couch beside Tony started to ring. He had gotten a few new phone lines this afternoon, enabling him to receive the calls he wanted without dealing with the media frenzy. “Stark,” he answered, following with, “hold on.” Gesturing at the dark haired man to Steve’s right, he directed, “Terry, those pants are great, but let them out a teeny bit near the crotch for modesty. My guy’s a little shy.”

“Right away, Mr. Stark.”

“Let me see the tan ones next, then the shorts.” Tony went back to his call. “What’s up? No, no, no, I said I wanted it two feet from the wall. Two. Can you count to two? It’s the number after one. You know what? Don’t do anything. I’ll be right up.” Tony slid out from under his laptop and got up, adjusting himself with one hand, phone still clutched in the other. “Keep going, Steve. I’ll be right back.”

“No.” Steve got down off the stool and came to Tony, keeping his voice low in an effort for privacy in the room full of people. “Doing this with you is one thing. Standing here like a jerk by myself is another. I’m done.”

“I’m not going to be long, I promise. Please, baby?” Tony cajoled. Even as he murmured the words, his phone was ringing again. He looked at the device quickly, then hissed. “Dammit. I’ve got to take this.”

“Then take it. You’ve already picked out enough clothes for me to wear for six months. They’ve got my measurements. I’ll wear whatever else they come up with. But I’m done modeling for now.”

“Steve, come on—”

“I could always pack my Sears clothes.”

“Crap. Okay. I give. You fight dirty. I like that. Hang on.” He hit a button on the still buzzing phone, bringing it to his ear. “Pep, give me a minute. Yes, I know. I saw the emails. I’ll be right with you.”

“Go. Work. Do your Stark stuff.” Steve leaned to kiss him. Tony’s hand came up and stroked his cheek.

“Why is your face so warm, baby?”

“What do you expect? The way you’ve been looking at me.”

Tony grinned. “Wait ‘til you see how I look at you when you model for me in private.”

“Can’t wait.” Steve meant the words, though his body wasn’t responding to their flirting, which was odd. Usually, around Tony, his problem was keeping things under control.

Tony started issuing directions to the tailors and telling the valets what clothing he wanted packed. Steve sat down on the couch, giving his legs a chance to recover from standing so long. He tried to take another sip from the water bottle in his hand, but his stomach felt too full to cooperate. When Tony was done, he bent to retrieve his laptop from the couch and gave Steve a kiss on the top of the head. “If I wasn’t working so hard to get us out of here tonight, you would be in sooo much trouble right now, Captain.” He wiggled, adjusting the front of his pants again. “This was amazingly hot. Can’t wait to do it again when I can focus. Thanks for indulging me. You looked great in everything, but then, how not? Okay, focus, Stark. We should be ready to go in a couple of hours. I’ve got a few things to finish in the lab after I take care of the Stark Industries business and go chew out architects. My staff is in the apartment now packing for the trip, but if there’s something personal you want to bring, why don’t you pull it together? I’ve got the chefs preparing a feast for us all to chow down on before we head to the airport. I’ll have JARVIS let everyone know when it’s ready. See you soon.” Tony raced off in a flurry, still calling instructions to people as he left. Steve envied his energy, wishing he could borrow some.

~0~0~0~

Tony hadn’t been exaggerating when he used the word feast. The meal he had prepared for the Avengers looked like enough food to feed Steve’s entire army unit for three days. Huge tables were set up in the dining room on the common floor and there were plenty of waiters and waitresses to keep scooping food onto plates. The aroma from the varied cuisines was overwhelming, making Steve’s head and stomach hurt more, but there was no way he was going to be able to avoid eating without calling attention to himself. The team was excitedly chattering about their upcoming trip while sharing packing stories, and Steve wasn’t about to be the wet blanket tossed on their enthusiasm. He faced his unpleasant mission with resolve, stoically and systematically forcing bite after bite of food into his resistant stomach, ordering it to comply. He was always underweight as a kid, often being told to eat when he wasn’t hungry. He grew up in a time where it was rude to not finish what was on your plate and be grateful for having it, so he drew upon old strategies to get through the meal, working hard to consume what would be an expected amount of food for him.

He did his best to pay attention to what Tony was saying about the design plans for the penthouse, contributing as many opinions as he could muster in order to appear interested. I am interested, his mind argued, his conscience trying to make him feel guilty for being ungrateful and unappreciative. He cared about everything Tony was saying. It was just difficult to stay focused while each swallow landed like a boulder in his gut.

“If I’m not mistaken, you just finished restoring the whole penthouse a couple of weeks ago,” Bruce pointed out.

“Restoring,” Tony agreed. “As in putting back together after Thundar’s brother let his alien Sharks and Jets shoot slimy, gut-filled holes through it. Not the same as redesigning.”

“The Chitauri possess no sharks,” Thor clarified around a huge bite of food. “Nor did they fly jets.”

“It’s a West Side Story reference,” Phil explained patiently.

“Are we not upon territory considered to be part of the eastern portion of your great isle of Manhattan?”

“When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way,” Clint was singing between sips from his wine glass. “From your first cigarette, to your last dyin’ day.”

“You’ve seen West Side Story?” Natasha arched an eyebrow towards Clint.

“I live with Phil Coulson. What musical haven’t I seen?”

“Restore. Redesign.” Bruce shook his head, accepting the fresh basket of biscuits being handed to him. “Sounds like you’re fickle.”

“Am I really supposed to take design flak from a guy whose last address was a paper shack?”

“It’s a movie,” Phil told Thor. “A musical. About gangs. And love.”

“Singing gangs,” Clint added. “They sing before they rumble.”

“It’s his tower. He can redesign it every week if he wants,” Natasha decided. “Though I wish it didn’t have to be so damn noisy. The crew of Vinnies has been in exceptionally loud, four-letter form today.”

“A rumble? With gangs? As in a skirmish? A brawl? And they are in love? And these individuals are singing? You must show me this film.”

“Who would make such a strange movie?” Steve asked, trying to keep track of the conversations.

“Makes sense when you see it.” Phil was efficiently cutting his meat with his good hand. His left arm was tucked securely in the tropical-colored sling Tony’s tailor had made for him, adding to his collection of designer arm wear. It looked a little like a Hawaiian shirt, brightly set off by the lightweight cotton button-down he was wearing; no suits tonight. In fact, everyone was dressed in vacation-looking clothing, except for Steve who hadn’t thought to redress, glad Tony hadn’t commented on his cotton Sears slacks. “It was a Broadway musical. The movie adaptation won ten Academy Awards including Best Picture.”

“I’m sorry, were the Vinnies disturbing your Afternoon Delight?” Tony grinned wickedly. Steve immediately elbowed him.

“Tony! Don’t be a busybody like JARVIS,” Steve muttered before realizing what he had said aloud.

“This award is your highest accolade for film, is it not?”

“Wait a minute,” Bruce managed to both sit more upright and slump simultaneously. “Are you saying JARVIS keeps track of when we—”

“Pass the potatoes,” Phil requested politely, nudging Bruce.

“They call it an Oscar, Thor,” Clint said smoothly into the void. “And for the record, it’s not fickle for Tony to want to change the penthouse. There’s a difference between restoring the penthouse to what it was and redesigning your love-nest. Think more romantic, less analytical, Doc.”

Steve ducked his head, hoping he wasn’t blushing. He focused on the next section of food on his plate that needed to be finished. Tony was being indulgent by completely changing the penthouse for him. Steve’s insecurities were childish, but he had difficulty sharing the space—particularly the bedroom—with Tony knowing he would be only the latest on a long list of people who had done so.

“Hawks are big on nesting,” Natasha teased.

“And this doesn’t bother you?” Bruce asked her, losing his grip on the serving spoon and dropping it into the mashed potatoes.

“I’m not a nester,” she stated calmly.

“Not that. The other thing.”

“Love-nest. I like it.” Tony leaned closer to Steve, kissing his cheek. “Will you nest with me, baby-blue?” Steve smiled and nodded, keeping his eyes on his plate.

“Not until we get back,” Clint said around his mouthful of bread. “I’m already packed. How ‘bout you, Bruce? Did you get your one pair of unwrinkled pants into your duffel bag yet?”

“This Oscar person must be almost as knowledgeable about cinema as the Son of Coul.”

“JARVIS better not be coming on this trip,” Bruce huffed.

“Coulson is knowledgeable about everything.” Natasha gifted Phil with one of her rare smiles while she slid her hand over Bruce’s thigh under the table, causing him to drop his fork this time, but at least he was grinning.

“Hell, yeah.” The innuendo in Clint’s tone earned him a warning look from Phil, but Clint only smiled. “I can’t brag about you, babe?”

“Behave.”

“Not fair. We’re on vacation.”

“Technically, we will be departing for vacation in one hour and thirteen minutes,” Tony announced, eating with one hand while checking information on his tablet with the other. “Operation Avengers Do Fiji is right on schedule. The van with the luggage is packed and ready to head to the airport. If there’s something anyone has forgotten to load, you better get it down to the garage pronto or hope it fits in the limo.”

“I didn’t pack anything,” Steve admitted, grateful for the excuse to leave the table. He had forgotten, which made no sense since he was usually very competent. As he stood, Tony’s hand took hold of his arm, urging him back to his chair.

“Relax. Finish your dinner. I’ve got you covered. Everything you need is already packed.”

“But I was going to take my sketch pad and pencils.”

“Done.” Tony passed him the platter of ribs Thor had just finished passing to him. “I told you, no worries. Eat up.”

Steve swallowed the bile threatening to come up from his throat at the smell of the ribs. “Right, no worries. Thanks.”

~0~0~0~

“Okay, boys and girl, please exit the limo in an orderly fashion. Boarding for your private flight to Fiji begins now.”

Tony’s voice, followed by the whoops in the limo, brought Steve back to consciousness. He hadn’t realized he had dozed off until he was peeling the side of his face off the car window and jerking awake. He hadn’t been able to shake the fatigue today, but after their meal it had worsened. His head and stomach ached severely. Blinking, he tried to clear his vision, the images swimming at first as he looked out the car window to the fancy jet on the tarmac. Tony’s plane was big, all lit up, looking ready to go. Ignoring his insignificant ailments, he focused on the excitement of knowing they were going to board that very plane and fly off to an exotic island.

“How’re you doing, sleepy-head?” Tony asked softly as the team began to file out of the limo. “You’ve been very tired today. Are you feeling okay?”

“I’m fine,” Steve reassured. He hadn’t meant to lie, but what purpose would be served whining about a bellyache? Tony had been working tirelessly to get this vacation to go off without a hitch, and everyone was looking forward to the trip with eager anticipation. “Just resting up so I’ll have more energy for Fiji.”

“You know how I feel about liars, Stevie. Do I need to get the soap?”

His mother’s voice startled him, sounding like it was next to him, but Tony was the only one left in the limo. Shaking himself from what had to be lingering vestiges of a dream he didn’t recall, he focused on the handsome smile as Tony laughed. “You’ve got a lot of hours to go before Fiji.”

Steve realized he had no idea how long the flight would take or where exactly Fiji was located. It was already after midnight. He wondered if they’d be there by morning. Not that it mattered. Being on Tony’s plane would be its own adventure.

Thor’s uproarious bellow caught their attention, prompting them to look out the limo door towards where the sound was coming from. Thor had chosen to ride in the other car along with Mark and Carolyn, two of Phil’s nurses—and Walt. The Asgardian had made a feeble excuse about not wanting to crowd Tony’s limo despite the fact the team had ridden comfortably in the same car this afternoon, but clearly he was more interested in sharing a ride with Phil’s physical therapist. Thor was dressed in a bright yellow tank top with lightning bolts blazing down the front, and an outlandish pair of long shorts—Clint had called them “board shorts”—covered in giant red, blue, orange, green, and pink flowers. He was wearing sunglasses despite the darkness, a pair of yellow “flip flops”—another new term Steve learned—and his long hair was tied with a bright yellow band. He had one brawny arm slung over Walt’s shoulder and the other around Carolyn’s, with Mark beside her, arm linked through hers. They were all jolly and laughing and having a swell time, the sound making Steve’s head throb.

“Do you think Thor is really having an affair with Walt?” Steve asked, still bewildered by Thor’s veiled declaration today.

“Are you kidding? He’d tap that in a second.”

“Right, because Walt is a tasty bit of a therapy boy,” Steve teased, echoing Tony’s description from their earlier limo ride.

Tony grinned. “Jealous?”

“What if I am?”

“I’d like it.” He patted Steve’s cheek. “But you don’t need to worry. You’re the only tasty bit of boy I’m obsessed with. Asgardian Ken can have all the rest. Now how ‘bout we get your sexy ass on my plane so we can get this vacation party started?”

“Good plan.”

~0~0~0~

Chapter Text

“Wow.”

Steve knew his observation wasn’t very articulate, but he was having trouble coming up with an adequate response to boarding Tony’s private plane for the first time. Not the largest aircraft he had ever been aboard—Red Skull’s flying death machine, which Steve eventually had to crash land into the Arctic, held that distinction. He supposed the Helicarrier could be classified as a plane, but it felt more like an airborne base. Either way, Tony’s plane was the most impressive to him, especially since it wasn’t meant as an object of destruction. If Steve hadn’t walked across the tarmac at the airport and climbed the long flight of stairs up into the plane, he would have thought he had walked into a luxury apartment. The rooms—sections?—compartments?—whatever they were called—were spacious, lavishly furnished, and decorated. Thor dubbed Tony’s plane a “flying domicile” after carrying Phil’s wheelchair, with Phil in it, up the metal stairway. Steve had intended to help, but after he tripped on the first stair, covering the mishap briskly, he decided he had better leave Phil’s safety to Thor for now. Thankfully, most of the luggage had already been stowed before their arrival, the few items from the limo being easily toted up by Happy and Clint.

While everyone else was touring the extravagant plane, Steve took his own private tour of the latrine, grateful to find it was about as big as the one in his apartment minus his huge shower—though this fancy head did have a shower stall, which seemed strange for a plane, but Tony never skimped on luxury. Steve gave half a thought to using the shower, but settled instead for washing his face about a dozen times, not wanting to attract attention.

The chairs they sat in for take-off were like plush leather recliners, with electronic seatbelts doing the fastening and unfastening for you. Once they were airborne, the rest of the team was up and about, but Steve decided it best to remain in the leather chair, taking refuge behind a book he was pretending to read, but couldn’t focus on. It was strange feeling this airsick. He’d actually hung on the outside of a plane and not felt this nauseous. He hoped sitting quietly would help, but by the time the island party music started filtering through the speakers and the flight crew was passing around colorful cocktails with umbrellas in them, Tony noticed his unsocial behavior.

“Hey, baby, we’re on vacation. Do you plan to be a bookworm the whole trip?”

“Of course not.” Steve forced a smile. “It’s been decades since I’ve flown, at least consciously. Figured I’d better get my air-legs under me.”

“Decades?” Tony was looking oddly at him. “You do remember being on the Helicarrier right?”

“Yeah, of course. The Helicarrier is more like a base. In the air.”

“And the plane we flew Loki in after Stuttgart—”

“What is this, a test?” Steve snapped, bolting up from the chair, which wasn’t the smartest move, his brains swimming from one side of his head to the other. “I thought we were on vacation? Are you going to quiz me on everything? Should I have studied?”

“N-ooo,” Tony said slowly. Steve couldn’t see his expression, the compartment a blur, but he had a pretty good idea how Tony looked.

“Sorry,” he said quickly. “I don’t know where that came from. Let me go wash my face and use the john. I promise to come back less cranky, and drink umbrella drinks, and be in vacation mode.”

“You don’t need to be in any mode. I just want to know what’s going on with you?”

“Mr. Stark.” Steve recognized the voice of one of the flight attendants, though he couldn’t see her, blinking to get his vision corrected. “The captain would like to speak to you at your convenience.”

“Right. Tell him I’m in the middle of something, but I’ll be there shortly.”

“Go now. Really. I’m fine.” Steve was grateful he could find Tony’s forehead with no problem and kiss him reassuringly. Tony readied to say more, but Steve slipped away, his vision returning enough to help him make his way into the sanctuary of the toilet.

~0~0~0~

Through the sheer force of his strength, Steve was able to pull himself together. It took him about ten minutes in the bathroom, but he managed to wipe the sweat from his face, pushing the pain from his head and stomach to the far recesses to be ignored. He felt ridiculous catering to something as feeble as motion sickness, or air sickness, or whatever this was. He wasn’t an infirm kid anymore. He was a super soldier. Looking in the mirror, he ordered his body to get back on point. Enough was enough.

By the time he rejoined the team, he had himself in hand, able to sit in the large lounge area amid the loud music, dancing, and laughing without breaking a sweat. The chalky complexion he noticed in the bathroom mirror would be undetectable in the lower lighting of the cabin where his friends were partying. Pain was no stranger; he could endure. He just needed to maintain a composed outer façade or he would ruin the trip. Steve Rogers knew how to be a good soldier. He certainly understood how to put the mission first, and in this case the mission was a stress-free, pleasant vacation for everyone.

When Tony returned from speaking with the captain, Steve made certain to reach for one of the fruity cocktails off the tray being circulated, raising the glass as a toast. The aroma of the drink was nearly unbearable, but he sipped anyway, returning Tony’s smile. The acidic burn of fruit juices punched his gut, but he managed to keep the liquid down, even taking another sip. “See?” he said to Tony who sat beside him. “Vacation mode.”

“I like you in any mode.” Tony leaned to kiss him.

Kissing Tony was his favorite thing in the world, so it threw Steve for a loop when his senses went haywire. Tony’s cologne, his shampoo, the very scent of his skin, all smelled wrong, worse than the drink. The pungent combination sent Steve’s stomach roiling, his eyes and nose burning. The taste of the cocktail on Tony’s lips was sickening, and Steve struggled not to gag. He fought his way through, ashamed and appalled by his reaction. He hoped he hadn’t given away his unwelcome response, though Tony was looking strangely at him when he pulled back. But then Clint started messing with the music player, grabbing Tony’s attention. When he got up, insisting Clint was going to “break the damn thing,” Steve sucked in a deep breath, trying to compose himself.

Somehow, he managed to get through the next hour, talking and laughing as best he could, trying to act like everyone else. He had begun forcing down his second fruit drink when the bottom fell out. Despite the effort he had been making to hold his condition at bay, something gave way within. He recognized the sensation immediately, having vomited more times in his life than he cared to remember. Can’t be, his logic argued. Other than expelling the gallons of East River he had ingested, he hadn’t thrown up since the serum. It wasn’t possible.

Possible or not, move, soldier!

As unobtrusively as he could, he made his way back to the latrine. He had barely gotten the door closed when his legs gave out and he dropped. He crawled to the toilet, getting his head over the opening just in time. The experience was unpleasant, but nothing he couldn’t handle. Retching had once been second nature to him, like breathing difficulties and fevers. He was out of practice, but no big deal. When he finished, he stood to clean up.

And everything fell apart.

He realized with horror he wasn’t finished; he had only begun.

Regurgitating from inside a Captain America body was a whole other ballgame from typical skinny Steve Rogers puking. Whether it was the extra force of his many muscles, the rush of serum trying to compensate, or something else entirely, he wasn’t sure. All he knew was the power of the expulsion was like nothing he’d ever experienced, the muscles in his diaphragm and abdomen convulsing violently. He came close to blacking out, staggering to his feet when the ferocious vomiting finally dissipated. The room was spinning violently. He could hardly recognize the blanched, blurred face in the mirror as his own.

He leaned heavily on the sink, trying to regroup, wondering how he could best keep this under wraps and not burden his friends. When the onrush hit again, more powerfully, the question was answered for him. No amount of music and laughter on the plane could have masked the sound coming from the latrine as he hurled his cookies this time. In the onslaught, he hit his head on the toilet and something snapped in his side, a rib maybe. The pounding on the door sounded distant at first, but he recognized Tony’s voice ordering Thor to rip it off the hinges, and he mustered what strength he had left.

“Wait,” he called feebly. He couldn’t let Tony break his nice plane because of him. He managed to crawl, getting his arm up enough to unfasten the latch before collapsing against the door, spilling out on the floor at the feet of his aghast team when it swung open. “Sorry,” he muttered as his vision grew dark. Sadly, he realized he had lost his battle to not be a burden.

~0~0~0~

Steve hadn’t completely lost consciousness, even though his vision blinked out for a time. He was distantly aware of the flurry of activity and voices around him.

“Steve!”

“What’s wrong with him?”

“What the hell was that sound?”

“Sounded like he was vomiting.”

“Is that even possible?”

“Steven, are you injured?”

“Back up. Give him air.”

“Is this from the fall? I thought he’d healed.”

“You said he was okay when they let him out of the hospital.”

“I said he seemed okay, but there was a possibility for side effects.”

“What the hell kind of side effects would Captain America have?”

“Baby, can you hear me?”

“Tony?” Steve reached out blindly, feeling Tony’s hand clasp his.

“Does this hurt?” Someone was stabbing him in the stomach with a hot poker.

Yesss,” he hissed.

“How ‘bout here?”

“Yes.”

“Holyshit, looks like a scene from Aliens in the john.”

“Grow up, Barton. You’ve seen vomit before.”

“Not super-sized.”

“Sorry.”

“You don’t have to be sorry about anything. Lay still.” Tony’s cool fingers were brushing his hair back as some kind of cloth moved over his mouth and chin.

“Get him off the floor,” Coulson’s unruffled voice directed.

“I shall lift him at once.”

Steve felt Tony’s fingers slip away before stronger hands gripped him behind his neck and under his legs. Before he could protest, he was swept up in Thor’s arms, the journey from floor to god-height way too rapid. His stomach lurched and his head spun, the pain jolting him as he fought to keep from upchucking again. “Too fast,” he moaned, getting a hand to his stomach.

“Easy, you big gorilla, Tony chastised.

“Nice and slow, Thor,” Bruce cautioned.

“My apologies.”

Steve felt like an idiot being carried like a baby, but there was little he could do. His limbs still shook from the convulsive puking, and his legs felt about as sturdy as twigs. His brain conjured memories from when he was seventeen: He had aged out of the orphanage the year before and stayed with Bucky and his folks until the Barnes’ moved to Connecticut—sans their oldest boy—when Bucky’s dad lost his job. He and Bucky got their own place in Brooklyn, barely scraping together enough of their meager paychecks to make ends meet, oftentimes not having enough to pay for all of Steve’s medicines. He used to have what they referred to as “spells,” when Bucky would come home to their apartment and find Steve on the floor, lifting him to the bed when he was too weak to walk. But he didn’t need medicine anymore. He didn’t have spells. What’s happening to me?

“Set him down on the couch. Nice and easy.”

“Somebody turn the damn music off.”

Steve was grateful when the music banging against his brain finally ceased, though his headache remained. Thor placed him carefully upon the couch, being extra gentle with his head, which was rested against a thick, soft pillow. Only when tender fingers fell back into his hair did he realize Tony’s lap was beneath the pillow. His returning vision was blurred, but not so distorted that he couldn’t make out the worry lines on Tony’s brow as he looked down at him.

“M’sorry.”

“How long have you been sick?” Tony asked. “Why didn’t you say something?”

“I’m Captain America. I don’t get sick. Be all right in a fewmince . . . fewmin . . . few . . . minutes.”

“Steve, I need to know exactly what symptoms you’re experiencing.” Bruce was on a chair beside the couch, his hands sliding behind Steve’s head to feel the area where his scar had healed.

“My head and my stomach. Not good.”

“Does it hurt here?”

“No. Yes. I mean, whole head hurts. Not outside. Inside.”

“Hurt worse when I poke your wound area?”

“No.”

“The healing on his skull is intact. This isn’t injury related.”

“Well, it sure as hell isn’t flu related. What’s wrong with him!”

“Tony,” Steve tried to reach over his head to touch Tony’s hand and calm him, but he missed. The uncooperative limb was seized and set back on the couch.

“Rest easy, Steve. Can you see me?”

“Yeah.” Steve hesitated, before admitting, “Now I can.”

“You couldn’t before?”

“You’re all kinda fuzzy.”

“Here, Bruce.” Clint handed Bruce a glass of water, which Banner tried to bring towards Steve’s lips.

“No! Can’t.”

“You can’t drink?”

“Can’t even stand the smell.”

“Of water?” Clint asked.

“Adverse drug reaction?” Phil suggested.

“Drugs?” Tony scoffed. “What drugs would Steve—oh, fuck.”

“Makes sense,” Bruce mused. “Thor, the drug you administered to Steve. Are there known after-effects?”

“In Asgardians?”

“No, in fish, genius.”

“Tony,” Steve tried again.

“I do not possess extensive medical knowledge.”

“Does it matter?” Natasha asked. “Steve’s not Asgardian.”

“I’m trying to ascertain whether the drug has been known to react in ways similar to human pain killers or anesthesia. Might help gauge where we are even if uncertainty remains regarding Steve’s prognosis.”

“I believe there are Asgardians who have suffered lingering debilitation from this tonic, but our healers are adept at—”

“Your healers aren’t here,” Tony groused. “You knew it had dangerous side effects, but you gave your mystery potion to Steve?”

“No choice,” Steve reminded, hearing the anger rising in Tony’s voice. He looked up into Tony’s eyes, seeing the burning reproach, which was directed inward as well as outward. “Not your fault.”

“I let him give it to you.”

“You had to.”

“Steve’s right,” Phil stated calmly. “There were no better options.”

“Let’s focus on the here and now,” Bruce suggested. “Asgardian metabolisms are hardier than humans by far.”

“But this human has super serum,” Clint pointed out.

“True. But the serum was created for a human metabolism, constructed to counter human frailties. There’s a good chance the serum doesn’t know what to make of this Asgardian chemical. It’s possible the serum is making matters worse. Or, it’s what’s keeping the drug from killing him. My guess is a combination.”

“Your guess? That’s the best you got?”

“If there were definitive conclusions to be made from the thousands of tests run on Steve’s blood and the impact of the serum, do you think I’d turn into a green rage monster?”

Steve started to say something to reassure Tony, but the pain in his gut brought out a moan where words should have been. He reflexively curled inward, rolling to his side. Bruce’s hand was on his stomach as Tony’s fingers tightened in his hair.

“Do you need to regurgitate?” Bruce asked.

“No. M’good.”

“Yeah, you’re wonderful,” Tony sighed.

“Here.” Natasha handed something to Tony, who began wiping Steve’s face with a cool cloth. Felt nice.

“In human medicine, not all reactions to anesthesia are understood, but the effect on brain centers and its interaction with the gastrointestinal system can trigger moderate to severe side-effects post exposure. I’d have to postulate a similar correlation exists with Asgardian medication in Asgardians, but Steve isn’t Asgardian.”

“Meaning what?”

“Meaning, as bad as this is, I believe we’d have seen signs by now if his condition was going to be more severe. Steve’s serum is most likely protecting him as best it can under the circumstance, though in doing so, it could be causing side effects of its own. Still, he should be able to withstand this until the drug works fully out of his system.”

“How long?” Natasha asked. “It’s been days since he was given the drug.”

“Whatever chemicals make up the Asgardian composition work their way through the system differently than anything I’m familiar with. And Steve’s system isn’t the one it was created for, so we’re working with a lot of unknown variables. Something must have accelerated the affects or we would have seen symptoms before this. Steve, have you felt this bad since the hospital?”

“No.” He tried to shake his head, but it hurt too much. “Got worse . . . after I ate.”

“Ate? Are you talking about dinner? At the tower? Hadn’t you eaten before then?”

“Couldn’t.”

“You hadn’t eaten since the accident?” Tony was getting more upset and Steve knew he was to blame.

“Couldn’t.”

“Why didn’t you say something?”

“Put you all through enough. Didn’t want to worry—”

“Jeezus, Steve.”

“Easy, Tony.” Bruce’s hand reached over Steve, towards Tony.

“You ate plenty a few hours ago.” At Clint’s reminder, Steve’s stomach rolled painfully.

“Forced myself,” he admitted shamefully. His actions seemed stupid now.

“Okay, feeding this is not a good idea. Could be what triggered the intense emesis.”

“He can’t not eat indefinitely,” Tony argued. “Or drink, because if the smell of water makes him barfy, he hasn’t drank much either. How long is he going to exist on no fuel at all?”

“He’ll be weakened, no doubt, but I don’t believe critically. Has to be better than the alternative. If he continues to regurgitate this severely, it poses the danger of a rupture or hematemesis.”

“Hema-what-sis?” Clint asked.

“Vomiting blood.”

“Sorry I asked.”

“I can handle it,” Steve tried to argue, but Tony pressed the damp cloth over his mouth.

“Not interested in your opinion. You haven’t been forthcoming with the intel on your condition, Captain. You’ve forfeited your voting rights, and any assessments of the situation by you are getting relegated to the bullshit folder. I’m going to tell the pilot to turn the plane around.”

Steve jerked away from Tony’s covering cloth, enduring the pain of the movement in an effort to turn his face toward Tony. “Nooo. Tony, please. Can’t ruin everyone’s vacation. Send me home if you have to, but the rest of you—”

“Okay, now you’re delirious, baby.”

“No one’s going to Fiji without you, Steve,” Clint stated adamantly.

“Clinton speaks for us all.”

Steve was trying to muster enough strength to argue when Bruce interrupted the impasse. “Hang on. Let’s think about this. There’s nothing in a Midgardian hospital to handle the symptoms of a reaction to an Asgardian drug on a super soldier.”

“Oh, and there’s something in Fiji?” Tony countered. “If he can even withstand another twenty more hours on a plane doing his best to disembowel himself through super-sized barfing?”

“There’s a sentence you don’t hear every day,” Clint joked, and Steve wanted to laugh, but he knew Tony would be justified in shoving the cloth completely down his throat if he did.

“No. Fiji is definitely too strenuous a trip and too far away from Western medicines and facilities to be safe if there were to be an emergency,” Bruce clarified. “Fiji wouldn’t be a prudent choice. On the other hand, Steve needs rest and to be protected from prying eyes, which he’s not going to get in New York amidst the brouhaha you two stirred up there. I also don’t think you want to get into another battle with Fury over whose medical team should be calling the shots here.”

“We need a compromise,” Phil stated succinctly.

“Yes, comp—compa—pra,” Steve stopped, energy draining.

“You need to rest. We’ll figure this out.” Bruce tucked a blanket over Steve, though he didn’t know where it came from. Felt nice.

“M’sorry, To—ny.”

“Go to sleep, baby. Everything’s going to be all right.”

~0~0~0~

“You need to take all the medicine, Stevie.”

“Yuck. Tastes nasty.”

“Stop being difficult. Medicine tastes how it tastes. This is not candy. This is medicine. You take it for your health, not for enjoyment. Now, I can’t be late for work. You need to promise to take this every four hours.”

“I want to go to school.”

“You can’t go to school. You’re sick.”

“I’m always sick. Want to go to school like everyone else.”

“You’re not everyone else. You’re Steven Rogers.”

“Hate being Steven Rogers.”

“What an awful thing to say!”

“M’sorry. I’m sorry, Mom. Don’t be mad. Mom? Where are you? Please. Come back. Mom!”

“Hey, easy buddy. You’re dreaming.”

Dreaming? Steve’s eyes went wide as he searched the room, but his mother was nowhere to be found. Clint’s hands were pressing him back to the couch as a cool cloth was draped over his forehead. The pain in his gut brought awareness. “The plane. We’re still on the plane?”

“Yup. You haven’t been asleep long.”

Clint’s concerned face was the only one in his line of vision and he could tell he was alone on the couch. There were no comforting fingers in his hair. Panic set in. “Tony? Where’s Tony?”

“They’re all in the next cabin figuring out what to do.”

“He can’t turn the plane around. The vacation. I have to tell him.” Steve started to get up, but large hands, stronger than Clint’s, came from over the back of the couch and pressed him down.

“You must rest, Steven.”

“But I’m okay.”

“Yeah, pretty much nobody believes you on that score,” Clint stated calmly. “You’re not allowed off this couch unless accompanied by, quote, your personal palanquin bearer, end quote.”

“My what?”

“He is referring to me,” Thor clarified.

“So you two got assigned babysitting duty?” Steve sighed, bringing his hand up to rub his face, feeling the pull of his busted rib.

“Volunteered,” Clint corrected with a smile, as if that made things better.

“I’ve ruined everybody’s vacation.”

“We’re only a couple of hours out of New York. Cut the gloom and doom. There’s plenty more vacation to be had. Let the big brains figure things out. It’ll come together, you’ll see.”

“Sorry,” Steve said, abashed. “Didn’t mean to whine. Old habit. Used to whine a lot when I was sick.”

“I doubt that.”

“Your infirmity harkens back to your frail youth. Your dreams were of your mother, were they not?”

“I keep hearing her,” Steve admitted. “Like she’s right here, talking to me. Like—” A spear of flame tore through his head as his body grew cold and hot at once. His stomach churned violently, Steve grabbing hold of Clint’s arm, fighting to warn him. “I . . . gotta—”

“Got you covered.” Clint reached down and produced some kind of basin or wastebasket. Whatever it was, Steve knew it would be inadequate. He tried to shake his head, to speak, but the convulsions had started.

“Too small!” Thor roared as he whisked Steve from the couch. The next thing Steve knew, he was in the bathroom, in the shower stall, which was good because when he had finished convulsing and losing the remainder of his innards, he was a mess. Thor got him stripped and hosed off quickly, and Steve tried not to wince too much. His throat was on fire, his gut felt as if he swallowed a live grenade, and he was sure he’d popped another rib. On the positive side, he was pretty certain he was empty. Every crumb of food he had forced down had surely made its riotous escape from his body, maybe with a few of his organs.

He appreciated how careful Thor was being carrying him back to the couch, but there was little chance of avoiding pain. Clint was waiting with clean sweats and a tee, which they managed to get on him quickly with little jostling. When he was tucked back under the blanket, he reached out, getting hold of Clint’s forearm, trying to speak. What was left of his voice sounded like a scratched record. “Thanks guys. Sorry.”

“Will you stop wasting your limited energy apologizing?” Clint chastised with a wink and pat on Steve’s clutching hand. “Shit happens. If anyone’s got the raw end of this deal, it’s you. Hell, I’ve never seen anyone puke that hard. I was worried you were going to split in half there for a minute.

“Me, too,” Steve groaned.

“You must relax and allow your body a chance to recover,” Thor stated, adjusting the blanket.

“Thor, you’re dripping all over him. Step back. Oh, crap, you’ve made a huge puddle in the carpet. Tony’s going to be pissed. I’m not getting blamed. Get a towel, man.”

“My Midgardian costume is indeed saturated.”

Steve started to say ‘sorry,’ knowing Thor had been doused in the shower trying to hose him off, but Clint held up his hand to halt the apology before it began. Instead, he told Thor, “Y’should change. Promise I won’t get up.”

“Yes, I will remove the offending attire at once.” Apparently the term ‘at once’ was no figure of speech for Thor. To Steve’s shock—and Clint’s as well, judging by his expression—Thor dropped trou where he was standing, clothing stripping from his body almost magically in less than a blink. Standing now, shamelessly nude, hands on hips, his fertile endowment practically gleaming in the low cabin light, he declared, “Ah, this is better.”

Clint shook his head, picking his chin off the floor long enough to mutter, “Wow, why do I suddenly feel like a little girl?”

Steve mustered a smile. He wanted to laugh, but his gut disagreed. “S’not a contest,” he managed to tease, though he hadn’t felt this small even before the serum.

“Contest? Who could compete? Have you looked at that? I mean, you’re Captain America and you don’t—”

“Not even close.”

Clint let out the craziest whistle and Steve did laugh a little then, trying not to jar himself as he did.

“What the hell?” Tony sounded flabbergasted as he entered the cabin from somewhere behind Thor, though Steve hadn’t seen him yet. “Are you seriously streaking in here while Steve is—whoa, sweet Jesus fucking hell. Is that thing real? No, it’s gotta be some kind of Asgardian weapon, right?”

“Feeling a little girly about now?” Clint asked, laughing.

“More like a eunuch.”

Thor laughed heartily. “I merely removed my wet clothing—”

“Wet clothing? Naked prancing? What the fuck are you guys doing in here? I asked you to look after Steve, not have a rave.”

“My fault,” Steve tried to explain.

“Oh, shit, now look what you did, Stark. He’s going to start apologizing again.”

Tony came into view, nudging Clint out of the way and taking the chair near the couch, cupping Steve’s chin. “How you doing, baby?” As Steve made to speak, Tony put a finger over his lips and warned, “The truth.”

“Not good,” Steve admitted. “Threw up again.”

“There has got to be a stronger term for that,” Clint suggested. “More like a puke tornado. A pukado. Or a puke-quake. Wait. No. More like a barf-tastrophy.”

“Clinton,” Thor cautioned.

“Right. Shutting up.”

Tony’s hands were lightly canvassing his head, face, and lips. “You’re so dry. You sure you can’t drink?” At Steve’s head shake, he suggested, “How ‘bout ice chips? Will you try for me?”

Steve would eat a glacier if doing so removed the worried furrow from Tony’s face. “Sure.”

“Good boy.” Tony leaned to kiss him on the forehead, which felt nice even if his head was still one huge ache. “Barton.”

“On it. Ice chips coming up.”

“Did you . . . turn the plane around?” Steve held his breath, dreading the answer.

“No.”

Steve exhaled with relief. “Thank you.”

“But we’ll be landing in Florida within the hour.”

“What? Florida? Wait. Why?”

“Because I said so,” Tony snapped, then took a deep breath, closing his eyes as he pinched the bridge of his nose between two fingers. “Supplies. Bruce wants supplies.”

“You have the right to be mad at me.” Steve reached out, flinching from the effort as he set his hand on Tony’s thigh. Every muscle in Tony’s leg was locked with tension.

“A little too busy being worried about you right now. Maybe later.” Tony moved his hand down to Steve’s side, obviously not missing his flinch. “What’s going on here?”

“Popped another rib.”

“You breathing okay?”

“Mostly. Yeah.”

“The minute that changes, I want to know.”

“Yes,” Steve agreed, though he doubted Tony believed him. Why should he?

“Here we go. One cup of ice chips,” Clint announced upon his return. Tony took the cup from his hand, picking up a small piece of ice and gliding it over Steve’s chapped lips before slipping it between them onto his tongue. The sensation was nice, especially when the ice started to slowly melt, trickling down his burning throat.

“Okay?” Tony asked, dark eyes scrutinizing him closely. Steve nodded, grateful the liquid wasn’t triggering any immediate reaction. “Good. Better take it slow with these, though.” He handed the cup back to Clint. “You really should rest. If Cheech and Naked Chong here would cut the antics, do you think you could sleep?”

Steve found the words a little confusing, but he nodded, his eyelids already trying to close on him. “You leaving?”

“I won’t be far. Just gotta finish making arrangements, okay?”

“You’ll come back, right?”

Tony’s tightly held expression cracked, emotion slipping through the seams, touching Steve’s heart. He leaned closer, pressing his forehead to Steve’s as he whispered, “I could never be away from you for long, baby-blue. You know that, right?”

Steve squeezed Tony’s thigh. He thought he said something in return but wasn’t sure.

“Time to sleep, Stevie.”

“I know, Mom. You mad at me? About before?”

“You know I never stay angry with you for long, angel-mine.”

“Just rest, Steve. Everything will be all right.”

“Hate when you’re mad at me, Mom.”

“Mom?”

“He’s been dreaming about his mom. I think being sick is bringing back stuff.”

“You say something, Tony?”

“Yeah, I’m going to go now. Not for long. Clint and Thor are right here with you.”

“S’good.”

“Keep feeding him these ice chips. And Thor, I want you to—oh, fuck. Will you put some pants on for pity’s sake? I can’t look at that thing and talk at the same time.”

Steve tried to smile, but his mother’s voice took on the serious tone, brooking no nonsense. “I mean it, Stevie. Go to sleep.”

“Yesss, ma’am.”

~0~0~0~

Chapter Text

Steve was aware of Thor moving him from the couch to his seat to strap him in for landing, but he didn’t focus on much else, except for Tony holding his hand from the seat beside him as he drifted back to sleep. He must have slept in the comfortable leather chair for a while, because when he woke again, they were readying for take-off.

“Still in Florida?” he asked Tony.

“Leaving now.”

“Did we stay long?”

“Just long enough.”

“You taking me home?”

“I’m taking you on vacation, remember?” Steve turned his head towards Tony to see if he looked serious. Tony smiled warmly at him. “We’ll be there soon. Rest, baby-blue.”

Steve did try to rest, but the take-off was pretty bumpy—or at least, that’s how it felt to his angry stomach. They weren’t back in the air long when he felt the nausea return full-blast. He squeezed Tony’s hand, muttering, “G’be sick.”

“Thor!” Tony yelled as the seat belt unlocked from around Steve’s lap.

Thor was there before Tony’s shout finished echoing through the cabin. He lifted Steve out of the seat and carried him with ease to the latrine. Once inside, Steve clasped Thor’s shoulder. “Let me down. I got this. You can go.”

He really didn’t want Thor to watch him toss his cookies yet again, though why he was still concerned with decorum he wasn’t sure. Thor loosened his grip enough to let Steve get to his knees, bending in half over the toilet. He grabbed hold of the sides with both hands to maintain his own balance, but Thor still didn’t leave the room. Steve did start heaving again, though nothing came forth. The convulsions were still intense, as if his insides were scraping bottom, desperately trying to dredge up something. He had a flickering thought about what Bruce had said regarding vomiting blood, thankful he didn’t see any. Unfortunately, puking nothing was nearly as painful as losing everything. His aching head started to swim, his unsteady hands losing their grip as his body gave way. He was grateful Thor hadn’t heeded his stupid request to leave him alone, as the Asgardian grabbed him before his face fell into the toilet.

Thor must have been kneeling behind him, because he was drawn back against the solid chest, noting dimly Thor had put a shirt back on. A cool cloth washed over his face, bringing relief to his heated flesh.

“Was it the ice chips?” Tony’s voice asked reluctantly, but Steve couldn’t see him.

“I don’t think so,” Bruce answered from beside him, though where Bruce had come from, Steve wasn’t sure. “Violent peristalsis, but no liquid was expelled. I’ll mix a larger portion of phenothiazines with the antiemetic medications I’m going to test in an attempt to control both the emesis and the peristalsis.”

“Wh-?” Steve managed.

Bruce’s hands were combing over his torso as he spoke calmly. “Bottom line, lack of eating and drinking has curtailed the dangerous vomiting, but your current condition of dry heaving isn’t much better. We’ve got to ease those inner contractions. I’ve procured a large assortment of drugs that could possibly help if I can figure out the right dosage for you.”

“You’re just going to pump a ton of drugs in him not knowing the right combination or the effect they may have? No. Too dangerous.” Tony clearly wasn’t happy with Bruce’s plan.

“He might feel like shit until I can ascertain the correct dosage because I’ll have to use large amounts for any effect on him, but his serum won’t let any of this stuff kill him.”

“Is that supposed to be comforting?”

“S’okay, Tony,” Steve muttered, hoping to reassure.

“Look, the first thing we need to do is get you off the floor, get an IV started to manage the dehydration you’ve got going and get those ribs wrapped so they can heal properly. One step at a time.”

Steve meant to nod, but his head mostly lolled against Thor’s chest. He fought the debilitating exhaustion, wanting to be aware of what was going on. Thor had gotten quite adept at lifting him without jostling, and Steve was set comfortably upon the couch in moments. He saw Phil’s nurses—Mark and Carolyn—setting up an IV pole and organizing a table full of needles, medicine bottles and other medical-looking paraphernalia. Bruce sure had picked up a lot of medical supplies in Florida from the look of things. Steve hoped something would work.

Tony sat in the chair beside the couch, wiping Steve’s face with another cool cloth. Steve hated the gloomy expression on his face, wishing more than anything he could restore the excited gleam to Tony’s face that was there when he was eagerly anticipating their trip.

“All right people, let’s give Dr. Banner room to work,” Phil stated crisply. “Nursing staff stay. Everyone else, clear the cabin.”

“I’m not going anywhere.”

“Stark—”

“Save it. This is my plane and Steve is my—mine.”

“Which is why you’re the one who most needs to leave,” Bruce said softly, but Steve could still hear.

“Tony,” Steve sighed, reaching for his hand. “Be okay.”

“No.” Tony shook his head adamantly.

Bruce leaned closer to Tony, speaking quietly into his ear, but Steve thought he heard the gist, which was how palpable Tony’s fear and stress were already, and how difficult this would be for him to watch.

“You’re about to use him as a guinea pig for your half-assed medical theories and you want me to turn my back because it’ll be too hard for me to watch. Forget it.”

“What I want,” Bruce said, “is for you to trust me. Do you?”

“I do,” Steve interjected, squeezing Tony’s hand. “And so do you.”

“Did you see all those needles he’s going to poke in you and all the shit in those bottles?”

“Used to needles.” Steve grinned weakly. “How d’you think’a’got this body?”

“I’m going to try to administer intravenously as much as possible—if you’ll move out of the way and let me get the IV going.”

“Come on, Tony.” Clint was behind Tony, setting a hand on his shoulder. “I’ve been where you are. He’s going to feel every bit of your fear and discomfort, which is only going to zap energy he needs to focus on recovering because he’ll worry about you.”

Steve nodded towards Clint, recalling the countless times he had to lead him out of Phil’s hospital rooms for a similar reason. “S’right.”

“Fine,” Tony snapped, standing abruptly, shrugging off Clint’s hand while giving Steve’s a hard squeeze. “I will be right outside the door. That door. Right outside. Leaning on it. You so much as whisper my name and I’m back in here.” He reluctantly released Steve’s hand and turned to Bruce. “You better not screw this up.”

“Means he trusts you,” Steve explained.

Bruce nodded, smirking. “Good to know.”

~0~0~0~

Most things were a blur for Steve after that. He was aware of Bruce asking Thor to hang back and assist with lifting and turning him while Bruce wrapped his ribs. He felt the prick of the IV go into his arm. Bruce was explaining stuff to him, which mostly sounded like mumbo-jumbo. He was hot then cold then hot again. Everything would hurt, then be numb. Mostly he was asleep—or at least he thought he was. There were needle pricks off and on. Whatever was in some of those needles made him gag and start retching. He yanked the IV loose once—maybe twice. The nausea was awful for a while, then he’d fade out again. The headache and pain in his gut were pretty constant, but he had gotten used to them, so he didn’t complain. Felt like a battle was raging inside him: Asgardian drugs versus super serum versus a potent cocktail of whatever medicines Bruce had whipped together. He could feel the effects of the warfare burning in his veins, churning in his stomach, scorching his lungs, slowing his heart. He hoped when the war was over, the good stuff won.

And then his mother’s voice was singing to him, the familiar lullaby, the one that always guided him towards sleep no matter how hot the fever burned. He could see the flowers on her blue patterned dress, the one with the lace collar. No, the flowers were on the apron, the one she tied around her neck and waist. She’d re-sewn it so many times when the materiel had frayed. One day he’d save enough money to buy her a new one—from a real store. She’d fuss and say she didn’t need such a fancy thing, but she would smile at how pretty it would be. He’d find one to match her blonde hair, the long hair he loved to watch her brush out each night and fasten up each morning. He really ought to buy her a pretty barrette or a nice hat instead. She loved hats, though she only had the one. She needed a fancy one, like the ones he used to draw.

“I’m gonna buy you a hat like this, Mom.”

“Going to buy.”

“Yes, ma’am. Going to buy you a hat like this.”

“Very pretty, Stevie. Maybe you’ll be a milliner one day.”

“I’d rather be a draw-er.”

“That is not a proper profession. You could be an artist, though. You’re very talented.”

“I like to draw. But it’s not as good as baseball. Wish I could play baseball.”

“Baseball is a game. Being an artist would be far more respectable than playing a game.”

“You’re just saying that because you know I can’t play baseball.”

“I’m telling the truth. The truth is the most important thing.”

“Even when you don’t like the truth?”

“Especially then.”

Steve opened his eyes, wanting to look at her pretty face, but she was gone. “Where’s my mom?” The doctor beside him was readying another injection. Stevie hated needles, but no sense complaining. There were always more needles.

“Your mom?” he asked, confused, looking over glasses that slumped down his nose.

“She was here. Where’d she go? Did she have to go back to work? No, wait. I can hear her. She’s still singing.”

“Oh, well that’s good. Close your eyes. You’ll hear her better.”

“Dr. Banner, are you ready for the next solution?”

“Let’s give this one a little longer. I think we’re on to something.”

“Baby mine, don’t you cry; baby mine dry your eyes; rest your head close to my heart; never to part; baby of mine. From your head down to your toes; you’re not much, goodness knows; but you’re so precious to me; sweet as can be; baby of mine.”

“Have you ever lied, Mom?”

“Go to sleep, Stevie.”

~0~0~0~

“Hey, baby, you awake?”

Steve blinked, trying to orient. He was sitting up in a soft, leather chair. The plane. He turned his head, glancing out the window, noting they had landed. “We in Fiji?”

The hand wrapped around his squeezed warmly. “Not quite.”

“Florida? New York?” Steve couldn’t remember. He didn’t even remember getting from the couch back to the leather seat. I must have ridden the Thor express without waking up this time. The thought was disconcerting, but then he realized his head wasn’t pounding nearly as horribly and his stomach felt queasy, but not violent.

“You’re in Provo.”

Tony could have said “Oz” for all the sense the response made to Steve. No, actually Oz would have made more sense since he’d at least heard of it. As the automatic seatbelt released him, he called out, “JARVIS, where’s Provo?”

“Oh, sure,” Tony snickered. “I can barely get you to use JARVIS for anything when we’re in the tower. Now that we’re fourteen hundred miles from home, you get the hang of him.”

Fourteen hundred miles. That raised Steve’s spirits. Wherever this Provo was, it was far enough away to be a vacation.

“Providenciales, more commonly known as Provo, is the most developed island in Turks and Caicos,” Phil explained reasonably.

“Turks and Caicos?” Steve repeated, still unsure.

“In the Caribbean, along the Bahama Islands chain,” Phil clarified. “About six hundred miles from Miami. It’s quite lovely, actually. I think you’ll like it.”

Steve liked the fact that they weren’t in the airport at JFK, boarding the limo back to the tower, which is what easily could have happened thanks to him. Anything else was gravy. “Sounds nice.”

“Well, don’t get your expectations too high. Admittedly, it took wizard-like prowess and masterful finesse to pull a trip like this together on almost no notice and to secure adequate accommodations, but compared to what I had planned for the Fiji trip—”

“Stark,” Natasha hissed.

“I am so sorry,” Steve muttered, his guilt lodging in his throat, making his words raspy.

Natasha sprung up from her leather chair, light as a cat, and put a hand on Steve’s shoulder. “Don’t, Cap. That was Stark’s fucked up attempt to pat himself on the back and get kudos, not an attempt to make you feel bad. Don’t let his twisted logic and huge ego get under your skin. Everyone is glad to be here.”

“Hell, yeah,” Clint agreed. “Caught a great eyeful on the descent. This place is fucking awesome. Phil’s travelled here before and believe me, he doesn’t vacation in dumps.”

“I save the dumps for the field,” Coulson agreed.

“This island is fit for an Asgardian,” Thor boasted.

“Hello?” Tony snapped. “Thank you all for stepping up to help pry my foot from my mouth, but I’ve got it from here.” Tony turned in his seat, laying his right palm over their joined hands, sandwiching Steve’s. “Steve, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—”

“Don’t worry,” Steve assured. Tony looked beat, the bags beneath his eyes attesting to his weariness. “I’m grateful to have any vacation—to be with all of you—and I appreciate every single thing you’ve done to make this happen despite the obstacle of me.”

Tony brought Steve’s hand to his mouth and pressed his lips against it. “I excel at mounting obstacles.” Tony’s wicked grin was the one that usually set Steve’s thighs on fire and he cursed his body inwardly for failing muster.

“Don’t you mean surmount?” Bruce asked, smirking, as he came closer to check Steve’s IV line.

“I’m sorry. I don’t recall inviting you into this conversation.”

“Are we ever getting off this plane?” Clint asked.

“Indeed. I shall disembark the Son of Coul myself at once.”

“When you’re done, Adonis, you can come back for Steve,” Tony said.

“I can walk,” Steve complained.

“And I can juggle six balls without letting any of them hit the floor. It’s just not happening today.”

“How’s the nausea?” Bruce asked.

“Still there . . . but a lot less.”

“Good. Looks like we’re moving in the right direction.” Bruce’s trusty flashlight beamed into Steve’s eyes, then down his throat. “The dehydration has tapered off incrementally, but for now this IV stays in. Do you need to urinate?” Steve flushed then shook his head. Bruce made a dissatisfied sound before responding, “Let me know when you do.”

“Do I really have to—”

“Yes,” Tony answered definitively.

Bustling movement was going on all around the cabin as everyone began readying to deplane.

Bruce flattened his hands over Steve’s ribs, which felt a lot better being wrapped. “I think we’re good here. He’s stable enough to transport to the villa as long as we’re careful.”

“Can you really juggle?” Clint asked as he went by.

“You bet your ass I can, circus boy.”

~0~0~0~

Chapter Text

“Are you serious?” Steve asked when he saw the wheelchair Thor was carrying him towards as they reached the bottom of the plane’s long flight of stairs. “That’s not for me, right?” The question was pointless. Who else would it be for? Phil was already in his chair and this one sat empty.

“You don’t have to use it,” Tony stated simply.

“I don’t?”

“Not at all. Thor won’t mind carrying you everywhere . . . through the airport . . . into the john . . . to the car.”

“I would consider it my honor.”

“Chair’s fine,” Steve groused. Thor smiled, setting him down carefully as Bruce came over to hang his IV bag on the metal pole behind the seat. The chair wasn’t even fancy and modern like Phil’s; just a plain, dull, sick-people wheelchair. He felt the shame of his invalid days creep up on him, souring his already unsettled guts. Looking around, he was certain he was going to see cameras flashing from all directions, journalists falling over each other to get a shot of Captain America in a wheelchair.

“It can be a little humbling,” Phil said compassionately, pulling up beside him, his eyes warm. “Believe me, I understand.”

Steve felt every inch the worm he was. Coulson had been nothing but classy throughout his debilitating ordeal, never once complaining, while Steve had done nothing but whine under far less dire circumstances.

“When someone does something nice for you, the appropriate response is gratitude, Stevie. Don’t be unappreciative. Many people have obstacles a lot worse than you. This is not about what you wish you have, but about what you have. Be content and courteous.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Sorry about this piece-of-shit chair,” Tony was saying from beside him. “Belongs to the airport. I was so busy updating flight plans and getting clearance and arranging accommodations and getting Coulson’s PT equipment in place—whatever.” He waved his hand. “I’ll have a decent chair here in less than an hour.”

“This one’s fine,” Steve responded sincerely. “I don’t plan to be in this for long, but while I am, this one serves the purpose. Thank you.” Steve took a deep breath, reminding himself of all he had to be grateful for. The sun shone brightly, the heat feeling good against his skin. The sky was pretty as a picture and the air had a sweet smell. They were on vacation, and he wasn’t going to ruin another minute. Looking more closely, he noticed the passengers and crew from Tony’s plane were the only people in the vicinity—with the exception of what he now noticed to be an ample security team. He wasn’t sure if they were local airport personnel, SHIELD-issued agents, or a team culled from Tony’s private security staff; maybe a little of each. Bottom line: No photographers were getting through that contingent.

“What’s with the security team?” he asked Tony. “Did those reporters follow us here?”

Tony was tapping away on his tablet. “Don’t think so. I think we’ve managed to fly in under the radar. Probably helped that we didn’t know where we were going ourselves until a few hours ago. I think we are going to manage to have the private vacation we were looking for, but we’ll just consider those guys out there insurance in case I’m wrong, which I rarely am. I’ll make sure they’re close enough to watch the villa and surrounding area, but not too close.”

“You think of everything.”

“If that were true I’d have found a different way to help when you got injured without exposing you to toxic Asgardian potions that could have killed you.”

Tony’s tone was flippant but Steve could feel the guilt behind the words. “Tony, you couldn’t have—”

“Come on, people, let’s go. I don’t expect to spend my vacation in the airport. Our customs processing will be expedited, but that can’t happen until we get inside. Let’s move.”

Steve reached for the wheels of the chair, planning to at least drive himself if he couldn’t walk, though the tangling IV line and aching pull of his ribs were going to prove a challenge. Clint was up behind him before he rolled two feet. “Can I drive? Phil never lets me push him. He’s a party-pooper. I bet I could pop a wheelie with this thing even with you in it.”

“Barton, if you make him vomit again, you’re on cleaning detail,” Natasha warned.

“And if you yank out the IV, you’re dealing with me,” Bruce added.

“Okay, okay. You’re all party-poopers. You do all remember we’re supposed to be on vacation, right? Come on, Steve. Let’s see if I can at least beat that lizard to the door.”

~0~0~0~

The airport was crowded, but they moved through quickly, one of the apparent perks of travelling with Tony Stark. There was a line of fancy truck-cars—no, SUVs was the correct term—waiting for them out front, and a friendly staff to load up their ample luggage. Their gear had already been stowed under the plane when Steve reached the airport in New York, so this was the first he was seeing of their army of bags.

“Are we moving here?” he quipped to Tony as Thor helped him up into the car he would be riding in.

“Those are all necessary provisions. I thought you soldier boys like to be prepared.”

“A knapsack with a bedroll is considered prepared.”

Bruce leaned into the vehicle long enough to rig his IV in a good spot, leaving only him and Tony in the backseat when he retreated. Steve liked the idea of having Tony all to himself for the first time in what felt like forever, but then Thor stuck his head through the window.

“Do you wish me to ride in this vehicle in case Steven needs assistance?”

“Up to you, baby. What do you think?” Steve was surprised when Tony deferred to him, since he hadn’t been allowed a say in anything since he collapsed through the latrine door.

“I think I’m good.” Not wanting Tony to think he was downplaying his condition, he added, “the other cars will be directly behind us, right?”

At Tony’s nod, Thor patted his shoulder and grinned. “Very well. I shall not be far and I will keep a keen watch upon this vehicle.”

“Thanks.”

“You do look better, my friend.”

“Yeah, your color has gone from pasty white to a dull greenish gray.”

“Least I’m off the floor,” Steve replied, trying for humor, hoping to ease some of the worry from Tony’s rigid body.

“Good point,” Tony nodded, brushing the back of his hand against Steve’s check. Steve nuzzled the caress.

“Not exactly the vacation you planned, huh?”

“I planned to be with you, baby. Somewhere nice. Somewhere you’ve never been. Far from New York. And here we are. All good.” Tony turned to his tablet, tapping and swiping. “How about a virtual tour of Provo so you can know what you’re looking at?”

“Sounds great.”

Steve welcomed the warmth of Tony’s body as he scooted closer and lightly pressed his head to Steve’s shoulder. Tony’s proximity relaxed muscles he hadn’t realized he was holding tense. He did his best to look at the pictures and listen to Tony read countless facts and points of interest while still glancing out the window to see everything live, but the effort took a toll. Sleepiness clung to him as if he’d been hypnotized. It was maddening, being this tired from doing nothing, but that was his reality for now.

“Never saw a real palm tree,” he muttered as his head fell back against the seat on its own volition, and he gazed out the window through heavy lids. “So many of them. So many. Pretty.”

When Tony began reading a long litany about palm trees—“Arecaceae, a botanical family of perennial lianas, shrubs, and trees commonly known as palms”—Steve realized Tony’s goal was to put him to sleep. It was working. He caught a few glimpses of the homes in the town they drove through, the perfect blue sky with fluffy white clouds like on a postcard, and the beginnings of the shoreline.

His next awareness was a sickeningly familiar ache in his gut. The roads they had driven over had been fairly bumpy, and his insides had reached their limit of jiggling endurance. He sat up with a start as the car came to a stop, his hand grabbing his middle as he looked around desperately. Tony’s hand flattened over his.

“Steve, what’s wrong?”

“Thor,” he managed to say as he fought to keep from puking all over Tony and the car. Thankfully, the car door pulled open and Thor got him out in time.

It wasn’t until the heaving finished and Thor helped him into the wheelchair that he realized he had just christened the driveway of their destination.

“Welcome to our vacation villa,” Tony announced drolly, his hands waving towards the magnificent house behind them.

“Can’t say the Avengers don’t know how to make an entrance,” Clint chuckled

~0~0~0~

Steve was grateful his inauspicious arrival didn’t put a damper on the vacation proceedings any more than necessary. While Bruce reconnected the IV line he had accidently torn out—as well as bandaged the bloody mess he’d made of his arm, and pumped him with more medicines—everyone else was bustling, staff and Avengers working to unload the luggage and get settled in the villa. Tony stood in the middle directing like a ringmaster in between micro-managing everything Bruce did.

“I thought you said your secret sauce there was going to fix this? Those weren’t dry heaves this time. How is that not worse . . . no, those go upstairs.”

“There is a lot of fluid getting pumped into him through the IV to combat the dehydration. Combined with the cocktail of medications, it would stand to reason his hyper-irritated intestinal system is going to have a reaction.”

“No, that equipment gets set up in the first floor suite . . . stands to reason? You did see there was blood in the liquidy goop my staff is now hosing off the pavement, right? You said vomiting blood was bad. It’s why you started giving him all this stuff in the first place.”

“Yes, I saw a trace amount of blood. I also believe this stuff, as you call it, is what kept the violence of the hematemesis minimal.”

“Minimal? How about we set our aim a little higher, oh, I don’t know, like no more puking!”

“Tony,” Steve cautioned, reaching outward, but the distance between them was too wide. “Bruce is doing the best he can and I’m grateful. The road was pretty bumpy, but we’re here now. How ‘bout when he’s done patching me up, you give me the tour? I’ll stay in the chair or I’ll hitch a ride on an Asgardian, whatever you want. Nice and low-key.”

Tony’s features were a combination of fury, tension, worry, and outright pouting, all of which he finally wrestled down to a grudging nod.

“A quick tour, after which I want you in bed,” Bruce cautioned as he finished up.

“Whatever you say, Doc.”

His response looked to pacify Tony, who barked out a few more orders before personally assuming the driving duties of Steve’s wheelchair. When he finally had a chance to look around and take in his surroundings, Steve was left breathless by something other than his debilitation. It was as if he had stepped into a painting or a magazine spread. He had certainly never been anyplace this magnificent.

The “adequate” accommodations Tony found for them was a secluded, beautiful, two-story villa on a hilltop, surrounded almost completely by the turquoise sea. The sand along the beach was so white it looked like snow. A far cry from Coney Island, he thought. His mind conjured the exact pitch of Bucky’s impressed whistle, the one he used when something was real swanky. He might have even followed it up with a “Holy cow!” Steve really wished Bucky could be here to see this.

“If wishes were horses, beggars would ride, Stevie.”

Steve blinked, startled at how clearly he’d heard his mother’s admonition. He looked over his shoulder, half-expecting to see her standing there, but saw Tony instead, framed by the beach’s natural beauty. Steve smiled, eager to go closer to the beach and see if water could really be that crystal clear, but for now Tony’s tour was taking him up the palm tree lined path to the villa. The house was the brightest white with coral accents, offset by the colorful flora surrounding it. There was already a ramp built over the stone stairway leading up to the front door, something Tony no doubt had put in place for Phil before they landed, but was proving useful for him as well. The floors inside were marble, the décor opulent, yet Caribbean-flavored, with lots of green, blue, peach, and yellow accents.

From the impressive entry hall, you could see straight through the center of the villa, into the massive great room with large glass doors that were slid open, letting in the smell of the salt air and the sound of lapping waves below. Through the great room sliding doors he could see what was called a sea-view terrace, which was like a room, only outdoors, fully furnished, with a roof, but few walls. An open air room. The patio of the sea-view terrace led fully outdoors to another patio called the pool terrace, though it was the craziest pool Steve had ever seen. Sunken in-ground, in the center of the patio tiles, was a rectangular expanse of indigo water . . . and then horizon. Tony explained to him what an “infinity pool” was, how the construction made the pool appear to have no walls on one side, giving the illusion of no edge, stretching instead straight into the ocean. Still looked to Steve like you would fall right over the edge if you swam too far, but until he could investigate further, he would have to take Tony’s word. At the far right end of the pool terrace, on an elevated marble patio platform, was a bubbling “hot tub” which you had to climb three steps up to get into, Steve figuring he wouldn’t see the inside of that for a while.

Since Tony was only giving him a brief tour, Steve viewed all of these things from the center of entry hall, looking through. He was eager to get a closer view, hoping he would feel better soon so he could wander at will. A quick gander at the rest of the first level found a fancy bathroom bigger than most bedrooms near the front door, and a large kitchen and formal dining room to the right of the entry hall. The dining room led out to a “grilling terrace” set up with a long, rectangle dining table and chairs, and a barbecue bigger than Steve’s oven. From the grilling terrace, you could also reach the “breakfast patio,” a more intimate, round table and chairs set amongst the lush flower garden.

To the left of the entry hall was a media room—though why anyone would want to watch television in a place like this was beyond Steve. The two ground floor suites—both with private baths and patios—were set up for Phil and Clint. The one closest to the media room was set up to function as Phil’s training room, Walt currently supervising the men assembling the last of the equipment Tony had brought with them, while the suite with the direct entry out onto the pool terrace would serve as Phil and Clint’s sleeping quarters.

To reach the villa’s upper level, and the remaining three suites, you needed to climb a handsome, marble, winding staircase, which is where Tony stopped the wheelchair, speaking regretfully. “I needed to set Coulson up on this level to make sure he could access as much of the villa independently as possible. I would have preferred to find single story accommodations for us, but with the limited time—”

“Not a problem.” Steve waved his hand. “I won’t be in this chair long, thankfully. Until then, I’ll ask for help. Promise.”

Tony looked relieved, which made Steve feel like a heel for having been such a sourpuss about the wheelchair. What could he possibly have to complain about? Tony had taken them all to paradise. To think he managed to arrange such lavish lodgings at the last minute, from the plane, in between worrying about him was simply amazing. He reminded himself Tony thrived on this sort of miraculous undertaking, and he did his best to let his guilt go regarding ruining his team’s vacation. Surely no one could perceive an opportunity to stay in a paradise like this as a hardship? In fact, they were already running through the house like kids, laughing and planning, Phil motoring along in his new chair. The beach wheelchair Tony had special ordered for him was parked near the front door, waiting for them, when they’d arrived. The chair had huge, thick wheels that wouldn’t sink in the sand, as well as an attached umbrella shading the seat, and a cup holder for his lemonade. Apparently, it could even be taken into the water if that was your preference.

“When you’re less tired, I’ll take you for the outside tour,” Tony said as Steve watched the rest of his team blast past him. “There’s a guest house for Phil’s entourage, as well as a beach house, pool house, sauna, and staff house. I’ve flown in folks from my own payroll to make sure everyone in here has been vetted and screened. We won’t have to worry about privacy issues.”

“S’good,” Steve nodded, the warm breeze blowing through the open doors soothing his skin. Was nice not to be cold. He hated cold.

“But you already gave me the heavy blanket Mom. I can stay on the couch.”

“Not when you’re this sick, Stevie. Tonight you sleep in my bed. Look at you. You’re shivering. Let me tuck you in.”

“What about you?”

“What about me, what?” Tony’s voice startled Steve, his head bobbing up.

“Nothing. Think I might have fallen asleep for a second.”

“Okay, tour is over. Hey, muscles, get over here and get Steve upstairs.”

“With alacrity,” Thor responded, bounding in from the pool terrace. He hauled Steve—wheelchair and all—to the upper level efficiently, without jostling. Once there, Steve managed to cajole Tony into giving him a quick tour of the top floor. You could see straight down to the lower level from beside the staircase, which was called an open-air design. The three other suites up here each had their own expansive balconies, and private baths, which made six bathrooms Steve had counted in the villa so far, and he knew he hadn’t seen everything. He’d lived in apartment buildings when he was a kid that had less total bathrooms.

As he was wheeled along the hall, he only got to peek into Thor’s suite and the one Bruce and Natasha were sharing, but they were absolutely stunning. His and Tony’s room was even nicer. The combination bedroom-sitting room was big, more than two times the size of his living room in his apartment in the tower. The furniture was laid out in a way that made the flow of the room open and airy, nothing cluttered. Upon entering, they were in the sunken portion of the room, the remainder looking to be up on a platform accessible via two shallow steps. The lower level had a sea-green and white tile floor, a long cushy chaise piled with a mountain of green, blue, and yellow pillows, two yellow-cushioned wicker chairs—one a rocker— and a pair of glass-topped end tables with white wood legs. There were two bookcases, well, no, not actually bookcases. The wall was cut into in two sections behind the wicker chairs, with shelves inset. Colorful glass bottles, candles, various shaped shells and starfish, and few picture-filled coffee table style books were set neatly atop the shelves. The walls in this section of the suite were painted in mint green, the other walls in the suite painted a rich, buttery cream that reflected the sunlight, making the room nearly incandescent. White-bladed ceiling fans hung down from the center beam that dissected the vaulted ceiling, one fan over each section of the room.

Tony paused near the two-steps separating the upper and lower portion of the suite. “I hadn’t realized the second floor suites were not level. I’ll get a ramp put in here first thing tomorrow.”

Steve was about to tell Tony he didn’t want him going to any more trouble when Thor once again lifted the wheelchair and mounted the simple obstacle saying, “There is no need.”

Tony raised a dubious eyebrow, but Steve quickly reasoned, “If you’re going to have him haul me up that huge, winding staircase, what’s two more little steps?”

The expanse of floor on the higher level was covered in plush carpeting as white as the sand on the beach. The large bed was set in the center of the room, the frame and headboard made of paneled white wood. The bedspread was peach, which matched the small bed stands, both shaped like three-legged stools. Atop the stools sat lamps, their bases looking to be made out of blown blue glass. Opposite the bed, directly against the wall, was a long side table made of distressed greenish-white wood. Something about the shape and width of the table, and its long wooden legs reminded him of a table his mom had had once, though hers was not nearly as fancy and certainly didn’t look as if its wood had been cured in the surf. This one was used to hold a large vase, several decorative bowls, and a sculpture of Neptune. On the floor on either side of the table were large, white wicker baskets, one piled with towels, the other with magazines. On the wall perpendicular to the bed were two large glass-paned doors with crystal knobs. The doorway was framed by gauzy white lace curtains which were pushed to the side so the doors could be thrown open wide, revealing the furnished balcony and magnificent ocean view. The balcony looked to have an assortment of chairs and loungers, as well as a round table for dining, though Steve couldn’t see fully from his vantage point. Inside the suite, on either side of the balcony doors, were more places to sit. Two aqua and white striped armchairs were set at an angle from each other on one side of the doorway, while the matching striped sofa was nestled on the other, soft, colorful pillows adorning them all.

There were scattered potted plants throughout the suite, several abstract art pieces in beach colors on the walls, and all kinds of cheerful knickknacks. He only saw one small bureau in the corner, which made him wonder where all the clothing Tony brought was going to fit, but as Thor wheeled him further, he spied the spacious walk-in closet in the hallway en route to the private bath.

The bathroom itself was a space nearly the size of his old apartment in Brooklyn, only this room was the polar opposite of “the hellhole.” The bathroom was sheathed in a wealth of pure white marble, accented with what Steve hoped weren’t actual gold taps, but could well prove to be the real thing. In addition to the expected toilet, there was another toilet-like fixture, one with a little spout that, Steve guessed with an embarrassed flush, was for washing your privates. There was a set of his and his sinks above which hung a huge, gold trimmed mirror. To the right of the sinks stood a separate shower stall that was a glass room unto itself complete with a marble bench seat; beside that, a huge sunken tub. At least he thought it was supposed to be a tub. It looked more like a small, indoor pool that might just be big enough to hold himself, Tony, Thor and the wheelchair, if they didn’t mind getting cozy. Thor was excited to twist the faucets and show him how the water cascaded into the tub like a mini waterfall, having already played with the one in his room. He then turned another knob, explaining how this tub could also become a “rumbling, warm pool of bubbling delight.”

“He means a Jacuzzi,” Tony grumbled, rolling his eyes. “He plays with his in the tower all the time. Luckily, I have good waterproofing and no one living beneath his suite.”

“Indeed, I find the Jacuzzi most ambrosial. Have you partaken, Steven?”

“Can’t say that I have. I think the shower is about my speed, especially right now.”

“When you are well, then. Surely, such a fine bath suite is part of your renovation plans for the penthouse? In fact, we should all have bathtubs of waterfall to enhance the bubbling delight, yes?”

“Let me call the Vinnies and get right on that,” Tony said drolly.

Steve smiled, trying not to yawn as he looked around, but he was growing wearier by the minute. In fact, he was seeing three toilets now. “This sure is a fine bathroom. A fella could set his pajamas down in here and never find them again without a map.”

“If you need assistance, I can help you undress, Steven,” Thor offered.

“Yeah, you wish,” Tony hissed. “I’ve got this from here. How about I get a little bell or something and we’ll ring for you when we need your muscles again?”

“To-nee.”

Steve tried to apologize as Thor wheeled him back into the bedroom, but the Asgardian laughed off the rudeness. “Do not trouble yourself. He remains quite concerned for your welfare.”

“I know. He has to be exhausted, too.”

“Hello? He is still in the room,” Tony complained from behind them. “Stop talking about me.”

“Thought you liked when everyone talked about you,” Bruce kidded as he entered the suite, followed by Clint who was hauling medical equipment.

“Yeah, means you’re the center of attention,” Clint agreed.

“I’m sorry, am I throwing an open house in this suite?”

“I need to get Steve set up,” Bruce informed as he mounted the metal pole near the bed. “Need a place for the IV.”

“And I get to be doctor’s helper since Mark and Carolyn are setting up for Phil in our room.”

“Surprised Natasha isn’t in here,” Tony groused.

“She’s keeping Phil company,” Clint supplied.

“I could carry the Son of Coul up to this level if we are assembling.”

“Yeah, I don’t think Steve’s in any condition to be assembling,” Steve heard Bruce say from somewhere far off. Did he go downstairs? Why was there a flashlight in his eyes? Steve’s entire body hurt. Felt heavy as lead. The sound of the waves was nice, though. He was glad his mom took him and Bucky to Coney Island today. Too bad he had a stomachache and couldn’t eat any hot dogs. The beach was crowded, and they had trouble finding a spot to put the blanket down, but Bucky kept laughing and telling the funniest jokes, making Mom laugh, too.

“Bedtime, Steven.”

“But we just got here, Mom.” Steve opened eyes he hadn’t realized he had closed.

“Yeah, I’m not Mom, I’m Tony, but you still have to go to bed, baby-blue.”

“He was in and out like this on the plane.”

“And you’re sure this isn’t the head injury?”

“As sure as I am about any of this.”

“Comforting—not.”

“The only nutrition he’s had the past three days is gone. Electrolyte imbalance, dehydration, debilitation from the violent vomiting, the Asgardian medication still altering his physiology. Changes in perception are bound to happen, but I think for the most part he’s with us, right, Steve?”

“Hey, Bruce.”

“Can you tell me where you are?”

Steve looked around. “In bed.” He was confused. He thought he had been in the wheelchair. And what happened to his pants? “A nice bed.”

“Where is the bed?”

“Near Coney Island? No, wait, that’s wrong.” Steve concentrated. “In Not-Fiji. The other place. Darn, I know this one. Phil told me.” He tried again. “Primo. Prima. Priva. Proma.”

“Can he phone a friend?” Clint asked. “Or buy a vowel? He’s pretty close.”

“How about in the beautiful beachfront villa Tony rented for us?” Steve tried. “Close enough?”

“Good enough for now. Do you need to urinate?”

“Why do you keep asking me that?” Steve squirmed under the cotton blanket that appeared upon him.

“Because he’s a pee pervert,” Tony quipped. “You know that about him, right, Natasha?”

Natasha’s voice came from a distance. “Shut up, Stark.”

“Play nice, kiddies,” Phil cautioned. He sounded far off, too.

Steve pulled on Bruce’s arm, getting him to bend closer so he could whisper. “You don’t have to put that . . . that thing in my penis again, do you?”

Bruce patted his shoulder comfortingly. “No worries. Just rest.”

Steve wasn’t completely satisfied with the response, but he was too tired to argue.

“Room party’s over,” Tony announced scooting into the bed beside Steve. “Scram, all of you. Go make use of the expensive facilities I’m paying for.”

“Already on my way to the pool,” Natasha called. “There’s a great floating pool chair down here for the boss.”

“Wait, wha—” Bruce stammered. “You didn’t even unpack your bathing suit yet.”

“Who said I was wearing a suit?”

“Then I must try this pool at once!” Thor bellowed.

“I got dibs on the sauna,” Clint laughed. “And if you survive the green-eyed wrath, you’re coming surfing with me. I’m living for the moment I get to see the God of Thunder on a long board.”

“I shall bring my hammer.”

“Try not to break everything on the first day,” Tony sighed as the commotion barreled down the stairs towards the lower level.

“You should go with them,” Steven encouraged as he carefully turned onto his side to face Tony, who was lying on his back beside him. “Watching me sleep is no vacation for you.”

“I’m where I want to be.” Steve tried to muster the effort to argue, but then took a closer look. Tony’s eyes were closed as he inhaled deeply, his body sinking into the mattress as if it was the first time he took a real breath in days. One arm flopped up over his head; with the other arm, he encouraged Steve’s head towards his shoulder, fingers falling into Steve’s hair when he complied. “Your ribs okay to lay like this?”

“I’m good.” Actually, he wasn’t completely comfortable, though no position was. At least this way, he could snuggle with Tony.

“You’re not going to puke on me, right?”

“Wasn’t planning to.”

“Do you need to urinate?”

Steve heard the teasing tone in Tony’s voice and laughed as best he could. They both did. “Don’t plan to do that on you, either,” he replied.

“Good to know. I don’t share that particular kink with Dr. Banner.”

“Kink?” He had a brief thought about what Tony had said to Natasha, wondering how peeing was perverted, figuring he wasn’t quite following the conversation again.

“No kinks for you, kinky monkey. Go to sleep,” Tony said softly.

“I don’t even know what we’re talking about.”

“Good.”

Tony’s fingers played over the recently shorn patch on the back of his head. His skin was very sensitive there, feeling tingly beneath Tony’s touch. He liked it. “S’nice.”

“No, this is nice,” Tony responded.

“What is?”

“Being here. With you.”

“Really?”

“Best.”

“Nah.

“Is so.”

“Uh-uh.”

“Uh-huh.”

“S’not.”

“You really think you can out-argue me, Steven?”

Tony laughed softly. Steve liked the sound. In the distance he could hear laughing and splashing and ocean waves, but he liked Tony’s sound the most. Tony was going on about something, lots of words, most of which made no sense. Steve listened as close as he could for as long as he could, hazily aware as the muttering muted to heavy breathing, then light snores.

“I love you, Tony,” he whispered with what voice he had left. The fingers on his scalp squeezed lightly before falling limp.

“I love Tony, Mom.”

“He’s a good man, Stevie.”

“I know.”

~0~0~0~

Chapter Text

“How’s it going in there?”

“Good so far,” Steve answered, appreciating the feel of the warm, clean water raining down upon him. Having been in the army, a good shower was something he learned never to take for granted, and the one he was currently enjoying felt particularly welcome. He was sitting down on the marble bench, a convenient fixture in the otherwise glass shower stall of their suite bathroom, taking his time like he promised he would, grateful to be able really scrub the residue of the previous day off himself. His last shower had been on the plane—with Thor—who had hosed him down like the soiled invalid he was. While he appreciated the help, this was a vast improvement.

Tony had originally tried to assist him, worried about leaving him in here alone, but the two of them together, naked inside the shower stall , resulted in Tony getting a boner that refused to quit. Steve offered to help, reminding Tony his hands still worked even if the rest of him was out of commission, but Tony got angry at himself and stormed out of the bathroom, only returning to knock on the door every two minutes for updates.

“You still okay?”

“Yes.”

After passing out yesterday, both of them had slept the rest of the day and through the night as well. At least, he didn’t think Tony had gotten up. Didn’t look like he had when they woke this morning. They hadn’t had much conversation. Steve woke up needing to pee, and he was glad he was able get into the wheelchair and the bathroom himself with a limited assist from Tony; gladder still when Bruce concluded his urine output satisfactory enough to allow him a furlough from the IV.

“You almost done?”

“Yes,” Steve answered, rinsing the shampoo out of his hair, not that he had much hair in the back. He had shaved and brushed his teeth in the shower stall as well, trying to get everything done in one swoop while he had enough energy. His was grateful he hadn’t vomited since his arrival, but he was well aware how screwy everything felt inside.

What if Bruce is wrong, and the serum doesn’t eventually overcome this?

He had only gotten to be Captain America for a limited time before going into the ice, and had only been reawakened a few months before the Battle of New York. He really had no way of knowing if the Asgardian drug was strong enough to undue his transformation. Even the thought of going back to being regular Steve Rogers sent an icy chill through his veins.

“Steve?”

“I’m coming,” he called, shaking the unwanted thoughts from his mind. He had to focus on getting well. No other course was acceptable. He also couldn’t cause Tony anymore worry and stress. Turning off the water, he pushed the shower door open and reached for the nearby towel, drying off as quickly and efficiently as he was able. He managed to hoist himself back in the chair easily enough. His rib area still stung, but he could feel the bones mending. At least that part of his physiology was working correctly, but the safe choice would be to let Bruce wrap them again in case he had any more arduous vomiting incidents.

“Can I come in?” Tony asked as he opened the bathroom door a crack.

“Of course.”

“I brought your clothes. Okay if I help you get dressed?”

“You sure you want to?” Steve asked, recalling how upset Tony got with himself earlier.

“Look, I’m not that guy, okay,” Tony snapped. “All evidence to the contrary, I’m not.”

“What guy?”

“The lecherous jerk who’s so preoccupied with his own prurient lust he can’t keep his dick from throwing wood long enough to help his injured lover take a fucking shower.”

“I can guarantee those weren’t the words I was using to describe you in my head,” Steve said with a smile, hoping to josh Tony from his sullenness. “In fact, I like that I make you hot. Isn’t that kinda how we ended up together?”

“You know it’s more than that.”

Steve sobered, reaching for Tony’s hand. “I do know. You didn’t do anything wrong, Tony.”

Tony shrugged, squeezing his hand before letting go. “Sure.” He handed Steve the pile of clothing.

“Thought you wanted to help?”

“I can help.”

“Whose clothes are these?” Steve was confused by the unfamiliar garments.

“Yours, remember? The fitting. My designers. Vacation wardrobe.”

“Oh, yeah. Guess I wasn’t figuring on wearing something fancy while I’m like this.”

“Shorts and a shirt aren’t fancy. Besides, there are two more closets full of clothes if you barf on these.”

“Two closets?” Steve had seen the one walk-in closet between their bedroom and the bathroom, which was huge. Did Tony seriously need more space for their clothes in another, unseen closet? He was kidding, wasn’t he?

“I like clothes. I like you. Get used to it.”

Steve could get used to anything that made Tony smile like that. “I’ll do my best.”

~0~0~0~

Steve rested upstairs in the aqua and white striped armchair in his suite until the team finished breakfast. The smell of the elaborate breakfast the cook had prepared was strong enough to taunt his stomach on the upper level of the house. He didn’t dare risk getting closer. Tony groused about leaving him to go eat, but Steve insisted Tony couldn’t avoid food for as long as this sickness took to run its course. “If I feel like you’re not eating because of me, I’m going to feel like I have to go down there with you so you’ll eat, and that could get ugly.”

He insisted he would be fine and he was—mostly. He’d never admit it, but a small part of Steve did feel left out listening to his team sharing their meal and banter without him, the situation too reminiscent of sitting alone by his apartment window hearing the other kids laughing and playing outside like normal kids did.

“What do you have to complain about, Stevie? You’re lucky to be in such a fine place.”

“Mom?” Startled, he looked around. Surely he hadn’t dozed off, had he? “I must have,” he muttered. The book he thought he was reading had dropped into his lap, so maybe he had fallen asleep. He looked out the open balcony doors, staring towards the beautiful sea. She was right. He really was lucky.

When breakfast was over, Thor came for him, beaming good cheer. “Come, Steven. I shall transport you downstairs.”

“I might as well stay here. Not much I can do right now. I don’t want to be the bump on the log you guys are trying to have fun around.”

“What nonsense is this? I see no logs.”

“Just an expression. I’ll be all right.”

“You will, indeed. The schedule of activities for the day is set, and I am honored to be the first to keep company with you.”

“Schedule? Keep company? What are you talking about?”

“We are all here on holiday together. While your activities are curtailed, we will find less strenuous amusements to entertain you. Come, we shall lounge by the poolside and behold this glorious day and the astonishing vista.” He picked up the book from Steve’s lap. “I could read excerpts from your book, if you wish.”

Steve gaped at him. “The Mighty Thor wants to sit around reading to me rather than do a hundred more exciting things you could be doing? I don’t think so.”

“We do not need to read. I have no preference.”

“Not my point. You guys aren’t going to take turns babysitting me. You’re all here to have fun. I don’t want you doing that.”

“Then it is good that your vote was not counted at the assemblage,” Thor laughed.

Steve shook his head, annoyed. “You don’t understand. I don’t need pity.”

“Pity?” Thor sat down across from him, his blue eyes so steely they looked as if they were trying to pierce him. “What reason would we have to pity you? This holiday is meant for comradeship. Fellowship with those dearest, those with whom we have forged our bonds through blood and battle. Do you pity the Son of Coul for his battle scars?”

“No! Of course not.”

“Then I do not understand. Partaking in a morning’s leisure with you would be naught but an honor. What form that leisure takes if of no consequence. You are my friend.”

“Captain America is your friend.”

“Steven Rogers is my friend. You are one in the same.”

“You plan to be hard-headed about this, don’t you?”

“How does the thickness of my cranium belie my words?”

“Do you really want to be a jerk?” Bucky’s voice echoed from the long past.

“You’re the one being a jerk, Buck. Why would you want to sit around here reading comic books when you could be out playing baseball with the guys?”

“What’s it to you? Maybe I like reading comics. Not everything is complicated. You think too much, Stevie. All day long. Think. Think. Think. Doesn’t your head get tired?”

“Actually, my head is the one that’s pretty thick,” Steve said, causing Thor to grin.

“This preoccupation with cranium size fascinates me. We shall continue this discussion by the pool.”

“Sure,” Steve agreed, unable to hold back his own smile.

~0~0~0~

“I must try this skiing upon water,” Thor declared as they watched Natasha from their cushioned lounge chairs near the pool, which provide a perfect view of the beach below.

“You make sure I’m awake for that,” Steve responded, adjusting his sunglasses. He had dozed off more than once while they sat, the comfort of the chair and the warm rays of the sun baking into his skin proving to be as lulling as the lapping waves and sea-salt scented breezes.

Thor had been right bringing him downstairs. His years in the ice had imbued a deep-seated craving for direct sunlight he hadn’t fully acknowledged. The sun here was warmer, more powerful than the sunlight in New York City, and he was quickly becoming addicted to the way it nourished him deep within. He was content to sit here all day—all week. The horizon was a work of art that yielded new beauty with each gaze. When more of his strength returned, he knew he’d want his sketch pad and pencils. Looking at the infinity pool fascinated him. Thor had jumped in several times to prove to him there was, indeed, a wall, and no one was in danger of falling out from swimming too close to what seemed like a non-existent edge.

“It is true,” Thor declared, still fascinated by the phenomenon himself, though Steve was certain he had gone in yesterday as well. “While the appearance suggests one could float over the edge into the surf and beyond, there is indeed restriction.”

Tony had shaken his head at both of them, his grin amused, before he jumped in to start swimming laps. Being close enough to watch his friends cavort made Steve feel part of things. Clint and Phil were down near the shore, Clint chasing the Frisbee Phil had flung as he motored through the shallow water in the all-terrain chair Clint had nicknamed Rambo. Both of them waved at Natasha when she skied by in yet another acrobatic position that should have defied the laws of balance. Bruce was wading in the surf, occasionally joining in the Frisbee game, though his gaze was never far from Natasha. Tony had made several cracks about how careful Bruce was being to keep his hard-on below the waterline.

Their morning lazed into early afternoon, Steve being aware enough to feel included, trying not to overly worry about his unplanned hiatuses. Tony had swum more than an hours’ worth of laps—thirty minutes before Steve took off his shirt and another forty-five after—before taking a break. While Steve understood Tony needed a way to expel the considerable tension and worry from his body, he was glad when he was finally able to relax. Tony took refuge on the sea-view terrace, under the shade of the overhanging roof, telling Steve he couldn’t afford to fry. The hours of direct Caribbean sunlight on the pool terrace had even gotten to Thor a few times, but he simply took a dip in the pool and replenished himself with the endless pitchers of lemonade being brought onto the terrace by a very nice man named Thomas who looked eager to take good care of them. Steve wished he could have indulged in the lemonade, noting how refreshing it looked dancing against the ice in Thor’s glass, but he stuck to the occasional mouthful of ice chips that seemed to appear as if by magic on the table beside him.

As promised, Thor had read to Steve for a while, his dramatic rendering making each page sound as if Shakespeare was the author. The Asgardian looked to be thoroughly enjoying the espionage thriller Phil had lent Steve, several times needing to climb up from his seat and include actions and gestures to the reading. Steve felt bad when he would jolt awake and realize he had been napping, Thor having put the reading on hold, even though he looked ready to tear into the book to find out what happened next.

“You don’t have to wait for me,” Steve offered. “I’m sure it’s frustrating.”

“Nonsense. We commenced this journey together and shall only conclude in the same manner, no matter the wait.”

“Thanks.” Steve’s eyes were falling shut again without his say-so. He was getting used to the sensation, but he still hated it. He wanted to feel like himself again, powerful and in control.

“Your friends are very thoughtful, Stevie.”

“I know, Mom.”

“She still speaks with you?”

Steve forced his eyes open, turning to Thor. “Did I say something out loud?”

“I believe you were conversing with your mother, not me. Apologies for the intrusion.”

Steve sighed. “Bad enough I’m like this. Not thrilled about adding crazy to the list.”

“I see nothing crazy in conversing with one’s mother.”

“Except she’s not here.” Steve looked over his shoulder. Tony was engrossed in whatever project he had up on the screens of his two laptops. He made sure to lower his voice as he continued. “I was dreaming of her before, okay, but now. . . .”

“Now?”

“I don’t know. Is it still a dream if her voice is talking to me about stuff that’s not from the past? Has to still be a dream, right? I just dozed off, didn’t I?”

“Possibly.”

“Or possibly Tony’s right and Bruce is wrong and my head is more damaged than we thought from the bridge incident.” Steve grew more agitated, his stomach twisting as his head pounded. “Maybe I’m not healing after all. Maybe this is permanent. Maybe there’s an expiration date on how long my serum can heal me.”

Thor’s arm crossed the distance between their two chairs, his hand resting lightly upon Steve’s forearm. “Calm yourself. The voice of your mother does not have to indicate anything more dire than you are missing her and desirous of her comfort.”

“I’ve missed her most of my life. Still never heard her.”

“Then rejoice for this newfound gift.”

“Gift?” Steve took as deep a breath as he was capable of around his healing ribs. He hadn’t thought of this as a gift, but he had to admit he liked remembering the sound of her voice in such detail.

“Healing will choose its own course. Just because you do not understand the path of yours does not mean healing is not present. Your great fear and anxiety over not returning fully to your Captain America form is surely draining your weakened resources. Can you not release these anxieties and trust in your path?”

“I want to.” Steve shook his head, knowing he was far from achieving that goal, his anxiety making him nauseous. “You don’t know what it was like . . . before.”

“True. I have not walked in your footsteps. I do, however, understand the discomfiture of being humbled.”

“How could you?”

“Surely your readings have enlightened you as to how I came to Earth in the first place? I can assure you, not by choice. I was cast out by my father as recompense for my arrogance. I awoke here with naught but a mortal’s strength, and poorly did I cope with my changed station, possessing neither the grace nor the courage with which you navigated your challenging youth. I was yet to learn the origin of true power and the humility required of true strength.”

“So you believe this is happening to me because I’m arrogant?”

Thor shook his head. “I believe this condition has happened to you because you ingested a powerful Asgardian tonic that has disrupted the workings of your serum and thrown you into disequilibrium. However, what you make of this circumstance will be your choice. The humble man within you is what makes you the strong warrior you are. Do not seek distance from him.”

“You’re right.” Steve knew Thor’s words were wise, but the difficulty was sorting through feelings, thoughts, and fears while his head felt congested with cotton candy and the persistent throb of dull ache.

“Did somebody forget to tell you guys we’re on vacation? What’s with the serious-face conversation?” Steve was startled by the sound of Clint’s voice coming up behind them on the terrace. He thought Clint was still on the beach, but clearly he’d lost track of time again. Glancing down towards the shore, he didn’t see any of his teammates. Things must have changed while Thor was reading to him. Of maybe he had dozed longer than he thought between chapters.

“Where’s Phil?” he asked.

“He just motored into the suite. Rambo is awesome. The thing’s got four-wheel drive. I’m trying to talk him into letting me take it for a spin later. I could do some real damage on that baby.”

Thor chortled while Steve waited for Tony’s snide remark. When it didn’t come, he turned to find Tony was no longer on the sea-view terrace and nowhere in sight. “Did you see Tony?”

“Nope. Listen, Thor, Phil’s getting ready to take a nap. Between the physical therapy session this morning and all his beach time, I don’t think he’ll be ready for his afternoon therapy for a few hours. Walt’s free and I know he’s looking for you. My turn with Steve. Go ahead. Have fun.”

“I shall. He has promised to teach me the art of the snork.”

“You mean snorkeling?” Clint laughed. “Those fish are not going to know what to make of you.” After Thor exited eagerly, Clint grinned at Steve. “I’ll bet Walt has better plans for his big snorkel, if the sounds rocking the guest house last night are to be believed.”

Steve gaped. He hadn’t gotten a look at the fancy guest house firsthand, but he knew it was where Walt was staying, along with Mark and Carolyn, when they weren’t attending to Phil. “I . . . well . . . he . . . I guess so.”

“Hell, how would you know how much the guest house was rocking? You slept through Nat and Bruce playing doctor all night on the same floor as you. I was getting ready to bang on the ceiling with a broom to get them to keep the racket down, but they didn’t wake Phil, so what the hell. Believe me, if I could be getting laid on this vacation I sure wouldn’t be collecting seashells.” Clint sat down in Thor’s vacated chair, though he didn’t lounge. He picked up the fresh glass of lemonade, finishing the contents in two gulps. Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand he asked, “How are you not dying of thirst out here? You’ve been baking in this sun for hours.”

“I like the sun.” Steve looked at his ice chips, though he had no desire for them even though everything inside felt drier than the sand on the beach. The nausea had increased despite his efforts to ignore it. “I wish I could drink. Right now, even these chips are making me want to gag.”

“You gonna hurl?”

Steve put his hand over his stomach, trying to gauge his condition. Nothing really felt right inside, though the violent churning of yesterday wasn’t present. Still, no sense taking a chance. “Could you bring the chair over here? I think a trip to the latrine wouldn’t hurt.”

“Sure.”

Steve set his sunglasses on the poolside table, put his shirt back on, and got himself up and into the chair, but he couldn’t dissuade Clint from doing the rolling—or from staying with him while he dry heaved in the immaculate bathroom near the entry hall. Thankfully, there wasn’t any blood like yesterday, so he didn’t make a mess. He didn’t have any urine either, which he knew meant the return of the IV was in his near future. For now, he washed up and let Clint do the driving once more.

“How ‘bout we give the sun a rest,” Clint suggested as he steered Steve towards the white, fluffy couch in great room.

“Okay, but not here. The sea-view terrace isn’t directly in the sunlight, but I can still feel the warmth there.”

“You’re cold?” Clint asked.

“What’s going on?” Tony demanded as he came down the stairs.

“I’m okay, just some dry heaving.”

“Where the hell is Banner?”

“Piled up in a sand dune with Nat, last I saw of them.”

“I don’t need Bruce,” Steve said, giving up on his hope of making it to the sea-view terrace, transferring himself from his chair to this much closer couch Clint had parked them near. “Probably just the IV.”

“I can get Mark to hook him up,” Clint offered. “Is the rig still upstairs?”

“Yes.” Tony helped Steve get his legs up on the cushion, assistance he needed since they suddenly felt like dead weight. “What were you doing?”

“I didn’t do anything.”

“He didn’t,” Clint affirmed.

Tony pulled an ottoman beside the couch and sat near Steve’s head, adjusting the pillow under his neck. “Is this all a ploy to get my attention?” he teased.

“I love your attention, but I sure as hell don’t want it like this,” Steve groused, so frustrated he could barely contain himself. He thought he had been getting better. He hadn’t even eaten and he’d taken whatever medicine Bruce pumped into him. His body tensed with anger and he reached back, punching at the air, unintentionally upending the lamp on the end table, which crashed to the floor.

“Whoa, easy, slugger.” Tony took his hand, interlocking their fingers and setting Steve’s arm down by his side. “You’re all right.”

“I’ll get Thomas to come clean that up after I get his IV rig and Mark.”

“People shouldn’t have to clean up after me,” Steve snapped. “Or run errands for me or carry me around or bathe me or watch me pee or not pee and puke and not puke and—and,” Steve couldn’t think of the words he meant to say, which only rankled him more.

“Steve—”

“Arrrrrrrhhhh.” He banged his head back against the couch, which was stupid because the only thing he accomplished was aggravating the internal pounding.

“Steven.” Tony’s voice was firm this time, his hand cupping Steve’s chin. “Stop.”

Tony’s eyes were dark with concern, worry lines etched into his handsome features. Steve’s gut swam from the guilt churning there. The outburst had caught him off-guard, his emotions flaring before he had realized. “I’m sorry.”

“No need to be. This sucks. I know. But right now, breathe for me, okay?”

Steve did as he was asked, not that there was much choice. The anger-laced adrenaline bled quickly, fatigue smothering him until the bright, sun-lit room grew shadowy.

“All he does is sleep on that couch. How much can anyone sleep?”

“He’s ill. He needs rest.”

“You coddle him too much. What about me? Don’t you think a man might want to sit on his own couch once in a while? Don’t you think once in a while you could pay attention to me the way you fuss over him?”

“You can sit on the couch,” Steve pled.

“I’m fine here.”

The voice answering was different than the one he’d just heard. He raised heavy lids, recognizing Tony. “Was I sleeping?”

“Little bit.”

Steve looked around, noting he was still on the couch on in the great room. The IV was back in his arm and Tony remained on the ottoman close beside him. “Where’d Clint go?”

“After Mark hooked up your IV, I sent him to find Bruce. The good doctor can finish reenacting From Here to Eternity later.”

“Doing what?”

“Nevermind. I just need him to know what happened.”

“I don’t even know what happened. It’s like there’s a tug-o-war going on inside me and the advantage keeps shifting.” He tried to sit up, noting his ribs barely hurt. “At least those are healing.”

“What?” Tony propped cushions behind him so he could sit more upright.

“My ribs.” He twisted side to side. “Not a hundred percent, but seventy-five at least.”

“That’s great.” Tony’s enthusiasm was tempered, which Steve understood. His condition was too erratic to instill much confidence.

“Maybe I just stayed in the sun too long?”

“Maybe. Last I looked, you and Thor were thick as thieves. What were you talking so intently about? Did something upset you?”

Steve couldn’t recall the conversation at first, needing to wade through his slowly processing thoughts. When he came upon the recollection about hearing his mother’s voice, even when he thought he was awake, he was reluctant to share the information with Tony, especially after his most recent episode. Tony had signed up for a vacation and all he had gotten so far was a front row seat to Steve’s unraveling. “I guess we were talking about the book.”

“Right. Sure.” Tony’s response was terse and he looked ticked off, but a moment later he shrugged indifferently. “Do you want a blanket?”

“No. I’m good.”

Tony sprung up from the ottoman as if his ass was on fire. “I’ll get one anyway. Be back.”

“It’s okay to say you just need to get away from me. You don’t need an excuse.”

“That’s what you think?” Tony shook his head, staggered, his fists clenching, his entire body rigid with tension.

“Tony, I’m sorry.” Steve wasn’t sure what he was apologizing for, but he knew whatever had soured between them, he was the likely cause.

Just then, Clint returned with Bruce and Steve was once again the center of scrutiny and debate. Steve did his best to handle the attention graciously, still ashamed of his last outburst. The broken pieces had already been cleaned up and a new lamp sat in place of the destroyed one, but Steve remained contrite. Bruce tried to convince him that his mood swings were symptoms of his condition, no more his fault than the vomiting or headaches, but he had a tough time swallowing the theory. Surely he could be doing a better handling his circumstance and toughing it out without causing further distress to the people around him.

“I think your tug-o-war analogy is a good one,” Bruce decided after hearing everyone’s account of what happened, and examining Steve himself. “Your serum and the Asgardian medication would seem to blend as well as oil and water. They are each going about their business separately, affecting different areas at different times and often counteracting each other. And whatever the serum is concocting to protect you from the medication, the results aren’t always positive.”

“Did I make it worse being in the sun?”

“I wouldn’t say worse. Probably no more effect than anything else. The same push-pull effects you’ve encountered with eating, drinking, and physical activity may be similar for exposure to sunlight. You have no signs of sun poisoning or burning of any kind, which is your serum at work. But the Asgardian medication may have a sun sensitive agent, and therefore would disrupt your metabolism if exposed too long, inciting your serum to try and compensate, which—”

“Basically, you’re saying the safest thing for me to do is crawl in a hole and pull the hole in with me.”

“I’m not saying that at all,” Bruce assured. “I’m saying be aware of the see-saw effect going on right now. Be patient. Ride it out. Be moderate with everything. Nothing too much, too long. I see positive signs this thing is pushing through you. You’ve improved tremendously since yesterday. Tomorrow will be better still.”

Which is one big fat guess, Steve thought but didn’t say. Instead he asked, “So I should leave the IV in?”

Bruce shook his head. “No. On and off. We don’t want to go with too much of anything right now. Again, what the serum tolerates, the medication may repel and vice versa. Your weakness is a concern, though. I’ve been reluctant to use the IV for anything more than hydration, but I’m going try a small amount of parenteral nutrition and see what happens.”

“What is that?” Tony asked skeptically.

“Basically, a way to bring more nutrition into his body since he can’t eat. Protein, carbohydrates, some minerals—”

“Why didn’t you do this before?” Tony grilled. “We’ve been worried about him going on no fuel whatsoever and you saw how weak he’s been. But only now you want to do this? There’s gotta be a risk. If this was a solution you would have—”

“Tony, I don’t have solutions,” Bruce responded with irritation. “I have theories. Risks abound. Ice chips are risks. The medication I gave him to stop the vomiting was a risk, one that didn’t pay off at first, as we saw when he spilled his guts all over the pavement outside the villa. But unless you want to live in a house of puke, it was a necessary risk.”

“Hey, Doc, he feels shitty enough about that,” Clint hissed. “Have a little bed-side manner with the wording for Christ’s sake, and both of you stop talking about him like he’s not even here—which now I’m doing, shit. Sorry, Steve.”

Steve started to respond, but Bruce snapped back at Clint. “Oh, another country heard from. You can do this better, Barton? Be my guest.”

“What are you getting pissy with him for?” Tony snarled. “Mad because he interrupted your umpteenth booty call of the day to get you to make a house call?”

“I’m mad because you keep yelling at me like I’m your personal physician on payroll who isn’t snapping-to fast enough for you, Mr. Stark. Why don’t you try being appreciative once in a while instead of hissing at everybody?”

“Appreciative? I’m sorry. I didn’t realize the all expenses paid vacation I provided to a luxurious island on my private plane didn’t express enough of my appreciation.”

“He wasn’t talking about your money, Richie Rich,” Clint chided. “Do you plan to throw this trip in everyone’s face, now?”

“Oh, now you’re on his side?”

“I was on Steve’s side. Both of you are only stressing him out more with your constant bitching at each other.”

“Who the hell made you Steve’s guardian?” Tony demanded.

“Stay out of this shit, Barton,” Bruce warned. “I’ve got enough to handle with Tony breathing down my neck every second.”

“Fuck you, Banner.”

“Yeah, fuck you, Banner,” Tony echoed.

“What is all the yelling in here?” Phil demanded from behind them. “Sounds like a profanity-laden kindergarten recess.”

“Oh, fucking great, now you guys have woken Phil up,” Clint groused. “Way to go.”

“I’m not the one who started the yelling.”

“Screw you.”

“Don’t you think a man might want to sit on his own couch once in a while? Don’t you think once in a while you could pay attention to me?”

“There are plenty of chairs to sit on.”

“Like that’s the point! Stevie, Stevie, Stevie! Every minute of every day. I’m tired of it!”

“Please lower your voice.”

“You don’t tell me what to do!”

“Stop it!” Steve’s head was spinning, his heart pounding hard enough to come through his chest. “All of you. No more fighting over me. Not again. I’m not doing this. Not this time. Just stop!”

Steve sprung from the couch, pushing past all of them, heading for the stairs.

It wasn’t until he hit the floor face-first that he realized his legs weren’t making the journey with him.

~0~0~0~

Chapter Text

“Mom, are you crying?”

“Of course not, honey. Go back to sleep.”

“I want to help.”

“You always help me, angel-mine. Seeing your beautiful face every day helps me more than you know.”

“I can’t help anybody. I’m just a problem.”

“Not true, Stevie. They love you, you know.”

“Who?”

“All of them.”

“Nobody loves me except you, Mom, and you have to.”

“Look closer, honey. You have to open your eyes to see. Open your eyes now, sweetheart. Open your eyes.”

“I think he’s coming around.”

“Steve, can you hear me? Open your eyes for me, baby.”

“Tony?”

“Right here.”

The room came into slow focus. He was propped up on the couch, trying to remember what happened. “Did I fall?”

“Kinda took a header in your rush to escape a roomful of jackasses,” Clint supplied as explanation. “But we got you back on the couch and you didn’t break anything.”

“I really need you to stop tearing IV’s out of perfectly good veins,” Bruce said with no reproach.

Steve looked down at his bruised arm, noting his IV was in the other arm. “Sorry.”

“You don’t need to be sorry,” Natasha said, though Steve didn’t remember her being in the room before. How long was he out? “The three stooges here have agreed to behave like adults and provide a more peaceful environment for your convalescence, so no more worries, okay?”

Natasha’s kind tone was laced with a dark twinge of menace. Steve blinked to see more clearly, looking from Bruce to Clint to Tony, who all looked oddly contrite. “You were all fighting,” he muttered, memory starting to return. “But you weren’t here, were you?” he asked Natasha, who was standing just behind Tony’s shoulder.

“I came in on the tail end. Everything is fine now. We’ve gotten Phil back to bed, and Bruce hooked your IV back up. Just relax.”

“Sorry, Steve,” Clint said sincerely.

“Me, too,” Bruce added. All three looked at Tony, who stubbornly folded his arms.

“Really? Like Steve doesn’t know this is the way we talk to each other? He’s not an idiot. Do you think you’re fooling him? This isn’t Sunday school class.”

Steve had to grin. “No self-respecting Sunday school would let any of you through the door.”

“Not to worry,” Clint assured. “Tony could just buy the place and then they’d have to let us in.”

Bruce’s light was glaring into Steve’s eyes. “The fall didn’t do any damage. I don’t even think it’s why you passed out.”

Blinking away from the light, Steve asked, “Is that supposed to be a good thing?”

“Status quo is good. For now. Let’s keep things drama-free for a while. That should help.”

“You want to go upstairs and lay in bed?” Tony asked, fussing with the blanket over Steve’s legs. His stubbornness about apologizing aside, Steve could tell how badly he felt. He considered the question, not wanting to do anything more to worry Tony, but reluctant to be banished to bed, even for his own good. They were a bickering bunch of oddballs, but they were Steve’s family now and he felt far better with them than he would without them.

“I will if you need me to. Would rather stay with you guys, though.”

“Should be fine as long as we all keep things to a dull roar,” Bruce said.

“I brought a bunch of DVDs I think you’ll like,” Clint offered. “Let’s go pop in a movie in the media room.”

“Sounds good.” Steve looked directly at Tony. “Is it good?”

“Sure.” He hated how tired and on edge Tony looked.

“Why are you all gathered around Steven in this manner?” Thor’s voice boomed into the room. “Has something untoward taken place in my absence?”

All eyes turned to Thor, who stood in the entry arch of the glass doors. He was bare-chested, his blonde locks flowing loosely, caked with sand and seaweed. He had on what looked to be giant orange flipper fins, and some kind of orange elastic pants so tight they could have been painted on his legs. Certainly, the pants left nothing to the imagination—the bulge between Thor’s legs looking ready to rip the pants in two at any moment. Huge black and orange goggles masked his eyes, and the long snorkel hose pipe snaking up the side of his head pointed to the ceiling like a crazy unicorn’s horn. He was dripping a huge, god-sized puddle onto the marble floor, most of it pooling between his flippered feet, making it look like he’d peed himself. Everyone gaped almost simultaneously, before falling into gales of laughter. Tony laughed so hard he slipped off the ottoman onto the floor beside the couch. Steve reached a hand down, patting his shoulder, wiping his own laugh tears away with his other hand.

The last time he had seen Tony laugh like that was what felt like ages ago on their date in his apartment. If he thought he could make it across the room on his own steam without taking another header, he would have gotten up and hugged Thor for his timely entrance.

~0~0~0~

Even sitting up in the green-flowered arm chair, Steve was having difficulty staying awake for any extended length of time. He had thought maybe picking a chair instead of a couch or lounger would give his body the nudge it needed to realize it was awake and should be functioning, but so far his plan wasn’t working. Not that he had missed much between dozes. Tony had chewed Thor out for coming into the media room still dripping seaweed. Clint and Natasha had an argument about which “Bourne” movie was the best, finally deciding to let Steve choose. Since he didn’t know one from the other, he tried hedging by saying, “The first one?” They grudgingly agreed, though neither was pleased. Natasha had been holding out for the “one with Karl Urban,” while Clint wanted to watch the The Bourne Legacy, insisting the lead actor bore a striking resemblance to him.

“Oh, you wish you looked that good, Barton,” Natasha countered sourly.

“You’re just jealous. I could be that guy. Only I’d be a helluva lot smarter.”

“Hate to burst your bubble, but the movie is Bourne-lite. Without Matt Damon as Jason Bourne, what’s the point?”

“A movie about a guy who kind of looks like Clint, only dumb?” Bruce laughed.

“So your supposition is Barton really is smart?” Tony asked drolly.

“I don’t remember asking any of you in here to watch this,” Clint reminded. “Steve and I can watch movies just fine without all of you.”

The whole thing reminded Steve of being in his apartment with the rest of them piled up around the television bickering over what they watched, and he found comfort in that. He did try to follow along with the plot—it seemed like a really good movie—but sustained focus was difficult to muster. At one point, he thought the main character was defending himself against assassins with only a rolled magazine, which was impressive, but he felt his head lolling to one side, then the other, coming back to awareness in time for a chase scene. A couple of times, he realized he had drooled on his shirt. Clint offered to rewind, but Steve declined. He would watch the movie again when he could pay better attention. For now, this was fine.

When Thomas entered with a tray of lunch sandwiches, popcorn, snacks, and drinks, Tony waved him off. “Thanks, but we can’t eat those in here.”

“It’ll be okay,” Steve countered, knowing they had to be hungry. Breakfast was hours ago and this bunch had healthy appetites.

“Really?” Tony asked skeptically, eyebrow arched. He picked up one of the sandwiches and a bowl of popcorn from the tray, waving them in Steve’s direction. The aroma assaulted his senses, his face scrunching as his stomach moaned.

“Okay, you win,” he conceded, holding his breath. “You’re right. Take it out of here. You guys should go eat, though.”

Thor eagerly followed the food out of the room.

“I can wait,” Clint announced.

“I’m good, too,” Tony said.

Steve was about to argue, when he nodded off again. When he woke next, Bruce and Natasha were gone, but Thor was back and Tony was nudging him.

“Baby, come and lay on the couch. You’re bobbing around on that chair like a homeless man sleeping on a subway seat, and it’s freaking me out. I don’t want you to fall.”

“If I move to the couch, will you go eat lunch?”

“What are we on? Let’s Make a Deal?"

“Not sure what that means, but if I say yes, will you eat lunch?”

“I don’t know. I feel like I should hold out for what’s behind door number one.”

“Metal Man is right,” Thor decided, getting up and lifting Steve before he had a say in the matter. “This chair is unsafe for you at present. And Steven is correct as well. You need nourishment,” he said to Tony as he laid Steve across the couch. Steve noticed his IV was no longer in, figuring Bruce must have removed it at some point while he was asleep.

“Please?” Steve added when Tony looked ready to protest.

“Okay, fine,” he capitulated. “But if anything happens to him, I’m holding you two responsible.”

“Big surprise.” Clint responded.

“I think I can manage to safely sleep and drool without an incident while you eat.”

Tony huffed as if he didn’t quite believe the claim before turning to leave.

“He’s just really worried about you,” Clint said when Tony was gone.

“Not without cause,” Thor added.

“I know.” Steve sighed. “I hate this. Hate feeling like this. I hate being the cause of all this.”

“Again.”

“What?” Steve was puzzled by Clint’s response.

“Being the cause of something like this . . . again. Earlier, when we were all fighting and you were out of it, you yelled something about not doing this again.”

“I did?”

“What did you mean by that?”

“I don’t know. Probably that I don’t want you guys fighting and ruining your vacation because of me.”

“But we’re not the only people who ever fought over you being sick. That’s why you’re skittish, right?”

“I don’t know what you mean.” Steve was confused, unsure why he found Clint’s words disconcerting.

“Look, I’m not trying to get in your business, but I could probably give a clinic on dysfunctional family dynamics, and you’re raising my red flag radar. You’ve got shit churning up that’s got nothing to do with us and now. Did your old man give you grief when you were sick?”

“I don’t remember my father.”

“You have stated he was a soldier,” Thor supplied. “A true hero.”

“Yeah, right.” Steve shifted on the couch, burying his face in the pillow. He wasn’t comfortable lying to his friends, but he had no intention of talking about this. Tony was the only person he had ever told about his father.

“Still, couldn’t have been easy, having a sick kid underfoot all the time. Maybe your old man lost his temper? Yelled a lot? Started swinging?”

Steve tried to swallow, but he had no saliva. “If he did, I don’t remember. He . . . died . . . when I was really young. I don’t have any memories of him. Couldn’t even tell you what he looked like.” Most of that was true. Everything except the dying part. Steve had no idea when his father died. Only that he left long before Steve was old enough to remember him.

“Okay,” Clint said softly, though it wasn’t Clint looking at him. The intense gaze—the one that methodically scrutinized—was all Hawkeye.

Steve wasn’t sure why the conversation was unsettling, but his exhaustion overrode everything. “I’m pretty tired,” Steve admitted, which probably sounded stupid coming from the guy who had been falling asleep at regular intervals.

“Take some rest,” Thor encouraged.

“Okay. But you guys keep watching the movie. Don’t turn it off because of me.” Steve closed his eyes, feeling himself drifting again as his stomach and head ached. When he woke, there looked to be a different movie on, something with gladiators. Clint was gone, but Thor was watching with rapt attention. Tony was seated on the end of the couch, rubbing Steve’s legs, which were on his lap.

“Feels nice,” he murmured.

Tony was watching him, not the movie. “Good.”

“They feel strange. Like someone else’s legs, which I can’t really control, but I can feel you touching me there.”

Phil motored into the room, followed by someone Steve didn’t recognize.

“What are we watching?” Phil asked.

“A fine film entitled Gladiator,” Thor responded.

The man Steve didn’t recognize hovered in the doorway, staring coldly at him. He didn’t resemble the rest of Tony’s staff. He was tall, thin, with dirty brown hair and hollow-looking blue eyes. His clothing looked old, dull, out of place for island wear.

“Who is he?” he whispered to Tony.

“Who’s who, baby? You mean Coulson?”

“No, the guy who came in with Phil. By the door.”

Tony looked at the man, then looked towards Phil with a strange expression.

“How are you feeling, Steve?” Phil asked.

“About the same. How about you? You were napping, right?”

“Yes, I was. And you? You feel like you’re awake?”

“Am I what?” What an odd question.

“Do you still see the man by the door?” Tony asked.

“Of course I do. Is this a test?”

Tony’s caresses on his legs became more pronounced. “Why don’t you rest a little more?” Phil suggested.

Steve lifted his head to look at Phil, who was looking strangely at Tony and Thor, who was no longer watching the screen. “What is going on?”

“There’s nobody by the door, sweetheart,” Tony said.

“Of course there is. He—” Steve looked, but the doorway was empty now. “Well, he was there. A minute ago. I guess he left. Who was he?”

“Who did he seem to be?” Thor asked.

“Seem to be? How should I know? Why are you all talking to me like I’m crazy? Did I say something in my sleep again?”

“You did not.”

Steve dragged his hand over his face. He had been hearing things. Was he seeing things now? No. That was not happening. “You’re right. I’m not totally awake. There was nobody there.”

“Just rest, baby-blue. Close your eyes.”

“Time to wake up, Stevie. Your oatmeal is getting cold.”

“I can’t eat oatmeal. My stomach is still upset.”

“Ooh-kay,” Tony said oddly. “No oatmeal.”

“Has your mother returned to speak with you?”

“Has his what?” Tony spat. “What kind of flaky frequency are you tuned into, thunder boy?”

“I don’t know what you mean, Thor,” Steve lied, feeling himself starting to sweat. Why did he keep lying? He wasn’t a liar. Why was his heart racing?

“You know how I feel about liars, Stevie. Do I need to get the soap?”

“What are you talking about, Thundar? What do you know?”

“I need to sit up,” Steve insisted, focusing what energy he could muster on untangling his legs from Tony and trying to sit upright. “I want to get in the wheelchair. I want to get out of this room. Get some air. Too stuffy in here. Can I sit by the pool?”

“Take it easy,” Tony urged as Thor came around to aid in his struggling efforts. When they’d helped him to sit upright, he was out of breath from the expenditure. “Steve, breathe. You can get all the air you want, but you need to calm down, first, okay?”

“Okay.”

“Some fresh air is a good idea,” Phil acknowledged. “Thor, bring his chair.”

“At once.”

“You want to tell me what’s got you so rattled, baby?” Tony was crouched in front of him now, smoothing his hands over Steve’s thighs.

“Probably just the mood swing stuff again. Like Bruce said.”

“Steve, talk to me.”

“Stevie, tell the truth.”

Startled, Steve swung his head around. His mother sounded like she was right next to him. Tony turned to look where he was looking.

“What’s the matter? Do you see a man again?”

Steve shook his head hard, wanting to clear it. “No. I don’t see anything. But I really need some air.”

“Not until you tell me what’s going on.”

“Being ill is nothing to be ashamed of. You’re a good boy, Stevie. Never believe otherwise.”

“Stop! Leave me alone.” Steve covered his ears, wanting the voice to stop. A second later, he felt awful for yelling at his mother, but it wasn’t his mother he had yelled at. Aghast, he watched as Tony pulled away from him, throwing his hands in the air as if they’d been burned. His expression was stony, but his eyes exposed the wound.

“Sure. No problem. Whatever you want.”

“No, wait. I didn’t mean—” I didn’t mean what? To talk to you instead of the voices in my crazy head? I can’t say that. “I’m sorry.”

“Let’s all calm down,” Phil said reasonably. “Everyone’s under a lot of stress. Thor, take Steve out by the pool so he can get a little air. Tony, could I have a word?”

“Sure, whatever.” Tony was tensely calm now, leaning to kiss the top of Steve’s head. “Go on. I’ll keep you company in a few minutes.”

Steve didn’t know how to respond. What he wanted to do was tell Thor to dump him in the pool and leave him there. Thor stayed silent as he pushed the chair out onto the pool terrace. It was late afternoon and the sun wasn’t quite as bright, but its power was still strong, the warmth wrapping around him, for which he was grateful because he felt icy inside.

“Do you wish the same chair?”

“The what?”

“The chair you were seated in this morning. Do you wish to return there, or would you prefer a new location?”

“Doesn’t matter.”

Thor seated him in the same lounge chair, and sat beside him, saying nothing more. Steve took a few deep breaths, trying to calm his racing heart and pounding head, but nothing helped much. He felt awful, and not just physically. The lengthy silence worried him as he feared any moment other voices would return to fill it. He decided Thor’s disappointment would be preferable. “Go ahead. Say it.”

“What do you wish me to say?”

“What you’re thinking. About me.”

“I think you are ill. I worry for you, but I truly believe your health will improve ere long.”

“Yeah, you really believe that, huh?”

“I do. You are strong of heart and spirit.”

Steve shook his head. “Doesn’t feel that way.”

“You can do anything you set your mind to, Stevie. So long as you don’t defeat yourself with gloomy thoughts.”

“Apparently my mother agrees with you,” Steve muttered, embarrassed to realize he had said the words aloud.

“A wise woman. Why are you reluctant to speak of her to Anthony?”

“I’ve talked to Tony about my mother.”

“You purposefully misconstrue my meaning.”

“Thor, I’m hearing voices. Not just when I’m asleep. It’s bad enough you know. Let’s just keep the crazy between us for now, okay?”

“I disagree with this course of action, but at present, I will honor your wishes. You would, however, be wise to keep in mind Tony Stark has many flaws, but his love for you is honorable and irrefutable.”

Steve put his hand over his queasy stomach, feeling the pain in his chest as well. “And I just hurt him,” he acknowledged bitterly. “Again.”

“You talking about me?” Tony stepped onto the pool terrace carrying an expensive looking wooden box with a checkerboard painted on top. While he didn’t exactly look carefree, his expression was a lot lighter than before. “Are you worried because you got me in trouble with the principal again? No biggie. It’s been at least three hours since my last Coulson lecture. I was due.”

“You’ve been talking to Phil?”

“More like he’s been talking to me. Or at me.”

“Because of me?”

“You think I need an excuse to be in trouble?” Tony grinned. “Not likely. Come on. Play chess with me.”

Tony pulled over the small drink table and set the wooden box down, then grabbed a beach chair and sat down on the other side of the table facing Steve. Thor stood.

“Chess. An excellent game. I shall leave you to your recreation.”

“Don’t choke on any seaweed,” Tony quipped as Thor vacated the terrace, starting to set the pieces up on the board.

“I don’t know how to play chess.”

“Which is why I’m going to teach you.”

“I don’t think I can stay awake long enough to play very well.”

“Doesn’t matter. It’s not like you’re going to beat me.” Tony’s declaration was infused with such Stark swagger, Steve had to smile, feeling his sagging spirits lift.

“Oh, really? You think I’m dumb?” he teased.

“I don’t waste my time around dumb people. I think you’re very smart. But I’m a genius. I can beat JARVIS at chess.”

“Sure. You probably programmed him to lose.”

“Big talk from the guy too chicken to play with me.”

“I’ll play.”

Tony pinned Steve with those rich, dark eyes and smiled, causing Steve’s stomach to summersault in a way that for once wasn’t sickening. “Great.”

He was tempted to ask how on earth Tony could want to be around him right now, let alone appear content, but Steve couldn’t bring himself to upset the apple cart. Instead, he listened with as much attention as he could gather while Tony explained each piece and how they moved on the board.

Steve was able to hold on for three full moves into their first game before he fell asleep

~0~0~0~

Chapter Text

“You know, you’re not bad at this,” Tony remarked as he studied the board, deciding which move to beat Steve with this time. “I hadn’t taken into account what a keen strategist you are. Works well in a game like this. With a little more practice and a head not doped up on Asgardian moonshine, you might provide a small challenge to me.”

“Thanks.” Steve grinned lazily at the backwards compliment. Tony had been very patient with him through the hours it took to play a few games, since Steve kept nodding off in the middle. The only stipulation Tony had insisted on was setting up a few beach umbrellas over them to shade them from “that damned sun” Steve loved so much.

“No, you don’t want to do that,” Tony warned as Steve started to take his fingers off his bishop.

Steve hesitated, looking for a clue in Tony’s expression, but he had a serious poker face—or chess face in this instance. “Or maybe I do and you’re just trying to psych me out again.”

Tony smiled smugly before taking a sip of his lemonade. “Maybe. Maybe not.”

It didn’t really matter. Steve’s concentration was fleeting at best. He had barely figured out the one move to make. Looking for another was beyond him. Of course, he had no sooner lifted his hand from his piece when Tony moved one of his and announced, “Checkmate.” At Steve’s sour expression, his eyes went puppy dog soft. “What? I warned you.”

“Big man, there, Stark,” Natasha commented as she approached the pool terrace. “Taking advantage of a sick guy. Whose ass are you going to kick next? Coulson’s blind grandmother?”

Steve got a quick glimpse of the two pieces of scant material that made up her swimsuit and looked away. In his day, you would never think to stare directly at a woman in her underwear and Natasha’s entire swimsuit didn’t contain enough material to compose even a third of a pair of bloomers.

Tony turned to bite back at Natasha. “Nice suit. I’m surprised you’d wear it though. Aren’t you afraid to expose all the mattress imprints on your back?”

Natasha made an annoyed sucking sound. “In what reality of your over-sexed brain do you fantasize I’m on the bottom?”

“Can we change the subject?” Steve requested, shifting uncomfortably in his chair.

At his shy plea, Tony and Natasha both chuckled indulgently. “Sure,” she said, taking a seat at the edge of the pool, dipping her legs into the water. “If you can stay awake a few minutes, you’re going to see something hilarious on the horizon.”

“What’s going on?” Tony asked. The sun was only beginning to set, but there was still plenty of daylight to see the clear blue sky over the ocean. Steve squinted toward it, wondering what Natasha meant.

“Have you ever heard of parasailing, Steve?” Phil asked as he drove his chair out onto the terrace to join them.

“No.”

“It’s a recreational beach sport,” Coulson explained as he stopped Rambo near Natasha, looking up as well. “Sort of like sailing, only in the sky.”

“And you’re the sail,” Tony added.

“You’ve done that?” Steve asked, always interested in the zillion things Tony had experienced that he had never heard of.

“Sure. Years ago. Not anymore. Once you experience flying for real, it pretty much pales in comparison.”

The few times Steve had experienced flying with Iron Man he wasn’t very fond of it—except for the being with Tony part. He wasn’t sure he’d like parasailing, but he was interested in knowing more. “Is that Clint?” he asked as what looked like a multi-colored parachute with a man harnessed into it appeared on the horizon. A long rope attached the rig to a boat that was speeding through the ocean, pulling Clint along. He looked to be flying through the air at least two stories above the water, creating a thrilling sight. “Wow. Looks wild.”

“That’s not even the best part,” Natasha said. “Wait for it.”

As the boat made a turn and flew Clint in the other direction down the shoreline, another figure appeared in the sky. “Is that Thor?” Steve asked.

“Did you guys not explain the concept of the sail to Thundar?” Tony asked drolly.

Thor was flying all right, but not attached to any boat or parachute. He was dressed only in bright neon green board shorts, clutching his hammer as he started to fly circles around Clint’s parachute. Walt looked to be the figure on the back of the boat near the rope, which he was now letting out at Clint’s wave, sending Clint far higher into the sky.

“Is he supposed to go that high?” Steve asked.

“I get the feeling this isn’t going to be your average parasail run,” Tony answered before chuckling. “Average? Listen to me. There’s a thunder god in neon board shorts doing backflips in the sky while clutching a giant hammer and chasing a secret agent sniper in a purple wetsuit hanging from a rainbow parachute. Yeah, real low-key vacation. I’m so glad I brought us as far from civilization as possible or we’d be watching this on YouTube tonight. And people call me an attention seeker.”

“Clint just unfastened his harness,” Steve pointed out, alarmed.

They all watched as Clint climbed free from the rig, using the bar it was attached to as a high bar, starting gymnastic flips around it. In the meantime, Thor had let go of Mjolnir, doing one summersault of his own in the air before catching his fall by locking his leg around the handle of the hammer, hanging from one bent knee, his head pointed straight down toward the ocean.

“What are they doing?” Phil asked tensely.

“Oh, he didn’t clear this little acrobatics display with you?” Tony asked.

“He said he and Thor were going parasailing.”

“See the and Thor part should have been your first clue, Agent, a lesson I’ve learned the hard way myself after a certain sky chariots incident.”

Steve looked down, abashed. By the time he looked up again, Clint’s flips were building speed, until he released the bar and sent himself gliding through the air. It looked like a trapeze act, Clint twirling head over feet about four times across the distance between them until reaching Thor’s outstretched hands and clasping them.

“You can take the boy out of the circus,” Tony started.

“But you obviously can’t take the circus out of the idiot,” Natasha finished.

“I thought it was kind of neat,” Steve admitted. He always liked the circus.

“And I wonder why my hair is thinning.”

“At least he caught him,” Tony offered. “Unlike the wedding fiasco, in which, it should be pointed out, he and Thor were dancing. And at least he’s not drunk. I mean, I don’t think he’s drunk. Or not a lot drunk.”

“You’re a real comfort, Stark.”

“I don’t think that part is supposed to happen.” Natasha’s voice was low, bringing all their eyes back to the air.

The parasail rigging was obviously not built for being used in such an adventurous manner and it began to come apart, the sail ripping free from the falling harness. While Thor was showing off, holding on to a dangling Clint with one hand and waving with the other, the huge, colorful bulk of parachute material got taken by the wind and blown straight into his face. It wrapped around him like a mummy’s bandage, upsetting his balance. As he began struggling to push it off, his leg slipped from Mjolnir’s handle—sending him and Clint on a free-fall downward towards the ocean. Thor reached his arm outward, no doubt calling Mjolnir to his outstretched hand, but the parachute wrapped around that arm as well.

“Jackasses,” Natasha muttered, before springing up and racing down the flat-stoned path that led from the end of the pool terrace to the beach.

“They’re falling towards the boat, not the water,” Steve announced, fighting to will his legs to work so he could follow Natasha, but only managing to amble awkwardly off the lounge chair and nearly fall into the pool.

“Steve, stop!” Tony warned him, grabbing hold of his arm and dragging him back towards the chair.

Walt was scrambling frantically on the deck of the boat, both arms waving towards the driver, who looked like Mark, to accelerate and get out of the way. The boat sped up as Thor began twisting furiously to untie himself from the tangled cloth while still keeping hold of Clint. Thankfully, the boat surged forward, the thrashing wad of cloth and men missing it by inches, plunging into the water.

“They’re okay,” Tony said with certainty. “Thor turned enough to get himself underneath.”

Steve knew Tony was trying to comfort Phil, who was perched on the edge of his chair, not breathing, his face drained of all color as he watched helplessly. The parachute had draped over Thor and Clint fully a few feet above the water, obscuring their view, so there was no way to really tell if Thor had repositioned enough to break Clint’s hard fall. Steve started to sweat, knowing how devastating a free-fall from such a lofty height into hard water had been for him, not wanting to think about the damage it would have on Clint’s body if Thor hadn’t shielded his fall.

“How deep is the water out there?” he asked, the possibility of hitting a shallow bottom at top speed also a threat.

“Plenty deep,” Tony answered quickly, though again Steve felt he was trying to sound sure even if he wasn’t.

Time stopped, though only a minute could have passed at most. Maybe two. They could already see the bob of Natasha’s head as she swam towards the scene. Walt dove into the water while Mark idled the boat nearby, grabbing what looked to be a first aid kit. Steve hated the agony of not knowing, of being helpless, getting a taste of what it must have felt like for his team watching him go down.

“They’re up!” Tony announced, the three of them letting out a gush of breath in unison.

Clint popped up first, perched atop Thor’s shoulders. Thor sprung up like a dolphin in a water show, waves cascading around them like a fountain from his force. Both of them had their arms spread wide, as if taking a bow and seeking applause. Applause surely wasn’t what they would receive when Natasha reached them. The woman even swam with menace. In fact, Steve wasn’t certain the possibility of their drowning had been completely averted.

“They better jump in the boat and head for Cuba,” Tony suggested. “Jackasses.”

“Tony.” Steve nodded towards Phil, who had finally taken a deep breath.

“How you doing, Agent?” Tony asked standing behind the chair, clapping both hands over Phil’s shoulders and squeezing.

Phil shook his head. “Like I need a vacation from my vacation.”

Bruce ambled out onto the terrace, holding a book, looking at all three of them and then towards the ocean. “Did I miss something

~0~0~0~

“Your turn, huh?” Steve asked as Bruce wheeled him into the media room.

“I don’t need a turn. I was glad to have an excuse to be anywhere but in there.”

Steve grinned. The fireworks were certainly set to fly when Clint and Thor returned from the beach. Tony was being sweet about staying with Steve, but Steve knew he would have hated missing the hoopla. He was grateful when Bruce offered to keep him company away from the ruckus.

After getting him situated on the couch and checking him over, Bruce reinstated his IV line. “Do you want me to put a movie on?”

“No. The quiet is good.”

“Couldn’t agree more.” Bruce curled himself into the armchair, pushing back his glasses as he opened the huge tome he had been reading. Steve watched him, picturing him secluded in here, content with a familiar book and tranquil solitude while the calamitous acrobatics display had gone on outside. He closed his eyes, wrung out from the nervous tension, while at the same time grinning from the absurdity.

“Your friends need to take more care.”

“I know. But they were having fun.”

“Fun you wish you could be having?”

“Is that wrong, Mom?”

“You spent your entire youth watching people do things you wish you could do, Stevie. There is no harm in that, I suppose, but try to remember envy can be dangerous. You have so many gifts. Appreciate them.”

Steve forced open his eyes, rattled, looking around. Only Bruce was in the room with him.

“You okay?”

“Yeah, sure.” He shifted on the couch, trying for a more comfortable position. “You mind passing me my book?” he asked, anxious to occupy his mind with something.

Bruce handed him the book from the pocket of the wheelchair, before going back to his own reading. Steve opened to a random section, trying to force his eyes to recognize the words. The print kept going blurry and he would realize he had nodded off when the book slipped from his hands and hit him in the face.

“Need help?” Bruce asked after he got smacked for the third time. “I could read for you if you want.”

“No. I’m just skimming. I can’t go forward in the story without Thor. He’s been really patient with me, even though he’s dying to know what happens next.”

“I could read you some of my book.”

“Yeah? What are you reading?” Bruce held his book up high enough for Steve to make out part of the title: Variational Approach to Complex Nuclear Structure Problems and the Theoretical Feasibility of Cold Fusion. “No thanks. I think I’ll pass. I’m not having any problem falling asleep. The opposite, actually.”

“Good, then this will be perfect because you should be resting.”

“It’s gotten awfully quiet out there. Do you think we should check on them?”

“Natasha can yell very quietly and I’m sure they’re fine. You don’t need to be in the middle of that. We agreed on drama-free, remember?” At Steve’s raised eyebrow, Bruce added, “Yeah, I know. With this bunch, it’s like saying The Running of the Bulls can be drama-free, but it’s quiet in here, so let’s stick with the plan for as long as possible.”

Steve was going to ask about the bulls, but he probably wouldn’t have been able to focus on the answer. “I’m just glad Clint is okay.”

“Jackasses.”

Steve laughed. “Natasha and Tony said the same thing, but come on. They were just trying to have a little fun. They had no way of knowing the sail would tangle around Thor like that. Could have happened to anyone. Well, any flying god having a bad day.”

“Wish I’d have seen it,” Bruce grinned. “Had to be wild.”

“Poor Phil, though.”

“Convalescing around here is a challenge, for sure. But Coulson is tough. Besides, he married Barton. He knew what he was getting.”

“The heart and the head don’t always communicate very well. You should know, Doc.”

Bruce’s fingers fidgeted over his book pages, his face going a light shade of red as he sputtered, “You’re referring to Tasha, right? You have to put your two cents in on that, too?”

Bruce was the only other person around here with any decorum when it came to discussing sexual stuff—well, at least his own. Steve wasn’t looking to make him uncomfortable. Clint, Tony and Thor did enough of that with their bawdy cracks. “I think it’s nice the two of you are enjoying each other’s company, that’s all.”

Bruce retreated to the safety of his book, head down, perusing the page quietly for a while. Eventually, though, he commented, “Natasha’s been an interesting development in my life. Unexpected.”

“Unexpected can be good.”

“I suppose.”

“You do like her.” Bruce didn’t respond but Steve could tell from his expression his feelings were significant. Steve tried going back to his book, able to read a whole page before he got clobbered. Sighing, he set it on his chest and starting talking again. “Funny, how fast they sneak up on you. The big feelings. You’d think there would be a prep period, like the way your aerobic energy slowly builds before all your muscles are working at top performance, or like how it took time for the jeep engines to turn over fully on a cold day. That revving time. They say you fall in love, but it feels more like getting hit. Like bam!

Bruce mmm’d distractedly at his ramblings, but Steve wasn’t deterred. “Of course, for me there was the love bam, and then the falling into the river bam, which happened one right after the other, like bam-bam, totally throwing everything off-course. I don’t mean my love is off-course. I just hate how much I’m hurting Tony. He’s been so overwrought.”

“Tony’s a mechanic. If something’s broke, he’s compelled to fix it. He can’t fix you, which is making him crazy. He’s not used to caring this hard and being so helpless.” Bruce drew his book down to his lap and shook his head. “I could be a little more patient with that. I really need to cut him more slack. I tell myself that intellectually. I’m just not sure there is a button made that Tony Stark can’t find a way to push.”

Steve nodded, understanding. Tony was a handful, no argument. “It’s part of his charm.” At Bruce’s chortle, he continued. “In some ways, we’re all a little like that. We’re not exactly a passive group.”

“This is true.”

“Hey, they’re laughing.” Steve could hear chuckling coming from the kitchen, particularly Thor’s booming voice as he was dramatically retelling the tale. “Guess they’re not as sore at each other anymore. I’m glad.” Steve rubbed the bridge of his nose, the sharp pain between his eyes more piercing than before.

“Headache?”

“Yeah. What else is new? By the way, I don’t think I say it enough, so thank for you everything you’ve been doing for me. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it. Sorry I’m putting a damper on your vacation.”

“Actually, it’s good. I mean, not good for you, and I hate seeing you like this. But having a project kind of grounds me. Okay, calling you a ‘project’ is probably another example of my lack of bedside manner, but I didn’t mean any offense. Vacations aren’t something I’m used to. Group dynamics are still pretty new, too. Medical and science stuff I know.”

“I’ve never been on a vacation. Looks like it might be fun, though. If I could ever get back to normal.”

“You think of being super as normal? I envy you. If there was an alien substance that had the power to render me back to my old, weakling self, I’d be free-basing the stuff. Fury called it right in your hospital room when he said I already had Thor’s Asgardian medication under my microscope. No luck so far, but I’m not going to stop searching.”

Bruce generally did a good job masking his perpetual inner turmoil, but Steve could feel it bleeding through the cracks, even as he smiled sadly. Poor guy. He talked about cutting Tony slack, but Steve wondered if any of them ever cut Bruce enough slack for the difficult road he navigated with more grace than anyone else probably could. “Meanwhile, I’m doing my best to swallow the terror of going back to being the old Steve Rogers,” he admitted. “My mom would tell both of us you can only be who you are, for better, for worse.”

“She’d be right. Took me a lot of years, through a lot of dark shit, to begin to come to terms with that, but I’m closer, which is one of the advantages of this group dynamic of ours. I complain about the noise and being crowded and we all get on each other’s last nerve, and curse each other out on almost a daily basis, but this is the first time I’ve felt anything close to normal for as long as I can remember.”

“I’m glad,” Steve said, genuinely meaning it even though his voice came out hoarse. The pain was increasing, spreading to the back of his head now. What had been a dull ache before was active now, as if someone had kicked him in the head. His appearance must have changed, because Bruce noticed, setting his book on the table and coming towards the couch.

“Enough talk. I am tiring you out.”

“Everything tires me out. Nah’a big deal.”

“Your body needs the rest to rejuvenate. Don’t fight the pull of sleep.”

“S’not what’s fightin’,” Steve slurred as what felt like a grenade exploded behind his eyes. The pain was quick and fierce, starting in his head, but the fiery ache traversed the length of his body in seconds, every muscle spasming. His vision fled, only white light where the room had been. He could feel Bruce’s hands on him. Bruce was talking to him, but he couldn’t hear words over the throb of pain. And then his stomach heaved, as if rupturing, his body wracked in a long convulsion, until he spewed with what felt like the entire force of his being.

After the expulsion, the symptoms thankfully fled with the same swiftness with which they had taken him. The pain eased, his stomach went quiet, vision returning first as a blur, then more defined. He became aware of being on his side on the couch drenched in sweat, Bruce’s hand on his back, his other hand holding a trash can over which Steve’s head dangled.

“You’re okay, Steve,” Bruce was saying as he set the can down and started to ease Steve’s head back to the pillow. “Stay with me.”

Steve tried to speak, but he hadn’t regained enough energy yet. He was grateful Bruce must have seen his shivers, because a blanket was quickly draped over him. He was so cold. Bruce was talking again, loudly this time, but Steve nodded off, only waking to the feel of the cool wet cloth over his face and neck and Tony’s voice.

“You’re doing great, honey.”

“Not,” he managed to say.

“Sure you are,” Bruce assured. “You managed to not tear the IV brutally out of your vein this time. But I’m going to remove it for now.”

“Felt . . . felt like. . . .”

“Like what, baby?”

“A battle. My body was the artillery. No, the target. No, both.”

“You’re okay now,” Bruce told him, flashlight directed into Steve’s eyes.

“Serum is . . . breaking down, isn’t it?” Steve asked, shivering with dread.

“Actually, that is not the conclusion I’m making at this time.”

“Are you sure?” Tony’s voice grew very low. Other voices, too. Steve wasn’t sure if talking was really going on or the whispers were his imagination.

“It could be the opposite. The serum is ramping up the fight. Trying harder to expel the foreign toxin. His crisis immediately eased with the expulsion.”

“Still, maybe it’s time we get him back to the hospital.”

“Tony, I was there with him at the SHIELD medical facility on Staten Island after they pulled him from the ice.”

“I know, Phil. I know. You keep telling me, but—”

“SHIELD had the best team. Best equipment. They were able to put me back together. But for Steve, the best they could do was keep him warm and monitor him. You know the result was similar with your med team after the accident. They don’t have answers for Steve, not at this time. Bruce is the only one qualified to make even good conjectures here, and from where I sit, the things he’s doing are helping. I think he’s on the correct path. We just have to give this more time. Keep Steve calm. Deal with the issues as they arise. Trust Bruce.”

“Despite breathing down your neck so hard I’ve left burn lines, I’m not displeased with how you’ve handled the situation. I just can’t stand this.”

“Tony’s worried about me.”

“Of course he is. You look very frightening when you’re sick, Stevie. But he’ll learn, like I did, that you are made of much tougher stuff than you look.”

“If I get better, you’re going away again, aren’t you?”

“I never leave you, angel-mine.”

“Angel-mine,” Steve murmured, clutching the hand in his.

“That’s very sweet,” Tony whispered, kissing his forehead tenderly. “But I’m nobody’s angel. If it makes you happy to call me that, though, you go ahead. Just not too loud. I’ve got a reputation, you know.”

Tony’s attempt at being playful sounded tight. Steve opened his eyes and looked at his fretful face. “You’re very handsome.”

“Thank you.”

“Cold.”

“I know you are. The air-conditioners are shut down along with every fan in the villa.” Steve made out the sheen of sweat on Tony’s face and neck. They were probably all hot in the warm Caribbean air with no fans because of him. “But I’m going to get you tucked under as many blankets as you want once we get you in bed, okay?”

Steve smiled and nodded as best he could. Sleep was pulling at him, exhaustion weighing like an anchor, dragging his body down.

“Go to sleep, Stevie. Your Doctor Bruce says you need the rest.”

“Yes, Mom.”

~0~0~0~

Stevie had trouble staying asleep. It was nighttime and he was not allowed to get up, but his throat was dry. So dry. Like the sand in Coney Island. Quiet as he could, he slipped out from under the heavy pile of covers on the sofa, tip-toeing towards the kitchen to get a drink of water. Mommy’s door was closed, but light peeked from underneath. Stevie froze, afraid he would get caught out of bed. When the door flew open he darted under the small table near the kitchen, hiding. The living room was dark. He squeezed his eyes shut so they wouldn’t see him.

They were yelling again. No. He was yelling. She talked with the low voice. The one Stevie didn’t like because she sounded more sad than mad. He heard them go into the kitchen, walking right past where he was ducking beneath the table. But they couldn’t see him ‘cause his eyes were closed.

“Where are you going?”

“Out.”

“Out? You just came back in. It’s two o’clock in the morning.”

“Don’t start with me, Sarah.”

“Keep your voice down.”

“He’s not waking up. All that kid does is sleep.”

“That kid? You can’t even use his name? He’s your son. Speak softly.”

“Watch how you talk to me.”

“Joe. Please. Come to bed.”

“You go to bed and stop nagging me. I said I was going out.”

“Where are you going?”

“Where are you going?”

“Steve, I’m right here, honey. I’m not going anywhere.”

“Tony?”

“I’m right next to you. You’re here in bed. You keep moaning and muttering. Are you hurting?”

Steve looked up at Tony, sitting up beside him, the glow from his tablet illuminating his face in the darkened room. “I wake you?”

“No. I’ve been awake. You warm enough?”

Steve snuggled under the heavy layer of bedding. “Yes.”

“Go to sleep, baby.” Tony’s fingers played over his cheek and he nuzzled against them. They were so warm.

“Go to sleep, Stevie.”

“Was that my dad? The man in the room?”

“Your dad died a long time ago. He was a soldier and he got sick from the gas in the Great War.”

“That doesn’t sound right.”

“You’re ill, sweetheart. You have a fever. It’s difficult for you to understand everything.”

“I don’t have a fever. Bruce didn’t say I had a fever.”

The banging of the cabinets was loud and it hurt Stevie’s ears. He shook under the table despite trying to hold still.

“There isn’t any more liquor. You drank it all.”

“The hell I did.”

“You know I don’t like swearing, Joe. Please keep a civil tone.”

“This is my house and I’ll swear all I want, dammit. And I’ll drink when I want. You dumped it out, didn’t you? Didn’t you? Or you’re hiding it. Where? Where did you put it?”

Frightened, Steve forced his eyes open. The living room was still dark. No. It wasn’t a living room. He was in bed. This was a fine bed. Fancy.

“Did you have a bad dream?”

Steve shifted closer to Tony. “No. Is it late?”

“Almost morning, actually.”

“You have to go to sleep.”

“Don’t worry about me. I’ve got a lot of reading to finish.”

“I like chess. Thanks for teaching me.”

“My pleasure.”

“Can we play again?”

“Play? You can’t even catch a ball. What kind of kid are you?”

Steve turned sharply, looking over his shoulder. “Did you hear that?”

“Hear what, baby?”

Squinting into the darkness, Steve could make out a shadowy figure, but he didn’t want to see it. He closed his eyes. “Nothing. Just tired.”

“You’re okay, sweetheart.” A warm, reassuring hand found Steve’s back beneath the covers, rubbing soothingly.

“Tony?”

“Yes?”

“Do I have a fever?”

Tony’s hand moved over his forehead. “I don’t feel one. I could get a thermometer.”

“No. S’okay. Told her I didn’t.”

“Told who?”

When Steve didn’t answer, Tony burrowed under the mound of covers and spooned against his back. Tony’s body was sweaty, damp beneath his shorts and shirt.

“The air-conditioners are shut down along with every fan in the villa.”

“Who did you tell, Steve? Talk to me.”

“Too hot under here for you.”

“I’m fine. Your skin is cool. Were you dreaming about the ice?”

Steve tensed, an unwanted shiver wracking him. “I hate ice.”

“I know. When your head got hurt, the ice came back, didn’t it? Stuff you didn’t think you remembered?”

Steve curled his face into his pillow, making it darker. “No. I went down. I woke up a lifetime later. That’s all. Just don’t like cold.”

“Tony was with you when you were hurt, Stevie. And in the hospital, too. He knows the memories started to come back to you. Why won’t you be truthful?”

“You’re not truthful. You lie.”

Tony’s body stiffened behind his. “What do you think I’ve lied to you about?”

“Not you, Tony.”

“Your dad died a long time ago. He was a soldier and he got sick from the gas in the Great War.”

“But that’s a lie.”

“Who’s lying, Steve?”

“M’tired. Need sleep.” Steve could feel himself drooling onto the pillow case, but his hand was too heavy to lift and wipe it away.

“Sure, honey. You go to sleep. We’ll talk later. I’m not going anywhere.”

When the door flew open, he darted under the small table near the kitchen, hiding. The living room was dark. He squeezed his eyes shut so they wouldn’t see him. But the dark was scary. He wanted Mommy. He shivered in the cold and dark, his body too frozen to move.

“You’ve had enough, Joe.”

“If you want someone to nursemaid, go wake up the kid. Leave me alone!”

“Please keep your voice down.”

“He’s all you worry about, isn’t he? Stevie, Stevie, Stevie! If you loved me half as much, I’d be a better man. It’s your fault. Yours and his. It was different before he came. Do you even remember? When you weren’t too tired to pay attention to me? When every dime we have wasn’t spent on medicines and doctors and special food for him.”

“There’s no good to come from blaming a child. I know we have money worries. I know it’s been hard for you to keep a job. Maybe if you didn’t spend so much on the drink?”

“Oh, you’re complaining now? I’m not a good enough provider for you?”

“When do I ever complain, Joe? Nothing is ever resolved from complaining.”

“Resolved? You and your fancy talk. Take care of your husband once in a while. Why don’t you come out with me?”

“Now? And do you expect me to just wake someone up to look after Stevie?”

“The kid sleeps. What’s to look after?”

“You’re talking nonsense. Come to bed.”

Stevie cringed at the loud slamming sound and the shattering glass. He was too terrified to move, to breathe. Didn’t dare open his eyes. He managed to get his hands pressed over his ears as tight as he could to make the sounds go away, as he sat, frozen in darkness, until the light finally returned.

~0~0~0~

Chapter Text

The sunshine through the opened balcony doors was a welcome sight as he opened his eyes. Steve recognized the room quickly, calmed by the sound of lapping waves. Bruce leaned over him, hands canvassing his sides. His eyes scanned the room, locating Tony sitting on the end of the bed.

“Good morning,” Bruce greeted when he saw Steve’s eyes open.

“Hi.”

“How are you feeling?”

Steve had to think for a minute, the muzzy cobwebs in his head starting to clear. “All in all, not so bad.”

“Good. Any more vomiting episodes?”

“No,” Tony answered before Steve could. “But he slept fitfully.”

“And yet you look more rested and alert than last night,” Bruce said, puzzling over Steve. “Your ribs are good, too.”

“I feel awake,” Steve admitted, trying to sit up. Bruce shifted the pillows so he could lean back on them from an upright position.

“Your color is better.”

“Are we really counting going from jaundice to gray as an improvement?” Tony asked sarcastically.

“Any improvement is significant. In fact, his present color might be better than yours. Did you sleep at all?”

“No. But I wasn’t the only one pulling an all-nighter from the sound of things around this place. Maybe just the only one without prurient reasons.”

“You should try headphones or a noise machine,” Bruce suggested, ignoring Tony’s jab. “You clearly possess heightened auditory sensitivity.”

“And you possess a heightened—”

“Tony, do you think I could have some ice chips. My mouth is dry.”

Tony’s gaze switched from glaring at Bruce, to softening toward Steve. “Sure, if you think you can handle them.”

“Right now I do. A shower, too. I feel like I’ve been lying in a foxhole for a week.”

“Sure, whatever you want.”

Steve leaned around Bruce to see the face of the bedside clock. Vacation or not, he knew Phil would be doing his PT on schedule. “Do you think it would be okay if I watched Phil’s therapy session? I know I’m not supposed to help, but it would feel great to do something semi-normal.”

“I don’t see the harm, as long as you stay away from the equipment.”

“And stay in the chair,” Tony added.

“And keep your IV in until I take it out. Did you urinate last night?”

“Um, I don’t think—”

“And don’t even think of doing anything strenuous.”

“Tony’s right. You are there strictly to observe.”

Steve grinned. “Understood. And if it makes you happy, I will do my best to urinate before I go downstairs. Boy, I haven’t had this many orders since my army days, but I understand.” He brought his hand to his forehead to give a formal salute, glad when his arm cooperated. “Yes, sirs.”

~0~0~0~

“You’ve improved tremendously this past week,” Steve commented as he watched Phil finish up his workout. Between the tram accident and his current strange affliction, Steve hadn’t been able to fulfill his usual support role in Phil’s physical therapy sessions of late, but Phil was clearly progressing well, which was heartening.

“He’s made excellent progress,” Walt agreed, spotting the small hand weight Phil was slowly curling with his weaker arm. The left arm and side remained the most debilitated, but the rest of the workout had gone exceptionally, his walking in particular. Steve tried not to feel jealous when he had watched Thor fulfill what had been his role supporting Phil on the parallel bar platform, but his mood was still out of sorts, so some of that crept in anyway. Phil’s legs had developed impressive muscle tone these past weeks. His lower body had regained sufficient strength to transition from the wheelchair to a walker, but his left arm impeded the shift. Balancing on a walker with only one good arm was too difficult a task at present, but Phil was working to alleviate the deficiency, doing extra strength training with his right arm while he pushed the left to its limits. Steve felt confident Phil’s work ethic and doggedness would push him toward his goal of being in that walker soon.

Thor was gone now, Walt taking over for the arm rotations, these being Phil’s last set for the morning. Steve watched Coulson’s determined face as he struggled to curl the weight to his chin, then straighten his arm again. The arm was shaking from the strain, Walt ready to catch it if Phil couldn’t complete the reps, but he was not giving up.

“Twenty-seven, twenty-eight, twenty-nine,” Walt counted. “Thirty. There you go. You made it. Good job.”

“Really good job, Phil,” Steve concurred.

Phil nodded, sweat beaded on his brow as he leaned back in his chair for a breather. Walt took the weight, replacing it on the rack before handing Phil his water bottle and towel. “Great workout, as always. You are the most motivated recovery patient I’ve ever worked with.”

Phil waved his hand as if to downplay the compliment. “Yeah, I’m a real tough guy here in my Cadillac wheelchair.”

“I wish I could do half the stuff you did in this workout this morning,” Steve lamented, looking at the weights with a longing that physically hurt.

Walt and Phil exchanged glances before Phil responded, “Okay, that’s just weird. Captain America is envying me in the exercise department. I feel like I’m having a teenage boy wet dream.”

“You hang in there, Cap,” Walt said kindly, patting his shoulder. “Won’t be long before you’re lifting the entire weight rack.”

Steve nodded. He liked Walt and had always admired his dedication to both Phil and his own physical wellbeing. He was just having trouble looking him in the eye at the moment, his mind wanting to supply images of the crazy antics the man was getting up to with Thor. Tony made it sound like a sex-charged three ring circus was going on in the guest house, but Walt seemed like a nice, regular guy—a guy who didn’t look the least bit tired or off his game. Clearly, he had incredible stamina.

“Give me a minute with Steve before we hit the showers,” Phil asked.

“Sure thing, boss.” Walt smiled his handsome smile and nodded towards both of them. “You fellows give me a yell when you’re ready to move.”

Steve bristled, hating being lumped in the same invalid category as—as what? As Phil? Sure. You wish you could be half the man Coulson is, Rogers. Get over yourself and stop whimpering. That’s all you do is complain and feel sorry for yourself.

“It’s okay to hate it, you know.”

Steve looked up from his dark inner dialog to find Walt gone and Phil studying him. “Hate what?”

“Being infirm. The chair. The medications. People fussing over you. The loss of independence. Feeling like your body is betraying you. It all stinks.”

“Yeah,” he nodded, agreeing with everything Phil said and more, but before his inner voice started singing the blues again, he pulled himself up short. “But you handle it with the most astounding grace and character. Who am I to complain?”

“You haven’t seen my darkest moments. And you don’t complain, so I’m not sure why you think you do. Like I said, it’s okay to hate this. But it’s not okay to quit.”

“You think I’m quitting? You think I can’t get strong again?”

“I’m actually asking if you’re going to quit if you can’t get strong again?”

Even the suggestion of not going back to his super-self unnerved Steve. He kept burying the fear, but it kept popping back up. He shuddered, his hand finding the wheel of his chair and rolling it slightly to turn away. “Bruce didn’t say that was going to be the outcome.” Because he’s protecting you. Because they are sugar-coating things to keep you calm.

“No, he did not. And I don’t believe it will be the outcome. But a good soldier is prepared for any contingency. I’m just wondering if you’re prepared to be whichever Steve Rogers comes out of this.”

“You’re talking about who I was before? Before the serum? I don’t want to be that guy. I can’t be him again.”

“Why? He was a scrapper and he sure as hell wasn’t a quitter. You would have made something important out of your life even if you never met Dr. Erskine. Sure, things would have played out differently, but I have no doubt you still would have been a hero. You’re made of heroic stuff, Steve. No matter what this affliction does to you, you’ll always be made of the same stuff.”

Steve turned his wheelchair back towards Phil, his heart pounding in his chest, his breath catching. “How can you know that?”

“I could give you a long list of reasons how I know, but they wouldn’t matter. All that matters is what you know.” Phil put down his water bottle and pushed the button to make his chair shift back and forth. “You think I was ready to wake up in the hospital and meet the man in this chair? The man who wasn’t in charge anymore? Whose body betrayed him and stole away his work and his purpose? No one is prepared for that. Only when you’re faced with it can you really know how you’ll step up.”

Steve had witnessed every day of Phil’s slow recovery. He knew what it had taken for the man to climb back up by his fingernails. “You have so much purpose. You’re the soul of The Avengers. The true leader.”

“Right. You all decided I was going to remain your handler and I will. But I might have to do it from this chair. I might have to do it one-handed. Along with this chair, I might need Stark to design me a high-tech vehicle that can drive itself, and tailored weapons I can shoot with my toes if necessary, but I’ll do it. Purpose doesn’t have to change with circumstance. There’s always a way around.”

“You can only be you, for better or worse. Wanting to be well and being well is not the same thing, Stevie. Don’t be prideful.”

“I am prideful,” Steve muttered, rubbing his hand over his achy head.

“Because you’ve got nothing to prove, right?” Bucky’s voice echoed, startling him. He’d gotten somewhat used to his mom in there, but things were getting ridiculous.

“He’s nothing but a no good runt. If he was a mutt, his bitch would have smothered him and cut her losses. He’s never going to amount to anything.”

Steve jolted, looking around. “Who said that? He never said that, did he?”

Phil’s hand on his thigh made him nearly jump from his chair. “Steve, look at me.” Phil’s sharp blue eyes were looking intensely at him, like he was trying to come inside. “Where are you?”

“Phil, did you ever—” Steve caught himself, shaking his head. “Nevermind.”

“Have I ever what, Steve?” There was quiet insistence in Phil’s voice, his grip on Steve’s thigh tightening.

“While you’ve been recovering . . . things aren’t always clear, right? Things can be fuzzy. Like sometimes you can get confused or hear things?”

“Yes, you can. I remember quite a bit of disorientation. In fact, when I woke up in Staten Island, I was terrified I was Loki’s prisoner and Clint was still compromised. But then I saw you. I heard your calm voice. Focused on a big letter A colored onto your surgical cap.”

Steve was able to smile. “That was Tony’s idea. He’s smart.”

“Yes, he is. Have you spoken to him about this? About the disorientation you’ve been experiencing?”

“I’ve been enough of a burden to Tony. I feel awful about that.”

“So you need to protect him?”

“Yes.” Steve was heartened by Phil’s understanding.

“Because you’re too much of a burden already? Because he could get tired of this whole mess and walk away?”

“Yes.” Steve nodded. “Yes, you can see. That’s what happens when you’re a burden. You understand.”

“What I understand is we can protect someone so much, we end up pushing them away in the process. I know about being so afraid of losing someone it blinds you to the fact you’re the one pulling the ripcord.”

“Wait, what?” Steve was processing slowly, trying to hear what Phil was telling him. “I don’t want Tony to go away. Am I pushing him away?”

“Tony’s a good man. Don’t be a liar, Stevie.”

“He should cut his losses and run if he’s such a smarty pants.”

“Tony’s tough. You can ease back on protecting him.”

“But . . . but he. . . .” Steve struggled, trying to find words for what he wanted to say. “He’s barely had time to love me. How can he be expected to love him?”

“You’re one person, Steve.”

“All that kid does is sleep and snivel.”

“You’re a good boy, Stevie.”

Steve smacked his hand against the side of his head, hating how confused and crazy his thoughts were. The chorus in his head was as loud as the people in the same room, and he couldn’t remember sometimes who was here and who wasn’t. Phil grasped his wrist. “Whoa, the last thing you need to do is give yourself a concussion. You’ve still got a potent punch in that hand. Let’s keep it away from your head.”

“Sorry. I’m okay.”

“You’ll be okay. You’re sick right now. That’s okay.”

“Tony doesn’t need this mess. He deserves better.”

“I never thought I’d find an occasion for these particular words to pass my lips, but here they go: You really aren’t giving Stark enough credit.”

Phil’s word choice and the humorous twinkle in his eyes helped Steve calm down. He took a deep breath and even smiled meekly. “I’m not?”

“The last thing Tony Stark needs is for me to join his PR team, so take me at my word here. If this alien toxin coursing through your system makes it impossible to clear your head for now, let him in there with you. Into the chaos, into the shadows. Whatever is going on, you don’t have to be alone in there. He might even find a way to annoy the symptoms into submission. When Stark gets to talking—”

“Tony talks,” Steve nodded, smiling weakly. He knew Phil was making good sense, but he needed to close his eyes for a few minutes. So tired.

He must not have been out too long, because when his eyes reopened, Phil was still in his chair in the makeshift gym across from him, talking to Clint about how his workout went. Clint was holding a bowl in his hand, throwing his legs over the arms of the wheelchair to perch over Phil’s lap.

“I brought you pineapple. I thought you might like a little snack before you hit the showers.”

Mmmm,” Phil said, letting Clint slip a bite into his mouth. “The pineapple on this island is amazing. But I don’t think I should eat this in here.”

“Shit, I’m sorry. I forgot. Sorry, Steve.”

“No, don’t worry. The fruit smells haven’t bothered me as much. I can be around the lemonade and I barely smell the pineapple.”

“Maybe it’s because you’re getting better,” Clint said hopefully.

“That’d be nice.” He looked at his IV bag, noticing it was almost empty. “Must be all this great nutrition I’m getting. I’m sure there’s pineapple in my IV shake.”

Clint laughed. “Oh, yeah. I saw Bruce mash it up, along with some papaya, grapefruit, and a whole pizza. Wait, that was Thor’s breakfast shake.”

Steve laughed, but held up his hand. “Okay, time-out. Even the word ‘pizza’ just made my stomach whoosh.”

“Gotcha.” He fed Phil another piece of pineapple, following with a sweet kiss on the lips.

“I think I’m realizing why the pineapple tastes so good,” Phil grinned.

“We still on for our date?”

“I think I can fit it into my schedule.”

“Where you going?” Steve asked, relishing the calm that came from watching them.

“I’m taking my husband on a little boat ride.”

“Little?” Steve grinned. He saw the size of the boat tied to the dock. Looked more like a seaworthy hotel penthouse, which would be best for Phil. Lots of comfort, little jostling.

“Do you want to come with us? It’ll be slow and low-key, no drama.”

“Sounds nice, but you two need some alone time.”

“Yeah, just me, my husband, the turquoise sea . . . and his nursing contingent. Very romantic,” Clint laughed. “But considering the rest of them are going cliff diving and I promised to stay out of trouble for at least twenty-four hours, this will be a nice day’s activity.”

“Cliff diving?” Steve wasn’t sure he wanted to know what that was. Anything that necessitated voluntary plunges into the water was not on his dance card for the foreseeable future.

“It’s a lot of fun, actually, though bungee jumping is more my speed. Thomas says Provo is mostly flat and the water is pretty shallow, which isn’t ideal for high diving, but some of the locals Thor has been partying hearty with say there are gorgeous spots on West Caicos, away from civilization, with really deep drops. I just hope Nat and the doc stick to the diving and don’t start tossing each other off the cliffs.”

“Another lover’s spat?” Phil asked drolly.

“She’s pretty pissed,” Clint grinned. “But only DEFCON 4 at this point.”

“Why is she mad at Bruce?” Steve asked. He wasn’t up to speed on anything around here despite living with this group. “He wasn’t part of the parasailing debacle.”

“She made a comment about how wild things were in the guest house the last few nights. Hell, I don’t even know where Thor is finding these people. Anyway, Nat being Nat, mentioned how she might check it out for herself tonight to see if things were as exciting as they sounded. He wasn’t real keen on her plan. She was less keen on being dictated to.”

“What?” Steve was flabbergasted. “Why would she want to go to the guest house? She’s here with Bruce.”

Phil and Clint exchanged glances before Phil said delicately, “You might not want to let her hear you say that. Natasha considers herself a free agent. She’s not here with anyone. She wouldn’t take kindly to such a presumption.”

“Presumption? Okay, I know I’ve been pretty out of it, but even I can see they act like people who are together.”

“We’re not saying she’s not—” Clint paused as if considering his words carefully before continuing, “keeping company with Bruce. Let’s just say Natasha is, um, she’s, uh—”

“A bit of a maverick,” Phil supplied tactfully. “And fiercely independent.”

“Yes, fiercely. Very fierce. Exactly. Fierce.”

Steve remained stunned. He’d seen the way Bruce looked at her, the way he tried to hide the depth of his caring. “Bruce really likes her.”

“And she likes Bruce,” Clint responded quickly. “Believe me, Nat doesn’t spend that much time with someone she doesn’t like.”

“But she wants to go be intimate with Thor?”

“Well, no, not Thor per se,” Phil explained. “I think it’s more the allure of the, um, the group dynamic. The provocative.”

“A new flavor. A little spice.”

“No commitment. No strings. Natasha hates strings.”

“And she is on vacation,” Clint reasoned. “She hasn’t been on a vacation in—” he turned to Phil, who scratched his head. “Well, a long time. She just wants to let loose and have a little fun.”

“And that’s fun? The stuff Thor is doing with Phil’s medical team and a bunch of strangers? People who don’t have any feelings for each other, some who don’t even know each other. Because it’s about sex. That makes it fun?” The whole thing was very confusing. Steve shook his head, raising his hand to fend off the explanations Phil and Clint looked ready to make. “No, please. I don’t need to hear anymore. This is none of my business.”

Clint exchanged a look with Phil before clearing his throat and running his hand over the back of his head. “Yeah, anyway, I’m going to grab some breakfast, maybe take a swim while you shower and rest up from your workout. After that, we’re sailing off together, handsome.”

“I look forward to it.”

Clint leaned to kiss Phil. “Mmmm pineapple-y. I like. I’ll pack lots of fruit in the cooler for the boat ride. Oh, and wear that sexy sailor’s hat. I mean for sun protection, of course.”

“Of course.”

As Clint left the suite, Phil turned to Steve. “Don’t let this thing with Natasha and Bruce get under your skin. You need to focus your energies on your health.”

“I know,” Steve answered tiredly. He was already feeling the pull to take a nap. “I just feel badly for Bruce. I know what it’s like to have feelings for someone and think you’ll never be enough for them.”

“Didn’t play out like that for you, though. Maybe it won’t for Bruce. Or even Natasha. She’s got a lot under the surface. We don’t know. The full story is yet to unfold. I admire your values, Steve. I share most of them, actually. But the world is big place populated by a diverse group of people who have completely valid reasons for their choices and behaviors.”

“I know. I’m too judgmental. You’d think I’d learn by now. Keeps getting me in trouble.”

“You have high standards. Nothing wrong with that. You wouldn’t be you without them. You’ve had to do a great deal of acclimating to a new world in a short span of time. Go easier on yourself.”

“I guess I’m lucky I did a bunch of acclimating already, because lately I feel like my head can barely sustain two consecutive thoughts. I can’t even read. I try to learn a little every day, but lately my studying seventy-years-of-history-and-culture time has been nonexistent.”

“No worries. I’ll write you an excuse note.”

Steve chuckled. “Sounds good.”

“Ready to hit the whirlpool and then the showers?” Walt asked as he returned.

“Absolutely.”

Before Walt got closer, Steve whispered, “How does he look that amazing when he’s been awake all night?”

“My entire care staff are SHIELD-trained medical personal. They have remarkable fortitude and stamina. Top condition.”

“Good thing.”

He and Phil both chuckled, Phil adding, “I hope

I can get my stamina to kick in half as well soon.”

“I have everything ready,” Walt smiled as he put a hand on Phil’s shoulder.

“Great. Let’s get this done so I can grab a quick nap before the boat sets sail. But we can’t leave Steve in here alone.”

“I’m okay,” Steve said reflexively. The moment the words left his mouth, he knew what the expression on Phil’s face would be. “Right. On second thought, Walt, I’d appreciate a quick push.”

~0~0~0~

Steve was going to have Walt bring him out to the pool terrace, but when they exited the suite into the great room, he could hear Tony’s voice coming from the direction of the kitchen. “Tony must still be finishing breakfast. You can leave me in here. I’ll wait for him.”

“You sure you don’t want me to take you into the—oh, right. No kitchen.”

“Yeah, it wouldn’t be a good idea.”

“I’ll go let Mr. Stark know you’re out here.”

“No. Please. He’ll just rush and he barely takes any time to look after himself. Let him eat in peace. I’m good here. I’ll probably be nodding off in a second anyway.”

Steve did nod off, though not for long. He awoke to the sound of Tony’s laughter, which made him smile. Tony hadn’t had much opportunity for jocularity this trip, and Steve’s heart felt lighter hearing him happy. He listened closer, determining Clint was the one laughing with Tony. He wondered if they were talking about the parasailing fiasco again. Being extremely careful not to tangle his IV line, Steve slowly rolled his chair about ten feet into the dining room, frustrated by how draining the simple exertion was. The kitchen was still a wall away, and he hoped the food smells wouldn’t drift through the open door between the rooms. He just liked hearing Tony sound animated. He thought he could listen more while he dozed.

“I mean, who the hell are those people?” Clint was asking through his laughter. “Is he putting up signs on the road? Does he send up sex smoke signals with the hammer?”

“Yeah, the smoke reads: Come to the Thorgy!” Tony snickered. “I think this is how they roll on Assgard, which, don’t get me wrong, I have the utmost admiration for. Why do you think Thor travels the galaxies with his own posse? He’s doing more than shooting the shit over battle stories with Xena the warrior princess, Robin Hood, Jackie Chan, and Gimli son of Groin. Any other time, I’d say more power to him. But right now, I can’t take much more of this bullshit. Between his thunder-style orgies and Dr. Hulk and the Widow Hyde experimenting with every sexual variation known to exist, I can’t even smell the ocean air anymore. Pussy and jizz. That’s all I smell. It’s in the air. Stuck up my nostrils. On my clothes. My clothes smell like fucking pussy and jizz and I’m not even getting any.”

“No, no, the sounds. The sounds are worse. Like a bad porno tape looped over and over and over. And Thor rumbles so loud I nearly fall out of the bed. What is that word he’s howling? It sure ain’t English. Oh, man. I never appreciated how amazing the sound-proofing is in the tower until we got here. Why do other people’s sex sounds grate in my brain?”

“Because you’re not getting any,” Tony laughed. “You don’t hear that shit when you’re part of the party. When you’re hosting the party, nothing else exists.”

“Party?” Clint snorted. “My party days are non-existent. My balls are so blue, they’re green.”

“I’ve got calluses on my palm from slapping the weasel. I’ve never been around this much sex while being forced to ride the bench.”

“You’re probably humping the bench. No, wait. You’ve been swimming all those laps. Makes your balls shrivel, right?”

“My balls and I are not friends right now,” Tony complained.

“My balls hate me. They want to know why I would drive them to the movie theater if I wasn’t going to buy them any popcorn.”

“You smell that, right? I’m telling you, pussy and jizz. Can’t even smell my own bacon.”

“Oh, great, Tony. Now you just ruined my bacon, too. Bleeech.”

“So much for breakfast.”

“Come on. I’ll swim laps with you. And make the temperature in that pool colder. I could use some shriveled balls about now.”

Tony and Clint were laughing and elbowing each other jovially as they exited the kitchen, both coming up short when they spotted Steve sitting there.

“Hey, baby, how’d you get out here? You know you’re not supposed to be driving your own chariot.”

“Walt brought me,” Steve managed to say around the bile in his throat.

“Walt?” Clint’s color went ghostly pale. “He didn’t hear us—?”

“No,” Steve stated coldly. “He didn’t hear anything.”

“But you did,” Tony surmised. In an instant Tony’s features softened, the barbed Stark gleam gone from his eyes, his tone losing the crudeness. “You know we were just letting off steam, right?”

“Sure.” Steve knew he shouldn’t let this bother him, but his insides were tense and his jaw refused to unlock. Tony possessed a sharp tongue and a boorish sense of humor, and Clint enjoyed tasteless chatter, so why was Steve taken aback? He had heard far more crass conversations between men in his unit, but then those didn’t sting on a personal level.

“Good. Come on. Let’s play chess. I have the board set up.”

“Chess? No, I don’t think so.” Steve shook his head. “Too boring for you. Maybe you should make plans with Natasha. For tonight.”

“What?”

“Ah, shit,” Clint moaned.

“To join Thor’s house party. You should both have a good time.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Tony looked bewildered.

“Steve, you got this wrong.”

Steve sighed tiredly. He was mad and hurt, but mostly he felt guilty. Tony was unhappy and it was his fault. The words physically hurt to say, but he expelled them anyway. “Clearly you came on this vacation to get laid and I can’t help you with that. You should go have a good time with the people who can. Sounds like you’d enjoy yourself.”

Tony staggered two steps back, as if Steve had slammed him with his shield. His mouth opened and closed twice before actual words came out. “Seriously? This is what you think? After everything?”

“Hang on,” Clint intervened, his hands up. “Let’s all calm down. Part of this is my fault. Steve, the shit I said before regarding Nat—”

“No, I get it.” Steve didn’t want to hear the explanation again. He was having a hard enough time keeping his stomach from churning. “I’m old fashioned, I know. I’ll get used to all this at some point, but right now, I’m too tired. My head is spinning. Go have a good time.”

“Fuck!” Tony spat. He stepped towards Steve, his eyes fiery, but then he turned, tugging his fingers in his hair until it was standing on ends. He turned to speak again, hands starting to gesture, then freezing midair. Making a frustrated groan he slapped his hand hard against the wall.

“Tony,” Clint cautioned.

“I’m cool,” Tony responded, fingers once again in his hair. “I just need a minute. Gonna take a quick walk. Run. Swim. Something. Can you keep tabs on Steve?”

“I got it.”

“Tony,” Steve called, but Tony waved a dismissive hand behind him and kept walking. Steve heard the front door of the villa slam and started to roll his wheelchair in that direction, but Clint grabbed it by the handles and turned him around.

Ohh no, you’ve done enough damage.”

“Me?” Steve was indignant. “How is this my fault?” Clint wheeled him into the media room and slammed the door. He looked more miffed than Tony, which totally confused Steve, whose head was already reeling, his stomach doing somersaults from the brisk wheelchair ride. As Clint turned to him, Steve sputtered. “W-what do you have to be mad about?”

Clint’s expression was tight, his eyes dark and stormy. “What the fuck was that!” he exploded. “You’re supposed to be a super soldier, not a super idiot.”

Steve was taken aback. Clint had never spoken to him like this and he didn’t understand what he’d done to elicit it. He tried desperately to get a complete thought so he could respond, but nothing logical was coming to him. “I . . . you . . . I don’t—”

“Save it, boy scout. In fact, figure this out yourself. I’m out of here.”

Clint exited the room, slamming the door hard enough to rattle the hinges this time. As Steve stared uncomprehending at the door, he heard a string of muffled cursing, followed by a few blunt kicking sounds before things went quiet. The door reopened cautiously a few moments later and Clint was back, looking less agitated and kind of repentant.

“Okay, that was uncool. I don’t get to make hotheaded dramatic exits on the sick guy in the wheelchair, especially when I’m the one who’s supposed to be looking out for him.”

“I don’t need you to look out for me,” Steve said dejectedly. “I don’t need anything.”

“Yeah, you do. You need to listen and I need to talk. Calmly.” Clint pushed Steve close to the armchair, then sat down, facing him. His eyes had lost their steeliness, looking assailable now. “First off, I’m sorry. This hit too close to home for me and I let my own shit creep in there, which I shouldn’t have.”

“Close to home?” Steve took a deep breath, trying to focus, though his head ached and his eyes burned. He needed to understand. He sat up more in the chair, clutching the arms tightly in an effort to keep his attention on point.

“I know you’re altered and feeling like crap, and I’m an ass for dumping this on you, but no going back now. It’s a touchy subject. I’ve been where Tony is.”

“You mean horny?” Steve didn’t mean to sound as belittling as his words came across. He was doing the judging thing again. He was very confused and really did want to understand. “Sorry. You were saying?”

“Look, this isn’t about me, but I’m the one who threw the gas on the fire, and I’ve got to make this right. Yeah, Tony’s horny. Yeah, he wants you. Sure, he dreams about you and gets wood looking at you and probably can’t shake all the stuff he wants to do to you out of his head. So? If you were up to snuff, you’d feel the same way. We talked about this in the coffee shop, remember?”

Steve actually had to concentrate to bring the memory back. He was having a harder time making the connection to the present. “Yeah. Right. I mean, yes, before. I did feel like that. And you told me it was okay, right?”

“And I also told you it had nothing to do with how you feel about him. Same for Tony. He kicks himself every fucking time the sex thing rattles him because he loves you too damn much for words and he knows at his core the love comes from a deep place that exists on another planet from his pecker. But then there’s his good ole rod popping boners when boners shouldn’t happen, like a sign announcing to the world ‘I’m shallow. I think with my dick,’ which isn’t true.”

“Like what happens to you?” Steve shook his head, clearing the dizziness, hoping he was following.

“Yeah. I love Phil from such a deep fucking scary place, it controls the blood in my veins, the air in my lungs. It’s a life force. Doesn’t stop me from throwing wood even when he can’t, or wanting Phil so bad it aches. But that hunger just lives there. A low hum. Usually manageable. What Tony and I were talking about was the cosmic joke of being plunked down on the island of Dr. Odinson Strangelove and how tough it is to keep your junk under control when somebody keeps ringing the chow bell, but you’re not coming to the table. We were just letting off steam, shooting the shit like guys. Slagging it off. Had nothing whatsoever to do with you, or Phil, or anything that matters.”

“It’s impolite to listen in on other people’s conversations, Stevie.”

“I was eavesdropping.”

“Mr. Moneybags is well rid of you. Couldn’t get away fast enough.”

“Nah, you were just in the wrong place at the wrong moment too soon after I’d been flapping my lips about Natasha and her libertine preferences.”

“Liberty,” Steve repeated before recognizing he had the wrong word. His sluggish brain was starting to comprehend what Clint was saying. “Right, I think I get it now.”

“It had nothing to do with you, Steve. Tony wants to be part of Thor’s orgies about as much as I do . . . which is not at all.”

“I hurt his feelings?” Steve slurred, his fight to remain coherent slipping fast.

“He’s just trying so fucking hard to be right for you and feels like he can’t win for losing.”

“My fault.”

“You’re on injured reserve, here, buddy. Nothing is your fault. He knows. Give him a little time to chill out. He’s pretty stressed.”

“I’m his stress. Gotta fix this.”

“You will when you feel better.”

Steve shook his head, his eyelids too heavy to keep open. “No. Day. Today. You help me?”

“Sure. Whatever you need. After you take a rest, though, okay?”

“S’good plan.”

~0~0~0~

Chapter Text

Steve looked around, content at how well things had fallen into place. He couldn’t take much credit, though. The plan may have been his, but Clint and Thomas did all the work. They had set up the table and chairs in the shadiest corner of the sea-view terrace, the cushy double-sized chaise not far behind, facing towards the horizon. Both spots had a great view of the ocean, but neither was situated in direct sunlight, so Tony would be comfortable. Lit candles in glass holders were spread everywhere, even around the patio floor itself. It wasn’t even noon yet, so the bright Caribbean sunshine didn’t leave much opportunity for the candles to illuminate, but because there were so many of them in a variety of gorgeous shaped holders of multiple colors, they still looked pretty. The table was set with crystal stemware, and china plates and bowls with an orchid pattern. Their ‘lunch’ consisted of an odd assortment of the few things Steve could stomach the smell of—ice chips in his bowl and champagne glass, and vanilla ice cream and lemonade in Tony’s, with a moderate fruit platter in the middle of the table, surrounded by saltine crackers.

“He’s going to be hungry,” Steve pointed out disheartened as he looked at the table again. “There isn’t much to eat there.”

“He’ll eat later,” Clint insisted, poking a stray cracker back into place so the arrangement on the plate looked perfect. “This isn’t about eating. It’s about ambiance. Oh!” He snapped his fingers. “Almost forgot the music. I think you’ll like the stuff I downloaded.”

At his request, Clint had found a bunch of jazz music and put it onto his MP3 player, which he was now settling into the dock and turning up the speaker volume. Steve still marveled at how the little gadget could contain so much music. “How’s that?” Clint asked when the music began to play.

“Good,” Steve nodded, the music immediately reminding him of their date at the Douglaston Manor. He could see Tony clearly in his mind, handsome and debonair in his tuxedo, as they danced to the music of their private band, but this was no Douglaston Manor. “What happens if Tony doesn’t come back before all this stuff melts?”

“He’ll be back. He’s been checking in on you since he left.”

“He has?”

“Yep, texting me about every twenty minutes. I told him you were sleeping, which you were, and to take his time. But my last text said I was getting ready to meet Phil and Carolyn down by the dock, which I am. As soon as he gets back, I’ll slip out and you guys will have total privacy.”

Everyone else had already headed out long before. Bruce had removed his IV and checked on him before leaving, assuring Steve that even though they were going to a different island, he was only a cellphone call away, and could be here in minutes if necessary by hitching a ride on Thor. Steve really hoped that wouldn’t be necessary, but understood the importance of contingency plans. After helping Clint, Thomas and the kitchen staff retreated to the staff house, but they were always an intercom buzz away if needed. Right now, the only person Steve really needed was Tony. He was comforted knowing Tony had been checking up on him via Clint. Maybe Tony wasn’t quite as angry with him anymore?

“I really appreciate you helping me, Clint. I hope Tony isn’t still too sore at me for any of this to matter.”

“He’s not angry with you.”

Steve shrugged, finding the words difficult to believe. “Sure.”

“Buddy, you need to lighten up. You just hopped on the relationship freight train. You got plenty of bumps ahead. Pace yourself. You guys are kind of like pinballs. You’re going to keep banging around until you figure out the right path. The important thing is to keep batting the ball back into play. When Phil and I first got together, it was ugly. This kind of stuff doesn’t come with manuals. And I was lucky. I at least had someone like Phil who is calm and sensible. You guys—”

“Don’t have anybody sensible?” Steve asked, grinning.

“I wasn’t going to say that, but I guess I could.” Clint chuckled. “What I meant was you’ve never been in any relationship and Tony—well, whatever he’s had has pretty much imploded in his face. You guys will figure this stuff out. You’re just going to fuck up a bunch along the way.”

“You should write an advice column with all this wisdom and comfort.”

They both had a good laugh before Clint sobered, leaning over Steve’s chair and taking hold of his shoulder, eyes going piercingly gray. “Seriously, the hardest thing to do is trust someone with your ugly. You’re going to tell yourself you’re protecting them or doing them some favor, but the truth is you’re just being a chicken-shit coward. At least, I was. You got more guts than that, right, Steve?”

Steve didn’t have a response. He knew there was wisdom in what Clint was telling him, but he also knew he hadn’t proven to be very good at anything relationship-wise, with no solid plan for how to stop screwing up. “I know I love Tony,” was what he eventually managed to say because that was the only truth he was certain of.

“Good place to start,” Clint grinned, straightening when they heard the front door to the villa close. “Sounds like my cue to bail.” As Tony made his way out to the sea-view terrace, Clint blew past him, darting towards the front door.

“Wait. Where are you going in such a hurry?”

“I’m late for a very important date. Have fun on yours.”

“My what?” Tony stood staring at the whiff of empty air that had been Clint. His hair was damp and unruly, sunglasses sliding down his nose as he looked towards the door. He was dressed in a bright yellow tee shirt, and loose fitting jeans rolled at the ankles. His feet were bare, traces of sand clinging to his toes and ankles. He looked utterly adorable and the sight of him made Steve’s face break into a goofy grin.

“What’s going on?” Tony asked, turning toward Steve and the candle-lit scene. He pushed his sunglasses to the top of his head, his expression wary, as if waiting for the next shoe to drop.

"I checked my scorecard and realized it was my turn to plan our date. Have lunch with me?”

“Lunch?” Tony’s eyebrow arched as he stepped closer to the table, looking at the contents.

“Hope you don’t mind a modified menu. I have a few dietary restrictions. And, well, smell restrictions. And sight of food restrictions.”

The pronouncement earned him a half-grin as Tony pointed to the table. “You set all this up?”

“Nope. I was good. Didn’t get out of my chair. Didn’t break any rules. I had help.”

“Because you want to have lunch with me?” Tony still seemed puzzled.

At Steve’s nod, Tony nodded as well. “Okay.” Tony moved behind Steve’s chair, pushing until he was next to the chair in front of his place-setting at the table.

As Tony made to move the metal chair out of the way so he could roll Steve closer, Steve raised a staying hand. “Actually, I was hoping to sit in the regular chair. Trying to make this as normal as possible.”

“Oh. Sorry.” Tony locked the brakes on the wheelchair, his hand sliding below Steve’s armpit as he made the transition to the other chair. “Careful.”

“I got it.”

Thankfully, he moved from seat to seat smoothly, not knocking anything over. Tony came around to the other side of the table, sitting. He took his glasses off his head, and set them on the table before fidgeting with the silverware. “Are you sure you’re okay with this?” He gestured towards the ice cream and fruit.

“So far, so good. Eat.” Steve dug his spoon into his bowl of ice chips, sipping them off like soup. Tony grinned, taking a spoonful of his ice cream.

“S’good. My compliments to the chef.”

“Only the best for you,” Steve played along, glad to keep things light. “Were you swimming?”

Tony paused and Steve could see his brain working behind the dark eyes, trying to figure out if the question was a trap. Finally, he responded cautiously, “Yes.”

“I was just surprised you’re not more sandy. From the ocean, I mean.”

“There’s a shower house on the beach.”

“Ohh.” Steve hadn’t gotten to see the beach or anything around it up close yet. “Did you have your swim trunks in there?”

“Didn’t wear any.” At Steve’s shocked expression, he added, “Private beach.”

“Oh, yeah.”

Tony set his spoon down. “Look, baby, this is very sweet, but you don’t have to make nice. I know you’re pissed at me and I know I hurt you.”

“No, no, I’m not mad. I was wrong before. Me. Not you. Clint explained to me.”

Tony’s suspicious eyebrow arched. “He did?”

Steve grinned. “Yeah. After telling me what an idiot I was first.”

“He what?” Tony pushed his chair back from the table, fire in his eyes.

“No, wait. Sit. Please. Don’t get all protective and defensive. He had your back, actually. I was an idiot.”

Tossing his napkin disgustedly on the table, Tony shook his head. “No, I was an idiot talking that trash in the first place. I know how I must have sounded but, baby, you gotta know—”

“I do know. I understand. I also don’t have much sustainable energy, so before I nod off, can we let that nonsense go? Focus on now. I want to have a romantic lunch with you.”

“You do?” Tony looked completely confused.

“I’d have preferred it to be dinner, but nighttime hasn’t been my friend these days. Had to compromise. I know the food isn’t much, and Clint’s music player is no band, but we’re alone. I can’t dance with you, but I could probably manage to give you a spin on my chair.”

“Steve, why are you trying so hard?”

“I’m not trying hard enough. I know this is a dime-store copy of our first date, and I lose all points for originality, but my brain is working about as swiftly as my body right now, and this is the best I could do.”

“But you don’t need to do anything. You’re sick. You think I don’t understand that? Are you worried if you don’t keep me entertained I’ll run off and play sex patty cake with Thor and his groupies? Is that what you think?”

“No!” Steve’s arm shook, his spoon banging into the glass, toppling it, ice chips cascading across the table and into the fruit platter. Ignoring the mess he was making of everything, he continued with all the vehemence he could muster. “I think we’re on vacation, and I love you, and sick or not, I know I could be treating you better.”

“Hey, take it easy.” Tony was up and over to Steve’s side in a flash. He squeezed himself between Steve and the table, legs straddling Steve’s thighs, hovering lightly over his lap as he clasped his cheeks. “Honey, you’re okay.”

“I just ruined your fruit,” Steve pouted, frustrated with himself.

“Fruit is overrated.” Tony leaned closer, brushing his lips lightly over Steve’s before his soft kiss quieted the raging self-doubt. Steve slid his hands beneath Tony’s shirt, smoothing up his back, enjoying the heat of Tony’s flesh beneath his fingertips. He ached to be able to do more, but for now he would settle for the solace of touch. Being this close to Tony alleviated the turmoil within, his entire body relaxing.

Tony pulled away from his lips before going too deep, but his tender kisses sprinkled over Steve’s eyes, nose, cheeks and forehead while his fingers slid upward to massage his achy head. “I didn’t mean to ruin our date, baby-blue. Forgive me?”

Steve let his forehead nod into Tony’s stomach, his energy waning. “Not ruined. Was hoping most’d be spent on that big, cushy chair right there. S’way, when I pass out, can still cuddle you.”

“What an amazing plan, Captain.”

~0~0~0~

“I’d have preferred to gaze at the stars with you,” Steve murmured, as he looked out onto the breathtaking seascape before them. The short nap had given him a little bit of energy. “But that brings the whole nighttime problem back, so I’m settling for brilliant blue sky as a good second place choice.”

“A great choice.” Tony’s cheek was flat to Steve’s chest, and Steve knew his eyes were closed, but he sounded content. “We’ll come out and see all the stars you want when you’re feeling better.”

“Feel pretty good right now.” Tony’s toes were skimming lazily along Steve’s bare leg as they snuggled in the oversized chaise. The only thing that would have felt more perfect was if they moved the chair out from under the shade of the sea-view roof into the direct sunlight of the pool terrace, but Steve wouldn’t expose Tony to the discomfort of the unrelenting sun. He willed himself not to feel a chill when a salt-scented ocean breeze wafted over his bare legs and chest. Steve’s button-down cotton shirt was splayed wide to feel the press of his man against his flesh, offering about as much warmth as the ill-chosen shorts he was currently wearing.

I’ve got to be the only guy on the beach wishing he packed winter clothes, Steve thought ruefully, inwardly cursing his depleted condition once more.

“You’re cold,” Tony whispered, as if reading his thought. “Get you a blanket.”

“No. Please don’t move. Not yet. This is too perfect.”

“I’ll have to warm you better, then.” Tony shifted, climbing atop Steve and stretching long, blanketing him with his body as he tucked his face into Steve’s shoulder. The denim of Tony’s pants felt warm against his legs, and the heat emanating from Tony’s body beat any darn blanket. “Better?”

Steve sighed. “Mmm. Yes. Much. You’re very warm.”

“It’s over ninety degrees out here, sweetheart.”

“Oh, yeah.”

They sat cuddled quietly for a while, Tony the one who dozed off this time, which was understandable. Steve didn’t think Tony had slept at all last night, too worried about him.

“He’s very protective of you.”

“I know.”

“Why does it bother you, Stevie?”

“It doesn’t bother me. It’s nice. I just hate being a burden all the time.”

“All the time? How many days has it been?”

Steve searched his befuddled mind for an answer. The past and the present kept intertwining in his head, and he often felt as though he had been infirm forever. It was maybe only a week since the tram accident? That long? No, maybe not that long. Third day on the island, right? He wasn’t sure. After he crashed the plane into the ice, everything went dark. No telling how much time passed then.

Steve’s lids grew too heavy to keep open, though he hated losing the beautiful picture of the calm, azure waters. Warm waters. Pretty white foam lapping lazily over the white sandy shore. He could hear his mother humming in the kitchen, but he couldn’t quite make out the tune. It blended well with the music coming from the speakers. The smell of Tony’s cologne as they danced was intoxicating. But as the plane hit the ice, the sound of glass shattering was deafening, terrifying Stevie, who scrunched his eyes closed as tight as he could.

~0~0~0~

Gentling fingers caressing his cheeks drew him slowly back to the light. When he managed to open his eyes, the sky was brilliant blue, the clouds puffs of cotton. The world was quiet, except for the splash of waves and the riff of jazz music dancing on the ocean breeze. Tony was plastered to his side, but there was a blanket now. How did that get there?

“You got up?” Steve asked, trying to figure out how long he had been asleep.

“Just for a sec. You were sleeping pretty hard. I don’t think you noticed.”

“Sorry. I’m not much company.”

“You’re the best company.” Tony’s foot was under the blanket, twining around Steve’s calf.

“Was I out long?”

“Don’t think so. Maybe an hour. I was sleeping too, though. Not sure.”

“Did I . . . um . . . say anything?”

“Not that I heard. Why?”

“No reason.” Guilt lodged in the pit of Steve’s stomach, burning there like acid. This wasn’t right. “Wait. That’s not true.” Steve struggled to sit up more in the chair, turning to face Tony. “I keep lying to you.”

“I know.” The response caught Steve off-guard. Tony’s voice was flat, his eyes devoid of emotion.

“You know?”

“Yes.”

“How? What have they been telling you?”

“Nobody is telling me much of anything around here, especially not you. Don’t worry about it.”

“Don’t—wait—what? What do you mean? You don’t care?”

A flash of intense emotion animated Tony’s face before he took a deep breath and visibly calmed himself. “I never said I don’t care. There just isn’t much I can do about it right now. You’re sick. I don’t want you to worry about anything. Your focus needs to be on getting well.”

Steve extricated his limbs from Tony’s, turning fully on his side to face him. “We need to talk about this.”

Tony sighed. He moved to his side as well, propping his arm under his head. “This isn’t a good time for you to be having big conversations.”

“Agreed. But we can have a bunch of little conversations in my lucid moments because this is important.”

Tony cupped his cheek. “You are what’s important to me. The rest doesn’t matter.”

“The rest?” Steve put his hand over Tony’s, guiding Tony’s fingers towards his mouth, where he kissed them gently before speaking. “Tell me some of the rest. Please.”

Tony’s eyes drew down and he was clearly struggling with inner turmoil. Finally, he said, “Look, I know you don’t trust me, which I guess makes sense. But I’m going to change that.”

“No, you’re wrong.”

“Really? You felt like shit after you left the hospital, but you didn’t say a word. Couldn’t eat. Couldn’t drink. Still, not a word. And there I am, prattling along like the blind jackass I am, planning trips, ordering clothes, up to my eyes in remodeling plans, and not once noticing my guy is falling out until he lands on his ass at my feet on my plane, which is all on me, I know. I’m self-absorbed. Anyone else would have noticed. Anyone else wouldn’t have to be told—”

“Don’t say that. This is all on me. I was dishonest. I didn’t want you to see. Not because I don’t trust you.”

“Then why?”

“Because . . . because. . . .”

“You can’t be like everyone else, Stevie.”

“Sniveling little runt.”

“Steve, talk to me.”

Steve tried to ignore the other voices and focus only on Tony’s. “I told myself I did it for you. For everyone. To protect the trip and not ruin everyone’s vacation. I thought that’s why I kept my condition a secret.” Steve looked down shamefully. “I’m not sure now that there wasn’t more. I couldn’t face being sickly Steve Rogers again. With the exception of those few years in the army, that’s all I ever was. Not the Steve Rogers you know, and sure not the Steve Rogers you want. The other one. Too small. Too weak. Too thin. Always the burden, the albatross, the outcast, the bother.”

“The Steve Rogers I want is you,” Tony insisted, squeezing Steve’s hand with his. “You are no bother.”

Steve shook his head, unable to meet Tony’s unflinching gaze. “You don’t know.”

“Then tell me.”

“You know how I feel about liars, Stevie.”

“Yes, I’m a liar. I know. I get it.”

“I didn’t call you a liar, baby. Look at me.”

Steve’s chin dropped down further. He was sorry he had insisted on this conversation, but he couldn’t lie anymore. He wasn’t being fair to Tony. “I wasn’t talking to you.”

“Honey, I’m the only one here,” he said softly.

“No.” Steve shook his head. “I didn’t tell you I was sick when I should have and I haven’t told you how sick, either. I’m losing my mind. My head is all wrong. I’m not here, I’m not there. I’m hearing things. People. Voices. I see them sometimes, too, and they’re as real as you are. And I’m talking to them, but I’m not, but maybe I am. I don’t know. My mom—she keeps talking to me and sometimes I’m dreaming, but sometimes I’m not, at least I don’t think I am, but it’s all very confusing because she’s here. Only not just her.”

“Oh, baby, it’s okay.” Tony’s voice was tender, his hands strong as he took Steve’s face between them and forced him to meet dark eyes that held nothing but love. “Whatever is going on is because you’re still hopped up on the Asgardian moonshine meds Thor gave you. You’re not crazy. This will pass.”

“No, it’s getting worse. I know it is, deep down. I can feel it.” Steve’s heart sank as he admitted, “I don’t think I’m going to get better.”

“And I think you’re wrong, but even if you’re right, we’ll deal. Together.”

“He doesn’t want any part of you, you little punk. You gonna saddle him with the same burden you stuck us with?”

Steve pulled back, shaking his head hard enough to get dizzy. “No. I won’t do that to him. I mean, to you. Won’t be your burden, too. You don’t need this. This isn’t what you signed on for. I thought I was different when we got together, but I’m the same ole Steve Rogers. I’m a complete mess. A mess who has lied to you and hurt you and treated you awfully because I’m an arrogant, lying—”

“Enough!” Tony’s hand covered his mouth, cutting off his words. While his tone had been no-nonsense, his expression was soft, even a little amused. “I’ll agree with the mess part. The rest is crap. But understand, Steven, you are my mess. My beautiful, sweet, a-dork-able, hot mess, and you’re not scaring me off, so don’t waste what little energy you have trying.” When Tony lifted his hand, Steve uttered a “but,” causing Tony to promptly muffle his words with his hand again.

“Uh-uh,” he said, shaking his head. “No buts. Not up for debate, Steven. Clear?”

Steve nodded, realizing he wasn’t going to win this round, not sure he wanted to. His energy was draining fast and the pressure behind his eyes was getting fierce. At his nod, Tony removed his hand, kissing Steve’s gaping lips sweetly. Steve didn’t feel particularly deserving of the unwavering affection, but he basked in it nevertheless.

“Should’a told you sooner,” he admitted.

“Yes, you should have.”

“Sorry.”

“No worries.” Tony shifted onto his back, guiding Steve until he pressed his face into Tony’s shoulder.

Felt nice there. Warm. He was so drained. “Keep messing up. With us. I mean.”

“On the bright side, you’re normally a pretty tough act to live up to. Intimidating, and that’s coming from someone who doesn’t get intimidated. It’s good when you’re not so perfect. Makes me look better.” Steve could feel the comforting rumble of Tony’s chuckles. Why wasn’t he mad?

“You don’t need my help to look good. S’nothing wrong with you.”

“Baby, I know what I am and I know who I am. You are so far out of my league, it’s comical.”

Steve’s brain was a pool of fog. A throbbing pool of fog. He heard all of Tony’s words, but the meaning took a minute. For a second, he pictured a baseball league, but that had to be wrong. Not that league. Couldn’t be the other thing. Tony couldn’t mean Steve was too good for him. Had to be wrong. “You’re s’ppose to be smart.”

“I’m not smart, baby, I’m a fucking genius.”

Steve grinned wearily, fighting the heaviness of his lids. “Then how come you don’t see? W’uzz gonna take?”

“You’re starting to drool,” Tony said tenderly. “Go to sleep. Don’t fight it.”

“Wait, gotta know.”

“Know what?”

“What’ll take for you to see’you plenty good 'nough for me?”

“I don’t know. Maybe when you marry me.”

“What?” Exhaustion was washing over Steve in steady waves, crashing inside like the ocean. He hated this. Hated being confused and mixing up everything being said to him. He felt like a moron. “Wha’d’you say?”

“That would be my security. Think about it.” Tony started chattering breezily, the way he did when he wanted to help Steve fall asleep. Words. Lots of words. Steve understood a few. “You’re an old-fashioned guy. Okay, that’s an understatement. You’ve got more loyalty than a St. Bernard. I think if you made a commitment that big, you’d stick it out no matter what. Wouldn’t be a bad insurance policy for a guy like me. Free reign to screw up, under the no-backsies clause, because Steve Rogers is not the kind of guy to break a contract.”

Steve’s head was spinning. “Huh? Backsie what? Clause of what contract?” He tried to peel his eyes back open, mustering every bit of energy he could to try and sit up and shake the cobwebs loose. “You talkin’ ‘bout getting married?”

Tony was chuckling, a mischievous gleam in his eyes as he gently, but firmly, drew Steve’s head back down to his shoulder. “Baby, you are such a mess. Time for a nap, honey. You’re very confused. I am sooo not the marrying kind. Didn’t your mother ever warn you to stay away from the not-marrying kind?”

Steve could hear his mother’s tittering laugh, like a pretty song. Tony was right. He was drooling. He was right about the big conversations thing, too. Steve couldn’t make clear sense of much of anything. Snuggling his face into Tony’s warmth, he gave himself over to the debility that wouldn’t release him. “My mom likes you,” he whispered, relieved to have dropped the exhausting pretense with Tony. For now, his mom was here, which really wasn’t such a bad thing.

“Of course she does. I’ve always scored well with non-corporeal mothers.”

“Corporal? M’mom wasn’t in army.”

“I know, honey. Go to sleep.”

“G’sleep. Suh’date, huh?”

“Great date.” Steve felt a soft kiss touch the top of his head as he drifted with the waves.

~0~0~0~

“And people really find this easier than talking?” Steve asked, struggling with the tiny keyboard on the screen of his cellphone.

“I don’t know if I’d say easier. But it’s how things are done. You want to be with the times, don’t you, baby?”

“I suppose.” Texting was just the latest in the list of the zillion things Steve had needed to familiarize himself with since waking up seventy years in the future, many of them not making a lot of sense to him, but he learned them nonetheless. At least he wasn’t studying a computer screen or a book by himself. Tony was helping him. When Steve had roused from his latest nap, Tony insisted they put the tough stuff on hold. He had suggested chess, but it would have necessitated sitting across the board from each other, and Steve wasn’t ready to move so far from Tony. He had enjoyed their leisurely afternoon in the chaise, even if he had slept through most of it. Making good on the promise he made before they left on vacation—“You are getting a full tutorial on cellphones. . . . Time to move past the number one, Elmo.” —Tony had been patiently tutoring him on some of the many functions his phone was capable of.

The texting thing had proven a challenge, especially with Steve’s diminished concentration and coordination. When he wasn’t dropping the phone, he was hitting the wrong buttons or forgetting which buttons to use entirely. It wasn’t all bad, though. He was snuggled next to Tony on the chaise, getting to play footsie under the blanket, and when his eyes would fall shut, he’d rest his head on Tony’s shoulder and listen to him tap away on his tablet. In between fumbling, he had managed to send text messages to Phil, Clint, Bruce, and mostly Tony so far.

Steve wasn’t sure what time it was; felt like late afternoon. Picking up the phone from where it had fallen on his chest, he tried again to finish the message he was typing, having to restart three times as he willed his fingers to work right.

“You’ll have more coordination when you feel better,” Tony reminded him.

“I won’t have smaller thumbs.”

“This is true. I need to start designing you a phone with a Captain America size virtual keyboard, and figure out a way I can make it smaller than a piano.”

“I like my phone.” This was the phone Tony had given him to replace the one he lost in the East River. He had no intention of giving it up. He was determined to succeed. “I don’t want another phone. I just need to—darn it!”

Tony glanced at the message Steve had just texted to Clint: 'O think i got ths no. Hwo yoir booty rtop.' Laughing, Tony asked, “His booty trip?”

“Boat. Boat trip.” Steve sighed in frustration.

“Maybe this wasn’t a good idea. Let’s work with the complicated alphabet another time, Elmo.”

“Who’s Elmo anyway?”

Taking the phone from his hand, Tony’s fingers worked with the speed of light over the buttons on the screen, and in what felt like five seconds—the time it would take Steve to type the word the with two misspelling re-dos—Tony had brought up a screen with a little red furry puppet singing a song to what looked like a giant yellow bird and a brown elephant.

“He’s adorable,” Steve said, reading the words below the video. Elmo was a character on a show called Sesame Street who helped little kids learn letters and numbers. He understood the connection now and smiled. “I’ll bet even with those big, furry fingers he could text better than I do. I mean, look, he plays the piano.”

“You’re doing great.” Tony handed him back his phone and kissed his forehead.

Steve took hold of the phone, remembering how to hit the play button for the video, which played again. Elmo had a sweet voice and it was a catchy little tune, one that was easy to remember, even with his addled brain. “This is the song, la la la-la, Elmo’s song.” Tony smiled at him when he started singing along, though by the fifth time he replayed the video he realized the sugary-sweet repetitive tune might have been getting on Tony’s nerves.

“You know what?” Tony said, gently pulling the phone from Steve’s hand and clicking off the video. “I’d do just about anything for you, baby-blue, but if I’m going to listen to any more Elmo, I’m going to need something stronger than lemonade in my glass.”

Steve laughed. “Sorry.”

“Oh, look, here. You’ve got a text message response. Read that and give Elmo a break, okay?” Steve took the phone, staring at the screen, knowing Tony showed him what to do a few times, but for the moment he was blank. Tony noticed his hesitation, quickly pointing to the screen. “This icon . . . the little envelope . . . tells you there’s a text message. You swipe here and push this to open. If you need to scroll, use this. See?”

“Oh, yeah.” Steve read the message from Clint aloud. “My booty’s great. Phil agrees. Had a great time. Heading back now. See you soon. Good job with the texting. Hang in there.” There was a little picture that looked like a smiling alien next to the words. “An e—emoticon,” he said, remembering the term Tony told him.

“Very good.”

“I’m glad they had a nice time. I’m also glad they were gone this long. I’ve enjoyed getting to be alone with you for a change.”

“Yeah, it’s been nice, baby.”

“You sure? Not wishing you could be boating or cliff diving or some other fun thing?”

“More fun than Elmo?” Tony teased. “La la la-la, la la la-la . . . oh, crap. Now it’s in my head.” Tony banged the side of his head with his hand. “It’s insidious. This is how they brainwash parents. The sale of those Elmo dolls is huge business. There’s probably some hidden message implanted between all those la-la’s compelling you to go to the nearest toy store and buy all the damn Elmo products.”

Laughing, Steve offered, “You can put music you like on your tablet. Even the loud, noisy stuff if that would help.”

Tony shook his head. “No way. This has been pleasant and peaceful, baby. Other than Elmo. The jazz music is still playing, which is nice, even coming from Barton’s crappy player. Remind me to get him the latest Stark-3 player so I don’t have to endure this sub-standard tech again. Anyway, we’ve got the sounds of the shore. Perfect for relaxing, which is what you are supposed to be doing.”

“I will. Let me just try to answer Clint.” Steve was having difficulty holding the phone in his hands, which had started to shake. He concentrated, moving his thumbs over all the wrong letters, until the phone slipped from hands completely.

“Let me help you.”

“Then it wouldn’t be me texting.”

“Okay, fine. You can use the voice feature.”

“The what?”

“You can dictate your text and the phone will type the words.”

Steve puzzled over that one for a full minute before looking at Tony in confusion. “So, I can speak what I want to say . . . and this will type it out . . . to turn it into a text? Why? Why wouldn’t I just call Clint if I wanted to speak?” The confusion was becoming agitating.

“I think we’re done texting altogether for today, okay, honey?” Tony picked up the phone from Steve’s chest, where it had dropped yet again, and set it down on the table beside him. “You can speak with Clint when he gets back.”

Steve groaned with frustration, hating being this inept. “Fine.”

“Don’t pout.”

“Not pouting.”

“Are.”

“You’re right.” He thumped his head against the back of the chair. His mouth was very dry, like he had been eating sand. He didn’t want to chance anymore ice, though, because the last batch had landed in his gut like lead. “How come it doesn’t melt? Shouldn’t even get to my stomach.” He didn’t mean to still sound pouty, but he could hear that he did.

“What? Ice? Does your stomach hurt, baby?”

“A little. Can we play chess?”

“Not sure that’s a good idea.”

Steve sighed, rolling to his other side, away from Tony, staring off down the shore. “I guess I could sleep. I’m good at that.”

Tony’s hand squeezed his shoulder. “I know this sucks, but—”

“You can only be who you are, Stevie.”

“I wasn’t going to say that.”

“Do you think I’m arrogant?”

“Do I—me? You’re asking me about arrogance? Seriously? I’m me, remember?”

Steve studied the waves, only they were no longer blue and calm. They were frosted and deadly. “No one is invincible. Why don’t I remember that? I should. Thought I’d moved past the debilitated days, but you can’t. Not for long. Not invincible. Never was. Not in the ice. The ice is stronger. You can’t hide. You can’t move. Nothing to do but remember. The dark stuff is the loudest. Why is that?”

Steve was distantly aware the grip on his shoulder grew tighter, fingers digging into his flesh, but his limbs were already numb. Couldn’t move anyway, so what did it matter? Another pain. Another ache. They all blurred. His vision blurred. He could almost see the door, but he knew. Knew you don’t open the doors. The closed doors were lonely, but never open them because what was behind would be worse. His chest was crushingly heavy, his heart too tired to beat under the strain. Ice crawled through his veins, burning like cold fire.

“Stevie, don’t play near the fire!”

“Wasn’t playing.”

“This pot is hot. Don’t touch!”

“Not hot. S’cold.”

“Stevie, enough! I don’t want you in here. You don’t belong here. Go back to Tony.”

“Tony?”

“Do as I say, Steven Rogers. Go. Now!”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Steve’s eyes burned as the sunlight cut through his vision. Warm sunlight. He could make out Tony’s alarm-stricken face before him. He was kneeling on the patio next to the chair, so close his nose nearly touched Steve’s. He wanted to touch him, realizing with relief he actually could move his hand, petting his fingers over Tony’s hair. Tony’s exhale of relief blew across Steve’s cheeks.

“Hey, baby, are you back with me?”

“Did I leave?”

“Yessss,” Tony hissed, not breathing right. “You were like a statue. An ice-cold statue.” He pulled the blanket up to Steve’s neck.

“M’sorry.”

“Where did you go?”

“Don’t know.”

“Steven. Tell me.”

Steve shook his head. He really didn’t remember much. “Not sure. Was looking at the waves and then they weren’t waving. They were solid.” Steve’s breath caught in his throat as he looked over Tony’s shoulder.

“What’s wrong?”

Steve squeezed his eyes shut, but when he opened them, he was still there. “The man. He’s behind you.”

Tony looked over his shoulder then back to Steve. “Okay. Who is he?”

“You see him?”

“Doesn’t matter what I see. Tell me what you see.”

“I don’t know him.” The stranger didn’t move. Didn’t speak. He only stared at Steve. His eyes were vacant at first, but then the quiet burn of contempt filled them.

“He’s your father, isn’t he?”

Steve shook his head vehemently even though doing so made it hurt worse. “Didn’t know him. Don’t remember him. She didn’t keep his pictures. I wouldn’t know what he looked like.”

Tony took a deep breath, making his voice calmer when he spoke again. “Sweetheart, you might need to wrap your pretty head around the fact that you were a fucked up kid with daddy issues, pretty much like the rest of us around here. Well, except maybe Coulson. His dad was probably Robert Young.”

Steve scrunched his face in confusion. “The actor? He’d have been too old to be Phil’s—”

“Later . . . when he was Father Knows Best . . . whatever. Not my point.”

Tony continued talking, but Steve wasn’t understanding most of the words. He stared at the silent man, trying to decide if this sad-sack, unnerving stranger could really be his mind conjuring his father. If this was coming from his head, why was his head evoking such a scornful aura around the man? Did he hate me that much?

“The mean voice in my head,” he muttered. “Do you think that’s him, too?”

“Is he talking now?”

“No. Staring. Icy. Cold.”

“Baby, you’re icy. I’m going to get another blanket and find out how close the boat is. Carolyn was with them. She can get your IV hooked back up. You’re very dry. Probably dehydrating again, which is messing with your head.”

“No!” Steve clutched Tony’s shirt. “Don’t go. I don’t want to be here with him.”

“I got this,” Tony said confidently, before turning and raising his voice towards where the man was hovering. “Look, ghost-daddy, fuck off! Phantom, boogie man, relative of Casper, I don’t care who the fuck you are. Get lost. I’m not letting you mess with him.” Tony edged over, blocking Steve’s line of sight with his body as he placed his fingertips on Steve’s face, brushing over his eyes. “Close your eyes, sweetheart.”

“Tony—”

“Do it.”

Steve obeyed, squeezing his eyes shut. He heard Tony moving, but he could tell he was still close. Steve didn’t move, barely breathed, until Tony told him to open his eyes again. Thankfully, the only person he saw was Tony. “He’s gone.”

“Of course he is. Lay on your back.” As Steve readjusted himself in the chair, Tony fixed the blanket over him. Steve tried hard not to shiver, but the cold had gotten worse. “Here you go.” Tony propped a pillow on Steve’s chest and set his phone there. The video of Elmo singing was playing. “You hang with Elmo for two minutes. I won’t be far. I need to grab a couple more blankets and make sure someone gets here to hook up your IV.”

“You hate this song,” Steve muttered, grinning.

“Just keep your eyes on the puppet. Scary ghost-in-the-head dads are totally repelled by Elmo. Trust me.”

Steve knew he should feel ashamed by how feeble he was, but he was too exhausted for worry. He liked the sound of Elmo’s voice, feeling safe enough to close his eyes. If they’d have had television when he was little, this was the type of thing his mom would have turned on to keep him company during the endless sick stays on the sofa.

“Your Tony is smart.”

“I know.”

“Go to sleep, angel-mine. Things will be better soon.”

~0~0~0~

Chapter Text

Steve felt better after a dose of fluid—well, except for the black-out vomiting incident that closely resembled the one he had with Bruce last evening. Once he got past that, things went better. He had been too out of it to wonder how everyone managed to get back to the villa at approximately the same time, but when his head had time to clear he realized Tony must have summoned them, no doubt more worried then he’d let on after the incident on the terrace. He couldn’t quite make out what Tony was saying to Bruce about his black-out, and he wasn’t sure he even wanted to hear how scary he looked. Bruce got babysitting detail while everyone else had dinner, and Steve tried his best to be a good patient, tucked up in his bed and sleeping soundly for the most part. He was becoming used to feeling worse at night, but the idea of remaining in bed rattled him. When he did wake about an hour later with no incident of voices or strangers, he was able to cajole Bruce and Tony into letting him come back downstairs for a while. He was eager to hear about everyone’s adventures that afternoon, desperate to fill his mind with anything that wasn’t about him.

“No party tonight?” he asked Thor as the Asgardian carried him downstairs.

Thor’s grin was wry, his blue eyes twinkling with mischief. “It has been brought to my attention that perhaps my zealous recreation has been somewhat overindulgent and impinging on the tranquility of my fellows. Tonight I believe I shall spend a quiet evening bonding with my good teammates.”

Steve laughed. “Who complained the loudest? Clint? Tony?”

“If by loud you are referring to volume, I would agree with your choices. However, if we are measuring most strenuous objection—”

“Bruce,” Steve supplied, finally catching on. He was pretty certain Bruce had been too distracted at night to even notice the goings-on coming from the guest house, so his complaint had to be rooted in his worry over Natasha joining the party. Steve decided he needed to stay out of this discussion, quickly changing topics. “I thought I heard Walt say something about teaching you to surf.”

“Indeed. I look forward to catching on the waves.”

“Catching a wave,” Clint corrected as they entered the great room where everyone else was gathered. “And I can’t wait to see that.”

“I have found these Midgardian water sports quite exhilarating,” Thor pronounced as he set Steve down on the largest sofa next to Tony, who was waiting with several blankets despite the fact they were all fanning themselves with their hands and drinking from sweating glasses filled to the brim with ice. The terrace doors were closed, keeping the ocean breeze locked out of the villa. After wrapping the blankets around him, Tony relented and let him stay sitting up, squishing beside him. Tony was very hot. They all looked to be melting, and Steve knew he was the cause, but he also knew from experience he would not win any argument to switch the fans or air-conditioning back on.

The furniture in this room was set up in a u-shape, so they could all see each other while talking. Walt was on the footstool next to Phil’s armchair, and he looked to be making adjustments to Phil’s sling. Clint was stretched on his back on the small sofa, his feet plopped on Natasha’s lap. Bruce was on the chaise perusing another giant textbook, but Steve was unable to make out the wordy title. After settling Steve on the couch, Thor seated himself on the arm of Phil’s chair, taking an unusual interest in the sling—or maybe just in Walt.

“I want to hear about cliff diving,” Steve requested. “I can’t imagine what the fun is in that.”

“Cliff diving actually dates back to the seventeen hundreds,” Phil informed. “The last king of Maui could leap from a nineteen meter cliff and enter the water below without a splash. He became known as birdman, and later he would make his warriors jump from cliffs to prove their courage and loyalty.”

“Still not sounding like a lot of laughs,” Steve teased.

“I told you lack of splash was the main objective,” Natasha hissed. “A tidal wave follows these guys in and they think they did something special.”

“It’s about velocity, Tash,” Bruce argued.

“I agree,” Thor concurred. “As I maintained the maximum level of speed throughout the free-fall.”

“In your mind,” Bruce grumbled.

“Maybe they measure speed differently on Asgard?” Tony offered, causing Bruce to chuckle.

“Walt, you were there,” Clint pointed out. “Who was faster?”

“I can’t say that I measured,” Walt answered diplomatically.

“Walt is Switzerland. He never comes down on any side.” Natasha didn’t look particularly admiring of that quality.

“Meaning you guys spent most of the day arguing and he wouldn’t play referee?” Phil looked pleased. “Smart choice.”

“I think this will hold now, boss,” Walt said as he finished adjusting Phil’s sling and hitching it back on his arm.

“What, exactly, were you two doing on the love boat to get that sling so knotted up?” Tony asked mischievously.

Clint and Phil exchanged sweet glances before Phil responded, “We enjoyed a nice leisurely sail and appreciated the gorgeous scenery.”

Tony took a deep breath in, sucking loudly through his nose. Clint sat up enough to toss a pillow at his head and warned, “Don’t even start. No bacon was ruined on this outing.”

“Too bad.” Tony’s crack made Steve blush.

“To-nee.”

“What? I didn’t say anything.”

Walt stood. “If you don’t need anything else, I’m going to head down to the guest house.”

“I’m fine, thank you,” Phil responded. “I’ll see you in the morning.” Steve watched as Walt issued polite goodnights to everyone in the room and then headed out. Whatever he expected to see pass between him and Thor didn’t. Apparently, he wasn’t the only one puzzled by the behavior.

“I gotta say, you two are cool customers,” Clint commented.

“It’s nearly indiscernible, even to me,” Natasha agreed.

Phil shook his head like a put upon parent. “Will you all stop? Walt is a trained professional who knows how to conduct himself, and Thor—”

“And Thor is Thor,” Tony finished, sounding astounded. “How is he pulling this off? I mean, come on. He does everything boisterously. Oh, and while we’re on that topic, I’d appreciate it if after breakfast you could move your god-sized bowels in the crapper in your own suite, not the one down here, thunder thighs. There isn’t enough Glade on this island to freshen the air after one of your morning constitutionals.”

Clint nearly fell off the couch laughing and Bruce wasn’t far behind him. Natasha made a hissing sound and Phil was pinching the bridge of his nose as Steve groaned.

Thor sounded genuinely amused. “If this is the case, you should be relieved, since your chief complaint was regarding the proliferation of other, more private, scents in the air.”

“Oh, no,” Steve pulled the blanket over his head to escape, truly hoping the words “pussy” and “jizz” didn’t make it into another conversation he had to listen to today.

“As for Walter, prudence dictates a certain level of discretion be maintained in private matters.”

“How come discretion doesn’t dictate that at two in the morning when you’re howling his name loud enough to rip the shutters off the windows?” Clint asked.

Sooo,” Phil intervened. “How was your day, Steve?”

“Me?” Steve poked his head back out from under the blanket. He didn’t have all that much to report, but he was determined to say something to keep the conversation off the previous track. “Well, I slept. A lot. Got to spend time with Tony, which was great. Oh, and I learned to text. A little. Not well. And I found out who Elmo is.”

“Elmo? The Muppet?” Clint asked. “He’s cute.”

“Seriously?” Tony sneered. “You smoke a lot of weed, Barton?”

“Are you disparaging an innocent Muppet, Stark?” Phil asked, amused. “Do you hate Santa, too?”

“I have to side with Stark on this one. Grating little fur-ball.”

“Great. I’m always comforted when the master assassin sides with me.”

“What are you going to do, Nat?” Clint teased. “Put a hit out on Elmo?”

“I can help,” Tony offered. “Financial backing? Puppet-zapping technology? What do you need?”

“Who is this Elmo? I have not made his acquaintance. What is a Muppet?”

“Tony, give me my phone. I’ll show Thor the Elmo’s Song video.”

“Nope. Not happening.”

“I’ve got my phone,” Clint volunteered, digging out his device and starting to push buttons.

“I’ve got my knife,” Natasha threatened.

“Barton, believe me when I tell you this is a bad idea.”

Clint ignored Natasha and Tony, handing his phone over to Thor.

When the first chorus of la la la-la’s began, Tony groaned and snatched an end of Steve’s blanket, yanking it over his head. By the second chorus, Natasha threatened to ensure Thor would be unable to pass on his godly lineage if he didn’t hand over the cellphone.

“I think it’s kind of cute,” Bruce teased, earning a flung leather sandal to the head. Once Thor began exuberantly singing along, Bruce quickly changed his opinion. “Okay, give Natasha the phone.”

“I like Muppet Elmo,” Thor declared, replaying the video from the beginning.

Clint joined him in singing this time, swiftly sliding off the sofa just ahead of Natasha’s intended blow. Steve wanted to sing as well, but he was laughing too much. When Phil began whistling the tune, Tony cast off the blanket and sprung up from the couch.

“Do you guys really want me to block every scrap of Internet access to this house? I’ll do it.”

“My knife will do the job quicker.”

“No knives,” Steve insisted. “Thor, please give me the phone.”

“As you wish, Captain.” Thor got up and handed the phone to Steve. “But I have already mastered the tune.” To prove his point, Thor continued singing even as Steve stopped the video from playing.

“Fuck the knife. I’m getting grenades.”

“Hey, look at the time,” Tony interjected. “It’s half past your next orgy.”

Thor stopped singing and began laughing. “I thought you did not wish me to entertain this evening?”

“I’m fickle. I change my mind. A lot.”

“Are you seriously choosing the Thorgy over Elmo?” Clint asked, cracking himself up.

“Are we voting here?” Bruce asked. “Because I’d rather have the puppet back.”

“How about a nice board game,” Phil suggested. “Or some cards?”

“I’m not playing Monopoly with Tony,” Clint informed. “And I would warn anyone off playing poker with Phil or Stratego with Nat because she’s vicious.”

Stratego isn’t for pussies, Barton.” Steve smiled at the image of Natasha and Clint playing a board game together.

“Perhaps I could interest everyone in an Asgardian sporting contest.”

“I only rented this place,” Tony griped. “It needs to be in one piece when we leave.”

“Oh, hey, while we’re on the subject of no-holds-barred recreation,” Clint announced, slapping his hands together gleefully, still standing a good distance from Natasha’s strike range. “I got some information from Thomas about the uninhabited outer islands. I think I found the perfect spot for an Avengers-style rumble in the palm tree jungle.”

“A what?” Tony asked, sitting back down beside Steve.

Bruce waved his hands at Clint as he shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “We don’t need to talk about this now.”

“I was unaware our escapades were to be cloak-and-dagger,” Thor chuckled. “How thrilling.”

“Look, if this is about another orgy—”

“No, no.” Clint held up a staying hand towards Tony. “Believe me, I’m not helping him with any of those.”

“We can talk about this later,” Bruce tried again. “Steve wanted to hear about cliff diving, didn’t you, Steve?”

“Um, sure.”

“What are they up to and will it involve a more expensive insurance policy?” Tony directed his question toward Phil who looked equally bewildered.

“I have no idea. After the parasailing, I’m not sure I want to know.”

“Okay, how many times do I have to explain, it was a snafu? Wasn’t supposed to happen like that.”

“With you, Barton, everything happens like that,” Natasha stated drolly.

And Thor,” Tony added. Don’t forget Thor.”

“Okay,” Natasha acknowledged. “But this isn’t about Barton. It’s about the Other Guy.”

“The Hulk?” Tony exclaimed.

“Yeah. Why shouldn’t he get some R&R like the rest of us? It’s a team vacation, right? Let the big guy have some fun, too.” As Clint spoke, Bruce sunk down in his chair, hiding behind his book, and Tony’s body grew rigid enough for Steve to feel the tension through his blanket layers.

“You’re kidding, right?”

“I know what you’re thinking, the whole low profile thing,” Clint reasoned, “but The Turks and Caicos has forty different islands and cays, and only eight of them are inhabited. Plenty of room for Mean Green to stretch his cooped up muscles. He and Thor—”

And Thor,” Tony repeated, agitated, hands tearing into his hair. “See, there we go. And suddenly my head is filled with images of a fucked-up tram and parasailing disasters. Shit.”

“Are you kidding? This will put the Godzilla vs. Rodan smackdown to shame. It’ll be awesome.”

“Who?” Steve asked, not following this conversation. “The what?”

“You plan to pilot the boat to an unchartered island so Thor and The Hulk can . . . play?” Phil asked, doing his best to make the question sound reasonable.

“Well, somebody has to play with him. It’s not like I can shoot hoops with the guy. And I don’t think they make surf boards big enough for him.” Clint was laughing, finding the entire conversation extremely entertaining.

“And you’re okay with this?” Phil asked Natasha.

“She’s coming with us,” Clint clarified.

When all eyes turned to Natasha she shrugged. “The more the Other Guy gets used to me . . . to all of us . . . the better I like it.”

“It actually makes sense,” Steve ventured, thinking he finally understood the gist. “Since the Battle, The Hulk has adjusted well to being part of the team. His help with Operation Rebuild has been immeasurable. Same thing on the bridge. Treating him like an outsider isn’t fair, and certainly not prudent in terms of team building. Makes good sense that this should be his vacation as much as anyone else’s, and this seems to be a safe, low profile way to achieve that objective.”

Tony jettisoned off the couch like a firecracker had gone off in his pants, his face red with fury. “What the fuck is wrong with all of you?” He stomped to Bruce’s chair, pointing an accusatory finger. “What the hell kind of doctor are you? You really plan to go off to play Gods and Monsters while Steve is this sick? What if he gets worse? Is The Hulk going to come here with his big green fucking stethoscope and growl the sickness out of him? Do you truly not give a shit? Do any of you give a shit or is this one big fucking joke?”

“Tony,” Steve called, desperate to go to him, but knowing if he fell, he’d make matters worse.

Natasha stood, putting a gentling hand on Tony’s back, her voice soft. “Easy, Stark. You’re reading this wrong.”

Bruce stood as well, his anger directed towards Clint, not Tony. “This is why I told you to shut the hell up. Do you ever know when to shut up or do you just enjoy stirring shit? Tony, none of this was going to happen until Steve gets well. Clint is just shooting his mouth off about stuff we talked about, that’s all. Forget the whole thing. It’s not important.”

“Steve’s health is the primary concern to everyone in this room,” Phil stated calmly.

“Sure as hell doesn’t sound that way.” Tony remained unconvinced.

“I’m sorry,” Steve intervened. “I managed to scare Tony pretty good today . . . again. He’s on edge because of me. I know nobody meant any harm.”

“Baby, you aren’t the one who needs to be apologizing and you sure as hell don’t need to be defending anybody.”

“Tony,” Steve gentled his voice. “These are our friends. They are trying to have a good time on this vacation in spite of me, which in itself helps me feel better.”

“Lying little punk. You love being the center of attention.”

Steve sighed, holding his temples to alleviate the throbbing. “Oh, please, not now. Go away.”

“You’re the one who should go away. If you really wanted your so-called buddies here to have a good time, you’d take your weakling self out of their hair.”

“I’m not listening to you, because you don’t exist.”

“Who are you not listening to, honey?” Tony was kneeling on the floor in front of him.

“Is it the voice of your mother?” Thor asked, crossing the room to sit beside Steve. “Do not fear her.”

As Steve squeezed his eyes shut to avoid seeing anything he didn’t want to see, he heard Tony say worriedly, “I don’t think that’s who it is.”

Phil said something in the far distance and Steve thought Tony responded, but he couldn’t make out the words. Suddenly, he couldn’t get his breath. It was as if his lungs had collapsed beneath a heavy, frigid pressure. He tried to cry out, but he had no voice. White darkness engulfed him. No. There was no darkness. No light. Only gray. Neverending gray.

Frozen in frost. The screams you can’t scream are the loudest. The closed doors loomed, but don’t open them. Alone is better. Alone is terrifying. Why couldn’t he just go away? There was no breath, so how could he still be? What does breath feel like? What is a heartbeat? What is warmth?

“I’ve made apple pie for dessert tonight, Stevie. You can try and eat a piece for me, can’t you?”

“Can’t.”

“Sure you can, angel-mine. Just try. Try for me. Try, Stevie.”

“Mom, I can’t. Please. Can’t eat. Can’t breathe.”

“Shhhh. Doesn’t matter. You listen to my voice. You’ll find your way. There’s always a way.”

“Too dark.”

“Darkness doesn’t bring anything that isn’t there in the light. There’s no need for fear.”

“Mom?”

“Baby mine, don’t you cry; baby mine, dry your eyes.”

His mother was singing and the sound was sweet. It reminded him of what warmth was. He tried to listen. Keep listening. Don’t let the good sound slip away.

“Stevie, I need you to hear me.”

“I hear you. Please sing more. Please.”

“No, honey. Hear me. Hear what I’m telling you.”

“Too hard.”

“Hard things just take more effort. You can do this. Listen, Stevie. Listen. Are you listening?”

“Baby, can you hear me?”

“His blood pressure has dropped to 60 over 40. We’ve got a thready pulse. Rapid heartbeat. He might be going into shock.”

“Well, fucking do something!”

“Get another blanket. And get me another bag of ringers-lactate.”

“Tony?”

“Steve! Can you hear me? I think he sees me. His eyes don’t look crazy anymore.”

Steve was confused, not certain how he wound up flat on his back across the couch with a blood pressure cuff around one arm and his IV in the other when neither had been there before. His skin felt wet and clammy, like he had sweated out an intense workout, but he wasn’t sweating. He was freezing despite the stack of blankets atop him. The blood pressure cuff on his arm tightened.

“BP’s 100 over 70 now. Pulse is better, too.”

“What the hell?” Tony sputtered. He was hovering over Steve, as was Bruce. He could make out Mark and Carolyn behind the couch holding the IV bag and other medical-looking gear.

“Did something bad happen?” he asked, his heart pounding against his sore chest. He was trying to remember. He knew he had been sitting up, talking to everyone.

“You went away again,” Tony responded. There was no color in his face and the hands pressing upon Steve’s blankets were shaking. “Like this afternoon, only worse. Longer. At least thirty minutes.”

“Thirty wha—”

“It was, indeed, unsettling,” Thor concurred from somewhere over Tony’s shoulder. He sounded almost as rattled as Tony.

“Steve, what do you remember? What were you feeling?” Bruce asked, shining the ever-present light in his eyes, causing him to blink. The cuff on his arm inflated again.

“I-I don’t remember.”

“Try, Steve,” Phil’s voice encouraged gently. “Anything you can tell us will help.”

“That voice.” Steve tensed, not eager for the recollection. “The mean one.”

“What did he say?” Clint asked.

“I don’t know. I didn’t want to listen.” With effort, he got his arm out from under the blanket, enough for his fingers to find the edge of Tony’s shirt. “Tired. M’tired.”

“I know, baby. But you gotta help us, here.”

“How?”

“He’s 110 over 75,” Bruce announced. “Just like that. Did his pressure drop and rebound the same way this afternoon?”

“How the hell would I know? You think I carry a blood pressure cuff in my boxers? I know his eyes glazed over the same way and he was gone. Didn’t hear a word I was saying. I could feel his heart racing. And he was rigid. Didn’t move.”

“Cold,” Steve remembered. “I felt cold.”

“Yeah, yeah, he was talking about ice. About how you can’t move. I think he said he couldn’t move, could only remember. But it didn’t sound like he was talking to me.”

“Do you remember the ice, Steve?”

Steve heard Phil’s question, but he didn’t answer. He tried to roll on his side, but he didn’t have enough energy. He recognized the feeling in his gut, which he tried to ignore, willing it away.

“Does your tummy hurt, Stevie?”

“No.”

“You know how I feel about lying.”

“No, you don’t remember the ice?” Phil asked, but Steve was talking to his mother.

“Then why do you lie?” he dared to ask her, immediately ashamed of himself.

“Who’s lying, baby? Tell me.”

“Me. Gotta puke.”

“Got you covered, buddy” Clint’s voice said as hands strong enough to be Thor’s rolled him to his side. Clint actually gave him an encouraging smile as he got the bucket under him in time, though why any of them wanted to be around him was beyond his comprehension. He was heaving hard, yet struggling to make out the gist of the conversation continuing over his head.

“From the fluids?”

“Coulson, I couldn’t tell you. This shouldn’t happen. The fluid is intravenous. Nothing should be in his stomach. The antiemetics are becoming less effective. I’m worrying about his kidney function. He hasn’t urinated since this morning. I’m starting to think Tony is right. The hospital might be a better option.”

“That’s the last thing he wants, Doc, and what good will it do?”

“Is he even stable enough to fly? He was one BP drop away from full blown shock five minutes ago.”

“I know that, Tash. Severe dehydration can cause dangerous drops in blood pressure, but amping up the fluid brings about this. I’ve got to find a way to break this cycle, and I’ve only got the slimmest handle on what I’m dealing with.”

“This connects to the cold somehow. The ice. That’s been a constant throughout his condition.”

“What do you mean, Phil?”

“I’m not sure. But it would stand to reason when he hit the Arctic, his body would have shut down in a similar manner . . . steadily decreasing blood pressure, vitals dropping, organs shutting down.”

“He’s not in the fucking Arctic. We’re in the Caribbean and it’s been, like, a thousand degrees in this villa, and that’s on the inside.”

“And yet his body temperature keeps dropping more each time he has an episode.”

“With so few answers and Steven’s condition deteriorating, perhaps the time has come for me to return to Asgard and consult with our healers. I can bring back healing stones, or perhaps a more potent tonic to assist—”

“No fucking way! Your Asgardian moonshine is what did this to him in the first place.”

“Correction, Thor’s tonic assisted in saving his life. But Stark does have a point. Anything you bring back from Asgard was not created with human physiology in mind, especially not human physiology flooded with super serum and cooked by vita-rays. The potential danger may outweigh any good.”

“Vita-rays? Bruce, what if I get JARVIS to cull all of my father’s research? What if the answer isn’t the super serum itself, but the effect of the vita-rays?”

“You think I haven’t read everything Howard Stark ever wrote dozens of times?”

“Not the stuff SHIELD confiscated and kept hidden.”

“That you, in turn, hacked.”

“This is no time for flattery, Coulson.”

“You did good, Steve,” Clint said softly as Steve finally finished his latest round of puking. He cast aside the bucket and swabbed Steve’s mouth and face with a cool cloth. Actually, more like two Clint’s were in front of him, Steve blinking several times to try and make him one.

“Make them stop,” he whispered to Clint, worried about the raised voices.

“Nobody’s arguing,” Clint assured. “Everyone is just worried and trying to figure out what to do for you. We hate seeing you sick like this, buddy.”

Steve managed to gesture for Clint to lean closer, and spoke whisper-soft near his ear. “M’not getting better.”

“Bullshit,” Clint responded, equally softly as the debate raged on a few feet away. “We’re the Avengers, remember? There’s nothing’s ass we can’t kick, and that includes whatever Asgardian-super-serum-ghost-voices wrestling match you have going on inside you. Don’t get yourself all worked up. Focus your energy on healing.”

“Too tired,” Steve murmured, feeling as flat as a bug under a fly swatter. “Wanna go bed.”

“Well, just so happens we have your personal Asgardian taxi service on standby.”

Steve tried to smile because Clint was funny, but the effort would have required more reserves than he possessed. Instead, he closed his eyes, the voices around him starting to merge into one sound, words no longer decipherable. The one clear thought he could manage was the sad realization that his serum was completely breaking down and his days of being Captain America were over.

“You are Steven Rogers,” his mother reminded. “Nothing shameful about that.”

~0~0~0~

Chapter Text

“Your dad died a long time ago. He was a soldier and he got sick from the gas in the Great War.”

“Mom, are you crying?”

“Of course not, honey. Go back to sleep.”

“When the door flew open, he darted under the small table near the kitchen, hiding. The living room was dark. He squeezed his eyes shut so they wouldn’t see him. But the dark was scary. He wanted Mommy. He shivered in the cold and dark, his body too frozen to move.

“Stevie cringed at the loud slamming sound and the shattering glass.

“Look what you did!”

“Joe, you pulled it from my hand. Your precious alcohol. There’s glass everywhere. I have to clean this before Stevie gets cut.”

“Stevie, Stevie, Stevie!”

Steve’s eyes flew open and he sat up in bed, surprised to find his room full of Avengers. He was hooked up to several monitors, but currently no IV. Tony was on the bed beside him, Bruce on a chair next to the bed, Phil in his wheelchair beside Bruce. On the other side of the room, Natasha was seated on the small sofa near the closed balcony doors, her legs folded beneath her, Clint perched on the back of it, and Thor was pacing before them. As far as he could tell, it was still nighttime, though he realized he wasn’t sure if it was the same night. A brief flash of guilt choked him for having put everyone out yet again, but this was swiftly followed by the sense of security their presence instilled as he realized he was shaking from a nightmare he couldn’t quite recall. Tony’s hand wrapped around his forearm, urging him back down towards the pillows, and he complied.

“You’re okay, baby-blue. I’m right here.”

“Was I sleeping?”

“Yes.”

“For how long?”

“About an hour.”

“Did I do anything crazy?”

“Rapid heartbeat for the last twenty minutes,” Bruce responded. “And elevated pressure, which in your case is preferable to your pressure dropping into the basement. Nightmares?”

“I think so.” Steve tried to remember, but the only thing coming back to him was the sound of glass shattering. “Glass, I think. I can’t remember.”

“Are you sure?” Tony asked.

“He’s wondering if you’re lying to him again. This is what happens when you are dishonest.”

Steve gasped. He had grown accustomed to the oddity of his mother’s voice visiting him at strange intervals, but this was different. Closer. Clearer. Different. He sat up again, whipping his head towards the sofa where Natasha sat.

“Oh my God,” he wheezed raggedly, his entire body shuddering hard.

His mother was sitting beside Natasha, her hands folded primly in her lap over the flowered apron, feet crossed at the ankles. She wore the blue patterned dress with the white lace collar, her blonde hair pinned neatly in a bun, not a strand out of place. The sight of her stole the breath from his lungs; she looked just as he remembered. No, better. Tears burned his eyes, forcing him to blink furiously to see her. She was beautiful, a beauty that ached in his gut. An onrush of grief and anguish washed over him, ferocious waves he hadn’t felt the like of since the day she died. Had he died as well? Would be worth dying to be this close to her again.

“Steve, what is it? What’s wrong?”

Voices were calling to him, familiar voices, but they held no interest. He didn’t dare answer despite the smell of their fear. He had to stop blinking. No moving. No listening. He couldn’t risk hearing his mother wasn’t real; wouldn’t risk scaring her off, or making her nothing more than a fantasy. She had to be real. Until this moment, all he had left of her were faded images in his mind, well over seventy years old. No pictures, no mementos, not even another living being who had known the sound of her laugh or the scent of her perfume, things he barely remembered himself, threadbare memories he could scarcely keep from slipping away. He may well be dead or completely losing his mind, but it didn’t matter. He couldn’t let her go. Couldn’t stop staring, frozen in the slim hope she could stay.

“Stevie, you’re being foolish,” she admonished, making the tsking sound that always indicated her disapproval. Didn’t matter. Even heavy with disappointment, they were her blue eyes looking into his.

“You’re frightening your friends.”

“I don’t care.” He yanked away from the hands trying to pull him back down, the words calling to him no clearer than if they had been spoken in another language. All he could hear was her, but she was not pleased with him.

“You do care, so stop being stubborn. I’ll not have you being this ungracious to the people who have shown you such kindness. Don’t you understand how much they’ve put themselves out for you?”

Her head canted to the side, her expression the very reasonable one. She was expecting him to capitulate . . . to do the right thing. She always expected his best effort—no more, no less. Everything inside him was compelled to give it . . . to please her . . . to earn her praise.

Only he couldn’t.

The burn of disappointing her seared his heart, shame so heavy he could barely remain upright, but he couldn’t do as she asked. Too difficult. Too painful. He would lose her. Couldn’t lose her. “Mom, I’m sorry, I can’t—”

“You think those people matter to him? His Highness loves having everyone fetch and carry for him while he lounges in bed. Spoiled is what he is. Spoiled and pathetic. Didn’t I warn you he’d turn out exactly like this?”

The darkness of that voice cut through the wall he had built around himself to keep out the sounds, threatening to shatter everything, take her from him, hurt her. His fists clenched with rage, every muscle tightening for the fight.

“Shut up and go away! You don’t belong here. I don’t want to talk to you. Only to her. Go away!” Steve lunged at the voice, though he had no idea where it was coming from. All he could see was her. The crash caught him by surprise and he landed hard. The tinny sound of a wailing siren pierced his ears as arms far stronger than his wrapped around him, incapacitating him despite how hard he fought.

“Steven, you must cease before you injure yourself!”

He recognized Thor’s voice, became aware he was on the floor as the room came back to him, but he fought hard against his return. “No, Thor, please. Leave me be. You don’t understand.”

“Then explain to me,” Thor stated patiently, though he did not relinquish his grip. “I will listen.”

Steve fought to crane his neck over Thor’s shoulder, heartsick to find his mother was no longer on the sofa.

She was gone.

“Noooooo!” The scream tore from his throat and he felt every agonizing rip.

“Steve!”

“Thor, get him off the floor. I’ve got to untangle those leads.”

Steve smashed his head into Thor’s unyielding chest, the pain blinding him. “She’s gone. He made her go. She was there. On the couch, but he scared her. Made her leave.”

Thor’s arms wrapped tighter around him, both immobilizing and comforting. He held Steve’s head to his chest as he spoke soothingly. “If you speak of your mother, she would never abandon you. Your eyes do not often provide truth. Truth is a deeper thing.”

“Hey, Gandhi, you think you could get him off the fucking floor before you continue philosophizing?”

“Stark, don’t be an ass.”

“Me? Am I the only one that saw Steve take a header off the end of the bed in a state of delirium? I’m sorry. I thought that might be cause for concern and oh, I don’t know, maybe some medical attention.” Steve flinched at the loud, slamming sounds before he heard Tony explode. “Do something to fucking fix him!”

“Tony, let’s take a walk. Bruce is on this and Thor won’t let him hurt himself again. Maybe you need a little break?”

“Forget it, Barton, I’m not going anywhere. If you’re so interested in what I need, then somebody tell me how to help him.”

The sound of Tony’s voice cracking roused Steve from his anguish. His mother was dead. Nothing was changing that fact. Anything else was in his crazy, messed-up head, though it was difficult to shake the feeling of having lost her anew. “Tony,” he called, gratified when his eyes found Tony’s face. He was on the floor, squatting down in front of him.

“Steve, I’m sorry.” Tony’s voice was jagged as he reached out to take Steve’s hand. “I don’t do useless real well and it’s pissing me off how much I can’t help you. I’m going to get myself in check, though. Promise.”

“You’re fine. I’m the mess.”

“My mess, remember?”

Steve was surprised how Tony’s declaration made him smile, even if it was a weak smile that took far too much effort for such a small thing. “Bruce, any ideas? This has to stop. I can’t keep putting everyone through this.”

“You don’t worry about us,” Phil assured. “We’re tough.”

“Boss is right,” Natasha concurred, Steve only now realizing she was busy righting the medical-looking monitors he must have clobbered in his crazed scramble. “We’re good. And we’re with you. For the duration.”

“Steve, to answer your question, I’ve got more suppositions than concrete ideas.”

Steve was weak. He would have surely collapsed in a pile of limbs had Thor’s body not still been bolstering his back, with Tony holding tightly to his hands. As far as he could tell, though, his brain was working . . . for now. “Might as well brief me while my fleeting window of clarity is open.”

He realized immediately his bad choice of words. Images of windows and doors, many of them dark and ominous, filled his mind, making him feel extremely unsettled for reasons he couldn’t explain. Despite the pull towards the dark, he struggled to listen and make sense of the words.

“I have no scientific evidence, yet I feel certain we’ve hit a critical juncture. We had managed to get you to equilibrium for a while, which I believed would give you sufficient time to heal, but that hasn’t been the case. The measures that helped before aren’t proving effective now, and your most recent episodes are growing far more alarming.”

“What’s going to happen to him?” Tony asked, and Steve could see the turmoil he was struggling to hide writ clearly in the depths of his eyes.

“What’s going to happen is you guys are going to figure this out,” Clint declared boldly. “Bruce and Tony are the smartest guys on the planet; Thor knows shit from all kinds of planets going back to long before our grandfathers’ grandfathers’ grandfathers were born; even at seventy percent of his usual capacity, Phil is sharper and wiser than any dozen braniacs put together; and Nat and I are the most bullheaded, don’t-give-up-for-shit-people you are ever going to meet. And Cap, you might be fucked up, but you’re the scrappiest fighter ever born, proven by the fact that you are still kicking nine decades after you dropped out of the womb, defying all odds. We bested Loki and a Chitauri army, for Christ’s sake. Are any of us really ready to be beaten by some nameless mystery ailment?”

“Clinton speaks wisely!” Thor concurred, Steve feeling the rumbling echo of his chest against the back of his head. “This is, indeed, a call to assemble.”

“Baby, you gotta get better,” Tony pleaded with a sideways grin. “I can’t stomach pep talks unless they’re coming from you, mon capitaine.”

Steve tried to return Tony’s smile, grateful to see the moment of levity lighten his lover’s features, but the room was growing darker and he could feel his grasp on reality slipping.

“Don’t be frightened, Stevie.”

“Where are you? I can’t see you.”

“Doesn’t mean I’m not here with you.”

“Thor, I’ve got to check his pressure. I don’t like his color. Get him back up on the bed, stat.”

“Are we losing him again?”

“Here with you,” Steve muttered as he felt himself lifted.

“That little guy from Brooklyn who was too dumb to not run away from a fight. I’m following him.”

“Bucky!”

“Here we go again.”

“BP is 100 over 60. You with me, Steve?”

“Whoever he’s with, it’s not us.”

“I’m hesitant to hydrate him. His symptoms have become too erratic. I’m uncertain how best to proceed.”

“Rather than proceed forward, maybe we should retrace where we’ve been? Figure out what we’ve missed so we can formulate a new plan?”

“I’m game, Phil. I’ve been wracking my brain for days, but I’m missing something.”

“Lay it out, boss.”

“We’ve already established Bruce doesn’t have enough intel on either the composition of the super serum or the components of the vita rays to accurately determine causation here.”

“We begin with a series of micro injections into the subject’s major muscle groups.”

“It’s probably too late to go to the bathroom, right?”

“Do you need to urinate, Steve?”

“Huh?” Steve could make out Dr. Erskine’s face clearly hovering over him, but he didn’t understand the question.

“I don’t think he’s talking to you.”

“He speaks again with those not present.”

“No, wait. I read my dad’s journal . . . when I went through his stuff looking for the pictures I found for Steve. The day they pumped Steve full of serum. This isn’t delirious rambling. He said those exact words.”

“Okay, so we’re dealing with delusions and nightmare constructs fused with vivid recollections from his actual history. Reminiscences, only mixed up like a jigsaw puzzle.”

“I’m a little obsessive when it comes to solving puzzles, and you, Captain, are a puzzle to me. You’re pretty stingy with the pieces, too.”

“I’m not a puzzle, Tony.”

“BP 90 over 50. I’ve got no choice. I’ve got to push fluids. And to finish with the facts, Coulson, confusion, altered mental capacity, fluctuation in blood pressure—these can all be attributed to severe dehydration, especially if kidney function is compromised. He also hasn’t gotten a normal human being’s adequate nutritional supply in six days, let alone enough to sustain his advanced metabolism.”

“You’re not Dr. Erskine.” Steve blinked, desperately wanting to follow, but fairly certain he was losing too many threads in the jumble of words being spoken around him. It was like his brain was typing the sentences neatly, but he couldn’t read. “Bruce?” he guessed, but wasn’t sure.

“Yes, it’s Bruce. I’m right here. Can you please lie still for me?”

“Stevie, stop squirming and let the doctor do his work.”

“I’m trying, Mom, but his hands are cold.”

“You’ve done an excellent job assessing the different medical conditions as they have arisen and treating them, but maybe it’s time to explore beyond the physiological. Yes, he’s dehydrated because he can’t tolerate liquid, but why can’t he tolerate liquid? If that answer was physical, wouldn’t the serum have eradicated it? The serum seems to have cured his physical ailments. His head, his face, his arm, his ribs. Why not this? Why is he getting weaker instead of stronger?”

“It has to connect back to the Asgardian drug. Thor, you have to go find out what was in it.”

“I will leave at once.”

“Whoa, put the plane reservation to Asgard on standby a sec, Thundar. What do you think, Bruce?”

“It will be a lot more difficult to handle Steve when he’s altered without Thor’s strength and I’m not sure any information he brought back would be beneficial. He could tell me eye of newt is in the formula, but without knowing how eye of newt affects human physiology as well as super serum, I don’t see what good an ingredients list will do.”

“The answer may not lie in the ingredients, at least not their names. SHIELD’s chemists develop hundreds of new drugs each year, and I couldn’t name half of them, but their function is critical.”

“But how could something function negatively on Cap without the serum getting it in its sights? Okay, I’m not the scientist here, so maybe this sounds stupid, but doesn’t super serum want Steve to be well? That’s what it’s made for. To make him better, right?”

“Good becomes great, bad becomes worse,” Steve muttered, his mouth so dry, his lips cracking painfully. “Talking ‘bout my serum, right?” He was proud he got that one.

“Baby, there’s nothing bad in you.”

“You are a sickly runt, of no use to anyone. You drained the life out of your mother. You’re why she died.”

Steve groaned, slamming the door closed, locking the darkness inside. He shivered from the sounds of the shattering glass, but lulling hands pressed the warmth of soft blankets over his cold flesh.

“Human beings are made up of more than good and bad, black and white. The serum could currently be enhancing a different trait.”

“True, but the serum worked fine before. If it was going to enhance something that would fuck him up, it would have done so long before now, Tash.”

“But there’s more than serum in his veins now.”

“Indeed! What surges within Steven is Asgardian-made. You spoke of function, Son of Coul. The function of our tonics would differ from yours. On Asgard, the path of healing is not solely physical. Only the synergy of the mind, the body, the spirit, the heart, the soul, can create a balanced being.”

“Would stand to reason any tonic composed on Asgard would be cognizant of such a symbiosis.”

“This is true.”

“Meaning what? There’s more to the function of this moonshine than a medical purpose? Some magical mumbo-jumbo?”

“Are you doing this to me? Is this some kind of magic power?”

“You questioned me earlier of magic, but it is no spell I cast on you. Where I am from, I wield not only thunder, but am looked to as the god of protection and healing.”

“All is journey, not destination. When my father surrenders into the Odinsleep, his body rejuvenates, but his being is restored as well, as he gives himself over fully to the journey of recovery, for all recovery is journey.”

“Gives himself over? And if he didn’t? Call me a cynic, but I don’t even trust the laughing gas at the dentist, and I sure as hell wouldn’t sign up for a shamanic retreat to probe my inner shadows. What if your father fought it?”

“For what purpose would he do such, fair Natasha?”

“Loss of control is not a comfortable place. Anything or anyone messing with your head is loss of control. Once you climb on board the “journey” express, maybe you don’t get to make the call what stations you stop at. I can think of plenty of destinations on my long ledger I wouldn’t be eager to revisit.”

“Steve’s been having a lot of nightmares.”

“What if it isn’t only about nightmares? Nightmare is a broad term, usually used to define something you want to distance from your reality.”

“Easy enough to pass something off as a nightmare.”

“Pass it off? Come on, Tony. You think he’s still lying to you about all this?”

“I think people lie to themselves. I’ve perfected the skill over a lifetime. The line between truth and fabrication can get very thin and very gray.”

“Gray is endless,” Steve whispered before his throat closed completely. He could feel the rapid thumping within his heart begin to slow . . . slower . . . slower. He tried desperately to move his arms, his hands, his fingers, but they were no longer his. The gray was blinding, the weight upon his chest impossible to breathe around. No breath. No heartbeat. How was he here? How? How?

Where is here? Icy fire filled his veins. He struggled for breath, but breath was the enemy. Breath prolonged. Let it go. Too heavy. His eyes felt open, but there was nothing to see. Only gray. Endless cold and gray. Cold-gray. How could he exist here? When would it stop?

The searing pain in his limbs had long gone to sleep, but his brain replayed it over and over, an agony that carried a ghostly scream. Seconds. Minutes. Hours. Days. Months. They held no meaning. There was only the cold-gray. The doors. The screams.

“Baby mine, don’t you cry; baby mine, dry your eyes; rest your head, close to my heart; never to part; baby of mine.”

“Mom, I don’t like the dark.”

“Darkness doesn’t bring anything that isn’t there in the light. There’s no need for fear.”

“Will I stay with you, now?”

“No, Stevie, you can’t stay with me.”

“Please, Mommy.”

“Be a brave boy. You’re such a good, brave boy.”

“M’not.”

“Shhhhhh.”

“Why can’t I see you?”

“Let your eyes sparkle and shine; never a tear; baby of mine.”

“Can’t.”

“I have to go to work now, Stevie. You have to be good.”

“Don’t leave me here. Please.”

“You’re not here, Stevie.”

“I don’t understand. Help me.”

“You can’t get help if you don’t ask. Call for help.”

“Can’t!”

“Do as I say, Steven. Be a good boy.”

“Can’t breathe. Can’t speak.”

“Hard things just take more effort.”

“Please, sing to me more. Please.”

“You can’t get help if you don’t ask. Do as I say.”

“Help me!”

Steve felt his throat muscles tearing as his scream rose above the noise of clanging beeps and loud voices. His back and neck arched so intensely, the force lifted him from the bed, the tangle of wires on his arms and chest twisting painfully.

“Fuck-shit he’s breathing again! Oh my God.”

“We are with you, Steven. We shall help.”

“Steve, can you hear me?”

Bruce was yelling at him, though he wasn’t certain what he’d done wrong. Everything hurt. He collapsed into the sweat-soaked mattress, struggling for breath as he tried to nod. “Yeah.” Tony had hold of his forearm and it took Steve a minute to perceive most of the shaking was coming from Tony, not him. He must have done something really scary again, but his brain was exploded shrapnel. “What’d I do?”

“Let me closer,” Phil insisted before Bruce’s face went out of his sight-line, replaced by Coulson’s. The voice had Phil’s usual calm cadence, but his eyes and his skin color were all wrong. Was Phil getting sicker?

“S’wrong with Phil?”

“Steve, I need you to concentrate the best you can even though it’s difficult. Tell me everything you remember about going down in the ice.”

“The ice?” Steve sputtered, confusion throbbing, making it difficult to see Phil.

“The ice? What the hell? Who cares? He’s covered in sweat and he wasn’t breathing or moving for like, twenty fucking minutes.”

“Barely breathing. There’s a difference. And he wasn’t sweating the whole time. His core temp dropped dangerously.”

“Difference?” Steve squinted, trying to understand the question.

“He’s too out of it. He doesn’t understand you.”

“Can we focus on the here and now, please?”

“Stark, you said yourself he was altered after the tram. He jumped off your roof.”

“Yeah, and scared the fuck out of me, but nothing like now. He was missing a chunk of skull and bleeding out his brain. Not happening here. This? This is wrong. All wrong. Bruce, you’ve got to have something in that mega-mind of yours to figure this out. We might not get him back the next time he goes away like that.”

Steve gasped, panicking. He didn’t want to go away. He struggled to turn his head, finding Tony, though he was blurry and sweating. “No ice,” Steve pleaded. “You said, Tony. Said warm.”

“Don’t want to go back in the ice. Please help me.”

“You’re not going in any ice. Never again. I’m going to keep you warm, baby-blue.”

“If I said something to you, then it’s true,” Tony responded calmly, though he didn’t look calm. He looked wrong.

“Was he talking to you about the ice? When he first got hurt?”

“He was talking crazy that day,” Clint’s voice answered, causing Steve to turn his head again, trying to see where he was and who else was here. “Everything was mixed up.”

“Mixed up to us, but very real in his mind.”

“Where are you going with this, Coulson?”

“Not sure. All I know is this matters somehow. We’ve got to keep digging.”

The light in the room went dark, then burst white as Steve’s head exploded and a too familiar eruption began to burn up from his gut. Convulsions wracked his body, tearing at his insides as he heaved, but as quickly as the attack assaulted him, it fled. He slumped on his side, looking down into the bucket held by unseen hands, aware enough to note the blood there. A cool cloth wiped over his face, neck, and lips, subduing the raging fires.

“He’s burning up.”

“The last temperature read was 103.”

“Take it easy, baby, we’re right here. I’ve got you. So much for Coulson’s cold/ice theory.”

“I disagree. Throughout I’ve noted the push-pull aspect of Steve’s condition. Two strong forces are at war, and if I have to guess, I’d say the serum just ratcheted up the artillery in an all-out blitz to rid his body of the foreign toxins debilitating him. It’s been steadily escalating since yesterday, though the introduction of fever brings this to a more serious level.”

“So, the serum intends to win this war even if it kills Steve in the process?”

“Serum can’t think, Tash. Its sole purpose is to get a job done.”

“I see your point.”

“I’m dying?” Steve asked. Made sense.

“The hell you are,” Tony declared, his hands assisting what felt like Thor’s to get Steve moved back to the center of the bed, his head upon a pile of clean, cool pillows. “Don’t even think you’re running out on me after I paid for this luxury vacation.”

“Fiji—no, wait. Not-Fiji.”

“Yes, here on the island of Not-Fiji, you are going to make a spectacular recovery and then embark upon the most glorious vacation ever experienced.”

“Sounds nice.” Steve closed his eyes, trying to hear the sound of the waves over Bruce’s noisy medical equipment, but he couldn’t find them. Tony continued to swab his face and neck, occasionally stopping to apply some jelly stuff to his lips, which made them stop burning for a while.

“All right, if the serum’s job is to rid Steve of any foreign agents threatening his health, what cards does the opponent hold? I wasn’t there in the hospital. What is the Asgardian medicine supposed to do, exactly?”

“Thundar told us it was a type of anesthetic and pain reliever, but obviously that wasn’t the whole truth.”

“I did not lie.”

“Tony.”

“What? I’m just saying. As is typical with Thor, we got a lot more than we bargained for.”

“Focus, gentlemen.”

“Pain reliever, my ass. Steve looks pretty fucked up to me.”

“Clint, I saw it myself. It relieved his pain in the hospital almost immediately.”

“Physical pain, brought on by injury. He has no injuries now.”

“Sure, right, Doc. He’s the picture of fucking health.”

“Keep fighting ‘cause of me,” Steve groaned, needing the noise to stop. He pressed his hands over his ears, trying to hide. “Should have told me, Mom. My fault.”

“All your fault. You’re all she could ever see. All that ever mattered to her, and look what a little shit you turned out to be. Still everyone’s burden.”

“From your head down to your toes; you’re not much, goodness knows; but you’re so precious to me; sweet as can be; baby of mine.”

“She loved me,” Steve insisted, weary of being bullied by the mean voice.

“Of course she loved you, baby.” Those were Tony’s lips on his forehead. Cool. Nice.

“Why’d she lie?”

“She was trying to do the best she could with what she had. Considering the times, couldn’t have been an easy situation. Not a lot of options for a woman, I suspect.”

“Options?”

“Tony, simple sentences. Keep him calm.”

“Oh, right. She lied to protect you, baby. Keep you safe.”

“Safe.” Steve tried to nod, but it hurt too much. “She kept me safe. In the cold-gray.”

“Wait a minute. What cold-gray? Where were you, Steve? Where was your mother? Are you talking about the voices or your childhood? Are these your dreams? What can you—”

“What the hell happened to keep it simple, Agent?”

“Right. Sorry.”

“We’re all on edge. You’ve got be exhausted, babe. You need sleep . . . to get out of that chair. It’s almost dawn.”

“Like the rest of you, I’m not going anywhere until Steve is safe.”

“You’re not exactly the picture of health, boss. Barton’s right. Get some rest.”

“Phil’s sick. My fault. Like he says. All my fault. Stevie, Stevie, Stevie!”

“Stevie, Stevie, Stevie!”

When the door flew open he darted under the small table near the kitchen, hiding. The living room was dark. He squeezed his eyes shut so they wouldn’t see him. But the dark was scary. He wanted Mommy. He shivered in the cold and dark, his body too frozen to move.

“You’ve had enough, Joe.”

“If you want someone to nursemaid, go wake up the kid. Leave me alone!”

“Please keep your voice down.”

“He’s all you worry about, isn’t he? Your precious Stevie. Stevie, Stevie, Stevie! If you loved me half as much, I’d be a better man. It’s your fault. Yours and his. It was different before he came. Do you even remember?”

“Nothing is your fault, baby-blue. You’re sick.”

“Sick little Stevie.” He tried to find Bruce’s face near all the noisy machines. “S’what’s happening, right? Back to sick little Stevie.”

Bruce’s eyes were kind. Sad. “If you’re asking me about your serum breaking down, I don’t know. I don’t believe so, but something is going on and we need to find a way to stop it before this internal battle tears you apart.”

“Whoa. What? Great fucking pep talk there, Doc. You’re okay, honey. You’ll be all right.”

“Steve wouldn’t want me to lie to him.”

“Stevie’s a liar.”

“You’re not a liar, sweetheart.”

“Didn’t tell Tony.”

“What should you have told Tony, Cap?”

“Sick little Stevie’s no good. The good stuff came from a bottle.”

“Crap. We talked about that, remember? I was just mouthing off.”

“You’re a laboratory experiment, Rogers. Everything special about you came out of a bottle.”

“So, Dr. Erskine managed it after all. Not exactly an improvement.”

“Sniveling little runt.”

“I don’t expect you to understand that because you’re a chorus girl.”

“Temperature’s dropping again. I’m reading 99, down from 103 just a few minutes ago.”

“Well, that’s good, right? The fever’s breaking.”

“Maybe.”

“Cold,” Steve muttered, shivering. He hated the cold.

“What do you remember about the cold-gray, Steve?”

“S’bad.” He nestled into the soft blankets being tucked around him.

“So bad you can’t bear to think about it?”

“If he doesn’t want to think about it, Phil, don’t push him. He’s messed up enough.”

“Is he? Is he messed up enough, Thundar?”

“Thor? Is Tony right? Is this your fault? Did you do this to him?”

“Regrettably, a forest is often entered at the darkest point where there is no path, for if a path previously existed, it would not be your path.”

“What the fuck are you babbling about now, Yoda?”

“Darkness doesn’t bring anything that isn’t there in the light. There’s no need for fear.”

“No, Mom. Don’t want to go.” Stevie closed his eyes tight so they couldn’t see him; couldn’t find him.

He could hear the voices coming from the kitchen but he didn’t understand the words. Big words. Smart words. Without looking, he could see the long, important conference table they were gathered around. They were all there. Tony. Thor. Bruce. Natasha. Clint. Phil. Phil was talking.

“Every culture has its version . . . a crucible of sorts. Vision quest, pilgrimage, walkabout, the monomyth.”

“Joseph Campbell. Hero's Journey. Yeah, I get where you’re going, Coulson. But the physical toll is too extreme. There’s got to be more.” Phil is smart, but Bruce sounds worried.

“Yes, a pilgrimage. On Asgard it would be called andivegr—a spirit journey.”

“The cold-gray. That’s got to be where this started.” No. Phil shouldn’t talk about the cold-gray. Too scary.

“Are you talking about the ice, babe? You think Cap’s referring to being in the ice when he says cold-gray?”

“Are you saying he was awake in that fucking ice! No fucking way. Too horrible. Not for seventy years. He’d be insane.” Tony’s really scared.

“Agreed. But I didn’t say the entire seventy years.”

“Wait. The extreme physical symptoms of his worst episodes do mirror the process his body would have endured as he slowly froze. A hibernation process of sorts. Would explain the shutting down of his systems: the dropping of body temperature, thready, almost non-existent respiration and pulse. And the serum. The serum would have battled every step of the way.”

“What if the mind was the last thing to shut down before full hibernation began? If it was aware?” Phil sounds tired.

“You’re saying he’s lying about what he remembers about the ice?” Clint knows I’m a liar. They’re going to be mad.

Steve tucked himself tighter beneath the table. He didn’t want to keep listening, but their words were loud and his head hurt.

“I’m saying there’s a difference between the conscious, the subconscious, and the unconscious mind.”

“Doesn’t make sense. Why now? It’s been months since he was revived from the ice.” Shhh, Natasha. Not the ice.

“And then he got the back of his head ripped off. Whatever walls the mind may have constructed to keep the memories at bay were torn down. Mentally he was back in that ice . . . that limbo place between conscious and unconscious hibernation.”

“Which is exactly where the magical mystery tour moonshine found him. Shit. Shit, shit shit.”

Too loud. Steve didn’t like the yelling. He couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t move.

“Bruce, what’s wrong with him? Why is he moaning like that? Are we losing him again?”

I’m not lost, Steve tried to tell him, but his voice didn’t work. Couldn’t they see him under the table? No, because his eyes were closed. He tried to open them, but couldn’t. There was only cold-gray.

Stevie cringed at the loud slamming sound and the shattering glass. He couldn’t hear the team anymore, talking around the table. Where did they go? They wouldn’t leave him, but he couldn’t get to them anymore. He was terrified, couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe. He wanted to press his hands over his ears to make the scary sounds stop, but his arms weren’t his anymore.

Frozen in darkness, he prayed for the light to return.

~0~0~0~

Chapter Text

“Baby mine, don’t you cry; baby mine, dry your eyes; rest your head close to my heart; never to part; baby of mine.”

“Mommy? What’s happening?”

“No worries, angel-mine.”

“I’m scared.”

“Yes, it’s very scary.”

“Where did they go? Where’s the table? My friends were there.”

Stevie cringed at the loud slamming sound and the shattering glass.

“We begin with a series of micro injections into the subject’s major muscle groups.”

“Healing will choose its own course . . . trust your path.”

“No. No, no, no.”

Everything hurt, but there was no pain. Pain didn’t exist here, yet it surrounded. The cold-gray veil never flickered.

“There’s not gonna be a safe landing, but I can try and force it down.”

“We have left humanity behind.”

“Do you want to kill Nazis?”

“Right. Because you’ve got nothing to prove.”

“Bucky! Bucky, wait, I’m sorry!”

The taste of the stolen kiss burned his mouth, even as he hungered for more. He was disgusting. A degenerate. A sissy-boy not fit to wear the uniform. The material was suddenly too hot. Confining. His soldier’s shirt choking him as if it knew. Bucky’s dancing eyes gone cold-gray with broken affection, forever shattered.

“The army’s no place for a queer mama’s boy like you. When I was a soldier, they only took real men. You didn’t earn no rank. Takes more to be a captain then putting on tights and dancing like a girl.”

“Your dad died a long time ago. He was a soldier and he got sick from the gas in the Great War.”

“Why couldn’t you grab his hand? He was your only buddy, but like a coward, you watched him fall. What good were all those needles? Nothing but a weakling when it counted.”

“Arrogance may not be a uniquely American trait, but I must say, you do it better than anyone. But there are limits to what even you can do, Captain, or did Erskine tell you otherwise?”

“I knocked out Adolf Hitler over 200 times.”

“Where are we going, Bucky?”

“The future.”

“You pretend to be a simple soldier, but in reality you are just afraid to admit we have left humanity behind.”

“I’m not like you.”

“You’re an experiment. I asked for an army and all I got was you.”

Too many doors. Too many. Shut them. Shut them all. No doors. Just the cold-gray. Keep them shut. No more. He tried to cry out, but he had no voice. White darkness surrounded him; encompassed him. No. There was no darkness. No light. Only gray. Neverending gray.

He managed to get his hands pressed over his ears as tight as he could to make the sounds go away. Tucking himself tighter, Stevie closed his eyes to make himself invisible. No one could see him under here. Too cold. Need the blanket. Need Mommy.

Stevie cringed at the loud slamming sound and the shattering glass.

“Look what you did!”

“Joe, you pulled it from my hand. Your precious alcohol. There’s glass everywhere. I have to clean this before Stevie gets cut.”

“Stevie, Stevie, Stevie!”

The crash jarred him, his eyes flying open of their own accord, startled by the loud commotion. He was surprised to find there was no darkness, but sunshine. He squinted, the light hurting his eyes, so different from the cold-gray. He pulled his legs closer to his chin, daring to look around.

“How the hell can this be a good idea? Thor, get him out from under there.”

“No, leave him be. Just go easy.”

“Steve? Steve, can you hear me?”

Steve knew Tony’s voice, his face. So handsome. Tony looked scrunched. Why was he on his knees? “Did you fall?”

“No, baby, I didn’t fall. Do you want to come out from under here?”

“Where?” Steve looked around, confused. This wasn’t the living room. “Where’s Mom?”

“Your mom? Ohh-kay. Good question. Let’s see. Well, she, um, she’s . . . she isn’t . . . I mean, she—”

“Surely you feel her presence.” Thor’s eyes were kind. He was on his knees, too. Looking up and around, Steve found himself beneath the long, tall side table against the wall opposite the bed, the one with the greenish-white wood legs. He could see the balcony doors, draped by pretty white lace curtains, but the curtains didn’t move. The doors were closed. When the doors were open, the salt-tinged breeze would billow the gauzy fabric. Why were they closed? Where was this place? He thought he knew.

“Not Brooklyn.”

“No, it’s Not-Fiji Isle, remember?”

“Oh, yeah.” Something about Tony’s words was funny. He tried to remember what.

“What are you doing under there, you sneaky little runt!”

Stevie froze, his heart thumping real hard, hurting his chest. He had been discovered. He needed help. “Make him go away.” He should have never opened his eyes. His hiding place had been discovered. Terror took hold and he began to shake. The living room was dark.

“Who needs to go away, Steve?”

“The man. He’s right there.” Stevie pointed to the corner where he knew the man was lurking, waiting for him, but he couldn’t see, eyes scrunched tight.

“Steve-baby, you don’t have to be scared. We’re all here. Will you please come out?”

Hot fingers took hold of his wrist and Stevie struggled to yank it back. There were more people here now besides the man. He didn’t know these people. “Where’s Mommy?” Stevie opened his eyes, but couldn’t see his mother. There were voices. Lots of voices now. He burrowed back further into his hiding place beneath the table. He didn’t understand what was going on and he was scared. Did Mommy know these people?

“We’re losing him again.”

“Natasha, put the weapon down. That’s the last thing we need in here.”

“Disagree, boss. You can all continue to theorize this is in his head, and odds are you’re right, but I plan to be ready for the contingency you’re wrong. If Cap tells me there’s a dangerous man lurking around here, I don’t plan to ignore the threat, no matter how slim.”

“Who are you supposed to be? SHIELD: Ghostbusters Division? Seriously? We need this on top of everything else?”

“No, Nat’s got a point. Was Loki a ghost when he disappeared and reappeared, fucking with people’s heads? He could even change his appearance, right?”

“I can assure you Loki is not present.”

“And there are no more creepy, weird aliens, either, right? Because we live in that world—oh, wait. No, we don’t. I’ve got the brain scars to prove it. What if someone is messing with Steve’s head—”

“Let’s get the paranoia in check, people. Agent Romanoff, if you’re compelled to protect us, do so from the doorway and keep the weapon out of his line of sight. Barton, keep your usual sharp watch, but dial down the panic. Stark don’t—”

“Steve, it’s me. It’s Tony. Shake this off, honey. Can you hear me?”

“—Don’t push him.”

“You fucking want me to leave him like this? Honey, please stop cowering under here. Look. He’s afraid of me, now.”

“Whatever this is, he has to see it through. His serum has been working overtime to fix him. Bruce has been trying to fix him with every medical plan he can come up with, and Steve himself has been fighting this with all he’s got, but despite those combined efforts, he’s being ripped apart from the inside out.”

“To detour him from his journey any longer would be folly.”

“Yeah, but what if he doesn’t want to go? We’ve all been in here all night. You’ve seen the terror and the pain and the shit his body is going through. Thor, can’t you just do some kind of Asgardian mumbo jumbo and get that stuff to leave him alone now? I mean, how much more does he have to go through? How much can he take?”

“Clinton, I do not possess the answers you seek and my heart aches with yours. Light is often found only through the path into darkness. We must accept that none of us has power over the direction of his path.”

“Bullshit. He shouldn’t have to travel any damn path he doesn’t want to go on. This isn’t Steve’s choice. Look at him! That drug is doing this to him. Tony’s right. Your fucking Asgardian moonshine. You have to have some idea what to do for him. Help him!”

“You can help me?” Words. So many words around him. Some of them swear words. They were passing through his brain, but he didn’t understand most of them. Somebody said this big man could help him. Stevie leaned out from his hiding place, twisting a handful of the blue tee shirt into his fist, tugging. It was a nice blue. He liked blue. Maybe this was a nice man? “Do you know how to help me? Please?”

The man’s eyes were different blue than his shirt, kind of like his sky blue marble. And wet. He almost looked like he was crying. Flattening his stomach to the floor, the man slid under the table, both hands reaching, fingers wrapping around Stevie’s bare legs. “May I come under here with you?”

Stevie nodded, though he wasn’t sure. The stranger was awfully big, but not scary big, not when he laid on his belly like that. But they could still get caught. Had to be careful. “I think so. But if you hear the glass, you have to close your eyes.”

“I shall. I have never been here before. Can you tell me where we are?”

“Not-Fiji,” Stevie answered, though he wasn’t sure what he meant. He tried again. “Don’t think it’s Brooklyn. But it was, I think. I don’t know.” Stevie closed his eyes a second because he was really tired, but the cold-gray scared him and he opened them back wide. “Not the cold-gray. Don’t go there!”

“I will heed your warning.”

“You talk funny.” Stevie covered his mouth with his hand. It wasn’t nice to make fun of people. He didn’t like when people made fun of him. “Sorry.” He shivered from the cold under the table. Stevie wished he had a blanket. The big man under here with him had warm hands. He wondered how the man just appeared. Maybe he could make a blanket. “Are you magic?”

The big man with the blue eyes had a happy smile. “Do you wish me to be magical?”

“Maybe. No. There’s no such thing.”

“Do not be so certain of this, Steven.”

“You know my name?”

“I do. Do you know mine?”

Stevie concentrated. Something was wrong. This wasn’t right. He understood, but he didn’t. He slid backwards until his back hit the wall. The wall was safe, but now he was trapped. “You’re very big.”

“I am.”

“Wish I could be big.”

“You are. Look in your heart.”

“Is my heart big?”

The happy smile was back. “Enormous.”

Stevie shook his head. “I’m always sick. Too weak to have a big heart.”

“There is more to a heart than muscle, Steven.”

“Nobody calls me Steven unless I did something wrong. Did I do bad?”

“Not at all. Tell me what to call you.”

“I’m Stevie.”

“Greetings, Stevie.”

“Greetings.” Stevie giggled at the silly word, but he didn’t make fun. “What’s your name?”

“I am Thor.”

“Thor?” Stevie quickly frowned. Was he being tricked? “Are you foolin’? That’s not a real name.”

“Oh? Yes. Well, that is, because . . . it is an abbreviated—”

“Shortened.”

“Yes, a shortened name, like Steven and Stevie. I am Th—”

“Theodore.”

“Theodore. Yes. I am he.”

“From the Greek meaning ‘God’s gift.’ Good touch, Coulson.”

“There’s a Theodore who works in the grocery store. They call him Teddy. Like a Teddy bear.” Stevie smiled. He liked Teddy bears, but he didn’t have one. Maybe for his birthday. “Are you a Teddy?”

“If you wish.”

“Ask him where he thinks he is.”

“Who’s talking to you?” Stevie tried to squish back further, but there was no room.

“My friends. Only you can’t see them.”

“Ohhh. They talk in your head?”

“Do you have friends who talk in your head as well?”

“I don’t have friends. Mommy says when I go to school, kids will be my friend, but I don’t think so. I can’t play real good.”

“I think anyone would be lucky to have a friend as fine as you.”

“You’re nice.” When the door slammed, Stevie jumped. He could hear the yelling from the kitchen. He pulled his knees tight as he could to his chest until they hurt. “They’re going to yell now. You have to hide.”

“May I hide under here with you?”

“I guess.”

Teddy got up onto his knees, then bent and twisted until he squished up beside Stevie, their arms touching. He liked the blue on his shirt, and the hair on his big arm looked like gold. His other hair was long, and yellow, and tied in a girl ponytail. The top of his head touched the table, so he had to bend his neck to fit. Stevie laughed. “You look funny.”

The man laughed too. “I am certain I do.”

When the yelling got louder, Stevie remembered to be scared. He tucked his face into his knees, trying to be smaller. “Have to be quiet now.”

“Can you tell me why?”

“Shhhhh. He’ll find you. But don’t be scared. He won’t hurt you because you’re big.”

“Will he hurt you?” The big man didn’t sound happy anymore.

“Shhhhh. Close your eyes or he’ll see us.” Stevie scrunched his eyes shut tight.

“Don’t start with me, Sarah.”

“Keep your voice down.”

“He’s not waking up. All that kid does is sleep.”

“That kid? You can’t even use his name? He’s your son. Speak softly.”

“Watch how you talk to me.”

“Joe. Please. Come to bed.”

Steve expelled his held breath, his chest hurting from the lack of oxygen. He gasped, trying to breathe, feeling a hand squeeze his. When he opened his eyes, he saw Thor on the floor beside him, twisted up like a pretzel. He hit his own head on what felt like the underside of a table as he tried to look further into the room. Tony was on the floor too, but he wasn’t under the table. He was sitting cross-legged in front of the table, peeking at Steve and Thor, his expression full of fear. He couldn’t see clearly behind Tony, but he felt certain the rest of the team was in the room, too.

“Why are we on the floor?”

“Are you talking to me?” Tony asked, which was strange since Steve was looking right at him.

“Yes.” He started to say more, but he realized he couldn’t get enough air in his lungs. His heartbeat grew faster and faster, cold sweat breaking out over his flesh. Thor’s hand was on his back, and people were talking to him, but he couldn’t hear them. Everything was spinning. He blinked repeatedly, trying to focus on Tony’s face, but it wouldn’t stay still. The room grew darker and Steve was falling
. . . falling into darkness.

~0~0~0~

Chapter Text

The steady beeps invaded his sleep, buzzing like a noisy fly. He tried to lift his hand to swat, but realized his arm was too heavy. Something tight was wrapped around his bicep, inflating and deflating at odd intervals. A wheezing sound mingled with the beeps . . . in and out . . . steadily. His mouth and throat were painfully dry, his lips burning. As he tried to move them to speak, he felt the plastic, cup-shaped object covering them. He forced open his eyes, crossing them to try and look at his own face. A clear mask covered his nose and mouth, a thin tube jutting out from it.

Everything else was out of focus, like looking through a glass Coke bottle. Sleep tried to drag him back down, but he fought, casting his eyes beside him. Managing to turn his head a little, he recognized the face he saw on the other pillow, but the recognition confused him more.

“I think he’s awake,” Clint called, reaching a hand out to touch Steve’s cheek. “A little cooler. Not much.”

Other hands were canvassing him as he heard Bruce’s voice. “Last read was 105. Going down.”

Me? he tried to ask, but the word was muffled by the mask.

“Do you want to talk, buddy? Hang on. Let me get this off.” Clint reached to lift the mask, the straps on Steve’s cheeks sliding up and off.

“What’s that?”

“Helps you breathe,” Bruce answered. “You’ve been having a difficult time getting oxygen.

“Sorry,” Steve whispered, realizing it was a stupid thing to say. Took him a minute to get enough breath for his next question. “Where’s Tony?”

“He’s with Nat and Phil, right across the hall in Thor’s room,” Clint explained. “Not sure how much you’re tracking, but we’re deep into night two, and he needed a break. Actually, he thinks he’s looking after Phil and Phil thinks he’s keeping an eye on Tony, but Nat’s the one watching both of them. He’ll be back soon.”

Night two? Steve couldn’t fathom the concept of time, but he sensed he’d been more out than in. The images of Tony he could conjure all looked like something from a bad dream: wan, distressed, upset, exhausted. “S’my fault. Poor Tony.”

“Tony will be fine,” Clint assured him, managing to sound like he meant the words despite the purple circles beneath his eyes and his pale complexion. “We’re all taking care of him the way you guys took care of me when Phil was in bad shape. You’ll be proud. We’ve got your rotation plan going. Everyone agreed it was what you’d want. You taught us well. You’re a great leader, Cap.”

Steve looked away, ashamed. “No more. Can’t lead. Not super.”

“Hey, if all it took to lead was muscles, we’d be following The Hulk.”

“Thanks,” Bruce responded drolly, though he didn’t sound mad.

“The boss has managed to keep Nat and me in check all these years and he isn’t exactly the biggest guy in the room. Long as I’ve known you, you’ve led with your brains and your heart, with a large dash of that super righteous morality of yours thrown in for good measure.”

Steve looked at Bruce, trying to read his tired features. “Gone? My serum?”

“Can’t say for sure. You’re too weak to test. On the other hand, something is keeping you alive when your blood pressure drops to an inhuman level or your temperature ping pongs between popsicle and fiery hell. Hang in there, Cap.”

“F’how long?” The way he felt told him he was in bad shape, his jagged memories giving him glimpses of the hell he’d already endured, though there were too many gaping holes for him to make much sense of anything.

“I wish I knew.”

“I have obtained the clean bedding and towels you require, Doctor,” Thor said as he entered the room, his arms stacked high. Steve’s eyes were immediately drawn to the blue of his shirt, the hair on his forearm, a fleeting moment of recognition sparking, chased quickly by the fog of fatigue.

“He’s awake,” Clint informed, Thor immediately setting down his burden and coming to sit on the edge of the bed.

“How do you fare, noble Stevie?”

“Stevie?” He tried to laugh, settling for a weird grunt sound. “Nobody calls me that . . . anymore.” Thor simply smiled, his eyes glistening. “I’ve been saying crazy stuff, right?”

“You are not crazy.”

“Is this from the serum breaking down? Am I going to get stupid, too?” Weak and sickly were bad enough. He tried to suck in enough breath to sigh.

“Who you are is a marvelous wonder of a being. Embrace the whole of yourself.”

“You can’t be like everyone else. You can only be you, for better or worse.”

A flicker of hope spiking, Steve twisted as best he could, scanning the room to see if his mom had returned. He ached to set eyes upon her face again, but he couldn’t find her. “You’re back in my head,” he sighed with disappointment. “Can’t you come back?”

“I never leave you, angel-mine.”

“She speaks, yes?”

Steve nodded at Thor’s question. No reason to deny the voices. They all knew.

“This is good. Tell me, Steven, do you recall her first visit? I speak of when your mother was more than a cherished memory, when her silver voice touched your heart with speech.”

Time was hazy, difficult to pin down. Something told him the question was more than Thor exchanging pleasantries, so he tried harder to concentrate. Blurs and snippets, some didn’t even seem real. More like dreams. “The dreams. In the tower, I think. Before we left.”

“I see. She exists here on the island as well, yes?”

“A lot,” he admitted. “But it’s in my head, right? The fever or the medicine or something?” He really didn’t want to be losing his mind.

“You have indeed been ill. Before this infirmity, do you recall a time when your mother spoke with you?”

“After she died, I used to . . . try and remember her voice.” The memories hurt more than the physical pain Steve was enduring and he pushed them away quickly. The machines beside the bed got noisier as the pain behind his eyes sharpened.

“Leave him alone. You’re making him worse.”

“Barton—”

“No, he is correct, Doctor. Rest easy, Steven.” Thor’s long fingers stroked through his hair in a soothing fashion, but Steve fought against the attempted coddling.

“Don’t nursemaid me. I have to get better!” he insisted, making an effort to tear the wires from his chest and the cuff from his arm. “Ignore these stupid machines. Ask me whatever you think you have to. Tell me what to do. Thor, Bruce, Mom, anyone. Please tell me!”

“Hey, easy,” Bruce complained, shooing Steve’s hands from their fumbling. “You can have this stuff off for now, but breaking the equipment is not a good plan. Lay still.”

Following Bruce’s directive didn’t prove difficult. Steve sank back into the mattress as the wires and tubes were disconnected, barely able to keep his eyes opened, but he had to fight. This had to stop. It had to.

“Baby mine, don’t you cry; baby mine, dry your eyes–”

“No, don’t, Mom. Don’t.”

“Rest your head, close to my heart; never to part; baby of mine.”

“Please, Mom. Please stop. I can do this.”

“What the hell is going on in here? I can hear the monitors blaring from—why are you disconnecting everything!”

“I’m okay, Tony,” Steve insisted, though he felt certain of nothing.

“From your head down to your toes; you’re not much, goodness knows.”

“He’ll rip it off himself if I don’t. That what you want?”

“What did you do to him? Why is he so agitated? Baby, I’m right here. You’re okay.”

Tony’s face floated before him, eyes dark like chocolate drops. “Tony’s so handsome.”

“Yes, he is.”

“I lied to Tony,” Steve admitted shamefully as the roar of voices and commotion around him rose.

“Yes, you did. I lied to you, Stevie.”

“Tell me why, Mom? Tell me.”

“If they knew about you, they’d end up loving you too.”

“No more singing. Please. I’m not helpless anymore, Mom. Not. Not. Please. I’m not—” What little air he had been managing to take in fled his lungs, an unbearable weight settling on his chest. He struggled to breathe around it, wheezing at first, but the effort was futile.

“You are not what, Steven? Tell us.”

“Where are you, Steve?”

“Baby, can you hear me? Come back, please.”

He could barely make out their voices. They were too far away. Too far.

Trapped.

Steve made an effort to mouth the word, unsure if sound emerged.

Ice burned through his veins, capturing each limb, one by one, until nothing of his body was his any longer. His galloping heart began to lose the race . . . faltering with each feeble step toward a finish line that continued to elude. Panic screamed, fear consumed. Cold-gray. All was cold-gray. Nothing left but surrender. Only surrender didn’t come. Thoughts sped up as his heart slowed down. Memories, images, dreams, faces, places, voices, plans, regrets. Too fast. Too much. Doors flung open wide—one, then another, then another, and another, like the picture show at the theater, only sped up. Fast. Too fast. Loud.

“The serum infusion will cause immediate cellular change.”

“We’d lose more men than we’d save, but I don’t expect you to understand that because you’re a chorus girl.”

“Stevie, time for school.”

“Do you want to kill Nazis?”

“I’m telling the truth. The truth is the most important thing.”

“Don’t you think a man might want to sit on his own couch once in a while?”

“What’s it to you? Maybe I like reading comics. Not everything is complicated. You think too much, Stevie. All day long. Think. Think. Think. Doesn’t your head get tired?”

“At the end of this week, we will choose that man. He will be the first in a new breed of super soldier.”

“Vibranium. It’s stronger than steel and a third the weight.”

“You wear a flag on your chest and think you fight a battle of nations.”

“This isn’t a back alley, Steve, it’s a war.”

“I asked for an army and all I got was you. You are not enough.”

“You coddle him too much.”

“It’s a beautiful picture, Stevie. We’ll put it right here on the ice box.”

“Stevie, Stevie, Stevie! Every minute of every day. I’m tired of it!”

“Your dad died a long time ago. He was a soldier and he got sick from the gas in the Great War.”

Faster and faster the pictures and sounds came. Red, white, and blue; the crack of a stick-ball bat against the ball; the cold press of a stethoscope against his aching chest; his mother’s eyes, blue as the sky on a cloudless day; Bucky laughed so hard he nearly fell off the stoop; Series E defense bonds—each one you buy is a bullet in the barrel of your best guy’s gun; the rickety rumble of the Cyclone on its tracks; the piercing burn of dozens of needles perforating his skin simultaneously; his neck snapped back from the impact of the bully’s fist to his jaw; fever burned his face and neck; machine-gun fire rattled his teeth; flesh tore off Schmidt’s face, revealing the devil; Technology of the Future; Bucky struggled in his arms, Steve realizing too late he was holding him too tightly; Dr. Erskine sipped from the glass; his mother gently slid the book from his unsteady hands and began to read; the plane nosedived towards the ice, faster, faster; gripping the side of the speeding train, straining with everything he had to reach Bucky’s hand; glass shattering, his mother’s flowered apron stained with blood.

Can’t. Can’t. Too many. Too fast. Too loud. Hurts. Hurts. Slam the doors. All them. Close. Close.

“Don’t struggle, angel-mine. You’re safe.”

Mommy!

“Joe, what are you doing? Stop it!”

All my fault.

“Open your eyes, Stevie.”

Can’t. Cold-gray. Nothing. Nothing.

“You know how I feel about liars, Stevie. There’s no cold-gray here.”

“All that kid does is sleep. Lazy. He won’t get up.”

“Fifty percent . . . sixty . . . seventy—”

Steve screamed until his throat tore from the strain. He could hear Dr. Erskine calling to him as he banged against the metal door he was trapped behind.

“Steven! Steven! Steven!”

“Shut it down! Shut it down!”

“What’s happening to him?”

“The fever’s too hot. Hook him back up. You have to pump the meds.”

“Shut it down!”

“Kill the reactors, Mr. Stark!”

“No! Don’t! I can do this!”

“What are you trying to do, baby? What?”

“Fever’s too high. He’s delirious.”

“I’ll get more ice.”

“No ice!” Steve screamed, his terror more powerful than the frozen stone in his veins; the unrelenting weight upon his chest. “No more. Cold-gray. Can’t. Can’t.”

“Was it cold-gray in the ice?”

“Yes!”

“And you remember that?”

“M’ber the doors.”

“What doors? Where were the doors?”

“You’re so precious to me; sweet as can be; baby of mine.”

“Mom?”

“Seeing your beautiful face every day helps me more than you know.”

“Not. M’not good.”

“Can you hear me at all, baby-blue? You’re so good. You’re—”

Steve reached out, thinking he saw Tony’s face, but his lashes and cheeks were wet, like melted ice on his face. “Angel-mine, don’t you cry.” Steve knew he was messing up the words, trying to remember.

“That little guy from Brooklyn who was too dumb not to run away from a fight. I’m following him.”

“Don’t follow me, Buck.”

“Stevie, you’re a good boy.”

“He damn well must have thought you were worth it.”

“Not. All the serum. Gone.”

“This is why you were chosen.”

“The humble man within you is what makes you the strong warrior you are. Do not seek distance from him.”

“Thor?”

“I am here, Steven.”

“You were talking. In my head. And Bucky. And Mom and—”

“Has the man with the mean voice returned as well? Does he speak with you?”

“No. Shut the door. Close your eyes.”

“Do the bad voices stay behind the doors in the cold-gray, Steve?”

Steve tried to see who was speaking to him, but the room grew white. “No. They don’t stay. Doors open. They’ll keep coming.”

“Don’t worry, Cap. Anyone tries to come through the door, I’ll shoot ‘em.”

“Natasha!”

“Do you want to kill Nazis?”

“Don’t want to kill anyone. I don’t like bullies.”

“This is why you were chosen. Because a strong man who has known power all his life may lose respect for that power.”

“What’s his temp?”

“108.”

“Serum or not, he can’t sustain this. Do something.”

“I can put him in a tub of ice, but I suspect we’ll be doing more harm than good with that option.”

“If it could only work once, he’d be proud it was you.”

“He was proud?”

“Who was proud, Steven? The man?”

“Scrawny little runt. You sure the hospital gave you the right baby?”

Dread twisted Steve’s guts as the tremors coursed through him. He reached towards the blue shirt. The blue shirt was safe. Maybe it could protect him. Keep the doors closed. Scrunching the fabric in his fist, he choked, “Never proud. Not him. Please help me.”

“Thor, what are you doing? Put him down.”

“Stevie, if I promise to keep my eyes closed like you, can you tell me what happened when you were under the table?”

“Teddy?” Stevie muttered, thinking he recognized his friend.

Stevie had trouble staying asleep. It was nighttime and he was not allowed to get up, but his throat was dry. So dry. Like the sand in Coney Island. Quiet as he could, he slipped out from under the heavy pile of covers on the sofa, tip-toeing towards the kitchen to get a drink of water. Mommy’s door was closed, but light peeked from underneath. Stevie froze, afraid he would get caught out of bed. When the door flew open he darted under the small table near the kitchen, hiding. The living room was dark. He squeezed his eyes shut so they wouldn’t see him.

“Stevie? Can you hear me, Stevie?”

Stevie dared to open his eyes. The room wasn’t dark. Lamps were on. Teddy sat beside him with his silly ponytail and his body bent up like a kid, only he was a big man. “Are we playing a game?”

“I enjoy games. Do you?”

“Don’t really get to play. Daddy says I’m a sissy. I can’t even catch.”

“Perhaps you haven’t learned yet. How old are you, Stevie?”

Stevie held up all the fingers on one hand. “I only just got to be this many on Saturday. Mommy made cake, but I couldn’t eat any because of my bellyache. How old are you?”

“I am many more than that.”

“Did you get presents?”

“Oh, yes. Did you receive gifts as well?”

Steve shook his head. “No. Not even a Teddy bear. Daddy says dolls are for girls, but I wished for one. A bear isn’t a doll, but I cost too much money. Because I get sick all the time. But Mommy is going to make me something special, but don’t tell. It’s a secret. You can’t tell him.”

“You love your mommy very much, yes?”

“She is the best mommy in the world,” Stevie could feel how big he was smiling.

“And what of your daddy?”

Steve tensed, the slamming door echoing in his head. “I don’t remember my father,” he heard himself saying, but he wasn’t sure why. He looked around, confused, not recognizing the room. “Where are we? Where’s Tony?”

“I’m right here, honey.” Tony was on the floor too, though Steve didn’t understand why. He scrambled out from under the table, curling his head into Tony’s lap.

“Please tell me what’s going on? How did I get under there? Am I sick? Am I crazy?”

Tony’s fingers were cool against the burning flesh on his face. “You’re fine, baby-blue.”

Nothing about Tony’s voice assured Steve he was fine. Something was terribly wrong. He held fast to Tony’s leg. “Not gonna get better, am I?”

“Sure you are. Just push all this stuff out of your mind.”

“Stark—”

“I can’t. Not doing this to him. I won’t.”

“You must.”

“Tony, you have to.”

“Tony?” Steve pulled his knees to his chest, trying to tuck himself completely into Tony’s lap. The noise Tony made sounded like pain, but Steve was sure he wasn’t holding too tight. He wasn’t strong anymore. Weak. Everything hurt. The serum was gone.

“Steve, baby, I need you tell me about your father.”

Every one of Steve’s limbs turned to frozen stone. “I don’t remember my father.”

“Your dad died a long time ago. He was a soldier and he got sick from the gas in the Great War.”

“Did . . . did you remember him in the . . . cold-gray?”

“Don’t go in there!” Steve warned.

“Why can’t I go, honey?”

“Nooo! Never go in the cold-gray!”

“Steven, may we go in the kitchen, then? The one near the table? I shall accompany you. He won’t hurt me because I am big, remember?”

When the door flew open he darted under the small table near the kitchen, hiding. The living room was dark. He squeezed his eyes shut so they wouldn’t see him. But the dark was scary. He wanted Mommy. He shivered in the cold and dark, his body too frozen to move.

“Stevie? Can you hear me?”

“Don’t go in there, Teddy. He’s very mad.”

“What angers him?”

“Because of the glass.” The sound of the shattering glass frightened him, but he didn’t dare move. He had been cold, but now he was hot. So hot. The hands upon him weren’t mean, they were nice, like Mommy’s, only stronger. He could hear Teddy’s voice, but they weren’t his hands.

“How did the glass break, Stevie?”

“I don’t know. My eyes were shut.”

“But they quarreled, yes? Your mommy and your daddy? I mean, did they fight?”

“Mommy doesn’t like when he drinks the brown water in the bottles. He gets mean.”

“How mean?”

“Thor, stop.”

Stevie shot up, pulling his head from this man’s lap. “Who are you?”

“You know who I am,” he said kindly. His eyes were sad and wet like Mommy’s get at night sometimes, but he was handsome, even if he had fur on his face. And nice. Stevie could tell.

“Do you know Teddy?”

“He does, indeed. He is my friend.”

“You’re big, too, but not as big as Teddy.”

“Nobody’s as big as Teddy . . . well, unless we’re counting huge green—”

“Anthony, use caution.”

“Right, sorry. The bigger the fear, the louder the smart ass.”

Stevie felt bad for the nice man. “I get scared too, but don’t use bad words. Mommy doesn’t like bad words. But Daddy says them . . . when he drinks the brown stuff in the bottle. And they fight . . . about me.”

“You know I don’t like swearing, Joe. Please keep a civil tone.”

“This is my house and I’ll swear all I want, dammit. And I’ll drink when I want. You dumped it out, didn’t you? Didn’t you? Or you’re hiding it. Where? Where did you put it?”

“You are not to blame for their quarrel, young Stevie.”

“You’ve had enough, Joe.”

“If you want someone to nursemaid, go wake up the kid. Leave me alone!”

“Please keep your voice down.”

“Stevie, Stevie, Stevie,” he muttered, reaching out, pressing his thumb against the dark beard, surprised by how soft it felt. “I know you, I think. What’s your name?”

“Tony.”

Stevie smiled, liking the name a lot. It was kind and good. “You don’t live in this building. Can you live here? You, too, Teddy.”

“What would your dad say if we lived here?” Tony asked.

“He won’t be here long. Not when the glass breaks.”

“Well, that’s good. Some dads don’t belong around kids.”

“Bad kids like me?”

“You are the best kid there ever was, do you hear me, ba-Stevie?”

“That’s a lie. Mommy says never lie.”

“I’m not a liar. Well, sometimes I am. But I’d never lie to you.”

The glass crashed, the sound so loud it hurt Stevie’s ears. He covered them with his hands, retreating under the table. “You have to hide.”

“From what do we hide, Stevie?”

“Look what you did!”

“Joe, you pulled it from my hand. Your precious alcohol. There’s glass everywhere. I have to clean this before Stevie gets cut.”

“Stevie, Stevie, Stevie!”

“Stevie, Stevie, Stevie! Bad Stevie. Stevie’s fault.”

“Nothing is your fault.”

“Yeah, listen to Teddy. You’re good. They don’t make ‘em any better than you, kiddo.”

“Mommy’s crying,” Stevie whined. He was scared. Very, very scared. He couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t move. He had to keep his eyes closed. Had to stay safe under the table and wait for the light. But Mommy was crying. Mommy always came when he cried. He had to be brave. Be a big boy. Don’t be a baby. A sissy. A runt.

“Tony and I are here with you, Stevie. No need for fear.”

He felt a hand grasp his under the table, but he still couldn’t open his eyes. But he had to. Had to. For Mommy. “Mommy’s crying.”

“Why does Mommy cry?”

“Cause the glass. It cut her. I have to go. Can’t be a baby. Sissy, baby, runt.”

Stevie couldn’t stay under the table. He had to go to Mommy. Mommy was crying. Had to be brave for Mommy. He opened his eyes, scared of all the dark and cold, but there was light in the kitchen. He wanted to run away, but he didn’t. He tip-toed, shaking hard, trying not to make noise as he peeked around the door into the kitchen. He was quiet as a mouse, trying not to breathe so his asthma wouldn’t make noise, but Mommy saw him.

“Stevie, stay back. Do as I say. You’ll get cut.”

“Mommy?”

“What the hell is he doing up? Go back to bed, you little brat.”

“Stevie, this is Teddy. Tell me where you are. Tell me what you see.”

Stevie could hear Teddy’s voice in his head, like an invisible friend. He tried to whisper, so only Teddy could hear him. “Had to go in the kitchen. She’s crying. Mommy’s apron. The flowers. There’s blood. Like when my nose bleeds, but more. Lots more. Her hands. She has lots of boo-boos. The blood is on her hands, but now on the flowers, too.”

“Sneaking around eavesdropping. This is adult business. Stop that sniveling. No boy of mine is going to be a sissy.”

“Go back on the couch and scoot under your blankets, angel-mine. Mommy will be there soon.”

“Always coddling him. What about me? I’m talking to you. The hell with him. Look at me.”

“Leave her alone! Leave Mommy alone! You’re hurting her.”

“You don’t talk to me like that, little brat, or you’re going to feel my belt!”

“Stop it, Joe. You’re scaring him.”

“M’not scared, Mommy. I’m not. I’m not.” Stevie was lying. He was plenty scared. Shaking. Daddy was mad and Mommy didn’t like liars. He kept wiping his face with his sleeve, but he couldn’t make the water stop coming out of his eyes and nose.

“What did that son of a bitch do you to you?”

“Tony!”

“Mommy!”

“Didn’t I tell you to shut up? You’re just asking for it, aren’t you?” Daddy grabbed his arm hard. Hurt real bad. Daddy’s big hands always hurt, but not like this. Daddy kept shaking him and telling him to stop crying, but the more he shook, the more Stevie cried, even though he tried to stop and be a brave boy.

“Joe, let him go. Leave him alone!”

“Owwwww!” Steve cried out, feeling his arm snap. It burned real hot like fire.

“It’s not my fault he snaps like a little twig.”

“What has happened to your arm, young Stevie?”

“Daddy’s hands hurt. Too big. Not Daddy’s fault I snap like a little twig.”

“Thor, fucking do something! Don’t leave him in there! Help him!”

“Easy, Clint.”

“Stevie, I have large hands as well. Come here. I shall keep you safe.”

“No, Teddy. He hurt Mommy. Can’t leave Mommy. I have to be brave. Have to go back in the kitchen. Blood and glass and Daddy’s hands hurt.”

Stevie wanted to stay under the table with Teddy, but he had to go back. Had to be brave.

But Stevie wasn’t brave. He couldn’t make the crying stop. His arm kept hurting and hurting and Mommy’s apron was ruined from the blood and Daddy’s eyes were dark and mean and he yelled so loud and he smelled like the stuff he drank. Stevie hated that smell.

“I said stop crying, little brat, or I’ll give you something to cry about.”

“Joe, turn him loose. You’ve hurt him.”

“He’s not hurt. He’s a crybaby. If I’d’a cried like that, my dad would have let me have it good. You’re turning him into a mama’s boy.”

“Talk to me, Stevie. I’m your invisible friend now. Daddy can’t see me. You can tell me. What has taken place?”

“Mama’s boy. Bad Stevie. Crybaby. No crying. Little brat. Daddy says stop! He put his hand here, real hard, but I can’t stop.”

"Tony, don't let him do this! Thor—Teddy, whatever the fuck you're calling yourself. He can hear you. Do something!"

Daddy’s big hand covered his mouth and nose, and the cry sounds got smaller, but the tears burned his eyes and he couldn’t even see Mommy anymore. Stevie sucked against Daddy’s hand, but the air wouldn’t come. Daddy’s hand was big and hot and sweaty. It smelled bad—but then he couldn’t smell. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t scream. He tried and tried, but just the noises came out; noises like Mrs. Miller’s cat when she wants milk. He struggled to get his face free, to get air, but there was no air and he got too tired to struggle.

“He’s choking! Thor, stop this! You have no idea what you’re putting him through!”

“Clint, try to stay quiet. You’ll scare him more. He doesn’t know you right now.”

“No, fuck this shit. He’s barely breathing! Enough of this. Steve, this is Tony. Come back! I don’t want you there anymore. Open your eyes. Open your eyes and look at me. See where you are.”

“Stevie, this is Teddy. Can you breathe?”

His invisible friends were calling in his head, but Stevie couldn’t answer back. He tried. He twisted again, his feet kicking, scary sounds coming out from under Daddy’s hand.

“I’m not going to tell you again to shut up!” Daddy’s huge hand pressed his mouth harder. Felt like his face was breaking. Stevie tried to squirm away, but he was too weak and his hurting arm didn’t work anymore. The other arm and his legs were too tired. He started getting dizzy and the room was darker and darker and Stevie was scared of the dark.

“Joe, you let him go this instant!”

“You don’t tell me what to do. Soon as he shuts up, I’ll turn him loose. He’s got to learn!”

More glass broke, louder this time. Closer. Stevie was scared Mommy was cut again. He tried to peek, but everything was spinning. He thought Mommy was holding the bottle. A broken bottle. No. Mommy wouldn’t touch broken glass would she?

“I said let him go and I meant it. Now, Joe, or I’ll use this.”

“You bitch! You gonna cut me? That’s what you think? All for him? Here, take your precious brat. I’m done with you. I’m done with both of you.”

Daddy let go and Stevie fell. The floor was hard and he landed on his arm near the glass and he was gulping, swallowing his tears, wanting to breathe so much. Blood was dripping from his nose and he did his best not to swallow it because he hated the taste. He tried not to cry anymore, but he did, his chest hurting because the air was stuck and wouldn’t go in right. Big hands took hold of him and he shook hard. Daddy was going to hurt him again.

But it wasn’t Daddy’s voice.

“Steve! Steve! Listen to me. It’s Tony. Can you hear me?”

“He barely breathes.”

“His nose is bleeding.”

“Let’s see how good you and your little bastard do without me. He’s probably not even mine, is he? You tricked me, you lying tramp. Acting like I was your first. Was only with you the one time and you went and got yourself knocked up. I felt sorry for you. Acted like you were so prim and proper, like you were too good to do all of those things you let me do that night in the car, but you tricked me. Tricked me so I’d marry you and raise this brat. Should’a known no kid of mine would come out like this. I’ll be well rid of him.”

The door slammed loud. The glass shook. Mommy picked him up, and her blood got on his pajamas, but he didn’t care. She held him close, crying as she whispered. “You forget about all of this angel-mine. Just a bad dream. Listen to me, Stevie. I want you to go back, now, you hear me? You don’t belong here. You go back. Do as I say.”

“No, Mommy, stay with you.”

“Not with me, angel-mine. Your Tony is calling you. Go back, now, where you’re safe. Mommy’s only safe when you’re safe.”

“Steve, honey, please. You gotta breathe for me. You have to.” Tony’s voice was scared. Very scared. Steve fought to find him in the dark.

“Thor, bring him to the bed. I’m putting him back on oxygen.”

“It hasn’t helped so far.”

“Well, I can’t do nothing.”

“Tony,” Steve gasped, reaching out, taking hold of Tony’s shoulder, trying to remember where he was. Couldn’t breathe. His eyes opened slowly, but the room was blurry. There was blood on his hand, a trail he realized was coming from his nose.

“I’m right here, baby-blue. But you have to breathe now. In and out. Nice and slow. Can you do that for me?”

Tony’s voice reminded him of the night in the bedroom when they were on their date. “I think you’re hyperventilating . . . it’s a fancy word for over-breathing. Feels scary, but you’re safe.”

Had to do what Tony said. Had to breathe. Steve put forth whatever effort he could muster and sucked in a long breath, surprised when his lungs began to fill. He took another, and another, starved for the air. His hand fumbled over Tony’s face, his neck, his chest, fingers tracing the outline of the arc reactor beneath the tee shirt to make sure he was real. He had to know what was real. “Tony,” he whispered, when he’d regained enough breath to do so.

Tony was wiping blood from his nose, while fingers he suspected were Thor’s pressed the bridge, applying pressure to stem the flow. “Right here. I’m right here. Stay with me.”

They were on the floor, Tony cradling him, his head tucked in the crook of Tony’s arm, Thor somewhere behind his head, the rest of the team near enough to feel their fear, hear their voices. For a moment, he felt safe, but then memories began to crash like waves, his gut twisting as if someone had jabbed a knife there. He didn’t want to believe the images were real. Had to be the crazy. But the pictures were too vivid. One after another after another. “She was bleeding . . . and he was yelling.” With every breath he could muster, the words began to fall, faster than he could stop them. “The glass . . . and I tried, but too weak. My fault. Made him mad because I couldn’t stop crying.” The look of disgust in his father’s eyes burned into his brain. “Hated me. He hated me. Left because of me. She married him because of me. My fault he hurt her. I couldn’t help her. Held my mouth so I couldn’t cry, but she . . . she . . . I couldn’t breathe . . . tried not to cry, but I was scared. Said I was a bastard. She married him because of me. Because she got pregnant. My fault. My arm. He broke . . . I think it was broke.” He reached for his arm now, trying to see if he could feel it.

“Steve, honey, it’s over. The most important thing is for you calm down and breathe.”

Tony said be calm, but Steve felt the agitation rising, everything inside screaming. “No, no. I’m why she married him. A mistake. I was a mistake. That’s why. That’s why I was sick all the time. I wasn’t meant to be. I wasn’t meant to ruin her life. Just a mistake. Why they fought. Why he left us. Why she was alone. Why she worked so hard every day till it killed her. How could I not remember?”

“Steven, what you must remember is that you were naught save an innocent child who brought the greatest purpose to your mother’s life.” Thor’s fingers remained on his nose, his other hand on Steve’s shoulder trying to keep him still. “You put love in her heart and meaning to her every breath.”

“And he was a fucking, hateful bastard who I’d like to go back in time and kick the shit out of, but he’s gone, baby. And you’re here. With me. And he was wrong because you’re everything. More than he could ever be.”

“But not for real. All a lie. I’m an experiment . . . an experiment that’s over.” Steve could feel his meager energy draining, as if someone had pulled the plug on the tub. Shadows loomed as the room grew dimmer. “Serum’s done.”

“I don’t give a shit about serum. All I care about is you, Steve Rogers! Get that through your thick, fever-burning brain. If you can’t hear anything else, hear that.”

“Easy, Tony.”

“Fuck easy! Doesn’t sound to me like the voices and the fucked-up shit in his head are going easy. Maybe I need to scream louder because I am not losing him. And if the magical mystery moonshine is really taking him on a fucked-up vision quest down bad-memory lane, then I think it’s about time he had a clear signpost pointing toward the direction he needs to be walking, which is right back here to me. Come on, Steve. Snap out of this shit!”

Tony’s voice grew more distant as Steve battled to hang on, desperate to stay with Tony, but his life force was bleeding out. His serum was depleted. Too weak. He saw more than felt his hand slide from Tony’s chest. The colors around him muted to gray except for the brown of Tony’s eyes. He focused on them as long as he could, sickened by the terror reflected there.

“No, no, no! Not again. Why is this happening again! Bruce, do something!”

“Get him on the bed!”

Strong arms lifted him up and away from Tony and Steve didn’t want to go, struggling with everything he had, but his serum was done and he was too weak. Weak and helpless, like before.

“On the other side of darkness is light, Steven. The cave we fear to enter often holds the greatest treasure. Sometimes we must let go to hold on.”

Let go?

“Will you stop filling his head with that shit. Come on, baby, come back. Hang on.”

“Give me your coordinates, I’ll find you a safe landing site.”

“There’s not going to be a safe landing.”

“BP 90 over 50. Pulse 48."

“I gotta put her in the water.”

“Please, don’t do this. We have time. We can work it out.”

“Steve!”

Sorry, Tony. Gotta go back in the ice.

“I’m sorry, angel-mine. So very sorry.”

“A weak man knows the value of strength and knows compassion.”

“If it could only work once, he’d be proud it was you.”

“Fever is up to 106.”

“I don’t understand. Why isn’t he getting colder like before?”

“You just don’t know when to give up, do ya?”

“I can do this all day.”

“A fever can signal a body is fighting infection.”

“Keep fighting, Steve!”

“Sometimes I think you like getting punched.”

“I’m going after Schmidt.”

“You won’t be alone.”

“Come on, Cap. We’re all here with you. You can do this.”

Sets of warm hands pressed on his limbs from head to toe, but he couldn’t move. They weren’t warm enough to melt the ice.

“Hate being Steven Rogers.”

“What an awful thing to say!”

“I’m sorry, Mom.”

“Temp 107. He is slipping into a state of hyperpyrexia.”

“How long can he sustain this?”

“I have no idea.”

“The humble man within you is what makes you the strong warrior you are. Do not seek distance from him.”

“You are Steven Rogers. Nothing shameful about that.”

“The truth is, my name is Tony Stark and I am in love with Steve Rogers.”

“Are we losing him?”

“I had intended to tell you a little more romantically, but I’m not taking it back. I love you, Tony Stark.”

Love you, Tony . . . .

~0~0~0~

Chapter Text

This is the song . . . la la la-la . . . Elmo’s song. . . .

The bright light burned Steve’s eyelids. It was hot. Really hot.

Not right. Ice was cold. Was supposed to be cold. And gray. Cold-gray.

Only it wasn’t.

Daring to open his eyes, he had to blink three times before he believed what he beheld.

The powder-white sand glistened beneath the brilliant sunshine, the turquoise water glimmering before him, waves lapping lazily at the shore, leaving a trail as foamy as the head of an egg cream. He was sitting up in his wheelchair, but not on the pool terrace. Closer. Much closer. He was parked in the sand itself, mere feet from the shore. Looking down in his lap, he found his sketchpad, but his seascape drawing was barely begun. Compelled to finish, he searched his lap and the table nearby, but there were no pencils.

“It is beautiful, is it not?”

The question startled him because he had been sure he was alone. Turning cautiously, he saw a colorful beach chair about three feet to his right, its occupant gazing towards the horizon, sipping leisurely from a small, simple glass. The neon board shorts and baseball cap threw him for a second, but on closer inspection he recognized his companion.

“Dr. Erskine!”

“Hello, Steven.” Erskine turned and raised the glass towards Steve, nodding.

“Schnapps?”

“Of course.”

Steve took a deep breath, preparing himself. “Am I dead?”

“Dead? What an odd question. That would make me dead as well, wouldn’t it?”

“You are dead.”

Erskine looked to ponder that for a moment before shrugging. “Oh? In that case, perhaps not such an odd question.”

Steve looked around, finding nothing but beauty on all sides. If this was the afterlife, it wasn’t too bad. Sure beat cold-gray ice. Still, he felt anxious. Uncomfortable. “I’m not finished,” he heard himself say, though he didn’t remember formulating the words. He looked down at the incomplete sketch on his lap.

“How do you hope to finish in that chair with no pencils?”

Steve had no answer, wondering if he was again trapped, frozen, unable to move. He was relieved when his hand followed his simple direction, reaching to wipe the sweat from his brow then dragging over his saturated tee shirt. “Sure is hot. Very hot.”

“Is it?” Erskine turned back towards the ocean, sipping from his glass, as if Steve were no longer there. The heat didn’t look to be bothering him at all.

“You’re angry at me, aren’t you?”

“You’re a disappointment, Stevie. Always have been.”

That wasn’t Dr. Erskine’s voice. Steve knew that voice. He recognized it now; recognized the face glaring at him when he turned to his left as well. “What are you doing here, Dad?”

“You think I want to be here?” His father wasn’t dressed in beach attire like Dr. Erskine. He wore his blue work pants and a stained, gray button-down shirt. Steve studied his scrabbled face, trying to see past the hard features and the five o’clock shadow to a time his mother might have found this man attractive; a time when maybe this man might have been happy.

“So, I am dead. What do you represent? Hell?”

“Watch your smart mouth, kid.”

“Or what? You gonna hit me? Take your best shot.”

“Steven, you need to focus,” Dr. Erskine cautioned. “Where are your pencils?”

La la la-la, la la la-la, Elmo’s song. . . .

“Um, in the suite, I think. In the villa.” Steve turned quickly over his shoulder, seeing a beautiful villa, but it was in the distance. The far distance.

“Still scribbling on paper, huh?” his dad asked, looking at his pad. “Is that what you do all day? Sit in a cripple’s chair and doodle? What a life.”

“I don’t remember this chair, Steven.” Dr. Erskine was pointing at him, confused.

“I’ve been sick, Doctor.” Steve looked down, shamefaced. “I’ve ruined your serum. It’s gone.”

“Nothing lasts forever, Steven. But tell me, where are your pencils?”

“My pencils?” Steve remembered the sketch. Not wanting to disappoint Dr. Erskine again, he resolved to find his pencils no matter what it took. Setting the sketchpad down on the table beside him, he held tight to the arms of the chair to pull himself up and stand. He waited to fall, or to get dizzy, or need to vomit, but the only thing that happened was his father laughed.

“Sittin’ on your lazy rump so long you forgot how to stand?”

“Why do you hate me?”

“You don’t get to know that,” his father answered with a sneer.

“Doesn’t matter.” Steve had to focus. He took three steps, enjoying the feel of the sand between his toes. He had wanted to walk on this beach for so long. Only, he hadn’t pictured doing it alone. He had wanted to do it with—Tony.

“Where’s Tony?” he asked, panicking when he couldn’t see Tony anywhere.

“The machine is broken, Steven. Mr. Stark cannot use the vita-rays anymore.”

“Not Howard. Tony. Tony Stark.”

“Mr. Stark?” Erskine asked. “A brilliant man, yes.”

“Smart enough to recognize a loser. Look at you.”

Steve looked down, gasping. He was short and thin, the clothes Tony had bought for him hanging comically from his pathetic frame, like a little kid dressed in his dad’s pants.

La la la, la la la laaaa. La la la, la la la laaaa. . . .

“I’m sorry, Dr. Erskine. Sorry I failed you.”

“Me? What are you talking about, Steven?”

“Your serum. I was the only one. Now it’s lost. I went down in the ice. I thought that was it, but . . . but there was more. More in the ice. In the cold-gray. Didn’t want to remember the ice. Being there. Maybe if I’d had the guts to remember sooner, the Asgardian drug wouldn’t have tried to fix me. I don’t know. I don’t understand most of this.” He pointed to his father who was laughing again. “I don’t know why he’s here.”

“I’m always there, kid. You think you can get rid of me?”

“So, you don’t plan to look for your pencils, Steven?” Dr. Erskine sighed and tsked.

“My pencils? Why? Why does that matter?”

“Because you’re not finished.”

“Oh, Stevie’s finished, all right. Sissy boy’s going to go crying to his mommy now.”

Steve exploded, a level of rage he’d never experienced charring his insides, seeking to rupture. Hot. So hot. He’d never felt this hot. “You don’t get to talk about my mother! Not ever!”

“Steven, that is the wrong color,” Dr. Erskine stated with calm certainty. He was holding Steve’s pad and shaking his head. “You need to try again. Find the right color.”

Steve unclenched his white-knuckled fists, looking past his father’s belittling glare towards the picture in Dr. Erskine’s hand, seeing that the ocean and the sand were colored gray. Cold-gray. “That’s wrong. Look at them. They’re beautiful. Why did I do that?”

“You need the right pencils.”

Steve pointed at the villa, squinting to see it in the distance. “I have to go back there for the pencils. Too far.”

“Nobody wants you there, Stevie. You can’t go back. Look at yourself.”

La la la, la la la laaaa. La la la, la la la laaaa. . . .

Steve could feel himself getting smaller. The sleeves of his shirt were heavy. Couldn’t lift his arms. His pants were sagging around his legs, making walking impossible. He was stuck in the sand. Like ice, only hotter.

“Did you keep your promise, Steven?” Dr. Erskine asked.

“What promise?”

“You don’t remember your promise to me?”

Dr. Erskine was standing now; standing directly in front of Steve, his index finger pointing, tapping the center of Steve’s chest twice. Steve had to think. Think.

“To stay who I am. Not a perfect soldier . . . but a good man.”

“Did you keep your promise, Steven?”

Steve searched fragments of memories swirling through his mind, like a broken puzzle scattered to the wind. He couldn’t connect enough pieces to form a positive answer, but his heart calmed in his chest, no longer beating rapidly. Trusting his heart, he nodded. “I think I did, sir.”

Erskine smiled at him. A kind smile. A proud smile. Adjusting his glasses to sit straight on his nose, he nodded as he stepped backwards, sagging into his chair, eyes closing.

Steve ached, not wanting him to go. “No. Wait. Please come back. I need to talk to you. I need to understand.”

“You gonna cry now, mama’s boy?”

“Yeah, maybe I am,” Steve responded, not ashamed. “Dr. Erskine was worth crying over. He was worth ten of you, for sure.”

“Don’t dawdle, Stevie. The doctor asked you to find your pencils.”

Steve’s head swung around at the familiar voice. “Mom?”

His mother stood close to the shore, the waves lapping over her bare feet. She wore a pretty blue dress that Steve had never seen. There was no apron. No blood. Her hair was free, riding the gentle breeze, tossing this way and that, and she didn’t bother to try to pat it back down, or primp it into place. “Don’t be forgetful, Stevie. The doctor asked you to find your pencils. Do as you’re told.”

“I don’t care about pencils. I want to stay with you.” He ached to embrace her, to move closer, to feel her, to smell her, but he was stuck. The heavy clothing was weighing him down and making him hot. So hot. “Please come closer.”

“The water is beautiful today.” She swished her foot, making playful circles in the water with her toes. She was holding up the edges of her dress to keep it from getting wet. “Do you remember when we went to Coney Island for your birthday when you were twelve?”

The memory was vivid for Steve. His mother fell ill not long after, needing her limited energy to fight through every day, none left over for excursions. “Yes, you took us. The three of us. Me and Bucky rode the Cyclone.”

“Bucky and I,” she corrected.

“Right. Bucky and I. And it was Bucky who talked me into riding the rollercoaster.”

“Not a good idea.” She shook her head.

“You still let me go.”

“Yes, I did. Had to let you go, my darling boy.”

He loves to sing, la la la-la, Elmo’s song. . . .

“Puked like a little baby,” his dad taunted.

“You weren’t there.”

“I’m always there, kid.”

“Mom, am I dead? Is that what this is?”

“Dead? From riding a silly rollercoaster?” His mother smiled and shook her head. Again Steve tried to move closer to her, but his feet were frozen in sand.

“I don’t want to talk about rollercoasters.”

“This is a beautiful beach.” His mother shielded her eyes with one hand and looked up and down the shoreline. “Not crowded like Coney Island. Peaceful. Lovely. Did you draw the beach, Stevie?”

“Not finished,” he muttered, looking towards the table and the monochrome gray sketch. “I used the wrong color.” He hoped there would be lemonade on the table. He was real thirsty, his mouth as dry as the sand. Too hot. When he looked up again, the beach, the water, the sky, the sand, were all as gray as his sketch.

“I had to keep you safe, angel-mine,” his mother said sadly.

“I know.” Steve realized he was sitting in the gray sand now and it burned against his body. “I remember. You wrapped my arm real good and tight and tucked me on the couch until you finished packing. I was cold and tired and scared and I hurt. So afraid he would come back. Couldn’t sleep. Kept listening to you. You kept singing so I wouldn’t be scared, even though you had to be hurting and scared yourself. You cleaned the glass. The blood. Your hands. And then you packed. You put me in my warm clothes, even though it was summer, and then carried me in one arm and the suitcase in the other. I said I was a big boy and I could walk, but it was dark outside. Scary. I pressed my face into your shoulder and I could smell your hair. You walked all the way to the hospital. And after Dr. Morgan was finished setting my arm, you said we were ready to go.”

“Time to go, Stevie.”

“Time to go, Stevie,” he repeated. “But we never went back. All a bad dream. Every night you told me, before you sang to me in the new apartment. The small apartment that didn’t have any of your things in it. The one far away. Stevie had a bad dream. Fell off the couch and broke his arm. A bad dream. Eventually, it faded like a dream.”

“You know how I feel about liars, Stevie. Do I need to get the soap?”

“You lied, Mom.”

“Don’t talk to your mother like that!”

“She lied because of you,” Steve accused, glaring at his father.

“Stevie, we all make our choices,” his mother said sadly. “No excuses.”

Steve gasped as he saw his father walk toward the shore, coming up beside his mom. “Leave her alone!”

“He wasn’t always like this,” she said wistfully, her hand reaching out toward him as he hovered just out of her reach. Steve found the thought hard to believe, but she seemed sincere.

“Because of me, right? That’s why you were with him. Because you got pregnant. A mistake. I was your mistake.”

“A choice, Stevie. Always my choice. My angel baby. Sent from heaven just for me. From the first moment I felt you inside me, I knew. Seeing your beautiful face every day helps me more than you know. My precious Stevie. Did I ever let you go a day without feeling my love?”

Tears burned down Steve’s cheeks as he ached for her cherishing embrace. “You stayed with me, Mom. In the ice. In the cold-gray.”

“Thought you didn’t remember the ice?” his dad challenged. “That’s what you tell everyone.”

“Didn’t want to remember. Wish I didn’t remember the ice or you, either. But I remember Mom’s voice in the cold-gray. Couldn’t move. No heartbeat. No breath. But couldn’t sleep. Not in my head. The doors wouldn’t stop opening and closing. But Mom would talk and sing and I wasn’t alone in there. She helped me let go. After an endless time, I could finally let go and sleep, just like when I was a kid and the bad dreams came. Mom would help me sleep.”

“I never leave you, angel-mine.”

“I’m always there, kid.”

“Steven, your pencils,” Dr. Erskine’s voice called, but Steve couldn’t see him. His chair was empty. And the sketch pad was gone.

La la la-la, la la la-la, Elmo’s song. . . .

“I have to finish, Mom.”

“You do, Stevie. But how?”

“Those damn little boy crayons of yours are too far for you, Stevie. Look how far away. They’ve moved on. Nobody wants you there. Look at yourself. Even your sissy uptown boyfriend can do better than a mess like you.”

Steve looked down at his small body tangled in clothes and buried in the sand. He didn’t like it much, but he wasn’t scared. He actually smiled. “I’m Tony’s mess. And he’s mine. Tony and my friends—my family—they don’t care about serum. I was the one worried. All I can be is Steven Rogers. Right, Mom?”

“Nothing shameful about that. Don’t be prideful, Stevie.”

“No, ma’am.”

“What’s to be proud of? Weak little runt is never going to amount to anything. Once a mama’s boy, always a mama’s boy.”

“I am my mama’s boy,” Steve declared proudly, able to stand up in the sand.

He wrote the music, he wrote the words. . . .

“The truth is the most important thing, Stevie. When you don’t tell the truth, it scars you inside.”

“Is that what happened to you?”

“I was too prideful, Stevie. I never wanted you to see my flaws.”

“All heroes have flaws, Mom.”

Her smile was a wondrous thing. “I’m no hero, silly boy.”

“You’re my hero. Always.”

“I’m sorry for lying to you, angel-mine. Forgive me?”

Steve started, realizing his mother was standing directly behind him now. He turned slowly, afraid she would disappear. She wasn’t gray like everything else. Her hair shimmered with sunlight, her eyes reflecting the turquoise of the ocean. They were the eyes he woke to find watching over him in sickness, the eyes that smiled with pride over every little drawing he made, the same eyes that held forgiveness for him each and every time he had had to say sorry for doing something wrong. How did he forget how beautiful they were, or how they could make a sickly nothing of a boy feel ten feet tall when they shined with pride? “You can only be you, for better or worse. Right, Mom? Of course I forgive you.”

“One day you’ll come to forgive him, too.”

Tensing, Steve looked at his father, skulking near the shore, always there, and shook his head. “No, I won’t.”

Her gaze was as gentle and tough as she was. “Steven, he fought his own wars, same as we all do. He just wasn’t a very good soldier.”

He wanted to understand her words, but the images of his father as a monster were still too fresh in his mind and heart. Dr. Erskine had spoken to him about compassion the night before the serum, and Red Skull had tried to convince him he had left humanity behind, right before he plunged into the ice. His mother’s words must be reflecting those memories in his jumbled brain because surely this was not something she would truly ask of him. How could she ever forgive that man? How would she think he could?

“I won’t lie and say I can do what you ask, Mom.”

“For me, you’ll try, won’t you? Not now. When you’re ready?”

He couldn’t bring himself to deny her. “Of course.”

“You’re my good boy, Stevie. Be happy with the good man you’ve chosen. Your heart is your greatest gift.” She held up a pencil—a green pencil. He could see the color brightly against the background of gray. She extended the pencil toward him. “So you can finish.”

“My pencil,” Steve whispered, afraid to reach for it, afraid his arm wouldn’t work.

“What’s he going to do with one lousy pencil? Can’t make any kind of decent picture with one color.”

“This is not to finish,” his mother explained.

“To start,” Steve concluded.

“You’re so precious to me,” she began singing softly, her hands drawing closer, her cool fingers sliding over the flesh of his burning wrist, turning his hand upward as she placed the pencil in his palm. “Sweet as can be, baby of mine.”

That slight touch radiated throughout his body, both breaking his heart and soothing it. He could feel every bit of her in the brief contact, memory reawakened in a place nestled deep within. He tried to hold tight to the feeling even as he felt himself drifting, caught up in the cool ocean breeze. The heat burning his flesh welcomed the gentle touch of the crisp air. His skin was damp, like he’d been swimming, only he never went into the water. The water was too far. The breeze over his damp flesh sent a chill, but the warm light of the sun dried it.

He wrote the music . . . he wrote the words . . . that’s Elmo’s song. . . .

~0~0~0~

Chapter Text

Ping. Ping. Ping.

The sound was both rhythmic and annoying. Didn’t seem like part of the song. Not on the right beats. La la ping la-la . . . la ping . . . la la-la. . . .

Strange tempo. Stranger was the sensation in his stomach. Weird. Hard to distinguish. But then it happened again. Not a grumble. A rumble? Familiar but not. What was it?

He loves ping to sing la la la-ping-la . . . Elmo’s song. . . .

Elmo? Tony hates that song.

Tony?

Ping . . . ping . . . ping. . . .

Blurs of light caught his eyes with each blink; pastel colors. Pretty. Pretty colors. Yellow. Aqua. Peach. Some greens, like his pencil.

Pencil?

He rocked his head back and forth, trying to focus. To the left side was red. Furry red. Furry? On the pillow beside his head, mouth agape, big, round, white, happy eyes stared unblinking at him. Red fur. On the other side of the red fur was another pillow and darker fur. No, not fur. Hair. Coffee-colored. Dark, messy hair.

The rumble in his stomach got more insistent and he wondered if he was going to puke. No. Not nauseous. Hungry. He was hungry.

The realization cut through the cobwebs, Steve fighting to clear his head enough to determine whether it was real or not. Everything had been mixed up for so long, but hunger hadn’t been there before. Not in any of the fractured visions.

I’m hungry. I’m really hungry.

Ping la la . . . la la la la . . . ping. . . .

Thor needs to turn that off or Natasha’s going to get her knife.

Steve tried to tell him, but something was covering his mouth. He reached up, feeling the oxygen mask. Sensing he was breathing fine, he slipped it off quietly, able to see better. Elmo really was on the pillow beside him. Not a dream. A stuffed Elmo. Even crazier, Tony’s face was pressed into the doll’s back. He was asleep, his phone on the pillow beside his head playing the song he hated—Elmo’s Song.

“Scary ghost-in-the-head dads are totally repelled by Elmo.” Remembering Tony’s words made him smile.

Tony got me an Elmo. Steve touched the fur, careful not to jostle the doll, not wanting to disturb Tony. He thought about switching off the phone video so Tony would no longer have to be tortured, but decided it was best to stay quiet and not disturb anyone.

Turning slightly, he spotted the burgundy of a rolled shirt sleeve, following the line upward. The sleeve—the whole arm—belonged to Bruce, who was sprawled in the chair pulled close to Steve’s bed. He head was hanging back, chin tilted towards the ceiling in what had to be an uncomfortable position to sleep in, his glasses balanced precariously on the tip of his perspiring nose. The armpits of his shirt were soaked with sweat, scattered wet patches discoloring sections of the fabric around his sternum as well; the middle button looked to be completely missing. Wires from the monitors attached to Steve’s body were tangled in his fingertips.

Steve felt the sweat beading his own body as well. Warm in here. He tried to turn more to get a look at the different monitors next to Bruce—the ones making all the pinging sounds—wondering if he could see what his temperature was, but the weight he felt pressed on his left leg hampered his movement. He looked down his body, noting he was dressed only in gym shorts, sweat, and wires, not even a sheet covering him. The flash of plum from a tank top caught his eye and he focused on the color until he recognized the lump balled around his calf was Clint’s curled form. A snatch of cerulean blue glimmered close to Clint. Drawing his eyes toward it, Steve found Thor perched on the edge of the bed between his feet, his very familiar blue tee shirt wrinkled and stained by perspiration. He was facing the wall, but clearly on watch, one arm stretched to his side, fingers set lightly upon Clint’s tucked shoulder, his other hand loosely banding Steve’s right ankle, no doubt to note any movement. The tie in his hair was askew, the long blond locks messy, damp, and dark with sweat.

Teddy’s girl ponytail.

The words danced lightly through the thinning fog in Steve’s brain, giving him the impetus to smile as his eyes drifted over Clint’s shoulder toward the closed balcony doors. He wondered why they weren’t open, since it was very hot and stale in the room, but the flashes of frigid ice in his near memory whispered he was most likely the cause. On the sofa near the doors sat Natasha, her fiery red locks pressed to the cushion, though she still sat upright. Phil’s head was nestled in her lap, his arm resting upon a peach pillow, free from the bold orange-flowered sling that lay flat upon his chest. The hand Natasha rested upon his shoulder was draped in a turquoise bracelet, the fingers of her other hand wrapped around a coal-black holster containing a silvery firearm. Steve couldn’t form a clear enough thought to explain why Natasha was armed, but he wasn’t overly worried as everyone looked to be in varying degrees of restless dozing—all except Thor. Even from behind, Steve could tell he was aware and alert, keeping quiet watch as he solemnly contemplated the wall.

The room itself looked as if Clint and Thor’s parasailing boat had motored through, leaving mayhem and disarray in its wake. Steve felt bad the beautiful pastel suite had been turned topsy-turvy, since surely he was to blame, but the overwhelming thing he felt was hunger—ravenous hunger—making it difficult to focus on anything else.

Quiet as he could, making certain not to jostle Clint’s head off his left calf, he arched his foot before poking Thor’s back gently with his toes. The massive hand tightened slightly on his right ankle, conveying comfort. He was hoping maybe the big guy could get him a sandwich or two without disturbing his exhausted team, so he nudged him again, more insistently this time. Thor turned immediately, looking ready to spring to action. Steve held up his hands in a staying position, trying to get him to relax. Thor stared at him, agape for a long moment before his face nearly cracked from the huge grin bursting forth. He bounded up from the bed, looking ready to bellow. Steve pressed his finger to his lips in a shushing gesture, nodding his head towards their sleeping companions. Thor kept grinning at him, looking drunk with glee. Steve did his best to pantomime eating a sandwich, hoping Thor would get the clue to bring him some food.

“You wish to eat?” Thor mouthed the words, imitating Steve’s silent eating motion.

Steve nodded, relieved to have gotten the message across, but a moment later all efforts to keep things on the QT exploded when Thor roared boisterously, “My friends, take heart! Steven wishes to eat!”

Heads popped up on all sides of him, Natasha bringing her weapon to the ready as the cursing and muttering mingled simultaneously.

“What the fuck?”

“Thor, what is it?”

“What’s wrong?”

“Who’s there?”

“Stop the damn yelling.”

Bruce’s hands were on him as the blood pressure cuff on his arm inflated. Tony stirred beside him, Elmo getting smushed against the side of his face as Tony practically climbed atop him, apparently kicking Clint in the head with the flurry of movement.

“Ow. Shit, Tony.”

“Natasha, stand down before you shoot me.”

“Steve, can you hear me, baby?”

“His fever is broken.”

“He wishes to eat,” Thor proclaimed again. “He has told me thus himself. Tell them, Steven!”

“He spoke to you? Like sensible words?” Clint asked, sounding astonished. He rose up on all fours and practically crawled up Steve’s legs to get a better look.

“Thor, where did you put my chair?”

“Is he awake, awake?” Natasha asked. “As in Stark can turn off that infernal song now before I shoot his phone to shit?”

“Elmo’s song,” Steve said with a smile, looking up into Tony’s wary eyes. His hair was sweated-matted on one side, his sunshine yellow tee shirt faded by perspiration stains, his beard scraggly and uneven, but he was still beautiful. “Could hear it, I think. Somewhere.” Everything was still pretty jumbled in Steve’s head, but very clear in his stomach. “Could I maybe get a sandwich?”

“There! Just as I have attested,” Thor declared as he helped Phil into his chair. “Our Steven has returned to us.”

“Is it true?” Tony asked hesitantly, his hand wiping over Steve’s face, but he wasn’t speaking to Steve. He was speaking over him. “Bruce?”

Steve turned his head to watch Bruce silently read all his monitors—once—twice—curious himself what would be found.

“Temperature? BP? Oxygenation? Pulse?” Phil listed words as he motored towards the bed. Bruce still hadn’t responded, attaching some long wire things to the sticky circles on Steve’s chest and arms.

“Shit, Bruce, can you move any slower?”

“Lay off him, Stark. He’s just as fried as the rest of us,” Natasha defended as she climbed onto the bed, reaching over Tony’s shoulder to snatch the phone, smoothly ejecting the battery to silence Elmo mid-verse, then hurling it unerringly across the room into the potted palm by the door.

“He doesn’t feel hot,” Clint reported, perched over Steve’s bare legs, smoothing his hands up and down. “Or cold. That’s good, right?”

“Steven has returned,” Thor repeated as he climbed on the bed beside Clint, bouncing on his knees like an exuberant puppy. Steve began wondering how much weight the bed was equipped to hold, but then Bruce’s light was in his eyes, and he was blinking and trying to see as more beeps and pings rang out.

“Disorientation?” Phil asked, his chair only coming to a stop when it crashed into the side of the bed next to Bruce. “How do his pupils look? What does the EKG show?”

The chatter and bustling all ceased at once, an odd hush falling over the room, only the pinging of medical machines filling the air. Everyone’s head was turned toward Bruce until his face broke into a relieved smile, then six sets of eyes—seven if you counted Elmo’s—gaped at Steve.

“Hi?” Steve muttered hesitantly, not sure what exactly he should say or do. “Any chance I could get that sandwich now? I’m starving.”

~0~0~0~

Steve scraped the last drops of soup onto his spoon, feeling ready to eat the spoon as well, but refusing to complain. He never did get a sandwich. Intellectually, he understood the bowl of soup and bottle of water was a safe start considering he hadn’t been able to keep anything down all week, but his stomach didn’t have a brain and he was having difficulty getting it to understand patience.

“How you doing?” Tony asked for the hundredth time since Steve had been allowed to sit up in the bed and eat his liquid meal in front of an audience of bleary-eyed Avengers. Bruce had agreed to disconnect him from all the wires—the irritating pings blessedly ceasing—and Steve was eventually granted the right to wield his own spoon and feed himself after a brief, but heated, debate.

After the bed had begun to make a wounded, whining cry, Thor and Clint had been relegated to the sofa where they were both now perched, Clint holding a bucket at the ready, no doubt anticipat-ing the soup’s return. Since she had agreed to temporarily relinquish her firearm after Thor assured her he could call his hammer at a moment’s notice, Natasha was allowed to remain seated on the mattress beside Tony, who was sitting up crossed-legged, facing Steve, the Elmo doll clutched so tightly between his fists, it was a wonder it had any stuffing left. Natasha kept periodically rubbing Tony’s back, though he didn’t look to be taking notice, his eyes fixed on Steve’s every breath. Phil and Bruce were still beside the bed, no one saying much of anything, except for Tony’s repeated question at steady intervals.

“Pretty good,” Steve answered again. In truth, he wasn’t sure how he was doing. He knew he was hungry. That was his foremost certainty at the moment. He felt pretty confident he was scanning the here and now instead of ghostly echoes of the past blended with a fevered present. The only voices he was hearing belonged to those present in the room. He was warm, not the sickly kind of warm, but the kind brought about by being in a hot, stuffy room. He could tell he had lost some weight—he kept looking down at himself, surprised he wasn’t smaller, but figuring it would happen over time. Mostly he was worried about Tony and his team. He wasn’t certain how bad he looked, but he could clearly see what a toll his infirmity had taken on them.

“How’s that soup sitting?” Phil asked, slumped crookedly in his chair, looking to be using all his resources to stay upright.

“Like it wouldn’t mind company. Any chance I could get something a little more substantial?”

Nobody actually answered him, everyone watching him warily. Other than Thor’s initial outburst of jubilation, everyone had been tense, as if waiting for the worst. How could he blame them? The parts Steve did remember were harrowing, and he was also certain there were long periods of time he was barely here at all. Unconsciousness, coma, hibernating state, shut down—whatever had been happening to him physically had to be pretty scary for them to witness. They were all still here, though, and Steve’s gratitude ran deep, something he was probably never going to be able to find an adequate expression for.

“Listen, guys, I have no doubt that I’ve been pretty scary to be around, especially these last few—I don’t even know how many days we’ve all been in this room. I don’t know any more than Bruce does whether I’m really okay or not. What I can tell you for sure is I’m not lying. Other than feeling kind of beat up and about a hundred meals short of nourished, and thirsty enough to want to drink ten gallons of water instead of this bottle, I feel okay. I thought it would be worse actually.” He held up his arms, then lifted the tee shirt he had asked to put on before his soup, looking at himself not for the first time since waking up. “Thought I’d look a lot different.”

He turned to Bruce. “Probably takes time, right? Before it all goes back to how it was?”

“How it was?” Bruce asked slowly, as if weighing each word.

“Yeah, pre-serum. I guess just because everything changed all at once going in, doesn’t mean it will be the same coming out.”

The weird, strange silence filled the room again, Steve not missing the worried glances they exchanged, even though they were trying to act as if they hadn’t.

“What exactly is coming out, Steve?” Phil asked cautiously.

Steve licked the last drops of soup from his spoon, trying to ignore how desperately he longed for more. “I know you’re all worried about me. Makes sense considering how much whining I’ve been doing about it, but I’ve come to terms with losing the serum. Really.” Steve searched internally, making certain he was being truthful. Losing his serum was a blow, no sense pretending otherwise, but he’d lived without it before. He could do this. “I mean, I’m alive,” he said gratefully. “And I’ve got all of you.” He reached out and patted Tony’s hand. “Especially you, sweetheart.” He smiled, hoping to reassure, but Tony’s face remained frozen with uncertainty. Wanting to lighten the tension and ease their anxiety for him, Steve grinned. “And if anyone thinks they’re throwing me off this team, well forget it. I may be just a kid from Brooklyn, but I’m pretty scrappy. I don’t sit on the sidelines too well. You guys do know how many times I tried to enlist, right? I’m not easy to get rid of.”

Okay, the humorous approach wasn’t working. If anything, they looked more distressed after his declaration. Steve realized they were going to need time to come to terms not only with his losing his serum, but with believing he was okay with going back to the way he was. He’d been nothing but erratic of late. If he was in their shoes, he wouldn’t believe a thing out of his own mouth either. He smiled, knowing the best thing he could do was stay calm and steady until they could come to trust he was himself again—well, himself in a more moderated form. Changing tactics, he held up his bowl. “Would it be possible to have more soup?” And maybe a porterhouse steak, three baked potatoes and a chocolate cake thrown in for an appetizer?

Clint was quick to his feet, shifting the bucket to one arm as he reached for Steve’s bowl. “I can get it.”

Bruce shook his head. “Not sure that’s a good idea.”

“What is the wisdom in denying his apparent hunger?” Thor inquired, coming to his feet. “Can you not sense his aura? How is this not obvious he has returned to us?”

“Obvious?” Tony practically sneered. “What the hell has been obvious lately? The temperatures that ran the gamut from fifty to a hundred and ten degrees? Or would it be a pulse rate that appears and disappears faster than a rabbit from a fucking magician’s hat? No, maybe it was when he was barfing his innards out from nothing more than an IV drip that never entered his stomach in the first place? Sure, let’s get some soup. How about a whole fucking smorgasbord? You better get a bigger fucking bucket, though, Barton. Hang on. I’ll get my phone. We’ll call for a dumpster.”

“Tony,” Natasha cautioned, both hands on his shoulders squeezing in an attempt to calm his fast-rising tension.

“He never said he was hungry before, though,” Clint reasoned. “The opposite. He couldn’t stomach the smell of food. Maybe Thor is right. This has to be a sign he’s doing better.”

“His vitals are good,” Bruce pointed out. “Still, there’s no assurance that won’t change. Obviously, he’s not fully lucid. He believes—”

“He believes he’s hungry,” Phil cut in, raising a cautioning eyebrow at Bruce.

As much as Steve wanted to know what they weren’t saying about him, he was more concerned with not causing another argument. All of their physical and emotional resources looked to be threadbare at best, especially Tony. “You know what? I think caution is the best play, here. I don’t need any more soup right now.” His stomach kicked him, protesting his betrayal, but he ignored the discomfort. “We’ll let this settle and see where we go from there. For now, I’m going to rest quietly and not do anything crazy. How about the rest of you grab some downtime as well?”

He may as well have said he saw the boogie man standing in the corner riding a unicorn and carrying a hatchet if the facial expressions gaping at him were any indication. Steve would agree his own judgment had been unreliable of late, but he was still certain the effectiveness of his team was being presently compromised by their level of exhaustion. His challenge would be convincing them of that while they were still on full Steve Rogers Alert.

“The ‘you resting quietly’ part is a good plan, Steve,” Bruce stated kindly, his voice jagged from his own fatigue.

“He’s right, baby. You need to lie down.”

“Okay, hang on.” Steve lifted a staying hand to keep Tony from fussing with his pillows. “Let’s be reasonable and logical for a minute. Give me that much, and if you still think my concerns aren’t valid, I’ll go to sleep quietly. Deal?”

Thor chuckled, grinning and winking at him, Steve realizing he had one less person to convince. “What’s your plan, Steve?” Phil asked.

“A simple status report.”

“You want me to tell you how you’re doing?” Bruce asked.

“I’m more interested in how you guys are doing.”

“Steve, we’re fine, buddy,” Clint said softly, bucket still clutched at the ready in one arm, Steve’s soup bowl balanced in his other hand. “You don’t need to be worrying about that. Just rest.”

“I appreciate that.” Steve made certain not to sound ungrateful for his amazing group of friends and their dedication on his behalf. “But I’m not sure you’re the best person capable of providing the status report I was talking about, Clint.”

“Oh, no, no, no.” Tony shook his head adamantly, his most cynical expression on his face. “We already know what Thor is going to say, and while even I will admit his help these past few days has been invaluable, that doesn’t mean I’m ready to jump on his Asgardian Bandwagon just because his Jedi Force hotline is speaking to your aura and telling him you’re all well and fine, now. No offense, Thundar, but your tingly senses didn’t exactly pick up on his fractured aura until he nearly barfed himself to death on the plane.”

Steve smiled. Even looking like an overused floor mat maniacally clutching a red, furry kid’s toy, Tony was adorable. “No worries, Tony. I didn’t mean Thor.”

“Coulson?” Bruce ventured. “I guess we can all agree on that choice.”

“Ordinarily, yes,” Steve nodded. “But this report needs to include his status and from where I’m sitting, he’s not exactly in tip-top condition.” Steve turned towards Natasha. “Agent Romanoff, what’s your assessment of the team’s current condition?”

Natasha looked caught off-guard for about three seconds, then smiled wryly at him. She wasn’t one to sugarcoat things, no matter the situation, an attribute he was counting on. “Well played, Cap. Thor may just be right about you after all.”

“Natasha, I really don’t think—”

“No, it’s okay, boss. The captain asked for a simple status report. What’s the harm?” Ignoring the groans and head-shakes, she continued. “We’ve all more or less been in this room together since approximately 1900 hours on Sunday. It’s currently 1130 on Tuesday. Attempts were made to rotate shifts, but people around here are a little stubborn, especially without your leadership, so the success of that plan was sporadic at best. Counting power naps and the occasional breaks that took place via the unsuccessful rotation plan, and factoring in how long it had been since the team had slept before entering this room with you Sunday evening—making the unrealistic assumption that anyone but Phil and maybe Clint actually had a full night’s sleep Saturday night—I’d say the team as a whole has gotten an average of five point seven hours sleep in a period of fifty-two point five hours.”

“Showers?” Steve asked.

“You don’t need a report on that,” Clint joked. “Take a whiff.”

“I showered once. A lot of face and hand washing, particularly Bruce, some swabbing up,” Natasha continued. “They washed you down several times, which resulted in incidental self-cleaning in the process.”

“Food intake?”

“No food was brought into or near this room in an effort not to exacerbate your condition, though calories were consumed during the short breaks. I personally made sure Phil and Bruce ate, though it was sporadic at best.”

The thought of food distracted Steve for a moment, his stomach reminding him how undernourished he was, his head dizzying a bit as he tried to picture what they ate. Visions of chicken and bread and ham and apple pie tantalized his mind. “Okay. Then. Um. Yeah. Okay. To continue. Has it been this hot in here the whole time?” As a whole, they looked like a garden full of neglected flowers, wilted and sagging in the stifling tropical heat.

“You couldn’t tolerate any kind of cold, Cap,” Natasha said softly. “We took cooling off breaks in Thor’s suite, but the central air was never turned back on, just fans and opened balcony doors in the other suite. In here, we only opened the balcony doors occasionally to air out the room, but basically, yes, this has been the approximate temperature of the room.”

“I’m sorry,” Steve said, trying to keep the guilt from swamping him.

“Okay, we’re good,” Tony said, clapping his hands together. “Report’s over.”

“No it isn’t.” Steve looked directly at Natasha. “Is it?”

Natasha took a deep breath, steeling herself against the glares of her teammates. “Coulson hasn’t had physical therapy since Sunday morning, which has taken a toll. His medication schedule is off, and though he denies it, I know he’s in pain from being in that chair too long. Moving to Barton, he’s done his best to cover, but some of your memories triggered his own childhood trauma, and the lack of sleep is only heightening the flashbacks.”

“Nat!”

“Banner has staved off his own flashbacks by shutting completely down, but the strain to maintain that status is taking a toll.”

“Tasha!”

“As for Stark—”

“Enough, Agent Big Mouth.”

“—He is clearly no stranger to sleep deprivation, so he’s handled the physical demand adequately. The emotional toll has been the bigger threat. There was an incident involving procuring that Elmo doll that nearly sent him over the edge. Banner considered sedating him, but we decided against that.”

“Fuck right.”

“All in all, considering what he’s dealing with, I have to say he’s done an amazing job keeping his shit together.” Her voice dropped and her eyes softened. “He loves you so much, Cap. Your condition—particularly the last five hours, when you’ve been in a completely immobile, burning fevered state—has done a phenomenal job at scaring the insides out of him—out of all of us. The situation has been hell, especially for you, and yes, the battlefield left in the wake is a bloody one. But we’re all still here. I’m sure you can understand the team’s reluctance to abandon you, because you would have acted the same for any one of us.”

“I do understand.” Steve didn’t bother to hide the emotion from his voice. “And I am deeply grateful and humbled. And yes, I would do the same for you, which is why it matters to me that you all take a break. When things were the darkest, I felt you all there, and it was that strength and stubborn refusal to give up on me that kept pulling me back. I may be out of the woods, like Thor believes, or I may be just another turn away from the next crisis. Right now, this minute, though, I feel okay. So rest up. Regroup. If we’ve got more battles to fight, makes sense for the team not to be depleted.”

“He has a point,” Phil admitted grudgingly.

“Where are Mark and Carolyn?” Steve asked.

“Bruce has kept them out of here for the most part, for the sake of your privacy,” Natasha answered. “Things got very—personal when you were altered.”

Steve nodded, grateful. “I appreciate that.” He looked directly at Bruce. “But they’re both capable of checking monitors and sticking a thermometer in my mouth while you take a well-deserved break. Your room is only across the hall.”

“He’s right, “Natasha added, slipping off the bed and coming around behind him to flatten her hands on his shoulders.

“Fair enough.” Bruce stood. “I’ll go update them. But if anything changes. Anything. . . .”

“Understood,” Steve agreed. “Oh, and um, while you’re updating them, do you think, maybe, you could give the okay for me to have some more soup soon . . . maybe a sandwich?”

“I’ll okay a very light, bland menu at regular intervals if you promise to eat slowly and stop the moment something doesn’t sit right in your stomach.”

Light and bland didn’t sound particularly appealing when he was hungry enough to eat the entire contents of the fridge downstairs, but he knew he had to settle if he was going to keep them from worrying. “Understood. Can I drink?”

“Water and broth at the same intervals. Though if you’re feeling really dehydrated, I could hook up the IV—”

“Pass.” Steve was tired of being hooked to needles and monitors. He was hoping to prove to them how ready he felt to go back to regular eating, and an IV line in his arm would achieve the opposite effect.

“Come on, Doctor Banner,” Natasha urged, nudging Bruce to move. “Your bed awaits.” He took a few weary, shuffling steps towards the door, then turned back, returning to Steve’s bedside. He wrapped his fingers around Steve’s wrist to check his pulse then combed them over his forehead to check for fever.

“All good, right?” Steve asked, certain of the answer.

“For now . . . do you need to urinate?”

Steve would have given anything to be able to say yes to the question he should have known was coming, but he couldn't lie. "No." Before Bruce had a chance to process that, he quickly added, "But I'm sure this soup and water will take care of that quickly. If it doesn't, I promise to let you know."

Bruce stared at him unblinking for a full minute. He was thoroughly exhausted. The only time Steve had ever seen him look more depleted was sitting across the table from him eating shawarma. "Fair enough," he said finally, much to Steve's relief.

“Thank you. And thank you for everything."

“Not sure how much I did.”

“Well, I’m sure.” Steve clasped the hand still lingering near his forehead and squeezed. “You hung in there with me in the trenches, Doc. It’s okay to stand down now. You did great.”

Bruce’s smile looked as weary as he did. Natasha leaned around him, kissing Steve softly on the cheek, whispering. “No worries. I’ve got him.” She straightened, taking Bruce by the arm and leading him away from the bed. “There we go. One foot in front of the other.”

“I shall escort the Son of Coul down to his suite,” Thor announced as Natasha and Bruce exited. “I will insure Walter is at the ready with a much needed whirlpool bath, followed by massage, a meal and medication, then proper rest.”

“All right,” Phil conceded. “That all sounds pretty good, actually.” He looked at Steve for a long, quiet moment, as if assessing whether it truly was safe to take a breather. “You sure about this?”

“Would mean a lot to me if you would. You too, Clint.”

“Thor, go on and take him,” Clint said. “I’ll be down in a bit.”

“Clint.” Phil’s voice was low, intimate. He was obviously concerned.

“Come along, Clinton. We shall all go together.”

“I just want to stay and clean up some of this mess. How the hell is Steve supposed to rest in here?”

“I have a staff for that,” Tony muttered. He’d been oddly quiet, rocking with Elmo still clutched in his arms, but he suddenly became animated. “Yes, the staff. You’re right. This room needs to be cleaned up. Change the bedding. Launder that pile of sheets in the corner. Pick up all this knocked over stuff. And the bathroom. You’re going to need a shower. Maybe a bath? No, not a good idea. Not yet.” He tossed Elmo towards Steve and shot up off the mattress, heading to the door. “I’ll speak to them. Get this going.”

“He is so wired,” Clint pointed out as Tony raced out the door. “I don’t see how you’re going to get him to rest unless you shoot him with a dart. I’ve got one of my bows with me.”

“I’ll talk to him,” Phil volunteered as he motored his chair toward the door. “We don’t need another Elmo incident. Come on, Thor. I don’t intend to roll this thing down the stairs.”

“At your service.” Thor leaned over the bed and kissed Steve gently on the forehead. “And yours. If you should need me, call out. I will hear you.”

Steve took hold of Thor’s arm to keep him from fully retreating. There were many things he wanted to say, but the words forming in his head felt insignificant. “I don’t exactly know what to say. ‘Thanks’ seems pretty inadequate considering what you’ve done for me. You really are a hero . . . Teddy.”

“You are the true hero.” Thor’s eyes were liquid blue as he added softly, “Stevie.” He placed the palm of his hand over his heart. “Assisting you is my honor. In fact,” Thor bent closer, whispering in Steve’s ear, “to that end, I would be happy to pilfer you a sandwich or two from the kitchen and smuggle them up here.”

Steve was tempted. Very tempted. He was starving, but that was the way things had to be for now. He shook his head. “I wish I could say yes, but I can’t. I was wrong to hide my condition from all of you in the first place, and I have no intention of being deceitful like that ever again. Though, if you come back in an hour and find me gnawing my own arm, ask me again.”

“They will soon come to see, as I do, that you are restored, and then all shall be well.”

“Well, not exactly restored,” Steve responded, lamenting what he had lost. “But at least not sick anymore. At least, I hope not.”

“Thor!” Phil called from the hallway outside Steve’s suite. “Let’s go. You too, Clint.”

“I am being summoned,” Thor laughed, bowing towards Steve before heading to the door. “Clinton?”

“Go ahead. Get him settled. He puts on a good front, but he’s wiped. I’ll be right down.”

“As you wish.”

“You should go with Phil,” Steve urged as Thor retreated. Clint was standing at the foot of the bed, still clutching the bucket and the empty soup bowl. “You need rest.”

“Not sure sleep will be my friend right now. Besides, I’m not leaving you alone. I’ll go down when Tony gets back.”

“All right. Then at least put down the barf bucket and sit with me.”

“Sure you don’t need it?” Clint offered, extending the bucket after setting down the bowl.

“So far my huge meal of soup and water is staying put.”

Clint reluctantly set the bucket down near his foot, keeping it at the ready as he sat on the edge of the bed beside Steve. “You do seem different. Maybe Thor’s right. Then again. . . .”

“Yeah, I know. We’ll see.”

“The only other time I was this scared was when Phil was in the hospital,” Clint admittedly rawly, his expression pained. “But then, you know that. You were there.”

“I don’t recall you taking great care of yourself then, either. Please go try to rest.”

“You made sure I was okay until Phil was well enough to take over bossing me.” Clint sighed, looking at Steve silently for a long time. His eyes were pensive, his body tense. Steve sensed it was important not to interrupt, so he stayed quiet. When Clint eventually did speak, his voice was ragged. “Didn’t really get the whole trust thing for a big chunk of my life. Then there was Nat . . . and Phil. That was different. Took years. Not the same with you. Don’t know why. What I do know is you have to be okay. You’re my friend, Steve. I’m not ready to lose that.”

“Neither am I. Not a lot of guys line up to hold a buddy’s barf bucket, you know?” Again, words felt inadequate to Steve, but he hoped Clint understood how much his friendship mattered, how grateful he was.

“I don’t know how you did it.” Clint shook his head, horrified. “I thought the whole being frozen for seventy years thing sucked before. I mean, losing the life you knew, having to come back a stranger in a strange time. But the idea you were aware during the first part of that hell . . . like, trapped in there with the worst your mind could dredge up. . . .” What little color Clint’s face held drained and he wasn’t breathing right.

“Hey, hey, it’s all right,” Steve was saying reflexively, though he wasn’t very eager to think about the topic himself. Probably why he buried it for so long.

“Sorry.” Clint waved his hand, standing up as he tried to pull himself together. “You don’t need this shit.”

“Clint, you guys have done nothing but listen to my shit since we arrived on this island. I wish that hadn’t been the case, but it is and I’m sorry.”

Clint laughed, but it wasn’t a humorous sound. “You don’t have fuck to be sorry about. I’m screwing all this up, and I’m probably more toasted than I thought I was. Maybe Nat was right. But my point, here, is I hate that all that shit happened to a stand-up guy like you. You didn’t deserve it. None of it: Not getting clobbered in the head and this horror show you’ve had to endure because of how the medicine fucked up your system; not the mind-fuck of that icy hell; and sure as shit not your son-of-a-bitch old man. That one I can relate to, and if you ever need to talk . . . because even if you are getting better, that shit stays in there . . . so if you ever need to talk, you know? I just need you to do whatever you gotta do to be okay. You’re a good guy, Steve. A good friend. My friend. You need to be safe. You need to be okay.”

Clint was rocking back and forth, his arms wrapped around his torso. Steve had read all the files on his teammates before the Battle of New York. He was aware of Clint’s childhood—of what he’d been through—but Clint had never actually let any of that show before. Without thinking, Steve got up from the bed, going to him, wrapping his arms around him. Clint tensed, trying to pull away.

“No, I’m okay. I’m okay. You rest. You shouldn’t be up.”

“You are okay. So am I. We’re both a lot stronger than our demons. You just need sleep.”

Clint laughed again, though this time it sounded less strained as his body relaxed into Steve’s embrace. “You’re probably right.”

“Do you want me to call Thor? He can make sure you get downstairs safely.”

“Oh, I think I can manage a few stairs.” Clint’s arms slid up Steve’s back and he returned the hug before pulling back. “Hey, look at you. All standing up and shit. Not even wobbling.”

Steve was impressed himself when he realized he was standing fully on his own steam. Nothing felt unsteady. “Yeah, not bad. See? Who needs super serum?”

“I don’t know about need, but you still have yours.”

“What?” Steve pulled back fully, looking hard at Clint. “What do you mean?”

“Those last four or five hours when your body shut down completely and you were all but a corpse except for the hotter-than-the-sun fever burning you up . . . I mean, you barely had a pulse, blood pressure, almost no breathing. Bruce says you couldn’t have survived that if your serum had broken down. When you woke up convinced your serum was gone, nobody was eager to set you straight because nobody’s sure your head’s totally on straight yet, and they didn’t want you losing it. I probably shouldn’t be telling you this. You’re not allowed to lose it, okay?”

Steve staggered backwards, stunned. Could that be true? How could he not tell? Then again, he didn’t feel as bad as he thought he should. Well, run-down, but he’d just awoken, and his body had been through hell, and he hadn’t eaten, and maybe he was just still in recovery mode. Might explain why he was so ravenously hungry. He’d never felt a hunger like this before the serum, but was this hunger real? Or was his mind just playing tricks again? The stuff on the beach seemed real, yet unreal. How would he know the difference? Everything these last days had been a kaleidoscope: twisting, turning, shifting, constantly changing patterns and colors, reality skewed and redefined, a puzzle mixed up, then pieced back together forming new pictures.

Dr. Erskine had told him nothing lasted forever, but did he mean the serum? He also told me I wasn’t finished, but then he didn’t really tell me anything because he wasn’t really there. That was all in my head. Right?

“Steve!” Clint was calling, panicked. “Don’t do this. Don’t go back there. Stay in the here and now. Oh, shit. Come on, Steve.”

Steve shook his head, holding up a hand. “No, I’m okay.” He looked at his hand . . . at his arm. Both arms. His torso. His chest. He’d lost weight. He hadn’t exercised in too long. His muscles weren’t quite as defined, but they were still there. Those sure weren’t the arms he had looked at for twenty-four years before the serum.

“Can you please sit down? You’re not supposed to be out of bed. You promised Bruce. And no offense, but you’re looking a little crazy, buddy.”

Steve scanned the room, heading towards the sofa. Clint was right. He’d promised not to do anything crazy. Even with his serum, he’d been sick since before they came to this island, so proving the serum remained wouldn’t mean he was out of the woods. Still, he had to know. Something simple would do the trick. No big risk. He bent down, cupping the bottom of the sofa with both hands. He would lift slowly. If anything felt off, he could just put it back down. No harm.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa. Wait! What are you doing? Nonononono.”

One minute he was lifting cautiously, trying to get a sense of whether he had any strength, but the next thing he knew he was holding the entire sofa aloft above his head.

“What the fuck!” That was Tony’s voice in the doorway. Steve turned towards him, excited.

“Look, Tony! This isn’t even heavy. I still have my serum!”

“Yeah, big news flash. Now put the couch down, Steve.” Tony looked more agitated than excited.

“But this doesn’t hurt. Nothing hurts. Not even my head.”

Tony’s voice grew sharper, each word pronounced succinctly. “Put . . . the . . . couch . . . down . . . now.”

“Fuck,” Clint groaned.

Steve was clearly upsetting Tony, so despite his enthusiasm, he set the sofa back gently on the floor. Only a fraction of relief crossed Tony’s expression before he turned to Clint and blew his stack.

“Is this your doing? What the fuck, Barton? You were alone with him for what? Five fucking minutes? And what? How did that conversation go? ‘Hey, Steve, you almost died. How about we put a little wager on whether or not you can lift that couch over there?’ What the fuck is wrong with you?”

“Tony, it’s okay,” Steve tried to reassure, coming towards Tony. He took careful hold of Tony’s hips and lifted, raising Tony’s entire body up over his head and holding him aloft with ease. “See?”

Unfortunately, Tony looked even less impressed than he had at the sofa lift. “Do you mind putting me back down?”

“Um, yeah, before you do that, let me get a head start,” Clint requested nervously. “I think I hear Phil calling me.” Clint made his way to the door. “Be right there, Phil. Gotta go, guys.”

“Yeah, you better run, Barton,” Tony growled as Steve set him gently back down upon his feet.

“Tony, I’m okay,” Steve said soothingly, stroking his hand down the side of Tony’s face. Rather than be comforted, Tony looked more angry, his eyes black with barely concealed rage.

“Really? You’re okay? And you know this, right? Like you knew it when they released you from the hospital? Or the way you knew when we got back to the tower? How about the way you knew it on the plane? Or even when we arrived here on beautiful Not-Fiji Isle? You knew then, too, right? Because you just know.”

In comparison to those times Tony mentioned, Steve did just know. He was a fool and a liar before, trying to ignore every warning sign, telling himself he had things under control because he was too arrogant to accept he wasn’t Superman and too terrified of accepting a reality in which he was no longer Captain America. The way he felt now was the antithesis of how he felt then, but Tony was right not to believe him. He hadn’t earned that kind of trust. He had come to take for granted what being healthy felt like, only truly understanding when he’d lost the gift—and it was a gift, not a right or an expectation. He needed to be worthy of what he had been gifted with, and that worth would never come from strength or super power. It was about being a good man, and he knew he could do much better on that front, especially where Tony was concerned. “You’re right,” he admitted. “I don’t know. I got carried away, excited about the serum—”

“I already told you, I don’t give a rat’s ass about serum. Serum, no serum, whatever. I need you to be okay, don’t you get it?” Behind the argumentative, stubborn glare, Steve saw—felt—the naked fear Tony was barely containing.

“I do. I’ve got a pretty thick skull, but I promise it’s sinking in.” Steve wrapped Tony in his arms, wanting to keep him there forever. Tony stiffened, his body tightening, and Steve sensed he couldn’t let himself go. Undeterred, he spoke from his heart. “I have put you through hell, I know. A hell that’s not going to fade just because I can lift a sofa. I will do whatever you need me to do. You call the shots.” Reluctantly, he released Tony and went back to the bed, getting in and laying down. “See? Back in bed. For as long as you want me here. I’ll eat soup and sleep and I won’t lift a thing for as long as it takes. Promise. If you want, you can put a thermometer in my mouth, an ice bag on my head and a hot water bottle on my stomach like my mom used to do when I was a kid. I won’t complain. Not even a little.”

Tony turned away from him and Steve could tell he was trembling, but he fought the urge to get up and go to him. Instead, he waited, keeping his word, because reestablishing the trust he had broken between them was his paramount goal.

“Not necessary,” Tony finally muttered, still not looking at him. “The water bottle and all. Not now. Maybe later.”

“Sure.”

“Sorry for being a jackass.”

“You’re being amazing.” Steve picked up the puppet from the other side of the bed. “You got me an Elmo.”

The sound Tony made fell somewhere between a laugh and a cry. “Barton didn’t tell you that story, did he?”

“Nope.”

“Good.”

“Will you tell me . . . sometime?”

“Maybe.”

“Fair enough. Feel like coming over here and keeping me and Elmo company?”

Tony’s body stiffened, then went lax, looking as if he’d taken a deep breath. “Sure.”

As Steve watched him walk wearily towards the bed, he noticed again how soaked with sweat his hair and clothes were. “Hey, Tony? Do you think it would be okay to open the balcony doors for a little while? I’d love to hear the ocean.”

Tony stared at him for a long while. Or maybe he wasn’t looking at him at all. His gaze was distant and haunted. Eventually, though, he capitulated, turning towards the balcony. Shoulders slumped, he looked to be dragging himself through each step until he reached the doors, grasping the handles and yanking them open.

The curtains began to billow and the fresh, crisp, salty wafts of air blew over to the bed, dancing over Steve’s flesh. Felt wonderful. He took a long, deep breath, enjoying the taste of a new day.

Tony came around and slid into the bed on the other side, shoving a pillow between him and Steve. Steve hurt for him, but he wouldn’t push. “Will you take a nap with me?”

“I don’t know. Was going to have them come up and clean this room.”

“That’s fine, too.”

“Probably should wait, though. You tired?”

Steve was a little worn, but more hungry than anything else. He knew he had to focus on something besides his empty stomach. Maybe sleep would help. “I could sleep.” He thought about pulling up the sheet, but the breeze was too refreshing. He tucked Elmo under his arm, staring up at the ceiling, at the non-moving fan blades. “Tony?”

“Hmmm?”

“Could I maybe sleep a little closer to you?” Steve held his breath, trying to endure the long silence that followed his question, certain he shouldn’t have asked. Eventually, the mattress jostled and the pillow between them was removed, replaced by Tony, who curled on his side, pressing into Steve’s arm. Tony set his palm gently over Steve’s heart, his voice barely there.

“Sorry, baby. “M’gonna do better. I’m just. . . . I don’t know.”

Steve covered Tony’s hand with his. “You’re fine, sweetheart. Just rest.”

“I love you so much.” Tony’s voice was a gravelly scratch, but the sound played like music in Steve’s ears. Tony had announced his love to the world on national television; he’d demonstrated it every second of every day since, but this was the first time he’d actually spoken his feelings aloud directly to Steve—well, at least when he was conscious enough to hear. He thought back to their conversation in the limo after the press conference, which felt a dozen years ago.

“Most people say stuff like that in private.”

“I’m not most people. I do things big, baby. But I hope you know I meant every word. If I promise to tell you again in a more romantic, traditional, private way real soon, will you smile for me?”

Steve was smiling now. Private? Thankfully, yes. There weren’t any ghost voices lingering to interrupt. Romantic? Probably not Tony’s definition, as he drooled on Steve’s arm, choking on his own sweat, fighting the bone-weary exhaustion trying to drag him into unconsciousness, but Steve felt pretty swept off his non-standing feet. Traditional? Not in a million years, but he’d take their heroic love over the traditional kind any day.

He rested his chin on Tony’s head, his fingers playing over Elmo’s soft fur as he closed his eyes, listening to the ocean’s timeless song. He could see the beach in his mind . . . the villa in the distance . . . his mom’s blue dress waving over the foamy shore. The green of the pencil in her hand grew more vibrant under the sun’s rays. Green had led him home. Not the blue of her dress, her eyes, or the safe blue of Teddy’s shirt. Not the red of his phone or his favorite comforter or even of Elmo. Not red, white and blue, not red and gold. It wasn’t the honey wheat of Thor’s hair, or the fiery auburn of Natasha’s or Clint’s arrays of purples or Phil’s orange-flowered sling. Not even the mocha brown of Tony’s eyes or the pastels of this room or the turquoise ocean, though all had played a part in calling him from the cold-gray. Bucky’s eyes could be gray sometimes. Blue-gray. Warm-gray. Gray was a color, like the rest, not good, not bad. Black was the absence of color, as frightening as his father’s rage, as innocuous as the frames of Tony’s sunglasses. The palette of his life was rich, and he was humbled and graced by the gifts he had been given.

He turned his head cautiously, not wanting to startle Tony, whose breathing was finally calming. The chair Bruce had lived in was still beside the bed amid all the monitors. The care and concern that had watched over him still lingered there; the healer’s gaze remained steadfast through his bleariest recollections—as constant as Thor’s kind strength soothing his terrified inner child; Natasha’s armed protection keeping threats at bay; Phil’s quiet wisdom; Clint’s bucket-wielding loyalty; Tony’s unwavering love—all as enduring as Bucky’s friendship, Dr. Erskine’s faith, his mother’s song—as well as his father’s reproach and his own cold-gray fear that would always live in the core of his imperfect being.

Bruce’s eyes turned a steely shade of green when he transitioned to The Hulk, but Steve understood the green implied more than anger. Steve had been under the care of many doctors, the son of a nurse, healers all. He thought about his days in art school, studying colors; their composition, their significance. Green. The blend of yellow and blue. The optimism of yellow; the calm insight of blue, but when those colors combined, they created more.

The color of nature . . . growth . . . rebirth . . . renewal.

Life.

His own life was a portrait unfinished, one he needed all his pencils to complete, even the darkest ones.

“You’re not sleeping,” Tony complained, nudging his arm, drawing him from his contemplation. Tony’s hand batted blindly over him until it located Elmo’s head. The deft fingers manipulated the toy, making it seem as if it were talking while he did his best imitation of the puppet’s voice. “Elmo says sleep.”

“I’ve been asleep a long time, Elmo. I was thinking maybe I’d try something different. Watch Tony sleep for a while.”

“Boring,” Tony grumbled in his own voice, moving his hand to Steve’s face, palm flattening over his eyes to try to encourage them to close.

Acquiescing to his worried lover’s sweet appeal, Steve closed his eyes. “Cutie,” he whispered, ghosting a kiss against Tony’s palm before he gently lifted and set the palm back over his heart, “one thing our life is never going to be—not even on vacation—is boring.”

~0~0~0~