Four weeks after the Battle of New York, Tony notices that his new housemates harbor some very strange habits. He forgives the odd and frequently encountered incense and mood lighting as he enters the communal space, and, even the quiet chimes of Japanese wind instruments, because he knows playing with the needs of a rage beast in his Tower over the New York skyline is not a good choice in the grand scheme of things.
He overlooks the targets set up in his large gym, the targets pinned in extreme places. He also tries to keep his mouth closed when arrows whiz around him to hit said targets without a whisper of warning. He realizes he makes a good moving obstacle; he just doesn't like to think about what would happen if bird boy got distracted. And he knows everyone is distracted by Natasha. How can they not be? She radiates cool and collected, but in an instant can turn into a vicious murdering machine. He ignores the fact that there are now hidden stashes of knives just about everywhere in the Tower, even in the elevators and men's room on the lower public floors. They are well concealed, and he only knows about them because of JARVIS' reports.
Of course, the reports JARVIS gives him when Thor decides to drop by always seems a little harried. He doesn't think his A.I. quite likes the idea of a demi-god stomping about the place. Maybe it gives the A.I. the willies or maybe ideas, Tony's not quite sure. He is fairly certain that he's gone through a terrible number of glasses and plates. Not because Thor is throwing them to show his appreciation for a well cooked meal, but because he cannot handle the fragile items and ends up being worse than the Hulk around them.
And then there's the quiet one, the one, that he keeps an eye on because it is always the quiet ones that snap. Captain Fucking America goes about his business like nothing bothers him at all. He appears at breakfast already soaked from a two hour run, he disappears after breakfast and re-appears sometime around ten in the morning in the gym where he proceeds to whip the hell out of punching bags, and jog around for Clint to shoot arrows at. He doesn't even flinch when one skims his shoulder to leave a bloody trail. Tony thinks Clint nearly swallowed his tongue trying to apologize to the great Capsicle while the rest of the team only snickered and continued their work out. Clint was more upset than Rogers.
Rogers spends a great deal of time disappearing. Tony gets curious; it's part of his nature. Every now and again, he queries JARVIS on the whereabouts and whatsabouts on the good Captain. Most of it is mundane and almost sad in a way. From his information, Tony can tell that Steve occupies his time with meetings at SHIELD, studying modern culture and modern history. He does this through interfacing on the computer and with JARVIS. He also goes to the library, of all places, and sits in on lectures about history, art, science, and technology. Anything he can get his hands on he reads, and he attends the seminars if he can find them. So for the better part of a month or so Tony shrugs it all off, until one day when Tony's rolling his eyes with the need for sleep that one of the things JARVIS never mentioned is Rogers' sleep schedule.
On his third night without sleep, Tony decides he must have missed it somewhere along the way and trudges up to the kitchen to get a snack before he collapses into bed. In the communal kitchen he finds Steve warming up some milk and he has buttered toast on a plate. Tony frowns and steals a slice.
"Hey, what's up?" Tony says as he chews.
Steve only glares at him and pops another slice of bread into the toaster.
"Whatcha doin' up so late?" Tony gestures to the clock which reads 3:46 am.
"I could ask the same of you," Steve says and opens the cupboard to pull down a mug. He pours the milk in the mug and then asks, "You want some?"
Tony sighs, why the hell not. "Sure."
Steve pours a second mug, and offers it to Tony. Tony takes it and goes to the table with his slice of cinnamon toast and warm milk. He sips the milk and says, "Wow, this is great. Tastes like warm ice cream."
"Vanilla's the trick." Steve finishes up buttering his new slice of toast and sprinkling cinnamon and sugar on it. He settles down across from Tony. "Mom used to make it for me when I couldn't sleep."
Steve chops down on the toast and says, "Slept for seventy years."
Tony raises his eyebrows at that - if he ever heard obfuscation before that was it. "And now?"
"And now, what?" Steve says and drinks the warm milk.
"Are you sleeping now?"
Steve avoids the question again. "Are you?"
"I don't think that's relevant to the conversation."
"I wasn't aware you understood what the word relevant meant outside of your ego," Steve snaps at Tony.
"Whoa, that's kind of uncalled for considering we're sitting here drinking your mother's recipe for warm milk," Tony says with his hands up.
Steve sets the mug on the table, pushes the plate aside, stands up, and says, "I apologize, and now I'll get to bed." He walks, stiff-backed, out of the room.
"Who shoves a stick up his butt?" Tony murmurs but finishes his warm milk and all of the left over cinnamon toast on the plates before he finds his way back to his floor and his bedroom. He falls to sleep instantly without a thought of what he'd just witnessed.
About two weeks later after they’d gone on a mission and the entire lot of them are in a quinjet on the way home feeling ragged and beaten, Tony examines each of them. Hawkeye is awake enough to pilot the damned jet and Tony's happy for that, he thinks he could get JARVIS to pilot his suit, if the damned thing didn't get blown out during the battle with whatever the hell that was created by some genius idiot in the middle of the Pacific. At least, they got to it before the idiot launched an all-out assault on Europe or Asia. He crumples in the corner of the jet and watches his fellow Avengers. Bruce isn't awake, he's sleeping in a ball in the corner with a blanket thrown over him and tucked up to his shoulders. Tony has no idea if he's naked or not.
Tony glances around to see Widow sidling into the cockpit seat, kicking Coulson to the curb. He can tell she's antsy, needs something to do after the battle, after beating the shit out of too many guards and holding back so she didn't break all their necks. Coulson only defers and breaks out thick nutrition bars for everyone. He places one on the seat next to Tony, tosses two to Thor, and then hands a couple to the Captain. Rogers nods but doesn't do anything, but take it and hold it close to his chest. Coulson studies him, but doesn't say anything. Puzzled, Tony turns his attention to the Captain.
Steve holds the granola bars folded to his chest and he's rocking - just slightly - back and forth. He's not saying anything and he's not really moving all that much, just a swaying. Coulson watches him for a moment, and then shares a look with Tony. Tony nods, acknowledging that something might be off with the good Captain.
Crossing the jet, Tony hangs onto the straps from the top of the fuselage and says, "You okay, Cap?"
Rogers looks up, startled and blinks a few times like he's just realizing where he is and noting his surroundings.
That is not right, Tony thinks. That is not right at all.
"Are you injured? Did you get hit in the head?"
"Can I check?" Tony reaches to pull down the already torn cowl and Rogers backs away.
“What are you doing?" Rogers says with a decided frown as if he's just again realized that Tony is standing next to him.
"I need to check you for injuries," Tony says and glances over to Coulson.
"New protocols, Captain Rogers," Coulson says and lifts his chin as if to indicate agreement. He's only just been back in the field for a week.
Rogers looks up at Tony and yanks away the cowl. "I didn't get hit with anything."
"Just checking," Tony says and retracts his armored glove to feel up Captain America's head. Not exactly his part of choice to feel up, but what the hell. "No bumps, no scratches, no dents."
"No, I told you," Rogers says with a scowl and tears into the bars.
He shrugs in his suit but no one can really see the motion. What the hell, though, he thinks, the entire mission was a fiasco- being a little off shouldn't be in question.
Tony doesn't question anything again until another month goes by and JARVIS informs him that Captain Rogers has requested a data stream of continuous monitoring for any obscure event which might lead to an assembly call. "Sir, I inquire only because I am not sure of the parameters. It would consist of an extreme amount of data and would take up twenty-one percent of my calculating and analyzing capacity."
"Okay, well I'm sure old Capsicle is just trying to stay on top of things. What say, I go and whittle it down for you?" Tony says and throws the tangle of wires he's working on to the lab bench. He whistles a goodbye to Bruce who seems to be in his own little world over in the corner of the lab testing some simulations on the computer. Taking the elevator to Rogers’ floor, he ends up walking on to the floor and searching around for a good five minutes before he finds Rogers.
He discovers Rogers in one of his back rooms of the floor he's installed on in the Tower. Tony hadn't decorated and furnished every room on the designated floors for his fellow team members, he figured they would want to put some finishing touches on their places of residence. He doesn't expect what he sees.
Rogers turns around and jumps a bit. "Oh, Tony, sorry I didn't expect anyone." He's shirtless, but a mess overall. The place is filled with three dimensional representations of cities. He cannot fathom how long it took Steve to build all the models. He can recognize some of them, including DC, NYC, Paris, London, Berlin, Moscow.
"What the hell, Cap?"
"Oh, I'm trying to get an idea of strategies for attack if any of the major cities in the world are invaded or at jeopardy again," Rogers says and brushes away some of the sawdust in his hair.
"You built all of this?" Tony flummoxed, seriously flummoxed, he doesn't think he's ever described himself as flummoxed before, but that is the only word for it. "What the hell are you doing?"
Rogers screws up his face and picks up a hand towel to wipe the sweat from his neck and face. "I told you, scale models of the centers of cities - it will help me visualize the possible threats and risks. I want to get a little more data, analyze a stream of it, then-."
"When did you build all of this?" Standing in the center of the room, Tony turns around and surveys the detailed work, the fine precision of it. It's like an architectural drawing come to life. "How did you build it?"
"I've been working on it in my free time."
"What free time?" Tony says and then he sees it, observes how Rogers clams up. "Are you sleeping? Are you doing this when you should be sleeping?"
"I don't need a lot of sleep," Rogers says and walks over to his t-shirt which is slung over the Eiffel tower. He pulls it on. "Speaking of which, what time is it?"
"Past eleven, maybe you should go to bed."
"I could say the same to you," Rogers says.
"I like to concentrate on things and when I'm done, I'm done."
"I guess we got something in common, then."
"Yeah, maybe," Tony says as he considers the good Captain. He goes with another tactic. "JARVIS said you wanted data streams for risks and threats for cities. We need some parameters for that, maybe I could help?"
"Sounds good, yeah, good," Rogers says but doesn't look at Tony. "I'm gonna hit the showers."
Tony studies the cities mapped out. "Are these to scale."
"More or less," Rogers says. "Need it to scale to estimate possible damages and rescue routes, etc."
"God, this is a lot of work, you should have just asked JARVIS."
"Maybe," Rogers says with a crooked smile. "Work with you tomorrow on the data parameters?"
"Yeah, that sounds good."
Tony's not sure what happens next because he finds himself holed up in Steve's rooms in the Tower more often than not - and yes, he's become Steve and not just Rogers, or Cap, or Capsicle. Or Spangly-butt -eh, well maybe still Spangles. Often, it is late at night when everyone else has disappeared to their floors of the Tower or gone on some mission or another. Tony and Steve order pizza, drink wine, and analyze reams and reams of data, going through different strategies, possibilities, threats and risks. It’s almost bonding.
Tony tells himself it isn’t like they enjoy one another’s company, they just both happen to be insomniacs or something like that. He asks Steve at one point how much sleep he needs, Steve only lifts a shoulder in response and doesn’t really answer.
It rings bells in Tony’s head but not right away, and not when he clearly should have been paying more attention. Before he can say anything Steve’s called off on a mission that lasts for three and a half weeks. Black Widow accompanies him and both Clint and Tony find each other as unlikely companions waiting at home like two little women from the 1920s. It feels weird, it is even weirder that Tony thinks of Steve as a partner, a part of himself, but he thinks no one spends that much time debating, arguing, eating pizza, and sloshing down that many bottles of wine without some sort of link forming.
Maybe it is a bond.
One night while Steve is still off in no man’s land, Tony receives a phone call. It is Steve.
“I need you to check on our analysis for me, the one we’re currently running on Tokyo.”
“Are you in Tokyo?” Tony says and rubs a hand down his face. He curses a bit, he’d been asleep. He hadn’t realized how much sleep he’d lost with his new found friend, Captain Stays Up All Night.
“No, I’m not,” Steve whispers into the phone.
Tony considers what he’s hearing on the phone, really hearing. There are the background noises of a busy street, the occasional call and cry of people, and then there’s the thick breathing, heavy respiring of the man on the phone. “Captain? Steve? What’s wrong?”
“I just need to know, about Paris, yeah, about Paris.”
“Steve? Steve? Tokyo, or Paris?”
“I don’t, it doesn’t matter, just do it, okay? Okay?” Steve says and his breathing thickens and whistles through the phone.
“Captain is Black Widow there? Are you being held? Are you okay?”
All the while Tony is tapping the call to Assemble and alerting SHIELD. Something is wrong. He keeps Steve on the phone as the Avengers Assemble, even as the armor wraps around him. All the while Steve checks on various parts of their analysis. It is nuts and crazy and so off that Tony has a hard to keeping his concern from leaking out to everyone else on the team.
After a few choice words to SHIELD, they find out where Steve and Natasha are and end up there in a little less than three hours. There’s literally nothing wrong with anything, other than they blew the op and Natasha’s in a snit and Steve’s pissed.
“I just wanted information,” Steve says as he confronts Tony.
“Information that had nothing to do with our mission, what the hell was I supposed to think? You were freaking out over a god damned model set.”
“I wasn’t freaking out,” Steve growls back at him.
“You fucking were. I thought someone was holding you hostage, and you were trying to get a message to me.”
“About models of cities? Why the hell would I do that?”
“I don’t know, you tell me?” Tony says and throws up his arms in defeat.
The journey home isn’t any fun at all. He doesn’t see Steve for a good week after that and he wonders if he should just start calling him Rogers and Capsicle again. Somehow he can’t and eventually the steam resolves and Steve starts appearing in the mornings for breakfast.
Yet, there’s one thing that Tony notices, Steve looks tired. He sits in his chair, methodically chewing his breakfast whether it be eggs or oatmeal or whatnot. He doesn’t look up, he shovels it in, but it isn’t enthusiastic, it’s more of a battle to eat, as if he just wants to surrender to it and forget it. Tony remains silent and just watches him while he sips his own coffee. When Cap stands up, picks up his dish and mug, brings it to the kitchen sink, he looks a little bleary-eyed, but he shuffles over to rinse off everything before he stacks it into the dishwasher.
He mumbles about showering and disappears down the hallway. Tony leans his chair back and watches him. Steve reaches out and holds onto the wall for a moment before he finds his way to the elevator and descends. At that point, Tony decides he has to start investigating.
Now, Tony doesn’t like to be called a hypocrite, even though sometimes he technically might fit into that category. He knows he spends a lot of time awake and too little time asleep. Rhodey accuses him of it all the time and his tendency to tinker and lose himself in his projects ended up costing him his most valuable relationship thus far, with Pepper. Well, that and the fact Pepper decided she couldn’t take the strain of living as a girl friend to someone that likes to risk his life. She couldn’t watch him die again, once or twice or whatever it was – had been enough.
He couldn’t blame her. But his main task at hand happens to be Steve Rogers. He tries to remember how many times Steve winked off when they were doing all the analysis on the different cities. Tony did, once in a while, but Tony cannot recall Steve ever just tumbling over from the need to sleep. But maybe he doesn’t operate that way. Maybe it is different for a super soldier.
Vowing not to have JARVIS spy on his newest project, Tony spends a horrendous amount of time trying to gather the needed data. The first person he goes to for information is Natasha.
“Why, that doesn’t seem particularly relevant to your needs?” she says as she spars with Hawkeye.
“I just want to know, and why does everything have to be relevant?”
“Relevance is important, gives perspective,” Clint says and ducks around Natasha. She swings out a leg but Clint is ready for that move and grabs it.
“I just want to know if you have any idea how long the Captain sleeps,” Tony says.
Natasha does some weird flip that causes Clint to end up on the mat and her to be hunched over him ready to hit him in the trachea with a fatal blow. “What does it matter? Is he complaining about not getting enough sleep?”
“No, just that he looks tired.”
Natasha stands and offers her hand to Clint; he hops up with a little leverage help from her. “And you don’t?”
“I, at least, wear sunglasses. The guy looks like the walking dead,” Tony says and knows he might be exaggerating a tiny bit. “He’s swaying on his feet and we still don’t know what that freak out was all about on your little mission.”
“No, no, we don’t, but you’re the one who ruined the mission, not him.”
“Oh forget it,” Tony says and shakes his head. Spies! If they haven’t picked out the latest and greatest issue, they have a little fit about it.
He ambles back to his penthouse to find the Captain staring blankly at his large flat screen on the wall. Tony looks at it and then back at Steve. He has the remote in his hand but he hasn’t flicked on the television His mouth is partially open and he’s blank, totally out of it. If Tony didn’t know better he’d classify him as high.
Tony walks over to him and hits Steve’s knee with his leg. “Hey?”
Steve looks up at him, there’s no recognition, just a motion and nothing more.
“Steve?” Tony says and feels his own heart tighten into a fist in his chest. Christ, did someone do something to the Captain.
“Yeah?” Steve says and then Tony watches it, sees as understanding, comprehension dawns. “Tony, what?”
“What are you doing?”
“Watching television,” Steve says and looks at the black screen.
Tony’s brows pop to the top of his forehead. “Really, that’s an interesting, innovative way to watch T.V., Cap.”
“Oh, I just,” Steve says as he stands up. “I just stopped.”
“Did you now?”
“Yeah,” Steve says and rubs at his eyes. “I did.”
“What were you watch-.”
Just as he’s about to launch into an interrogation to end all interrogations the call to Assemble screeches and they jump to answer it. It really isn’t anything the Avengers should have been called for, but there’s a question of whether or not the drones that dropped out of the sky happened to do it under some strange forces. So, they spend the next two weeks scoping out the different locations where it happened, only to have Tony finally hack into their system and lash them verbally, because they don’t have an outside force but a viral one on their hands. He’s pitch black angry because the military should know better, and he and his team have been working twenty four seven without much of a break. He’s not sure when the last time any of them had a break. He knows he’s running on empty by the time they land at the Tower and he removes the suit, to collapse into bed. He doesn’t even make it to the bedroom, he just falls, face first, onto his couch.
Some hours later he’s awoken by the distinct sound of corn popping. He rolls over, nearly falls off the couch, only to catch himself and sit up. Pressing the heel of his hands into his eyes, he tries to center himself on reality, but he’s still working on sleep deprivation and lack of serious alcohol consumption. He stumbles to his feet and ventures toward the kitchen. What he finds he can only sigh about.
“What are you doing in my kitchen?”
Steve turns around. “I didn’t have any popcorn.”
“You could have asked JARVIS.”
Steve considers him, shrugs, and says, “Maybe, yeah, I guess, but Howard wanted it right away.”
“Howard?” Tony starts looking around, and he thinks maybe he’s dreaming.
“Yeah, I don’t know. I never went to the movies with him back then, but he likes popcorn.”
“Back then,” Tony says and draws out the last word. “Then?”
“Yeah, back in the forties when I knew your dad,” Steve says and pulls the bag from the microwave. He splits it open and pours out the contents. “These are really nifty and all but I wish it was a bigger bag.”
Steve walks past him and as he munches on the popcorn. Stopping he offers the bowl to Tony. “You want some?”
“No, no, wouldn’t want to take Howard’s share.”
Steve looks at him puzzled and walks away, all the time stuffing popcorn into his mouth.
“JARVIS, is there someone else in Steve’s rooms?”
“No, sir. Captain Rogers’ apartments are currently vacant.”
“Okay, then maybe he’s sleep walking?”
“According to his vitals and what I can scan, sir, Captain Rogers is completely awake.”
Tony covers his mouth with his hand and stands frozen in the kitchen. He has no idea what to do next, he’s been in horrible situations in his life, nearly died in a cave in Afghanistan, but this paralyzes him. Tony figures he shouldn’t go off the deep end with this, he has no idea what the hell is going on and he needs to be rational and not his usual manic self about it. Because, hell, Steve could have a life size replica of Howard the Duck in his apartment and have some weird ass fetish.
“JARVIS, does Steve have a life size replica of Howard the Duck?”
“Not that I know of, sir.”
Well, that dispels that worry, which is good, but brings up the idea that maybe it is Steve who has dropped off the deep end. So, Tony does have to examine the issue from all sides. His best bet is to monitor Steve through JARVIS, but he hates to do that since he would really break a lot of the rules he set into place when he invited the crew to live at the Tower. Everyone was so worried about big brother – and not the horrible television show – but the classic novel with the antiquated name of 1984. He could probably sneak his way around the rules he set up by asking JARVIS to monitor for any out of the ordinary activities.
He does that and, for extra measure, he adds that he would like biological response rates to be checked as well. Might as well find out if the Captain is operating on all cylinders while he’s at it, because it sure as hell doesn’t look like it.
Over the next few weeks, JARVIS reports Steve’s response time is down by thirty percent, he’s more irritable, and frequently disappears back to his rooms to –what JARVIS says – have a panic attack.
“What? Explain JARVIS?”
“Captain Rogers locks himself in his bedroom, sits in the corner, and rocks back and forth for over an hour after he’s had a trying day or a stressful work out. His heart rate accelerates, his muscles tremor, and his breathing becomes rapid and shallow.”
“Shit to hell, is he in any danger?”
“No sir, he always pulls himself together and then lies on the bed for some time to calm down.”
“Okay,” Tony says but he knows he has to report this out to someone. Steve could endanger a mission or lives, or himself. The last bothers Tony, it bothers him a lot because Steve sets himself apart, as if everyone and everything is above him as far as safety and health is concerned. He wonders if Steve had always been that way, he wonders if Steve feels isolated and alone all the time now.
“Maybe that’s it,” Tony says. He resolves to do something about it. Since the last mission they really haven’t spent a lot of time together. It shouldn’t be something hard to do, since he has extra time on his hands.
Tony adopts a three pronged approach. Since the team needs down time, he reports to Fury that the Avengers will not be avenging for the next two weeks. That will give everyone the needed downtime. Fury is surprisingly supportive of the idea and Tony becomes increasing suspicious.
Fury, on the other hand, just says, “Just get the fuck out of town and rest, for Christ’s sake.”
“No need to break Sister Mary Joseph’s heart with all the cussing, Director.”
“No need to pretend to respect the Church or me, Stark. Now get off the line and leave me be.” He disconnected before Tony could come back with a decent reply, which is all kinds of rude but he forgives him because, they really need the down time.
The second part of the approach is the inform Bruce of his concerns regarding Steve. This does not go over as well as he hoped, especially since a green blush to Bruce’s cheeks does not usually mean he’s eaten bad chicken salad.
“Listen, I’m just saying I have some concerns,” Tony says with his hands raised in a complete position of surrender.
“From what you’ve told me, these are bigger than just concerns, Tony,” Bruce says and drops the tea kettle back on the glass top stove with an audible thunk. Tony cringes and hopes the damned thing did crack again, that would be the third one he replaced in the Tower (Thor and Hawkeye being the other two who don’t know how to treat expensive appliances).
“I just think he needs some down time and possibly a way to connect to the world,” Tony says with a shrug and slowly lowers his hands. Maybe Bruce will just take out his frustrations on the stovetop and not on Tony.
“The freaked out phone call, the cities, the fatigue, the hallucinations, and the panic attacks, I would think so,” Bruce says. “We’ll watch him over the next week or so. Can JARVIS monitor his vitals?”
“Sure thing,” Tony says and doesn’t clarify that JARVIS watches all of their vitals all the time.
The third prong of the approach might be more self-serving than particularly selfless. Steve feels lonely, in Tony’s mind, so Tony is going to change that. He starts the first morning of their two week vacation. Tapping on Steve’s door, he waits until the door swings open and Steve is standing there in all of his nearly naked glory (khakis on, shower taken, towel slung over his wet shoulders, and hair dripping.”
“Hey,” Tony says and invites himself into Steve’s rooms. “Thought we could hang out, maybe take in a movie. Do some sight-seeing.”
“Sight-seeing?” Steve screws up his face. “I grew up in New York, Tony. I don’t need to go sight-seeing.”
“Sure you do,” Tony says and slaps him on the arm. His muscles are perfect and Tony fingers them until Steve frowns and yanks his bicep away. He comes back to himself and says, “A lot has changed since you took your nap, Gramps.”
Steve walks toward the bathroom and mumbles, “Sure has.”
Tony wonders if he’s overstepped his boundaries, if Steve’s a little homophobic. That might be interesting to find out, though it would just make him hate Steve, and that would be disappointing because – let’s face it – he kind of has a hard on for Steve most times of the day.
“Hey, hey, I’m sorry, I just wanted to know if you’d like to – you know – do something,” Tony says and moves to leave.
Steve peers out of the doorway to his bedroom and says, “Like what?”
“I don’t know, get ice cream?”
“It’s ten o’clock in the morning, Tony.”
“Well, going to a strip club is probably out, too.” When he sees the look on Steve’s face which is all kinds of reprimanding and disgusted, he knows he hit the nail on the head there. “So that’s out. Why don’t you tell me what you’d like to do?”
“Oh,” Steve says and disappears back into the bedroom. He comes out with a t-shirt on, much to Tony’s disappointment. “Maybe we could go to a museum.”
“Sure, that’s doable.”
Steve actually smiles at him. Smiles.
Tony downloads a list of different museum, not just the big ones but some of the smaller ones and galleries peppered throughout the island of Manhattan. He plans out the day and tells JARVIS to ask Steve to meet him in the lobby at noon. They’ll go to lunch first and then off to a museum of Steve’s choice. Only Steve doesn’t appear when Tony loiters around his own lobby for fifteen minutes. He shuffles over to the receptionist and asks them to ring up Steve’s apartment.
But Steve smiled. Tony scratches at his beard and changes course. He heads to the elevator, his private elevator and when it arrives he immediately boards and says, “JARVIS, status on Steve?”
“Captain Rogers is currently in his apartment.”
“He is in the room with the city models.”
“Doing?” Tony asks as he taps his foot while the elevator ascends.
While it is a statement, for some reason, Tony takes it more like a question. Tony left Steve just two hours ago, instructing him to get ready, and he’d have the whole day planned out. Steve seemed happy, a little anxious, but pleased that someone had taken an interest in him. So, maybe Steve just found himself in the model room and worked a bit while waiting for Tony to call him. That doesn’t explain not answering the calls from the receptionist.
“May I say, sir, that it might be a while before you can venture out?”
“Captain Rogers might need to shower again.”
What? Tony sighs and rolls his eyes. Leaving the elevator, he swings by Steve’s apartment, tries the door, and it is, thankfully, open. He walks in and calls for Steve but no one answers. He steers directly to his destination of the model room only to hear loud bashing and thuds. He races the rest of the way and skids to a stop right inside the doorframe.
The entire mini-collection of cityscapes litters the floor as if Godzilla stomped through it. Steve stands there, still in his khakis and t-shirt, heaving in breathes and clutching a sledge hammer in his fist. He looks like Thor wielding Mjolnir.
“What the hell?”
He realizes first that Steve’s mumbling something and, second, that Steve really isn’t tracking.
“Get them, get them all.” He shivers and bats the hammer at the partially erect Eiffel Tower and it topples as Steve quakes and shudders in response.
“Steve, Steve,” Tony says to no avail. He’s lost in some manic world. “Steve!”
“They’re coming, all of them, all the time,” Steve murmurs and hits the mashed up city of Moscow several more times with his hammer until its only plaster and splinters of wood.
Tony ducks as shrapnel flies and whispers, “Jesus.”
“Sir, would you like me to summons Doctor Banner?”
“Yeah, yeah, do that.” He eases to the corner of the room as Steve continues his destructive path, oblivious to Tony’s calls, or his presence. When Bruce arrives he startles at the state of the room and Tony just raises his hand to ward him off.
They stand and wait until – a hour later – Steve huddles in the corner of the room and rocks back and forth. He jerks and wipes at his arms as if bugs crawl and sting at his flesh.
“Okay,” Tony says as he approaches Steve. “Hey, hey, Steve?”
For a second Steve stops all motion, threads his hands into his hair, grips strands, and then rends at it as he screams. “Why, why, why?”
Bruce crouches beside Tony and says, “Steve? Steve, can you hear us.”
Steve droops and then slides to the floor onto his side. He quakes once and closes his eyes. For a moment, Tony thinks he might have fallen asleep but then his whole body spasms and he sits up. Blinking he looks and Tony and says, “Tony?”
“Yeah? Steve, you with us now?”
Pressing the heels of his hands into his eyes, Steve says, “What’s happening? I- I don’t know.”
“Steve, can you tell us what you remember?”
“I couldn’t sleep,” Steve says. “I can’t-I just need some damned sleep.”
“Oh, Capsicle swore.”
“For fuck’s sake, of course I can fucking swear I was in the damned army and watched men get blown into bits. I can swear, you idiot,” Steve says through gritted teeth. He slaps his hands over his face and, a sound that Tony can only characterize as a stifled sob comes out. “Sorry, shit, sorry.”
“Hey, hey, how about we get you cleaned up?” Bruce says.
It takes another few minutes as Steve sways back and forth, crying into his hands. Once he stops and slumps against the wall, Tony and Bruce manage to get him to his feet and bring him to the bedroom. Tony leads the way to the en suite bathroom, turns on the shower, and warms the water. Finished with that task, he and Bruce efficiently remove Steve’s clothes and usher him into the large walk-in shower stall. Steve stands there, frozen, staring at the water pelting him.
“Oh good god,” Tony says after five minutes of inaction on Steve’s part. Tony rips off his own clothes without ceremony and steps into the stall. Without saying a word, he moves Steve under the water and starts soaping him up, getting rid of the marking of his self-destruction.
“I’m going to get some warm milk and some of my bag,” Bruce calls.
“Good,” Tony says. “We’ll be done by then.”
As he washes Steve, who only stands there allowing things to happen to him in a plaint, passive way, Tony wishes he could appreciate Steve’s well-muscled body, his lovely tone and stature. But he doesn’t, not because the nearly Michelangelo beauty isn’t there, because it is. But because Steve’s worn thin, broken and shattered and Tony let it happen. He looks thinner, weaker, and smaller somehow. Tony had seen something off weeks ago and never said anything, didn’t stop it from happening.
He finishes off the shower, turns off the faucets, and guides Steve out. Handing Steve a towel, he says, “Dry off, then go lie down on the bed.”
Steve follows orders like he’s a new recruit. Tony finishes off and puts his clothes back on. Entering the bedroom, he sees Steve balled up on the bed as if he’s trying to make himself as small as possible on the large California king. He’s still naked and didn’t pull on any blankets. Tony leans down and tugs up an extra folded blanket from the foot of the bed.
Bruce walks into the room with a mug of warm milk and sets it on the nightstand. He drops his bag on the floor and sits on the bed.
“Steve, I want to check you out, is that okay.”
Steve gazes blankly into the space in-between. He nods in acceptance, and unfolds his body in what looks like a painful action.
Bruce lays a hand on Steve’s forehead, and then takes it away. “I’m going to check your vitals.” He goes through the motions. “No fever.” He reports and listens to Steve’s heart. “A little rapid, breathing still shallow.”
“What the hell? Is it magic or something?”
“No sure yet.” Bruce places a hand on Steve’s arm. “Steve, can you tell me when you last slept?”
“Slept for seventy years don’t need to sleep anymore,” Steve giggles at the words but the sound reminds Tony of a muted cry from an injured animal. It continues too long and turns into tears.
“Okay, but you’re not sleeping now?”
“No, not now,” Steve says.
“What does that mean?” Tony asks and sidles up to the bed and waits.
“Just can’t sleep,” Steve says. He opens and closes his eyes, looking up at the ceiling. “I see, is that? Is that really there?”
Tony turns and looks up at the ceiling. There’s nothing there but the recessed lighting. “What? What do you see?”
Steve chuckles again, but it isn’t one of joy, but resignation. “The tesseract.”
“Wh-what?” Tony says and shares a look with Bruce.
“When Red Skull, when he – you know – disappeared I saw all the stars and the universe and everything all around me.”
“You were, you saw all that?” Bruce asks.
“Yeah, yeah, can see it now. All over the room,” Steve says and rolls over to bury his face in the pillow. “Make it go away.”
Tony gestures to Bruce and they exit the room, to meet outside the door. “Do you think it’s magic? Something affecting him from exposure to the tesseract?”
“We should probably consult Thor, he might know more.”
“JARVIS is Thor in the Tower?”
“The God of Thunder is in his rooms with Mister Barton watching a movie,” JARVIS answers.
“Hmm, movie night in the middle of the day?” Tony says. “Okay, I’ll go check it out-.”
Bruce stops Tony. “Why don’t I go, he seems more comfortable with you here.”
He peers into the room and looks at Steve who is currently staring at the ceiling again. “Okay, I can do that.”
Bruce nods, but before he leaves he says, “Try and get him to sleep.”
He returns to the bedroom as Bruce departs. He stands for a moment, but decides that’s awkward and stupid, so he sits on the edge of the bed.
“You can sit next to me, if you want,” Steve says.
“Oh, yeah, sure,” Tony says and slides up the bed to sit up against the headboard.
“I’m sorry,” Steve says. “We were supposed to go out.”
“We will, don’t worry about it. You’re sick.”
“Don’t get sick,” Steve says and waves his hand at the ceiling. “Not since the serum.”
Tony looks up and sees only the ceiling. “What are you seeing now?”
“The lab, Erskine. Howard’s here, again. He likes to visit.”
Tony shivers a bit and hopes to hell this is some kind of magic, because thinking that Captain America is butt ass crazy is just not something he wants to concede to. He doesn’t know what to say but he mumbles, “Tell him hi.”
Steve laughs but again it isn’t a good sign, it’s sorrowful and bordering on breaking down. “He’s not real, Tony. Even I know that. I can talk to him, but he never really answers. That’s not true, he answers all the time, but not like your father. More like me. He was brilliant, sassy, like you.”
“Thanks,” Tony says and wants Steve to shut up about Howard. He doesn’t like to be compared to that ass.
“You don’t like him,” Steve says and his eyes are following things Tony cannot see.
“Why don’t you try and sleep?” Tony says and points to the warm milk. “Drink some of the milk and close your eyes.”
“Okay,” Steve says. “Maybe with you here it will be easier.”
Tony doesn’t say anything as Steve picks up the mug, drinks some of the milk, and then drops down and turns over. He closes his eyes but his body quakes every now and again as if he’s startling. Bruce appears at the door and waves him out of the room. He slips off the bed and quietly moves to the door. He closes it behind him and says, “JARVIS blacken the windows in Steve’s bedroom.”
“Well?” Tony asks.
“Thor’s going to check in on it, but it might take a while.”
“We don’t have a while,” Tony says. “He’s seeing people from the past. He told me my father is visiting him.”
“That is not good,” Bruce replies.
“Oh thank you Master of the Blatantly Obvious,” Tony says and rakes his hands through his hair. “Christ, this was supposed to be a fun day for him. Get him out of the house, get my three pronged plan into action.”
“Wait, wait, what?” Bruce puts his hand up to stop Tony.
“Three pronged plan to deal with Steve’s issues.”
“You knew something was up and you didn’t say anything?” Bruce says.
“Hey now, we all knew something was up,” Tony says. “Everyone witnessed the freak out he had when he was on the mission with Natasha.”
Bruce hisses and pinches at the bridge of his nose as he whips his glasses off. “Okay, okay. We need to get this handled. If it’s magic, and, I hope to hell it is, then Thor might be able-.”
“Might, he better damn well,” Tony starts.
“Hey, it might not be Asgardian magic, who the hell knows what it is,” Bruce says. “I need to get a listing of everything that you’ve noticed and how long this has been going on.”
“I- well, I suppose I can give you an idea, but I’m not sure,” Tony says as he considers what he knows and exactly what he doesn’t know.
“What do you mean, you’re not sure?”
“Hey, don’t go all green and mean on me,” Tony says. “It isn’t like most of us have spent a lot of time with him.”
“You probably know him the best, Tony.”
“What about Natasha, they spend a lot of time on missions and training,” Tony says, because he doesn’t want this responsibility. He doesn’t want to face it.
“That’s Captain America; we need someone who knows Steve.”
“Steve, right,” Tony says. “Sure, but you know what?” His mind starts kicking into gear and he realizes something that hadn’t occurred to him before this conversation. “We need to move him out of the city. Get him somewhere quiet, relaxing, so he can adjust.”
“So you want to take him on vacation when he’s having a mental breakdown?” Bruce says and this time Tony does note the greenish highlight to his cheekbones.
“No, I want to get him out of prison,” Tony says. “Think about it, he’s found, unfrozen, a few weeks later he’s fighting aliens, he ends up living at SHIELD HQ and then bam he’s here. Where the hell does he go? Who are his friends outside of the Avengers? What does he have in his life other than this?”
Bruce sighs and shakes his head. “The walls, I know how that feels when the walls close in. He’s not sleeping, he’s anxious, he’s panicking. I know exactly how it feels.”
“And he doesn’t have the other guy to spit the bullet out,” Tony says. Without waiting for another word from Bruce, Tony turns to JARVIS. “JARVIS, book us a nice place, somewhere on lake, maybe out of season and nowhere famous or high touristy.”
“That might be difficult to find, sir,” JARVIS says.
“Do your best, and JARVIS?”
“Make sure it is within two hours flight time,” Tony says. “I don’t want to go too far once Thor has an answer from his father or whomever on Asgard.”
“As you wish, sir.”
“So, we take him out of town and then what?”
Tony shrugs his shoulders and looks into the darkened room. “He gets some sleep and we get our leader back.” Tony doesn’t mention how his heart robs him of sanity, how it is constricting in his chest because the thought of Steve hurt and worse scares him too much to admit. Steve has become something more in his life, something important. Through all the days together in the model city room, the different missions, the late night snacking, he’s bonded and more with the man he once said he was nothing but a science experiment.
JARVIS finds a small lake near the border of West Virginia and Maryland that will have to suffice. It is out of season in mid-September and renting a house is easy. They get a multi-level, all amenities included rental with a lake view and lake access. Clint goes nuts because he immediately wants to get a canoe. He hoots and howlers and, for a moment, Tony wishes it was just Steve and him going. Natasha settles Clint down and they disappear to pack.
He’s not sure having the whole pack follow them is the best plan but he’s also certain that not one of the team is going to allow Steve to walk out the door without each and every one of them at his back. Tony only informs them that Steve needs time away and they are all going to a nice little quiet lake. He gets Clint to commandeer a quinjet because his private jet is too big to land in the area.
Getting Steve up and ready ends up being easier than Tony thought it would be. He’s lucid and quiet, but he startles often and he’s led like a babe to the landing pad on the Tower. He buckles himself in but doesn’t speak through the whole flight. Tony dressed him in his favorite khakis, t-shirt, plaid button down, and leather jacket. He looks normal, but not. Tony has no other way to describe it but that because, he thinks he might be witnessing the dissolution of Captain America.
Why didn’t anyone think the adjustment might be harder, more complicated than showing the good Captain a few videos and tutorials? Crash Course in history by John Green is great fun, but, Christ, it is no substitute for human contact and understanding of events.
The house JARVIS booked for them is right on the lake and it is a beautiful stone cottage. It is smaller than Tony thought it would be, but it will work. He’ll miss JARVIS but he sets up a few computers in the space to get access to him when needed. There are two bedrooms on the first floor and two on the second. One of the bedrooms on the first floor has two beds in it and Tony drops Steve’s luggage along with his own in it. Bruce takes the other bedroom on the first floor and Natasha along with Clint find their way upstairs. The inside of the cottage is all warm woods and woven throw rugs. There’s a sectional and rockers in the corner near the fireplace. A large eat in kitchen with all the amenities. The back porch looks out on the water.
It is out of season. The leaves haven’t yet changed but schools are back in session. They might get some activity on the lake but not much during the weekdays. The first night they all walk down to the lake’s shore and look down in the depths. They have a permanent pier because the lake is deep off the point. Steve looks around and his shoulders deflate a degree. Tony takes this as a good sign.
Bruce cooks on the grill on the back porch and everyone eats. Tony notices that Steve doesn’t eat as much as usual, but he can understand that since he’s tired out of his mind. When everyone gathers around the campfire near the lake but away from the house, Steve curls in on the chair as if he might try and fall asleep right there.
“You want to go back to the house?” Tony asks.
“No, not yet,” Steve says and his face is soft in the fire light.
Clint and Natasha use sticks to roast marshmallows, offering each of them a bit of the dessert. Steve eats his and laughs at the sticky goo left on his fingers. Clint tells stories of the circus and fires from long ago. Halfway through the evening, Steve says, “It’s your turn for watch. Let’s set up two hour intervals.”
“A Cap, don’t need to watch here, on vacation,” Clint says as Bruce shares a look with Tony.
“Don’t start with me Gabe; you just don’t want to take your turn.” Steve glances at Tony. “What about it? I know you don’t usually come with us, so you don’t have to take a turn, Howard.”
Natasha gasps, and Tony knows the jig is up.
“Okay, okay,” he says and tells everyone to relax with a swift motion of his hands. “Cap, let’s go inside, safer there.”
“Yeah, let’s,” Tony says and stands up. Steve staggers to his feet and stops.
“Don’t you think Peggy should come too?” He looks directly at Natasha, but leans down to Tony and whispers. “When did she change her hair color? I kinda like brunettes.”
Tony rolls his eyes and tugs Steve back to the house with Bruce in tow. “I think it’s time for the Captain to get some rest.”
Both Tony and Bruce shove him into the bedroom. He drops on the bed and still isn’t tracking. But he says to the corner, “Bucky, Sister Mary Bernard is not going to kill you. It was an accident.”
“This is really creeping me out,” Tony says to Bruce as he pulls a shoe off of Steve.
“At least, you’re someone in his fantasy, I wonder who the hell I am,” Bruce says.
“Probably Dum-Dum,” Tony snickers and pushes Steve to lie down. “Sleep, Steve.”
“Okay, but where’s Ma?”
How old is he now? Tony can’t keep up. “She’s working. You’re staying with us, now go to sleep.”
He and Bruce leave the room, closing the door behind them. “Bruce, this looks a little more serious than sleep deprivation.”
“Ya think? I said that before. I gotta do some homework, you know, I’m not a medical doctor.”
“Do what you can,” Tony says and grabs for his laptop. He needs to do research of his own.
When he finally goes into the room to fall into bed, he notices Steve’s eyes are open. “Hey, how you doing?”
“Try and sleep, okay, turn that brain off,” Tony says and strips. “If you need anything, I’m right here.”
“Sure, thanks, Tony,” Steve says. When Tony gets into his own bed, Steve sits up. “Could you, would you mind?”
“What?” Tony says and is just happy that Steve knows who he is again.
“Tony, would you mind, sleeping over here?”
“In your bed?”
“I just-,” Steve says. “Sometimes when I try and sleep, I kind of lose my grip on where or when I am. Can you sleep here with me?”
“Sure,” Tony says, not knowing if this is a good idea or not. He goes around the bed and lies down. He stares up at the ceiling, the arc reactor throwing a blue glow against the walls. He turns on his side to face Steve, and finds Steve gazing at him.
“Can you, would it be okay if I – I need an anchor I think,” Steve says.
“Okay,” Tony says and reaches out with his hand to tangle his fingers with Steve’s. He smiles in the low light and closes his eyes. Tony watches him for several minutes but then sleep takes him and he drifts off.
By the time thin light shafts in through the narrow window Tony scrunches up his face as he wakes to find a large mass next to him, cuddled close. He blinks awake and looks up at Steve, who is gazing at him. He realizes not only has he cuddled up to Steve but he is lying on top of him.
“Wow, hm, sorry?” Tony shifts away.
“Don’t be, it was nice,” Steve says but his voice sounds ragged like he’s yelled and screamed too much.
“What?” Tony looks at him. “Did you sleep at all?”
“Not really,” Steve says. He pushes to sit up and he falters. “I wish-.”
“You wish what?” Tony says and joins him as he straightens up. “I can’t help you, if you don’t tell me.”
“I just want to sleep.” He sounds desperate, and desperately tired.
“Maybe Bruce can teach you some meditation techniques. If this vacation doesn’t work, we’ll need to report into SHIELD.” Tony adds the last part because he’s not one hundred percent sure that Steve recognizes how far afield his mind has drifted.
“I know, I know I think I’m seeing things that aren’t there, aren’t I?”
“Yeah, you are,” Tony says. “Tell me what’s stopping you? Why can’t you sleep?”
“I don’t know I just can’t turn it off.”
“What did you do before the ice?” Tony says. “Did you sleep regularly then, I mean after the serum?”
“I slept less, but I always slept, kind of like a rock too. It was great, I never woke up struggling to breath like before the serum,” Steve says and gets out of bed. “I need something warm.”
“Let’s go get some hot chocolate.”
Tony watches and catalogues and realizes each of the days he wakes up in the morning, Steve is already awake. He even considers whether or not he should seduce him. Steve seems to like the intimacy of their bed sharing at night. He even wraps his arms around Tony in an embrace before Tony falls into slumber. One night as Tony is drifting off he thinks he hears Steve mumble, “At least I have this.”
The next morning, as they lie in bed together, and Tony considers how very odd his life has become – because grown men do not cuddle, he decides to risk it all. “Steve?”
“Do you, would you?”
“Are you attracted to me?”
“What?” Steve drops his arms from around Tony.
“Because that would be all right with me, it would be fine. I think we could try and wear you out enough to fall asleep.”
Steve laughs and it is the first full laugh Tony’s heard from him in a long while, probably ever. “Healing cock, Tony, really?”
“Well, it’s been called a lot of things, but heck, why not that?” Tony says and raises his eyebrows at Steve. “You seem to like the hugging and cuddling so I know your 1940s sensibilities aren’t on the line here.”
“No, no, they aren’t. We had homosexuals in the forties, Tony.” He’s still laughing so much there are tears in his already reddened eyes from not sleeping. He leans in closes and presses a closed mouth kiss to Tony’s lips. Pulling away, he says, “If we get into a relationship, Tony, I prefer it to be for deeper reasons than my inability to sleep.”
He leaves the room. Tony puts a finger to his lip because he can feel the lingering pressure of Steve’s lips on his.
It doesn’t work. Nothing that they do actually does work. Bruce tries meditation, while Clint brings Steve out canoeing. Natasha spends a long time in front of the campfire with Steve telling stories of her childhood. It should lull him enough to relax, but nothing works. He’s awake and dragging. Even when Tony approaches him, and kisses him until he’s panting and hitching against Tony, Steve can’t – he’s physically unable to. He cries that night. He literally cries in Tony’s arms.
When he finally settles down and Tony leaves him to rest in the comfort of their bed, Tony’s unsure and shaken. He walks out into the living room and weaves his way to the kitchen to find Bruce making tea. “
“This isn’t working,” Tony says and he hates, absolutely hates to concede this point. “I think we need to bring SHIELD in.”
“He’s still not sleeping?”
“Not a wink, how long has it been do you think?”
Bruce shrugs. “It can’t be good, Tony. We’re talking psychological and physical damage. He needs to sleep.”
“Maybe at SHIELD they can pump him up with all those sedatives.”
“Won’t matter a thing if he can’t achieve REM sleep. It’s an amazement he’s as functional as he is now.” Bruce finishes his tea just as the door to the bedroom opens. Steve happens out and stares at them, blankly.
“Hey, big guy, want some tea?” Tony says and steps toward Steve.
He ignores Tony and turns to the living room. Walking through the room and to the door to the outside, he unlocks it and steps out to the back deck. He stands there for a full minute before descending the steps to the long stretch of grass to the dock.
“What the hell?” Tony says and follows him. “Steve? Steve?”
Steve keeps walking without turning around, without listening to Tony’s calls at all. As he gets onto the deck, Tony sees a shiver torment him, but he continues. It is a cool September night, and the clouds thicken the sky to hide the stars. It is barely light enough to see. Only the lights from the houses along the lake allow Tony to glimpse Steve’s shadowed form. Bruce is right beside Tony as they climb up to the dock.
In a low voice, Steve answers, “I just want to sleep.”
“We’ll help you,” Tony says. “We’ll call SHIELD; find out what else can be done.”
He looks towards Tony and the dim light from the house and Tony’s arc reactor throws shafts of light over his face with dark shadows enhancing it. “I want to sleep, I can’t sleep. I need to sleep. I slept for seventy years.”
Bruce answers him. “We’ll figure it out, Steve, just step away from the edge.”
“I’m so tired. I can’t see straight, I can’t think. My eyes are burning, they ache. I can’t eat; I just can’t stomach it anymore.”
“I get it; it’s all too much, trying to figure out the world, the whole fucking world. Everything you lost, it’s too much,” Tony says. The fall to the water below isn’t a soft drop off, but a plunge down at least thirty feet. Tony closes the distance between them.
“No, no, it’s not too much. It’s all there, and I’m here and I’m not supposed to be, I cannot sleep. Do you get it? I can’t sleep. I slept for seventy years, and I can’t sleep now. I can’t sleep.” Steve trembles and sways on the dock.
It dawns on Tony, hits him hard and fast and brilliant. “Steve, what, what do you mean? You slept for seventy years and can’t sleep now.”
“I can’t-.” Steve looks away into the blackness of the lake, the lapping waters hush and slosh against the shore.
“Steve,” Tony says and his heart races in his chest because his conclusion cannot be right. It isn’t physically possible for it to be right. “Steve, are you telling me you haven’t slept since they pulled you out of the ice, since you woke up in the fake recovery room?”
Steve faces him and nods.
It breaks his heart, it breaks Tony and he staggers backward and only Bruce’s hand on his shoulder stops him from toppling off the end of the dock.
“Steve,” Bruce says. “I get it now, come on in. We’ll get you the proper care.”
Months is all Tony can think. It has been months since they pulled Captain America from the ice. He hasn’t slept in months. What does that do to a person? Panic Attacks, hallucinations, physical abnormalities, lack of appetite. The list grows and grows. They call SHIELD and the quinjet is dispatched immediately. Steve collapses half way back to the house, and Bruce somehow transforms in the space of a step and picks Steve up to lay him on the deck. He turns back into Bruce. Tony knows why, he understands how much the Captain means to all of them, now.
When the quinjet arrives all of them board and Steve is on a gurney. His face pale, his eyes red, his expression ruined. What happens next becomes Tony’s own nightmare. The doctors at SHIELD diagnose Steve with Fatal Familial Insomnia. There is no cure. They pump him full of propofol and his body eats it like its candy. No amount keeps him under and nothing leads him into REM.
At SHIELD Steve loses his grasp of lucidity fairly quickly, it is as if he’d held on with all of his strength and power until he couldn’t do it any longer for them. He becomes unresponsive, glossy eyed, and mute over the course of weeks. He doesn’t eat and so the medical team strings him up with a naso-gastric tube to feed him. He stares endlessly at the blank walls of the triage bay he’s in on the Helicarrier.
Thor finally returns with no answers. It isn’t magic; the doctors determine it is Steve’s own system. The ice and the stasis threw him off so completely that he won’t sleep, he can’t. Not anymore.
“So, it’s always fatal?”
The doctors are grim. “Yes, the syndrome is always fatal. We could probably pump him full with enough sedatives to get him to fall asleep but he would never achieve REM, which is the whole point.”
Tony turns to Thor who looks downcast enough. “Is there any magic to help him? Anyone?”
“I have tried, my shield brother. No one in Asgard has heard of this malady before.”
He camps out in Steve’s room. Everyone comes by and watches as Steve begins to wither away. He’s gaunt and sickly. He groans and cries periodically, but he never speaks. Not anymore. Why hadn’t Tony said something to someone earlier?
“Why didn’t you?” Tony yells one night as he watches Steve sit awake for hours. “Why didn’t you tell anyone? You just kept saying the same damned thing over and over again. Son of a bitch, maybe we could have figured it out, maybe it wouldn’t have ended like this.” He sinks down onto the floor and falls into silence. Tony knows it is his fault. He could have asked JARVIS, he could have found out that Steve just did NOT sleep. He begs Steve to tell him why.
Steve never replies.
The next day Bruce comes up with a plan which Tony touts as the most ‘Craptastic’ plan he’s ever heard. “You want to do what?”
“Let him die,” Bruce says.
They are in the main lab. The rest of the Avengers gather around the table. No one looks like they slept; they all look like they are trying to join Steve on his pilgrimage to no man’s land.
“How the hell-.”
“What will that do for us, Doctor Banner?” Fury says as he enters the main room of the Helicarrier.
“Well, not sure, but I don’t think the serum will allow him to die, not when he’s still physically able to live.”
“So, the good Captain is immortal?” Thor asks.
“No,” Bruce says. “I don’t really know. But what I think is, if Steve isn’t mortally wounded, then his body with the serum will repair him. But we have to allow the serum the time to do it.”
“So, take him off all sedatives, the feeding tube?” Natasha says as Clint frowns and looks away. Tony doesn’t blame him, he can’t stomach it either.
“Take everything away,” Bruce says. “He should die and then reset.”
“Like a reboot.”
“Something like that,” Bruce says. “As soon as he’s declared dead, we set him up with everything he needs to come back. Like the feeding tube, the hydration, everything.”
“The serum should fix everything else that’s wrong and speed up the recovery on the rest,” Tony says. It makes sense in a macabre, ugly sort of way.
They all look toward Fury who’s giving Bruce the stink eye. Seriously, the man is risking worse than death here. “I’ll give the order to the doctors.”
Tony forces himself to stay. He doesn’t want to, none of them do. But he remains as the days tick by and as the good captain’s mouth dries and his lips crack and bleed. His gaunt face grows thinner; his full lips look like a parody. His blue eyes washed out and faded. He makes no sounds except for the harsh breathing near the end.
He writhes in weak motions on the bed and his eyes flicker in his sockets. They jar and quake as if he cannot focus but tries. It is ugly and painful and Tony tries to wipe out the look of death as it seeps over the good captain. As his tongue bloats and his eyes sink away. He barely blinks, he is like death waking.
They all watch, holding onto one another for comfort. Paradoxically, it is Bruce who needs to leave, who cannot contain his pain and anger. The end comes as the dawn breaks and the monitor quiets. It isn’t spectacular; there are no eloquent speeches, just the ending slipping away.
The doctors allow a full twenty minutes to pass before they hook Steve up to all of the equipment and lines again. They work to resuscitate him and Tony holds his breath, twenty minutes is too long. Everyone in the room knows that but they had to be sure to reset the serum, to give it a chance to re-calibrate.
Tony rocks a bit in his seat and sees Natasha hold her hand over her mouth in fear. Thor is shaken and the world around them outside the Helicarrier roils in thunder and rain. Clint sits in the corner, stone cold and broken. They haven’t seen Bruce in hours.
When the monitor beeps to life, they all take a collective breath, but they know it only means the captain lives, but they have no idea if Steve survived, if he can survive. The medical staff scurries around, working on him as if he’s just been flown in from a battle. They run lines and rehydrate, they feed him, and they support him with a nasal cannula. It doesn’t take minutes, it doesn’t take hours, it takes days before the doctors are ready to report to them.
“He’s resting,” the doctor says. Tony has no idea what his name is. He feels as if he’s in some kind of weird ass fugue. He cannot blink without the world tilting sideways. He thinks his team mates feel the same way.
“What do you mean, he’s resting?” Clint asks, but it sounds more like a challenge.
“He’s sleeping, he’s achieved REM.”
“Oh god, oh fuck, oh for fuck’s sake,” Tony says and topples backward into a chair as they all celebrate.
Steve sleeps for 78 hours without waking. The doctors assure them it is sleep and not a coma. When Steve opens his eyes for the first time, he frowns and glances around like he doesn’t recognize a thing. He licks his lips and sees Tony.
“Hey,” Steve says.
“How do you feel?”
“Like I could sleep for a week,” Steve says and coughs. Tony feeds him some ice chips and he drifts off again. He doesn’t surface for another four days. When he does, he looks more refreshed, less like he’s just died but still weak from his experience. “What happened?”
“You couldn’t sleep,” Tony says. “But you need to eat since you haven’t in a while and they took out the feeding tube a few hours before you woke the first time.”
“First time?” Steve says and screws up his face.
“Yeah, first time,” Tony says and ushers Clint and Bruce in with the tray. Steve’s too weak to feed himself so they all take turns. He falls asleep during the dessert and Tony thinks it is the sweetest thing he’s ever seen.
He sleeps eight hours and wakes again. Tony is there, waiting. “Don’t you ever sleep?”
Tony chuckles. “Yes, yes, and yes, I promise to always get a good night’s sleep from now on.”
Steve squints at him puzzled, but says nothing.
This time he’s able to feed himself but it takes him a long time. Tony sits and watches. The whole team filters in and out of the room through the day. At one point while they are alone, Steve asks, “The last few months are a blur.”
“What do you remember?”
“Mostly the stuff from the beginning, waking up, fighting aliens, living in the Tower.”
Steve shakes his head and Tony bows his own. There’s nothing for it, he can’t make Steve remember sleeping with him, holding him. It is all like some other life.
A few days later when Steve’s been released to bed rest at home in the Tower, he’s safely ensconced in his rooms with Tony instructing JARVIS to pull up anything Steve wants on the big screen.
“Will you stay awhile and watch with me?” Steve says.
“Sure,” Tony says and pulls up a chair.
“You can sit on the bed with me,” Steve says and pats the spot next to him. He still looks angular and emaciated in some light.
“Oh, okay,” Tony says and slides into the spot next to Steve.
Flicking through the channels, Steve stops on Sleepless in Seattle.
“You aren’t seriously going to watch that are you?” Tony asks.
“Well, it seemed perfect, you know, right up my alley,” Steve says.
“Well, how about Sleeping Beauty, that works now.”
Steve only smiles. As they watch, Steve says in a soft voice. “You can kiss me again, if you want.”
Tony startles and looks at him. His face is still in profile as if he’s watching the screen. “You remember.”
Steve looks at Tony and smiles. “Only the good parts.”
“Well, then let’s make them even better.”
And they do.